Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

Be an Optimist, Do Some Science

Every now and then I do a Google News Search for topics I’m interested in to get good blog fodder (‘neuroscience’ and ‘parrots’ are of course perennial favorites). This time one of those searches popped up an interesting news piece in The Hindu newspaper which really resonated with me, tagged with a quote by David Baltimore: “You cannot do science unless you are an optimist.” That is one of those truths that becomes so important in grad school when many projects fail, or good ideas get scooped, publication hopes are frustrated, and that final dissertation defense seems so far away. A healthy dose of optimism is really required to counteract the constant barrage of challenges (and disappointments) that come along with the triumphs of science.

“When does a scientist give up on a subject he has been researching on for months?”

Much of what determined that decision was psychological, Prof. Baltimore said. “I have to often advise people in my lab about this question. I tell them, you’ve tried hard, you look tired – it might be time to pick up something else.”

Science was only ever exciting if the problem was challenging enough. “If the answer is obvious, it is just not worth devoting all your time to it,” he said.

Also interesting was Dr. Baltimore’s response to the question of what he would study, if he had to do it over again:

“Neuroscience is the biggest unsolved problem in biology, and one of the most daunting problems in neuroscience is consciousness. In fact, it is the most daunting problem that a human being can conceive of: we are conscious – but we do not know where consciousness comes from. What could be a more exciting challenge to science?”

Hear that, young students? (Although I think there’s considerable less funding for ‘consciousness’ studies as opposed to medical research…)

Comments

  1. #1 Drugmonkey
    January 24, 2008

    I think this seriously underestimates the degree to which pessimists find “being right all along” reinforcing.

  2. #2 PhysioProf
    January 25, 2008

    “That is one of those truths that becomes so important in grad school when many projects fail, or good ideas get scooped, publication hopes are frustrated, and that final dissertation defense seems so far away. A healthy dose of optimism is really required to counteract the constant barrage of challenges (and disappointments) that come along with the triumphs of science.”

    It’s not just grad school. A life in science means a life in which the vast majority of things you attempt fail. A major aspect of designing a successful research program–of whatever scope is appropriate for one’s career stage–requires taking account of this fact.

    “Science was only ever exciting if the problem was challenging enough. ‘If the answer is obvious, it is just not worth devoting all your time to it,’ he said.”

    Unfortuantely, the peer review system is contaminated with large numbers of people–the same kind that DrugMonkey referred to–for whom this just does not compute.

  3. #3 Nathan Myers
    January 27, 2008

    It distresses me to contemplate the number of expensively trained neuroscientists wasting their time chasing “consciousness”.

  4. #4 vizyon
    September 25, 2008

    beatuful thank you