Hypothetical thought question of the day

If you could sit down for lunch, or coffee, one-on-one, with a Very Very Big Name in your field (think Nobel Laureate or, for the CS crowd, Turing Award winner, or similar), what questions would you ask her/him? (Beyond specific questions about his/her work, that is, and the usual small talk.)

The questions that immediately come to mind, for me, are below the fold.

1. What inspired you, honestly, to enter the field/subfield you're in? Were you inspired by a professor or teacher? Intrigued by a particular problem? Or did you just sort of fall into it?

2. What is the most important, crucial, essential problem in your field or subfield today, and what are the consequences we face if we *don't* find an answer to that problem (or at least gain a better understanding of that problem)?

3. What, of the projects you're currently working on or the problems you're currently reading about, excites you the most and why?

4. Where do you see the field/subfield heading in 10 years?

5. Who, current or past, are your most influential mentors?

6. If you could go back in time and change one thing about the evolution of your field/subfield, what would it be, and how do you think that would have impacted the direction the field/subfield took?

More like this

- How did you feel about [very important research for which you won a prize] when you did it? Before / after?

- Have you ever had doubts about your work? How did you handle them?

- Whose work in [field/subfield] are you following right now?

If you feel you can get away with it:

- Whose work *isn't worth* following? Why?

On a personal note, I've actually been in a room with a person who meets the criteria (Nobel laureate). I have to say that I was fairly disappointed, actually, but it probably has a lot to do with the fact that he has radically change what he works on and there's no longer any connection to the research that I was interested in.

My advisor talks about meeting John Maynard Smith in pretty glowing terms, but I probably couldn't do it justice here...

I might also be bold enough to ask who, among the people Big Name has mentored, has carried the torch and extended the research that made Big Name famous.

Winawer kind of beat me to the punch, but basically:

Whose work do you love to read? Who's doing the most exciting research in our field right now?

What do you think is the future of the industry?

Follow up: Which will change it more - changes in technology or changes in people?

Where do you see our field doing big impact on society soon? (something along the lines of "ok, less techincally, do you see any exciting ways in which what we are doing matters to people?")

See, my questions are not about where the field is coming or going. I would be much more interested in the kind of thing someone else mentioned about how did they feel about the award-winning work when they did it? Did they know it was award-winning?

And I'm interested in getting their advice on my project.

I've met several Nobel winners and to me they don't seem much different from any other senior scientist. Some are friendly, some are not; some are assholes, some are not. Some are smarter than others. Some were successful because their postdoc did the award-winning work, some were successful because their mentor was a Winner. And some are just good people who worked hard on an important problem.

I've also met a few people who were passed over, as it were, for Nobel prizes, and a few who were in the lab at the time the award-winning work was done.

These prizes are just like everything else in science and in life- quality of the candidate is one component, quality of the work is another, and politics is always an ingredient. Putting these people on a pedestal serves a purpose, but I think we'd be better off keeping things in perspective. To me, these kinds of awards are motivational to some, but they feed the emphasis on people and ego as much as they reward good science.

I'm not always sure that's the right balance to strike.