Lawrence Stark Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Mind's Eye: Conversation with Lawrence Stark, M.D., Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Optometry; 8/16/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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What Makes a Scientist?

Warren McCullough wrote an introduction to one of your collection of papers, and he says, "What tempts an ambitious spirit into a novel field is usually the most difficult, because the most important, kind of problem." So was it the problems that you were discovering that helped move you in this journey from medicine to science to engineering?

That's a very interesting question. At the time I was in England, I was in a very first-rate laboratory run by Bernard Katz, who eventually got the Nobel Prize in neurophysiology, and two of his close colleagues were two Englishmen named Hodgkin and Huxley. They invented a set of partial differential equations to describe the nerve impulse traveling along the nerve. That was a brilliant achievement.

There was even a more interesting achievement by a man who is isn't well known at all, George Marmont, who discovered how to clamp the axon of the nerve so he could stop the feedback process. And Hodgkin and Huxley used his technique and refered to him to do their experiments validating their equations. And since I was working in neurology, in the brain, I thought, "How can I develop a mathematical system to describe the reflexes of the brain, the more complex responses of the brain in a similar elegant way as the nerve impulse is described by the Hodgkin-Huxley equations?" And I started taking courses in physics and mathematics at Yale, while I was an assistant professor of neurology.

One of the best courses I ever took was a course in control theory in electrical engineering, taught by Peter Shultice, Professor of Electrical Engineering. That made me see that control theory was the mathematical root to understanding how the brain controlled movement. A lot of a neurologist's job is seeing how people move their hands, whether they have tremors, or they move smoothly, or they have instabilities in their gait. It's all control of motion. The idea of feedback control gave us a tremendous mathematical tool, and I exploited that.

What I'm hearing you say is that one of the characteristics of a scientist is you're always a student. It sounds like when you would come up against a brick wall, you would take another course in a different field.

Well, at 6:30 this morning, I was studying.

What then are the other habits of a scientist?

I think one of the things is you have to be able to find a really interesting problem that is soluble, that you don't have to wait for exploration to Jupiter to solve, and yet is an important problem. Most of the important problems are all around us. They're not in Antarctica or on Mars. They're right around us in the air. I heard a wonderful talk in this very building about black holes. There may be billions of microscopic black holes in every room in Dwinelle. It was a brilliant talk. You can see that what we don't know is right around us. Somebody once said if the fish were going to study the world, the last thing they would discover would be the ocean. Because we're so immersed in everyday things.

A scientist is very different than a scientific worker. Most of the people that society calls "scientists" are what I call "scientific workers." A scientist is very much like a poet. You do your best work lying awake in the afternoon. You have dreams and you have random thoughts and you have motivations that you don't understand, and stray bits of information that you put together from different sources, and you get an idea. And this idea is like a poem. John Keats, who was also a doctor, just would suddenly -- some beautiful lines of poetry would come into his head. I think that's the way real scientists work.

What is it that comes to your mind? The shape of the problem and a strategy to address it?

Yes, I think it's a feasibly approachable problem. I used to give an exam question to students at the end of a bioengineering class. It was four parts. I'd say: design an experiment that will make you famous throughout the world. And the second part, explain why the technology is available now to study this problem, to do the experiment. [Third,] describe why your background would lead you to be a successful person to carry out this experiment. And the last is: Describe why everybody else in the world thinks this problem is crazy. Because if it's not very unusual, people would have done it. Some big lab with some big professor in some big university would have solved that problem with all their resources. So it really has to be a kind of an unusual solution or direction.

What I'm hearing you say, which is interesting, is the element of courage that's involved in the work of a scientist. That is, going into an area that may not be a formal field yet, finding a problem, and offering a solution that everybody may laugh about until you've actually done the work and proved that you're right.

Right. I think that's true. I think that's why there are a lot of scientists who tenaciously hold on to their ideas, but may be actually wrong. And it may be disproven. And then, if they don't accept the facts of Mother Nature kind of hitting them over the head with a hammer, saying, "You're wrong, you're wrong," then they get into difficulties. They go off into the deep end. But I think most scientists have to develop an individualistic path.

How do you think students can prepare to be scientists? Or can they prepare? Are they born with these talents or are they developed?

I think by the time a child is about eight months in utero, he's already fully formed. I think environment has to be sufficient to nourish them and to provide other things, friends, peers, parents that nurture them. But I think their mental characteristics are inherited. And you can see children, there might be three or four children in a family, and only one of them is a scientist. Somehow, he or she likes to take things apart, is curious about how things works, is always wandering at the borders of knowledge.

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