Dudley Herschbach Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Science and Society: Conversation with Dudley Herschbach, 1986 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry; Frank B. Baird, Jr., Professor of Science, Harvard University; September 29, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Doing Science

Let's talk a little about doing science before we get into the work that you have done. I'm hoping that you can help us understand what you see as the temperament, the character required to do scientific work.

I think it helps a lot if you are A) naïve and B) have a high threshold for frustration and confusion! I like to tell my students that the neophyte student and the veteran researcher are very much alike in one important respect, namely both are confused most of the time. The difference is the neophyte is often upset about being confused, especially if they're a bright student, gone through high school and all, and have been patted on the head all the time for breezing through courses, and they find it's a different thing in college, especially when they start some research. They naturally think, "Well, there must be something wrong with me, or maybe the professor." Whereas the veteran researcher is very happy when he's confused because he realizes that unless you're confused and it's not perfectly clear already, then you're not going to learn anything new.

Furthermore, the researcher knows that in science you have a very special advantage over essentially all other human enterprises. I like to emphasize this because I think most people don't recognize it, namely what you're trying to find out in science, call it truth or understanding, waits patiently for you. It doesn't change. Contrast that with a chess game. You might make a great move, but whoops, your opponent makes a better one. So, in business, politics, sports, sadly war, people often make a very well-conceived, sensible move, but whoops, it's a little late or a little early and turns out to be a fiasco or a disaster instead of a triumph. In science you can get it wrong over and over again. It doesn't matter, if you find the right way, the right perspective and idea eventually. So I tell my students that to be a scientist is something like being a musician. A musician really needs to love music, devote a lot of effort into mastering their instrument, but in science you can play 99.9 percent of the notes wrong, get one right, and be justly applauded.

It sounds like you're saying that there is a patience here that if one doesn't have it in the beginning, one develops it over time, because as you say, nature is waiting. To use the language you used in yesterday's lecture, you just have to find a way to get access to the right conversation to hear what's going on.

Yes. I often add, after saying the kind of thing I just said to you, that you should realize you probably will play 99.9 percent of the notes wrong, so you need this immunity to frustration that I mentioned already. You need to understand that you do have this advantage in science that is waiting in there for you. The Czech poet [Jan Skacel] who wrote a poem not about science but it could apply to science -- he said the poet really doesn't write a poem, it's already there, it's been there a long, long time, he merely finds it.

What about courage? I raise courage because for truly outstanding insights you have to go out there on a limb sometimes. Right? Or does your naïveté compel you or help you do that, and therefore you're not as courageous as you look?

Yes, I was going to refer back to my remark about it helps to be naïve at the start, because in a fundamental sense it's naïve to do science at all, to think that you can figure out something fundamental about how nature works. But the motivation is very strong. It grows from the sense of wonder at finding ourselves in this incredible universe. So, if you're deeply moved by that, it keeps you going. It helps also to have a sense, especially fostered by interacting with people who you admire very much for what they've done in science and very often for their human quality -- it helps very much to have these kinds of mentors and colleagues because then you know you're part of this whole enterprise. Your part may turn out just to be something small but nonetheless it adds to the whole effort. So, this fellowship of striving is a very strong reinforcement.

And this is very much a cosmopolitan, a global fellowship in sciences.

That's right. Science is very much a social enterprise. Often competition among scientists is played up but that's very misleading because science is intrinsically very cooperative, very democratic in that ideas that turn out to have merit are found out, and ideas that aren't are, too, eventually, and it doesn't matter where they come from. This is the centennial of the miraculous year of 1905 when an unknown patent clerk sent in papers that changed the perspective of physics in ways that are still echoing a century later.

You're referring to Einstein?

Einstein, of course. He was publishing papers without a Ph.D., and from an unknown place -- it may not be quite as easy today, with the reviewing gauntlet that authors often have to run and the need to find funding often, especially if it's an experimental project that needs physical apparatus, and all that. In the real world there are those kinds of mundane but difficult obstacles to deal with. That's why you need this evangelical fervor to pursue an idea, a naïve and evangelical fervor, if you like, to pursue an idea that may not be already recognized by others. You need some mavericks and you have to have a system of support in science, in a scientific community, that permits mavericks to roam around. They may not solve a major problem but they may give a new perspective which allows people to recognize and get around some road blocks that have been in the way of the path the consensus had seemed to endorse.

Talk a little about this creative moment. What is it about? I'm curious because the way you were talking about discovery and the creative moment, where you see something -- it sounded almost like a religious experience. But it's not.

No, I don't know ...

Or is it?

It has some kinship, I think. In part, science is akin to art and other humanistic activities. I have my students write poems, for example. I tell them that writing a poem is more like doing real science, frontier science, than the usual textbook examples, which tell you just the information you need in a context that's carefully set up so it's pretty clear you're supposed to try to get the answer in a certain way. In the real world it's nothing like that. Nobody knows the right answer if you're doing the research in a true research domain that's wide open. Nobody knows the right questions even or necessarily the right approach.

I like to say science is necessarily child's play. Children are fantastic learners. They learn with very little help from adults their native language. Of course, there's reason to think there's some in-built propensity to this, but even so, it's quite astonishing how quickly young kids do it. One advantage they have over adults is they're not worried whether they're getting it right. They just play and they experiment. I think they hear these huge people make sounds and see that they react to them, so they want to emulate that, and that's what happens. And that's something like what you do in scientific research. You have to play in a way, and you have to guess, and you often find your guess doesn't lead to sensible results, so you try something else. That's the kind of thing it is.

People so often think, "Oh, scientists have all these pens in a pocket and they're well organized and know just what they're doing." No, not at the frontier. So, the correspondence to the poem is very close in that the poem is a personal thing, there's no question of whether it's right or wrong, it's whether it illuminates in an interesting way even some commonplace situation, opens your eyes to new possibilities. That's exactly what we cherish in art. If we experience a performance, a painting or a sculpture that makes us see some aspect of the world or human experience differently ever after, it's the same criteria that you judge a scientific contribution by. It changes the way you think and what you do next.

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