Winning science by attrition is boring

Nature has an interesting piece on the 24/7 lab:

It’s just about midnight on a hot Friday night in July, Enrique Iglesias’ ‘ Dirty Dancer ‘ is on the radio, and 26-year-old graduate student Sagar Shah is starting to look winded. The problem, he says, is not how late it is, or even that he has spent the past three hours working in a cramped sterile cell-culture hood. The problem is that the routine cell-culture maintenance he is doing, bathing his collection of rare human tumour cells with fresh medium, produces no data. And a lack of data, says Sagar, makes him “hungry” for it.

The piece goes on to talk about one of those high-intensity, work all weekends and holidays labs. That lab, and many like it, certainly crank out papers, but they are basically factories. Yeah, they publish more papers, get more grants. My observation is that they choose problems which can be solved by brute force, that their results aren’t amazingly innovative or creative, but still fill in important missing details. Manhattan project-style science. I suppose there is a role for this kind of science, but I would be bored out of my mind, as I was during all-night sessions in grad school while I watched a robot do hundreds of mini-preps for a massive cloning project. I can’t work 24/7 doing something boring.

And it’s clear that greatness in science does not require working McKinsey consultant hours*: even a superficial survey of the lives of Heisenberg, Bohr, Einstein, Watson, Crick, etc. shows that, while they all worked hard, they also left themselves plenty of unstructured time away from the desk or lab.

More from Nature:

But not everyone agrees that more hours yield more results. Dean Simonton, a psychology researcher at the University of California, Davis, who has studied scientific creativity, says that the pressure for publications, grants and tenure may have created a single-minded, “monastic” culture in science. But some research suggests that highly creative scientists tend to have broader interests and more hobbies than their less creative colleagues, he says.

You’ve got to work hard – it’s a lot of work collecting data and writing papers and grants at a rate that keeps you on the cutting edge. But too much time in the lab tends to keep you focused only on the next immediate, and probably boring intellectual steps.

This brings to mind one of my favorite Einstein quotes:

My interest in science was always essentially limited to the study of principles, which best explains my conduct in its entirety. That I have published so little is attributable to the same circumstance, for the burning desire to grasp principles has caused me to spend most of my time on fruitless endeavors.
– Albert Einstein, quoted in Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps, p. 241

*Of course, grad students and postdocs, and even assistant profs who work McKinsey consultant hours make only a minuscule fraction of the pay that other workaholic professionals make… so if you’re doing relatively boring science, what’s the point?

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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