My former students and staff are starting to organize a scientific conference on my 60th birthday, which will take place in about a year. Her gesture reminded me of Rabbi Hanina’s words: “I have learned a lot from my teachers, more from my colleagues and most of all from my students.”
We all started out as students. Especially as children bump into things while learning to maneuver the world, many of us have scars and bruises from early encounters with our mentors. Conflict arises when these mentors try to establish their authority by trying to get us to respect traditional thinking. Memories of these events should encourage us to do better as we switch roles and mentor others later in life.
For example, the first advice I received from my postdoctoral fellow was to develop specific skills and focus them on a narrow niche of the subject where I would establish myself as a world expert. But I made up my mind not to follow that advice once I realized that if you drill down tightly, you often come across the bedrock of an issue where no further progress can be made. In these circumstances, the potential for a breakthrough improves with a broader perspective that identifies the outskirts of the bedrock and allows “out of the box” opportunities for deeper drilling around it. This is especially helpful after discovering unexpected anomalies that cannot be explained within the prevailing paradigm, as described in my new book. Extraterrestrial, about the first interstellar object discovered near Earth, ‘Oumuamua, which didn’t behave like anything we had seen before.
Taking into account the fallacies of indoctrination into a narrow subject knowledge, I encourage my students and postdocs to think broadly and independently about the most exciting problems in astrophysics, such as, “What happened before the Big Bang?”; “What will happen in our distant cosmic future?”; “What is the nature of dark matter?”; “What happens when you approach a singularity of the black hole?”; “When did life in the universe begin?”; or “How can we find relics from other technological civilizations in space?”
It is common to view a student’s raw potential as a good in its own right, the value of which can be assessed through exams. However, my experience has taught me that young scientists only become exceptional researchers when they are supported by encouraging words and inspiration. These ingredients are just as important as nutrients and water for flower seeds. Achievements are sometimes self-fulfilling prophecies; Without an initial belief in a student’s potential to become a successful scientist, this result may not be realized.
As chairman of the Harvard astronomy division, I witnessed several examples for nearly a decade of students who made slow progress at first but blossomed academically as soon as they picked a different advisor and a new subject for their PhD. A good mentor identifies the mentee’s strengths and adapts the collaboration accordingly. As a result, a successful mentoring experience often reflects a good interaction between a young researcher and a consultant. They should both be congratulated on their shared academic DNA.
On the one hand, mentors get a kick from Oscar Wilde’s insight: “Imitation is the most sincere form of flattery …” On the other hand, they should enable the students to creatively break free from the beaten path. It is not easy to identify the circumstances that warrant rejection of the pattern of imitation, as mentors tend to value their own decisions highly. The rule of thumb, however, is to give young scientists just enough leeway to maneuver freely and learn from their mistakes without affecting their reputation or the direction of their future careers. The learning curve could be steep; Some of my 50 students have started slowly over the past few decades but have eventually climbed to the greatest heights. Patience is the key.
During my personal research career, I came across many goals along the way and was fortunate enough to be approved by the gatekeepers. So I keep in mind that there must be others with similar qualifications who weren’t so lucky. My ongoing resolution, therefore, for life is to help young scientists reach their potential. When I committed to writing my latest book, I told the publisher that I would be satisfied if a single person around the world decided to become a scientist after reading my book.
Last month I received an email from a woman in Malawi who wrote, “Great book … I’ve never looked through a telescope … I hope more women are inspired by the book for research purposes …” I told her about my early exchange with the publisher and asked, “Could you be the special person I was hoping for while writing the book?” She replied, “Yes, I would be,” so I encouraged her to apply to study astronomy at Harvard University.
Scientific research is essentially a learning experience, and therefore scientists are eternal disciples of nature. Experimental clues and their theoretical interpretation form a classroom for our mutual dialogue with reality. When evidence doesn’t match our preconceptions, we learn something new. A few years ago I attended a colloquium on ‘Oumuamua by a colleague at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Amaya Moro-Martin. After the talk, a colleague of mine who had worked on rocks in the solar system for decades mumbled, “Oumuamua is so strange … I wish it had never existed.”
As a dogmatic thinker, he would have preferred to stay in his comfort zone by only hearing evidence of known rocks. This is different from the eternal student’s state of mind, where surprises are exciting because they have the potential to expand our knowledge base. Historically, the evidence for quantum mechanics has brought classical physicists out of their comfort zone – including Albert Einstein, who had a problem with what he called “creepy action at a distance.”
Subsequent experiments proved that Einstein was wrong and maintained our concern about the correct interpretation of the quantum world. Nature is not obliged to make us feel good. It is as it is. The earth moved around the sun, causing the seasons to change, even though Aristotle claimed that we are in the center of the universe and that everything revolves around us.
Given my permanent status as a nature student, I prefer to rephrase René Descartes’ insight, “I think that’s why I am”, into: “I’m a scientist, that’s why I learn by observing nature.” The focus here is more on observation of nature than on my colleagues.