Interesting presentation: “How to Win a Nobel Prize” by Sir Tim Hunt

“tremendous fun figuring all this stuff out — sometimes it’s logical, sometimes it’s luck, and of course you have to follow your luck, and who you’re working with to my mind is almost the most important”
Sir Tim Hunt

I’ve just watched an interesting presentation by Sir Tim Hunt titled “How to win a nobel prize” (put online by Videnskabernes Selskab). Having worked for a couple of years in science, albeit in another domain/field and no-where near that league, I think there’s a lot of truth in it. And some very good advice.

Here’s the presentation:

What I took from the presentation is the following (a few things were new, most reinforced existing ideas):

  • the importance of good supervisors, mentors, colleagues, PhD students and Post-Docs
    He did learn a lot from the people around him. Not only during his initial training but all the way. And he had the good (and deserved) fortune to work with some very smart people.

    “Always work with people who are cleverer than you are.”
    Jim Watson

    It’s also in part due to the infrastructure he encountered, e.g., having a tea room where you meet heroes, role models, and peers during lunch and can discuss ideas with them. Or working with people who all think they do interesting things they like to explain to each other. Yet no one is getting on each others toes because you’re all working on different things.
    And it applies also to the Post-Docs he worked with. For example, the striking difference between a great Post-Docs who is able to put pressure on him (in the nicest way) and take pressure, vs. one who makes you want to avoid the lab and poisons the atmosphere single-handedly.

  • the value of great collaborations to complement skills and eliminate weaknesses
    Science is a very social activity that is best done by working with one or two other people very closely. You share disappointments and triumphs, have a shoulder to cry on, you can discuss complicated issues, and compensate for each others weaknesses (e.g., being highly intelligent but getting bogged down into details merged with a more big-picture thinker).
  • the role of chance and the value of a clean break
    For example, after a fire, to be free to start anew with new equipment and unencumbered by the past (okay, the funding situation was different about 40 years ago).

    “And then in 1974 a very interesting thing happened. The lab burned down. Luckily the graduate students had just graduated so there was no sort of loss of thesis which would have been dreadful. We lost one paper out of this. And Richard call up one Saturday morning about 7 am and said ‘Tim, the lab has burned down. Don’t bother to come in, ’cause there’s nothing left.’ [laughs] So what would you do? [laughs] So I rushed in and of course he was wrong. Actually, the liquid nitrogen refrigerator, the duaflask(?), where all our most precious samples were stored, was still venting nitrogen. You could see that. So immediately I rang around our colleagues, even though it was Saturday morning, found a new dua(?), filled it with liquid nitrogen, rescued all these really precious samples.”

  • the ability to do interesting and important things first, publish second
    Strange in today’s publish or perish culture, but it allows scientists to go after interesting things first, not solely after publishable things (there’s a huge difference). Sure, if you do an experiment and no one knows about it, “was science really done”? In this case, apparently, given the informal exchange with colleagues at the time and the publications that came later. It’s also telling that one his recommendations is to avoid “initiatives, networks, strategy”. It reminds me about the quip regarding if the government had direct research about polio, we’d have the best transportable iron lungs there could be, but no polio vaccine.
  • the role of finding a domain that suits you
    There’s a lot of honesty in his talk, esp. about himself (e.g., being bad in math, but hey, he can still become a scientist if he goes into biology), or about other people (e.g., that it took them some time to find the disciplines that really worked for them). Disciplines in which they do good work without really having to think about it. A great attitude to turn one’s strengths into something positive.
  • the role of finding a problem
    Something many PhD students struggle with, and those scientists who have the (mis-)fortune to “solve” their problems. In general, to have reasonable but crazed ideas. And find the problem very interesting to be tenacious enough to solve it despite frequent setbacks.

    “‘Cause I was realizing that once there’s a problem in science, if you are a good scientist, and you solve problems, you don’t have a problem anymore. Right? So you have to find a new one. And when you find a new one it’s a bit uncomfortable because you know nothing about it.”

  • the value of experimental results as a problem to solve
    For example, in “Very interesting. Doesn’t tell you what is going on or how it’s working, but it tells you what you have to explain.”
  • the role of failure and persistence
    He is open about when things did not work out as planned. And that you sometimes have to do things repeated until they work out. And persist even when you get negative reviews like: “This is wild speculation based on faulty logic.”
  • the importance of controls
    Otherwise you only think you know something and lack a lot of useful information. You really need incredibly well-controlled experiments.
  • the importance of reproductions and technical expertise
    You need a certain set of skills on a sufficiently high level to do research. Even conceptual simple experiments can require tremendous technical expertise. If you cannot do the methods yourself, get a partner who can. And of course, you have to replicate findings to ensure that you can find the known effects (get things right) and can go beyond them. Might be standard in biology, probably not so much in some other disciplines.
  • the value of model organisms (or more basic research)
    For example, to understand a process and do experiments quickly. Although I think here biology has it a bit easier than, e.g., psychology.
  • the value of oddball methods
    Something I’ve seen in Webb, Campbell, Schwartz and Sechrest’s 1966 book “Unobtrusive measures” (regarding measures for human behavior) and something I also find intriguing. Not just go for the standard method to determine effects, but find other indicators for it. For example, using baby mice’s reactions as indicators (e.g., differences when eyes open the first time).
  • the ability to quickly do lots of experiments
    Reduce the energy barrier to do experiments. For example, with his kinds of problems and the organisms he choose, he could do 2-3 in a day. So you can gather data quickly. But also the luxury of getting materials for experiments quickly by just writing your name and what you need and the storage does the rest (creating copies, accounting, etc.). It lets you focus on the work without unnecessary hassle.
  • the value of having time to think
    Esp. if you can do lots of experiments — and you need time to think about what it all means.
  • the importance of a social life and enjoying life
    Not only needed to function long-term (and, well, have a life), but also because it leads to interesting conversations and chance meetings.
  • that things are really simple once you understand them
    A bit “smart cow” phenomenon. But luckily, there’s no shortage of problems to solve.

In general, while I did perhaps understand only about 5% of the biology and chemistry related material, I found the presentation really well-done. He puts a human face on science, and on “the scientific process”. And yup, it’s a deeply human and social process.

It’s good to hear an accomplished scientist being honest about it — that it’s “tremendous fun figuring all this stuff out — sometimes it’s logical, sometimes it’s luck, and of course you have to follow your luck, and who you’re working with to my mind is almost the most important”. And that “we stumble and bumble around the place”.

And of course, to “not to worry so much about the money” (given the Nobel prize experiment was done without grant money), but “do worry tremendously about the people you work with I think that’s really the message”.

And yup, “Don’t be Scared! Trust your own judgment. Go for it.” even if you don’t know where the road is leading.



One afterthought about Sir Tim Hunt’s recent appearance in more mainstream news

Yup, he’s the Nobel prize winning scientist who was in the news when it comes to sexism in science. Cathy Young pretty much sum’s up the story (she has a nice no-bullshit bias).

And I agree. I think Cathy Young’s (and thus also Louise Mensch’s) account is much more closer to the truth than the initially reported version. To me, the initial version looks like the usual outrage machine at work. St. Louis misunderstood something (likely guided by preconceptions and a primed topic), started a Twitterstorm, people chimed in (apparently pre-planned), and Sir Tim Hunt was criticized and ostracized before he knew what had happened. That he is apparently more interested in science than political correctness made him an easy target.

But at least in this case it seems like different opinions are coming through, not only by people who also were present, but also by female scientists who worked with him. But unfortunately, the damage is already done. And no-one was helped by what appears to me as an attempt by an “advocate journalist” (St. Louis) to use public outrage to further her agenda and spread her worldview (and gain fame). Depressing that 15-minutes of fame can be bought by going for the Zeitgeist narrative of an old, white, male scientist being a sexist.

I mean, just look at Sir Tim Hunt’s presentation and the use of his self-deprecating humor and intentional or unintentional remarks. There is no hint of any ill-intent. He’s got a self-deprecating sense of humor. And actually, I think it’s more than that. I think he uses humor to demonstrate that he has (or had) genuine positive and stable work relationships (or even friendships) with the people and groups he jokes about (“had” because I’m not sure how many are still alive). Otherwise, I doubt he would make these jokes. He doesn’t joke about bad work relationships and I think if he has nothing positive to say about a specific person, he just says nothing.

And genuinely positive relationships, esp. work relationships, might be something that is missing more and more in today’s world as well. And in general, it’s probably something many SJWs lack. (I mean, could you be friends with a person who is continuously on the lookout for anything that could be interpreted badly against the group he or she is over-protective of?) No wonder they get outraged by this kind of humor.

And sure, this kind of humor and openness is completely at odds with mindset of finding fault in everything and seeing everything as sexist, racist, ableist, etc. Of wanting to have something to bitch about because of an extreme need to care for a “sacred” group.

But it would be sad to see this kind of humor vanish. Not only is it entertaining and shows a genuine concern for others (lab burned down, but hey, at least the grad students already graduated), it makes people human. Even those who have a Nobel prize.

And please, can we take the stupid power-plays of advocacy groups, the misguided quests for personal fame by tearing people down, and the whole irrelevant identity politics out of science? Just take a look at our planet. It might be hard to understand for people who did take studies in disciplines where the ideology provides the same unchanging answers to every problem. But actual scientific work — where the answers aren’t known, and often not even the questions — isn’t easy. We need science to advance, we need new discoveries, to get out of this mess. It’s no game. It’s mankind’s future we’re playing with here. Let’s ensure we have the best conditions for scientists, no matter their sex, race, sexual orientation, or whatever. And stop making this a field for oppression olympics or a feeding ground for the perpetually offended to feel morally good at other people’s expense.