Monthly Archives: July 2017

Tim Hunt: Have Fun!

Tim Hunt is an exemplary scientist. In this clip he emphasizes simply having fun over trying to be “creative”. There is something too serious, if you ask me, about the way creativity is talked about these days. It’s as if we are trying to justify the “luxury” of having meaningful, enjoyable lives and careers by an almost mystical gesture at what it produces, i.e., “creates”. Interestingly, Sir Tim also reminds us that science (like life) involves a good deal of boredom and repetition.

Again, I like this attitude. He’s saying that science is sometimes a slog and sometimes a blast and then, sometimes, you get lucky. Discoveries aren’t brought about by some spiritual (or magical) energy called “creativity”. They just happen in the space between our suffering and our enjoyment.

Academic Reading and Writing

The essence of academic literacy can perhaps best be illustrated by considering the ordinary act of reading a novel. Every summer millions of people read novels on the beaches of the world’s resorts. Many of these are of high literary value, some of them even classics. This summer, perhaps, you have decided to read Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. These are in one sense perfectly ordinary novels. That is, you can open them and begin on page one and read every word in the sequence it appears until you get to the end. They will tell you a story.

But they are also recognized as “works of literature”, so these same books, which you may read on a beach as a diversion, will also be given careful and studied attention by students in college classrooms the world over. What is the difference between the way students read such books and “ordinary people” do? Indeed, what is the difference between how a student reads a book and how the intended reader reads it?

I want to suggest a simple way of thinking about this difference. The ordinary reader reads alone; students read a book together. A novel is, ideally, intended to be read alone. In it, the novelist shares with the reader what Virginia Woolf called “the loneliness that is the truth about things”.  But an academic reader is not lonely; an academic reader knows that the book is being read by many others, that the reader has “peers”. Academics read along with their peers.

I think it would help students understand what academic writing is if we asked them to imagine their fellow students in this particular class to be their readers. They should not imagine their teachers or some still more abstract “authority”. They should try to explain what they mean to other people who are, at the moment, engaged with the same works for the same reasons. This, after all, is also the implied reader of any academic paper: it is an attempt to discuss issues with people who are knowledgeable about the subject.

That’s the big difference between writing for a popular audience (as novelists do) and writing for an academic audience. There is a shared body of knowledge to draw on. And, in any case, one is always writing something that one expects to be read by a group. One is writing as part of an ongoing conversation.

Use Your Judgment!

There seems to be a movement afoot in the upper echelons of science to rethink the “publish or perish” culture that fetishizes impact factors and citation counts. It is a recurring theme in these Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative videos, which are, thankfully, sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. I’m sometimes a bit cynical about the role of industry in research, but I do think capital has an interest in fostering good science so I think that, on this issue at least, they are backing the right side. And I think (here’s the cynic again) that such backing will be decisive in any possible cultural change. The publish or perish culture has been fostered by one kind of money; it can only be undermined, I suspect, by the influence of another kind of money. Such, unfortunately, is the way of the world. It is not, finally, argument and evidence that settle these things, but their uptake by those who fund research.

In any case, Michael Brown’s advice here is very good. We can’t outsource academic judgment to journal editors and reviewers. When hiring someone we must reach our own conclusions about the quality of their research. The ability of an applicant to get published in a high-impact journal, which involves a particular set of skills that is not a perfect proxy for the ability to make important scientific discoveries, introduces a factor into hiring decisions that too often gets us to set aside our natural sense of our colleagues’ talents. We used to pride ourselves in being good judges of character. We used to hone this sense. These days, we are inclined to think it somewhat quaint to try to decide whether a particular person is a “good scientist”. Can they get published? That’s the tough-minded question of the modern research director. It’s good to see Nobel Laureates and their corporate patrons pushing back against this attitude.

What We Talk About When We Know What We Are Talking About

(With apologies to Raymond Carver and Haruki Murakami)

Zvezdelina Stankova knows what she is talking about when she talks about triangles. Watch:

I think most people with a basic understanding of geometry will be able to follow this presentation. Even those who don’t will not get the impression that she is just making stuff up. She is clearly drawing from a very solid foundation of knowledge and saying things that she is both confident and passionate about. She is, as I sometimes like to put it, working from the center of her strength here. It is easy for her to support, elaborate and (if needed) defend these ideas.

Part of her confidence, I would point out, comes from her community of mathematicians. (There is strength in numbers, if you’ll pardon the pun.) She is not saying something that she is afraid she’ll be called out for by her peers. There is not a hint of insecurity or paranoia. But, while this sense that her statements are uncontroversial is important, it is by no means necessary. All that is required for her to know what she is talking about is that she is aware of anything that might be controversial. It is when people assert as certain something that is in question among professionals, or call into question something that is beyond doubt among professionals, that they get onto thin ice. Dr. Stankova is clearly standing on a glacier.

In fact, the video you just watched is just the tip of the iceberg. (Let’s not quibble about the mixed metaphor, but do please remember where icebergs come from.) It has been edited down from a longer session, some of which can be seen here:

Here, too, notice that while you may at times have difficulty keeping up with her proof, you at no point get the sense that she’s just pulling these things out of a hat. Even her drawing skills reveal her as someone who has drawn many triangles. She is good at it. She’s been dealing with triangles her whole life, it seems. She’s familiar with them.

When thinking about your own knowledge try to imagine explaining it under these conditions. Can you speak knowledgeably for five or ten minutes about subjects within your area of expertise? Do you know what you are talking about? What subjects can you talk about from the center of your epistemic strength like this? It’s worth making a list of truths you master at this level.

Knowing and Writing

Scholarly writing is the art of writing down what you know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. To learn how to do it well it you must start with something you know. If you are always trying to discover what you know–or, worse, what the truth in fact is–in the act of writing then you are not practicing the relevant craft. It is like trying to learn how to draw hands without actually looking at a hand and trying to draw it. Start with your own hand. Draw a picture of it. Do it again and again and you will become a better draftsman.

If … the artist finds himself constrained, by any consideration of expression, treatment or style, or by his deference to the peculiar nature and limitations of his tools and materials, to adopt or invent a convention or a symbol and to substitute the semblance of a bunch of bananas or a bent fork for a representation of the human hand, then the particular problem dealt with in this book does not arise. (Oliver Senior, How to Draw Hands)

Writing down what you know is similar in many respects. Many scholars find themselves constrained, let us say, by theoretical considerations that force them to substitute the equivalent of bananas and forks for accurate representations of hands. For them, “writing” is simply stringing together a bunch of conventional symbols, sometimes slightly bent. What they should do is begin with a clear statement of what they know–a simple, declarative sentence they believe is true and can justify in prose. Then they should work for about half an hour crafting a paragraph that supports, elaborates or defends it.

It has become clear to me that I have to spend more energy on this point in my coaching and teaching. This separation of knowing from writing and its careful articulation, i.e., parting and then joining them, cuts against what very many people think they should be doing. Indeed, it’s the opposite of what they’ve been taught to do. Until this point of departure is established, my technique is more likely to obstruct progress than to support it.

The separation of knowing and writing takes discipline. Its basic form is this: Always decide the day before what you are going to write. That is, bring something you know before your mind today and then write about it tomorrow. Let sleep keep them distinct. Also, choose something that you knew already last week. Put a weekend, at least, between your learning process and your writing process, between your research and your paper.