Sunday, October 28, 2007

Where did I put that spectroscope...

An article in the NY times today, by George Johnson, quotes Martin Rees about what scientists can do as thy grow old: Become an administrator; content yourself with doing science that will probably be mediocre; or strike off half-cocked into unfamiliar territory, and quickly get in over your head. Rees says that “in contrast to composers, there are few scientists whose last works are their greatest.”

Um ... why? Could there be something wrong with the way science is conducted, that prevents old and wise scientists from making wise contributions to their beloved fields? Science moves fast enough, perhaps, that the techniques of a particular field, even its terminology and paradigms, will be unfamiliar to the elderly, making it hard for them to apply their wisdom to anything that is current. In contrast, the classical composer, throughout his life, develops his own technique and builds upon it, at his own pace.

But I'm not persuaded by this argument. In the last twenty years there have been breakthroughs in fields that had stagnated for many years. Often, these breakthroughs required someone to examine what had been taken for granted, to apply thoughtful ideas from other disciplines, or to find a new way to do experiments. It ought to be possible for some of these breakthroughs to come from older scientists who have had a long time to think about their field. So I ask again:

Has the world managed to structure scientific investigation in such a way as to prevent elderly, deep scientific thinkers from making thoughtful contributions?

I will blog just a few times in the next few weeks. See you all, regularly, in mid-november!


Ender said...

You know, I think that Rees is correct. Most of the really exciting science happens through a combination of two things: (1) really painstakingly careful research, and (2) a fundamentally new insight into a system. (For engineering research, the second could be modified to something like 'a fundamentally new application for a system'.)

True, most of these seem obvious and 'waiting to happen' in retrospect, but much of the work is subtly based on the milieu surrounding the researcher; the conferences they went to, little tidbits of shared information/data, tiny procedural modifications, etc. Now, this means that a new initiate into science won't know enough or have enough of a 'web' of connections to make a truly brilliant discovery... but it also means that the older scientist will be faced with a lifetime of thinking in a certain way, invisibly constrained by assumptions that may not be wholly accurate. The older scientist simply doesn't have the flexibility of thought - whether due to being in a 'rut' or an honest physiological issue with neuronal plasticity - to make the truly innovative discoveries.

That being said, there is plenty of space for older scientists to be productive members of a research team. First, their expertise and experience may be invaluable. While they may not be well-acquainted with the very best up-and-coming technology, they will generally have a very good and fundamental understanding of technology that was new when they were first starting. The experience that comes with painstakingly troubleshooting a recalcitrant protocol is invaluable, as it gives insights into the way the system really works. (A classical example I recently noticed was that molecular biology - which used to be done largely by hand - is now carried out entirely using premade 'kits'. Young researchers using these kits rarely actually understand every procedural detail of what they're doing, then, often resulting in subtle but critically important oversights.)

Thus, older researchers can be good mentors and collaborators. They can lend their experience to the younger generation. They also are generally quite good at critical reading of new research, and can be used in that capacity. For true innovation, though, most people need to look at the younger generation of researchers.

One point that may support your contentions, though: the way science is structured today means that older faculty are generally not doing much labwork, particularly the bright and successful ones. After getting a postdoc, young researchers generally spend most of their time working on grants and advising, rather than real work. Pre-tenure, they often spend a lot of effort on directing individual projects and getting the lab established in a new field. Afterwards, though, once the lab is larger and more settled (call it early 40s for most researchers), they spend less and less time on specific projects, and more time obtaining funding and administrating the whole lab. Thus, the system may preclude much faculty innovation past the early 40s.

*shrugs* An interesting issue. said...

It's still something of a mystery that in some fields -- history is a good example -- the older, more experienced historians have the great grasp and often produce the best work.

It's not easy to guess why the rapid change in science technology prevents the science oldsters from distilling their wisdom so well.
- PB