Friday, 6 October 2017

Feet of clay

I've lucked out in my career in science. Richard Wiseman maintains that we make our own luck. That lucky people [like my Mum and The Beloved] are in some sense more open to The Other and that risk-taking sometimes falls out better than the status quo. Louis Pasteur had a slightly different take on the matter "Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés." = chance favours the prepared mind. In 1989, we resolved to return to Ireland after more than a decade abroad. I went round my small-but-perfectly-formed network of contacts in Dublin looking for work but only one of the fish was the least interested in biting. He encouraged me to apply to EMBO and the EU for research grants. We got the EU money as a retraining fellowship and that placed me in a field of science that was just starting to go ballistic. By 1992, the joke was that, if you could spell bioinformatics, then you could command a salary of $60K from MegaPharma. And indeed one of my lab mates ditched her PhD, went to work for Glaxo, and never looked back: she probably owns a yacht now. Ireland was punching way above its weight in the field, and indeed a case could be made that the word bioinformatics was first used [not by me, but by my boss] in a grant application out of Dublin. I know I'm not stupid but for years in the 1990s I wasn't the smartest boy in the room. All those early adopters are now full €100,000 professors; heck, many of their students are now professors.

Several years later, I met one of those Stars at a conference just after he'd landed a new position in a different country. He'd ridden into that job, as is entirely normal, on the back of his previous successes and was now experiencing imposter syndrome. I felt a rush of empathy because I've often enough been there myself [example]. I braced my pal up, telling him he was a walking genius and when I got back to my desk sent him a copy of The Flying Saucer chapter from Surely, you're Joking Mr Feynman.  The tl;dr version is:
So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.
I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate--two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, "Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it's two to one?" . . .  The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

I was reminded of all this by a rather wonderful video about Euler's Disc in which two math geeks play with a spinning disc and record various bits of data as the thing wobbles its way to a stand-still. I don't think there is a Fields Medal [prevliers Wiles <not>, GrothendieckVillani],  getting incubated in there but it's a nice mix of trying to make data-gathering reproducible, forming hypotheses and testing them against the real world. That's a succinct definition of what science is about.  Another inviting aspect of the discussion is their embrace of error rather than trying to sweep it under the carpet. I wish we could do more such real experiments at The Institute where there is no Correct answer because nobody in the room knows what the outcome of the test or experiment should be. That's when real science starts.

And was my pal really burned out and ready for the scrap heap? Was he, heck! You can't stop clever people from having ideas and soon after our conversation, he embarked on a couple of new ventures; one a scion from his earlier work and one in a totally different field. Those feet of clay turned into the solid foundation of new work. If I had anything to do with this, it was only that I choked back my Brit repression and more or less told the bloke that I loved and admired him. That might have been so shocking that he woke from his existential nightmare.

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