HotAIR - Dudley Herschbach


Nobel Thoughts: Dudley Herschbach

Profound Insights of the Laureates

by Marc Abrahams

Dudley Hershbach is the Baird Professor of Science at Harvard University. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1986. We spoke in his office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

QUESTION: Which do you prefer, pencils or pens?

Pens, although I use both indiscriminately. I use an old fashioned pen I actually fill with ink, so I often have ink stains. It's the only thing I can write neatly with so other people can read it.

QUESTION: Is it important to write on lined paper?

No. When I'm doing math, of course, I prefer unlined paper. I probably use equal quantities of lined and unlined paper.

QUESTION: What characteristics are most important when you are buying a notebook?

I like to have what seems to me an appropriate size. For most of my work, this (11" x 8 1/2" by 1/2") is the right size. On the other hand, the notebook I use for phone numbers and messages has got to be this size (9" x 6" x 1/2"). I can't tell you why. One of these small notebooks will usually run me for, oh, two years. [Professor Hershbach's notebooks are all spiral bound and contain lined paper.]

QUESTION: Do you have any advice for young people who are entering the field?

There are two ideas I think it's important to get across to them.

The first is that to be a scientist is not a matter of special talent. So many kids lack self-confidence; they're always too impressed by other people. The image of Einstein, the solitary dominating genius, is an unfortunate one in the minds of young people. Potentially modest gifts are quite adequate, provided that you love it. It's a matter of how much you want to get there. In so many other areas of human affairs it's not that way at all - the timing can be important if you're in real estate, for example. But science is different. I prefer to think of it as a lovely damsel on a mountaintop, waiting for you to find the way to the top of the mountain. This damsel is patiently waiting for you. She's giving you encouragement from time to time by dropping little plums in your lap. Ordinary human talent over time can get you there.

One thing that frightens students is the feeling that you've got to get it right. But science, in contrast to most acttivities, lets you get it wrong a lot of the time. Much of the time you're confused. The scientist is elated by being confused. You know you've got to have this period of confusion, and you trust that if you keep after it, what you're after will take shape. And what turns out to be really exciting is not what you had thought would be exciting.

Being a scientist is like being a musician. You do need some talent, but you have a great advantage over a musician. You can get 99% of the notes wrong, then get one right and be wildly applauded.

The second thing is that science for the most part is cooperation among a great body of people. There really isn't that much competition. That's very different from many other human activities. Many times, it's almost embarrassing that you don't make much of a contribution yourself, except to recognize several things that other people have done and put them together in ways that the other people hadn't even thought about. You can be pretty damn inept in many things and yet be pretty good in science, because you benefit by what other people have done. Many times, people who are really artistic in temperament can be pretty good scientists. Science is a very congenial, friendly thing. The sad thing is, it doesn't look that way to other people.

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