Advice To A Young Scientist


By P. B. Medawar

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To those interested in a life in science, Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel laureate, deflates the myths of invincibility, superiority, and genius; instead, he demonstrates it is common sense and an inquiring mind that are essential to the scientist’s calling. He deflates the myths surrounding scientists — invincibility, superiority, and genius; instead, he argues that it is common sense and an inquiring mind that are essential to the makeup of a scientist. He delivers many wry observations on how to choose a research topic, how to get along wih collaborators and older scientists and administrators, how (and how not) to present a scientific paper, and how to cope with culturally “superior” specialists in the arts and humanities.




Disturbing the Universe by Freeman Dyson

Advice to a Young Scientist by Peter Medawar




To The Royal Society of London

Preface to the Series

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has for many years included in its areas of interest the encouragement of a public understanding of science. It is an area in which it is most difficult to spend money effectively. Science in this century has become a complex endeavor. Scientific statements are embedded in a context that may look back over as many as four centuries of cunning experiment and elaborate theory; they are as likely as not to be expressible only in the language of advanced mathematics. The goal of a general public understanding of science, which may have been reasonable a hundred years ago, is perhaps by now chimerical.

Yet an understanding of the scientific enterprise, as distinct from the data and concepts and theories of science itself, is certainly within the grasp of us all. It is, after all, an enterprise conducted by men and women who might be our neighbors, going to and from their workplaces day by day, stimulated by hopes and purposes that are common to all of us, rewarded as most of us are by occasional successes and distressed by occasional setbacks. It is an enterprise with its own rules and customs, but an understanding of that enterprise is accessible to any of us, for it is quintessentially human. And an understanding of the enterprise inevitably brings with it some insight into the nature of its products.

Accordingly, the Sloan Foundation has set out to encourage a representative selection of accomplished and articulate scientists to set down their own accounts of their lives in science. The form those accounts will take has been left in each instance to the author: one may choose an autobiographical approach, another may produce a coherent series of essays, a third may tell the tale of a scientific community of which he was a member. Each author is a man or woman of outstanding accomplishment in his or her field. The word “science” is not construed narrowly: it includes such disciplines as economics and anthropology as much as it includes physics and chemistry and biology.

The Foundation’s role has been to organize the program and to provide the financial support necessary to bring manuscripts to completion. The Foundation wishes to express its appreciation of the great and continuing contribution made to the program by its Advisory Committee chaired by Dr. Robert Sinsheimer, Chancellor of the University of California—Santa Cruz, and comprising Dr. Howard H. Hiatt, Dean of the Harvard School of Public Health; Dr. Mark Kac, Professor of Mathematics at Rockefeller University; Dr. Daniel McFadden, Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Robert K. Merton, University Professor, Columbia University; Dr. George A. Miller, Professor of Experimental Psychology at Rockefeller University; Professor Philip Morrison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Dr. Frederick E. Terman, Provost Emeritus, Stanford University; for the Foundation, Arthur L. Singer, Jr., and Stephen White; for Harper & Row, Winthrop Knowlton and Simon Michael Bessie.


President, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Author’s Preface

I have tried to write the kind of book I myself should have liked to have read when I began research before most of my readers were born—that is not a patronizing comment but a straightforward recognition of the fact that most scientists are young in years and that no one actively engaged in research ever thinks of himself as old.

I am properly conscious, too, of joining the company of Polonius, Lord Chesterfield, and William Cobbett,1 all well known for having advised the young. Although none of their advice was addressed to young scientists, some of it applies. The advice of Polonius was mainly prudential in character and though one can sense Laertes’s haste to be away (“Most humbly do I take my leave, my Lord”), it is excellent advice.

Chesterfield’s advice had mainly to do with manners, especially the arts of ingratiation. It has little relevance to the circles in which scientists move, which is perhaps just as well because it received a stunning blow from the tail of the great Leviathan of English letters. Chesterfield, Dr. Johnson declared, taught the manners of a dancing master and the morals of a whore.

Cobbett’s advice was in a wide sense moral, though it had to do with manners too. Although Cobbett had not Dr. Johnson’s formidable strength of mind there is as much good sense in a paragraph of Cobbett as there is in any other paragraph of English prose. The eyes of one or another or all three will be found to glare from these pages at the appropriate places, for it is hardly possible to write a book of advice without being influenced by what they had to say.

The scope and purpose of this little book are explained in the Introduction: it is not for scientists only but for all who are engaged in exploratory activities. And it is not only for the young in years; with no thought of extra charge, author and publisher resolved to include a few paragraphs of advice to older scientists too. I have had in mind another audience, as well: nonscientists who may for any reason be curious about the delights and vexations of being a scientist, or about the motives, moods and mores of members of the profession.

Any passage in this book that a reader may think especially apt and illuminating is that which was written for him or her; that which is well understood already will not be thought interesting and will pass by unnoticed.

I have been embarrassed throughout by the lack in English of an epicene personal pronoun or possessive adjective, so for the most part “he” will have to do for “she,” and “his” for “hers.” Chapter 5 will make it clear that everything I say applies to women if it applies to men.

Almost inevitably, this book embodies a personal “philosophy” having to do with the place of science and scientists in the world. It is a very opinionated book, so something more is needed by way of apologia. In wartime Britain, to establish a personal relationship with the public, the radio newsreaders always announced their identity, often in the following words: “This is the nine o’clock news and this is Stuart Hibberd reading it.” Of the style and contents of this book I shall say only, “These are my opinions, and this is me giving them.” I use the word opinion to make it clear that my judgments are not validated by systematic sociological research and are not hypotheses that have already stood up to repeated critical assaults. They are merely personal judgments, though I hope that some of them will be picked up by sociologists of science for proper investigation.

The experience that justifies my writing a book such as this is the following. I was for a good many years a tutor at Oxford in the days when a single tutor was wholly responsible for the intellectual upbringing of his pupils—an exciting enterprise for both parties. A good tutor taught the whole of his subject and not just that part of it in which he himself happened to be especially interested or proficient; to “teach” did not, of course, mean to “impart factual information,” a relatively unimportant consideration, but rather to guide thought and reading and encourage reflection. I later became the head of university teaching departments, first in the University of Birmingham and latterly in University College London. After this I became the head of the National Institute for Medical Research, a large medical research institute populated by scientists of all ages and degrees of seniority.

In these environments I observed with great interest what was going on around me. Furthermore, I myself was young once.

Laying now the trumpet aside, I should like to express my indebtedness to my patrons, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, who made it so easily possible and so agreeable to fit the writing of this book into a busy professional life. It was my patrons’ wish, not mine, that to caution or exemplify, I should draw upon my personal experience as a scientist more often than I was inclined to do.

The special circumstances of my life are such that no writing upon any subject would have been possible without the support and companionship of my wife. Although this particular book is a solo effort, my wife too has read it because I have come to have complete confidence in her ear and literary judgment.

The work of preparing the text for publication was that of my secretary and assistant, Mrs. Heys.

I should like also very specially to thank some close friends for their hospitality and patient forbearance while I was writing or dictating this book: Jean and Friedrich Deinhardt, Barbara and Oliver Poole, and Pamela and Ian McAdam.


1. William Shakespeare (1603), Hamlet, act 1, scene 3; Philip Dormer Stanhope, IV, Earl of Chesterfield (1694–1773), Letters to His Son (1774); William Cobbett (1763–1835), Advice to Young Men and (incidentally) to Young Women (1829).


In this book I interpret “science” pretty broadly to refer to all exploratory activities of which the purpose is to come to a better understanding of the natural world. This exploratory activity is called “research,” and research is my chief topic, although it is only a small fraction of the multitude of scientific or science-based activities, which include scientific administration, scientific journalism (which grows in importance with science itself), the teaching of science, the supervision and often the execution of many industrial procedures, especially in respect of drugs, prepared foods, machinery and other manufactures, and textiles and materials generally.

In America, 493,000 people classified themselves in a recent census as scientists,1 a very large number even when whittled down to 313,000 by applying the more exacting taxonomic criteria adopted by the National Science Foundation. The numbers in Great Britain are about the same in proportion to total population. The Department of Industry reported that the total stock of qualified scientists in Great Britain in 1976 was 307,000, of whom 228,000 were described as “economically active.” Ten years before, the corresponding figures had been 175,000 and 42,000. The number of scientists in the world considered as a whole must be between 750,000 and 1,000,000. Most are still young, and all are, or at one time were, in need of advice.

I make no apology for concentrating mainly on research. I do so in the same spirit as that in which the author of “Advice to Young Writers” would preoccupy himself with imaginative writing rather than with ancillary and supportive activities such as printing, publishing, or reviewing—important though they are. Although research in the natural sciences is my principal theme, I shall always be thinking of exploratory activities in general, and believe that what I say will bear upon sociology, anthropology, archaeology, and the “behavioral sciences” generally, and not just upon the world of laboratories, test tubes, and microscopes, for I am not forgetting that human beings are among the most prominent fauna of that “natural world” of which I said that it was our purpose to seek an understanding.

It is not easy and will not always be necessary to draw a sharp distinction between “real” research scientists and those who carry out scientific operations apparently by rote. Among those half-million or so practitioners who classified themselves as scientists might easily have been the kind of man employed by any large and well-regulated public swimming pool: the man who checks the hydrogen-iron concentration of the water and keeps an eye on the bacterial and fungal flora. I can almost hear the contemptuous snort with which the pretensions of such a one to be thought a scientist will be dismissed.

But wait; scientist is as scientist does. If the attendant is intelligent and ambitious, he may build upon his school science by trying to bone up a little bacteriology or medical mycology in a public library or at night school, where he will certainly learn that the warmth and wetness that make the swimming pool agreeable to human beings are also conducive to the growth of microorganisms. Conversely, the chlorine that discourages bacteria is equally offensive to human beings; the attendant’s thoughts might easily turn to the problem of how best to keep down the bacteria and the fungi without enormous cost to his employer and without frightening his patrons away. Perhaps he will experiment on a small scale in his evaluation of alternative methods of purification. He will in any case keep a record of the relationship between the density of the population of microorganisms and the number of users of the pool, and experiment with adjusting the concentration of chlorine in accordance with his expectation of the number of his patrons on any particular day. If he does these things, he will be acting as a scientist rather than as a hired hand. The important thing is the inclination to get at the truth of matters as far as he is able and to take the steps that will make it reasonably likely he will do so. For this reason I shall not always make a distinction—and certainly never a class distinction (see Chapter 6)—between “pure” and applied science, a subject almost irremediably confused by a misunderstanding of the word pure.

In science a beginner will certainly read or be told “The scientist this” or “The scientist that.” Let him not believe it. There is no such person as the scientist. There are scientists, to be sure, and they are a collection as various in temperament as physicians, lawyers, clergymen, attorneys, or swimming-pool attendants. In my book The Art of the Soluble I put it thus:

Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics. What sort of mind or temperament can all these people be supposed to have in common? Obligative scientists must be very rare, and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.

I remember saying of the dramatis personae in the story of the unraveling of the crystalline structure of DNA2 that it would be hard even to imagine a collection of people more different from each other in origin and education, manner, manners, appearance, style, and worldly purposes than James Watson, Francis Crick, Lawrence Bragg, Rosalind Franklin and Linus Pauling.

I used the word mystic to refer to those few scientists who derive a perverse satisfaction from knowing that something is not known and who use that ignorance as a pretext for bursting out of the cruel confinements of positivism into the domain of rhapsodic intellection; but I am ashamed to say that after “and even a few mystics” I should now add “and even a few crooks.”

The most crooked scientist I know is one who plagiarized a number of photographs and several paragraphs of text from a fellow worker and included them in a prize essay put up for competition by a college in one of the older universities. One of his judges was the man from whom his material had been stolen. A terrific row followed, but, luckily for the culprit, the body that employed him was anxious above all else to avoid any public scandal. The culprit was accordingly “redeployed” into another scientific institution and has pursued a moderately successful career of petty crime of much the same genre ever since. How can such a man live with himself? Most people wonder. How can the psyche stand up to such cruel abuse?

In common with many of my colleagues, I do not find this crime bewildering and inexplicable; it strikes me as a straightforward felony of which scientists must be supposed no less capable than any other professional men. But what is surprising is to find crookedness of a kind that annuls everything that makes the scientific profession attractive, honorable, and praiseworthy.

There is no such person as the scientist, then, and a fortiori


On Sale
Aug 1, 2008
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books