Laureate advocates synergy

A little bit of competition is healthy, as the adage goes, but there may be too much of it in the field of contemporary science, said Physics Nobel Laureate Steven Chu.

Chu, the 2008 Tanner Series Lecturer, gave a talk entitled “Golden Eras of Scientific Institutions” yesterday in which he described the ideal conditions for scientific inquiry: collaboration and mutual respect among scientists, in contrast to the competition that characterizes modern-day interactions between many science labs.

“The lone scientist is not the true picture [of science],” he said. “Scientific progress does really spurt ahead when a collection of scientists get together.”

The talk was the second and final that Chu presented as part of the 2008 Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the Whitney Humanities Center on Wednesday and Thursday this week. The Tanner Lectures series, founded by Obert Tanner in 1978 in the hopes of contributing to “the intellectual and moral life of mankind,” is held annually at one of nine universities.

This year, Yale is hosting the event. In honor of Chu’s presence, there will be a “rich constellation of events” throughout the week, said María Rosa Menocal, director of the Whitney Humanities Center.

Chu’s presence is indeed an honor, said Ramamurti Shankar, Professor of Physics, in introducing the speaker. Chu, Shankar’s former “classmate and nemesis,” won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1997 for his work on the use of lasers to cool and trap atoms, Shankar said.

Chu began his lecture with a discussion of the Impressionist movement, which he views as a golden era in art in part because of the collaboration between artists it fostered. In a lighter moment, Chu did, however, take a moment to edit one of his slides by changing two dates from the 1900s to the 1800s.

“My proofreader wife didn’t get to it in time,” he explained sheepishly before continuing.

Cooperation in science, as well as in art, is often a good thing, he said.

Chu described the sense of community he felt at Bell Labs, where labs were left unlocked, equipment was shared, and lunch time was a social event where scientists discussed their work.

“We were encouraged to learn as wildly about what was going on in the lab as possible,” he said.

Using Bell Labs — which he described as “heaven” — as an example, Chu explained the three lessons he wanted audience members to learn.

The first was how to find workers for a lab.

“Try to hire people better than you,” he said. “Treat them as protégés, not as your assistants.”

The second lesson: be creative. He explained that, while the 100th person to look under a rock will not find anything new, the person who finds a new rock, or looks at the old rock differently, might.

The third explained the need for other scientists to stimulate each other.

“The top managers [of labs] should be top practicing scientists,” he said.

To lighten the mood, Chu showcased a picture of himself as a thirty-two-year-old student with thick plastic glasses and a bright yellow polo shirt and a cartoon about scientific experiments. With his audience in mind, he referred to Harvard as the “H-word” and wrote it in his slides as “H…@#$%…d.”

Chu concluded his presentation with a discussion of his current research on global warming.

“One of the most import problems that science and technology must solve is how to mitigate and adapt to climate change,” he said. “In technical terms, one could say the world is in deep doo doo!”

With Chu’s research, however, the world might not be in trouble for long. Just as man looked to the bird to develop the first plane, Chu is currently looking to the plant to develop a new energy source. Chu said he is taking tips from photosynthesis to investigate whether nanotechnology can be used to convert sunlight into a chemical fuel.

“We should take care of our planet,” he concluded gravely, “because there is nowhere else to go.”

Comments

  • Alum

    Chu's message is just the thing professors need to be hearing. The problem is that a successful career in science -- especially a professorship -- emerges from a track record of distinguishing oneself from others within a specialized field. People who succeed at this are programmed to avoid open collaboration and especially sharing of data. Collegiality is only possible among people who feel secure enough to risk getting the short end (which did occasionally happen even in the "golden era").

    It's sad but true that people will even go to lengths to prevent the solution of serious scientific problems if it means they have to share the credit.