Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Jerry Coyne retires

We knew this was coming but it's still a noteworthy event [I retire today].

I like what Jerry Coyne says about his career, so far, but one particular section caught my eye.
Several years ago, I began to realize that my job as a scientist and academic was not as challenging as it had been for the previous 35 years. I had mastered the requisites of such a job: doing research, writing papers, mentoring and teaching students, getting grants, and so on. The one challenge left was discovering new things about evolution, which was the really exciting thing about science. I’ve always said that there is nothing comparable to being the first person to see something that nobody’s seen before. Artists must derive some of the same satisfaction when creating new fictional worlds, or finding new ways to see the existing world, but it is only those who do science—and I mean “science” in the broad sense—who are privileged to find and verify new truths about our cosmos.

But finding truly new things—things that surprise and delight other scientists—is very rare, for science, like Steve Gould’s fossil record, is largely tedium punctuated by sudden change. And so, as I began to look for more sustaining challenges; I slowly ratcheted down my research, deciding that I’d retire after my one remaining student graduated. That decision was made two years ago, but the mechanics of retirement—and, in truth, my own ambivalence—have led to a slight delay. Today, though, is the day.
For me, the pace of discovery in the lab was far too slow. Yes, it's true that you can be the very first person ever to see something that nobody has ever seen before but those "somethings" are often trivial. I learned that there was a heck of a lot that I didn't know but other people did. Furthermore, I needed to know all that stuff before I could really interpret my own lab results.

It was far more efficient, and far more exciting, for me to learn facts and information from others than to try and discover something truly important in my own lab.

That's why I decided to concentrate on writing, especially biochemistry textbooks. It was my opportunity to learn about everything and my opportunity to teach others about what was important and what was not important. It was my opportunity to think about biochemistry and evolution. That was much more satisfying, intellectually, than the tedium of everyday lab work. I was cocky enough to believe that I, personally, could contribute more to science through theory (and teaching) than through working at the bench.

As it turned out, I found far more ways of "seeing the existing world," as Jerry puts it, though reading, thinking, and teaching than I ever did by cloning a gene and studying its expression. So far, none of those ways are terribly original but they're at least new to me. And many of them are new to all the people around me who I keep pestering whenever I come across something interesting.

Nowadays, the tedium of stasis in everyday science isn't the only problem facing young scientists. There's also the tedium of grant writing and the tedium (and stress) of not getting a grant to keep your lab running. Perhaps they should get out of that rat race. We need more thinking in science and not more ChIP assays or RNA-Seq experiments.

I'd like to create an Institute for Advanced Study based on the Princeton model but with an emphasis on biology. I think we need to celebrate and honor thinking biologists and not just "doers" who run megalabs churning out more ENCODE results, or the genome sequence of a new species, or the 1001st human genome sequence.

I can think of a dozen scientists who I would hire right away if I had the money. Can you imagine how exciting it would be to put them all in one place where they can interact and be creative?

Maybe I should apply for a Templeton grant?


21 comments :

  1. I tend to agree with Richard Hamming in that Institute for Advanced Studies was kind of a bust.

    From Hamming's famous talk You and Your Research:


    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The quote was "When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you. In fact I will give you my favorite quotation of many years. The Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in my opinion, has ruined more good scientists than any institution has created, judged by what they did before they came and judged by what they did after. Not that they weren't good afterwards, but they were superb before they got there and were only good afterwards."

      Delete
    2. At the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, they have many photographs of all the famous scientists who have worked there, many with Nobel Prizes. This would be impressive if it weren't for the fact that so many of them got the chance to spend time there after they were famous.

      Delete
  2. Nowadays, the tedium of stasis in everyday science isn't the only problem facing young scientists. There's also the tedium of grant writing and the tedium (and stress) of not getting a grant to keep your lab running. Perhaps they should get out of that rat race. We need more thinking in science and not more ChIP assays or RNA-Seq experiments.

    I very much share that sentiment. I often have the feeling of being a prisoner as at this point in my life I can't sit down and read a book on something not directly related to what I do without feeling guilt or worry that this is time not spent on getting ahead in the rat race.

    It shouldn't be like that...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Actually, it would be great if someone would churn out a few dozen more avian genomes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The 30+ ones that they recently published are not enough?

      Delete
    2. Not at all. You can only get decent alignments of most sequences from distantly related species when the sample is 100 or more; 200 would be better. Of course you have to pick that 200 judiciously.

      Delete
    3. To be clear: when I'm saying "distantly related" I'm talking specifically within birds, and that necessary sample applies specifically to birds. I make no claims about other taxa.

      Delete
    4. As a hobbyist that quite enjoys browsing genomes in order to look for interesting features, I concur,

      Delete
    5. I'd rather see 200 rhizarians, but we're not getting those soon either.

      Delete
  4. All in one place to interact,
    Give new ideas their birth.
    Pleasantries funny, exchanges sunny,
    Surely we don't need to be hired,
    We're already together wired.
    No need for money.

    Sit around, toast and talk.
    Or just listen and be mute.
    Be it WEIT or Sandwalk,
    This Advanced Study Institute,
    By green Nature backed,
    Is glorious planet Earth!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Coyne said:

    "But finding truly new things—things that surprise and delight other scientists—is very rare, for science, like Steve Gould’s fossil record, is largely tedium punctuated by sudden change."

    A scientist who says something like that has spent way too much time in the confines of a building/lab and nowhere near enough time in the wild, and he obviously hasn't been keeping up on the new discoveries in various fields of science.

    ReplyDelete
  6. "The one challenge left was discovering new things about evolution, which was the really exciting thing about science. I’ve always said that there is nothing comparable to being the first person to see something that nobody’s seen before. Artists must derive some of the same satisfaction when creating new fictional worlds, or finding new ways to see the existing world, but it is only those who do science—and I mean “science” in the broad sense—who are privileged to find and verify new truths about our cosmos."

    Wouldn't be nice if Coyne decided to be the first one to resolve the very, very long outstanding issue of the origins of life? Why choose something, like evolution that to a certain degree was even discovered by creationists and the catholic church? How is that even challenging to begin with?

    Wouldn't be nice if Coyne announced that he will try to discover new things nobody really didn't discover or replicated so far, like the origins of life and the origins of the famous self reproducing molecule nobody has ever seen so far?

    To me, it is an easy, very easy retirement. Or an escape when the book is not selling well.

    ReplyDelete
  7. There will never be accomplishment in things based on wrong foundations.
    Evolutionary biology is a dead end and only IDEAS that are voted on by committees as new truths CAN a evolutionist biologist hope to gain acclaim from.
    There is no discovery or verification.
    Just a establishment giving thumbs up.
    its YEC and ID outlaws that do and will accomplish in figuring out origin things.
    In the past and now discovery/invention requires a standard of intellectual foundation and then ideas.
    Only a few ever had a few ideas worthy to be remembered and some more with ideas to be noted in speciality fields.

    by the way. not seeing evolutionism has no biological scientific evidence behind it to justify evolution as a theory of science is not a good start.
    Anyways happy retirement .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well, 'evolutionism' does not exist: science does not do -isms.

      So how can something that does not exist justify "evolution as a theory of science" (whatever that means ...) ?

      Hard to make sense out of what you write here anyway ...

      Delete
    2. Off thread but I MEAN evolution is claimed to be the result of scientific investigation and so its conclusions are a theory . A scientific theory.
      I insist evolutionism is not a bio scientific investigation, the conclusions are not based on bio sci evidence BUT instead based on secondary evidences from non bio subjects.
      this because its not true and couldn't possibly be based on bio sci evidence.
      This is a hook i promote.
      In short they invoke comparative genetics, comparitive anatomy, biogeography, fossils, and lines of reasoning from sexual selection of natural selection evidence in trivial cases.

      Delete
    3. "evolutionism"

      There you go again, Robert Byers. Another non-existing word - science does not do -isms.

      Why can't you just use existing word ? Would make any conversation a lot easier.

      Delete
    4. I didn't coin it. Its always used. Why not? It makes a quick thought picture of a whole hypothesis affects on thinking about biology.
      One would need another word. Its used by everybody and so I have the right.
      Creationism is a ism used and thats fine.
      We need to consent to definitions to write on the keyboard faster.

      Delete
    5. I didn't say you coined it.
      I is NOT always used (exception: creationists use it as a prejorative).

      I said it does not exist, as science does not do -isms. This is a science blog, right ? So I did answer your 'why not ?" already.

      Creationism is not science, but a religious idea, which is why it is OK to use it there, just like Hinduism is also OK.

      Delete
    6. Creationism is seen and insisted by creationists to be as sciency as anything.
      Its not a religious idea or conclusion. it exists as a defence of conclusions by using what is called scientific knowledge and methodology.
      Evolutionism, by me or anyone I know, is not used as a pejorative. its just a defining word for spectrum of conclusions. Its needed.
      What is a 'ism?
      the word is bigger then me and we can use it fairly.

      Delete
    7. "Creationism is seen and insisted by creationists to be as sciency as anything."

      Yes, only by them. And nobody else. Nobody.
      It is most certainly a religious idea, and nothing else.

      Your term "evolutionism" is also only used by creationists, and almost always as a pejorative.

      So my conclusion can only be that you completely restrict yourself to reading creationist literature, and ignores the (rather vast) body of scientific literature.

      Delete