Nobel and Fields advice: the crucial intersection

BLOG: Heidelberg Laureate Forum

Laureates of mathematics and computer science meet the next generation
Heidelberg Laureate Forum

I’ve sat through two advice talks from laureates this year – one right now by Sir Michael Atiyah at the HLF,  titled “Advice to a Young Mathematician”, the other this spring, organized by the Heidelberg university astronomers and held at the Haus der Astronomie, by physics Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt.

That such talks have inherent limitations was acknowledged by both speakers (“listen to my advice, but don’t follow it”).

But there is one kind of message in talks like this that cannot be reiterated too often, and where it is crucial to hear the message from those who have made it to the very top.

Pretty much every aspiring scientist has periods of self-doubt and flagging motivation. One of the more pernicious manifestations involves the question  whether the mere fact that one is having self-doubts means that one is not cut out for a succesful research career – after all, don’t those successful colleagues make it look so easy? Surely the really successful scientists are not plagued by doubts of this kind?

To avoid the downward-spiral this reasoning can trigger, it’s good to hear someone like Sir Michael state that, as far as he can see, every serious researcher has those periods of self-doubt. Or, as he put it: “Only the mediocre are supremely confident in their ability”.

Another manifestation of self-doubt is the nagging question: am I spending enough time on my research? (Because there’s always someone who’s spending more time in the institute than yourself, is there not?)

In that situation, its helpful to be reminded by those who should know that it’s not the quantity of time that counts. It’s a question of quality time, and for that it is essential to balance intensive, concentrated work on the one hand and relaxation and thinking-of-something-completely-different time on the other. Sir Michael included social interaction with ones colleagues, in the form of informal conversations in that category. Schmidt talked about getting his best ideas in the shower or in his vineyard. (In a pinch, an ordinary garden should do as well, though.)

Dont worry, because everybody has self doubts, and don’t spend too much time slogging away, but instead go for quality time – that’s certainly not a back take-home message from the intersection of Fields and Nobel.


Markus Pössel hatte bereits während des Physikstudiums an der Universität Hamburg gemerkt: Die Herausforderung, physikalische Themen so aufzuarbeiten und darzustellen, dass sie auch für Nichtphysiker verständlich werden, war für ihn mindestens ebenso interessant wie die eigentliche Forschungsarbeit. Nach seiner Promotion am Max-Planck-Institut für Gravitationsphysik (Albert-Einstein-Institut) in Potsdam blieb er dem Institut als "Outreach scientist" erhalten, war während des Einsteinjahres 2005 an verschiedenen Ausstellungsprojekten beteiligt und schuf das Webportal Einstein Online. Ende 2007 wechselte er für ein Jahr zum World Science Festival in New York. Seit Anfang 2009 ist er wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Max-Planck-Institut für Astronomie in Heidelberg, wo er das Haus der Astronomie leitet, ein Zentrum für astronomische Öffentlichkeits- und Bildungsarbeit. Pössel bloggt, ist Autor/Koautor mehrerer Bücher, und schreibt regelmäßig für die Zeitschrift Sterne und Weltraum.

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