Journey through the mind of the scientist

The Stars Are Not Enough
December 11, 1998

Despite C. P. Snow's best efforts, comparatively little is understood about the motivations of scientists. They are after all part of the intellectual elite, arguably capable of finding success in less demanding and more lucrative professions, yet they nevertheless persevere with precarious, poorly rewarded, and often frustrating careers.

Joseph Hermanowicz's attempts to find an explanation for this enigma have led to a meticulously researched and scholarly book in which he selects 60 physicists from universities across the United States and analyses their responses to questions about their lives, careers and aspirations past and present.

His analysis centres on the "moral career" of a scientist, which is "what scientists hold in common, a lifeline to which all cling, moving together and apart". This involves, among other things, the pursuit of ambition, Aristotle's aptly labelled "nameless virtue", which is at its best a "healthy striving mediated by the polar excesses of grandiosity and indolence". However, in Hermanowicz's view, ambition is as much an environmental as an individual attribute, and it is for this reason that he analyses it in the context of three types of university environment: the "elite", the "communitarian", and the "pluralist".

Elite universities are those that put academic and research excellence as their highest priority; communitarian universities are those where, broadly speaking, the absence - or mediocre quality - of research is tolerated provided there is a commitment to teaching; pluralist universities are those whose goals lie between these two extremes.

In analysing the career paths of scientists from these three environments, Hermanowicz focuses on their early aspirations and the way in which these are modified by ambient factors. He speaks of "interworld" and "intraworld" differences, where having defined the broad outlines of scientific lives in an environment, he analyses the factors that make academics in, say, a communitarian environment, behave according to elite mores.

The "cooling-out" process of reconciling ambition with experience is equally distinct in these different environments, and one is provided with fascinating (and often unintentionally revealing) examples of the private and professional factors that make, say, a particular research scientist operate in communitarian mode as he turns away from research. Along the way, these unnamed scientists discuss their self-doubts as well as their perceived talents, thus illuminating the particular combination of each that constitutes their individual inner drive. Gender and generational issues are discussed, as well as the deep impact of the changing scientific labour market on the evolving profiles of universities and academics.

Ultimately, few scientists achieve their earliest ambitions, and therefore "place the remembrance of their lives more often in humble than in majestic terms IJ(accepting) defeat quietly and (taking) satisfaction in that achieved". The stars are, clearly, not enough: those who seek to understand nature have to, in Yeats's words, "be secret, and exult"; they must ultimately be "bred to a harder thing/Than triumph".

Anita Mehta is a visiting fellow, Clarendon Laboratory, Oxford, and reader in physics, S N Bose National Centre, Calcutta, India.

The Stars Are Not Enough: Scientists - Their Passions and Professions

Author - Joseph C. Hermanowicz
ISBN - 0 226 366 3 and 367 1
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £35.95 and £ 11.95
Pages - 268

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