Self-centered people who become famous scientists


I have a distinct recollection from my sophomore year in college. I was sitting in a hammock in my dorm room, reading The Double Helix, James Watson’s autobiographical account of how he sorted out the structure of DNA.

(And yes, apparently, I used to be that kind of dude who would go to the trouble of putting a hammock in his dorm room. Hey, people evolve.)

The Double Helix was recommended to me because it was a first-hand account thriller about a major discovery that revolutionized how we understand evolution and life in general. That part is true.

But that’s not what I was thinking when I was reading this book. My main thought was, “Wow, this guy is an asshole.”

That was about 25 years ago, and I haven’t read the book since then. I don’t remember much about the book. It’s just sitting in the hammock, realizing that Watson is the kind of jerk that views other people as tools or impediments, rather than sentient beings like himself.

It turns out I wasn’t alone in my assessment of The Double Helix and its self-centered author, but at that time, I had heard not a whiff of disapproval of Watson. He was seen as a hero.

I remember asking myself, was this guy actually successful because he was a jerk? And isn’t it amazing how he’s pulled off that feat without alienating everybody around him? Now, he’s famous for being a jerk, and a racist. I wouldn’t have known it from my science teachers, though, who had admirable reports of the man. Yes, people do evolve — I don’t have a hammock in my bedroom nowadays — but Watson didn’t evolve out of his self-centeredness.

Richard Feynman is another hero of science who has a complex legacy that I’m trying to understand. I live in the city of Pasadena, home of Cal Tech and where Richard Feynman cemented his legacy as a genius of physics and a quirky and inspirational thinker. A few stories of Feynman linger in kitchens and wine-tasting events, and the further you get from town, the nicer things you hear about him. In addition to his academic accomplishments, his ability to charm people is legend. It’s oxymoronic how someone can be remembered as both charming and unpalatable. He was into physics, the wonder of the world, and himself. Those are not bad things. But he wasn’t focused on other human beings. That is a problem.

Feynman wrote a series of short autobiographical essays that became a classic: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character. I remember reading this early on in my career during graduate school. There was one essay in Feynman’s book that I remember disliking. I’m a little ashamed to admit it wasn’t the chapter that it wasn’t the chapter in which he said that women are “worse than whores” if they don’t have sex with him after he buys them a sandwich. (Even if Feynman did respect some other people, that list of people did not seem to include women other than his sister. But I’m no Feynman scholar and a lot has been written about him that I’ve yet to read. But what I have read — even the laudatory ones — are not that flattering.)

My least favorite chapter was about a set of experiments on foraging and communication in ants:

In my room at Princeton I had a bay window with a U-shaped windowsill. One day some ants came out on the windowsill and wandered around a little bit. I got curious as to how they found things. I wondered, how do they know where to go? How can they tell each other where food is, like bees can? Do they have any sense of geometry?

This is all amateurish; everybody knows the answer but didn’t know the answer, so the first thing I did was to stretch some string across the U of the bay window and hang a piece of folded cardboard with sugar on it from the string. The idea of this was to isolate the sugar from the ants, so they won’t find it accidentally. I wanted to have everything under control…

And he goes own to explain a few experiments that he did with baiting ants around his house. He learned stuff about the ants in his house.

I think it says a lot about Feynman — in a good way — that to learn about how some ants communicate, he designed his own experiments in his home instead of just picking up a book. He is a paragon of learning through inquiry, and embraced his status as an amateur. He was excited about ants. That’s cool.

On the other hand, as a grad student who was working on the behavior and ecology of ants, this chapter bugged me. The tone of the story reads like, “Even I, a physicist who is unraveling the secrets of the universe, can be curious about something as inconsequential as ants.” Which as a person who was focused very seriously on ants, felt like condescention. That’s not a good reason to get annoyed, I realize.

I didn’t immediately pin down what bugged me about the chapter, and in hindsight, I see that it’s the same reason that The Double Helix bugged me. It was just so darn self-centered.

There is a word in that chapter that the author italicized for emphasis: “I” — in the section I quoted above.

What separates Feynman from Watson is that Feynman truly was a curious character, both in his own curiosity and his quirky and enthusiastic nature that was curious to others. But Feynman, like Watson, was really, really focused on himself. He wrote about understanding the world, but about his journey to understanding the world. If he wanted us to learn how to become more scientific and curious, then he wanted us to do by learning from him as an example.

Feynman probably took several hours to write out that chapter on his experiments on ant communication. While the subject is ants, the theme is curiosity and drive to learn about the world.

The chapter bugs me not because it’s about ants, but because he somehow took a chapter about scientific curiosity and somehow made it about himself. (On the other hand, one of my more favorite books is a biographical account of scientific curiosity of certain people in the history of science.) I don’t get the feeling he really wanted to know how ants forage, so much as he was interested in discovering how ants forage. He wasn’t interested in the knowledge, but the chase of knowledge. He wanted to be the person that solved the problem and share his ingenuity. If he was really focused on actual scientific discovery and new knowledge, he would have swung by the library in the midst of his experiments. It’s not hard to think of new experiments that would generate actual knew knowledge about foraging and communication.

It’s not a bad idea to repeat unoriginal experiments to figure out how the world works — that’s actually a lot of the curriculum in high school and college. It’s not the most exciting way to do science but that is how education is often done. And that’s what Feynman did with ants — he ran an experiment that other people have done to figure out for himself what we already know.

If Feynman was truly a curious character, wouldn’t he want to see how his work matched up with prior work, or what new things have been discovered? No, he wasn’t interested in expanding knowledge. He was interested in expanding his knowledge by doing. It’s clear that his motivation for his own groundbreaking research in physics was not to be famous or important, I think that was a mere side-effect of his talent and personality. He really wanted to solve a new problem for himself, because nobody else could get him the answer. That may be a defining trait of good basic scientific practice — to seek the answer for its own sake because of a personal need to know. (That’s what drives me — I just want to know the answer.)

Feynman took this need to discover to the extreme — he ran experiments instead of heading to the library. Is that just intellectual masturbation? It did not matter to him one iota what is already known. He had such a need to solve scientific problems that he was spending free time solving problems that have already been solved.

I also solve problems that have already been solved. I’ve done some jigsaw puzzles, have figured out how long to pressure cook brussels sprouts, and how much sleep I need each night to be functional the next day. But I’m not writing a blog post about those things.

What made Feynman self-centered was that he thought his personal experiments on ant foraging mattered enough to write about.

I think that’s why I disliked the chapter, because I realized that Feynman was right — his writing about his own scientific curiosity did matter to other people. Several people have mentioned that chapter to me over the years, saying that they enjoyed it and appreciated it. (Have other ant people had the same experience? I don’t know.)

His own intellectual masturbation was, in fact, suitable public entertainment, and even a solid form of science communication. Watching just anybody perform that intellectual masturbation might be boring, but if it comes from a superstar scientist who has the ability to inspire, then it’s of interest.

If you’re a massively successful scientist, being tightly focused on yourself seems to be perfectly acceptable. You can be a big shot scientist and still be a narcissist. I started that book thinking that Feynman was supposed to be an inspirational model, and then got bummed out by seeing — just like Watson — that being self-centered is a trait of some of the most successful people in science.

You don’t have to be a jerk to do well in science. When I create a mental list of the people who I know who are remarkably successful in science, they actually fall into two broad categories:

  • a huge jerk that takes advantage of other people
  • a beautiful person who is extraordinarily friendly and highly collaborative

Fortunately, most of the people who I’ve interacted with who are big shots fall into that latter category.

Here’s a little figure I drew a while ago:

You don’t have to be a jerk to become a big name, but it is one route. To get to the top of the heap, you can either climb on top of people, or others can be inspired to lift you up.

11 thoughts on “Self-centered people who become famous scientists

  1. Really interesting read. Quick correction – there’s a ‘don’t’ missing on the second-to-last line: You ‘don’t’ have to be a jerk…

  2. Great post. Names don’t come to mind right now, but I have read books about some other famous names in science and came to a similar conclusion: that they must have been total jerks.

  3. Very interesting thoughts Terry.

    It seems like part of what you’re struggling with here is being of two minds about someone, and wanting to be of one mind? Wanting to have an integrated picture of Feynman (or whoever) that all fits together, and that allows one to come to some overall evaluation of them that somehow integrates their science, their dealings with other people, and everything else.

    I’d suggest that sometimes, maybe even all the time, there is no integrated picture. Someone can be a horrible person in one way, and a great person in another way, and those two ways can just have nothing to do with one another. Being a great scientist doesn’t make Watson any less of a jerk (or excuse his jerkishness, or make up for or cancel out his jerkishness). And his being a jerk doesn’t make him any less great a scientist (or explain away or cancel out his scientific greatness). I think a lot of people are more compartmented than is generally admitted. Or at least, are best thought of as compartmented. I say that both because I’ve read a number of scientific biographies that tried to shoehorn complicated, compartmented people into a single integrated box of the biographer’s creation (inevitably distorting what was good, and bad, about both their science and their non-scientific lives). And also because I’ve known people who were best thought of as compartmented (sorry, not comfortable sharing anecdotes in public, you’ll just have to take my word for it).

    Anthony Lane, the New Yorker film reviewer, has an old profile of Nabokov that talks about this–the lost art of being of two minds about people. Focusing in Nabokov’s case on Lolita, of course.

    This isn’t to suggest you’re wrong to see something self-centered about Watson and Feynman’s approach to science, and to see symptoms of that same self-centeredness in their personal lives. I would never say everybody is totally compartmented.

    But I dunno. Maybe people mostly aren’t all that compartmented, and what bugs me is just that people insist on coming up with some implicit or explicit weighting of the good and bad things Feynman or whoever did. I hate that, it’s trying to take things that are incommensurable and add them up.

    Quite possibly, my views here will make me unpopular with both the biggest fans and biggest detractors of guys like Watson and Feynman…

  4. Interesting post Terry, and a couple of things occur to me.

    Following up on what Jeremy talks about, the huge jerk-beautiful person dichotomy is (in my experience) context dependent: I know of very successful scientists who are viewed as both by different populations of other scientists, depending on whether they are collaborators or have (in one way or another) crossed swords with them. It sometimes comes as a surprise for members of one population to discover the views of the other.

    Here’s a controversial question for discussion: is James Watson really a “great” scientist? Yes he was co-discover of the structure of DNA and, yes he got a Nobel for it. But then what did he do that was of any great significance? The structure of DNA was in a sense low hanging fruit: the tools were available to study it and it was a BIG question in biology, someone would have cracked it eventually. But Watson did not then go on to build upon that discovery with further, sustained research. He became an administrator. Is that what we expect from a “great” scientist? I don;t have an answer to that but I think it’s a question worth asking.

  5. @jeffollerton:

    ” The structure of DNA was in a sense low hanging fruit: the tools were available to study it and it was a BIG question in biology, someone would have cracked it eventually. ”

    Interesting question that’s very tough to address, because it gets into counterfactuals. For instance, Peter Bowler argues that, in the long run, Charles Darwin didn’t alter the future course of evolutionary biology–indeed, if anything he caused the Modern Synthesis to develop later than it otherwise would’ve. And this is because he was a genius who was ahead (too far ahead) of his time, not because he was picking low hanging fruit that lots of people could’ve and would’ve picked.

    • Little things:
      -I think you can ‘like’ on wordpress, I’ve just disabled it for this site.
      -Oh my gosh I didn’t somehow leave the impression that I thought Watson was a great scientist I hope! I was just saying that he is famous, and regarded as one, and had a fancy and influential position.

      • Interestingly it’s possible to “like” when responding directly to replies on the right hand side drop-down list.

        Don’t worry, I think your view of Watson was quite clear :-)

  6. Great post! Too ill at the moment to come up with anything substantive to say in response, so I’ll just say this: I totally had a hammock in my dorm room junior year. It was amazing.

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