22: The Young Scientist — My Experiences

When I say young scientist I am referring to an individual starting or seeking to do research, no matter his or her age.


My interest in science, particularly chemistry began when I discovered a box of copper sulfate crystals in the basement of my home in Washington D. C. I was perhaps 12 years old. One chemical quickly led to another. (Throughout my life there was zero interference in my work (play) by my parents.) I obtained a part-time job at a local grocery store on Saturday mornings, and on Saturday afternoons spent my earnings at Gilmans chemical store (then on Constitution Ave) buying chemicals such as sulfuric acid, sodium, white phosphorus, and of course, perchlorates, sulfur and carbon. I built my own laboratory in the basement. I had no supervision whatsoever in my experiments, many of which make me shudder today. I made nitroglycerine, but became frightened and got rid of it. I had a few chemical friends in the DC area, and visited their labs, but they were not inspiring to me at the time. I made remote controlled explosive devices, and rockets, one of which was quite good but its arc eventually aimed itself at a public swimming pool and I was long gone before I could see where it hit. At this time WWII was in progress and I tried to synthesize butadiene, with no luck. I did no significant damage except I did blow up a pair of laundry tubs in the basement of our house in Washington. I was interested in the effects of underwater explosions. I did save enough earned money to have the tubs replaced.


I do not recommend the above path to a youngster today; the chemicals would not be available and there could (and sometimes should) be intervention by the police. And I did many dumb things which are best not described, though I never intended to harm anyone.


High school science teaching was not very good as much teaching talent went into the war effort. (I once taught the chemistry class – it was a flop due to lack of interest on the part of most students.) On the other hand Math teaching was solid-but remarkably did not include the calculus. I was clearly headed for chemistry, but with a strong interest in mathematics. Regrets: I spent too little time working with electronics.  During one summer and on Saturdays I worked as an analytical chemist, analyzing cooking gas for CO2, H2, CO, CH4, and O2, using a rather old-fashioned apparatus where this gas mixture was passed through various liquid mixtures that would selectively absorb O2 or another gas. The sourcing of the samples was sometimes dangerous I thought. The samples were taken directly from the side of a blast furnace, whose top would alternately open and close. In between these two states the sample top would be bathed in flames when the top of the furnace was periodically closed. As a prank the operator of one blast furnace thought he would frighten me while I was taking a sample, and he almost fried me. Being surrounded by fames two or three stories up in the air next to a blast furnace is a memorable event. Again, modern safety regulations and labor laws would doubtless prevent this activity. Nowadays many universities and medical schools do offer research internships for high school students.


My high school work was completed in three years, and I was offered a scholarship to George Washington University, which I gratefully accepted. The effort to spend only three years in high school and three years in college was to get as much education as possible before being drafted into the army. (At some point during this period I did try to enlist in the Naval Air Force but was turned down because of color blindness). I finished up at Cal Tech in 1950 and received an NRC postdoctoral fellowship for the physics Department at the University of Chicago. In normal times I think it is a mistake to speed through undergraduate school and graduate school. It is better to spend as much time as possible listening to seminars in different areas of science and obtaining experience in laboratories dealing with a variety of subjects.


Now, with respect to advice: For me, science and creativity tend to flourish when there is peace, social, political and economic stability. Throughout most of my lifetime I have been witness to war: WWII, the Korean War, the "cold" war, the war in Vietnam, and most recently the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan.  In my case I sought a pure science career, and my choice of the Spectroscopy Department at Shell was the perfect choice at the time. It was ideal in terms of independence, subject matter, and a supportive environment. At the time there was economic security at Shell. (The Korean War was still in progress.) I had no ambition with respect to earning a lot of money. The AT&T Bell labs at that time would have been another good choice. At the time I did not consider it likely that I could obtain a good academic job, as my graduate and postdoc work was good, but not spectacular, and the likelihood of my contributing anything really significant to electronic structure theory was remote. As I look back on my own history, I cannot avoid thinking of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” in my case guiding not commerce but scientific choices. Some of my choices were not only scientific, but reflected the constant threat of being drafted, the limited financial resources of my parents, and the realization that there were many young people who were smarter and better informed than I was. My main blunder throughout my career was a kind of scientific introversion – not paying attention to the scientific work of others. As a stellar example, Clyde Hutchison was starting up research on paramagnetic resonance not many steps away from where I sat in the Eckhardt Physics building of the University of Chicago. It’s never too late to look over your shoulder and see what others are doing, and talk to them.


At present a limited national commitment to scientific research again reduces the attractiveness and availability of academic positions. There seems to be an abundance of job openings in venture backed start-up companies, which provide ample opportunities for those suitable to the subject matter and the financial risk/reward opportunities. (However, one of my most talented mathematical physics students wound up working for AIG, which must have been nice while it lasted.) My personal recommendation to the young scientist is to pick a job which offers the greatest interest, the most independence, and one where the “boss” is an established scientist, or at least has knowledge of what science is all about. Avoid start-ups run by newly minted MBAs. My own flirtation with the NSA arose partly from a latent interest in cryptography, but I doubt that would have been satisfying over the long haul. On the other hand a year or two working on quantum cryptography would be very attractive to me today. My student Don Chesnut joined DuPont, did good work there, then became a Professor at Duke. Another student, Seiji Ogawa joined the AT&T Bell labs, and discovered functional magnetic resonance imaging. He is now a professor in Japan.  Most of my students have wound up in academic positions in universities or medical schools. A lower percentage are in industry or the NIH. Very few have left science or related technologies altogether. My impression is that today there are relatively few large stable companies where one can focus on fundamental scientific problems. Start-ups as a group probably offer the greatest opportunity where discovery matches the commercial objectives.  My advice — count on guidance from common sense and the “invisible hand.”



Addendum I: Molecular Devices Corporation