Mendel, Peas, and Mice

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Mendel seven characters fr

Back after a prolonged absence.  Been busy with all sorts of administrative stuff that I would just as soon forget.  I’m telling myself I’m on sabbatical (not that I actually am), but it helps with my psychological outlook.

I was at a thesis committee meeting  recently, and one of the committee members mentioned a book he had been reading about Gregor Mendel, the monk who is the founder of modern genetics.  As is well known, Mendel’s work with inheritance of different traits in pea plants formed the foundation of genetics.  What I did not know was that Mendel started his study of heredity not with peas, but with mice.

Apparently, Mendel’s bishop was not enthusiastic about one of his monks studying animal sex, and ordered him to stop.  The bishop, who did not know about sex in plants, permitted Mendel to study peas instead.  So we have the bishop to thank for accelerating our understanding of genetics, as I’m pretty sure the mouse studies would have been much more slow and complicated to understand.  There is another back story about Mendel’s potential fudging of the data that adds some additional intrigue to this episode.  I guess the pressure to publish or perish has some pretty old origins.

Image By Mariana Ruiz LadyofHats (French Translation Moez) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Feynman and Failure

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The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Came across this gem today.  It’s rare that one can get real candor from a super successful person in academia about how they really feel about their performance.  One of my heroes, Richard Feynman, didn’t bat 1.000 all the time.  He had periods of lower productivity, and during a particular 2 year span (1961-63), he felt he had accomplished no meaningful research: “At the end of the two years [1961-63] I felt that I had wasted two years, that I had done no research during this entire period and I was muttering to this effect.”  However, this was the period during which he taught a class in introductory physics to undergraduates at Caltech, and the lecture notes from these classes were used to create the famous “Feynman Lectures on Physics” text.  At the time, Feynman was unsatisfied by his performance in teaching these classes, saying in response to the average grade achieved in the class,  “Oh, that’s terrible, they should have done better than that. I am a failure.”

In his later years, Feynman’s views on his teaching performance softened, as he began to appreciate the wide-ranging and long-term impact those lectures and the book had on physics.  “I must admit now that I cannot deny that they are really a contribution to the physics world.”

It’s reassuring to me that one of the greats of science also had periods of low productivity and failure.  Failure is difficult to diagnose in the moment, as Feynman’s later understanding of the impact of his teaching reveals.  Regarding his research productivity, it took until 1967 when Feynman apparently was reminded of his approach to scientific work after reading a draft of James Watson’s accounting of the discovery of the structure of DNA.  His colleague David Goodstein relates that Feynman pressed the book upon him, insisting that he read it immediately.

So I read that book, from one o’clock to five o’clock in the morning with Feynman sitting across the room watching me, waiting for me to finish so we could discuss it.  At a certain point, I said, “Watson must have been either very lucky or very smart, because he never knew anything that anybody else was doing, and he still made the crucial discovery.”

Feynman had been doodling on a pad of paper, and he had written the one word DISREGARD, which he had then illuminated, decorated.  He jumped up and said, “That’s what I learned from reading it.  I used to know it, and I forgot it– I have to disregard everybody else, and then I can do my own work.”

As soon as it was a respectable hour in California he called his wife, and he said, “I think I’m going to be able to work again!”

Image By Barak Sh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

New project musing (rambling)

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dice

Recently, I’ve read a number of articles by successful people about how they approach their lives and how these approaches got them to where they are in life and career.  These articles usually have a number of good ideas about prioritization, organization, and life management, and as these are typically highly accomplished individuals, their ideas certainly carry some pretty solid credibility.

It seems I’m not alone in feeling that these highly successful folks might have some key insights onto the way to big things.  Certainly recent books like Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” have stimulated a lot of interest and discussion.  Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to read Lean In yet, but I did read Walter Isaacson’s Steve Jobs bio last year with great interest.  Along related lines, my parents (!) sent me the Tiger mom book, which I just couldn’t bring myself to read.

I’m a academic physician-scientist, and have been swimming in academia pretty much all of my adult life.  While interesting and rewarding, it’s a challenging profession that constantly makes me ask whether I’m “doing it right.”  For me, it’s the typical issues of professional and personal life balance, trying to do anything at all well, while trying to remain at the very least, sane and married.  On the professional side, there are a lot of examples of highly intelligent people who, for one reason or another, drop out of academia.  There are also a lot of examples of people who do extraordinarily well in academia, with many people wondering exactly why.  There are also examples of professionally successful people who have had to sacrifice relationships, family, on their way up.  I recall one of my professors in medical school saying, “Regarding research, medicine, and family, pick any two.”  Yikes.

But then, one of my friends highlighted a blog post by Radhika Nagpal, in which this highly successful Harvard professor talked about how she managed to balance work, life, and being a tenure track prof at Harvard.  It’s possible, by golly, success in academia balanced with a reasonable work week and family!  One key piece of her approach:  “I stopped taking advice.”  Wait, what?  Ceci n’est pas une pipe?

I actually liked Radhika’s blog post quite a bit.  Her non-advice about not taking advice highlighted an interesting point: the experiences of the people giving advice are not necessarily relevant to your experiences.  It got me thinking about how relevant any of these collections of success stories are to any specific individual.

A recent article in PNAS suggests that the experiences of the super-successful should probably not be emulated.  From their abstract: “the highest performers may not have the highest expected ability and should not be imitated or praised. We show that whether higher performance indicates higher ability depends on whether extreme performance could be achieved by skill or requires luck.”  Basically, they show that extreme success can depend on factors unrelated to the skill of the participant, and can be more influenced by the nature of the game.  If performance depends highly on prior performance (i.e. if you’re more likely to be successful if you were successful in the prior game), chance will greatly affect the final outcome.  How they put it: “Chance events can substantially influence outcomes when wi (the dependency on prior results) is high, because initial outcomes then strongly influence subsequent outcomes and players with low levels of skill who get lucky initially may have many successes. Similarly, players with high levels of skill could get unlucky initially and may have many failures. As a result, the association between skill levels and eventual outcomes will be weak when wi is high.”

There are examples where performance is highly related to skill and not chance.  As the authors write: “In other settings, extreme performance is unlikely to be due to luck. Skills may vary substantially whereas chance events can only have a limited impact, such as in a marathon race where both amateurs and professionals compete (amateurs of low skill are very unlikely to beat professionals). In such settings, performance is a good indicator of skill and, as our second model shows, extreme performance may be especially informative.”

But overall, the idea that chance (luck) plays a significant role in many competitive domains seems to have relevance to career performance.  While it’s pretty hard to quantify the relationship between prior results and outcomes, I would assert that it’s certainly not independent in most careers.  Most of us aren’t making our living running marathons.

This idea that luck plays a significant role in where we end up in our careers is not something that comes up much in many writings about and by highly successful individuals.  I’ve often pondered how my life would be different had I turned left instead of right at a particular juncture.  What would have happened if I had spelled “terrazzo” correctly in the National Spelling Bee when I was in the eight grade (only put in one “r” not thinking about the origins of the word)?  Probably nothing much different, but maybe…  more humanities, less science??

These stories of successful people also tend to focus on their successes.  We all love hearing about successes.  However, I’ve been getting more interested in failures.  I’m certain that successful people have had their share of failures in their careers and lives.  The story of former President Nixon springs to mind when thinking of failures.  The number of times Nixon’s career seemed to be over was remarkable (“you won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore” was quite early in his career).  Yet, Nixon would re-emerge in the public area, stronger than ever after his time in the wilderness.  This extreme performance can’t be pure chance, can it?

What is the relationship between chance and failure in our lives?  How much control do we have over our own destiny?  How significant are individual events in shaping the course of our personal history?  Can a butterfly’s flapping really cause a hurricane?

The significance of chance in our lives is both disconcerting and reassuring.  Disconcerting because it is chance, and we therefore have no control over it.  Reassuring because it is chance, and we therefore aren’t fully to blame for our failures.  And what of failure?  Inspiration can be found from the response to failure and reassurance from the knowledge that no one is immune from failure.

image: Frozen dice by ~ExtremoPenguin