Andrew YAO: Scientists and the path of science



“In the sports arena, you constantly push your body to the limit. Call it a self-induced form of torment if you will, but it’s of the happy sort. It’s a fulfilment that extends far beyond the boundaries of the tennis court.”



I’ve worked in science for decades now and have known plenty of exceptional scientists. I personally believe that a career in science is a very worthwhile and rewarding experience that offers one the taste of tremendous joy.


First of all, I’d like to discuss what a scientist is and what a scientist actually does. To quote a play written by the literary giant George Bernard Shaw: “You see things as they are and ask, "Why?" I dream things as they never were and ask, "Why not?"”


This oft-quoted and widely appreciated line has been used by people in a variety of ways. I think it can be employed to represent two veins of scientific approach. The first, represented by Newton, is to devise laws to explain natural phenomena: he inferred the law of gravity from the fall of an apple. The second vein of thought is represented by Professor Charles Kuen Kao, the father of fiber optics and recipient of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Physics for using glass to invent fiber optic communication. He made an invaluable contribution to the world at large.


Over the course of my own scientific career, I’ve come across numerous scientists of both kinds. I’d like to begin by sharing a bit about how they have been an inspiration to me.



Sheldon Lee Glashow, my advisor at the Department of Physics in Harvard, was awarded the 1979 Nobel Prize. His family left Russia to become working-class emigrants in the US. Despite their low station, his parents attached enormous importance to their children’s education. Demonstrating sharp scientific acumen at a young age, Glashow matriculated at the highly acclaimed Bronx Science High School in New York City. The advantage of studying at such a distinguished institution lay not in the ability to prove your superiority or high IQ, but rather the opportunity to brush shoulders with outstanding classmates and friends and to motivate one another in honing and using their gifts to the utmost. One of his high school classmates would later to become a Nobel Prize laureate as well.


Glashow is a man of enormous creativity, bold in his hypotheses and confident in his conclusions. Of his many findings, there is one of particular prominence – namely, his prediction of what he dubbed the “charm quark.” Initially, physicists believed there to be three basic quarks; Glashow, however, deduced the existence of a fourth. Though the methods used in reaching his conclusion did not guarantee the greatest precision, his intuition was spot-on: his deduction was soon confirmed and the world of physics was shaken. His story has been an inspiration to many, as it demonstrates the importance of possessing self-confidence and the courage to put forward views which have never before been proposed.     



The second person I’d like to mention is David Politzer, awardee of the 2004 Nobel Prize and my fellow classmate at Harvard. It is noteworthy that his first paper, published in 1973, was the key contribution that led to his receiving the Nobel Prize in 2004. Suffice it to say that the work of a young student may very well be of great consequence. Young students ought not to underestimate themselves. Who’s to say that someone’s graduate paper might not turn out to be among the most valuable contributions to science? In the field of physics, it’s not unheard of for an undergraduate to produce Nobel Prize-level results.


That reminds me of an interesting anecdote. There was a postdoc at Harvard who engaged in in-depth analysis of the very same topic that David Politzer was researching at the time. This post-doc spent upwards of a year proving and calculating some seven or eight different theories until there was but one that remained. But he was stumped by its difficulty and eventually gave up on it. It was this theory, after being tested and verified, which later earned Politzer the Nobel Prize. What was triumph for Politzer was, to the postdoc at least, failure on the eve of success. The moral of the story is that we should never be quick to give up – triumph is always towards the end.



The third example is that of John Nash, another example that genius often sparks early in life. Nash was awarded the 1994 Nobel Prize in Economics. His first paper, published when he was an undergraduate at Princeton [editor’s note: Nash was then actually a graduate student at Princeton], was a two-page paper investigating the equilibrium point for a game comprised of n players. At the time there remained an unresolved problem in game theory: What is the best tactic for each player if the game presents the possibility of a win-win outcome? This puzzling question eluded even Von Neumann, the key figure in the founding of game theory. Nash asked Von Neumann to look over his draft, but the latter found it to be of little value. Nash felt dejected. Fortunately, after his good friend David Gale encouraged him to press on and finish the work, Nash published the fruits of his labor and, 45 years later, won the Nobel Prize for it. Therein is the reminder that we must not place absolute faith in any human authority, as even scientific giants like Von Neumann are capable of rendering erroneous judgment.  



Next, I’d like to talk about some of the people I’ve come across in the field of computer science. The first is Donald Knuth, winner of the 1974 A.M. Turing Award. I first met Knuth in 1975, soon after completing my PhD in computer science. It was not long after I had solved a few problems that he invited me to pay him a visit. He is a man of protean talents and remarkable attainments in math – and even more in programming. There are three qualities about him that I particularly esteem, the first of which is his laser focus. He would concentrate on only one matter at any time. He once said that he had planned in advance his daily schedules for the next two years! The second quality is that he strives for total perfection in all that he sets his mind on. The third is the alacrity with which he works. The algorithms for his programs run more quickly than others, and he keeps up a rigorous pace when writing them as well.


Knuth’s crowning achievement is his multi-volume series The Art of Computer Programming. The early part of 1960 marked the beginnings of computer science in America. Knuth wasn’t just able to grasp the mathematical theories utilized in computer science – he also demonstrated expertise in programming and a wealth of experience in coding. He is possibly the only person with the ability and know-how to create, single-handedly, an entirely new discipline. His magnum opus made computer science a discipline in its own right. By the time the first volume was published in 1968, he had already handwrittenseven manuscripts totaling three thousand pages of writing. By 1973, three volumes of the set had been published, with four remaining. He was dissatisfied, however, with the type setting, saying that it failed to please the eye. Hence he set out to design a better typeset that would ensure the best possible results.


Knuth is man with a deep appreciation of humanistic traditions. He takes a special liking to the handwritten fonts found in classical books in the West. His hope was to apply a scientific method to printing technology so as to produce fonts as aesthetically pleasing as those of the old. In 1977 the two of us boarded a plane headed for Germany to attend a meeting. Knuth told me he was puttingthe work on The Art of Computer Programming on holdtodesign a typeset he called “Tex.” This project is what accounted for the delay of the writing and publication of The Art of Computer Programming. The fourth and final volume has only recently been released.


Knuth is a man who has always maintained strict standards with regard to himself,but extends to others a great spirit of generosity. He is able readily to identify the positive qualities evident in everyone and everything, and he is an avid lover of music, art, and literature. Such a pluralistic outlook is worthy of imitation. Whether it be in the formation of a team or the developing of a friendship, we should always take account of the strengths embodied in others. A positive attitude, which naturally tends to the happiness of others, is a must-have in collaborationwith others.



The next individual to mention is Jeffrey Ullman. Ullman started out working at Princeton but was later drawn to Stanford. He is known for his dry wit. Here’s one example that has stuck with me: “Being smart is worthless – smart people come a dime a dozen. What matters most is not intelligence, but that your intelligence results in influence.” As for his strengths, Ullman believes himself to be a quick study and a writer of great facility. This is key, as computer science is an ever-changing field. Ullman is clearly suited for the challenges, assiduously studying new materials and opening up classes and writing literature for a number of disciplines. Regarding the philosophy behind his writing, he made the following remark: “Your writing doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as you’ve got good material.”   



I’d now like to talk about the mathematician Paul Erdos. Erdos, a committed researcher at heart, has authored 1525 articles and collaborated with 511 individuals. He has a rather eccentric lifestyle, being without a family and spending 360 days a year on the road travelling across the US and Europe. His provisions could fit within a single suitcase. He doesn’t seek lodging at hotels, but chooses to stay at the homes of friends, most of whom are fellow mathematicians.


I’ve studied and worked at many universities. Virtually every environment comes with its own set of perks. People often criticize the environment they are in, but I think they need to have a positive outlook and take advantage of an environment’s inherent strengths. If one place is crowded, then look at it as a chance to make a few more friends and learn a something or two. If it’s a quiet place with few people, it might be seen as a fine opportunity to go about one’s research without distraction.


But here’s what is most important. An individual’s abilities aren’t completely inborn; they may very well be cultivated as you mature. Many individuals may exhibit brilliance when they were youngand outperform others in the beginning, but their accomplishments later in life don’t necessarily stand out. As long as an individual puts forth the needed effort, he or she can become smarter and better. One way I like to challenge myself is to change my direction of study and insist on bettering my performance in that particular area. If you have something in mind, go ahead with it. Even if you don’t make it to the end, you may yet make it further than others. You’ll find that progress comes more easily when you seek to stretch yourself a little beyond your reach. You should strive by all means to be the best you can be. At the same time, it’s important that you have a clear vision. And you know it’s a good direction when its importance is apparent even a decade later.    


There are some who, after a couple years in graduate school, are no longer satisfied with their major and want to change their area of study. Is it alright to change it? I think so. Many people may change their trajectory and decide to switch to a field unrelated to science, choosing to be an entrepreneur or to do financial investment. I see no wrong in it. It’s also acceptable to make slight adjustments in one’s area of research within a given field. At the end of the day, nobody can give you the final verdict as to whether you ought to change your field of study. You simply have to “follow your heart.” You may wonder, “Is it too late to change my major?” Remember to believe in yourself. As long as something’s worth doing in the first place, it’s never too late to start. As they say, “better late than never.”



I’d like to talk about a master of creativity – Picasso. His work has changed the world. If you were to observe his later works, it probably wouldn’t occur to you that he was a very traditional painter in his early period. He was capable of painting some incredibly realistic artwork without a trace of abstraction. His creativity becomes evident in his shift from a realistic style of painting to a more abstract one. We all too frequently talk about innovation and balk at the idea of imitation. But I deeply appreciate Picasso’s wise words: “Imitating others is imperative, but it’s a sad thing when you’re always imitating yourself and dishing up the same old stuff.” These words inspire us to innovate. 


Everywhere in the world we can find things and people that we can learn from, that inspire us to grow and move forward. The Australian Open Final at the start of 2012 turned out to be the longest tennis match in history. In this competition, Nadal lost after nearly six hours of competition. He shared some very moving words after the end of the match: “In the sports arena, you constantly push your body to the limit. Call it a self-induced form of torment if you will, but it’s of the happy sort. It’s a fulfilment that extends far beyond the boundaries of the tennis court.” I think that Nadal makes an excellent point. Regardless of the actual task at hand, we ought to strive to enter into that state in which we give our all and through which – for better or for worse, to win or to lose – we experience exhilarating joy.     


I can hardly think of a more fitting way of explaining scientists and the path of sciencethan his words.





Source: China Science Daily (April 30, 2012)


(Andrew Yao is the dean of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Information Sciences at Tsinghua University and foreign memberof the Chinese Academy of Sciences)


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