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Are You Working too Hard?

March 6, 2012

Uri Alon is a very influential Weizmann Professor studying Molecular Cell Biology and Physics of Complex Systems and also a friend. His research deserves many superlatives but I am not qualified to give them. I’d like to point to a talk he gave a few years ago at the Harvard theory lunch (mind you, its theory but not CS theory): Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV (the rest of the talk is less relevant to this post).

The talk deals with the practice of science and its starting point is the novel notion that science is done by scientists (!!) The thesis is that “Adding discussion in our profession of the subjective aspects in science will greatly improve our well being and the quality of our science.” I truly believe in this thesis, and have tried to implement it along the years with my immediate surroundings. This is also why from time to time you can expect such non-technical posts. Uri suggests that we (the scientific community) discuss many related aspects: human relations, mentoring (and nurturing), suffering of (mainly junior) scientists, how to choose our scientific problems, goals and values. Then Uri focuses on the question: “why do scientists work SO many hours”? Uri argues that working too hard is counterproductive even if all we care about is the science. We can argue about the details, but I think there is a lot to this statement (and I have examples from my own research as well as others). For this reason, I pointed this talk in the past to colleagues who were “postponing their life” till graduation, till getting a tenure-track position, till getting tenure, etc. (By the way, while tenure is very important to individuals and to academia as a whole, I did not encounter too many tenured professors that are spending their days windsurfing on the beach.)

In any case, I promised myself not to work too hard on this post, so this is all for now … 🙂

6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 5:57 pm

    Thanks Omer, this was a useful reminder. I have corresponded with Uri Alon about his enjoyable talks in the past. He does seem to be a Mensch.

    • omereingold permalink
      March 6, 2012 6:00 pm

      Thanks Aravind, and indeed he is!

  2. rinapy permalink
    March 6, 2012 6:01 pm

    He is bang on the nail! Its almost fashionable in our society to be busy. May be we are better off reflecting more on the what we are looking for and on the expected consequence of our work. May be we should spend more time talking to people very different from ourselves so that we don’t get lost into some very biased viewpoint.

  3. omereingold permalink
    March 6, 2012 10:36 pm

    It has been pointed out to me that Uri’s lab page http://www.weizmann.ac.il/mcb/UriAlon/ has “More Materials for Nurturing Scientists” and a paper on choosing a good scientific problem.

  4. jagger permalink
    March 15, 2012 12:22 am

    Omer, this is such a great point. And, BTW, rinapy is so damn right!

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