The best scientist I know

Joe Palca asked me on Twitter this morning,1

Who is the best scientist you know, and what qualities make her/him the best?

I had to think a moment about this. I'm sure many people who love science have a favorite historical scientist. My shortlist is mostly crystallographers: Kathleen Lonsdale, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, the Braggs (Sr. and Jr.), Linus Pauling,2 and I am amused by the story of Alessandro Volta, who was such a great practitioner of the scientific method, that he felt the need to zap himself with his electro-motive apparatus over and over again on various parts of the body "where the skin is very delicate" to make sure it really worked.3

Who is the best scientist you know? It's a simple enough question, but it can be interpreted in several ways. For one, what sense of "know" are we considering?

  • Who is the best scientist you know of?
  • Who is the best scientist you have seen (at a conference, seminar, etc.)?
  • Who is the best scientist you have met?
  • Who is the best scientist who knows your name in return?
  • Who is the best scientist you know personally?

Then we should consider what we mean by "best scientist"? The follow-up question (what qualities…?) allows us to define our own criteria for best, but who gets to be a scientist? Must we consider only professional scientists?

Because this question has so many variations, I have several answers. Here are two scientists I aspire to be more like.

W.E. Moerner is one of the best scientists I know. I have heard him speak on a few occasions, and I have read a fair number of his papers. My advisor was a postdoctoral fellow in his laboratory, and from comments she has made over the course of my PhD, I believe that experience has significantly influenced her approach to science and advising.

Dr. Moerner gave a seminar at UM once, and I was among the students and post-docs who ate lunch with him. We had sandwiches and chips in the Biophysics conference room, and he chatted with each and all of us about a variety of topics. Someone asked him about his work with Kador on single-molecule spectroscopy, and he jumped up to the white board and started sketching out diagrams and explaining the story. He did so clearly and carefully, and seemed to have all the patience in the world when someone didn't understand. He has a reputation for being brilliant, and that made me a bit intimidated at first, but that feeling wore off quickly. He was approachable and just plain excited to tell us about the neat things he'd learned. And he didn't just talk to us, he conversed with us.

Krishanthi Karunatilaka is one of the best scientists I know personally. She was a post-doc in our lab until last fall. She is absolutely meticulous; I have some real notebook-envy for her tidy, organized notes in clear and even handwriting. She is driven and dedicated without any of the pushiness that I have come to associate with those terms. She has worked some long, hard days because she wants to know the answers to the questions she has. She also finds balance. I know that her Saturday mornings in Ann Arbor were set aside for a peaceful cup of coffee on her apartment balcony. She doesn't get knocked down by failures. If an experiment doesn't work (or gives unexpected answers), she has another idea, she keeps rolling on. When someone else is struggling, she's the first person to say "Don't worry, you can try something else. Keep going." She has a talent for presenting even brand-new data in a way that makes it sound like she's considered their implications for weeks.

Other names come to mind as well,4 but you'd find they follow the same pattern: the best scientists I know do good, thoughtful, careful scientific work, and are also excellent teachers, communicators, and just generally nice people.

So those are my "best scientists." Who are the best scientists you know? What makes them the best?

1: I admit, I had a complete fan-girl moment.

2: I admire Marie Curie, too, but she is used so often as The Token Female Scientist, that I think of the words of Mr. Bennet: “That will do extremely well… You have delighted us long enough. Let the other young ladies have time to exhibit.”

3: From Volta's letter to the Royal Society:

If, by means of an ample contact of the hand (well moistened) I establish on one side a good communication with one of the extremities of my electro-motive apparatus … and on the other I apply the forehead, eye-lid, tip of the nose, also well moistened, or any other part of the body where the skin is very delicate: if I apply, I say, with a little pressure, any one of these delicate parts, well moistened, to the point of a metallic wire, communicating properly with the other extremity of the said apparatus, I experience, at the moment that the conducting circle is completed, at the place of the skin touched, and a little beyond it, a blow and a prick, which suddenly passes, and is repeated as many times as the circle is interrupted and restored.

4: For example, my introduction to Jenny Glusker was similar in many respects to my lunch with Dr. Moerner.

Victor DiRita, a collaborator and dissertation committee member of mine, is another one of the best scientists I know. He teaches me something every time time we meet, even if only for a few minutes.

The best amateur scientist I know is probably my uncle Tom, for lots of the same reasons. He is also the only person I know who gets really excited about moss.