03 August 2017

Review: Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

Hardcover, 150 pages
Published 1999 (originally 1897)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
Advice for a Young Investigator by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
There are highly cultivated, wonderfully endowed minds whose wills suffer from a particular form of lethargy [...]. When faced with a difficult problem, they feel an irresistible urge to formulate a theory rather than to question nature. As soon as they happen to notice a slight, half-hidden, analogy between two phenomena, or succeed in fitting some new data or other into the framework of a general theory—whether true or false—they dance for joy and genuinely believe that they are the most admirable of reformers. The method is legitimate in principle, but they abuse it by falling into the pit of viewing things from a single perspective. (84)
This book is a late-nineteenth-century Spanish guide on how to be an effective scientist, sometimes focusing on biological research, since that was Cajal's field, but probably broadly applicable. Cajal focuses on habits of mind, most of which we'd recognize today but some which might surprise us: independent judgment, concentration, patriotism, and originality are among them. He also has "diseases of the will," from which the above quotation is drawn-- contemplators, bibliophiles, megalomaniacs, instrument addicts, misfits, and theorists all make bad scientists if they don't reign in their inner selves. A lot of this is good advice, and expresses science in terms of ethics and of seeing, both of which I find interesting.

The explanation of how to go from observation to knowledge still holds up, too, as far as I know, and it contains some potent, but true, contradictions. While the discussion of theorists shows that you need to distrust your attachments and passions, something Cajal reiterates a lot-- at one point he says that your bad ideas are like a tumor! (122)-- you also need to be passionate to be successful, as a good scientist "should infuse the things we observe with the intensity of our emotions and with a deep sense of affinity. We should make them our own where the heart is concerned, as well as in an intellectual sense. Only then will they surrender their secrets to us, for enthusiasm heightens and refines our perception" (112). I think Cajal recognizes this paradox, though, because he eventually concludes that "Excessive self-esteem and pride deprive us of [...] the incomparable gratification of having improved and conquered ourselves; of refining and perfecting our cerebral machinery—the legacy of heredity. If conceit is ever excusable, it is when the will remodels or re-creates us, acting as if it were as a supreme critic" (122). Your will is strong, so you will want to maintain ideas you have had even when they are false, and thus the solution is to turn your will upon itself, and examine your own ideas with strong assurance of your own incorrectness!

The section on the material conditions of science is more idiosyncratic than what I've already addressed, particularly the section on family. According to Cajal, it's hard to do science and have a family, as "[a]nxieties at home drain moral and physical strength from the work of research" (98). He sort of goes back and forth on what to do about women in science (by which I mean, the effect women have on working scientists, as there's no room for women doing science in Cajal's world). On one hand, if you get married, women dominate your thoughts less (102), allowing you to finally stop distracting yourself, but on the other, the fact that "the moral qualities of the wife are a decisive factor in the success of scientific work" (102) means you have to be careful when selecting a wife. Your wife might turn you into a gold-seeker, rather than a truth-seeker, especially because "A woman loves tradition, adores privilege, pays little attention to justice, and is usually indifferent to all work related to change and progress. In contrast, a man truly worthy of the title Homo socialis loathes routine and privilege, reveres justice, and in many cases places the cause of humanity above the interests of his family" (103). Good research benefits all humankind, thus if you marry poorly, you may doom the whole future of the human race!

Cajal claims, "We could cite more than twenty young men with great talent and excellent training whose early attempts at research were shipwrecked on the shoals of matrimony. Currently, most of our best producers are unmarried, especially those in biology" (109n5). But a good wife "becomes a complementary mental organ, absorbed in the small things (if running a home and educating children can be regarded as small) so that the husband, free of anxiety, may occupy himself in the great things—in germinating and feeding his beloved discoveries and scientific hypotheses" (108). Yikes!

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