Alan Heeger (Nobelist): Never Lose Your Nerve

Source: UCSB, Dec 2015

the book is an exhortation to embrace creativity, discovery and risk in the pursuit of one’s passions, whatever they may be.

“One must cherish creativity,” Heeger said. “One should be bold, audacious. Seek to discover. Go into a new area, into the unknown and look for something new. The excitement of that risk is part of the thrill of a life in science.”

“Science is difficult,” Heeger said. “Not so much because the concepts are difficult, though many people think they are, but because you have to be right. You can work very hard on a problem that turns out to be unimportant … but you don’t usually know ahead of time that something will turn out to be especially important and lead to important publications or even a Nobel prize. Your intuition is involved. Where does that come from?

“One way is to work with a great scientist, get some sense of how they think and how they approach a problem,” he continued. “What do they consider interesting? Then you begin to understand how to have an intuition whether something will work out to be of value.”

“Without passion success is impossible, in any field,” he said. “People perhaps will find it difficult to believe that scientists are passionate about their work. But passion for your work is critically important in any creative endeavor. Music, literature of course, and in science it’s really important. There are ups and downs. Not every day is a great discovery. Sometimes there are things you’re working on and you think you had it right, then realize you don’t. You have to have the passion to sustain you, to make you go forward.”

The theater also gave Heeger the title of his new book.

The Terrence McNally drama “Master Class,” about soprano Maria Callas, features a scene in which a student asks the famed vocalist, “Why did you stop singing? Did you lose your voice?”

Callas replies, “No, I did not lose my voice. I lost my nerve.”

“That line went into my head because it’s so real,” Heeger said. “Any creative endeavor involves taking risks. You must not lose your nerve or you won’t hit the high C. You must not lose your nerve or you won’t be able to write the next book. Whether it’s science or music or literature or anything, creative endeavors involve risk. That’s true in business, too. For companies and entrepreneurs to succeed they must succeed in taking risk. So, never lose your nerve.”

Related Resource: Possibiltieas, Oct 2014

one must continue to be optimistic about the future and take satisfaction from one’s accomplishments. One must take each day one at a time and seek to make each day meaningful and satisfying.

How do creativity, risk and discovery work together for a scientist?
People typically think of scientists as meticulous and focused, perhaps even boring. Many think that scientists do not tolerate risks. Although true for some scientists, those that are risk-averse are not the creative and productive scientific leaders. In fact, for me and for most scientists, risk-taking is part of our lives; we are “risk-addicted.” Every time we publish an article, we take on risk. We try to make certain that the data are correct, but it is impossible to be certain. We seriously try to give the correct interpretation of the data. But the very process of research involves pushing beyond what was previously known; that process involves taking risks. Of course, the more interesting the result the bigger the associated risk.

Interdisciplinary science is even more risky; the reason is fairly obvious. Educated as a physicist, I have a core of knowledge where I feel very comfortable. Each time I reach out beyond that core, I am exposing my ignorance. But reaching out into new directions involves learning new concepts and finding a way to meld those new concepts into what one had previously known. Exploring new directions is the first step toward creativity and discovery. And dealing with risk is absolutely essential: One must never lose one’s nerve! Additionally, scientific breakthroughs typically result from a combination of creativity and discovery. In science, creativity and discovery are related, but they are not the same.

With our discovery of semiconducting and metallic polymers, we created a new field of science at the boundary between Chemistry and Condensed Matter Physics.

Even after our initial discoveries were published, such an interdisciplinary endeavor was subject to the risk of being a “bastard child” that would not be accepted by either parent. In 1976, the creation of our truly interdisciplinary collaboration was bold and risky.

Any words of wisdom for young scientists who may be reading?
I work closely with each person individually. When they make a “discovery”—no matter how small—I carefully point out to them that this is indeed a discovery and they should cherish the memory. If you aspire to scientific accomplishments that could have sufficient impact to generate nominations and eventually to result in the award of a future Nobel Prize, I have the following advice:

  • Cherish creativity!
  • Be bold, and have the audacity to seek to discover!
  • Do not lose your nerve.
  • Remember that creativity and discovery necessarily involve risk. Dealing with that risk is part of the thrill and satisfaction of living a life in science.
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