Kim Nasmyth on Scientific Discovery
  Kim Nasmyth     Biography    
Recorded: 20 May 2004

And I do remember that moment because I knew that, that morning Pierre [Thuriaux] had made a huge discovery. And one— I think you could spend many years in a lab and not experience a real discovery. So it was incredibly— I was very lucky within six months or a year of arriving in this lab somebody had made a huge discovery and one had experienced it first hand and you’d sort of tasted it and once you’d done that you knew— it raised the bar. You knew that that was the real thing and the rest of it was just sort of going through the motions and you just hoped that one day you’d just find yourself in that position yourself. But I think that was a very crucial moment for me. The moment when you suddenly realized well this is really what it’s about. The moment when you suddenly, you know everything was changed by that discovery. Yeah, I think it is a very different experience experiencing somebody else’s discovery and making a discovery yourself. I think when somebody else makes a discovery, even if its at a very early stage and it is not absolutely clear whether its a real discovery- you, I think you sort of give others the benefit of the doubt. You are more ready to realize that it’s a discovery than they are themselves because you can look at it and it is not associated with yourself. But I think when you personally make the discovery—this has certainly been my experience— whether it’s been me personally or more frequently people who worked with me with whom I am working very closely, then you’re so preoccupied with the possibility that this thing that could be a very important discovery is actually just a terrible artifact. And so I think that you then have— it may be weeks, it may be months, it may sometimes even be years until you can sort of relax and say “Yes it’s not an artifact its real and it really is important.” And I don’t know whether this is for other people but I think just for me personally the first reaction is “Gosh, this could be—this is terribly interesting.” And those things happen quite frequently and after a while you realize that it’s very easy to sort of enter into this world of self delusion and so you get quite good at being quite skeptical. And my first reaction actually is “gosh this could be very interesting but it’s probably just an artifact.” But if it’s real, it’s important and so it’s worth going after. That is you, on the one hand your first reaction’s got to be “well this could be an artifact” and do your best to find out that its not. On the other hand you’ve got to be sufficiently enthusiastic to say well it could be real and actually go after it. So and this is, I think, the one of the sort of central conundrums for scientists is you’ve got to have this sort of split personality that is on the one hand you’ve got to have this sort of manic, enthusiastic, optimistic, ‘This is it. We’re going to go for it,’ with all the possibilities of self delusion and going down the garden path and getting stuck on something that is an artifact. And then on the other hand you’ve got to combine that with this sort of analytical, skeptical ‘this is a load of garbage.’ You know, and I think that’s why it’s a very sort of unsettling, you know, you have to have the introvert, the extrovert, the manic, the depressive, you know, its a very different—very mixed e

Kim Nasmyth is the Head of the Biochemistry Department of the University of Oxford and the Whitley Professor of Biochemistry. He was educated in Great Britain and earned his Ph.D in Zoology from the University of Edinburgh. He did his postdoctoral studies in Ben Hall's labolatory in Seattle Washington. He spent one year at Cold spring Harbor Laboratories as a Robertson Fellow. He was the Director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna (Austria). He is one of the discoverer of cohesin, protein complex which during cell division is crucial for faithful chromosome segregation.

Professor Nasmyth is a fellow of the Royal Society and Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has received many scientific honours, including the Max Perutz Prize, the Louis Jeantet Prize for Medicine and the Wittgenstein Prize and the Unilever Science Prize.

More information: Wikipedia

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