First one to publish

A follow-up thought on this morning’s conversation with a colleague. I don’t want to dedicate my life to being the first one to publish. Just like Tim Cook said yesterday: it means more to me to get it right than to be first. Or at least, that’s how I like to think. But if you are not careful, pressure from your friends, colleagues and collaborators will convince you that, just like in professional sport, if you don’t publish first, your work has no value. Thinking a lot about this lately…

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Surviving in science

“All the world’s a lab … and last, The Survivor” by Sydney Brenner:

Survival in science, and especially in biology, takes something more than having a working body. The most important thing you can do is to stay out of phase. As fashions rise and then fall and then often rise again, it is important to be either half a wavelength in front or half a wavelength behind them. It does not matter which you choose.


Continuous visibility leads to survival, or, to put it another way, a sustained impact factor is what you need. How to achieve this is the main preoccupation of most scientists today. They think you do it by publishing in impactful journals, or delivering lectures at prestigious meetings or being asked to speak at important universities. Furthermore, they think you achieve impact by being totally serious. They are wrong. The best way to survive in science, as in other walks of life, is to make people laugh, because laughter registers impact with the greatest efficiency.

Current Biology 2000, Vol 10, No 2, p. R45

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Take control of your life

The “Complete Theory of the Inverted Telephone Call” by Sydney Brenner:

As you know, when a telephone call is made its polarity is taken for granted; somebody is calling and somebody is receiving. How can this polarity be inverted? There is a simple form of inversion, well known to undergraduate students. You telephone your professor at 2 a.m. He answers, usually with burbling noises. You immediate say “Whom do you wish to speak to?” More noises — “What? what?” You then say “I’m sorry, you have the wrong number”, and you put the phone down, leaving them perplexed. For years I believed there was a complementary ploy, and in retirement I discovered it. When your telephone rings, you lift it and instantly say “May I please speak to Susie?” Usually there is a stunned silence but sometimes spluttering noises may be heard. You then say “I am terribly sorry, I must have the wrong number”, and immediate replace the receiver, leaving the caller confused and puzzled.

Current Biology 1995, Vol 5, No 6, p. 694

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Telephone directory

“If we are to understand how all of this works we will need something more than merely lists of components and binary interactions. As someone once remarked, the great difference between the telephone directory and a Shakespeare play is that, while both have a grand cast of characters, only the play has a plot.” – Sydney Brenner, 1994, “Loose ends” column, Current Biology, 4:188

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I think Science magazine has it completely backwards: instead of providing the super-old classic papers for free, it requires a special subscription and additional pile of money for access. It is absolutely appalling and I can’t believe we are letting them do it.

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Two types of people

When you ask someone for advice about a difficult thing they have done and you are about to embark upon, you realize that there’re substantially two types of people. The ones that tell you “get ready for hell” and basically discourage you from ever trying it. And the ones that inspire you to get on it because it’s hard but good and, whatever the outcome, you’ll get out of it with something new and exciting in your pocket. Here. Group of people #1? Shut up.

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Kenneth Rogoff

An excellent read:

“Being very good at anything involves being somewhat addicted – so part of my strategy of moving on was to give it up completely. I don’t play chess casually … Not unless it’s incredibly rude to decline playing.”

— Kenneth Rogoff

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