Thursday, September 22, 2005

Egos Needed

I've often heard that scientists have unusually big egos. I don't disagree, egos are a part of being a scientist, a great motivator for us. I still love that feeling when a paper gets accepted in a conference, when someone mentions my name in a research talk or a paper, or that rare moment when the popular press picks up on our research. Even that quiet feeling of self-satisfaction when you find your own solution to a difficult but already solved problem. That need to feed the ego keeps us producing results, trying to please our peers. For better or for worse, it keeps us from doing weird research that no one will understand or follow.

Use your ego for motivation but try to not let it affect your outward personality, difficult to do in a community of strong egos. Sometimes our community even rewards those whose brag about themselves, if they can do so convincingly.

Egos vary dramatically. There must be scientists out there who work purely for the love of science, but I have yet to meet one. And then there are those on the other end of the spectrum. Several years ago, Stephen Wolfram came to Chicago to introduce Mathematica 2 and said "First there was Euclid, then there was Gödel and then there was Mathematica."


  1. From my (limited but non-zero) experience, physical scientists --- especially experimentalists --- are more likely to be in it for the love of science, or for the love of tinkering with expensive/intricate/large machines. Also, the community is much larger in the physical sciences, making it that much less likely that someone will cite your paper, mention your name in a talk, etc.

  2. One can say the word "purely" in this post carefully avoids the debate. But I think for most scientists (at least the ones I've met), love of science is the most dominant motivation for their work. Of course, one can argue that loving something and wanting to do it is in a way satisfying one's ego. But the post doesn't seem to presume such an argument.

  3. I suspect that scientists with very big egos don't care that much about what their peers think. They will do whatever research they want.

  4. At first when I was reading this I thought "oh no, another quality of top researchers I don't have" and then I thought for a moment and decided "wait a minute, I think I can handle this one." In fact, I got the ego part covered!

  5. I'm sure science comes first. If ego did then they would be in another field such as show business.

  6. I am not so sure about this.

    To me seems perfectly possible for someone to be motivated more by the science than seeking the acclaim of peers.

    This doesn't mean they don't WANT recognition or embrace it, it may just not be their main reason.

    Now as to which type of scientist is more succesful or "better" I am not sure.

    Personally I think recognition is nice, but ideally you should love it for its own sake so even if no recognition is forth coming you are still having a good time.

    But then again YMMV...

  7. Use your ego for motivation but try to not let it affect your outward personality...

    IMHO the average "modest" person brags as much as your average "non-modest" person. The difference is in the delivery.

    The "modest" person tells you about his frequent sea-diving trips in a way that makes you think "wow, what an interesting person" while the non-modest person will convey pretty much the same information but somehow the tone and style will cause a reaction of "aw! what a show off".

  8. I think there are different kinds of "modesty." For example, there's also the reverse snobbery of when you ask someone where they went to school and they only say "Boston" then you can be sure they went to Harvard or MIT.

  9. How's this for modesty: I'd be willing to publish *everything* anonymously as long as my (future) department knows about it for my tenure. Though I guess I still need peer letters. Damn.

  10. "Love of science" seems to me to be a bit too abstract. I love the PROCESS of solving a problem and the satisfaction of having used some ingenuity to bring order to disorder. I think of this satisfaction as similar to that of solving cryptic crossword puzzles.

    But this satisfaction of solving puzzles would not be enough on its own. Unlike cryptic crosswords the result has to be meaningful. Some of the "ego" is simply that very general human desire to have our lives have some impact on the world, not to be forgotten. A mathematical theorem is an item of permanence and every citation or reference is a sign that our work is more likely to outlive us.

  11. It's like music or sports or anything else: ego is what motivates you to do it; enjoyment is what makes it possible to succeed.

  12. Well, I just checked Lance's appropriate blog entry. I was hoping to find evidence in the answers to Lance's question about researching on condition of anonymity, but the responses seemed varied. I have to conclude that researcher personalities are varied as well...

  13. I think this question is too confusing, can we really cleanly separate the "love of science" and the "ego" parts?

    I'd guess most scientists have multiple conflicting and complementary motivations:

    (1) You wouldn't be successful if you didn't enjoy it.

    (2) You wouldn't be human if you didn't have an ego.

    So I suppose in the end it doesn't really matter what your motivations are, the only important thing is what you do.

  14. I see this as a real problem. Some of the ego necessary to succeed in science might stem from learned behavior. Most people should be familiar with the psychology experiment where a test subject is placed in a room with actors who invariably convince the test subject that some plain piece of perception is wrong. Similar effects might be at work in the mentorship process.

    One thing that suprises me is the degree of anonymity and secrecy that exists within the area of peer reviewed publications. Why aren't referee's comments generally available for review? Many people acknowledge the contribution of anonymous referees, but wouldn't it be better to know who they are, and what contribution they made to the manuscript?

    On the topic of referee's comments, many a review consists of pithy remarks resembling nothing more than a cranky youngster. But, these are supposed to be objective scientists!

  15. I believe big egos are found less often in mathematics than in other areas of science. This is because, in mathematics, saying something loudly and confidently does not increase the likelihood of others believing it.