Keen curiosity as a common element

When I was completing my doctoral dissertation at the University of Virginia many years ago, a senior faculty member remarked to me one day, “There are two ways you can win a Nobel prize. You can leave your window open, as the Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming did in 1928, and let an enzyme float onto an exposed petrie dish, forming a mold, thus allowing you to discover penicillin. Or, you can spend your lifetime studying in minute detail a very small mechanism, as the Hungarian biophysicist, Georg Von Bekesy, did by devoting his professional career to understanding the workings of the human inner ear.” (Bekesy, born 1899, moved to the United States in 1947 to accept an appointment at Harvard. In 1962 he was elected to the Leopoldina. His prize was awarded in 1961, when he was a naturalized U.S. citizen.)

The lesson from my mentor seemed to be you can just be lucky, like Fleming, or you can be a meticulous single-minded hard worker, like Bekesy. The deeper lesson is that there are many paths to discovery, but the common element is keen curiosity. Science requires freedom to follow your curiosity wherever it may lead you, and to welcome surprise. The famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner said it this way: “If you see something interesting, drop whatever else you are doing and figure it out.”

Good science requires rules to assure objectivity; it requires others to replicate what you find; and it requires controls to maximize clarity. In the end, science is the antidote to superstition, dogma, and illusion. Science is the key to growth in human understanding, and the surest road to human progress and civilization.

Productive science is the mission of the DFG. Congratulations on continuing the good work.

Daniel Fellon
Professor Emeritus of Psychology
Professor Emeritus of Public Policy
University of Maryland at College Park, USA

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