Many years ago when I was a second-year grad student, I gave my very first conference presentation. The topic was a project that was not my main thesis topic, but a 'side' project that my advisor let me explore because it interested me. It was a simple, focused project using some new technology not previously available, and it easily set to rest a minor debate that had been unresolved owing to the lack of such data. It wasn't a big deal, but it was a nice introduction for me to research, writing, and conferences.
My advisor and I presented the work as a poster at a national meeting, and I found the experience very thrilling, as a parade of scientists, including many whose names I knew from reading their papers, visited my poster and chatted with me about the work. One particularly Famous Scientist stopped by the poster, said "I could have done this", and walked away. He walked away before I could reply, but my response would have been something like "No kidding".
Over the years, I had several more "I could have done that" encounters with this Famous Scientist. For one project that I did, he told me that he had thought about doing it for years but just hadn't had time. If he had the time, he would have done this project long before I did it. For a paper that I published, he wrote to me a long letter saying that he had not reviewed my paper, but if he had, he would have had the following comments [there followed a long list of comments]. The comments were mostly positive, as it turns out, and many were along the lines of "I knew that already" (even though most people didn't).
Based on this brief description, you may have concluded, as I did at the time, that this person is an obnoxious jerk. In fact, he is kind of obnoxious, but I have come to appreciate him in many way. His passion for science is not driven by an interest in being famous or in putting people down. He is curious about everything, he reads everything, and he has an opinion about everything. Although he terrifies many students, he loves discussing science with anyone and everyone, and is fascinating to talk to. The list of his undergraduate and graduate advisees who have had successful scientific careers is awesome.
During visits to my department, he has spent hours with my students discussing their research. He finds something interesting in even the most boring talk, and likes to spark discussions with creative questions and comments. He is a very interesting person.
Although I wouldn't have guessed it from his "I could have done that" comments over the years, he meant them as compliment in a weird kind of way. It is surely an egotistical way to some extent, but now that I know him better (and am no longer an anxious young grad student), I can get past that kind of thing and have some great conversations with him. He even recently suggested that we collaborate on a project. I couldn't help but wonder if that meant there was finally something I could do that he couldn't, or if he just didn't have time to do the entire project himself.. but mostly I think it would be fun to work with him.
My point is that although some of the obnoxious people I have described in this blog may be incurable jerks, some are more nuanced jerks, though it may take some time (age) and distance to be able to appreciate them.
5 months ago