Friday, August 27, 2010

Great Crazies

Most of the novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, takes place circa 1800. One of the characters, a doctor named Marinus, studied medicine in Uppsala, where he became a "disciple of the celebrated Professor Linnaeus".

Jacob de Zoet remarks that his uncle thought Linnaeus "one of the great men of our age".

Marinus replies:

"Great men are greatly complex beings. It's true that Linnaean taxonomy underlies botany, but he also taught also that swallows hibernate under lakes; that twelve-foot giants thump about Patagonia; and that the Hottentots are monorchids, possessing a single testicle. They have two. I looked."

Also according to Marinus, Linnaeus did not like disagreement (".. dissenters were heretics whose careers must be crushed.")

Yet Marinus recognizes that Linnaeus greatly influenced his career, and in particular his decision to eschew professorships and spend most of the rest of his life on a Dutch trading station in Nagasaki harbor. Marinus decides not to pursue a career as a professor because "professorships kill philosophers", a lesson he learned from Linneaus, although it is a lesson "of which he himself [Linnaeus] was unaware".

I don't know if any of that is based in fact or if Mitchell had it in for Linnaeus, but there are two interesting general issues here:

Some extremely smart people may be extremely good at one thing, and maybe only for a time, but other than that, they are crazy and/or wrong about most things.

That's a stereotype, but most of us have probably listened to a talk by a Great Name in our field, or had a conversation with one (or been advised by one..) and come away from the experience amazed that such a nutcase had ever done such important work. Few people are brilliant at everything for an entire career.

Does that detract from their (former) greatness? No, but sometimes I wish that some of the great crazies didn't keep getting invited to give talks, as if their new big ideas must be brilliant because their old big ideas were. Perhaps that is cynical and short-sighted of me. Some of the Great Ideas are not appreciated when first proposed and are thought to be wrong and crazy by those too narrow to understand. Yes, but.. the (perhaps fictional) depiction of Linnaeus does resonate.

Some mentors are actually anti-mentors, convincing their mentees (likely unintentionally) to do anything else but be like their supposed mentor.

Even if we are not one of the Great Ones but merely Pretty Good at what we do, and even if we are entirely well-meaning and do not attempt to crush dissenters (including students), a common response to those encountering us will always be "I don't want to be like you".

We are all anti-mentors in some way -- because we work long hours, because we are intense about obscure topics, because we are boring about obscure topics, because our jobs are stressful, and so on. There are many reasons why even we ordinary, non-Linnaean professors might inspire people to move to the other side of the world and take up a non-academic career, no matter what the century and no matter how benign (we think) we are.

I have never believed that the only route to happiness and success for my advisees is if they follow a career exactly like mine, but at the same time, it used to bother me a bit when someone was very explicit about saying "I do not want to be like you", especially if their reasons are unrelated to reality. Later, I realized that there isn't much difference between saying "I think I would find a different kind of career more rewarding" and "I would hate your life". Nowadays, such statements, no matter how directly stated, elicit only a "OK, whatever" from me.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

We are all anti-mentors to our students because we are old. Who wants to be become old?

If this Marinus existed, I suspect that Linnaeus carefully manipulated him precisely so that he would move to a far-off locale and spend the rest of his life sending specimens back to Linnaeus. (I am a big fan of Linnaeus, although he was one weird dude).

More importantly, FSP, are you recommending this book? Because I need some new non-scientific reading material. Is this a thumbs up or a thumbs down?

Anonymous said...

Would you recommend the book? I just finished Cloud Atlas and loved it.

Female Science Professor said...

It is not nearly as awesome as Cloud Atlas (or even Black Swan Green) but I'm glad I read it anyway.

Anonymous said...

I disagree, we do want to be like our mentors; we all want to have a great idea, get a job based on that idea, exhaust the idea to where we could care less about it, then just pick up our big paycheck from our tenure job and be lazy for the next 30 years by doing little work.

GMP said...

Great Crazies --> Grazies! :)

Anonymous said...

I can't wait to read this book; just ordered it and it's on its way.

Anonymous said...

I thought the book sucked.

Pat said...

Anti-mentors were invaluable to me. They caused me to think a lot more about what I wanted from life than mentors ever did. They also sparked far more useful discussion among the grad students.

However, when I had to work with them as colleagues my enthusiasm diminished significantly.

nisha said...

The posts so far have been great - hoping for some more.
mba