The groupies of science

A friend sent me this Stanford Daily article about the strange tale of Elizabeth Okazaki, who

[f]or the last four years … has attended graduate physics seminars, used the offices reserved for doctoral and post-doctoral physics students and for all intents and purposes made the Varian Physics Lab her home. The only problem is that Okazaki appears to have no affiliation with Stanford and, according to physics professors and students, no real reason to be there.

The article quotes two people I know: Lenny Susskind (“as far as I can tell, she has a very limited knowledge of physics itself”) and Alessandro Tomasiello (“I feel really bad for her … I don’t want to have a conversation with her that will actually hurt her”). From both the article and the many impassioned comments, it’s clear that opinions in the physics department were mixed. Of course, by now Stanford has predictably reacted by banning Okazaki from campus.

Here’s the thing: while Okazaki is admittedly an extreme case, she reminds me of people I’ve known throughout my academic career. These are the groupies of science: those non-scientists who, for one reason or another, choose to build their whole social lives around science and scientists. When asked about their “research,” such people usually mention some vague interdisciplinary project that never seems to come to fruition.

After long deliberation, I’ve reached the following conclusion: generally speaking, SCIENCE NEEDS MORE GROUPIES, NOT LESS.

And no, not just for the obvious reason. At their best, groupies perform a vital role in the socially-impoverished scientific ecosystem, by serving as the conveyors of gossip, the organizers of parties, the dispensers of advice, and the matchmakers of lonely nerds with eligible humanists.

Furthermore, science needs a freewheeling culture to function, a point that seems lost on many of the Stanford Daily commenters. There we find enraged alumni wondering how anyone could possibly get away with this, and declaring that they certainly won’t be sending their kids to any school that tolerates such inanity. We find bigots comparing Okazaki to the Virginia Tech shooter Cho Seung-Hui (the common thread being, apparently, that both of them are Asian). And we find people asking rhetorically whether any corporation or government agency would tolerate a freeloader hanging around its offices for years. (My answer: probably not, and that’s one reason why I’m happy not to work at such places!)

On the other hand, we also find commenters denouncing the spoiled bourgeoisie capitalists at Stanford, who would deny a poor homeless woman the right to sleep in their physics building. Unless the critics are Mother Teresas themselves, that doesn’t seem fair to me either.

I have no desire to pass judgment on someone I’ve never met; any decision on Okazaki ought to rest with the people who actually work in Varian and know the specifics of her case. But I’d like to offer a general suggestion to any department that finds itself in a similar situation in the future: unless the groupie is insane or incompetent, find her some low-paying job as a lab assistant or “social programming director” or something like that. When we discover a stowaway on the great Ship of Science, why throw her overboard when we could make her swab the decks?

Update (6/6): Peter Woit now has his own post on this affair, with several entertaining comments. I’m skeptical of the idea that Okazaki had no real interest in science or scientists and only wanted free digs. Even in the insane housing market of Palo Alto, surely there must be ways to get a roof over your head that don’t require sitting in on theoretical physics seminars?

I also found the following comment priceless:

I think Scott Aaronson’s opinion is quite shallow … Scott wants groupies, and he wants to hire them to “swab the decks”. Only someone who thinks he is so special he should have serfs to serve him would think that way. College Professors already have a bunch of poorly paid workers(graduate students) who write papers for them. Do these aristocrats need an additional class of poorly paid servants

It always amuses me when those looking for an “elite” to rail against pick people who strive for a decade against staggering odds to have ideas that no one in the history of the world ever had before, in order that they might possibly qualify for a stressful, ~90-hour-a-week job offering the same money, power, and prestige that would accrue automatically to a mid-level insurance salesman.

68 Responses to “The groupies of science”

  1. Pedro Pinheiro Says:

    As a non-scientist and not remotely having anything resembling a scientific academic background, and being a curious person regarding most things, I’ve met people in science between two extremes – on one end, the ones that won’t even talk with someone outside their general field; on the other extreme, extremely nice people that will graciously concede to the size of our collective ignorance, and are glad to shed some light on my personal ignorance. I agree with Scott – don’t throw us, the “…stowaway[s] on the great Ship of Science…” overboard – as long as we are peaceful and don’t take too much of your time! :-)

  2. Simon Says:

    I would think that not even properly enrolled graduate students are allowed to live in the lab, sleep in offices etc. So it’s not particularly harsh to kick her out. But, as Scott says, if there is some useful function that she could perform in the department, why not employ her to do it? This story reminds me of an undergraduate in a department in which I used to work – it was rumoured that he had never actually been accepted for the course, but just attended so many classes that eventually it was assumed that his name had been erroneously omitted from the class lists, and so he was added. As far as I remember he was extremely weak and failed at the end of the year, which tends to confirm the idea that he should not have been there in the first place. I think there is also an episode of Seinfeld in which a character attends regularly at a company even though he is not employed there.

  3. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    When I was an undergrad in Ireland there used to be a homeless man that would spend his days in the building that housed the science lecture theaters. He didn’t actual live there, since I’d seen him waiting for the doors to be unlocked early in the morning, but he was a regular fixture there. There was a rumor going round that he had saved a student from drowning in the lake some years previously, so the staff all just turned a blind eye. He didn’t cause any trouble, and I’m not sure the building would have had much character without him there.

  4. Scott Says:

    I would think that not even properly enrolled graduate students are allowed to live in the lab, sleep in offices etc.

    Oops! Someone at Berkeley probably should’ve told me that. :-)

  5. Hernan M Says:

    I completely agree. Very original pov by the way…

  6. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    unless the groupie is insane or incompetent

    That’s indeed what the article suggests: that she would be incompetent as an employee. And that she’s not all that honest. Arguably the physics department has had your inclusive attitude from the beginning, but their patience ran out.

  7. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    I would think that not even properly enrolled graduate students are allowed to live in the lab, sleep in offices etc.

    I hope this is not true! And what about faculty? If they want can they do it?

  8. anonymous Says:

    “She said that she wanted to date physics students,” he said, “because they could fix the washing machine when it broke.”

    Scott, would you go so far as to repair washing machines to keep groupies around?

  9. Not Even Wrong » Blog Archive » Imposter String Theorist at Stanford Says:

    [...] For another perspective on this, see Scott Aaronson’s posting on The Groupies of Science, where he makes the point that “Science Needs More Groupies, Not Less”, and argues that: [...]

  10. HN Says:

    Unless the critics are Mother Teresas themselves, that doesn’t seem fair to me either.

    Scott, if what they say is logical and/or correct, why does it matter how moral they are? (Suppose Clinton is accusing Bush of lying …)

  11. Warren Says:

    Everybody sleeps in seminars.

  12. Bram Cohen Says:

    It’s probably a lot cooler to have rock star groupies than science groupies.

    The vast majority of the money Mother Theresa collected went to the catholic church, by the way. Apparently very little went to hospitals, and the quality of care in the hospitals it did go to was quite poor.

  13. seth Says:

    Is this like a trend at Stanford or something? Just saying.

  14. wolfgang Says:

    > There we find enraged alumni wondering how anyone could possibly get away with this

    Perhaps they should ask Marilee Jones, formerly at MIT.

  15. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    I think groupies as defined and mentioned by Scott are needed but what Stanford claimed to do was filter out an imposter. What’s surprising is they needed four years to discover her imposture.

  16. anonymous Says:

    There was a math groupie in my class when I took Calculus in first year. She was an older lady who attended all the lectures and tutorials and often sat near me. One day I struck up a conversation. She wasn’t enrolled, but she said she wanted to learn more about math after discovering a hidden pattern in the works of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and some other poets. Apparently she had discovered that their work had something to do with the golden ratio. She suspected that they were all members of the same secret society. Sasic Calculus might help her investigation, she said. I was a bit shocked, but I smiled and said nothing. She seemed very nice, but her questions to the TA made it clear that she didn’t understand much of what was going on. Harmless enough, but she took up valuable tutorial time with her questions.

  17. anonymous Says:

    “sasic” should be “basic” in the above comment…

  18. Scott Says:

    Scott, would you go so far as to repair washing machines to keep groupies around?

    No.

  19. Scott Says:

    The vast majority of the money Mother Theresa collected went to the catholic church, by the way. Apparently very little went to hospitals, and the quality of care in the hospitals it did go to was quite poor.

    Yeah, I was using “Mother Teresa” as just a colloquial symbol for self-abnegation (maybe I meant mother teresa?). I agree with you, and with Christopher Hitchens, that the actual person wasn’t nearly as blameless as the icon.

  20. anon Says:

    Wasn’t there a “quantum computation groupie” hanging around at STOC/FOCS until a few years ago?

  21. Scott Says:

    Scott, if what they say is logical and/or correct, why does it matter how moral they are?

    HN: Excellent question! Personally, I would hold that moral accusations belong to a different “universe of discourse” (or something like that) than assertions of fact. For the former, unlike the latter, the moral qualities of the person making the accusation can indeed be relevant to assessing it. Nobody likes a hypocrite.

    Any real philosophers care to weigh in? :-)

  22. Scott Says:

    Arguably the physics department has had your inclusive attitude from the beginning, but their patience ran out.

    Yeah — as I said, I don’t want to judge without knowing all the facts, but that is indeed the impression one would get from the article.

  23. Koray Says:

    Scott, I’m going to disagree with you regarding groupies. Rock star groupies can at least appreciate the music. How is a total outsider going to be able to spread gossip about your work if she can’t even spell the title out right from memory?

    Given how easily nerds are pissed off by people that don’t understand them, I doubt they’ll be able to act like a social glue. I don’t deny the other benefits, though. I also don’t think we have the kind of money that draws groupies.

  24. Scott Says:

    Koray, the gossip I had in mind was less about research than about researchers. And I wasn’t talking about the ease of collecting science groupies, only about its desirability. :-)

  25. spacekendra Says:

    Great post.

    We didn’t have any lab groupies in my program (well, that I know of!), but we had social groupies…those people who studied English or Psych and only dated physicists. I always wondered about them. But they were cool.

    Science groupies may not stand out as much as rock star groupies, but I think there are quite a few out there. Who hasn’t run into at least one fellow passenger on a plane that wants to talk string theory the whole flight? Even if they don’t fully understand the research or math, I think it’s huge that they appreciate and wonder about it and we should definitely encouage that.

  26. Cotton Seed Says:

    There is evidently a tradition of homeless people who show up to Harvard math classes. Supposedly they ask questions sufficiently ambiguous to leave in doubt if they have any idea what is going on. I was invited to sit in on a math class recently, and the running joke was that I’d be mistaken for another homeless guy.

    So, Scott, what’s the deal? Have you decided to move to Cambridge yet?

  27. Scott Says:

    So, Scott, what’s the deal? Have you decided to move to Cambridge yet?

    A few more days, my friend, a few more days.

  28. Dave Bacon Says:

    A few more days, my friend, a few more days.

    Hey, that’s an improvement on “mu”.

    BTW your update made me laugh considering that you (1) aren’t a college professor (yet), and (2) don’t have a cauldron of grad students slaving away for you (yet).

  29. Ron Says:

    I hope these two incidents back to back (Elizabeth Okazaki and Azia Kim) don’t create a backlash to make Stanford a less trusting and open community. I did my undergraduate there in physics, stopping out every other six months to work my way through school. Their policies were very student-friendly: one could leave at any time and return at any time, no questions asked. While working, I still spent a fair bit of time on campus between being enrolled. It is easy to see how Okazaki and Kim were able to take advantage of the situation. I’ve done so myself in other circumstances. Stanford’s trust and respect for its students are a good thing.

    SCIENCE NEEDS MORE GROUPIES, NOT LESS.
    Absolutely! Where do I sign up?

  30. Nick Ernst Says:

    Koray, science groupies can appreciate all sorts of concepts, as the plethora of pop science books goes to show. Much like the true Rock Star, the Physicist understands those concepts at a deeper level than the fan. As an example, it’s the beauty of concepts in physics that motivate artists to create beautiful renditions of phenomena you see in pop and text books!

  31. Scott Says:

    BTW your update made me laugh considering that you (1) aren’t a college professor (yet), and (2) don’t have a cauldron of grad students slaving away for you (yet).

    I was waiting for someone to point that out…

  32. Jon Says:

    Scott, do you really work 90 hours a week (on average!)?

  33. Scott Says:

    Sure: in a typical week, I’ll put in at least 2 hours of work and at least 88 hours of attempted work.

  34. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    What would you mean by attempted work?

  35. Scott Says:

    That which involves sitting at a computer but produces no useful output.

  36. Tyler DiPietro Says:

    I guess I was science-groupie in my teens. Like a lot of socially-maladjusted and smart teenagers, I passed most of the time others devoted to fun and partying to reading popular science books and magazines and discussing such subject-matter on internet BB’s. And while my ultimate career-trajectory is up in the air, I’d imagine most prospective scientists are in the same situation at that age.

    That’s one other aspect of this that often gets looked over, i.e., science groupies can eventually, given sufficient motivation, become valuable contributors to the landscape. Either by being science journalists, external observers in other disciplines (law, literature, art, philosophy, etc.), or generally people who promote the status of science in the public discourse (where I’d put Christopher Hitchens lately). And if you get em’ early enough, there’s no reason they can’t become scientists themselves.

  37. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    That which involves sitting at a computer but produces no useful output.
    Is it because of the difficulty of the problems you are trying to solve or is it because you just are not focused?

  38. Anonymous Says:

    I’d really prefer a different term from “science groupies”. The problem is that “groupies” has sexual overtones (it makes me think of female fans who want to sleep with the band), which feels problematic in a heavily male profession. It’s clear from the discussion that the term is being used much more broadly, with no sexist intent, but it still has the potential for misunderstandings.

  39. Anonymous Says:

    Regarding working huge numbers of hours:

    (1) It’s a macho thing for scientists to overestimate their work loads. Everybody works a lot, and some people work a huge amount, but practically nobody works as many hours as they claim. (Except for the rare scientists who instead adopt a pose of effortless productivity, and claim to have spent the weekend goofing off when they were actually in the lab.) One typical scenario is thinking of the maximum number of hours you’ve ever worked as your standard, and ignoring the fact that most weeks fall short of this figure.

    (2) There’s no principled way to specify how many hours a researcher works. If you idly daydream about mathematics while in the shower, does that count as work? What about reading blogs in your field? Chatting about recent papers? All of these can be very useful, but they aren’t what most non-scientists envision when they hear about someone working 90 hours a week. This gives a good way to inflate your working hours.

    I don’t mean any of this as criticism of Scott (I do exactly the same things).

  40. Mikael Johansson Says:

    More comments on workloads:

    The main difference I have noticed between my previous computer programming job and my current grad student position is that the de facto workload has gone up to insane amounts.

    And, when I say this, I do this recognizing one important bit: At my programming job, I would actually -leave- the job. When I went from the office, I stopped thinking about the problems I had, waiting till the next day with them. Right now, I -always- think about the current problems. And it is not at all seldom that I go back out of bed in the middle of the night to quickly type down an idea in an email to myself, so as to preserve it for later checking.

    That said, both research and many computer science related non-research jobs have working modes that are pretty non-obvious when you watch them from afar.

  41. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    Though Scott might not repair washing machines to keep
    groupies around, I suspect that he would repair Turing
    machines.

    Are science fiction authors a kind of “science
    groupies”? Science fiction readers? People who
    subscribe to Scientific American? People who blog
    about science? People who watched “A Beautiful Mind”
    or “Goodwill Hunting” or “A Brief History of Time” or
    the hit CBS-TV show “NUMB3RS?” People who attend
    lectures for the free coffee and cookies beforehand?

    Some “science groupies” — a small fraction, but not
    zero — become productive scientists. The outstanding
    examples include Fritz Zwicky.

    There is an overlap between “science groupies” and
    crackpots. Howveer, it can be NP to distinguish
    these. One generation’s crackpots includes the next
    generation’s pioneers of the paradigm. Crackpots know
    this.

    Living 5 miles from the Caltech campus, where I earned
    my first degrees, I visit campus at least once a week,
    attending seminars, chatting with professors,
    students, staff. Since I am not currently a professor
    (have been, in 2 fields) — does that make me a
    groupie?

    Secretaries at Caltech, especially Math and Physics
    are trained to handle crackpots who walk in with
    manuscripts on proving Einstein wrong, squaring the
    circle, classifying solutions of Fermat’s Last
    Theorem, and the like. The secretaries tell me that
    the crackpots sometimes explain that they hope, by
    dropping off their manuscripts, to instantly become
    professors, when their genius is recognized, a la
    Ramanujan.

    Is any nonscientist who dates a scientist actually a
    science groupie? How do you know that?

    The last time that I saw people living in a dorm who
    were not students, they turned out to be a pair of
    rogue cops doing an unauthorized undercover
    recreational drug sting, and busted an essentially
    innocent senior the day before he graduated, having
    had to have his parents, just arrived in town for the
    ceremony, bail him out of jail.

    Which reminds me. Tomorrow is the simultaneous Caltech Presidential Inauguration and graduation, with Jared Diamond as commencement speaker. Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau, who has served as Caltech’s president since September 1, 2006, will be inaugurated in a simple ceremony at the start of Caltech’s 113th annual commencement on June 8. This bucks the tradition of university presidential inaugurations that involve a week of lectures and dinners, capped off with a large inauguration ceremony. Chameau felt his inaugural should reflect his priorities. Within the audience, how many of the people should one characterize as groupies?

    Groupies? Drugs, sex, rock & roll, and quanta.

  42. Jon Says:

    90 hours per week is almost 13 hours per day.

    Most research scientists (without kids) probably get up no earlier than 8. (With kids, they may get up earlier but I’d be surprised if they can be productive before 8.) Ignoring time for eating and showering (no comments, please), blog posting/reading, and – gasp! – having fun, this means working from 8AM – 9PM every day, including weekends. Come on…

  43. Jon Says:

    PS: I’m referring to an *average* week here. I could imagine someone working 13-hour days the week of a deadline. (Even then, doing this for 7 days straight seems unlikely…)

  44. Mark Says:

    Scott,

    If you only get 2 productive hours out of 88, maybe you’re doing something wrong. (Or maybe you were joking?) Also, how many of those 90 hours are spent responding to blog comments ;)

    Actually, though, I’m curious, as I’m toying with the idea of grad school. Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?

  45. Joe Fitzsimons Says:

    2 hours out of 90 actually doesn’t sound all that far off to me. If your work is theoretical it can be very easy to get distracted look at an approach to a problem that doesn’t pan out, or because you get sidetracked by some interesting tangent.

    As regards working hours, while 90 seems a little high for an average week, a lot of people do end up working late at night and over the weekends. There is almost no avoiding it if you have a heavy teaching load on top of your research. I spend the hours between about 7pm and 1am preparing for the next days classes at the moment. If I let it cut into my research time then I’d never get anything done.

    That said, I’m pretty low down on the pecking order.

  46. Claire Mathieu Says:

    The other weekend my kids asked me what we were going to do on Saturday. I answered:
    - “Whatever you’d like. I’m done with my work.”
    - “What do you mean?? You don’t have any work to do???”
    - “No, it’s not that. I don’t need to work tomorrow, but of course I have work to do.”
    They laughed, relieved to hear that everything was normal. They had never, in their whole life, seen me without something on my list of things to do. The idea of me being “done” with my work was a foreign concept.

  47. Claire Mathieu Says:

    Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?

    I don’t think it’s the number of hours that counts so much as the focus. If you’re ready to have your life revolve around your field of interest. If you can imagine getting up eager to go to work in the morning, and leaving your office or lab reluctantly in the evening, most days. If you look forward to the end of vacation so that you can get back to your lab work. If you choose to have, by taste, your leisure activities and waiting room magazine desultory readings are still somehow connected to your research area. If you get so excited when you learn about new ideas that you try to tell your parents about it at Thanksgiving dinner. If your brain spends its free cycles mulling over questions related to your work. Then I think that you are likely to be successful. This does not necessarily involve more than 50 hours of work per week: it only means that all of your energy is focused on your work.

  48. Anonymous Says:

    Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?

    What counts as successful? There’s little chance of becoming a famous researcher without truly intense effort, but that’s not a realistic goal for most people no matter how hard they work. If by a “mildly successful academic” you mean a tenured professor at a school you’d heard of before your job search, with good teaching and a solid research track record in a worthwhile but not hot area, then yes, it can definitely be done if you consistently put in 50 hours a week and have some talent. (At least in CS, where it’s relatively easy to get an academic job. In the humanities, you can’t count on ever getting a tenure-track job.) If you want tenure at a school that will actually impress your friends and relatives, then that’s iffier. Few people are so talented that they can count on getting a prestigious job without extreme effort.

  49. Anonymous Says:

    Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?

    I’ll second what #48 said.

    In fact, I know of one very successful academic who has many kids and works less than 40 hours a week. His secret: when he’s at work, he works. No email, blogs, unproductive chatting with colleagues, long coffee breaks, etc., etc.

  50. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    Scott please now reveal your secret of success:)

  51. Jonathan Jones Says:

    Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?

    I discovered a long time ago that I couldn’t do more than about 20 hours a week of genuinely productive thinking based research. Even with heavy teaching and admin loads that fits easily into a 50 hour week. I’ll let you judge whether or not I’ve been successful for yourself!

    Academics who work insane hours are usually empire building rather than doing research themselves. It takes a lot of time to fund and manage a large research group, but that’s not the same as doing good work. And it’s nowhere near as much fun.

  52. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    “Is it possible for a talented individual to be even a mildly successful academic at, say, 50 hours a week?”

    (1) I believe that, with rare exceptions, it takes 10,000 hours of intense study and practice to become professionally proficent at anything. That’s 10^4 hours to learn to play a musical instrument, or have the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in Math or a science, or to write short stories that an editor will buy. Ray Bradbury advises writing a million words of fiction (word = 6 alphanumeric characters including spaces) and throwing them away, before submitting anything.

    (2) After that plateau is achieved, there are bifurcations, as the mental evolution, the problem space, the solution space, and the competitive landscape are strangely and irregularly presented. Stephen Hawking seemed to be a typical grad student, until he received a death sentence, and then he broke from the pack and learned everything he needed, learned it utterly, and took it further than anyone else. Consider the Hungarian Mafia at Los Alamos. It was not about hours spent working, though they all spent long hours.

    (3) Talent is neither necessary nor sufficient. We have all seen people in professionally responsible positions who manifestly do NOT have the requiste talent. “You’re doin’ a heck of a job, Brownie.” Nor will talent obtain the employment desired, as that takes connections, social skills (specifically sophisticated interview methodology), patience, and luck. In Japan, the typical postdoc is stuck there 10 years before getting a faculty position.

    (4) Exceptions to all this. Mozart was apparently born a composer, as if musical in the womb. Feynman did not spend even close to 50 hours a week working. It seemed to me that he spent almost every waking hour playing, and perhaps 10 hours a week writing papers, reviewing papers, counseling grad students or postdocs. But that was Feynman, a singularity. Ramanujan was a singularity. Newton. Gauss. Euler. Turing. Terry Tao.

    (5) It’s not about hours, after your first 10^4. It’s how you apply the discipline to pick the right problem, and focus on it with laser intensity until the problem is solved.

    (6) I asked Linus Pauling how he came up with so many good ideas, as other Nobel Laureates credited him. He answered in a way that I though was a glib soundbite, whose depths I now appreciate:

    (a) Learn how to have a lot of ideas;

    (b) Learn how to be very good at telling the good ones from the bad ones.

  53. anonymous Says:

    ” Feynman did not spend even close to 50 hours a week working.”

    I know you knew him personally, but did you know him when he was an undergraduate? There’s a letter that he wrote to his mother in which he tells her about the olympian schedule of studying that he was enforcing rigidly on himself. Hours and hours, every single day. Not to mention that he spent much of his spare time in this way even before he was an undergrad.

    Gauss, Newton and Euler were all geniuses, but they were also drudges, especially Newton.

  54. Martin Says:

    “SCIENCE NEEDS MORE GROUPIES, NOT LESS. And no, not just for the obvious reason. At their best [...] matchmakers of lonely nerds with eligible humanists.”

    Wasn’t that the obvious reason?

  55. Anonymous Says:

    I believe Feynman was one of those scientists who like to show off by pretending never to have worked very hard (although I never met him). When he did work hard, he didn’t want everyone to know it, and it’s true that later in life he didn’t work as hard as he had in his youth. Even if he didn’t spent a lot of time sitting at a desk, I bet he spent a lot of time thinking intensely.

    I disagree with Vos Post’s theory about the number of hours not counting much once proficiency has been achieved. He’s right that putting in misguided or inefficient hours won’t help much, so hard work is not sufficient for success, but nevertheless hard work plays a huge role in most great achievements.

    Terry Tao is a good example (and someone I do know personally). He’s one of the most talented mathematicians in the world, but he’s not without a lot of competition in that respect. Part of what makes him special is how incredibly hard he works: heck, even writing the lengthy expositions on his blog must take quite a while, and this is just a small part of what he manages to get done.

    Big talent gaps, where one person is far more naturally talented in some area than anyone else, just don’t seem to occur. I’m skeptical that they ever happen, and if they do they are extremely rare. As the level of talent increases, the raw talent gaps get smaller. Actual achievements (as opposed to raw talent) can have huge gaps, though, for several reasons: luck plays a big role, it’s easy to derail a career and hard to undo it, success feeds on itself, and how hard people work varies enormously.

    Hard work is by far the easiest way to accomplish more. If you spend 50% more time, you’ll get quite a bit more done (maybe not 50% more, but easily 25%). This effect alone can make a big difference in your career. It explains why almost all top researchers work hard: very few people are so talented that they can slack off and still compete successfully with the hard workers.

  56. Rambling Sid Rumpo Says:

    We were in Boston for a concert last weekend and walked around Harvard and Cambridge. I noted several (3 at least) homeless types writing furiously on yellow legal pads. Took a peek at one’s work, and there were lots of mathematical formulae. I think there is a lot of this sort of thing about, various forms of failed ambition and so on. Sad to see.

  57. Dani Fong Says:

    Hey, being a vagrant scientist is my ambition!

  58. mollishka Says:

    … people who strive for a decade against staggering odds to have ideas that no one in the history of the world ever had before, in order that they might possibly qualify for a stressful, ~90-hour-a-week job offering the same money, power, and prestige that would accrue automatically to a mid-level insurance salesman.

    Well, that’s depressing.

  59. Nagesh Adluru Says:

    very few people are so talented that they can slack off and still compete successfully with the hard workers.

    Very motivating and useful point to be kept in mind.

  60. Paul B. Says:

    @Mollishka (and All):

    Why depressing?

    Let’s see, “same prestige” as “mid-level insurance salesman”, the latter being brought into this discussion precisely *because* noone reading this blog would attribute any “prestige” to the poor guy! :)

    Last time I’ve checked, being a scientist is quite prestigious, as in “99.9% percent of *scientists* agree that humans are the cause of global warming” all over the media (funny, in this particular case I would be much more impressed it it were the same percentage of insurance agencies agreeing on the fact, but it’s off-topic). I guess, it’d be more convincing to drop the “prestige” part and stick to everyone’s favorite villain, “used car salesman”! :)

    Try applying that sentence to an artist, instead of a scientist, and you would realize that it does not sound like THAT bad a deal — except that the day that only art produced by officially licensed and state-sponsored artists is considered art would be a sad day indeed (full disclosure: my background is scientific — though by no means these opinions relate at all to ones of my current or any former employers! — and my wife is an artist…).

  61. IC Says:

    “I noted several (3 at least) homeless types writing furiously on yellow legal pads….failed ambition…”

    Now, just because someone appears homeless doesn’t mean he has “failed” or is poor or homeless or crazy :-). They could be math (or physics /engineering) professors who prefer to dress comfortably (perhaps too comfortably). There is an interesting article here about the mathematical mind, and the following paragraph is taken from it:

    “Robinson recalls the time she rode up in the elevator of Evans Hall with a shaggy, bearded man wearing dirty clothes and smelling foul. When she casually reported to the building manager that a homeless person was roaming around the math department, his response was: “Oh, yes. That’s Professor —-. He’s back from sabbatical. Other people have thought that, too.” And, while she doesn’t for a moment suggest that this is typical, Robinson claims that this was not the first mathematician she had come across with an aversion to bathing.”

  62. Jonathan Vos Post Says:

    In “My Home Town,” by Professor Tom Lehrer, a fellow reminisces:

    “The guy who taught us math/
    who never took a bath/
    acquired a certain measure of renown/
    And after school he sold the most amazing pictures/
    in my home town.”

    I think that he’s currently in Music and Mathematics at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

  63. Stanford student Says:

    Should be, “Science needs more groupes, not fewer.” Groupies are quantifiable things.

  64. Ninotchka Says:

    I’m oddly touched by this post. My (biophysicist) partner said essentially the same thing upon seeing the story: “If she were hanging around MY lab I’d put her to work counting colonies. If she’s taking up space she might as well be generating data.”

    I imagine things are a bit different in a straight physics lab, and perhaps there’s not the same need for low-skilled labor, but it’s a shame that there was no way she could contribute. I could well believe that there are people who are inspired by the Grand Project of science, but who lack the background/experiences/ability to be a scientist. How is that any worse than someone who is tone-deaf who nevertheless loves music?

  65. Lee Says:

    I was particularly struck by the following:
    And we find people asking rhetorically whether any corporation or government agency would tolerate a freeloader hanging around its offices for years.

    Ask anyone who’s ever worked for a large corporation or government agency that question, off the record, and you’ll probably get several names in response — people who have their jobs only because (1) they have a powerful protector or (2) the process of removing them would be more trouble than working around them is. The main difference between a corporate/government freeloader and Okazaki is that the former will actually be drawing a paycheck.

    I’m going to second the request that we find some other term than “groupie” to describe these people. I’d suggest “science hag” by analogy to “fag hag”, but I don’t really think that’s any better. :-)

  66. Ars Mathematica » Blog Archive » Says:

    [...] Via Scott Aaronson and Peter Woit, I learn the story of Elizabeth Okazaki, who apparently has been hanging around the Stanford physics department for the past four years posing as a visiting scholar working on an interdisciplinary project. She has also apparently been using office space and even sleeping in the building. The range of reactions I’ve seen have been from shock and fear to pity, to amusement, but I haven’t seen anyone express my reaction: admiration. Assuming, as many people have suggested, that Okazaki is someone down on her luck looking for a place to stay, I have to admire her ingenuity in solving her problem. Physics departments have a high tolerance for personal idiosyncracy, and someone who keeps weird hours would never stand out in one. Physicists are a little vague on they do in humanities departments, so sprinkle a little interdisciplinarity on your project, and presto!, instant credibility. Her whole plan was practically scientifically designed to succeed for years. Maybe the NSF should give her a grant. [...]

  67. Serge Says:

    Come on, science need *more* women, not less :) Don’t waste them.

  68. Chris W. Says:

    If y’all want to feel like total slackers, read about Andreas Bechtolsheim.