Monthly Archives: August 2012

Google… how did the internet work before?


Co-founders are multi-billionaire mathematicians and computer scientists.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Google after 1 minute 30 seconds of ridiculous intro chat about Kenny Rogers in this clip:

[audio – Google and artificial hearts.mp3]

How do you get to be one of the biggest companies on the planet when your website looks like this?

Google grew out of the vision of Larry Page and Sergey Brin who met as PhD students at Stanford University in the early 1990s. Since its inception, it has grown to become one of the world’s biggest tech companies. You know you have achieved a milestone when your company name becomes a verb – this has happened with Hoover (must irritate Dyson), Xerox and Skidoo among others. When we refer to searching for something on the web, we almost invariably say that we ‘googled’ something – even if we used a competitors search engine!

How a search engine works

For 5 or 6 years before Google came along, the internet worked differently. If you found a webpage about a subject you were interested in, you bookmarked it immediately. Webpages were only discoverable by entering their exact html address and it became very tedious listening to people read out all of the words and slashes (is it a backslash or a forward slash?). Gradually, early search engines like Yahoo and Alta Vista started to group links by interest category and this is when the internet took off – companies recognized the need to have their names grouped with competitors. I recall hearing a pundit in 1995 saying ‘any company that isn’t on the web won’t survive.’ I was shocked at the time about the prophecy of the importance of the world-wide web but I very quickly came to see the truth in what was said.

As a student looking for a PhD project, Sergey Brin was interested in data mining. At the same time, Larry Page was studying the idea that the importance of publications was linked to the number of times they were cited… These two interest sets mesh nicely and, in retrospect, I can see how the two came up with the idea of Google. Personally, I’m too thick to have even appreciated what they had done when I saw it in action — even when I started using it habitually. Gradually I stopped using the bookmarks feature in web browsers. It was actually easier just to type in the keyword or a company name and the website would magically appear.

Brin and Page’s idea was that web searchers needed a prioritized list of websites that match search terms entered by the user, i.e. if I search for Hoover, I probably am more interested in the actual Hoover website than just a randomly ordered list of all websites that mention the word ‘hoover’ (noun or verb – for any North Americans that might have accidentally strayed into this blog, we in the UK ‘hoover’ rather than ‘vacuum’). But how do you prioritize the results of a web search? Simple, you could list web pages that mention a search term based on how many other web pages refer to them. The more a page is refered to, the more important it must be – right? Of course, nowadays, the algorithms (methods) that search engines like Google use are much more ‘intelligent’ than that in my simplified example but that was the genesis of an elegant idea.

A web-crawler. These guys do the work so that a search engine can make your life easier

All the search engine company needs to do is to read every webpage on the internet, catalogue every word that’s written into a giant index, and be able to instantaneously deliver your web search results. Sounds daunting but computers are fast and getting faster all of the time. Companies like Google employ spiders – well software that they call web crawlers or web spiders – to systematically search the web for purposes of cataloguing words. That’s why we are told to be sure our web pages have pertinent titles and keywords – so that the spiders find us and display us on Google. This page, for example, has tags like ‘fun science’ and ‘technology’ that the spiders will read. It won’t be catalogued immediately but within a few days it will start to appear in Google searches (how did you get to this page?).

How many computers running crawlers and answering search queries must a company like Google have in order to keep up with the demand? The answer is astounding. Probably more than a million – running 24/7 – and they’re not insignificant computers either. All spread across at least 6 sites around the world.

How does Google make money? Simple, they will prioritize your website to a higher level if you pay them to. Notice the sites that appear at the top of you Google search that are just slightly shaded in color – they’ve paid for the privilege of being at the top of your search return. Many of us just click the first link we see when our search is returned and, chi-ching for that company.

How big can Google get?

Where is the internet going? Not-so-simple. I don’t know, but then again you know that I’m not very good at seeing the need or the promise in new web ideas. I can tell you that I’ve just gotten a new smartphone that runs the Android operating system developed by Google. That purchase was so that I could more easily interface with my email and calendars at work because we’ve switched over to Gmail (what would you guess the ‘G’ stands for?). I am now a member of Google ‘circles’ although I haven’t yet figured that out completely (Twitter takes all of my time!).

So from small things big things come. Will Google get as big as Cyberdyne Systems? Should I get a Google tatoo…?

Florence Nightingale, scientist, mathematician and, uh… nurse


Florence used statistics to make her case…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss Florence Nightingale starting at 6 minutes and 45 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

Lady with the lamp (and her own cartoon it looks like!).

Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) might have been a lady with a lamp, and she might have been a nurse, but I want to tell you that she was a scientist and a mathematician too! I’ll get to that in a bit.

Born into a rich English family living in Tuscany (it was the place to go then too I suppose), Florence was pre-destined to be a young lady of leisure and to do what all in her position were expected to do: marry well and have babies. She went for option B – eschewed the pile of 20 mattresses and instead spent her life caring for those in need. Fortunately, Florence’s father saw that an education was a requirement for a well-to-do young lady and he personally tutored her in mathematics. ‘What-everrr… when am I ever going to use this in real life?’

Uh, no, Florence didn’t say that.

Soldiers in appalling wartime conditions

Rather, after being ‘called by God’ in 1837, i.e. age 17, she announced her decision to go into nursing. Unbelievably, this decision caused much consternation for her mother but she soldiered on. It was during 1854 that she and a group of 38 women who had trained under her were despatched to the Crimean War (hope they had their satnavs working – where is Crimea?) to attend to injured British soldiers.

The Crimean War was, Florence wrote, ‘calamity unparalleled in the history of calamity’. To her it was obvious that the quality of care being offered to the wounded was sorely lacking and she set about revolutionizing the way that nursing is practised – right up until today.

From the writing of Ed Hird
No operating tables. No medical supplies. No furniture.  The lack of beds, for example, meant that the best the wounded soldiers could hope for was to be laid on the floor wrapped in a blanket. Rats ran amongst the dying. On occasion, even dead bodies were forgotten about and left to rot.  There had been no washing of linen – and every shirt was crawling with vermin. Florence ordered boilers – and boilers were installed.  Florence was able to demonstrate that for every soldier killed in battle in the Crimean War, seven died of infections and preventable disease.

Florence’s contention was that cleanliness and good nutrition would go a long way to increasing survivorship – and she deduced this without really knowing about germs because people weren’t really yet studying them at that time.

Not that Data!

But how did Florence make a compelling argument to the officials back in Britain about these terrible conditions? She fell back on her early learning, realizing that statistics and data presented as pages of numbers were boring and not persuasive to politicians. Instead, she collected numbers of the wounded who benefited from her new nursing ideas and devised a persuasive way to present them – The pie chart.

Don’t let me hear you groaning about the pie chart – what a wonderful concept. It

Pie chart example – I never thought it mattered!?

can encapsulate pages of numbers and distill the outcome of an experiment so that a casual observer immediately sees what is important. Pie charts weren’t invented by Florence but she is the one most responsible for putting them to good use. In fact, she invented a type of pie chart known as a polar area diagram, or by some as a Nightingale rose diagram. Politicians back in England took one look at her data presented in such a diagram and immediately saw the benefit of doing things Florence’s way. She was given resources and staff to clean war hospitals and to bring standards of care up to reasonable levels. What came to pass was that far fewer men died as a consequence of injuries and Florence became famous the world over for her new nursing system.

One of Florence’s actual Nightingale rose diagrams illustrating the causes of mortality during the Crimean war.

In 1860, Florence established the Nightingale Training School – not for training nightingales – at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London. The school still exists and is called the Florence Nightingale School of Nursing and Midwifery.

Florence was an author, too (didn’t she sleep?). She penned Notes on Nursing in 1859 and is widely acknowledged as ‘the founder of modern nursing.’

Tireless effort and compassion helped Florence Nightingale change the world but let us not forget that she got where she did – in part – by being a mathematician and scientist!

Human evolution… our ancestors weren’t fighting dinosaurs!


It makes for good TV though…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss our Human ancestors after 2 minutes of ridiculous intro chat in this clip:

[audio – Human evolution and Florence Nightingale.mp3]

A happy looking chap – of an entirely different species

I grew up watching televised accounts of our ‘cavemen’ ancestors battling giant man-eating dinosaurs. In fact, those battles didn’t happen – not even close. Dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago and our ancestors have evolved to walk on two legs and look something like us only in the last 2-3 million years. The very earliest primates started to evolve from early mammals 85 million years ago and would have overlapped with the dinosaurs somewhat.

We all – excepting Simon Schama – experience this sort of historical time dilation when thinking about things that happened before we were born. At its extreme, the child who asks, ‘Mommy, when you were little did you see dinosaurs’ to the usual adult confusion about what century events happened in. Modern humans of our species, Homo sapiens, have only been around for the last 400,000 years, and have only started to behave modernly during the last 50,000 years. It is during that period that we see the rise of symbolic culture and language.

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace shocked Victorian sensibilities

That’s me on the lef…uhh, the right.

when they proposed that Humans had evolved from apes. The very idea was lampooned in ‘the ascent of Man’ images of the sort that are now known to depict one of the most brilliant and impactful scientific ideas ever. Evolution is a fact. I proceeds so slowly, however, that it is difficult to observe in action. The giraffe that might benefit from having a longer neck doesn’t just grow a longer neck. Over hundreds or thousands of generations, giraffes that have slightly longer necks are slightly more successful at foraging in trees than their slightly-shorter-necked contemporaries. These more successful foraging giraffes are likely more fit and are better able to pass their genes into the next generation. By a series of very small increments, giraffe offspring in subsequent generations will have slightly longer necks. That process continues until the longer necks are no longer an advantage, i.e. until they become too heavy or breathing becomes difficult. Evolution is a slow process which results in ‘fitter’ organisms but it regulates against ‘runaway’ selection – it is just physically impossible for a giraffe to have a neck any longer than they now are – the animal would become ‘unfit’ in many other respects.

Back to Human evolution. It really isn’t as simplistic as the idea illustrated that a chimpanzee turned into a caveman etc. After all, chimpanzees still exit. Why? The answer is that in the deep dark past – millions of years ago – we shared a common ancestor that resembled a small primate. Some offspring of the ancestor began to evolve towards Human form while others evolved towards modern chimpanzee form. Evolution is a branching process and one of the biggest drivers of branching is when offspring find themselves in different environments where different characteristics will help them survive and reproduce better. What was the original main distinction between the Human branch and the chimpanzee branch? Answer – the ability to walk upright in our branch (or to walk on a branch in the chimp’s case, get it?). The Human branch moved onto the savannah where individuals who could stand or walk upright had a definite surveillance and hunting advantage just by being able to see further. The chimp branch remained in the forest where climbing ability and smaller stature were an advantage (have you ever seen a chimp climb – holy baloney?). Gradually and over thousands of generations, animals in each branch evolved to more closely resemble either modern Humans or chimpanzees.

Branches in Human evolution – about a million question marks still remain

So, let’s consider the Human branch. Why did it stop branching along the way? That’s a trick question. The answer is that it didn’t stop branching. As Human ancestors spread out of Africa into Asia and Europe, populations became isolated. Remember, we’re talking about migrations that take generations – you didn’t just jump on Air Africa and fly to London in those days. Isolated populations gradually differentiate – as you well know if you’ve ever sat in a pub with a Scotsman, an Irishman, a Welshwoman, and an Englishwoman. Language is one of the first things to start changing and differences are obvious over very fine geographical scales. Physical attributes take longer to evolve but they do and they have resulted in many branches of the original one that lead to modern Humans. Look at an enlarged view of the image to the left – we (Homo sapiens) are only one of several different species which have existed and even co-existed during the last 2 million years. Most recently, we shared Europe with Homo Neanderthalis – and I mean in relatively modern times, until about 30,000 years ago.

So what ever became of the Neanderthals? Well, they went extinct. This often happens when closely related species try to co-exist. Perhaps

Clap for the ape-man

we could have continued to co-exist but similar species usually require what is called a ‘niche’, that is, they need to have their own environment, or food source, or method of survival. Remember that Humans and chimpanzees can co-exist because they get the trees and we get everything else. If the chimpanzees tried to use our resources, a Planet-of-the-Apes situation might ensue. More likely, however, is that they would go the way of the Neaderthals and not be heard from again. Hey, we’re not even very tolerant with members of our own species who try to take our land from us.

A debate continues about just how close our species and the Neanderthals really were. We still harbour a good deal of Neanderthal DNA and scientists are trying to work out whether that’s because, as some think likely, the species interbred where their ranges overlapped (in Paris after a romantic night out on the left bank, for example), or whether that’s just leftover DNA from our common ancestor back at the ranch point.

In any case, ‘no Sweetheart, Mommy didn’t see dinosaurs when she was little.’ She was closer to meeting Human-relatives of a completely different species but even that’s probably pushing it a bit.  How old do you think Mommy is, anyway!?

Keeping an eye on the cuckoo


You can migrate but you can’t hide…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss tracking cuckoos at  at 7 minute 36 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

A cuckoo with stylish tracking device

So we all know that birds we see in the summer fly south for the winter. I often think jealously of the birds laughing it up in sunnier climes while we suffer the cold and wet of winter. The journey that birds embark upon is epic and preprogrammed as an instinctive response to the onset of cold.

We’ve heard the stories of the thousands of miles that birds fly each year but the trip is really brought home to us when we can see the exact route that a bird takes.  Until now, we know that certain species are here in the summer and we also know that the same birds appear in the distant south during the winter. Data to support these observations has come anecdotally from travellers who recognize our native summer species. For almost 100 years, researchers have been banding birds with rings that are inobtrusive and which contain location data. We marvel that birds tagged in England appear in southern Africa, or that the same birds appear year after year in the same summer locations. How do they pathfind on their journeys? Do they have some inbuilt SatNav that lets them accomplish amazing feats of orienteering?

The Common Cuckoo of Europe (bird, not clock) is renowned for the distance of its migration

Follow cuckoos every step, uh… flap along the way

which sees it travelling from Northern Europe to Southern Africa every year. For some in the UK,  hearing the call of the Common Cuckoo is regarded as the first harbinger of spring. The problem is that the bird is becoming very endangered and scarce. Scientists are puzzled as to exactly why the species is in decline and now, in collaboration with the British Trust for Ornithology  (BTO – but not Bachman Turner Overdrive takin’ care of business…), have decided to do something about it.

If the question is, ‘are the birds just not managing the migration successfully,’ the answer might be to track their whereabouts at all times. Modern electronics technology has been able to produce satellite transmitters that are so small that they can be fitted in a non-invasive way to a cuckoo. If you click on the image above, you will see the travels of a set of male cuckoos that the BTO have been tracking since departing Britain. You will see that the birds take very different routes, sometimes flying vast distances over water or the Sahara desert.

Miniature tracking technology is fairly accurate on a global scale but is not yet as accurate as the GPS systems in common use in our cars and phones. Those devices would still be to heavy for the birds to carry. The newest of these Platform Transmitter Terminals use solar panels to recharge the batteries – this means that after 10 hours of tracking, the transmitter must be shut down to recharge for 48 hours (I wish we got that after working for 10 hours!). In the age of Big Brother on television, many have come to expect instant gratification from our voyeur systems. The 48 hour shut down is going to be the undoing of many passionate birders who stay glued to their computers to see how the birds are making out. For example, exactly as I am writing this, one of the birds whose name is Lyster seems to be taking a break in a desert are of Mauritania. But no, he is moving. Is he getting food somehow in this relatively barren part of the world? Is he just all shagged out after a particularly long squawk? We’ll just have to stay tuned.

You can sponsor a bird and your donations will help the BTO keep this amazing experiment running so that we can finally figure out why our cuckoo is declining.

Curiosity goes for a spin on Mars


7 minutes of dread…

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss the Mars Science Laboratory at 1 minute 33 seconds in this clip:

[audio – Mars Curiosity and cuckoos.mp3]

Curiosity’s landing was the stuff of science fiction. Click image to watch video (make popcorn first!).

Just watch the video, an animation of Curiosity’s landing on Mars. It’s amazing. I wish I had been a Martian standing there watching it land. It would have been awe-inspiring.

Anyway, this week’s landing of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) (which is the rover called ‘Curiosity’ and it’s associated science equipment) was the culmination of one phase of the work of a great number of scientists over many years. Videos of dancing scientists and engineers in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and about a million celebratory tweets, highlight the importance of those crucial few minutes when Curiosity was touching down.

Curiosity, ready to rock and roll

The thing is, though, that Mars is a long way away and radio transmissions from the planet take a long time to get back to Earth – 7 minutes to be exact. Hence the subtitle of this piece – 7 minutes of dread. Try to imaging what it must have been like for all of the people associated with getting the rover to Mars. They had spent years planning and building for every contingency, systems on board had multiple redundancy as a hedge against failure, everyone was certain that nothing could go wrong… But you just never know, do you? The entire assemblage of space vehicles and parts was programmed to go through a choreographed sequence – brake against the weak Martian atmosphere, adjust trajectory, jetison heat shield, deploy parachute, fire rockets, lower Curiosity on tethers, cut tethers – what could go wrong? Meanwhile, back on Earth, scientists have to wait during the time Curiosity is supposed to have landed because radio transmission to verify a successful landing takes 7 minutes to get here. During that time, Curiosity might have been fine – or it might have been a mass of twisted wreckage blotting the Martian landscape. For those waiting, 7 minutes of dread indeed.

Jubilation at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory

The picture says it all. I’m sure the 7 minutes probably seemed to last 7 years but, very shortly after the allotted time came the first transmission of a successful landing on the red planet. My sincere congratulations to all of the women and men who have devoted their scientific careers to making such an incredible moment.

What now? Curiosity has already turned its systems on and verified that everything seems to be in working order.  It will just sit for a bit and sample its surroundings using a vast array of cameras and scientific gadgetry designed to look for, amongst other things, signs of life. Once it has the lay of the land, the rover will head out to explore the environs of the giant crater that it has landed in. Experiments are set to run for almost the next two Earth

Is there life on Mars?

years (one Martian year). Will Curiosity find life? Probably not giant life forms but, hey, we’d be happy with a few biomolecules like amino acids or nucleic acids. Anything that gives us a clue about what went on in Mars’ past.

What a giant step for Science.

Did moon landings really happen?


Apparently 25% of teenagers aren’t certain whether the moon landings really happened. They did, and new images put this completely beyond doubt.

Listen to my BBC radio chat with Malcolm. We discuss moon landings at 7 minutes 10 seconds in this clip:

[audio – World sports records and faked moon landings.mp3]

Were the Apollo moon landings shot in Hollywood?

Very shortly after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon (July 20th 1969), conspiracy theorists started to claim that the whole thing was a massive hoax perpetrated by the American government in their Cold-war era one-upmanship dance with the Soviet Union.

I guess the reason for attempting a hoax on such a grand scale would have been that the technology just simply wasn’t up to an actual moon landing. As far as I’m concerned, all of the points that conspiracy theorists have made to illustrate the hoax have been completely de-bunked – most thoroughly by the Mythbusters in Episode 104 NASA Moon Landing (Aug. 27) in which Adam and Jamie investigate if the U.S. government shot the footage of the astronauts in a studio.

Those that doubt the veracity of moon landings have suggested many things that are apparently wrong with the evidence presented in the media:

Photos from the moon look faked,
The flags shouldn’t flap in zero-gravity,
Lighting is incorrect and there are no stars in the photos,
Identical backgrounds in photos from different sites on the moon,
Travel to the moon would be impossible for a Human being to survive,
Landers made no blast craters,
Suits as designed would not have worked… etc.

But stop… think about it. Since it is nigh on impossible to have even three people keep a secret, how is it possible that the 1000s of people that have worked for NASA and the US government on getting men to the moon have kept this hoax secret? The answer is that it wasn’t a hoax.

From a science perspective, the moon landings were an incredible achievement. Objections to the claims that we have walked on the moon have often been put forward by scientists who believe that they see inconsistencies in filmed images. The beauty of the scientific method is that when claims are in doubt, other scientists will examine those claims. That is what has happened here and there are perfectly reasonable explanations for every one of the inconsistencies listed above. New pictures from the Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter now show that the flags are still there.

For the younger generation who might be in doubt about whether or not we’ve been to the moon – we have. Their doubt is, no doubt, because of that peculiar thing that affects us all. Anything that happened before we were born is ancient history. I still wrestle with the idea that my parents didn’t have TV when they were growing up – how did they survive?!

‘One small step for a man – one giant leap for Mankind’ Oh… except that whether it happened will be debated and the youngsters will forget about it anyway.

How to succeed in science (a bit of fun)


When I first read Keith Crutcher’s award winning essay more than 20 years ago I laughed my head off. It’s when you stop laughing and think about it for a moment that you see why he won the essay contest – there is an underlying ring of truth.

How to succeed in science!
Advice for the young scientist… by Dr. Grant Holder

Originally published as
Keith A. Crutcher. How To Succeed In Science
(Perspectives in Biol and Med, 34:2 Winter 1991, 213-218)

It seems that many of our scientists have not received basic training on how to succeed in
science – for example, obtaining grants, receiving peer recognition, having a bibliography that
is longer than any particular publication listed in it, etc. In order to correct this deficiency, the
following guidelines are presented. Of course, there will always be the occasional black
sheep who decides to embark on an entirely original course of work or chooses to forgo the
rewards of being recognized as a successful scientist, in which case these guidelines do not
apply. But attention to the principles set forth below should provide a solid framework for
most aspiring scientists to build on.

1. Relax! We’re Only between Paradigm Shifts Anyhow
Much of the stress and anxiety that have traditionally been associated with the conduct of
science are now relieved by the tremendous insight provided by Thomas Kuhn. Since the vast
majority of scientists are currently doing “normal” science, akin to treading theoretical water,
true advances must await the next shift in paradigms and most of us can relax as we realize
that our work is unlikely to have any lasting influence. Of -course, there may be some who
seek to contribute to, or actually precipitate, a shift in paradigms, and it is unlikely that they
can be stopped, but the rest of us should recognize that the clarification of an existing
paradigm is necessary for subsequent scientific revolutions. Just imagine how difficult
science would be if every investigator made some fundamental contribution that involved a
shift in paradigm or forced us to analyze our basic assumptions about the area in which we

2. Become Famous
Once you have the appropriate relaxed attitude about the importance of your own work (see
1) it becomes much easier to focus on the business of being a scientist. In this regard, being
famous ranks second only to being relaxed. Unfortunately, many scientists have overlooked
the importance of being famous in order to succeed, especially in the areas of obtaining
grants and getting to travel (see 5, below). And becoming famous is really much less
difficult than most realize. There are several options. One of the quickest and surest is to
work with someone who is already famous. This will guarantee a certain amount of
secondary fame that can be used as a foundation for establishing your own fame. Another
method is to organize a symposium on a “hot” topic and invite the most famous people in the
field, including the famous person with whom you work, to participate. Then list yourself on
the same program. This technique has had marvelous results for countless numbers of now
famous scientists. Another effective option is to publish a paper or abstract every week in your
selected area (see 3). This method takes more effort, but with attention to the following
guidelines the work can be minimized and the results guaranteed to make you a recognized
expert in any particular field.

3. Publish Often (Preferably Abstracts)
It is common knowledge that modern scientists do not have time to read the rapidly growing
literature in their field and, with the realization that most research will have no lasting effect
(see 1), it is clear that to do so would be a waste of time. Therefore, take advantage of the fact
that most of your peers are going to be influenced by your work primarily through name
recognition. The same principle that advertising agencies use, namely, repeated exposure, is
vital to success in science as well. The more times your name is seen in print, the more
influence you will have and the more famous you will be (see 2). Of course the choice of
medium is critical; ideally you should publish as often as possible in newspapers and popular
magazines, but scientific journals can have their place as well. You should try to average one
paper or abstract every week, and your name should appear last. The more coauthors you
have, the better, because everyone knows that the last author is the one who really
counts, and it shows that you must already be famous to have so many other scientists
working with you. Some will argue that each publication should contain new information,
but, again, this view does not take into account the lessons learned from Madison Avenue. In
fact, the more often you say the same thing, the more likely your chances of being
remembered. Once the same set of data have been published several times, with no more than
slight variations, they begin to take on greater credibility, both in the minds of your
colleagues and in your own mind. In addition, the particular area that you work in, even if it
had formerly been considered obscure and uninteresting, takes on increasing importance each
time it appears in print.
Of course, the format can play a vital role in your ultimate success. The many advantages
derived from publishing your work, in abstract form, for example, are often overlooked.
First, it provides the opportunity to travel (see 5). Second, it is rarely reviewed (and we all
have horror stories to tell about critical reviews we have received on even our best papers).
Third, and most important, it provides a published document that can either be cited in
establishing precedence for an observation, if it turns out to be correct or important (or both!),
or can just as easily be left uncited if ultimately found to be in error. In some cases,
particularly once you have gained some experience, it is possible to publish several abstracts
at one time, each dealing with a slight variation on the same theme. Some scientific societies
permit you to submit only one abstract with yourself listed as first author but this restriction is easilyovercome. Most scientists, for example, are already aware of potential coauthors from the
ranks of students and associates, often overlooked are administrators and members of the
custodial staff, some of whom would be happy to see their names in print. With a little bit of
planning you can have several abstracts published simultaneously, one with your name first
and the rest with your name listed last. Legend has it that one scientist was able to fill two
entire sessions at a single meeting with abstracts solely from his laboratory.

4. Publish Only What Cannot Be Refuted (at Least in Your Lifetime)
Many young scientits sadly misinterpret this principle to mean that one should publish
careful, well-thought-out papers. On the contrary, much time and effort can be saved by
publishing results without any attention to their significance or relevance at all. Odds are, no
one is going to read the paper anyway (see 3), so don’t waste your valuable time analyzing
the results. More important, as long as you restrict your discussion to what you saw, with
enough methodological differences from previous work so that any discrepancies can be
explained if the need arises, you will never be found in error, particularly if you refrain from
discussing the potential significance of the results. The simplest way to avoid any
embarrassment is to publish new and improved techniques. The publication of new methods
rarely leads you into strong theoretical disputes with your colleagues but still permits lively
discussions about whether the pH was optimal. Even better, develop a desirable reagent that
your colleagues can use and then distribute it to them with the modest request that you be
included as an author on any paper that mentions the reagent. You will be amazed at how
quickly your bibliography lengthens and your fame correspondingly increases. If for some
reason you feel compelled to speculate on your data in print, be sure to limit your speculation
to ideas that cannot be tested in your lifetime, if at all.

5. Present Your Work at Every Opportunity
One of the many benefits of doing science is the opportunity to travel. Of course, the more
famous you are, the more opportunities you will have to travel. Conversely, the more times,
you are seen in public, the more famous you will become. In addition, most conferences
provide the opportunity to publish at least one abstract (see 3). When presenting your work,
be sure to use attractive slides that are not cluttered with detail. One helpful hint: leave off
any statistical information, especially for graphical data, since it often detracts from the main
point of the slide. Contrary to the situation for your published work, feel free to speculate
during your presentation. In fact, don’t be constrained by the data. Remember that your effect
will be much greater if you make sweeping statements and generalizations unrestrained by
the facts or by what you have published in the abstract. If anyone seriously questions a
statement you have made or presents contradictory results, you can avoid any embarrassment
for yourself by pointing out that he or she did not use the optimal pH. Presentations are
necessary, but not sufficient, for success in science. When you have been invited to
participate at a meeting, be sure to keep track of who invited you so that you will be able to
invite the same individuals to present at the next conference you organize. Eventually you
will find that there are enough of you to invite each other to several conferences during the
year, and, if you are really successful, you may even decide to establish your own society
consisting of only the most successful scientists (mainly those who are invited to several
conferences during the year).

6. Submit a Grant Proposal Only on Work You Have Already Done
This would hardly seem to require stating, but there are still a number of scientists, especially
unseasoned rookies, who actually propose experiments that have not yet been conducted.
Most reviewers of grant applications have finally weeded out the ones who continually
propose novel work, but there are still some who do not quite understand that the surest bet is
on a horse that has already won. Naturally, you need to be a little careful in timing the
publication of the proposed work so that it doesn’t actually appear in print before your grant
is reviewed (except, of course, in multiple abstract form). The rookie scientist may encounter
the dilemma of not having been able to do the experiments before obtaining grant support.
The most common solution is to propose work similar to what you have already done
working with someone who is famous. If that option is not available, then you may be forced
to propose work that is original. If so, be sure that the research is only a slight variation of
work that someone else has already done. This assures the reviewers that your particular
experiments fall within the existing paradigm. A good example would be finding the optimal
pH at which to run a new and improved technique.

7. Don’t Waste Your Time Teaching
Remember that your goal is to succeed in science. Although a certain amount of teaching can
be beneficial, in that it gives you some exposure to students who may decide to work for you
(and provide potential authors for your many abstracts), it is terribly time-consuming to make
more than cameo appearances. There will be some pressure by other faculty and your
chairman to contribute to the teaching program, especially, before you receive tenure, but this
pressure can be relieved to some extent by the way in which you teach. For example, always
present your material in a fashion that obscures any relevance to matters that concern the
students. In medical teaching this has become common practice. Another effective approach
is to provide details of the methods that you use in the laboratory, especially emphasizing the
importance of optimal pH. Usually students are so overwhelmed by the volume of
information that they will have difficulty asking intelligent questions. The advantage of this is
obvious. Eventually you will find less teaching is required of you, and you will have more
time to spend writing abstracts and going to conferences.

8. Go Commercial
Fame is nice but is so much more enjoyable when accompanied by wealth. The traditional
role of scientist has not always been as lucrative as other careers. This is changing. One of the
very exciting options in science is to identify potential commercial applications of the work
you do and market them. Numerous scientists are discovering the monetary advantages of
forming their own companies with initial research and development funds provided by the
federal government through grants and contracts. The beauty of this system is that there is
very little risk. If the commercial application does not generate a profit, you can always apply
for another federal research grant to keep going. On the other hand, if you are able to
capitalize on your scientific successes and establish a profitable company, you can use your
academic affiliations, and your positions on editorial review boards and study sections, to
keep abreast of the hottest developments in the field to feed into your company. The
competitive advantage this gives you should be obvious.

Adherence to these principles will not guarantee success, but the testimony of many famous
scientists supports the hypothesis that these guidelines can significantly (p<0.03,
Wilcoxon unpaired X-test run at pH 5.6) increase your chances of achieving recognition,
acquiring wealth, and ultimately being known as a successful scientist. At the very least, they
should prevent you from falling too far outside the boundaries of “normal” science where you
could easily be branded for life as a troublemaker or heretic. ‘Few scientists are aware of the
illustrious history of the abstract. The word is a contraction of the Original “Abe’s tract,”
which was a little known pamphlet circulated by Lincoln when first running for political
office. Although the contents of the tract are not known, its influence can hardly be
underestimated since Lincoln’s remaining political career was said to derive entirely from this
little tract. Some say that several ideas in the tract were actually plagiarized from an
unpublished work of John Wilkes Booth, but this allegation has never been substantiated.

Originally published as
Keith A. Crutcher. How To Succeed In Science
(Perspectives in Biol and Med, 34:2 Winter 1991, 213-218)