A Plea for Science


When I was asked to write a contribution for this special issue, I decided to present some general thoughts about science which have preoccupied me for quite a while.1 Science and technology on the nanometer scale is a very active topic worldwide, and this issue will certainly contain many interesting scientific contributions. I hope that my words might encourage interesting contributions and encourage scientists in the nanoworld to rethink what they are doing and how they are doing it from a slightly different, mind-cleaning, and less action-driven angle.

I no longer take part in specific scientific projects as an active scientist since my retirement 12 years ago. Retirement is a big step toward a new domain of freedom. Surely, I had always had all the freedom at IBM to do the science which struck me as most interesting and which had a reasonable relation to my intellectual abilities, skills, and dexterities. Management was of course more pleased at times than on other occasions, but both sides could live with that reasonably well. Sometimes I had to work a bit harder to prove my point. I did not have to apply for grants, which made life easier, judging from what I heard from science colleagues about their fights for support.

You can retire a scientist, but he can hardly retire his brain—just like active scientists can easily go on vacation, but they have difficulty giving their brain a vacation break from time to time. The “retired” scientists have various options to cope with that. I chose to think for the sake and pleasure of thinking—in addition, of course, to other activities such as taking on advisory roles, which require a less hectic pace, and sometimes enjoying a contemplative laziness. This “thinking for thinking” can be kind of a passion. It is sort of a new freedom consisting of being no longer obliged to convert the thinking into immediate action, to make something tangible out of it for whatever reason, to communicate the results as fast as possible in a top-notch journal, and to constantly expose yourself with regards to what you think and what you do. Of course, I do this and that with my thoughts, but I can choose when, where, how, and for whom. Casual thoughts can simmer without outside interference; and even if they are out of the way for the moment, they might sometime later prove to be not that much out of the way. It could be. Why not? But it never could be, if it would have been brushed away too early.

Figure 1.

Prof. Rohrer giving a talk at the National Institute of Materials Science, Japan.

The newly gained freedom of a retiree is not a freedom leap. It is a freedom of a peaceful quality. As before, you think along similar lines of what is worthwhile to think about; you try to keep the same scientific standards and beliefs, and you continue the crusade for scientific freedom—no longer for your own freedom, but for that of those who deserve it and are in desperate need of it. Advisory boards are a good platform. In their work for active research units, I consider that their major role is to supportively remind the scientists to keep their passion and withstand all the vain practices infiltrating science. They can also be very helpful when engaging in new scientific areas and ventures, for which supportive voices are rather rare despite the fact that science has “Novelty” flapping proudly on its flag. However, pulling the emergency brake in the case of blatant scientific blunder is unavoidable. It should, however, be rare; otherwise the best advice cannot help. Quite generally, good scientists need interested discussion partners, for mediocre ones, advice is in vain in any case. Note that thorough and comprehensive assessments of scientific activities and of personnel are a matter for review boards, which report to the next higher managerial level. Keeping advice and review separated can be of great help for all concerned.

I recently took part in a symposium “Passion for Knowledge” in San Sebastian, Spain. Knowledge is a very important and indispensable intellectual tool and ingredient to perform science on a high level, to understand how nature works, to understand how we can learn about it and from it, and to understand how we can exploit its secrets for the benefit of humankind. But knowledge alone does not make the day. Just like words by themselves do not make a poem, knowledge alone does not lead to insight and to wisdom. I, therefore, prefer to think rather in terms of “passion for insight”.

You can accept knowledge or you can question it. Accepted, it seminally helps one to appreciate scientific questions and problems and to solve them. But knowledge can also blur a clear and unbiased view, and it can be an effective obstacle for progress. When seriously questioned, it often opens the door to new, interesting findings. Novelty is the essence of scientific endeavors and does not correspond to current thinking and common knowledge and skills. It consists of what hitherto has been taken as unfeasible, unsolvable, and unthinkable; of what has been overlooked or dismissed as uninteresting or as bothering; of what is beyond common knowledge; and of what has not been done for whatever reason.

Science thus is a road to new shores and into unknown territory. It requires constantly walking a tightrope between creativity and common knowledge, between impartiality and expertise, between questioning and faithful believing, between leaving established grounds and defending old territory, between fresh minds and establishment, and between passion and ambition—in short, between tomorrow and today.

Walking a tightrope has many catches. It requires a lot of conviction and self-confidence for a good balance; it requires protection from interruption and heckling by those who believe that they know better, and it requires a safety net, so that you can start again should you not make it to the other promising side.

We scientists belong to a very privileged group of citizens who can do their work out of passion and can live their passion as their profession. But passion alone is not sufficient. Science requires hard work, strong convictions to overcome frustrations, modesty, and firm scientific belief. The reward is the pride and satisfaction of having successfully met unique challenges. Of course, scientists do not work for nothing. I guess that a lot of people best remember with pride the tough times and the chores that they have overcome, not just the fun parts of life. Fun is certainly a most pleasant ingredient of life, and I always encourage young scientists not to forget it—after having made them understand that there is no way around hard work in science. I remember very well when Prof. Wolfgang Pauli, an intellectual child prodigy of theoretical physics and a very kind man with students (not with his peers though), told us at the freshmen- welcome that if any of us believed that he is so clever that he would not have to study and work very hard, he should leave the lecture room immediately. Nobody left and all worked reasonably hard, and a bit more than half became physicists.

The science community was very much concerned about no longer being able to attract the brilliant minds to science. I am not that pessimistic. We heard during some decades the steady complaints of losing so many brilliant brains to the financial sector. I consider it rather a stroke of luck for science that these “brilliant brains” made the big mess elsewhere. As for the young generation, I believe that we underestimate them. They are not that different from us at that age. A lot of the gifted ones see hard work as the challenge for becoming a profiled member of society. Hard work is still a strong, inherent driving force for human beings who want to succeed in meeting tough challenges. And this is what the young scientists need to do and what science needs. But we have to be very careful not to corrupt them during their education from childhood to university with all the questionable practices which we have adapted in recent years, not only in society at large but as well as in science.

Science has lost and is still losing quite a bit of its spirit, of the charm—the charm of quarks is no great help—and of the great passion, devotion, and enthusiasm that push the frontiers of science and technology into new lands along the paths of curiosity. Science operates increasingly with competition, with financial and recognition incentives, with claims, with vain promises and assurances, and with other personal promotion schemes. None of them make science and scientists any better; nor do they make scientists think more deeply and act more progressively. All these practices are on loan from the business world, so we should give them back as fast as we can. They all impair the freedom of thinking—the most precious asset of science. They divert the attention away from what you think is most worthwhile to do, from one's own capabilities, and from the very high standards of science based on creativity, novelty, openness, truth, and honesty. We have to understand that a noncorrupt selection of people, proposals, topics, and methods has nothing to do with competition, neither for the ones who select nor for the selected ones. Passion cannot be enforced with incentives of any kind. Claims and promises have short legs, and they neither attract the brilliant ones nor win over society at large.

We scientists are told that we should act more “entrepreneurially”—the new political catchword in science. I do not quite understand what is really meant by it, but whatever is meant, it must be a gross misunderstanding of the mission of science and of its tradition, standards, beliefs, and mechanisms. Admittedly, there is always room for improvement even in very good scientific institutions. We have to rethink where to cut down and where to enhance. Usually, cutting at the bottom raises the standard more easily than adding at the top where the scientists are scarce. But we have to have the freedom to take the necessary measures. Whatever, public science institutions seem to be, according to my experience, noticeably more entrepreneurial than other public establishments; research institutions usually do better than universities since they do not have a teaching bonus.

Science was the first global enterprise, both in thinking and acting, long before the globalization mania of recent decades in economy, society, and politics. Science realized long ago that it has to rely on each person who does science, wants to do science, and can offer science. Thus anyone who has science of quality to offer is a most welcome member of the worldwide scientific community. The “science market” is open and accessible to anybody without any restrictions. Unfortunately and astonishingly, a trend to a more national label (rather than global) is clearly noticeable, in spite of or maybe because of all the globalization noise and pressure—science for the benefit of a greatly shrunken mankind. A particular strength of global science is the worldwide exposure for quality control, the free exchange of ideas, and the global dissemination of scientific achievements and results for free use by everybody who understands the scientific, industrial, economic, and social significance of novel scientific findings. In this sense, timely exposure is a powerful tool to keep a high standard, and it is not meant to corroborate priority claims. When applying for support, you have to expose yourself with little facts in hand and you might get back nasty responses, often based on shaky grounds of conventional knowledge and thinking. That is an unwelcome exposure, but an unavoidable one. I am particularly concerned with early exposure in order to stake priority claims. Promises will maneuver you into an uncomfortable situation of having to live up to too high expectations which you provoked yourself. You lose then the freedom to make mistakes—a very important freedom in science—and you are forced to just choose common and ordinary paths to a solution. I attribute the success of our small IBM Laboratory in Zurich partly to the fact that we operated mainly with results and avoided conjectures and promises. An important advice of mine to young scientists, therefore, is to present what they have, not what they might have some day.

To arrive at any level in science is by no means easier than in the business or political world. The standard is a unique global standard set by the first-rate scientists worldwide, undiluted by particular interests of local, national, or other nature. Cheating and embezzlements are the great exception—not the norm, and they are detected and corrected quite fast by the science community itself. Of course, there exist also in science insider groups and local matadors, which, however, hardly affect the high standard of worldwide science and are irrelevant for scientific progress. That is very different from politics where local thinking and practices are the norm, and world politics, therefore, is what it is. It is also different from economy, where locally biased leaders are not the exception and where globalization of markets lacks a good deal of credibility.

It is quite remarkable that science has long been living global practices out of necessity, and even more remarkable is the consistency in all respects with which science has been acting in accordance with this insight. But we now no longer do that well anymore. It is not just society, economy, and politics that have become overpowered by the tremendous scientific and technological progress. Science too can no longer cope that well with its own success. We let ourselves get confused by the contradicting desires, greed, and expectations which the very success of science has raised in society, economy, and politics. We have to find a way back; otherwise we will be the losers on many levels. I am most particularly concerned about losing the young generation; science without charm is not a great attraction.

Science and society live in symbiosis. Science is the source of the fundamentals for our prosperity. Society is the end of the production chain and implicitly has the decisive responsibility of what is made out of the scientific fundamentals. This is a very tough individual responsibility which cannot be delegated to politics, economy, society at large our neighbors, or to science alone. Science, however, has to make every effort for society to understand its critical responsibility.

Let me summarize my words with five wishes that I address mainly to the young scientists, but the older ones are also welcome to think about them.

  • i)My first wish is that you keep an unbiased mind and that you control information and knowledge, not vice versa. You do not create anything new, except when you venture into new and untouched lands beyond accepted knowledge, skills, ability, and thinking. Also, being impartial towards your own thoughts is often tough but indispensable.
  • ii)My second wish is that you become proud and courageous scientists. Be proud that you are the key to the prosperity and well-being of society, more than ever. This is the most precious recognition of your “passion for science” and scientific performance, and it brings you the noble satisfaction that makes applause redundant. Be courageous to stand up for your convictions and for what you think is worthwhile doing. You have to be your own measure and standard; there are so many others who believe that they know better what should be done in science.
  • iii)My third wish is that you have a lucky and skilful hand in selecting research topics and research collaborators. I know that luck is not part of the scientific vocabulary; intellectual mastery, bottomless knowledge, and scientific expertise rank much higher. Nevertheless, luck is a very crucial driver of scientific progress. The first question should always be: “What would change if I could do it?” You do not always find a good answer, but without question, there would be none. You will then approach the second question of “How can I do it” with a different state of mind. And only afterwards can you turn to the questions regarding sustainability, dangers, environmental aspects, ethics, finances, and so on. This is just the temporal sequence, not that of importance per se.
  • iv)My fourth wish is that you live in a relaxed and fruitful symbiosis with society. Society has to trust you as a member of society at large; it might then also more deeply appreciate your scientific intentions.
  • v)My final wish is that you will be one of those scientists who are paid for what they are doing and not one of those who simply do what they are paid for. Then you will make the future out of the present with your visions, passion, and devotion, and the present simply fades away.

Let me end with some lines from a poem by T. S. Eliot:

  1. Where is the Life we have lost in living?

  2. Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

  3. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Today we might add, “Where is the information we have lost in bits?” Let's find the way back to wisdom.

Biographical Information

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Heinrich Rohrer received his PhD in experimental physics in 1960 from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH-Zurich). In 1963, he joined the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory as a research staff member and became an IBM Fellow. He retired from IBM in 1997. For the invention of the scanning tunnelling microscope, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer were co-recipients of the King Faisal Prize, the Hewlett Packard Europhysics Prize, and the Nobel Prize in Physics (1986). Prof. Rohrer has been a MANA advisor since 2007.