A Scientist Explains

I don't see why you think my story is interesting. There are literally thousands of other scientists whose stories are more important, more enlightening.

Yes, I did drop out of high school. I said that, didn't I. Yeah, I hated it. My dad made me the one condition that I had to get admitted to at least one state school and then he'd let me drop out. UC Santa Barbara. Yup, right here. Where the Kavli Institute is, ironically.

I was just not interested in the way the stuff was taught. Facts and dogma. That's the way it is. Memorize it. Then I went to this guy's lecture at a coffee shop in San Diego. April 30, 1977. I was sixteen years old. I saw a flyer. He talked about anchor points in history, Archimedes, Galileo, Pascal, Newton. How it is we know what we know, what sparked these guys to search for a different explanation, because the one they were being asked to accept seemed insufficient to explain the facts, their own observations. The guy told a story about human reasoning, human inquiry, and I was hooked. He recommended the Clifton Fadiman Lifelong Reading Plan, and I went home and told my parents, I know what I want to do.

I know my story's not typical, but it's not exemplary either. It can't help anyone else. That was then, that was me. No one else can or should do as I did. In fact, I offered my son $10,000 to drop out of high school and go back to France, and--that's right, how did you know?--he declined. He declined!

Not the typical Southern California house, no. Filled with books. Both my sisters dropped out too. One is a math professor in China. Shanghai. She's cool. The other has worked for Southwest Airlines for twenty years. They both did GEDs, went to college later. Yeah, she travels constantly. Once the principal called our house and asked my mom, Do you know where your daughter is? and she said, Yeah, she's right here. Doing something important. Reading War and Peace.

I worked as an electrician's assistant. No, not licensed. Off the books. I worked right around here in Santa Barbara, this exact neighborhood. It's funny. I sailed all over, drove a van cross-country, backpacked in Europe. And read. Like this. I'd read about somebody, Darwin say, in one book and I'd start out reading a biography or autobiography and then just go as deep into their work and thought as I could. The Double Helix, Feynman and the Visualization of Space Time Processes, George Gamov. I got three of the most difficult math books I could find and tried to read them.

I don't think you could do it any more. They used to have this program at the University of Minnesota, University Without Walls. I don't think it exists any more, nowhere like it now. But they weren't going to let me in. Chuck Campbell in the physics department said, Let the guy fail. And not long after, I got accepted into Washington University in St. Louis, so I got my BS and MS at about the same time.

Anders Carlsson. The guy taught me everything. I'd knock on his door for office hours wanting to talk about physics, theory, the beauty of science, elegance, and he'd say, Shut the door. On the back of his office door was a blackboard. He'd say, what are you saying? Show me. Do the math. He taught me that science is not in flowery descriptions of complex phenomena. What it meant to ask a scientific question, how to write a scientific paper. Everything, basically.

Self-taught, up to a point. But I don't think you can do it alone. Now I'm learning from my students. Mostly the grad students, but sometimes people surprise you. I have thrown out little ideas during class--the paper clip thing I talked about in the lecture--and then been pleasantly surprised by one student's reaction. He came in the next morning and tossed a spread sheet on my desk. He said he'd been bored the night before so he decided to check my assertion and see if it had any truth to it. Now there's a scientist.

I hope to teach my students to be prejudiced. I know that sounds like a bad idea, totally non-PC, but how will they know which results to be surprised at if they don't know what the norm is? We're still just scratching the surface of biological knowledge right now. I think we're in a boom time for biology, where what we know is expanding exponentially, and if we're lucky and keep at it, we can take advantage of this explosion of knowledge. How can we quit now? We're in a period like Tycho Brahe and Keppler. The edge of what we know and what we can know with the technology we have is quite close together. How can we relax now? Important discoveries are right around the corner. We can't stop now.

I don't know if I'd recommend Cal Tech to an eighteen-year-old. There's this culture of not going to class. Of already knowing everything there is to know. One kid wrote on a homework assignment, This is bullshit. Then on the next one, Fuck you. Sorry, but that's what he wrote. I sent him an email, Meet me at noon in front of the dining hall. I was angry. I asked him, So, what have you discovered? You must be some hot shit scientist already to blow off classes with Nobel Laureates and NSF grant awardees. What have you discovered? He said, Uh, nothing . . . I'm eighteen years old. Exactly, I said. What right have you to say, This is bullshit, and Fuck you? Again, sorry. I don't know if I made any impression on him, if what he's already been through in high school has hardened him against learning, but what a waste. He could be doing science. Looking at the world. Trying to figure out how a hijacked bacterial cell packs a viral capsid with its genome, the calculable work involved, what that tells us about how life evolved. I can't imagine not being interested in that. In being bored by that. It's packed in there so tightly, it's like five hundred meters of Golden Gate Bridge cable coiled into a Fed Ex truck. Packing it in requires one ATP per base pair. Who could not be amazed by this? Who could want to do anything else with their life when there's still so much we don't know?

Yeah, it probably sounds like I'm jetting all over the globe like a big time CEO, but not really. I don't do too many of these conferences. I like Kavli, though, it's a cool place.

My wife chose to stay home when our kids were born. She's very well read. She plans all our trips. Sailing in the Indian Ocean. Two months of every year in France. Her French is excellent. I didn't like the high schools in our neighborhood here near Cal Tech. The people rub me the wrong way. This was one reason I offered my older son the $10,000. The vibe is bad. All how much did you pay for your house and who did you meet in Berlin and did you know he won that prize? It leads directly to that student who wrote This is bullshit on his homework. I didn't want my son to stew in that for four years, but he has to make his own choice. I did. I'm not sorry.

I get up at 4:30 every morning. 4:30 to 8:30, that's my time. If you want to discover something, you have to get up early in the morning.

I don't go to faculty meetings. I'm not interested in that. I only voted once. I don't have time to pay attention to all that. I'm busy. The same physics that applies at the level of materials science for building bridges applies inside the cell and when thermodynamics gets generalized, when those problems are brought down to the microscale, I want to be there. I worry sometimes that all we're doing is dotting the i's and crossing the t's. You don't? I'm hoping that's not all it is, but I don't know. Will this be "new" science? I don't know. It bothers me, all that I don't know, how much more there is to know. It bothers me, but it excites me too.

You should come to my weeklong physical bio boot camp. You'll spend five days hip deep in the pond at Cal Tech and you'll come home exhausted and exhilarated. If you have the opportunity to live like that, to learn like that, how could say no?