Wednesday, July 13, 2011

You Just Gotta Do It

So Eli will tell you a post doc story. Way back when lasers were new and dinosaurs (or at least very old photochemists) roamed the earth, Eli had an idea and went and told it to his boss over Torten und Kaffee (it was in Germany). The boss told Eli not to bother, it would never work, here's why and don't waste your time and my money doing it.

Being a young bunny, Eli didn't do it until about a year later what shows up but the very thing done by a big shot in another lab, and everyone starts talking about it. So Eli goes to the big guy and says: See, I was right. The big guy simply said:

You didn't do it.

There are things that you just gotta do.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, I had a mentor who had a great story about his early days as a faculty member, sitting at lunch talking with his own mentor. His mentor asked, "what would you be really excited about working on?" His answer was that he would really like to measure the response of a single ion channel. His mentor shrugged, said that he didn't know how to do that, but hey, Dick Feynman sitting at the next table was a smart guy and might have some advice. Feynman came over, chatted, and basically said that if you could get a really high resistance - close to giga-ohm level - then you could do it. Without that resistance, no luck. My mentor decided that giga-ohm resistance was crazy, and went off to do other work.

Alas, so close to getting a Nobel Prize:,

It turns out that all you have to do is take a regular lab pipette, pull it apart over a Bunsen burner, and take the resulting very small end and push it up against a membrane with ion channels, and the pipette and the membrane automatically form a giga-ohm seal. Hook that pipette up to standard electrophysiology lab equipment and you can see single ion channels opening and closing right on your oscilloscope... pretty darn cool.


Chris McGrath said...

This story also has resonance for personal leadership. The choices we make and the paths we take are ultimately our responsibility.

Henry David Thoreau said, "For every thousand hacking at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root."

We can gain much wisdom from listening to others but, having listened carefully to other's counsel, we need to have the courage and personal vision to pursue the things that we think are truly important.

trrll said...

Actually, with respect to measuring single channel currents, just pushing the micropipet up against the membrane will not get you single channels. I had a grad school lab mate who did that back in the old days, and he didn't get the Nobel prize either (he got some nice currents, but not single-channel resolution). The secret ingredient: you have to suck on it. There was no way to know in advance that it would work; I don't think that it is fully understood even now why it is that the membrane glues itself so tightly to the glass.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me a of a situation from back when I worked at Hughes Aircraft (when there was a Hughes Aircraft, sigh ...)

Anyway, at the wind down of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, aka Star Wars), there was pressure to implement defense reuse. That is, take what we had concocted during SDI and find a commercial use for it.

Cutting a long story short, the group I was part of demonstrated and actually patented a device to make x-ray detector arrays using technology similar to long wave IR imaging. We were starting a collaboration with several research universities when our funding was cut off. The reason given was that digital x-ray imaging would never be a $200 million a year business, so Hughes was interested in developing it.

I think about this every time I'm at the dentist and they take digital x-rays.

What if, ...

Stuart W.

Anonymous said...

oops, make that NOT interested in developing it.

Stuart W.

Mark said...

Do tell, Eli, what was your idea, and what is the reference for the article from the big shot who actually did it?

Anonymous said...

When I was a Ph.D. student I presented my plan for my dissertation work at a meeting wherein a visiting scientist from NCAR told me and everyone else present in no uncertain terms, that my plan was stupid. Indeed, she said all I was going to see was noise. Rather than not do it, my response was that when I got back my first task was to take a quick look for the possible signal in the location where I thought it would be strongest. The probability of the result being random came back as 10^-27. My Ph.D. went on as planned.
Moral: a healthy ego has some benefits or to misquote the I Ching, tests further or to accurately quote a sage bunny sometimes you just gotta do it.
Country Mouse

frank -- Decoding SwiftHack said...

Well, then again there have also been many research directions that the old farts have proclaimed to be dead ends, and which so far still look pretty much like dead ends. No Nobel Prize for cold fusion yet, for instance.

And that's the nice thing about research: you never know for sure where a research direction is really going to lead. :-|

-- frank

John said...

I recall being told that when the first rockets were sent aloft to detect x-rays from stars, the theorists were convinced that they'd never detect anything from any stars (except the sun).

J Bowers said...

Some things ya just don't gotta do.

Climate denier brandishes noose to scientist at climate conference

Citizens Electoral Council - Global Warming is a Fraud

John said...

Mr. Bowers: the last link, to the Citizens Electoral Council, gives a link to 21st Century Science and Technology, which is run by the organizations of Lyndon LaRouche, certificable lunatic.

J Bowers said...

I know, John. CEC is a LaRouche affiliated outfit founded by ex-members of the anti-semitic Australian League of Rights. "Lunar right" sums them up nicely.

Magnus Westerstrand said...

well played tonight

A bit sad for Pia... And Sweden.