Huchra's Seven Characteristics of a Successful Scientist

10 Feb 2012

In my freshman fall at Harvard, I was fortunate to enroll in a seminar on cosmology with John Huchra. In case you're not an astrophysics buff, among other things, Huchra was one of the first astronomers to experimentally observe large-scale structures in the universe using wide-ranging galaxy surveys and, until shortly before his untimely death, he served as the president of the American Astronomical Society.

While my formal study of astronomy ended after Huchra's seminar (although I do lug my telescope out when visiting my parents in Nebraska), Huchra left a strong impression on me. There are certain individuals who exemplify my ideal of a great scientist, who are not only successful but demonstrate a sense of real purpose in their research and enthusiasm for their subject. Huchra's weekly seminar and our often extended discussions afterward were probably my first extended contact with a real-life, practicing professional scientist. Huchra's excitement about his field, his ability to communicate heady concepts such as galaxy formation and cosmic microwave background radiation to a group of university freshmen, and his passion for science heavily influenced my own career path, even if I didn't realize it at the time.

Some time ago, I found a highly accessible (draft) essay Huchra wrote titled "Mapmaker, Mapmaker Make Me a Map", describing his career path and research. Huchra's writing captures his personality well and is worth a read in itself, but I like the essay also for his formulation of the characteristics of a "successful scientist":
…an individual's success in the [science] game could be predicted by their characteristics in a seven vector space. Each vector measured a critical personal characteristic or set of characteristics such as intelligence, taste and luck, and the ability to tell one's story (public relations)…
Looking back on this I've come to realize that being nearly a unit vector in any one of the important characteristics pretty much guarantee's[sic] you a tenured job, two are good for membership in the National Academy, and three put you in contention for the Nobel Prize.
I haven't seen Huchra's seven characteristics elsewhere, but I find them particularly interesting:
Huchra also adds that "many people would want to add 'luck' to the list, but our learned conclusion was that luck is a product of at least three of the above vectors and not an attribute in and of itself."  Moreover, "some vectors are worth more than others, [sic] for example [sic] taste and creativity are probably more important than knowledge."

Now, as a greenhorn in Computer Science, I'll not speculate like Huchra does in his essay as to who in my own field constitutes a "unit vector" for each characteristic, nor will I attempt to publicly analyze my own strengths and weaknesses. However, I think this is a thought-provoking taxonomy that deserves reflection. After all, being the smartest person in the room can get you pretty far, but, as with most life pursuits, (perhaps thankfully for most of us) there's often a lot more to success than raw intelligence by itself.

A version of Huchra's essay also appears as a chapter of Our Universe: The Thrill of Extragalactic Exploration as Told by Leading Experts, edited by Alan Stern (Cambridge University Press, 2001).
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