Four Characteristics of the Outstanding Scientist

Arthur Koestler identified four characteristics of the outstanding scientist, but it could be applied to more than just scientists:

  • An oceanic sense of wonder
  • A curious mixture of skepticism and credulous precocity
  • Dual abilities, both to generalize and to concentrate on the particulars
  • Multiple potentials — enough to succeed in any one of several careers

I love the phrase “oceanic sense of wonder.” The ability to generalize seems rarer than the ability to concentrate on particulars.

I spotted this list in James Austin’s interesting book Chase, Chance, and Creativity.

10 Responses to Four Characteristics of the Outstanding Scientist

  1. Curiosity is the most valuable trait a scientist can have, more important than intelligence or work ethic.

    Great scientists of my acquaintance do two things: 1) they ask “why” a lot, and 2) they are ruthlessly skeptical when presented with any phrase that is preceded by the word “because”.

  2. dan says:

    yes, insatiable curiosity, and unconstrained imagination.

  3. Andy McKenzie says:

    I like this. But this:

    “Multiple potentials — enough to succeed in any one of several careers”

    seems a bit vague, like yes of course people who could be good in one thing will also be good in another.

    At least in my lab, success seems to be 3% inspiration, and 97% pipetting (meaning thumb strength). So maybe that could be an alternative fourth characteristic.

  4. Ben Casnocha says:

    "Pipetting" — hahah…

  5. Koestler wasn’t a scientist, and I suspect that to the extent he knew many scientists, it was probably a rather self-selected set — the sort who’d be interested in Arthur Koestler. I’ve known outstanding scientists who largely lacked both qualities 1 and 4, so far as I can tell. I’m not entirely sure what 2 means. 3, I can agree with…

  6. Stanley Lee says:

    I think that only applies for chemical/biological sciences.

  7. Stanley Lee says:

    Replying to Michael’s comment, I know plenty of scientists (more like grad students in physical sciences and engineering) who cannot generalize properly after working on hardcore research problems for a long time.

  8. My comment was specifically in reference to _outstanding_ scientists. I quite agree with you that many scientists get permanently stuck in details, but I’ve never met an outstanding scientist of whom that was true.

  9. Oceanic sense of wonder seems to stem from Freud’s “oceanic feeling” (strictly speaking coined by Romain Rolland, but popularized by Freud), which he related to religious experience. link to

  10. Stanley Lee says:

    Maybe I don’t know that many outstanding scientists then.

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