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 comments on “Four Characteristics of the Outstanding Scientist
  • 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”.

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • 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.

  • 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.

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