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Making Great Minds
In the popular history of the modern world, few scientists are remembered for their work: Einstein, certainly; Marie Curie, perhaps; Fleming, Banting, Best, Salk, Oppenheimer, maybe -- the giants who have become cultural icons. Not among that group is Santiago Ramon y Cajal.
But in the annals of science, Cajal is remembered as a visionary biologist and the man who most influenced our understanding of the brain. And more than that, Advice for a Young Investigator shows us that Cajal was also an alert and concerned teacher.
Cajal (1852-1934) first published this essay in his native Spanish in 1897, when he was already well-established as a leading biologist. His straightforward and elegant advice on how to conduct research and, more broadly, how to think like a scientist was subsequently translated around the world.
For a lay reader whose closest encounter with the scientific method came in a high school science class, it may seem repetitive and obvious for Cajal to point out the need for sound judgement and infinite patience. But Cajal, though writing in a general, nonscientific language -- translated here into very accessible modern English -- is not writing for the casual experimenter or the student who is simply meeting a breadth requirement. Cajal, a passionate and dedicated researcher, is writing for the young and inspired student who feels a vocation for a life of science.
To paraphrase Barbie: Science is hard. The motivation to explore and explain the natural world is a rare impulse, but one that cannot itself guarantee success. Cajal's goal in Advice for a Young Investigator is to guide the inexperienced through the pitfalls of hubris, impatience, laziness, insecurity, reverence, and a host of other moral, educational, and technical failings that keep scientists from achieving their goals.
Though Advice for a Young Investigator is a dated document (Cajal's belief that patriotism is a prime mover for dedicated science reads more jingoistically than modern defenses of science, which always keep a polite distance between science and geopolitics), it has an enduring message for both scientists and lay readers.