Five Professional Lessons from Darwin’s Scientific Career

THE BOY’S NAME WAS CHARLES. His father, Robert Darwin, a doctor himself, wanted his son to study medicine. So young Charles Darwin was sent to Edinburgh University Medical School –the finest medical college in Britain – where his elder brother Erasmus was already enrolled. Contrary to his father’s ambitions, Charles found the lectures intolerably dull; the dissection of animals was a horrific sight for him and he often escaped the place in disgust.

Charles had a peculiar taste for natural history rather than medicine. As soon as his father learned about his lack of interest in medicine, Charles Darwin was presented a second career choice: to be a clergyman which, after a little bit of thought, he accepted. However, before undertaking a vocation as solemn as priesthood, he was enrolled in the Cambridge University for studying arts. 

Most of us know Charles Darwin as a naturalist, not as a priest. Ironically, he was condenmed as a “heathen” whose ideas were in stark conflict with the clergy his father wanted him to join. He would later recall in his autobiography:

Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman. Nor was this intention and my father’s wish ever formerly given up but died a natural death”. 

Lesson One: Do not force yourself or let others force you to make specific career choices. Your profession is a significant part of your life; you must choose it wisely and deliberately.  Newton’s mother forced him to be a farmer rather than a scientist, but he resisted. Similarly, Darwin’s father wanted him to be a physician at first, and then a pastor. However, unlike Newton, Darwin had nearly accepted priesthood as his future profession. As it turned out, fate had other plans for him.  

Darwin spent a major portion of his stay at Cambridge collecting beetles. Nonetheless, he found a special friend at the campus­­ – John Stevens Henslow – a botany professor who was about to play the most significant role in the subsequent making of Charles Darwin as we know him today.

As he graduated from Cambridge University in 1831, Charles Darwin was on his way to be a priest as his father desired. Meanwhile, he joined a course on geology which saw him traveling to Wales to map out rocks and soil. When he returned from his Wales trip, a letter from Henslow awaited him. There was an expedition going along the HMS Beagle and Henslow had proposed his name to join the ship as a naturalist.  

Initially, Robert Darwin objected saying that this trip would entail a huge loss of his son’s time. He thought it as youngster’s excuse for avoiding his career in clergy. However, upon involvement of Charles’ uncle, the elder Darwin agreed to finance the trip. This was destined to be the most influential voyage in the known human history – a voyage that uprooted the long-held beliefs about the nature of life on earth. 

Lesson Two: Make sincere friends who can see your strengths and support you in your career. As you have seen here and will find out later in this tale, Henslow was instrumental in creating opportunities for Darwin without being jealous or biased. Just like Edmond Halley encouraged and supported Newton in publication of Principia.

On December 27, 1831, HMS Beagle embarked its journey. While the Beagle surveyed and chartered the American coastlines, young Darwin would stay on land collecting specimens and taking copious notes. Though not an experienced botanist, Darwin was a man of intent. Despite being seasick at times, he remained diligent with his specimen collection and notes taking. By the end of the voyage, he had compiled a dairy of 770 pages and had cataloged more than five thousand skins, bones, and carcasses. 

The trip was originally planned for two years but it actually took five years to complete. Every now and then, Darwin would send his collected specimens to Henslow at Cambridge who, with unparalleled sincerity, presented and popularized Darwin’s work in the academic circles.By the time the Beagle landed back in October 1836, Darwin was no longer a juvenile looking forward to becoming a priest. He was a kind of celebrity who had seen natural wonders no other Brit had ever witnessed.  

Lesson Three: Make extra efforts in the beginning of your career. Darwin was inexperienced as a biologist, but he made up for his shortcomings through extensive notes taking and specimen collection. You may not be the smartest in a new field, but hard work seldom goes unrewarded.    

Funded by his wealthy father, who was by now convinced that his son’s original talent was somewhere else, Darwin did extensive research over his collected specimens. By 1839, Charles Darwin had his theory on evolution of life through natural selection. Though he himself was convinced about his results yet he was fully aware of the consequences of the publication of his concepts: clerics would certainly deem his ideas as a blasphemy, an affront to religious scriptures. So he kept his ideas to himself for many years while continuing his research on plant and animal species thus fine tuning the details.

In 1856, two decades after his Beagles voyage, Darwin started writing a book incorporating the gist of his ideas. Though public sense of science had improved during these years, yet he apprehended that the publication of his concepts concerning human evolution could lead to a national uproar causing problems for him and his family.

While he was halfway through his book, Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, who had indicated that while working on animal species as a naturalist in the islands of Malay Archipelago, he had found conclusions nearly the same as those of Darwin. While Wallace had sought Darwin’s views on his research as a respected biologist, the latter went into a professional dilemma: if Darwin delayed his publication further, the opportunity could be seized by someone else. 

Contrary to Darwin’s apprehensions, the matter was sorted wisely: joint extracts of Darwin’s and Wallace’s findings were read at the Linnean Society. Surprisingly, the presentation (which Darwin couldn’t attend due to his son’s death) failed to cause much social stir. 

Lesson Four: Don’t live in your comfort zone and try to seize the opportunity before someone else grabs it. Darwin delayed the publication of his theory for nearly two decades. Unless he felt a threat that another man could take credit for a similar work, he did not take the initiative. Off course, he had solid reasons for delaying the publication but then those reasons could persist forever.     

Once the Wallace crisis was averted, Darwin, despite his health problems and family turmoil (two of his ten children passed away at young age), started working towards his main idea. Fully aware of the nature of objections that could arise, he used his two decades of research to find convincing answers.

Finally, in 1859, The Origin of Species was published which sparked significant interest on international level. It was translated into several languages and its popularity can be compared to any international bestseller on today’s Amazon list.

Lesson Five: Prepare well before presenting a critical idea. Darwin had concluded his theory during 1830s but did not have all the answers. Learning from the Wallace episode, he started working diligently on his ideas to address anticipated objections. Bottomline:  if you are not prepared, don’t present your idea;  a bad impression is far worse than no impression at all.       

Charles Darwin died in 1882, having lived for 73 years. His idea of natural selection would not become a widely accepted principle until 1930s which meant only Darwin’s son Leonard lived on to see his efforts to fruition.

Five Professional Lessons from Faraday’s Scientific Career

HE HATED HIS JOB but loved the company of the books around him. His name was Michael Faraday. Born in suburbs of London to a blacksmith, the boy was too poor to be formally educated.  Nevertheless, apprenticed to a book binder at the age of fourteen, young Faraday used the opportunity to read extensively for next seven years. He would read every book that came to him for binding, and found a special adoration for science; electricity, in particular.  

As he turned twenty, Faraday got an opportunity to attend lectures of Sir Humphry Davy – the inventor of laughing gas and the most eminent British chemist of his time. He was fascinated by the lectures and scribbled furiously on his notebook as Davy addressed. Subsequently, he compiled a 300 pages book – a synthesis of what he had learnt at the binder’s shop and during the lectures– and sent it to Davy, who was fairly impressed by the youngster’s zeal towards science. 

And then came the first stroke of luck for Faraday. During one of his experiments, things went wrong for Davy and his eyesight was severely affected; he started looking for someone who could take notes for him, preferably someone who knew a little bit about chemistry.  Upon recommendation of one of his customers at the binding shop, Michael Faraday was able to join Sir Humphry Davy as an assistant a little while later. He had found his dream job. 

Lesson One: Seek to create growth opportunities even if they don’t seem to exist. Faraday had no hopes to join an educational institute ever; but he converted the book binder’s shop into a school – an alma mater that eventually got him to a position that others with proper erudition could desire but never attain.

As soon as Davy recovered his sight, Faraday was sent back to work at the binder’s shop. It seemed luck had played a trick with him. Despite his repeated letters to Davy, begging to be considered for even the most menial of scientific posts, he always received the same response that there were no openings at the Royal Institute. A couple of months went by like this. 

Eventually, in February 1813, Faraday had his final piece of good fortune. One of the laboratory assistants at Royal Institute  got involved in a public brawl and was dismissed from his post on account of misconduct.  Davy sent for Faraday and offered him the job with a good salary and accommodation along with the desired research facilities.  The poor book binder’s apprentice was on the way of becoming one of the greatest scientists of all times. 

Lesson Two: Do not loose hope if luck seems to be against you. It could be a temporary trial. Faraday was fortunate as unfortunate Davy met an accident; then he felt unfortunate for being sent back to the binder’s shop; then luck favored him again as a vacancy was created at the Royal Institute due to a public brawl. Luck is an unknown, uncontrollable force; it could change direction at any time. The best you can do is to be persistent in your efforts towards your desired goals. 

Coming from humble origins and lacking formal education, Faraday was not considered a gentleman and often disdained by upper class peers. Once during a trip across Europe, Davy’s wife refused to treat him as an equal and made him eat with servants; Faraday felt so miserable that he thought of returning to England alone and giving up his scientific endeavors for good. But he stuck in for his love of science. 

In 1821, at the age of thirty, Faraday got his first major breakthrough: the first electric motor; the first device to use electric current to make a material object move. Though primitive in form, this motor was the ancestor of all the electric motors in use in the world today. It was a momentous achievement by a nearly illiterate outcast, purely by dint of his sheer diligence towards scientific pursuit. 

Lesson Three: Be prepared to face suffering in pursuit of your aims. Faraday was often humiliated in the class-based British society of nineteenth century; but he held his goals higher than himself, thought them more important than his own ego. So though he suffered, but not without a purpose. Suffering with a purpose makes it meaningful, rather enjoyable.

Faraday revered Humphry Davy as his mentor. Davy took him in as an apprentice when others scorned him as a lowly pariah. Under his mentoring, Faraday was winning laurels; but gradually Faraday’s brilliance started to overshadow Davy’s own achievements. This aroused a not so uncommon resentment between the mentor and the pupil. 

Davy was an influential aristocrat, while Faraday, irrespective of his feats, was still a blacksmith’s son. Influential Davy used his stature to snub his pupil’s work; a relentless Faraday continued his independent research in the field of electrochemistry.  It took Davy several years to overcome his insecurities. When asked what his greatest discovery was, an elderly Davy simply replied, “Michael Faraday.”  

Lesson Four: Don’t let jealousy spoil your personal and professional relationships. Sir Humphry Davy was a remarkable scientist but his student, Michael Faraday, surpassed his brilliance. Davy’s resentment took him nowhere; eventually, he had to embrace Faraday as his most promising find.  

Faraday was excellent at conducting experiments. However, lacking formal education, he did not possess the necessary mathematical skills. Though he had postulated that light is a form of electromagnetic energy, he could never validate it quantitatively. Being ill-equipped to prove his proposition, he was often ridiculed in the scientific community. 

It took another genius to show that Faraday’s extraordinary idea was in fact correct.  James Clerk Maxwell, some forty years his junior, came to the rescue of an aging, and now forgetful, Faraday. Maxwell, a Cambridge alumnus, used his mathematical prowess to prove the existence of the invisible electromagnetic fields that Faraday had intuited.

Lesson Five: Identify and accept your weaknesses; do seek help when you lack the skills. Faraday, despite his talent as an experimenter, did not possess the mathematical expertise to prove his theory. He accepted his weakness, sought help from Maxwell, and the collaboration resulted in a crucial success. 

In August 1867, Michael Faraday died at an age of 75 years. Thus ends the tale of human endeavor with an ultimate triumph – a triumph that has given us everything from electricity to modern day communication systems.

Five Professional Lessons from Newton’s Scientific Career

HE WAS BORN THREE MONTHS AFTER HIS FATHER’S DEATH. Named after his late father – Isaac Newton – his life started as a solitary child. When he was three years old, his mother married for the second time and moved with her new husband, leaving him to the care of his grandparents. When he was eleven, his stepfather passed away and his mother returned along with a couple of half siblings.  

Although a bright child, Isaac was often inattentive in school. When he turned seventeen, his mother took him out of school hoping that he will be more successful as a farmer. Fortunately, her assessment didn’t prove to be true; when sent out to look after the sheep, he spent the day designing ingenious mechanical devices instead of tending the cattle. Eventually, his mother had to renounce her thoughts and send her back to school.

In 1661, Newton entered Trinity College at Cambridge. During those times, Cambridge was almost entirely reserved for the sons of the aristocracy, which Newton was obviously not. Moreover, his mother, though not lacking in means, was not willing to spend much on his education. Consequently, he had to earn his keep by performing menial tasks for fellows from affluent families. More than three centuries after, no one knows the names of those affluent nobles while Isaac Newton is still hailed as the most influential scientist that ever walked the planet. 

Lesson One: Do not let the external circumstances dictate your career choices. Newton had a turbulent childhood­ – he could have ended as a farmer as his mother desired. But he was persistent in his craving for scientific knowledge. If you have a specific motive in your personal or professional life and the odds seem to be against you, don’t give in; just remain determined with your goals.  

In the year 1664, plague broke out in Britain. The epidemic was so severe that Cambridge University was forced to close its doors. Most of the students would have taken it as an opportunity to ease off on studying a bit. However, Newton was no ordinary student. He returned home but continued his scientific research with fervor.  During this period, Newton conducted various experiments focused on optics and motion; these leisurely studies laid the foundation for his later scientific achievements. 

Lesson Two: Make the best use of the free time available to you. Upon closure of the university, Newton could have spent his time playing and rejoicing but he valued time as a precious resource. Time is probably the most precious personal resource in your life. In fact, life itself is time; your life is primarily the time allotted to you for living in this world. So learn to appreciate its value and utilize this limited personal resource to further your desired goals.

Between his twenty-first and twenty-seventh years, Newton had laid the foundations for the scientific theories that subsequently revolutionized the world. But he was always reluctant to publish his results. Thus, many of his theories were not made public until much later. Principia, arguably the most significant piece of scientific work, had to wait for two decades before publication; and that too upon strong persuasion from Sir Edmund Halley – the Halley Comet fame and a contemporary of Newton.

Despite being brilliant himself, newton feared criticism from other scientists and made every effort to avoid controversy. Perhaps the insecurities from his flustered upbringing were still ingrained in the youngster’s brain, ruining his abilities to confront the world with confidence. Ironically, his tendency to avert disputes led to a major intellectual controversy that could have deprived him from one of his foremost credits – the invention of integral calculus – the mathematical study of change.

In 1669, Newton wrote a paper delineating the fundamentals of calculus. Nonetheless, it was not published until 1711– a gap of 42 years! Incidentally, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, a German mathematician, published his work on calculus in 1886 and claimed the invention. Upon this, Newton declared that he had invented it much earlier and Leibniz had merely stolen his ideas. Today the common wisdom is that both great mathematicians invented the field independently. 

Lesson Three: Be assertive with your ideas and don’t hesitate to express them to the world. Newton was so afraid of being confronted that he always avoided publication of his concepts. Had Edmund Halley not persuaded him; Principia might have never been published – the world could have been a much darker place. So folks, open your thoughts to other people; let them disagree and criticize. This may seem intimidating at first blush, but it will lead you to a path of growth and development. 

Leibniz was not the only rival that Newton’s popularity earned him. By 1672, the Royal Society –the most eminent scientific institution in Britain – got wind of Newton’s brilliance and invited him to publish his work on light and color. In this paper, Newton posited that light is composed of particles. This was a radical notion for many at the Society; one of its members named Robert Hook– often credited with the discovery of living cells­– led the pack of skeptics and called Newton’s results a mere “hypothesis”.

After weathering the criticism for a couple of months, Newton bent his back on finding mathematical proofs for his theories. Though the two scientists remained adversaries till Hook’s demise in 1703, the constant pressure from Hook on Newton forced him to bring significant mathematical refinements in his scientific concepts. Thus, in a way, Robert Hook proved to be a friend rather than a foe. 

Lesson Four: Try to find friends in your foes. Those who criticize or belittle you are mostly viewed as your enemies, and they often are. Robert Hook criticized Newton’s ideas but Newton used that criticism as an opportunity to improve his work. If people laugh at your presentation, don’t drown yourself in a river of embarrassment. Rather identify what made them laugh and improve on that. Easier said than done, but definitely worth practicing.  

Newton’s lifetime was a period of great scientific upheaval. Though scientists like Copernicus and Galileo had shunned the misconceptions of ancient scientific thought, science as a knowledge was more of a loose assortment of seemingly unrelated facts.  Besides, pure science was often viewed as a plaything of intellectuals and no one believed if it could be of any practical significance. 

It was Isaac Newton who, building upon the works of his predecessors –Descartes, Galileo, Copernicus– supplied a unified theory that could make scientific predictions, and subsequently be applied to bring about the technological revolution that seems so mundane to us today. Newton himself realized and acknowledged the importance of the foundations laid by his forerunners. In his own words,

“If I have seen further than others, it is because I have been standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Lesson Five: Never hesitate to learn from others’ ideas. Newton studied the concepts of his precursors and then synthesized them to build the unified theory that led to the scientific and technological advances. Following the footsteps of Newton, dear readers, don’t hesitate to learn from seniors and peers and upon that learning, construct the building of your own ideas.  And yes, don’t forget to acknowledge the contribution of people from whom you learn.

Newton was knighted and died a superstar in 1731. His theories received unanimous acceptance across the world, until Albert Einstein appeared on the scene beginning of twentieth century. 

Five Professional Lessons from Einstein’s Scientific Career

IT WAS THE TWILIGHT OF THE NINETEENTH CENTURY. Albert Einstein was in Milan, spending his days loafing aimlessly for the most. Having abandoned his studies in Germany, young Albert had joined his family in Italy, where his father was running an enterprise assigned with bringing electricity to the streets of Pavia.

It is a commonly perpetuated fallacy that Einstein was a failure at school. Yes, he didn’t do well in history, geography and French (and off course he detested the regimental practices of his high school in Germany), but he was exceptionally brilliant in his favorite subjects: physics and mathematics. The punch line: Albert Einstein went on to become the greatest scientist of all times. 

Lesson One: Choose your niche early on in your career – just like Einstein identified his academic inclination at an early age, focused to pursue it­, and made it into an enduring scientific career. Whether you want to be a CEO or a technical expert should be clear to you in the first few years of your professional career. This will enable you to channel your limited personal resources: time, energy, attention etc. efficiently towards your chosen career objectives. 

In the year 1905– what he called his “Miracle Year”–Albert Einstein published five articles in the Annalen der Physik– the most prestigious scientific journal of the era. The first article was concerning the nature of light and photoelectric effect; the next two were attempted to prove the size and existence of atoms respectively; the fourth paper constitutes his Special Theory of Relativity; while the final one was his world famous mathematical equation: E= mc2. 

With five revolutionary papers published in one of physics’ most esteemed journals, a youthful Einstein expected an instant upheaval in the scientific community over his novel ideas. Nonetheless, what followed was an icy silence. Despite several efforts, he was unable to get even a modest employment opportunity as a science teacher­­– he was still a patent office clerk. It was heart-breaking. 

But Einstein was relentless in his love for science. For next couple of years, he continued publishing more scientific papers, before being finally accepted as an associate professor of theoretical physics at the university of Zurich. From there onwards, he never looked back and kept receiving employment offers from various prestigious universities. The patent office clerk became a renowned professor. 

Lesson Two: Do not expect immediate results from your efforts. Many, if not all, of our struggles go unrecognized before being finally acknowledged; this frustrates us so much that we either give up, or worse, start swaying between belief and disbelief. Do not spend the intervening period agonizing yourself; this will simply waste your time and energy. Instead try for your beloved cause even harder as Einstein did by publishing more scientific papers. 

By1910, Einstein was a well-known physics professor. His theories were being compared to the works of Isaac Newton – the father of classical physics. However, this comparison brought him his next challenge: while writing a summary of his theory of relativity, Einstein realized that his relativity theory was in stark conflict with Newton’s theory of gravity­, the later being regarded as an impeccable scientific concept hitherto. 

Confronting Newtonian Physics was quite a big deal, even for a man as brilliant as Albert Einstein. It took him ten years to resolve the conflict between relativity and gravity; ten years of attempts, errors, more attempts, more errors. But the reward was his greatest masterpiece: the General Theory of Relativity published in November 1915. Einstein was catapulted from a brilliant physicist to a global celebrity. 

Lesson Three: Accept challenges as opportunities. Albert Einstein was already an acclaimed scientist and a well-paid physics professor, but he accepted the challenge, kept trying while conceiving mistaken ideas repeatedly, and ultimately succeeded to present a theory tantamount to Newton’s law of gravitation. Our successes are composed of countless failures; with each failed attempt, we improve and draw closer to success. But as we succeed after weathering a number of failures, the journey doesn’t end there; it opens further challenges and more opportunities for growth.

Einstein’s theory of relativity propelled him to global fame; yet the concept remained esoteric for numerous years. In fact, the idea of relativity was so nonintuitive that it was even deemed as a conspiracy in some circles. These controversies kept him away from winning Nobel Prize notwithstanding several nominations. Eventually, in 1921, Einstein was awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his non-glamorous paper on Photoelectric Effect; ironically, there was no mention of the theory of relativity. 

Lesson Four: Do not frown if people fail to recognize your achievements; better accept the fact that you can’t control their views and biases. What seems important to you may not be important to your boss. Conversely, sometimes you perform certain tasks quite unambitiously, and the results are perceived so positively that you are rewarded for them; take these rewards as a compensation for your unrecognized efforts. Einstein’s Nobel Prize is often viewed as a consolation prize as well. 

One of Einstein’s 1905 papers laid the first foundation of quantum physics. However, it was Dane Neils Bohr and his disciples who formulated the related mathematical equations during 1920s. Despite being one of its pioneers, the concepts presented by Bohr & Co. seemed surreal to Einstein himself; he insisted on the existence of objective nature of reality while the newly proposed quantum theory suggested the subtle and ephemeral existence of objects such as electrons. 

The disagreement between Einstein and Bohr ignited an interesting academic rivalry between the two scientists that continued for more than a decade. A series of arguments and counter arguments succeeded through lectures, articles, and letters between the duo. In the end, Einstein–with a bitter taste in his mouth– had to concede that the new theory, while seemingly absurd, had no contradiction and was a giant leap towards understanding the nature of physical world. 

Lesson Five: Do not be stubborn in your views. Anyone can be wrong, even a genius like Einstein. A person who thinks that he knows everything about his trade can never grow further; by accepting the fact that your views can be wrong, you open the path for further growth and improvement. So keep your ego aside, keep moving forward. 

Einstein died in April, 1955. By his deathbed, they found twelve pages littered with equations, cross-outs, and corrections; he was still working on his unfinished Unified Fields Theory.