Advice for a young investigator
by Santiago Ramon y Cajal (1897)
Here is a good bit:
Once a hypothesis is clearly formulated, it must be submitted
to the ratification of testing. For this, we must choose
experiments or observations that are precise, complete, and
conclusive. One of the characteristic attributes of a great
intellect is the ability to design appropriate experiments.
They immediately ªnd ways of solving problems that
average scholars only clarify with long and exhausting
If the hypothesis does not fit the data, it must be rejected
mercilessly and another explanation beyond reproach
drawn up. Let us subject ourselves to harsh self-criticism
that is based on a distrust of ourselves. During the course
of proof, we must be just as diligent in seeking data contrary
to our hypothesis as we are in ferreting out data that may
support it. Let us avoid excessive attachment to our own
ideas, which we need to treat as prosecutor, not defense
attorney. Even though a tumor is ours, it must be removed.
It is far better to correct ourselves than to endure correction
by others. Personally, I do not feel the slightest embarrassment
in giving up my ideas because I believe that to fall and
to rise alone demonstrates strength, whereas to fall and wait
for a helping hand indicates weakness.
Furthermore, we must admit our own absurdities whenever
someone points them out, and we should act accordingly.
Proving that we are driven only by a love of truth, we
shall win for our views the consideration and esteem of our
Excessive self-esteem and pride deprive us of the supreme
pleasure of sculpting our own lives; of the incomparable
gratification of having improved and conquered ourselves;
of refining and perfecting our cerebral machinery—the legacy
of heredity. If conceit is ever excusable, it is when the
will remodels or re-creates us, acting as it were as a supreme
If our pride resists improvement, let us bear in mind that,
whether we like it or not, none of our tricks can slow the
triumph of truth, which will probably happen during our
lifetime. And the livelier the protestations of self-esteem
have been, the more lamentable the situation will be. Some
disagreeable character, perhaps even with bad intentions,
will undoubtedly arrive on the scene and point out our
inconsistency to us. And he will inevitably become enraged
if we readily correct ourselves because we will have deprived
him of an easy victory at our expense. However, we
should reply to him that the duty of the scientist is to adapt
continuously to new scientific methods, not become paralyzed
by mistakes; that cerebral vigor lies in mobilizing
oneself, not in reaching a state of ossiªcation; and that in
man’s intellectual life, as in the mental life of animals, the
harmful thing is not change, but regression and atavism.
Change automatically suggests vigor, plasticity, and youth.
In contrast, rigidity is synonymous with rest, cerebral lassitude,
and paralysis of thought; in other words, fatal inertia—certain
harbinger of decrepitude and death. With
winning sincerity, a certain scientist once remarked: “I
change because I study.” It would be even more self-effacing
and modest to point out: “I change because others study,
and I am fortunate to renew myself.” (pp 122–123)
Of course, he also said things like this:
To sum things up: As a general rule, we advise the man inclined toward science to seek in the one whom his heart has chosen a compatible psychological profile rather than beauty and wealth. In other words, he should seek feelings, tastes, and tendencies that are to a certain extent complementary to his own. He will not simply choose a woman, but a woman who belongs to him, whose best dowry will be a sensitive compliance with his wishes, and a warm and full-hearted acceptance of her husband’s view of life.
Unlike teachers of history and literature, unaccustomed to assigning writing that mixes nuggets of wisdom and bald sexism. I’m thinking of being explicit with my students that they have several options, to
read and think in a manner divorced from emotion, to take the good and leave the bad, or to dismiss it all as rot. That’s got problems, but so does everything else I can think of. Working on it.