Great moments in irony

On Monday, John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. This is an excerpt from his 1949 high school report card.


  1. Re: “… but will insist on doing his work in his own way …”

    We know from studies of baboons, which are known for stressing one another out in order to maintain their societal hierarchy, that those on the receiving end of the stress who are unable to culture solace from community will tend to exhibit poor health.  That’s because stress causes the body to shut down, in bits and pieces — the immune system being one of those pieces.  Stress biologically evolved to assist with fight or flight, which is a very temporary phenomenon.  But, in our modern human society, people can endure stress for days or even months at a time.  The implications are profound, for what it suggests is that those scientists who go against the grain of the establishment will tend to suffer tremendously, and the widespread culture which has unfortunately developed to brand “fringe” scientists as anti- or pseudo-science will generally tend to favor advocates of mainstream views.  If you don’t believe this, then take up a temporary against-the-mainstream view and go onto one of the numerous forums online, and advocate for that view.  You will inevitably notice that it’s difficult to NOT take the abuse personally.  This is what stress is.

    In a world where a student who wants to do things differently can end up receiving a Nobel Prize, we need to take extreme caution about the level of respect we afford to against-the-mainstream thinkers and theorists.  Our collective decision to cast these thinkers aside for the simple reason that they have diverged from mainstream views actually acts to preclude our own future access to the fruits of their labors.  I’ve seen such behavior here on BoingBoing, although it is far more prevalent in places like Slashdot and the Bad Astronomy and Universe Today forum.

    We have to make smart choices when we interact online.  Our actions have incredible consequences — not just for those who read our comments, but their friends, the friends of their friends, and so on.  History has demonstrated time and time again that scientific consensus can be incredibly wrong.  Perhaps the proper response is to accept as normal the process of critical thinking into the sciences, which absolutely demands questioning assumptions and listening to critics.

    1.  Is there a link between this guy being a creative and non conventional thinker and people that believe in superstitious bullshit?

      1.  Of course. The vast majority of non-conventional thinking is bullshit, for the same reason that most possible claims are false. However, science requires changing our thinking in in the direction of being more right, so that those few true sentences that future science will find evidence for and later endorse are guaranteed to currently be among those not currently believed by the mainstream. Most free thinkers are not going to become Nobel prize winners, but Nobel prize winners must necessarily be comfortable rejecting mainstream views.

        1.  Right, I fully concur that we want scientists that think up bullshit, I am just not sure we want them to believe it after testing shows it is bullshit.

  2. This has been getting a lot of press, and obviously it’s totally disgraceful. But it’s also a shame how rare it is for the media to track down the teachers who saw the potential in these students and encouraged them, which good teachers do. If you polled every teacher of every Nobel winner, far more of them would say “That kid was really going places” than “That kid was doomed.”

    1.  This is the Scientist’s report card.  that Isn’t public record is it?

      It sounds more like this guy kept the report card and sent it to the press as revenge after he won.  Which I fully endorse.

      This teacher was clearly terrible.

    2. Every Nobel winner – maybe.  But there are certainly some who simply weren’t good at school when they were kids.  My own kid is intellectually gifted, but because of mild ADD, he is definitely not academically gifted.  Maybe he will grow out of it; maybe he will find a way to excel that doesn’t involve tests and term papers.

      The good news is there are teachers and programs that help kids like this shine.  The bad news is they’re always on the chopping block.

    3. If you polled every teacher of every Nobel winner, far more of them would say “That kid was really going places” than “That kid was doomed.” Really? I’d think it was a toss up.

      1. Seriously ? I am sure there are exceptions but saying it’s a toss up is a huge stretch. For instance, if you consider at the (20 or so) French laureates of the Nobel prize in physics or the Fields medal (the maths equivalent), every single one of them was a top (as in top 0.1% at least) student by the end of high school. This doesn’t mean their teachers necessarily liked them (though it’s likely) but they certainly wouldn’t have labelled them hopeless failures.

      2. No, there would be result bias. I am sure if you asked this same teacher about a Prize winner, he would say he knew he would do great things for science . . . until you showed him the old report card. Few people are going to say that they someone who got the Prize would never make it.

  3. To be fair to the teacher, I bet they wrote several similarly-worded report cards for noncompliant kids who didn’t go on to win Nobel Prizes.

    1. “While every successful person has had failures, repeated failure is no guarantee of eventual success” — Eric Hoffer

  4. Teacher as “expert pundit” filling air time, and we all know that suit & tie “experts” on the teevee are correct about as often as The Amazing Criswell.

    At least this wasn’t GK Chesterton’s teacher, who told GK (I paraphrase, but only slightly):  “If we should crack your head and inspect the contents inside, we should find not a brain but a lump of white fat”.

  5. he will not listen, but insist on doing his work his own way

    In other words, do exactly what makes somebody a good scientist.

    1. Must respectfully disagree, at least somewhat.

      The true scientist listens … but there is a difference between listening to, and acceptance of, what is being said.

      And the true scientist will insist on doing his/her work with intellectual honesty, even when such honesty demands that they refuse to conform to how others believe they should be doing that work … or even when the truth leads them to a way different than their own.

      It is the difference between the effort to determine what is real and true … and trying to define reality as one would like it to be.The former, is true science … the latter, leads to junk science.

  6. Why did they re-type the excerpt in an electronic typewriter font while they had the original card at hand?

  7. To be fair, schools back then were about training people to become reliable factory workers. Not unlike today.

    1. Well, training to be a factory worker is at least something with actual, tangible, benefit to the student, because personally, I don’t find: “expert standardized test-taker” to be a viable vocation.

  8. Looks to me like this guy could be the embodiment of what Edison described at the intersection of perspiration, inspiration, and genius.

    A person does not have to be a Rhodes scholar to rise to the top in the areas of science and technology … but they do have to have both initiative AND intellectual honesty if they are to rise in a sustainable manner.

    In fact, those who do not have “natural” genius, but have to work at everything they ever did from grade school onwards to rise, can rise to greater heights than those who can rely on their “natural” genius (or the mere appearances of it) to get by … because the former has had to develop the initiative and discipline to “perspire” to genius, and also has had to develop a low tolerance for rejecting the facts and replacing them with how they (or their funders) wish things were, to remain there.

  9. A great moment in motivation?

    After my first freshman mid-term in chemistry, my prof asked me “are you sure you are cut out for this major?”  It worked for me.  Though I took my chem degree and ran off to computers.

    1. I was tested at school to check if I would be better in “scientific stuff” or “classical / liberal arts”. The result was obvious: I was clearly gifted for literature and, unfortunately, had a “scientific IQ” between a worm and a flea.
      They were right: I am very proud of the nice wording in my PhD thesis in physics.

  10. “…won the Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine.”

    No matter how many times I see this written or spoken, it always looks/sounds to me as if there is some doubt as to which Nobel Prize the person won.

    But that’s my issue to work through.

Comments are closed.