Friday, May 25, 2007

Book Review

"Survival Skills for Scientists" by Federico Rosei and Tudor Johnston is the best career guide to be published since Peter Feibelman's "A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!". Because the authors work in an academic environment, as opposed to a government laboratory, they offer a different perspective of the optimal career path. By co-authoring the work, they combine the time-tested wisdom of a senior researcher (Johnston) with the more recent experience of a junior faculty member (Rosei) who has direct knowledge of the current job climate. Drawing from their own interactions in Europe, North America, and Asia, they also provide a more international outlook.

The authors begin with the First Law of Scientific Survival, which is "Know thyself". Their simple recommendation is that you figure out what kind of scientist you want to be by carefully considering the kind of person you actually are. Obviously this includes an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, but it also means understanding what role you want to play in research, and how you want to spend your time on a day to day basis. They don't try to conceal their preference for an academic career, and this could slightly alienate the reader who prefers another path. But everyone can benefit from the self-reflection that the authors promote by asking the right questions.

The bulk of the book is devoted to the Second Law: "Know your tradecraft". This begins with a very honest and pragmatic critique of postdoctoral experience, and outlines the essential factors to consider when choosing a position at various stages of your career. While admitting that intelligence and hard work are the foundation of a successful career in science, they go on to summarize other advantageous character traits that anyone can develop over time. They continue with a broad overview of the landscape of the science profession, and the metrics that will be used throughout your career to judge your productivity. Among the many unique themes that emerge from the text is the concept of being your own "agent", boosting your prospects for a successful career. The authors point out that publications in scholarly journals are the primary way other scientists learn about your research, and that generously citing the work of others will help get their attention. They finish by detailing all of the ways you communicate your work to others, including specific advice about journal papers, your thesis and curriculum vitae, as well as conference talks and posters.

The book closes with the Third Law: "Know thy neighbor". Unlike Feibelman's book, which begins with a series of anecdotes to illustrate how a scientific career can be derailed, Rosei and Johnston place this section in the back of their book. The authors also try to keep it positive by including success stories in addition to the failures.

Overall, this book fills a niche that nicely complements the material contained in other popular career guides. It is logically organized, and is filled to the brim with candid advice that you are unlikely to find anywhere else. Some readers may be frustrated by the many parenthetical remarks, footnotes, and clearly labeled "diversions" that make the text less concise than it could be. To others, these features will simply add humor, depth, and humanity to an otherwise serious discussion. "Survival Skills for Scientists" may not replace your copy of Feibelman's "A Ph.D. Is Not Enough!", but it certainly deserves to sit alongside it on your bookshelf.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Sister Earth?

Last week, a group of European astronomers announced that they had discovered the "most Earth-like planet yet" around a star in the constellation Libra. The planet, known as GL581c, is the first of more than 200 planets discovered outside our solar system that is apparently in the so-called "habitable zone" of its star -- the range of orbital distances where liquid water can theoretically exist. In this sense, the discovery is a landmark in the search for life elsewhere in the Universe.

But if you examine the details more closely, you will discover a planet that is very different from the Earth. First of all, it is at least 5 times the mass of the Earth -- and it orbits the star every 13 days (instead of our leisurely 365 days), at less than 1/5 the distance from the Sun to the sweltering planet Mercury. The only reason the planet isn't burnt to a crisp is that its parent star is much cooler than the Sun -- a tiny red dwarf. As a consequence, it is likely that the surface of this planet has the right temperature for liquid water to exist.

But I wouldn't want to live there, even if I could breath whatever atmosphere might exist. Red dwarf stars give off most of their radiation in the form of infrared light -- basically heat, like what you see with night vision goggles -- and almost no visible light. So it might be warm, but it would always be dark to human eyes. Finally, although it is among the 100 nearest stars to the Sun, even the fastest spacecraft ever built by humans would take more than 90,000 years to get there. So don't count on this planet offering us a safe haven in case we wreck our own.

It's an exciting discovery -- and one that we will undoubtedly see more of in the near future. As technology improves and allows astronomers to find ever-smaller planets around other stars, we will eventually find a true Sister Earth, and maybe even life. But we're not there yet.