Experts often tell students to focus their efforts on a narrow field to get a job after school. But recent research on Nobel laureates suggests that broader interests matter.
One of the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is Danish scientist Morten Meldal. He received the award along with two other chemists for their work on “Click on chemistry.” Click chemistry describes when scientists create materials, such as polymers, that connect molecules even in living things.
Meldal is 68 years old and works at the University of Copenhagen. Describing his career, Meldal said he started out as an engineer but switched to chemistry because he “wanted to understand the world”.
In a chat with the Nobel Prize organization, he spoke about his co-winner, Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University. He said “she has such a vast knowledge of chemistry and biology and she knows how utilize his knowledge in a very delicious way.”
Meldal’s experience and outlook may surprise students. They might believe that they have to focus their work and school life in one area to be successful.
But a study by professors at Michigan State University shows that’s not always the case.
Michele Root-Bernstein and Robert Root-Bernstein published their study this spring in the Creativity Research Journal. They said that a large number of Nobel laureates can be described as “polymaths”.
Polymaths are people who have many different interests in their professional and personal lives. Sometimes they are called “Renaissance” men or women. It’s another way of describing someone who knows a lot about many different fields.
The authors looked at former Nobel laureates and their students. They decided that when students of laureates win Nobel Prizes, part of what they learn from their teachers is how to live a life with many interests. They kind of learn to be creative.
Having many interests, the Root-Bernsteins wrote, allows scientists to seek creative ways to solve problems. In fact, an important part of science is not discovering answers, but recognizing problems that need to be solved.
The winners, the Root-Bernsteins said, to transfer “skills, techniques and materials from one area to another.
They said that Alexis Carrel won his Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1912 using techniques he learned in the garment industry. He realized that people who used thread making and repairing clothes was a skill that could be used in operations to put new organs into people’s bodies.
In 1978, a professor from Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania won the Nobel Prize in economics. His name was Herbert Simon. He has worked in many parts of the university during his career and has supported projects in IT, artificial intelligencepsychology, philosophy and economics.
Outside of work, he played the piano, wrote music, painted, drew, and played chess.
In a book he wrote about his life, Simon said, “I can streamline any activity that I To engage in simply as another form of research…”
A laureate in medicine – Christiane Nusslein-Volhard – declared in 2003 that she was “very curious and I like to understand things. She won her award in 1995 for her work on genetic controls in the early development of insect and fish embryos. But for parts of her life, she created games called puzzles, drew pictures, and wrote a cookbook.
In 2017, she told young scientists to avoid following the “main stream” and get out of their study areas in order to be independent and original.
Michigan State teachers study creativity. They found that most professionals are not like the winners. Laureates have the distinction of regularly seeking opportunities to learn new things, even outside of their work.
Nobel laureates are nine times more likely to have experience in woodworking, metalworking or the arts than most scientists. The authors also found that even those who win in one field like economics have experience in other fields. Some of the economics graduates studied mathematics, physics and astronomy before doing their research in economics.
Michigan State researchers say Nobel laureates have open minds about their life experiences. Unlike many people who spend long hours at work and give up some of their outside interests, Nobel laureates believe their hobbies are important for creativity.
Dario Fo won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1997. He talked about drawing and painting as a way to solve the problems that arose in his writing. “When I’m having trouble with a play, I stop writing so I can put the action into pictures,” he says.
The researchers say that even among people who don’t win big prizes, those with many interests are often successful. They pointed to a 2012 report of students studying two main areas in college. This study plan is called a “double major”.
The authors, from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, said dual majors are often more creative and more interested in starting their own business than those who focus on a single field of study.
Other researchers have found that having an outside activity that makes you think can help predict future success in a job. Some of these activities include playing chess, playing music, or creating art.
I am Jill Robbins. And I’m Dan Friedell.
Dan Friedell adapted this story for VOA Learning English based on a story first published in The conversation and material from the Associated Press.
words in this story
Click on -not. the short, high-pitched sound often made by something fitting properly into something else
vast –adj. wide, including many things
utilize -v. to use, make use of
delicious –adj. finely made, very beautiful or delicate
technical -not. a way of doing something using special knowledge or skill
to transfer -v. to move from one place to another
thread -not. a long piece of fabric that is used for sewing cloth or fabric
artificial intelligence -not. a field of computing that aims to give machines the ability to “think” like humans
streamline -v. to think or describe something in a way that makes it seem correct
To engage in -v. (phrase) to do
curious –adj. to have a desire to know more about something
main stream -not. the thoughts, beliefs and choices that are accepted by the greatest number of people
original –adj. the first example of something; something different from other things
We want to hear from you. Do you think you will one day win a Nobel Prize?
We have a new comment system. Here’s how it works:
- Write your comment in the box.
- Below the box, you can see four images for social media accounts. They are for Disqus, Facebook, Twitter and Google.
- Click on an image and a box appears. Enter your social media account ID. Or you can create one on the Disqus system. It’s the blue circle with “D” on it. It’s free.
Every time you come back to comment on the Learning English site, you can use your account and see your comments and replies. Our feedback policy is here.