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作研究需要的绣花功夫 精选

已有 10754 次阅读 2009-9-21 05:05 |个人分类:生物物理-biophysics|系统分类:科研笔记|关键词:biophysics,Kenkre,绣花功夫| Kenkre, 绣花功夫



在《射雕英雄传, 欧阳锋与老顽童周伯通争夺九阴真经。 周伯通让郭靖背熟以后, 故意逗欧阳锋,说如果你会一种功夫,就把九阴真经给他。欧阳锋大喜,周伯通用功力将经书化为千百碎片,迎风一吹,若蝴蝶般飞扬,然后说道:要得到九阴真经,你需要裱糊匠的功夫。把个欧阳锋气得死去活来。



裱糊匠的功夫是个乐子罢了,但是老实说,做研究需要什么样的功夫呢?最近读了统计物理学家V.M. Kenkre的一篇短文,给我很多的启发。他提出能做长久学问的人,需要会绣花功夫。为什么这样讲呢?因为我们平时每天所做的研究工作,都是所研究问题极为细小和琐碎的方面。如果脑子里没有一幅壮锦的整体图案,所有的细小琐碎加起来仍然是一堆琐碎。这就是不少博士生作完了课题,都不知道自己的工作在整个领域是什么样的位置,下一步导致该做些什么。尤其在生物物理实验中,需要很多琐碎和细致的工作,没有一个整体的思路和清楚地了解最终所解决的问题,不为将看到一幅壮锦所激发的热情而鼓动,往往会丧失对研究的兴趣。反过来绣花功夫的另一面是绣一针有绣一针的乐趣,绣一线有绣一线的收获。做研究也是一样,如果总是迫不及待想看这幅壮锦,以至于没有耐心去做那些看起来细小琐碎的事情,最后也往往是镜花水月,两手空空。做科学的人煞费苦心解决一个问题自然会很高兴,但是这样的高兴往往不会超过五分钟。因为随后你又会想到把这个问题稍作推广,那结果又会怎样呢?随后,又怎样呢?随后,又怎样呢?... 所以,你要学会欣赏自己一针一线的收获。



一个问题的发展演进就像绣制一幅壮锦一样,往往是一点一滴发展而来的。比如像生物网络的研究:最早的纯数学的研究始于1959年的Erdos Renyi。他们研究如果给出N个节点,任意两个节点之间的连接概率为p,那么整个网络的连通性如何?十年过后,当分子生物学领域还在着眼于单一的生化路径的时候,Kauffman 就想到生物体由控制基因相互作用构成的基因网络是否会有生命现象所需的特殊性质呢?如果研究真正的来自实验数据的基因网络,Kauffman就还需要等三十年甚至更长。于是Kauffman1969年使用Erdos Renyi所提出的随机网络来研究生物体的基因网络,得到了非常有趣的结果。他认为,生物体的基因网络处在混沌的边缘(On the edge of chaos),既不是锁定所有的稳态不再发展,也不是完全混乱是的稳态根本不存在。Bernhard Ø. Palsson 80年代作PhD的时候就意识到把生物体的代谢分子形成的化学反应网络作为一个整体来研究。但是在那个年代提出代谢网络是根本得不到任何基金资助的,因此Palsson靠做其他项目来养活自己,苦心等了十年,才等来了生物网络和系统生物学的大发展。苦尽甜来,如今他已经是生命领域顶尖大学UCSD系统生物学的掌门人了。而真正由实验测定的简单生物如大肠杆菌(E. Coli.)的基因网络的出现,那还是近十年高通量、快速实验技术流行以后的事情。正是对这些实测基因网络的分析,和以前随机网络的结果对比,Alon等人才在2002年左右提出了Network Motif的概念,为基因网络的结构与生物体的生命功能架起了桥梁。从1969年到2002年,整整30年的时间来研究基因网络的特质,没有十足的绣花功夫,如何能做得成呢?



今年夏天的时候在丹麦的一次国际会议中,有幸遇到了Kauffman本人,并作了一次长谈。老爷子今年正好七十大寿,身体仍然硬朗,仍然在作基因网络方面的研究。不过他还是喟然长叹:“真正了解到基因网络的真相,得等到你们这一代了。”



 

 V.M. Kenkre的原文“Carpet Weaving”,以及他写的初涉物理之门的惊喜与沉迷,求知少年的快乐与幸福,是在无人出其右者, 同时附录于后。

1962-64

The staccato noise of the ferryboat between Agassaim and Cortalim that day in 1962 is clear in my ear. My father was engaged in conversation with a short crisp-looking man and the language was Portuguese. I was looking at the churning waters of the Zuari and thinking of Masefield’s sea fever (“I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky...”). For I fancied myself a
poet in those days and, as a young man will, lived in a state of obsession on that basis, a state that was a mixture of romance, emotion, and unknowing intellectual self-deceit. I spent long evening walks on Rua d’Ourem and by Beira-Mar in Fontainhas with my poet-in-arms friend Tony Gomes and once tricked my more left-brained friend Frank Braganza (with whom the walks and talks were
more rational) into heaping much praise on silly lines I had written which I still remember: “Like that setting sun sinking slowly into the depths of the sea, is my last hope dying... And like that blood-filled water, is my heart all bleeding...” before he knew they were mine. He knew even then that I was a subtle bag of pretense. In this shrewd evaluation he has been joined with the passage of
time, slowly but surely, by many close to me, ending, painfully, with myself--one is always the last one to know such things about oneself. In any case I was sure those days, with a degree of certainty natural to fifteen-year olds, that there were two kinds of people in this world, the writers (or poets) and the mathematicians (or scientists), and that I belonged clearly to the former. As, leaning over the rail, trying desperately to see worthwhile poetry in the chaos (didn’t Masefield say something about blown spume, and couldn’t I do likewise?), I enjoyed the turbulent currents our ferryboat produced in the river by its passing, my father touched my arm and asked me to join in the conversation. “I understand you do not like mathematics, young man.” Thus started the stranger, eloquent, resourceful and engaging. Stubborn as I used to be, I was quickly caught in an intriguing net he wove around me of what mathematics really was, and, before I knew it, I had been ensnared. The man said that he was going to teach me trigonometry among other disciplines within a month
when Dhempe College would start for the first time ever, taking in students. Liberation of Goa from the Portuguese had just occurred only a few months earlier. Habits of 400 years were changing. Why not my conviction which was only a dozen years old (less than my age surely) that mathematics was for the birds? Within a quarter hour of conversation, the stranger had cast his spell of mathematics and had changed the course of my life to come. The stranger’s name was Joe Menezes.

Dhempe College gave my friends and me many other dedicated teachers: Nadkarni teaching mathematics in a systematic way turning corollaries and lemmata from foes to friends, Harite converting impossibly difficult concepts in organic chemistry to digestible chunks, Sukhtanker centering on the mysteries of physics and stopping students from running away from centrifugal forces, Antão,Vaz and Lawande (junior Lawande to be exact--since there was also senior Lawande, the friendly despot, our beloved Principal, whose booming voice in college corridors and NCC fields still reverberates in my ear) and Ashataee and Daliyataee, one who could discuss P. G. Wodehouse as well as physics, the other who could command and march sternly in parades when not teaching physics.

Memories crowd also about colleagues: other students who have since disappeared completely from circles accessible to me. Among them two other K’s: Kosambi who would always beat me in chess no matter how hard I tried, and Kirtani who always wrote everything neatly in his beautiful handwriting no matter how fast he had to take notes. I wonder where they are now. And I
remember, with heart-wrenching pangs I cannot dispel, a few who have departed from this world, I cannot understand why: Subhash Rao, the handsome young man who became my brother-in-law but not for long, and Marina Flores, my childhood friend who married my dear friend Tony Gomes and then one day decided to leave him and us all.

Everything in Dhempe College was magical. The tall doors and long classrooms of the college buildings which were but the vacated edifices of the Liceu Nacional Afonso de Albuquerque, the beautiful trees in the quadrangle, and the dashing spiraling steps that dropped down to the Corte d’Oiteiro. Even as we struggled to learn mathematics and language, science and art, intoxicating youth was enveloping us all. We fell in love, often secretly. We wrote poetry, affected philosophy, discussed everything under the sun. And then the two years passed. To many others I am sure they did take twice three-hundred-and-sixtyfive days. My own conviction is that they were over in two days. Or in another sense that they were the only life I have ever led: they were an eternity. Time is quite unclear in my mind about those charming, spell-binding, unreal, dream years from 1962 to 1964.

What has happened since? Not much, I am afraid. The next four years I spent in IIT Bombay, studying Electrical Engineering, and then three years in Stony Brook in the USA doing Theoretical Physics. A career doing research in physics, teaching, trying to pay back in some strange indirect manner some of what I was given by wonderful teachers in my Dhempe College. I live in the USA
but my career has led me to many countries in Europe and South America in particular, allowed me to enjoy many cultures, face many situations.
Multifaceted personalities have crossed my path, some kind, some vicious. From all I have tried to learn (whenever I have been ‘awake’ enough to learn): from the good ones what to do, from the others what not to do. I have erred more often than not. As a kid, I used to think that every day and every year, I would improve as a person: that I would turn into a better student, a better professional, a better person. That, alas, has not happened. At fifteen and sixteen I knew it all. Now I am not sure of anything at all. But through all this
growing up, what brings a pleasant half smile to the face (in the language of the Theravada Buddhist) is memories of those two years 62-64 in my Dhempe College.

Carpet Weaving

I recall a comment made by a physicist colleague many years ago that a quality lacking in today’s graduate students was the ability to stay on the job until the carpet was woven completely. This chance remark has stayed with me over the years. My profession at the university demands that I train graduate students to become practicing physicists. To be a good practicing physicist requires a multitude of qualities, tendencies, and skills, as I am sure to be a good practicing individual in any field of endeavor does. There is devotion to the subject, basic intelligence, curiosity, careful observation, intellectual honesty, creativity, and hard work. But there is one more with which I have always had trouble in my own development: refusal to be content with small achievements. The subtlety of the situation arises from the fact that the ability to be content with small achievements is also an important prerequisite to success as a practicing physicist. If one is always seeking after the grandiose, deep frustrations descend, in no time engulfing the individual in depression. One must learn to enjoy the little berries one picks in the field even as one prepares to hunt big game. What makes this whole business of training oneself or one’s students fascinating is that side by side with developing contentment with small achievements one must develop dissatisfaction with them. It is subtle. The contentment must come from their being achievements, however small. The dissatisfaction from their being small, even though they are achievements. One must enjoy every little joke but must not stop until the entire story is written. One must derive contentment from every little integral that is evaluated but not stop until the entire theory is constructed.


This ability to enjoy each thread but not rest until the entire carpet is woven is very rare indeed. My own considerable capacity for enjoyment of work means that I can derive endless pleasure from noticing every morning afresh, and on my own, that exponentials and trigonometric functions are connected. Pleasure that keeps me going. But pleasure also that distracts me from the sure fact that these are, from the point of view of my own creative work, very useful trivialities. A John Bardeen does not stop until he has explained superconductivity, a Michelangelo until he has finished the Sistine Chapel. I am distracted by this little memory function, which through its singularity explains a little but does not have the staggering breadth and detail of a fully woven carpet.


What is true of a physicist’s requirement is true of anyone else’s, of course. To be merely driven by the finished carpet would be terrible, perhaps impossible – or so I think. Rome was not built in a day. What did each day mean to the builder? Laying a brick here, raising part of a pillar there. If you do not know how to enjoy and excel at these, you cannot even live through the construction of Rome. And yet, if like mine, your contentment with the single brick well laid is, in effect, an obstacle in the way of the finished Coliseum, you are fated to remain a happy but smalltime player. In the language of the artist, you are forever limited to doing sketches rather than finished drawings. As I look within myself, I discover that I do not like to draw, only to sketch—leaving paintings unfinished is an obsession with me. This certainly gives me opportunity to immerse myself in a variety of experiences, and to perceive my surroundings in multiple ways. At the same time, it robs me of focus and makes of me a butterfly. Worse, it does not allow me to instill in my students the desire to weave carpets.

Faced with this quandary, there is a prescription I have followed throughout my mentoring career. I share the totality of these thoughts about carpet weaving with my students, particularly in the last stages of their apprenticeship, realize that, after all, they teach themselves whatever skills they have, and, as they go out into the world to live on their own, whisper to myself that my own job in their training, however insignificant, is now truly at an end.

 

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