Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Ptashne on scientific communication

In a recent post I mentioned a man by the name of Mark Ptashne (currently at MSK, but once a notorious member of the "Harvard Mafia"). An understudy of of Jim Watson, he took a hard-edged (and to some, mean-spirited) approach to science. Whenever I think of him, I think of two things: his seminal (ewww... I hate that word) work on the discovery of the lambda repressor, and a quote from an anonymous former post-doc: " I like Mark, but if push came to shove, and Mark was cornered, he would be ruthless. If it took a couple of grad students and post-docs being sunk to the bottom of the Chalres River, metaphorically speaking, to save his own hide, he would do it". Now that's class.

Anywho, the whole reason that I posted this, is as an introduction to a short contribution Ptashne made to the newest issue of Current Biology about scientific communication. He sounds like a pompous ass, but he makes some great points. I highly recommend you give it a read.


Bayman said...

I once asked Francis Crick why he spent the day with a pile of Scientific American magazines and he said “When you are learning something new the hardest thing is to get the basic idea.”

I love it. Scientific American couldn't buy a better endorsement. (good mag too) I wonder if Crick read it while tripping out on LSD.

I liked Ptashne's points so much I decided to gank it and reprint it here -
"And perhaps the hardest lesson to accept is that, unless it's a thesis exam or something of the sort, your audience really doesn't care how hard you worked to get to your answer. Frank Stahl once said to me that most experiments are just forays to teach you how to do the right one. One good experiment is worth ten messy ones. So if you have something to say, say it simply and directly — you'll make a better impression than if you feel obligated to say everything and bits of nothing all at one time."

I would go so far as to say this is THE most important part of a good talk, but one we all tend to forget easily. A corollary is that the shorter the talk the's amazing how concise you can be when you really try, and with greater impact because people can actually remember WTF you are talking about. If there's one thing every scientist has in common, it's a short attention span.