Friday, September 07, 2007

What Type of Pawn are You? Chess and Success in Research

"Pawn" is often taken to mean "one who is easily manipulated" or "one who is sacrificed for a larger purpose."

Combining three of my favorite topics (science, philosophy and healthy irreverence) into a single post, Alex Palazzo over at the daily transcript compares graduate students and post-docs to chess pawns in a discussion with a labmate (over beers of course). To give you the gist:

German Nihilist Postdoc: You know what we are?
Me (Palazzo): No, what?
GNP: Leibeigenschaft.
Me: What's that?
GNP: A serf, you know like in the middle ages.
Me: You mean XXX is our lord and we follow his commands?
GNP: Yup. Or a pawn, yes that is what we are.

So does chess strategy offer any insights as to how to succeed in the "competitive" world of research as a graduate student/post-doc? Let's see what wisdom Google has to offer:

"The Pawn's only movement is forward, except for capturing."
Chess Basics

"a player may end up with two pawns on the same file, called doubled pawns. Doubled pawns are substantially weaker than pawns which are side by side, because they can't defend each other, and the front pawn blocks the advance of the back one."

"pawns gain strength as they advance because they pose the threat of queening...however, an overadvanced pawn is then often a liability."

"A passed considered more valuable - especially if it is protected with other pawns."
Chess/Strategy (Wikibooks)

"A pawn which has no friendly pawns in adjacent files is an isolated pawn. The square in front of an isolated pawn may become an enduring weakness. Any piece placed directly in front not only blocks the advance of that pawn, but can't be driven away by other pawns."

"1. Connecting Pawns = good 2. Isolated Pawns = bad 3. Doubled Pawns = even worse"
Devilant's Kung Fu Chess Strategy Guide

Hmmmm...Well, I'll just leave the chess stuff at that. Anyway, all this brings me to my actual point. One comment of his in particular -
"If we are not protected or backed up by the other pawns",

reminded me of a post topic I've been wishing to explore. Actually I haven't had time to come up with anything interesting yet, but here are the questions I'd like to look at before I forget:

  • How do perceptions of "success" and how to go about getting it vary amongst grad students/post-docs (GS/PDs) ?
  • How do these perceptions guide them to develop different strategies to attain that "success"?
  • What is the impact (if any) of the execution of each possible strategy on:
  1. The GS/PDs own stress levels and overall health.
  2. How s/he interacts with labmates (particularly one's peers, ie other GS/PDs).
  3. Lab-wide social dynamics amongst peers.
  4. The stress levels and overall health of their peers (GS/PDs).
  5. The general lab culture, environment and morale etc.
  6. Scientific "productivity".
Ha! Now that I write that out it's no wonder I haven't had time to think about it. Actually it's not really a topic I've been interested in thinking about at all in the past, until I became aware of how radically perceptions of the obstacles to, and conditions for, research "success" seem to vary amongst students/PDs.

So maybe we can do this one in true web 2.0 style instead and everyone else can offer the opinions and answers. Anyone??

In the mean time, check out the post and comments and have a laugh.

(PS - While one might indeed find similarities between lab oligarchies and chess, I personally find GO a lot more appealing...). Maybe that's because I'm a pawn. Power to the peasants!


kamel said...

The only people who think pawns are weak in chess are the ones who don't know how to play properly.

Anonymous Coward said...

In every pawn there is a potential queen.

apalazzo said...

Very nice. I especially like the description of doubled pawns. It couldn't be more true.

Bayman said...

Yeah doubled pawns are the worst - an especially unfortunate position for the pawns themselves, although it seems sometimes a particularly stubborn player might send forward a line of them as sacrificial lambs, in the hope that just one might survive the slaughter to breach enemy lines...

Mister Troll said...

Amen, kamel.

Doubled pawns sometimes can be quite strong; intentional doubling can free open lines, and create strong squares. You just have to know when to "break" the "rules."

And what about mentioning pawns on the opposite colour of the bishop?

Oh, right, it was just an *analogy*. I'll shut up now.

I always say there's nothing like a good pawn endgame. People... don't usually listen.

happy said...

It's the real way to success in chess:)thanks