Why Mentors Matter

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“If ‘normal’ scientists are motivated in their work by the challenging intellectual puzzles they confront in their work, ‘revolutionary’ scientists – the ones who break away from existing theoretical paradigms to forge new ones – are even more driven by enjoyment. A lovely example concerns Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the astrophysicist whose life has already acquired mythical dimensions. When he left India as a young man in 1933, on a slow boat from Calcutta to England, he wrote out a model of stellar evolution that with time became the basis of the theory of black holes. But his ideas were so strange that for a long time they were not accepted by the scientific community. He eventually was hired by the University of Chicago, where he continued his studies in relative obscurity.

There is one anecdote told about him that best typifies his commitment to his work. In the 1950’s, Chandrasekhar was staying in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, where the main astronomical observatory of the university is located, about eighty miles away from the main campus. That winter he was scheduled to teach one advanced seminar in astrophysics. Only two students signed up for it, and Chandrasekhar was expected to cancel the seminar, rather than go through the inconvenience of commuting. But he did not, and instead drove back to Chicago twice a week, along back-country roads, to teach the class.

A few years later first one, then the other of those two former students won the Nobel prize for physics. Whenever this story used to be told, the narrator concluded with sympathetic regrets that it was a shame the professor himself never won the prize. That regret is no longer necessary, because in 1983 Chandrasekhar himself was awarded the Nobel for physics.”

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi p.135

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