McCosh 50 has hosted many a Nobel Prize winner over the years, but four at one time? That’s something special.
Four Princeton faculty members with Nobel medals — economists Angus Deaton and Christopher Sims, physicist Duncan Haldane, and biologist Eric Wieschaus — gathered last month to share their insights and advice as part of the Class of 2017 “Last Lectures” series, aimed at helping seniors “transition out of the bubble and into the real world.”
The professors were both serious and humbly self-deprecating, poking fun at the improbability of their own successes. Breakthrough discoveries, Haldane said, hinge on being lucky enough to chance on connections between ideas — and being observant enough to notice those links. A Nobel Prize is “something you stumble across,” he added.
Deaton, the son of a coal miner, recalled growing up in a small Scottish village where academics were not prized and that was not a good place “to think about almost anything.” The family moved around during his childhood, and he always felt like an outsider. “A Nobel Prize doesn’t cure that loneliness,” he said, but he has come to appreciate not belonging as a “productive struggle” because it helps give him different perspectives and new ways of thinking.
Wieschaus initially regretted giving up his dream of becoming an artist. But he now realizes that his artistic talent — the ability to intuitively recognize patterns and visualize how something would look — has been a cornerstone of his scientific work.
As a young boy, Sims had dreamed of being a jazz trombonist and mathematician. He didn’t end up pursuing either one professionally — he doubted his raw talent in math, and knew early on he wasn’t a top-notch musician — but he doesn’t see this as a failure.
“Just because you’re not the best doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time,” Sims said. “Be flexible and confident in yourself to change course.”
Haldane, in trying to boil his life’s work down into one takeaway idea, had this to say: “Facts matter.”
“The way the world works is just what is,” he said, and not a matter of opinion or alternative facts. “I hope the country will continue along accepting that facts really matter,” he added.
Ujjwal Dahuja ’17 found the professors’ stories of failure to be particularly memorable. “Traditionally, we tend to associate only success with people who win Nobel Prizes, but the event helped me realize that everyone undergoes failure,” he said.
Jonathan Liebman ’17 appreciated Deaton’s personal reflections: “It’s rare to see such an intellectual giant showing vulnerability to an audience, and I was touched by it.”