Advice for a Young Investigator

date Oct 28, 2019
authors Santiago Ramón y Cajal
reading time 24 mins

The process of Science

Sources of knowledge

major sources of knowledge include observation, experiment, and reasoning by induction and deduction.

Change in trend of science

the last hundred years the natural sciences have abandoned completely the Aristotelian principles of intuition, inspiration, and dogmatism.

Always the how, never why

researchers cannot transcend the determinism of phenomena; instead, their mission is limited to demonstrating the how, never the why, of observed changes.

Knowing the conditions under which a phenomenon occurs allows us to reproduce or eliminate it at will, therefore allowing us to control and use it for the benefit of humanity.

Progress is possible with just knowing the how. Why is not required

Our brain is an organ of action that is directed toward practical tasks; it does not appear to have been built for discovering the ultimate causes of things, but rather for determining their immediate causes and invariant relationships. And whereas this may appear to be very little, it is in fact a great deal. Having been granted the immense advantage of participating in the unfolding of our world, and of modifying it to life’s advantage, we may proceed quite nicely without knowing the essence of things.

Break down any problem

Descartes when approaching any difficult problem: “Do not acknowledge as true anything that is not obvious, divide a problem into as many parts as necessary to attack it in the best way, and start an analysis by examining the simplest and most easily understood parts before ascending gradually to an understanding of the most complex.”

Able to seperate complex matters into its simplest parts

The important thing is to discover how each investigator, in his own special domain, was able to segregate heterogeneous from homogeneous, and to learn why many of those who set out to accomplish a particular goal did not succeed.

What is a genius?

Excessive admiration of great minds is detrimental to creative work

I believe that excessive admiration for the work of great minds is one of the most unfortunate preoccupations of intellectual youth — along with a conviction that certain problems cannot be attacked, let alone solved, because of one’s relatively limited abilities. Inordinate respect for genius is based on a commendable sense of fairness and modesty that is difficult to censure. However, when foremost in the mind of a novice, it cripples initiative and prevents the formulation of original work.

Every Genius has discovered only a tiny bit of the entire puzzle

Even when the work of a genius is subjected to critical analysis and no errors are found, it is important to realize that everything he has discovered in a particular field is almost nothing in comparison with what remains to be discovered.

Every work of genius has hidden trials and tribulations

However, the well-deserved admiration for such accomplishments would be considerably diminished were we aware of all of the time and effort, patience and perseverance, trials, corrections, and even mishaps that worked hand in hand to produce the anal success—contributing almost as much as the investigator’s genius.

Ignore the glorious past, instead study the challenges faced in every origin of discovery

What a wonderful stimulant it would be for the beginner if his instructor, instead of amazing and dismaying him with the sublimity of great past achievements, would reveal instead the origin of each scientific discovery, the series of errors and missteps that preceded it—information that, from a human perspective, is essential to an accurate explanation of the discovery.

Even the genius is a human

Skillful pedagogical tactics such as this would instill the conviction that the discoverer, along with being an illustrious person of great talent and resolve, was in the anal analysis a human being just like everyone else.

Research topics to study

There is an interesting problem in every domain!

It is fair to say that, in general, no problems have been exhausted; instead, men have been exhausted by the problems. Soil that appears impoverished to one researcher reveals its fertility to another. Fresh talent approaching the analysis of a problem without prejudice will always see new possibilities — some aspect not considered by those who believe that a subject is fully understood.

Some quotations

The best application of the following beautiful dictum of Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire is in biology: “The infinite is always before us.” And the same applies to Carnoy’s no less graphic thought: “Science is a perpetual creative process.”

See the interations in everything!

Superior and inferior do not exist in nature, nor do primary and secondary relationships. The hierarchies that our minds take pleasure in assigning to natural phenomena arise from the fact that instead of considering things individually, and how they are interrelated, we view them strictly from the perspective of their usefulness or the pleasure they give us. In the chain of life all links are equally valuable because all prove equally necessary.

Science and applications are linked

Does anyone lack the common sense to understand that applications derive immediately from the discovery of fundamental principles and new data? In Germany, France, and England the factory and laboratory are closely intertwined, and very often the scientist himself (either personally or through a development company) directs its industrial application.

A few decades from science to application

Many scientific observations are of little use at the time they are made. However, after some decades, or perhaps even centuries, a new discovery clarifies the old, and the resulting industrial application may be called photography, the phonograph, spectral analysis, wireless telegraphy, or mechanical fight. Synthesis occurring over a variable length of time is always involved.

Training a scientific mind

How to train for lab work

Various procedures can be used to assess one’s aptitude for laboratory work. Based on my experience, I would recommend the following two: 1. Attempt to repeat some analytical method that is considered unreliable and difficult until patience and hard work yield results similar to those published by the author. 2. Find a scientific topic that is difficult and surrounded by controversy, and examine it superficially by reading general reference books instead of detailed monographs.

Hard work beats talent

Deficiencies of innate ability may be compensated for through persistent hard work and concentration. One might say that work substitutes for talent, or better yet that it creates talent. He who firmly determines to improve his capacity will do so, provided that education does not begin too late, during a period when the plasticity of nerve cells is greatly reduced.

Don’t be disheartened for being slow

However, in scientific undertakings the slow prove to be as useful as the fast because scientists like artists are judged by the quality of what they produce, not by the speed of production. I would even venture to add that as a very common compensation slow brains have great endurance for prolonged concentration.

When ignorance is a virue

Using strength and perseverance, concentrate deeply only on information pertinent to the question at hand. During the gestation period of our work, sentence ourselves to ignorance of everything else that is going on — politics, literature, music, and idle gossip. There are occasions when ignorance is a great virtue, almost a state of heroism.

Question, critique predecessors and mentors

High-minded independence of judgment is a dominant trait shown by eminent investigators. They are not spellbound or overly impressed by the work of their predecessors and mentors but instead observe carefully and question.

Too much reverance for tradition causes errors in not noticing mistakes

I believe that excessive fondness for tradition, along with obstinate determination to maintain scientific formulations of the past, reflect either indomitable mental laziness or a blanket to cover mistakes.

Beware of too much admiration

Extreme admiration drains the personality and clouds understanding, which comes to accept hypothesis for proof and shadow for obvious truth.

Give yourself a break when the solution seems very near, yet far

If a solution fails to appear after all of this, and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. Several weeks of relaxation and quiet in the countryside brings calmness and clarity to the mind.

Put as little work as possible, with consistency

If our professions do not allow us to devote more than two hours a day to a subject, do not abandon the work on the pretext that we need four or six. As Payot wisely noted, “A little each day is enough, as long as a little is produced each day.”

Patience, perseverance for a long time

all great work is the fruit of patience and perseverance, combined with tenacious concentration on a subject over a period of months or even years.

2 things required: passion + reputation

But two emotions must be unusually strong in the great scientific scholar: a devotion to truth and a passion for reputation. The dominance of these two zeals explains the entire life of the investigator.

Fame will naturally follow

And in the likely event that he is correct and proceeds with disciplined confidence and a minimum of conflict, sooner or later humanity will follow, applaud, and crown him with fame.

Kepler’s excitement

Radiating joy and trembling with emotion over the discovery of the last of his memorable laws, Kepler wrote: “The die is cast, and with this I finish my book, caring little whether it is read today or by posterity. Some day there will be readers. After all, did God not wait six thousand years to and in me a beholder and interpreter of His works?”

Study related topics also

However, it is equally important that he acquire a general knowledge of all those branches of science that are directly or indirectly related to the one of choice because they contain guiding principles or general methods of attack. For example, the biologist does not limit his studies to anatomy and physiology, but also grasps the fundamentals of psychology, physics, and chemistry.

What is discovery?

Discovery is often a matter of simply fitting a piece of data to a law, or wrapping it in a broader theoretical framework, or, anally, classifying it. Thus, it may be concluded that to discover is to name something correctly, something that had been christened incorrectly or conditionally before.

Name it! And define it!

“A well-chosen word can save an enormous amount of thought,” because to name is to classify, to establish ideal affiliations analogous relationships between little-known phenomena, and to identify the general idea or principle wherein they lie latent, like the tree within its seed.

Specialists make discoveries, not generalists

Multifaceted investigators have disappeared, perhaps forever. It is important to realize that today, in physics as in mathematics, in chemistry as in biology, discoveries are made under the astute direction of specialists. However, they do not focus exclusively on a narrow topic; instead, they follow attentively the latest developments in related sciences, without losing sight of their specialty.

Read the original works

Thus, the investigator has a strict obligation to read an author’s original work if he wishes to avoid disagreeable surprises unless the abstract is by the author himself. Here at least, we may and original and guiding ideas that can be used to real advantage in analytical work, despite their brevity.

Go through thoroughly all the relative literature

In my view, the wisest course is to complete a thorough review of the literature routinely before launching an analytical project.

We are always biased

It is well-known that man projects his personality onto everything, and that when he believes he is photographing the outside world he is often observing and depicting himself.

Learn how to solve every problem that has been solved

Once a topic has been chosen for study, and the investigator has examined all of the literature relevant to the problem of interest, it is time to confirm the latest published data with the most appropriate analytical methods available. Very often during this attempt at proof, questionable points, untenable hypotheses, and gaps in observation will be recognized; and now and then the young investigator may glimpse the road he will be privileged to travel along in search of knowledge about the problem.

A new discovery

A new discovery is often the fruit of patient and stubborn observation—the result of having spent more time, been more consistent, and used better methods than our predecessors.

Experience is pattern matchin

How often we and entirely new things in preparations, where our unsuspecting pupils saw nothing! This is due to the quick judgment that results from experience. And how many things probably escaped our attention when we were still inexperienced in microscopic technique and each preparation appeared like a sphinx defying understanding!

Accidents can only occur to the experienced mind

There is no doubt that accident is a major component of empirical work, and we must not overlook the fact that science owes brilliant achievements to it. However, as Duclaux has graphically pointed out, chance smiles not on those who want it, but rather on those who deserve it. It is important to recognize that only the great observers benefit from chance because only they know how to pursue it with the necessary strength and perseverance.

Master the tools and techniques to save time!

He who masters technique and keeps abreast of problems that can be solved almost always comes away with a more or less important discovery without doing a lot of unproductive experiments.

“Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.” — Richard P. Feynman

Therefore, we must not hesitate when beginning our work to follow up someone else’s discovery. This is a useful task, and useful results will follow. Original data produced by others often foment revolution in the scientific atmosphere.

After exploring all options, choose the option we understand and like!

Finally, when we discover ourselves surrounded by a number of equally promising and fertile problems to work on, choose the one whose methodology we understand clearly, and the one we have a decided liking for. This is the good advice Darwin used to give his students when they asked for a problem to work on. The rationale for this approach is that our intellect redoubles its efforts when perceiving the reward of pleasure or utility in the distance.

Teachers who never produce original work

We have all seen teachers who are wonderfully talented and full of energy and initiative—with ample facilities at their disposal—who never produce any original work and almost never write anything. Their students and admirers wait anxiously for the masterpiece worthy of the lofty opinion they have formed of the teacher.

Optimism and good intensions does not equal great work

Let us not be deceived by optimism and good intentions. Despite their exceptional merit, and the zeal and energy they display in the classroom, such teachers suffer from a disease of the will

These illustrious failures may be classified in the following way:

  1. the dilettantes or contemplators
  2. the erudite or bibliophiles
  3. the instrument addicts
  4. the megalomaniacs
  5. the misfits
  6. theory builders

Contemplators (Modern take: Gives great tech talks with sparkly demos)

they love the study of nature but only for its aesthetic qualities—the sublime spectacles, the beautiful forms, the splendid colors, and the graceful structures… They are as likable for their juvenile enthusiasm and piquant and winning speech as they are ineffective in making any real scientific progress.

Bibliophiles and Polyglots (Modern take: gear acquisition syndrome / GAS)

The symptoms of this disease include encyclopedic tendencies; the mastery of numerous languages, some totally useless; exclusive subscription to highly specialized journals; the acquisition of all the latest books to appear in the bookseller’s showcases; assiduous reading of everything that is important to know

Megalomaniacs (Modern take: workshippers of great minds)

People with this type of failure are characterized by noble and winning traits. They study a great deal, but love personal activities as well. They worship action and have mastered the techniques needed for their research. They are filled with sincere patriotism and long for the personal and national fame that comes with admirable conquests.

Many start, few complete

The truth is that dreamers do not work hard enough; they lack perseverance. As Gracián has so aptly pointed out in his Oráculo Manual: “Some people spend all at the start and finish nothing; they invent but do not progress; everything stops short of completion…The discerning should kill the prey, not spend all of his energy provoking it.”

Instrument addicts (Modern take: programming language, OOP, functional programming fans)

They are as fascinated by the gleam of metal as the lark is with its own reflection in a mirror. They lovingly care for the objects of their idolatry, which are kept as polished as mirrors and as beautifully displayed as images in a cathedral.

Housekeepers vs doers

These teachers—and we all remember more than one example have chosen the wrong profession. They think of themselves as inspiring and zealous officials, when they are in fact simply good housekeepers.

Theorists (modern take: Twitter philosophers)

When faced with a difficult problem, they feel an irresistible urge to formulate a theory rather than to question nature. As soon as they happen to notice a slight, half-hidden, analogy between two phenomena, or succeed in fitting some new data or other into the framework of a general theory—whether true or false—they dance for joy and genuinely believe that they are the most admirable of reformers. The method is legitimate in principle, but they abuse it by falling into the pit of viewing things from a single perspective.

Theorist vs execution

Basically, the theorist is a lazy person masquerading as a diligent one. He unconsciously obeys the law of minimum effort because it is easier to fashion a theory than to discover a phenomenon.

Don’t be fixated on one idea

To risk everything on the success of one idea is to forget that every fifteen or twenty years theories are replaced or revised.


Individual progress is hard

How can we go on when no one is interested in our work? Only the stern and heroic have the strength to overcome adverse environmental conditions and wait in obscure resignation for the approval of posterity.

Do whatever you can on a small scale

The thing to do is to launch one’s own work on a small scale, but with one’s own means; the results are especially educational and fruitful. It is quite well known that the majority of discoveries in physiology, histology, and bacteriology were made by young enthusiasts without reputation or fortune, working in garrets and barn lofts. The institutional laboratory, convenient and richly appointed as it may be, came later as the reward for scientific success.

Example of young apprentices

We could cite dozens of classic examples of modest beginnings. Faraday was an apprentice to a bookbinder when he was carried away by an enthusiasm for science and joined Davy’s laboratory as a helper or mechanic… The great Berzelius began his chemical discoveries in the workshop of his drugstore. Many of the greatest astronomers explored the sky from the rooftops of their homes, armed with mediocre telescopes.


The rule of limiting yourself to one or only a few topics has practical value. Those ambitious to explore the total expanse of a particular science (if that were possible today) would need access to an arsenal of varied and therefore extremely costly instruments, not to mention an extensive workshop.

Stages of research

3 things required

three successive operations are necessary in all scientific research: observation and experimentation, hypothesis or supposition, and proof.

Examine, observe, reflect

It is not sufficient to examine; it is also necessary to observe and reflect: we should infuse the things we observe with the intensity of our emotions and with a deep sense of affinity.

Usefulness of repetition

We should repeat the experiments in a hundred ways until we are certain that they are absolutely consistent, and until we are certain that we have not been victimized by any of the false paths that lead young explorers astray

Repetition until satisfied

When we are not entirely satisfied with the results, even though the appropriate technique was used, we must repeat the experiments as many times as necessary to obtain everything that the method can provide.

First observation does not mean first discoverer

One must bear in mind that new facts are not discovered by the one who first observes them. They are discovered by the one who uses an excellent technique and is able to establish them with a full range of evidence, and in so doing convincing everyone.


In many sciences (physiology, pathology, physics, chemistry) experimentation is more important than observation itself. It is impossible to discover anything in physics or physiology without envisioning an original experiment, without subjecting the phenomenon of interest to more or less new conditions.

When generating hypotheses, we should bear in mind the following truisms.

  1. A hypothesis is necessary; without it phenomena cannot be explained.
  2. Hypotheses may be contrasted or compared, or at least verified, at a more or less distant time in the future.
  3. Hypotheses should be easily understood in terms of chemistry and physics.
  4. Hypotheses solve quantitative problems in a qualitative way, avoiding occult properties and metaphysical considerations.
  5. If possible, hypotheses should also suggest new research and arguments.

The important of Hypotheses

As Peisse has said, “The eye only sees what it is looking for in things, and it looks only for what lies in the mind in the form of ideas.” One shouldn’t need reminding that all great investigators have been prolific hypothesis generators. It has been said with deep conviction that hypotheses are the first murmurings of reason in the darkness of the unknown; the sounding instrument lowered into the mysterious abyss; in short, the high, lofty, and audacious bridge connecting the familiar shore with the unexplored continent.

Hypothesis as a means of thinking

“The scientist must not forget,” affirms Huxley, “that hypotheses must be considered a means, never an end.” To observe without thinking is as dangerous as thinking without observing.

The following may be useful when thinking about how to formulate such a hypothesis.

  1. Nature uses the same means for equivalent ends.
  2. View the problem in its simplest forms.
  3. All natural arrangements, however capricious they may seem, have a function.

Ability to design experiments

One of the characteristic attributes of a great intellect is the ability to design appropriate experiments. They immediately and ways of solving problems that average scholars only clarify with long and exhausting investigation.

Avoid attachment to ideas

Let us avoid excessive attachment to our own ideas, which we need to treat as prosecutor, not defense attorney. Even though a tumor is ours, it must be removed. It is far better to correct ourselves than to endure correction by others. Personally, I do not feel the slightest embarrassment in giving up my ideas because I believe that to fall and to rise alone demonstrates strength, whereas to fall and wait for a helping hand indicates weakness.

New experiments and iterate

When the work of confirmation sheds little light, let us conceive new experiments and try to place ourselves in the best position to evaluate the implications of the hypothesis.

The order of events followed by an investigator in the conquest of scientific truth is usually as follows:

  1. observation of the facts demonstrated, based on methods that are decisive, clear, and highly precise
  2. experimentation, which creates new conditions for observing the phenomena
  3. criticism and elimination of erroneous hypotheses, and elaboration of a rational interpretation of the facts
  4. proof of the hypothesis by new observations or repeated experiments
  5. replacement of the hypothesis
  6. applying the implications of the hypothesis

He counsels scientific writers to govern themselves by the following rules

  1. Have something to say
  2. say it
  3. stop once it is said
  4. give the article a suitable title and order of presentation

Avoid writing the same stuff or rhetorical

When we take up our pens to write a scientific article, let us bear in mind that it will probably be read by some well-known scholar who is too busy to waste time reading things he already knows, or scanning mere rhetorical exercises. Unfortunately, many of our academic lecturers are guilty of this capital offense.

Scientists are not always found among prize winners

Are future scientists—the goal of our educational vigilance—found by chance among the most serious students who work diligently, those who win prizes and competitions? Sometimes, but not always. If the rule were infallible, the teacher’s work would be easy. He could simply focus his efforts on the outstanding prizewinners among the degree candidates, and on those at the top of the list in professional competitions.

Most brilliant students have weak personality

And this occurs all the more frequently because a fair number of the most proficient students have a rather weak personality. They tend to be meek and disciplined, and to lack initiative. Having accepted a course of study through blind obedience to parents and advisors, they often end their careers overcome by weakness and fatigue.

Greatest teachers will produce pupils who surpass him

The greatest honor that can come to the master does not lie in molding pupils to follow him, but in producing scholars who will surpass him. The highest ideal would be to create absolutely new spirits—if possible, unique additions to the machine of progress.