Newell (1909-2005) was Curator
Emeritus at the American Museum of Natural History and Professor Emeritus at
Columbia University. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the
American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the American
Philosophical Society. He was the author of numerous scientific papers as well
as several books including,
and Evolution: Myth or Reality? (Columbia University Press, 1982).
numerous awards for scientific achievements include accolades from the National
Academy of Sciences, Yale University, and the American Museum of Natural
History. During his tenure at Columbia University he advised graduate
students Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge steering them to better
understand evolutionary problems in fossil invertebrates.
Norman Newell on Gould
Like many people, when I receive my monthly copy of Natural
History, I first search for Steve Gould's excellent column. I am continually
amazed by his industriousness and high standards, which have made him one of our
foremost popular essayists. He covers a virtually endless variety of topics in his
beautiful, flowing prose, succinctly explaining complex scientific principles, and
he influences many with his infectious enthusiasm for science. He has devoted his
professional life to the search for truth in evolutionary biology and has shared
his conclusions through astoundingly prolific writings. No doubt you have all read
of his rapture when his father brought him, at age five, to the American Museum of
Natural History and introduced him to Tyrannosaurus rex. It was love at
first sight, and neither Steve nor the dinosaur would ever be the same again. This
encounter started Steve on a career devoted to the history of life. As teenagers,
he and his schoolmate Richard Milner (now a senior editor at this magazine)
frequently visited the Museum and came to see me. That was my first contact with
Steve, and since then, from the time he was my Ph.D. student at the Museum and at
Columbia University until the present day, I have continued to be stimulated and
excited by his work.
"One incident from his student days illustrates well his
enthusiasm and abilities. I gave him several preserved specimens of a rare
Neotrigonia bivalve from the Tasman Sea. When Steve protested that he
had never dissected a bivalve mollusk before, I suggested that he visit the
Fulton fish market and buy a few commercial clams. He took them home and
practiced dissecting them, with a student laboratory manual to aid him in the
identification of the organs. Steve moved ahead like a professional, eventually
using new details of the Neotrigonia for a scientific publicationhis
first, I believeon this astonishing 'living fossil.' In 1972 Niles Eldredge
and Steve published an epochal theory that they called punctuated equilibria,
which has greatly influenced scientific understanding of evolutionary patterns.
Steve Gould has also influenced the public through his passion for science and
his rare skill at expressing himself. He is an extraordinarily talented human
[ Norman Newell, "This
View of Stephen Jay Gould" Nat. Hist. 108 (Nov. 1999): 53-54. ]
Gould on Norman Newell
Universities operate one of the few survivors of the old apprenticeship
system in their programs for awarding doctoral degrees. Consider the anomaly. You spend
your entire educational career, from kindergarten to college, becoming more and more
independent of the power of individual teachers (cross your first-grade teacher and your
life can be hell for a year; displease a college professor, and the worst you can do is
fail a single course). Then you become an adult, and you decide to continue for a Ph.D.
So what do you do? You find a person whose research intrigues you, and sign on (if he
will accept and support you) as a part of a team.
In some fields, particularly those with large and expensive laboratories
dedicated to the solution of definite problems, you must abandon all thought of independence,
and work upon an assigned topic for a dissertation (choice in research is a luxury of later
postdoctoral appointments). In more genial and individualistic fields like paleontology,
you are usually given fair latitude in choosing a topic, and may emerge with a topic
uniquely your own. But in any case you are an apprentice, and you are under your mentor's
thumbmore securely than at any time since the early years of primary school. If you
and he have a falling out, you quit, or pack up and go elsewhere. If you work well together,
and your mentor's ties to the profession are secure, you will get your degree and, by virtue
of his influence and your proven accomplishments, your first decent job.
It's a strange system with much to criticize, but it works in its own
odd way. At some point, you just can't proceed any further with courses and books; you
have to hang around with someone who is doing research well. (And you need to be on hand,
and ready to assimilate, all the time, every day; you can't just show up on Thursday
afternoon at two for a lesson in separating parts from counterparts). The system does
produce its horrorsexploitive professors who divert the flow of youthful brilliance
and enthusiasm into their own dry wells, and provide nothing in return. But when it
works (as it does rather more often than a cynic might expect, given the lack of checks
and balances), I cannot imagine a better training.
Many students don't understand the system. They apply to a school
because it has a general reputation or resides in a city they like. Wrong, dead wrong.
You apply to work with a particular person. As in the old apprenticeship system of
guilds, mentor and student are bound by mutual obligations; this is no one-way street.
Mentors must, above all, find and provide financial support for their students.
(Intellectual guidance is, of course, more fundamental, but this part of the game is
a pleasure. The real crunch is the search for funding. Many leading professors spend
at least half their time raising grant support for students). What do mentors get in
return? This reciprocation is more subtle, and often not understood outside our guild.
The answer, strange as this may sound, is fealty in the genealogical sense.
The work of graduate students is part of a mentor's reputation
forever, because we trace intellectual lineages in this manner. I was Norman Newell's
student, and everything that I ever do, as long as I live, will be read as his legacy
(and, if I screw up, will redound to his detrimentthough not so seriously, for
we recognize a necessary asymmetry: errors are personal, successes part of the
lineage). I happily accept this tradition and swear allegiance to itand not
for motives of abstract approbation but because, again as with the old apprenticeship
system, I get my turn to profit in the next generation. As my greatest joy in twenty
years at Harvard, I have been blessed with several truly brilliant students. The
greatest benefit is an exciting lab atmosphere for the momentbut I am not
insensible to the custom that their future successes shall be read, in however small
a part, as mine also.
[ Stephen Jay Gould,
Life, New York: W. W. Norton, 1989, pp. 139-140. ]
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