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Biographical Sketch

Norman Newell
Norman Newell  

Norman D. 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, On Creation and Evolution: Myth or Reality? (Columbia University Press, 1982).

His 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 publication—his first, I believe—on 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 being.

[ 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 thumb—more 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 horrors—exploitive 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 detriment—though 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 it—and 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 moment—but 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, Wonderful Life, New York: W. W. Norton, 1989, pp. 139-140. ]

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