Working Life

Follow your star

+ See all authors and affiliations

Science  27 Feb 2015:
Vol. 347, Issue 6225, pp. 1038
DOI: 10.1126/science.347.6225.1038

Theoretical physicist Ulf Leonhardt is not afraid to pursue audacious scientific ideas. Leonhardt is best known for his work on how metamaterials—materials engineered to have properties not found in nature—can be used to fashion invisibility devices and how fiber optics can be used to produce analogs of the event horizon, the point of no return in black holes. Last December at the TEDxBrussels conference, Science Careers asked Leonhardt, a professor of physics at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, to share his thoughts about his research and career. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: What qualities are necessary to succeed as a scientist?

“There will be disasters, small and great.”

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

A: Be stubborn. Believe in yourself. Don't do what others are saying. Also very important is to stand up again and again. You will fall all the time. There will be disasters, small and great.

Each step in my career began with disasters. I studied for 1 year at Moscow State University to become a specialist in high-energy physics. I didn't really like that, so I started over. I then did my master's degree in half a year, so I almost caught up. For my Ph.D., which I did in the former East Germany, I started a project in the atomic physics of hot, dense plasmas. I worked for 2 years in this subject, but then I decided to start again. So, instead, I did a Ph.D. in quantum optics in one of the newly founded Max Planck Research Groups. I did the Ph.D. in 1 year and 3 months, so at the end I was really on time for a Ph.D., even though I had failed the initial phase.

And so it went, on and on. Usually the first attempt fails, but you learn from it. Maybe you don't even learn all the time, but from the beginning, you should not be afraid of failure.

Q: How did you find a permanent position?

A: I had fellowships until the point when I got a full professorship, so I never went through the hurdles of a tenure-track or lecturer position. This keeps you independent and active, and you're not forced to adjust to the academic system at an earlier stage. For theorists, I think this is an approach that people should think about.

Q: What idea did you think would be hardest to pull off?

A: This is not really what happens. I've always felt that if I have an idea, it's going to work. Only when it fails do I realize that it doesn't. Then comes, usually, a long period of desperation, but the idea is lingering. Then suddenly a possible solution comes to mind.

It's not that you think it's crazy at first. You may think that there is a chance that it works, and it may not completely work, but you should always believe in it. It's surprising if something works the first time—usually it doesn't—so then you need to be persistent and try to correct it to make it work.

Q: Have people tried to dissuade you from following your ideas?

A: Of course, all the time. Whether it affects me or not depends on the people and the style of the discussion. If people criticize me in a nonscientific way, I completely ignore them because it's not an argument. If it's a scientific attack I take it seriously, and then I respond and I learn from it.

Q: Any advice for young scientists?

A: What I have observed in some very good young scientists is that they think too much about their careers. This is all wrong: Build yourself, not your CV. Otherwise, you succeed in the short term, but then you may burn out and lose the fun in science. Young scientists should first think about what they want to do. Know how science and the scientific establishment works, but don't take it too seriously. Listen to what other people are saying, but don't apply it automatically. Other people may see some aspects of your situation, but they don't have the knowledge of it all. Only you have that.

Navigate This Article