Dr. Reinhard Genzel is a Director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and was awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering a supermassive compact object (aka a black hole) at the center of our galaxy. This is a topic that has fascinated physicists since Einstein (and even before). Einstein’s general relativity theory postulated the possibility of black holes, but even he was skeptical enough of the phenomenon that he concluded in a 1939 paper that the phenomena did not exist “in the real world.”
It would take people like Roger Penrose in the1960s to mathematically prove that black holes were a regular part of the cosmic ecosystem. From there, it would be decades of work by experimental physicists like Dr. Genzel and Dr. Andrea Ghez whose teams have focused on a region called Sagittarius A* at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. (Note: Both Dr. Penrose and Dr. Ghez were awarded the 2020 Nobel Prize in Physics alongside Dr. Genzel).
As the Nobel Committee notes, “Using the world’s largest telescopes, Genzel and Ghez developed methods to see through the huge clouds of interstellar gas and dust to the centre of the Milky Way. Stretching the limits of technology, they refined new techniques to compensate for distortions caused by the Earth’s atmosphere, building unique instruments and committing themselves to long-term research.”
Those last three words, “long-term research,” greatly understate the challenge of pursuing a discovery or innovation that could be decades in the making. And that’s where Dr. Genzel has an insight that can benefit everyone, including those of us who aren’t Nobel Prize-winning physicists.
In a recent conversation, Dr. Genzel told me, “You have to have a lot of patience and the willingness to dedicate yourself to increasingly higher-quality experimental work. It took about three decades from when I started before people started taking it really seriously. And honestly, it’s only the last decade that people would say, ‘Wow, that evidence is really there.'”
Where do that patience and dedication come from? For Dr. Genzel, it stems from a quality he shared with his mentor, Nobel laureate Charles Townes: Curiosity. “We were entertained in our journey all the time,” he told me. “Additional issues would come as we were hunting down this alley. Imagine that these galaxy centers have big black holes. The next thing you would like to understand is how did they form and when? And how fast? And what were the processes? And can they grow to any size? And do they eat up entire galaxies? These additional questions keep emerging and keep piquing curiosity.”
In any innovative project, there’s the primary goal (e.g., identifying that black hole), but ideally, the overarching goal doesn’t blind us to all the other curiosity-based questions that emerge along the way. It’s about finding the journey interesting, not just the final goal. And people who are able to find the journey interesting not only keep motivated, but they’re also far happier with their work. In a Leadership IQ study, for example, we found that people who say, “I find something interesting in every task I do,” are 38% more likely to give 100% effort at work.
Dr. Genzel likens this to walking through the forest. As he explained to me, “If you take a walk with me through a forest which we have not seen ever, there’s a first phase where we look at these trees. There are different types of trees, with differing heights, leaves, etc. At first, we’re awed by the beauty and complexity. Then as scientists, we need some order, so we write down what we’re seeing.” That will lead naturally to the type of probing curiosity that Dr. Genzel employed in his search for black holes; how has this forest grown, how did it come about, was it all at once, etc.
But here’s a clever twist in his approach: After these initial observations, what do you see that you wouldn’t expect to see in a random situation? “For instance, suppose we see that there are flowers in addition to trees,” he says. “After a while, we notice that there are red flowers and blue flowers, but the blue flowers are always on the left side of the path. Maybe the first five flowers could be chalked up to randomness, but once you’ve seen a thousand blue flowers all on the left side of the path, you better start wondering why that might be. We could develop a hypothesis that maybe the path runs in a north-south direction, and rainfall generally comes from the west, so the water-needy blue flowers are always on the east side. And then we start testing whether our hypothesis is true.”
In essence, as Dr. Genzel was walking towards the black-hole goal, he was discovering those red and blue flowers all along the path. For example, he notes that the “growth of galaxies and the growth of these black holes are intimately coupled. Galaxies cannot grow forever because, at some point, they’ll harbor such big black holes that the black holes hit back. As the black holes are fed, they start ejecting so much radiation and material that they destroy the galaxies, at least in part.”
For a scientist, innovator, inventor, or anyone who’s pursuing a big idea, your job is, of course, to pursue your big goal. But to keep yourself motivated through all the inevitable ups and downs, you’ve got to notice those flowers on the side of the path. In the case of Dr. Genzel, noticing those flowers has been a key to his success. “I’m extremely lucky in that sense that I’ve been entertained by the universe for 40 or 50 years. It has never been boring. We’ve never hit the point where we’ve said, ‘Let’s go home, we’ve done enough.'”
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