With dismay yesterday, I noticed the obituary of the colossally-talented astrophysicist Bohdan Paczynski while perusing the Los Angeles Times website. During my time as as astronomer, I never knew him or worked with him, but some words of his that he spoke at a colloquium at Caltech while I was in grad school back in the early '90s have stuck with me for many years, including long after I left the field. They have always struck me as a fitting maxim for the creative theoretical scientist at work:
If you're not wrong at least half the time, you're not working hard enough.
The L.A. Times obituary, of course, celebrates some things Paczynski got right.
Astrophysicist Bohdan Paczynski, who was the first to suggest that gamma-ray bursters lie outside the Milky Way and who revolutionized astronomy by using gravitational lensing as a tool to search for dark matter and new planets, died April 19 in his Princeton, N.J., home after a three-year battle with brain cancer. He was 67.
His novel ideas were often at odds with the conventional wisdom of his peers, but more often than not, he was proved correct, and his insights opened many new areas of research, including the search for stars and other celestial objects whose light output varies over time.
"He was incredibly creative and original," Princeton astrophysicist Michael Strauss said. "All of his life, he brought interesting approaches to interesting problems."
Astrophysicist Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University said, "People often said that if you had a clever idea and were thinking of writing a paper, you had better check with him first.
"When I was in graduate school, I thought it would be neat to look for supernovas in [gravitationally] lensed systems. I looked it up, and he had already described it."
A native of Poland, Paczynski settled in this country permanently in 1981 when Polish leader Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski cracked down on the Solidarity trade union movement while Paczynski and his family were in this country on sabbatical.
But he retained close ties with the Polish astronomical community, collaborating with researchers there and creating a pipeline to bring many to the United States for training and research.
"He is basically a legend in Poland," said astronomer Krzysztof Pojmanski of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
I'm not sure Pacyznski would be happy with the phrase "more often than not, he was proved correct." By the standard of his earlier words, that would mean he wasn't working hard enough. And I find that very hard to believe.