I spent half of last week at a conference in Irvine on “Astrophysical Probes of the Nature of Dark Matter“. Although the talks (which are on-line, by the way) were extremely interesting and bloggable (once other work stuff settles down), the most memorable discussion was a side conversation on the rules of having a scientific archnemesis. The archetypal archnemesis is someone who, in spite of violating various norms of scientific conduct (ranging from blatant cheating to rudeness), is successful in your subfield, and whose behavior compromises your own ability to get work done. However, you have to be very, very careful when adopting an archnemesis. So, here are the rules:
1. Your archnemesis cannot be your junior. Someone who is in a weaker position than you is not worthy of being your archnemesis. If you designate someone junior as your archnemesis, you’re abusing your power.
2. You cannot have more than one archnemesis. Most of us have had run-ins with scientific groups who range continuous war against all outsiders. They take a scorched earth policy to anyone who is not a member of their club. However, while these people are worthy candidates for being your archnemesis, they are not allowed to have that many archnemeses themselves. If you find that many, many people are your archnemeses, then you’re either (1) paranoid; (2) an asshole; or (3) in a subfield that is so poisonous that you should switch topics. If (1) or (2) is the case, tone it down and try to be a bit more gracious.
3. Your archnemesis has to be comparable to you in scientific ability. It is tempting to despise the one or two people in your field who seem to nab all the job offers, grants, and prizes. However, sometimes they do so because they are simply more effective scientists (i.e. more publications, more timely ideas, etc) or lucky (i.e. wound up discovering something unexpected but cool). If you choose one of these people as an archnemesis based on greater success alone, it comes off as sour grapes. Now, if they nabbed all the job offers, grants, and prizes because they stole people’s data, terrorized their juniors, and misrepresented their work, then they are ripe and juicy for picking as your archnemesis. They will make an even more satisfying archnemesis if their sins are not widely known, because you have the future hope of watching their fall from grace (not that this actually happens in most cases, but the possibility is delicious). Likewise, other scientists may be irritating because their work is consistently confusing and misguided. However, they too are not candidates for becoming your archnemesis. You need to take a benevolent view of their struggles, which are greater than your own.
4. Archnemesisness is not necessarily reciprocal. Because of the rules of not picking fights with your juniors, you are not necessarily your archnemesis’s archnemesis. A senior person who has attempted to cut down a grad student or postdoc is worthy of being an archnemesis, but the junior people in that relationship are not worthy of being the archnemesis of the senior person. There’s also the issue that archnemeses are simply more evil than you, so while they’ll work hard to undermine you, you are sufficiently noble and good that you would not actively work to destroy them (though you would smirk if it were to happen).
Now, what does one do with an archnemesis? Nothing. The key to using your archnemesis effectively is to never, ever act as if they’re your archnemesis (except maybe over beers with a few close friends when you need to let off steam). You do not let yourself sink to their level, and take on petty fights. You do not waste time obsessing about them. Instead, you treat them with the same respect that you would any other colleague (though of course never letting them into a position where they could hurt you, like dealing with a cobra). You only should let your archnemesis serve as motivation to keep pursuing excellence (because nothing annoys a good archnemesis like other people’s success) and as a model of how not to act towards others. You’re allowed to take private pleasure in their struggles or downfall, but you must not ever gloat.
While I’m sure the above sounds so thrilling that you want to rush out and get yourself an archnemesis, if one has not been thrust upon you, count your blessings. May your good fortune continue throughout your career.