Birthday Meditation

March 18th, 2011

I recently watched Ken Burns’ documentary on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and it was truly excellent.  Perhaps the thing that I found most interesting from the film was an entry that expedition leader Merriweather Lewis made in his journal on the occasion of his 31st birthday:

This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.

I turned 31 this month, and over the course of the past year, I’ve felt many of the same sentiments as Lewis.  If I dropped dead tomorrow, there is no question in my mind that I would have had a net negative impact on the world.  I’ve essentially been in school for my entire life, chewing through a variety of taxpayer money in the form of (free) public education, competitive scholarships & fellowships, and grant money.  There’s also the many man-hours of time I’ve sapped from the workforce by way of the training provided by my parents, teachers, and mentors.  In contrast, my contributions to the world (e.g., teaching and a smattering of research papers) have been fairly insignificant.  My body of published research has little chance of helping anyone besides, perhaps, a couple of random souls in the future who are (more than likely) also working on projects of little importance to society at large.

Perhaps this waste and my unease can be written off as unavoidable costs of growing up, but the funny thing is that—unless one actively puts his mind to doing so—it seems pretty difficult to break out of such a cycle.  I mean, look around you.  How much of academic research truly excites you?  What percentage of papers in today’s journals will be especially helpful for more than twenty people, ever?  How many will go completely uncited—or even unread?  Is this what you want to spend your life doing?

I’ve asked this question before, but I’ll ask it again:  What is the greatest achievement in chemistry of the past 10 years?  20 years?  30 years?  Genome sequencing techniques, maybe?  Gleevec?  If that’s all we can bring to the table over such a long period, we’re in trouble.  Lack of production—not in terms of insipid papers, but in terms of compelling advances that benefit society—is going to make it increasingly difficult to justify our current level of taxpayer funding.  If steep budget cuts can happen to NASA’s human spaceflight program, they sure as hell can happen to chemistry.  We’ll probably find this out if we keep spinning our wheels.

Is there hope on the horizon?  I don’t know.  It seems like most of the cattle coming out of the barn are heading right down the same path as those before them.  Many areas of modern research have been tapped almost dry scientifically, but people continue to line up to fight over the scraps.  The academic system of chemistry has become some weird game where there are all of these expectations of what you should be doing.  These expectations keep people busy doing a whole lot of nothing, like publishing a bunch of boring/worthless papers to get more money so they can publish more boring/worthless papers.

What is the point of getting an academic job—or any job in research, for that matter—if you are not going to work on problems that stand to provide significant benefits to mankind?  Part of me understands why washed up professors continue to work on overfarmed land—they were there first.  What I can’t understand is how freshly minted assistant professors can start out working on crap projects.  Why bother?  I assume it’s simply because these people want the status of being a professor, so perhaps hiring committees are to blame?

Or maybe it’s the funding agencies?  I am not advocating cutting back on the funding of scientific research, but you can count me among the people who believe that we need to modify the way we fund this research.  I’d like to see fewer people rewarded for “playing the game” and producing a whole lot of insipid garbage rather than those who have got bold new ideas, even if they are associated with decreased chances of “success”.

Industry has its own problems.  Pharma is neck-deep in an area of diminishing returns for how it discovers drugs, and the industry is shedding weight like a cancer patient.  Of course, not everyone seems to care.  Grad students continue to pile into total synthesis labs, and our flagship news weekly runs pieces titled “Chemistry: Alive and Well”.  Chemistry is alive, but is it really well? 

I’m not as concerned that we’re in the doldrums as I am that no one seems especially motivated to get out.  But who am I kidding?  I’m sure as hell not going to change the broken system.  People have been saying things like “pharma is broken” and “total synthesis is dead” for years, but nothing has stopped their slow march into oblivion.  The only thing I can control is what I do, and I’d prefer not to spend the rest of my life polishing turds.

Getting back to Merriweather Lewis…the Corps of Discovery’s expedition would go down in history as one of the greatest feats of human exploration and of immense national importance to his fledgling country.  In taking such a grand risk, Lewis unquestionably achieved his goal of “advanc[ing] the information of the succeeding generation”.  Unfortunately, he never reached his predicted lifespan of 62.  Rather, Lewis put a bullet in his head at the ripe old age of 35.

24 Responses to “Birthday Meditation”

  1. Gavin Says:

    I turned 31 a few weeks ago and this has thoroughly depressed me. Thanks Paul, I’m off for a pint.

  2. Paul Says:

    March 5th?

  3. Leigh Krietsch Boerner Says:

    You know, I get existential about every five years. It has nothing to with my birthdays, but it’s nice to know that other people do it, too. (Er, the part about Lewis offing himself is a little demoralizing, though.)

  4. David P Says:

    Cheerful stuff!

    I think you underestimate the advances in the world. Maybe you are hoping for some huge innovation? I saw pictures of benzene rings. I see work on tropical medicines. I saw the AIDS pandemic that was going to wipe us all out become a manageable problem. There are lots of little advances in different areas of science, even as the number of problems in the world pile up.

    I think a better way to look at it is by asking yourself if the world would have been better off with you or without you, rather than how much did you get free off the tax-payers in education. (You could argue that educating the population improved it too).

  5. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I think the greatest achievement in chemistry over the last fifty years is not any single discovery but a validated philosophy; that we can create molecules and materials by rationally applying physicochemical principles. This single paradigm has led to almost all the advances in chemical science since then. Of course we are still quite far from making the process purely rational (and may never be able to do so) but it’s a very substantial achievement. One can also argue about whether the net effect of the development of this philosophy has been positive since it has also led to population explosion, environmental pollution etc. but that’s another matter.

  6. RM Says:

    If one takes the general view that “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants,” you have to admit that the giants were as big as they were only because they were standing on the shoulders of others. So it’s not so much a giant, as one of those totem pole of guys in a big trenchcoat that you see in cartoons.

    It may be true that your work might only be of use to 20 other people, and the work of those 20 others might each only be of use to 20 others, so with overlap there might only be a total of 50-100 people in the history of the world that have even a second-order relationship to your work. However, it may be that one of those 50 people is the next Einstein or Berzelius or Fleming. So while your work might be relegated to a footnote of a footnote, it may well be it was a small-but-crucial piece of the puzzle which allowed someone else to change the world.

    If you think what you’re doing scientifically is worth doing, it’s worth doing, even if there isn’t an immediate application. – Possibly not so satisfying if you’re in it for personal glory or instant gratification, but if you’re looking for advancing humanity, I think there’s more wasted effort in chasing the next big thing (or more specifically, last year’s “next big thing”) than there is in pursuing solid but unglamorous work.

  7. Hap Says:

    We don’t know what is important. Basic research (when it was actually supported) generated lots of products but didn’t necessarily intend to do so. I’m sure that if businesses knew what would have been important, they would spend their money only on those things, but they don’t. Guessing what will be transformative in the long term seems like a fool’s game (though I know the G plays it well, and he’s pretty smart.)

    For money, people expect things, but seeing the push for short-term gains gut pharma, I’m not sure that making research more relevant in the near-term will help. If people (or the subset of people that control the purse strings) don’t want chemical research, or want it to make money now, their wishes will be followed. Where the jobs that everyone (at least here in flyover land) says they want will come from if we can’t make anything or find anything out, I don’t think they know or care.

    All you can do is your best. I don’t know if what I do will be important, or if the good I do will be outweighed by the harm I’ve done (resources consumed, etc.), so worrying about it is unhelpful. All I can do is try to live as best I can, to remain open to things and learn and do useful things and love people. You probably can’t transcend your limitations (or all of them), but you might transcend a few.

  8. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Also, how about doing something simply because it’s interesting and not worry about whether it’s important? It’s not easy to do this, but that’s what got most of us into science, the pleasure of finding things out.

  9. Chemjobber Says:

    All you can do is your best. I don’t know if what I do will be important, or if the good I do will be outweighed by the harm I’ve done (resources consumed, etc.), so worrying about it is unhelpful. All I can do is try to live as best I can, to remain open to things and learn and do useful things and love people. You probably can’t transcend your limitations (or all of them), but you might transcend a few.


  10. Joel Says:

    Oh, man. I have been going through a similar feeling in writing my thesis (or trying to at least).

    I wonder personally if my feelings are anything related to Impostor Syndrome (or the Dunning Kruger effect). Even though I know I am have had some successes at playing “the game” of research, I have serious doubts about how much that success is going to help people in a tangible way, barring some miraculous breakthrough that provides clean water, cheap energy, etc.

    Carpenters might not be solving any big questions, but at the end of their work day they have made a tangible thing that is going to make someone’s life better. Some days I wish I had picked a career that could do that.

  11. Chemjobber Says:

    Carpenters might not be solving any big questions, but at the end of their work day they have made a tangible thing that is going to make someone’s life better.

    Honestly, are you not a molecular carpenter? And if you work in industry (and do it well), you just might make someone’s life just slightly better.

  12. See Arr Oh Says:

    Geez, I’m gonna be heading into an all-new decade in about two weeks….actually felt like I was gaining some traction on my 20s. Guess I’ll have to give you a status report about 10 years and one month from now, to see if I really did anything “earth-shattering” in my 30s….!

  13. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    I feel really tempted to copy Richard Feynman’s moving letter to a student who wrote to him, despondent that he was not doing much of significance in his field. Feynman’s words could well apply to all of us who may think like Paul. The letter was part of the collection of Feynman letters titled “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track”

    Dear Koichi,

    I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile…

    …You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

    Best of luck and happiness.
    Richard P. Feynman.

  14. Chinabonding Says:

    Yes, 31 was harder than 30. At 30 you could still believe you are 20+10, still in 20s.
    Next milestone, 34!,10930/

  15. Vertsci Says:

    My guess is you’re overdosing on that Ambien/ Prozac combo. Suggest you thank the Gods you were not born in ancient Egypt. That you’re posing as world weary at the tender age of 31 is somewhat disingenuous.

    What’s possibly nibbling at your subconscious it the fact you’re 31 and your field still considers you a student (talk to any engineer and they’ll laugh at you. They’re out there solving real problems and working with multimillion dollar budgets at 25.)

    The reality is that the hard sciences keeps the flock in an extended period of adolescence because it’s the atmosphere of worship and sycophancy the faculty Gods desire.

    And please don’t consider the statist scientific world you reside in as being on par with the true adventure or innovator. Such people are born of chance and their times as much as their individual persistence and independence. They pursue a vision and they don’t spend all their time pursing pieces of paper (BS, MS, PhD…POSTDOC-1..2.3..4)

    Your primary goal in life should be to smile broadly to the important people and maybe one day they’ll extend your leash a few inches. That’s what it is to be a statist.

    No guts, no glory.

  16. CMCguy Says:

    In terms of chemistry achievements I would steal a line from “the Graduate” and say “Plastics” if you consider a longer time frame. For direct benefits to way people now live polymers have had significant impact on wide scope. Bakelite is over 100 years old and WWII spawned much development in 40s and 50s which has continued to advance since and is ongoing although is more integrated and increment in impact.

    31? Wait till you reach 51 and then look back (and frankly if you raised good kids, even if only through your teaching, then those positives would overcome any negatives)

  17. excimer Says:

    @Versci: sorry, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of Ayn Rand’s cock in your mouth.

  18. Hap Says:

    Dude, I don’t think he’s allowed to talk while fellating the Randster.

  19. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    -No guts, no glory.

    That’s right. You have neither. You also forgot to mention the reproductive apparatus in the list.

  20. James Says:

    “What is the point of getting an academic job – or any job in research, for that matter – if you are not going to work on problems that stand to provide significant benefits to mankind? ”

    Don’t waste your time in applying for academia then, unless you’re trying to address one of these problems. If you can’t convince yourself that you think what you’ll be doing is important, you’ll never convince a committee. And if you try, and fail – so be it,. In my view, that’s academia’s problem, not yours.

    “It seems like most of the cattle coming out of the barn are heading down the same path as those before them. ”

    My suggestion is to look at your skill set. Then look for people who are in pain, whom could benefit from your expertise. Help those people. You’ll find it infinitely more rewarding than “polishing turds”, as you say.

    You’re a bit of a loose cannon, but that’s had the benefit of earning you a reputation for honesty. Nobody has to ask you what you *really* think. That’s a valuable asset. There are lots of potential opportunities out there – you might have to reinvent yourself, but you have all the tools to do something transformational.

  21. wolfie Says:

    or wolfie drank out rather one bottle better than two (of them)

  22. wolfie Says:

    you will find some job, Paul, I expect

  23. luysii Says:

    Well Paul, I was thinking these sorts of thoughts at 24, and decided to go back into medicine, which most of the time is a huge pain in the ass, with insurance companies, malpractice attorneys, hospital administrators on your tail. But at the end of the day, it gives you satisfaction (or at least gave me satisfaction) that no intellectual achievement was able to.

    For a bit more elaboration see —

  24. TMWTD Says:

    Maybe we should have invested all that time spent on learning science/research into learning how to make money. Make enough money and you can open your own lab (and enjoy some creature pleasures).

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