The things I don’t have in common with the greats…

August 8, 2007

Well, I mean, where to begin, where to begin?

Just kidding. If you’re trying to live the life of your dreams, it’s important to have some sort of idea what that dream is. For me, it has something to do with being some sort of amazing scientist, a real renaissance man, someone that has complete confidence in one area of study, but doesn’t fear dabbling in other areas as the information beckons.

Take Richard Feynman for example. He’s the archetyal physicist of our generation. Well, of the last generation. I guess the archetypal physicist of our generation would be someone like Brian Greene. Or maybe Neil deGrasse Tyson. But anyone, he’s a pretty kick-ass scientist. He worked on the Manhattan project. He had a lot to do with simplifying quantum mechanics. And he even tried his hands in biochemistry on occasion, figuring out a thing or two about how DNA works together.

In other words, he knows just about everything.

But I notice a striking difference between him and I [other than the fact that he’s a certified genius and I’m, well, not]: as a kid, he played around hard-core with science based things. He had an electronics kit. He played with some chemicals. I’m sure he probably had some sort of bug jar that he kept under his bed to look at in the night. In other words, he was hands on the the max.

Me, not so much. My first real exposure to science… well, let me hold on for a second. I did have a few hands on meet ins with science as a young child. I remember my dad bringing home dry ice from work [one of the many benefits of being a chemist at DuPont], and we’d put it in soda bottles with cork lids. Needless to say, the corks would pop off as the carbon dioxide sublimated. Another fun little experiment was filling a two-liter soda bottle with dry ice, putting it in a giant barrel, and letting the thing blow. Fourth of July was just more fun with CO2.

But from then on out, my first real encounter with science as a hands on endeavor wasn’t until 7th grade with Science Olympiad. Or was it 6th grade? I don’t really remember. But I remember going into things like Experimental Design and Can’t Judge a Powder and having to do real lab work. Actually mixing two things together and seeing what happened [so what if they were just vinegar and baking soda?]

Then came science in high school, and I got even more hands on experience. Never mind that I hated all things lab based [why? I don’t know. Some mix between them never working and a completely irrational fear of looking like a doofus in front of other people]. At least I got to do something with the science.

And that’s been. Every time I’ve ever done something science related, or at least having to do with the physical sciences [I don’t know if you can call all my forays in computer science / psychology actual science, more like dabbling in the dark], it’s been in an academic setting. With someone looking over my should to tell me if what I was doing was ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’ I never really played with science, never really went off on my own with my little chemistry kit and blew up a few things.

And I wonder if that says something about me or just something about where I’ve been. I wonder if it’s a sign that maybe being a science great isn’t something I should look forward too. Or maybe it’s just a sign of what I need to change if I want to go in that direction.

I often feel like all the cool science has either been done, or isn’t allowed to be done, anymore. My dad was talking about how when he was in high school, they would let them play with mercury so the kids would know what it was like. Forget about that today. Nothing is safe anymore. You can’t go near mercury with anything but a ten foot pole. And forget about benzene. Or phenolphthalein. All that stuff causes CANCER for Christ’s sake!

So I don’t know if I’m just not open to the science, or if it really is bared from me. Buying chemicals seems like a drag, and having the equipment even more so. I can ‘play’ with the stuff that I’m told I can play with during lab at college, but nothing more. Maybe I just haven’t seen that side of academic science. Or maybe it really is dead.

I don’t know if any of this means anything. Or if I’m just having all the same doubts everyone does before they embark on a long adventure with an uncertain destination. I suppose I’ll have to explore avenues of experimentation on my own, however. That’s what the greats all did. And none of them blew themselves up.

Or at least, none did and lived to tell the tale.

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2 Responses to “The things I don’t have in common with the greats…”

  1. Ed Anderson said

    I think you must not have seen the academic side of science.

    If Ursinus is anything like Drexel, then in the hallways (especially outside of / near the departmental offices) there should be large posters. Posters containing “science” that folks are doing.

    Yeah, maybe all the easy, do-it-yourself, just-waiting-to-be-stumbled-upon science is “done” or close to it, but that still leaves a whole lot of science to do.

    Heck, what I’m doing can be considered science, even though we’re making cement and half of our tools are scavanged and/or old kitchen equipment. It may not be elegant or fancy like some kind of pharmaceuticals lab, but hey… we get things done. Heck, we have 1.9 papers written, and enough data for 3 more already.

    Speaking of pharmaceuticals though… maybe you should try to get in touch with a researcher in that field and see what they do for a day, and see then if it feels like real science?

  2. Mrs. O said

    First I’ll say that, in college, after taking so many science courses, I also figured there’s nothing really left to understand. And I wished I was born 30 years earlier so I could have done some of the “cool” science. Sometimes I still feel like the “easy” science is done, but I have to remind myself that, at the time it was done, it wasn’t really that easy. I mean you can even take my research as an example, when I want to study what a specific gene does to a yeast cell, there are kits to make the primers for the mutation, kits to purify the mutated DNA, kits to purify the protein for experimentation, and never mind that I don’t have to mouth-pipette the bacteria or yeast mixes, and when we want to see the protein on a gel we have gel-running equipment that is almost foolproof, and when we want to develop the film we have a machine that does in 2 minutes what used to take over 30 min to do by hand. Things that would have taken weeks or months can take days. Plus all this new technology, especially imaging equipment, I think the microscopes out there today are really amazing- they have this fluorescent microscope that can give you about as good resolution as an electron microscope. One day we’ll be able to look inside of cells in real time.

    The scientific questions left now are more difficult but may be just as interesting. It’s now all about interconnections between different fields, different pathways, things that we could have never asked 20 years ago but now with the basic knowledge and new technology we have a chance to ask. The big stories, cancer, neurodegeneration, aging, how we think, how we devoloped and evolved, which are so complicated you can’t look at it from one angle. We’re not even that close to answering these big questions, which is a reminder that there’s plenty left to discover.

    p.s. A warning, this all sounds fun, but 99% of science is boring and repetitive, and most of the time it doesn’t work out. And scientific equipment and chemicals are too expensive to just “play” with without a hypothesis, and no one will fund you if you have a crazy idea without preliminary data and/or sound reasoning for it to work. The “greats” either lucked out, had a trust fund, or, more likley, did enough “boring” “safe” science to fund their crazy ideas.

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