Monday, May 15, 2006

I'm Still an Idealist with my Heart on My Sleeve

I went into Science with the notion of using my mind to help people. My rationalization at the time, and this was when I was 19 or 20 and had given up on Pre-Med and Biomechanical Engineering for Molecular Biology, was that if I came up with a revolutionary idea I could save many more lives than saving lives one at a time as a medical doctor. I saw the beauty and elegance of the molecular control systems regulating the molecular machinery of the cell and realized that the engineers were woefully way behind Nature. Nature had worked all this out over billions of years without conscious thought and it was simply wonderful. But as I went from undergraduate to graduate to postdoc, my idealism took a beating from the practical aspects of the job. It seemed less like people were behaving as idealists and more like they were egoic bastards.

People hold up Einstein as a towering example of a Scientist and what people don't realize is that Einstein was the exception to the rule. He was so far beyond his peers that they didn't know what to make of him. He was more fortunate than Max Planck in that his work was recognised and accepted almost immediately rather than derided and criticized for 20 years. Ideally, Science and Philosophy in general, should be meritocratic. To a large extent they are, but like all human endeavors, the ego sometimes insinuates itself.

Max Planck, Gregor Mendel, Carl Woese, Francis Rous, and countless others discovered new insights into Reality and their peers did not recognize their work for many years. Often in Science, if the research is "hot" or trendy, multiple labs will try to reproduce the work and it will be verified or falsified rather quickly. Yet, if the work is revolutionary and attacks the fundamental underpinnings of a discipline as Mendel's, Planck's, Woese's, or Rous' works show, it is more often greeted with disbelief and derision and is rejected rather than tested on its merits. In Mendel's case, his work was rediscovered. In the other cases, the men lived long enough to see the fruits of their labors and the Truth they had uncovered to be accepted. Indeed, Max Planck remarked about his experience thusly:

"A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

I noticed that unlike other careers, it just got harder and harder as you rose up the career ladder, not easier. Throw in decreasing funding for basic research overall (Human Genome Project soaked up a lot of funding that would have gone to much smaller labs), and you make a lot of average scientists miserable. Add to the mix that the best and brightest from all over the World come here to do research and that makes the task even harder. I could compete with the top 10% of Americans for a job, but not with the top 10% of the brightest Mainland Chinese (I was going to say Red Chinese, but many of those people don't really care for the Communist system).

My point in all this is that Science and Philosophy are likely just as bad or good as any human occupations. At their best, they improve the human condition and society overall. At their worst, they impede improvement of the human condition and now, threaten to destroy human society. It can be argued that Science and Philosophy are at their core amoral - knowledge is neither good nor bad. This is true. However, Science and Philosophy are sold on the premise that ideas and knowledge will always benefit society by spawning new technology. Research scientists don't live in a vacuum and they must sell themselves to obtain grant money for their livelihoods. So, when money and egos are at stake, merit may get lost in the process.
I think that your experience is universal. In some fields there might be more ego-dominance than others... but a lot of that rings true to my experience of architecture.

Many idealists get out because they can't stand the egos. An idealist myself (duh!) I wonder if I can be happy. The work will be better than it would be if most other people did it, but nearly as good as I am capable of producing in the ideal conditions. Is that enough?
To not be able to do what you love - to be unable to produce labors of love is a tragedy. I also believe that "Labor of Love" is a good description of what work will become if/when all of humanity becomes Enlightened. This is what Tolle meant by the definition of work changing. You love architecture, or you wouldn't have gone through all the hard work and effort in college to become one. Works of love generally outlast other works, so I wouldn't be concerned with the quality of your works. Time will tell you more than anything how good your designs are. Besides, you are still learning what works and what doesn't. You can't expect yourself to be a Frank Lloyd Wright straight out of college, Julie. Different fields mature at different times. For molecular biologists, they are usually most productive in their 40's because that is the time they've got their labs to be most productive, although that datum may have changed by now. Although, it could be argued that for physicists, most of their greatest ideas are in their early twenties before the educational system has destroyed their imaginations.
ya'll carry on, that is not my business, but these latest posts are perfect for me and i want to read them carefully, learn from them, thanks john. a bunch.

i too seek how to help on a mass scale, i tried the one at a time and found the need immense, the solutions unable, they help here and there, that is very important, but i have had to seek something that had more reach and wishfully, more immediacy, maybe that is why i do what i do, and how i came to have the experiences that have guided me in the endeavour?

i am going to very carefully read this stuff, thanks again john.
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