Apr 14

getting older

I have been reading The Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson, which is a superb book, and thought this passage was relevant to writing software as well as scientific research:

At lunch one day in Paris, early in December of 1975, I asked Monod whether he missed doing research directly. “Oh, I miss it,” he said; then what began as a shrug became instantaneously more thoughtful. “I do more than miss it. It’s too short a question.” He paused, began again. “No, I don’t know that it is actually working at the bench that I miss—miss so very much, although I do, at times; but it is in fact not being this permanent contact with what’s going on in science, in the doing, which I do miss.” I was reminded of a parallel conversation in which Watson had tried to claim the opposite, that he could stay close to what was happening in science. But if one was not actively working, Monod said, “Then you don’t have that. And also if you’re overburdened with general responsibilities, it becomes not so much a question of time but your subjective preoccupations. There’s a displacement—the internal conversation that you keep running in your head concerns all sorts of subjects, things that have got to be done, rather than just thinking about situations [in research]. That’s what bothers me most.”

When his term as director was up? “No, it’s too late to go back to research.” Why? Monod paused once more, and then said, “Well, you know, I always had a sort of amused and—amused, pitiful sympathy for the wonderful old guys who were still doing something at the bench when it was quite clear that whatever they did, it would be less than one hundredth of what they had been able to do before.” We spoke of examples—of scientists whose work became gradually less interesting as they aged, of others who lost their critical judgement and fooled themselves into believing they had solved problems that were beyond them…

[Kornberg said] “Almost every scientist winds up working on a problem he can’t bear to solve. And that’s where his life in science ends. It’s probably being very cruel to the older scientists, but I really believe it’s true. Or sometimes it’s a gradual loss of energy, of the ability to focus the energy on the problem. Or perhaps it’s a loss of edge—of the hunger. Some younger scientists—a few—have that quality that Francis has exemplified; he was ruthless in solving problems, I mean he would just carve them up and solve them in the most brutal way, much to the dismay of people like Chargaff who enjoyed the mystery of those problems and didn’t want to see it disappear, to them the mystery was the beauty of it….It probably does happen to all aging scientists.”