Thursday, December 14, 2006

I Know Everything About Nothing

"Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing." -- (Konrad Lorenz? Web sources vary, so I gave up looking).

Lately I've been asked to talk to some high school sophomores about career choices in science, using myself as a model. Oh, how the little devil in me wants to warp their impressionable young minds! The possibilities are endless! Now is my chance to set them spiraling down that path to become the next Dr. Frankenstein. Or, worse yet, my old P.I. Mwa ha ha ha ha!

I've worked in academic, government, private biotech, and public biotech settings, and I've sampled several fields of study as part of them, at least within biology. Does that make me some sort of an expert worth their time? Maybe they will think so, but my feeling about myself is that I am so much of a generalist lab rat that I specialize in nothing. I've made dozens of products, worked on countless projects, and put out some research papers, but the areas these address range from neuroscience to agricultural science, cell biology to ecology. It's not exactly the usual career path.

Every month in the vast realm of science there is exponentially more information about an ever-increasing number of fields such that one could get dizzy trying to comprehend it all. "The more you learn the less you know." The other day I was looking at a poster that showed a signaling pathway in cells and it occurred to me that every one of the thirty or so interacting proteins noted on the poster had surely been the subject of numerous published papers, and perhaps some doctoral theses, too. How many long nights did all those scientists, grad students, and work studies slave away to get to that point? Understanding even that one pathway in great detail would surely require me to burn the midnight oil for weeks and read many dozens of research papers. And that's just one of many diverse projects I could be working on at a given time. I could only be an "expert" in that area if I forewent anything else in my life, or gave up sleep entirely. I may be a caffeine junky, but not to that extent. And I don't think either my boss or my wife would be terribly thrilled.

So if these impressionable teenagers ask if I'm an expert in anything, I'll just tell them I know more and more about less and less, and that by the time I retire I should know everything about nothing. Then when I'm old and feeble, I'll be able to tell long stories to my grandkids that show off how much I know yet never seem to come to a point.

Do you ever feel this way about your profession?

(Update: the kids were great. But I did apparently warp them, because at one point, as I explained how a DNA dye we were using could be hazardous and mutagenic if handled unsafely, one of them said with a look of fascination, "So I could add it to a human egg and it would mutate the developing fetus somehow?" YES!).


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You haven't written in quite some time. Why?

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