Sunday, June 04, 2006

High Summer

Conventional wisdom says that men usually peak in their mid- forties. Their mental powers, leadership abilities and their career and even sex appeal reaches a zenith and this is the so called “high summer” of a man’s life. This is maybe true for lawyers, physicians and other corporate types and professionals, notwithstanding writers and academics in the arts and literature.  In their forties these men have developed a certain respectability and authority.

But not for scientists. The truly great ones, Newton, Einstein, Darwin, Galileo and Alfred Russel Wallace have sealed their contributions to science in their mid-twenties to their mid-thirties. There is a painting of Galileo in his 40th year, showing a man, proud and confident  knowing that his contribution (made in his early 30s) was secure (He had figured out and mathematically described the Principle of Inertia. And a few years later he would discover Jupiter’s moons using a telescope). His tiff with the Church had started but the crescendo will be when he was in his 70s. Einstein had special relativity nailed down by the time he was 26. Darwin figured about evolution when he was 25 but procastrinated publication until Wallace (then aged 35) wrote him a letter in the mid 1858  that simply said he independently came into the same conclusion. Fact: the average age of Nobel prizewinners in Physics is 36, chemistry 39 and medicine, according the the Nobel website, is “relatively high”. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the human body is a complex phenomenon.

Now here I am at 39 and appointed as a senior exchange scholar and professor to a United States university. We are several senior scholars. Some of them belong to the humanities and arts and are much older. There are some working in the health sciences and agricultural sciences. On average these men and women are 15 years older than I am. The fact that they have been appointed as senior scholars is recognition that they are in their peak. In fact I am the youngest senior scholar ever.

Yikes! How depressing! I am beginning to be too old to be nominated as an outstanding young scientist. Have I reached my peak? Reading Alan Lightman’s “A Scientist Dying Young” essay  had me thinking. Lightman had his science mid-life crisis when he was 35. And this led him to assess his contribution to science. Of course only less than 1% of the science profession will be able to contribute at the same caliber as Einstein, Darwin or Galileo and initiate a Kuhn Paradigm Shift. Lightman, who has a PhD in theoretical physics from CalTech. He came to the conclusion that his contributions are “respectable” but not brilliant. That’s the best  most of us can really hope for.

Now I really, really, really have to assess my contribution. I am a biogeographer dealing with some aspects of evolution. And I try to describe a major problem, why the Philippines is biodiverse. And I have only five papers on the subject. Hardly a contribution. I have just the bare skeleton of a theory to explain this major subject. Obviously there is a lot of work to be done. Unfortunately I don’t have enough time. Why?

Well for starters, administrative and teaching tasks have started to snowball on me. Also the tempting offers of consulatancies and other rich pickings. Well these could be justified as the extension aspect of being an academic, or a much higher falluting “service to the nation” or the truly basal “I need extra money to survive given the paltry salary the university pays me” None of these reasons are inherenty immoral at all. And given the situation, I have to make compromises.

What was Lightman’s escape pod? He discovered his talent for the genre of the science essay and novel. So he became a writer. Now we know that writers being denizens of the Humanities reach their peak much later. Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck got their Literature Nobels in their late 50s and early 60s. In the Philippines, Nick Joaquin and Frankie Sionil-Jose received their due recognition as writers in their 50s. Before then, they were considered as journalists. It seems that to be a good writer one has to know people and feel how they exist. Evolutionary biologists now say that we really can go along with the brain size of a chimpanzee but we evolved a larger brain in order to understand other people!

So it seems Lightman extended his peak for a decade or two and was appointed Professor of Humanities at MIT. Now what is my escape pod? Writing it is. I am a writer. I write  in a travel journal when I am traveling to a field site, at home, when I am stumped in a modelling problem (in which I then  blog) and much worse, write in verse or in the short story genre.

Of course the College of Arts and Letters will NEVER dare appoint me as Professor of Humanities. So I’d better forget dreaming of becoming another Lightman. I’d have to content myself by realizing that my urge to write is like my urge to have sex and lots of sex, both extremely pleasurable ;-) My favourite writer is Steinbeck, since like me; he trained as a marine biologist while attending college. He long realized that even the basal drives are a source for good writing. We may have to connect our basal drives with the “truths of the heart” to come out with good writing, the stuff that Faulkner says would allow the human spirit not just to endure but to prevail.

This is the creative process that is inherent in science and art. Steinbeck understood it as the urge to report what is found in the tidepools (science) is the same as that drives a man to poetry (art). If soon realize my high summer is this then I should be right. It is difficult to be a man. It is the testosterone. But that is what fuels creativity. So when I do my science, I would expect my best in art. I supposed my linking of these two seemingly separate worlds has made my seniority at an early age of 39, not too hot and much bearable.

3 June 2006
University of the Philippines



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