Friday, July 15, 2005

with knots I've got yet to untie

For the first time in about a month, my computer is working without issues. I realize that, just by having typed that, I probably just contracted some sort of sasser virus. I see an iBook in my future... and the future's so bright, I gotta wear shades. As if that little reference weren't reason for shame enough, should I bury my head in the sand for enjoying Shakira? It's okay as long as I only listen to her songs in Spanish, right? But when I hear no solo de pan vive el hombre, y no de excusas vivo yo... somehow in Spanish, it doesn't sound like cheese to me.

When I was in graduate school, I remember often getting discouraged on the topic of timing. I'd curse my luck that all the great discoveries had all been made. This, of course, was not the case, even in the relatively fully evolved science I was studying. In fact, the easy discoveries had been made. And even that is disingenuous. Let me get specific. I was an organic chemist at the time, and I remember reading journal articles from the 1940s and 1950s, and thinking this sh*t is not fair. People could get published just for turning a carboxylic acid into an ester back then. Imagine the things I could have done, I'd bemoan! I could have published a dozen articles in a year, instead of slaving away for a piddly publication in some obscure journal of chemistry in Tanzania or some such.

Of course, you can see the flaw in all this nonsensical whining. If I had actually been a researcher in the 1940s, I would have had 10% of the tools I had in graduate school. I also would have had 10% of the knowledge that I had from my graduate education. It would have seemed like feeling around in the dark, or, worse yet, relying solely on chance. Mix A + B together, hope for the best. Assuming I could have even managed to make an ester from a carboxylic acid, how would I have known that I had been successful? Half the means for characterization were nonexistent at the time.

Some times, I get similarly disheartened when I read articles like this NYT one, about all the recent advances in cancer treatment. I have this tendency to sigh and think ah, so all the big discoveries have been uncovered. But that is a fundamental flaw in good scientific thinking. It's true that in the past few years, some amazing advances have been made in oncology. But many of those advances were made by people who refused to accept that all the great discoveries had been fully explored. They built on the knowledge they had at their disposal, and upon that foundation came the next so-called breakthrough. Things evolve, become more complex over time, but so does the human mind and the mind's ability to solve even tougher problems. I have to believe that, or I will have to give up on everything, and I'm not feeling quite so nihilistic today.

Of course, another thing noted in that article is the high price of available therapies, which is a problem that I keep seeing in different avatars lately. But, I only ever hear complaining about it. Complaining about copayments, and insurance costs, and availability of medicines. And yet, what is tangibly being done about it? And what is the solution? Especially in acute illnesses, like cancer. Who knows... maybe that is where the real, next big discovery lies.

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