Monday, September 27, 2010

Specializing in Everything

I read biographies too much perhaps. They tend to make me feel a bit inferior, but I always consider that the inspiration from reading about Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain or Joe Louis far outweighs the likelihood that I will not be a founder of the world’s largest democracy or win the heavy weight championship. It is not  unusual to be more admiring of historical heroes, as they are no longer around to let us down. In many ways it also makes me feel privileged to be living in a technological age that  many of these people, the three above included, were not lucky enough to be a part of. It would be difficult to invent aboard a ship crossing through pirate infested waters on the way to France as Franklin did, or write books without spell check like Twain, or box.. well that is pretty much the same as always. Where genius becomes more complicated in the modern world is not in the areas that can be aided by science and technology, but in the fields of science and technology themselves.

I decided to work for a Ph.D when I was 29 years old. I had already worked several different career type jobs, from producing plays, to managing sales and marketing for my parents business. Luckily for me that business was a technological one, where I was exposed to the exciting worlds of chemistry, physics and computer science. Exposure is nice, but when I mentioned to real scientists that I wanted to get a Ph.D. they were encouraging with a caveat. They said that in modern science it was important to be specialized, and I tended to be a rather scattered generalist. This was, and I think still is, the common wisdom, which is easy to understand if you look at academia. Knowledge in each small field has become so great that to know everything about a problem it takes years to learn.

The Noble prize winning neuroscientist Dr. Kandel when asked at a conference about how a young scientist should choose an area of research said that he should pick something that takes a lifetime to solve. This statement seems like a call for focus, and for specialization until I considered Kandel’s career. Kandel is in his seventies, working hard on a problem. It is true that he has been focused but that focus is on something extremely large; understanding memory. Kandel’s approach to this was to use theory, experiment and even Freudian psychoanalysis to get there. In other words he was a specialist of everything it means to be a thinking being.

Just looking at the faculty of Columbia alone I found another very well known example of the same type of contemporary specialization. Brian Greene, who the author of 3 best selling books, is a theoretical physicist who works in the highly specialized field of String Theory. While having lunch with a friend  of mine last month we both made a rather obvious realization about Brian and String Theorists in general. The goal of this science is to find a link between quantum mechanics and gravity. This is often called the theory of everything, as it would be truly fundamental in our understanding of the entire universe. So how specialized can it be to be working on everything?

All of this is to take a perspective on the biographies of my heroes from the past, and those innovators of today. Perhaps the advice to be specialized is both right and wrong. We need to be specialists on the big questions, because we have the time, the technology and the work of those geniuses of the past to help us.

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