Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Fellow Human-Being

Due to my work in the field of Biomedical Engineering, I need to read up a lot of Biology from time to time. In the past two weeks, while reviewing 2 different topics - Plaque Assay and PCR (both extremely common and routine procedures followed in Biology labs worldwide), I was surprised to find that the inventors of both of these had won Nobel Prizes. I came to the conclusion that "Biology is full of Nobel Prizes" and that I should not be so surprised the next time I stumbled upon a Nobel Prize winning achievement.

I went on to find out a little more about the inventors and I was rewarded by a speech by the inventor of PCR - Kary B. Mullis. Such speeches by such "great" people are usually motivational; this one is too. But as I went through the speech, I realized that even such "greats-s" go through the same emotions and share the same insecurities as most ordinary people. Unlike some people whose autobiographies I started reading recently and had decided not to finish, here was a person who seemed to be just one of us. (In both A.P.J. Abdul Kalam's "Wings of Fire" and Paramhansa Yogananda's "Autobiography of a Yogi", I did not find anything which I could identify with from my own life. Of course, I read only the first 20 pages of the latter.)

The full speech is at I highly recommend reading it. It might not be anything earth-shaking in that it just gives a glimpse into the mind of a fellow human-being - but is not that great enough!

(I have also extracted some of my favourite parts below.)

"The books of the great scientists," he said, "are gathering dust on the shelves of learned libraries. And rightly so. The scientist addresses an infinitesimal audience of fellow composers. His message is not devoid of universality but it's universality is disembodied and anonymous. While the artist's communication is linked forever with it's original form, that of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others, and melts into the stream of knowledge and ideas which forms our culture. The scientist has in common with the artist only this: that he can find no better retreat from the world than his work and also no stronger link with his world than his work."

In one of our last experiments before we became so interested in the maturing young women around us that we would not think deeply about rocket fuels for another ten years, we blasted a frog a mile into the air and got him back alive.

The conundrum which lingered throughout the week-end and created an unprecedented desire in me to return to work early was compelling.

I wasn't sure about the law, but I was pretty happy working at Cetus and assumed innocently that if the reaction worked big time I would be amply rewarded by my employer.

Anyhow, my problems with Jennifer were not getting any better. That night was no exception to the trend. I drove home alone feeling sad and unsettled, not in the mood for leaving my job, or any big change in what was left of stability in my life. PCR seemed distantand very small compared to our very empty house.

For three months I did sporadic experiments while my life at home and in the lab with
Jennifer was crumbling. It was slow going.

The first successful experiment happened on December 16th. I remember the date. It was the birthday of Cynthia, my former wife from Kansas City, who had encouraged me to write fiction and bore us two fine sons. I had strayed from Cynthia eventually to spend two tumultuous years with Jennifer. When I was sad for any other reason, I would also grieve for Cynthia. There is a general place in your brain, I think, reserved for "melancholy of relationships past." It grows and prospers as life progresses, forcing you finally, against your grain, to listen to country music.

And now as December threatened Christmas, Jennifer, that crazy, wonderful woman chemist, had dramatically left our house, the lab, headed to New York and her mother, for reasons that seemed to have everything to do with me but which I couldn't fathom. I was beginning to learn tragedy. It differs a great deal from pathos, which you can learn from books. Tragedy is personal. It would add strength to my character and depth someday to my writing. Just right then, I would have preferred a warm friend to cook with. Hold the tragedy lessons. December is a rotten month to be studying your love life from a distance.

As he had learned all the biochemistry he knew directly from me he wasn't certain whether or not to believe me when I informed him that we had just changed the rules in molecular biology. "Okay, Doc, if you say so." He knew I was more concerned with my life than with those cute littlepurple-topped tubes.

In Berkeley it drizzles in the winter. Avocados ripen at odd times and the tree in Fred's front yard was wet and sagging from a load of fruit. I was sagging as I walked out to my little silver Honda Civic, which never failed to start. Neither Fred, empty Becks bottles, nor the sweet smell of the dawn of the age of PCR could replace Jenny. I was lonesome.