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McCarley's Musings and Inspirations

Cosmos: A Space Odyssey graphic
Michael Faraday delivering a Christmas Lecture in 1856.

Many of us have learned from positive interactions and experiences along our way to pursuing excellence in our personal and professional lives. And of course, our failures, and limitations imposed on us by others, often help inform us on many levels.

While each of us has a different background and set of experiences, which form and refine the lenses through which we view our approaches and those of others, it is valuable to realize those lenses help us move forward, but also, they have imperfections in them that can distort what we view as successes and failures. Past experiences may restrict our field of view, or they may result in us taking advantage of them in a new light so that we can achieve things we never imagined.

Several years ago, I was fortunate to attend a performance in the Saenger Theater by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an individual who faced many challenges and great outcomes in their career and personal life. During that performance, which included an unexpected cell phone call from Bill Nye, Tyson reminded us about an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, wherein he focused on Michael Faraday (“The Electric Boy”). I still recall watching this episode with my children and spouse; I often used material from this episode in a graduate-level electrochemistry course I taught for over 25 years at Louisiana State University.

Faraday had a challenging upbringing and amazing change in fortune; the latter driven by his innate curiosity about books, gravity, electricity, Isaac Newton, and public presentation of science topics to socioeconomically challenged children (“The Christmas Lectures”), to name a few.

His early interactions with Sir Humphry Davy, his scientific mentor, were less than positive, to say the least, placing them in the same Venn diagram containing the well-known challenges imposed on Isaac Newton by Robert Hooke. After Faraday presented significant discoveries to the Royal Society and outshone his apprenticeship mentor, Davy effectively punished Faraday by requiring Faraday to work on reverse engineering Fraunhofer glass. The latter was eventually used to create numerous optical components key to the construction of microscopes, which were able to further open the eyes of scientists to the microscopic world.

After four long and painful years, Faraday had little to show for these efforts beyond pieces of inferior glass, which he eventually showed had interesting properties regarding light propagation. For some reason, he kept one of those “useless” pieces of glass as a memento of this dark period in his life.

Following Davy’s death, Faraday made some of his greatest scientific discoveries, despite struggles with mental health and leading the Royal Institution. Specifically, by using that one piece of “useless” glass, he made observations that laid the groundwork for future discoveries by Maxwell, Hertz, and Einstein — demonstrating the link between electricity, magnetism, and light. Eventually, that “useless” piece of glass led to so many discoveries, including different wavelengths of light and their observed colors, and invisible electromagnetic waves we use every day. These include X-rays, which incidentally Marie Curie used in “radiological cars" that saved the lives of countless soldiers during World War I.

I look forward to seeing how we all make best use of our successes and past challenges, so that we are able to do what we only imagine in our dreams.

Demon Copperhead book cover
An undated photo of a wooden arrow, about 3,000 years old and in unusually fine condition, that he found in the mountains of Norway in September 2023. The wooden arrow, with a quartzite tip, was preserved under ice.
Photo by Espen Finstad for the New York Times.

On many of my family’s visits to our ancestral home when I was a child, I often wondered how those who passed before us made a way toward their view of excellence and the challenges they faced, including those from the outside and self-imposed.

Now when I think back to those memories, I still wonder what I would have done if I had found an intact arrowhead near a creek bed or been able to speak with my great-great grandmother and learn what it was like to help found a community in the foothills of the Appalachian range while coming from a meager background. During an interview with Barbara Kingsolver regarding her recent book, Demon Copperhead, set in Lee County, Va. she reveals one of her traits many of us have faced or continue to face (imposter syndrome), which results in part from a significant change in our lives in the context of potential failures.

Of course, not all change is good, even if important knowledge is gained in the process. The latter is exemplified in a recent article about an archeological find in Norway that would have not come to be without the effects of global climate change. You may find it interesting to read more about the discovery of a 3000-year-old, well-preserved arrow (including the path-guiding “fletchings” or feathers) and the potential impact this discovery has on gaining a better understanding of the daily lives of the people in this region of modern-day Norway.

On an average day, many of us are in a race to discover things and do things before others who also dream of being able to achieve them. While glacial archaeologists are in a race against time to discover and preserve valuable artifacts that will likely be damaged or never found if not for their efforts, they also realize that they can only do so much and have to be satisfied with their efforts to achieve excellence. As investigators in the life sciences arena, I feel it is crucial that we strive for excellence while keeping things in perspective, especially ensuring we nurture those key personal and professional relationships that are at the core of our successes. As the main character in Kingsolver’s book says, “If I didn’t have my guys looking out for me, I’d be nowhere.”

I wish you the best in your pursuit of excellence and hope you will be able to keep things in perspective in the coming weeks

Author Bonnie Garmus on her book, "Lessons in Chemistry."
Portrait of Ludwig van Beethoven.

Growing up with limited access to books led to my interest in reading about a broad spectrum of topics, ranging from historical perspectives to saving near-extinct heirloom plants. 

Recently, I quickly devoured Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus.  The main character’s thirst for learning and teaching really resonated with me, as did the challenges and joys she encountered in her career development and personal life. 

So often, our encounters with success and adversity shape us in ways that are difficult to fathom until a later time, such as for Ludwig van Beethoven, a person whose life has possibly been written about more than his musical accomplishments. 

If you are up for an interesting story on how cutting-edge DNA sequencing approaches have solved long-standing mysteries about Beethoven’s life, death, and whether he really is a Beethoven, take a look at this article by Gina Kolata, which is based on a publication in Current Biology; you can also enjoy an audio article for those times when you are getting away from it all to recharge.  I wish you the best in the coming super-busy weeks and encourage you to take advantage of opportunities (such as reading fun books!) that provide you respite.