Basic Instincts, Basic Research


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Raising children: A baffled father in The Fantastiks, the longest-running Broadway musical, sums it up like it is: "Plant a radish, get a radish, never any doubt . . . While with children, it's bewilderin, you don't know, till the seed is nearly grown, just what you've sown." We dream of our children's success and are willing to make every effort to bring it about, but we have no way of knowing what their future holds. Will they be great artists? Lawyers? Scientists?

Most children grow up to contribute to society, but few change the world. A select few turn into trailblazers - carving pioneering paths in science, politics, or the arts. Others will contribute very little, or even tax society's resources. A flair for music, unique athletic ability, or mathematical brilliance? At times, these gifts are discovered early on; in other cases, a less-promising child may blossom into a leading heart surgeon or a famous writer. Raising children is undoubtedly among the most rewarding of projects, and yet also demanding and uncertain. In this respect, it greatly resembles scientific research.

Like young parents, scientists think of their research by day, dream of it by night, and are sure it's the most wonderful thing on earth. They often forget to eat or sleep while tending it, yet have little idea what its future may be. Will it lead to a life-saving drug, unravel one of nature's deepest secrets, lay the foundations of a new industry? There is, of course, no way to answer these questions. But one thing is clear: just as childhood shapes adult lives, so does basic research form the foundations of knowledge essential to human progress.