20 April 2012

The Universe as Arbiter

The Atlantic | Derek Lowe | Do We Really Need More Scientists?

There's really nothing like the feeling of running an important experiment. You don't know what's going to happen, because nobody knows what's going to happen. The universe is about to say whether this idea you're testing is right or not, and you're going to be the first to know.

A while back*
Whoa. This was only posted a month ago. I'm losing it.
I saw this quote and thought Yes! This is it! This is what I love about what I do. This is going on the door to our lab right away. And so it did.

This week I remembered the downside to this: whether you can get your work done is up to the universe, not you.

Towards the end of last weekend my friends and I were lamenting having to go back to the real world and get to work. We were all in for a long week with late nights. The difference is that if they put in the late hours they knew they could get what needed to be done, done. It was just a matter of discipline and hard work. (Not to give short shrift to what they do: they all have difficult, intellectual jobs which I respect.)

On the other hand, I'm not sure if the thing I'm trying to do is mathematically possible. There is a distinct (and ominously growing) possibility that the Universe itself will not let me get this project done. That's scaring me right now. Way deep down in my belly, it's scaring me.

PS I don't want to get bogged down addressing Lowe's title question. He's a scientist; he makes many good points that are often over-looked in this discussion. I will make one that I've not heard anyone make: Do we really need more of any profession? There are some good reasons not to train more chemists. But there are also many good reasons not to train more artists, architects, marketers, lawyers, historians, and HR reps. Training for a job, and indeed, having a job at all, is a cost.

Further, it's really hard to sit on the sidelines of a market and recognize what there's a shortage* of, because the opportunities going unfilled are too unseen.
What is a "shortage" anyway? It's a often misused word. See: Munger on Shortages, Prices, and Competition and Munger on Price Gouging at EconTalk.
This is especially true in labor markets since they have all sorts of exogenous, hard-to-measure factors like 18-year-olds-enjoy-being-art-students and doctors-like-making-it-hard-for-others-to-do-medicine.

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