Like it or not, most of us are doomed to be rapidly forgotten.
There’s a great moment in Anne Rice’s “Interview with the Vampire”, in which the brooding protagonist has been scouring the Earth for the oldest of the immortals. He finds his man in Paris, but is stunned to discover that the world’s oldest vampire is a relative juvenile of just a few hundred years’ age. Armand, the vampire in question, breaks it to him gently – although vampires can theoretically live forever, in practice they tend to fade away after a couple of centuries.
It’s an uncomfortable parable for any scientist, given that an oft-cited lure of the job is that tantalising chance of immortality. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that even most scientists would struggle to name many living or dead Nobel laureates, and the fact that the general public can still only count as far as Albert Einstein, it’s still fair to say that a lot of us embark on our scientific careers fired by a romantic sense of adding some bricks (preferably a column) to the edifice of summed human knowledge.
With age and a bit more experience, we realise that the chances of achieving that kind of discovery and that kind of recognition are no different from winning a lottery. The chances that it will be us are so negligible as to be almost zero, but we are continually made aware that such discoveries do occur – the genome-editing technique CRISPR perhaps being the best recent example (who would have thought that a project working out why yoghurt manufacturers struggled with their yields would lead to a genome editing technique of apparently limitless potential?).
Still we trundle on with our work. Some of us achieve standing and maybe even a degree of fame within our chosen fields. Some of us, if we’re lucky, smart, and dedicated, produce work that’s acclaimed. A tiny number of us win a Nobel prize, usually long after the citing discovery was made (about 20 years on average).Whatever warm glow of satisfaction we may derive from any of these accomplishments, they tend not to alter our ultimate trajectory – like Salieri in “Amadeus”, we will live to see our professional selves become extinct.
The fact is that very few research papers tend to be cited after ten years or so. Even if they’re still relevant, lazy citing of review articles rather than primary research papers also tends to dilute a paper’s visibility after a period of time. And even elucidating something pretty fundamental generally means that the discovery is subsumed into textbook knowledge without an epitaph for the people who worked on it. Nonetheless, despite its miserable half-life, it’s our research performance that is normally revered as the ultimate standard of our professional career because it is that one facet that offers potential immortality. And the most tangible output.
Teaching has neither of these things. There’s no immortality to be had, or at least, not the kind that’s put into textbooks. And while great teachers and awful ones are fairly easy to identify, the subjective nature of the process makes it extremely difficult to rate. But there’s a good chance that while teaching may have none of the glamour of research, it may actually – for the non-immortals amongst us – have the greater impact.
Tens, maybe hundreds of students every year. Over a thirty-year career, maybe longer. They don’t need to become scientists themselves, they don’t even need to stay in any way connected to the world of science. But if the belief that science is an important human activity is imparted to them, if they go out into their various careers and walks of life interested in science and convinced that it is an endeavour that needs unstinting societal support, and maybe even if they end up in political or commercial stations that enable them to demonstrate that support, surely that means something, right? Isn’t that – despite its intangibility – impact?
(The picture shows the memorial plaque to Egon Leo Lendner, an aviation pioneer who crashed and burned – literally – during a flying display, aged just 23. The stone is now within the perimeter of a sports ground car park. Presumably not how he pictured himself for posterity)