“What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man’s breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery!
To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere.
To give birth to an idea — to discover a great thought — an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain plow had gone over before.
To find a new planet, to invent a new hinge, to find the way to make the lightnings carry your messages. To be the first — that is the idea.
To do something, say something, see something, before anybody else — these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with which other pleasures are tame and commonplace, other ecstasies cheap and trivial.” – Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, chapter 26
Earlier this month, I was lucky to get a special treat: the chance to see one of my machines “in the wild”.
The bioinstrumentation company I work for designs and programs custom devices for biotech companies, and one of them arranged for my boss and me to have a site visit. This was a great opportunity to meet the people we’d been emailing with, and to learn more about their science (which is very exciting, but proprietary – sorry, folks). We also had the rare opportunity to see our machines being used with their equipment, and to brainstorm about ways that we could improve the tools we build for them. I walked out of that meeting fired up about the possibilities, and already writing some pseudocode in my head.
Now, the Twain quote at the start of this post has been a favorite of mine for 15 years, and I still believe it. My favorite memories of lab work are those moments when I was briefly the only person in the world who knew something. So, why was I so excited about the chance to repeat a job I’d already completed? That’s not something scientists normally do. Scientists are supposed to be about pushing back the frontiers, blazing trails, discovering startling new facts. Making improvements to an existing thing might seem like a poor substitute for discovering something entirely new.
It’s not, though. There is a considerable pleasure to be had in doing something well, instead of just well enough. Remember that one of the items in Twain’s list of electrifying discoveries is inventing a new hinge.
Obviously, they already had hinges in the 19th century. Twain has something else in mind, which I find very fulfilling: human inventiveness turning something that’s OK into something that’s superb.
If you read 19th century issues of Scientific American, you see new practical inventions mixed right in with reports on scientific phenomena. In most cases, these are not entirely new inventions. They are bright ideas, improvements and refinements on existing items; a striving toward perfection, much like Twain’s improved hinge. We still do that, and I enjoy the opportunity to work toward this perfectability with our customers.
That’s one of the advantages of working on machines instead of peer-reviewed publications, I think. I’m sure most of you have looked at an older paper of yours and thought of a better way to do one of the experiments, but there’s no way to go back in and “upgrade” a paper. Either you have to come up with something big and novel enough to be published independently, or you pretty much have to leave things as they are. There’s no way to retroactively add one additional figure, and that’s kind of a shame.
At my company, we try to upgrade all of our machines periodically. Sometimes a customer has a special need or a clever suggestion we can make part of our design. But usually, we will just review the design of something we made, to see if we can do better. For example, if a sensor that cost $200 three years ago now costs $10, we might be able to afford to add a new feature. Or, perhaps one of us just had a brainstorm about how to do something more efficiently or elegantly.
In the case of the biotech company we visited, they originally laid out a set of requirements, and we gave them a machine that met those requirements. They asked for a hinge, and we gave them one. But now they have had a chance to work with the machines, and they have thought of new features that it didn’t previously occur to them to ask for. Lab work is very hands-on, as you know, and sometimes you have to learn important things by doing. On our side, now that we know more about their science, we can suggest new features that we hope will make their work easier or more productive. It’s likely to be a very interesting partnership, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.