Longevity in science

14 Jun 2008 // science

I recently had the pleasure to listen to the venerable chemist Harold Scheraga from Cornell.

For a man of 87 years of age, he remains a sprightly figure, and his remarkable career has spawned over 1200 published scientific papers (pdf). Truly the productivity of 10 ordinary scientists, and probably the most heavily cited chemist in the world.

When you're born in 1921, you can get introduced by someone like Ken Dill (himself a distinguished NAS member) as someone who published in Protein Science before even Ken was born. Harold's talk was a truly remarkable overview of his career from work in the early 1950's when even the sequence of proteins was unknown to today where simulations can track the motion of every atom inside a computer. He was actually there at the beginning of protein chemistry.

Surprisingly to me, Harold gave an adroit Powerpoint presentation, clearly demonstrating a scientist who can adapt to the times. (I have seen many elderly scientists give talks using 1950's overhead technology).

When scientists give retrospective talks, it is important to shine the limelight to your junior collaborators, who helped in the work. Hopefully the eager young grad student is now a successful scientist in their own right.

But when you have a career as long as Harold Scheraga, sometimes, the collaborators of a pivotal piece of work that you did in the early part of your career, is now, unfortunately, dead.