If scientific discovery is inevitable, do scientists live meaningful lives?

by phil on Monday Nov 7, 2011 1:22 PM

A question I always have about working in technology/science is, What counts as a meaningful contribution? Because its easy to see that there's an inevitability to invention. Even if Einstein didn't figure out E=mc2, someone else would have. Perhaps you could argue that the meaningful part is that he was an American, and that his science helped us win the war, which was a meaningful outcome. Or perhaps, even if someone else came up with the theory of relativity, it may have been decades later, and so Einstein gave us a 30 to 50-year headstart on scientific progress, and those extra years may be meaningful. Or the fact that he invented it makes him a role model, which is meaningful if you consider the higher number of children wanting to become scientists.

But these are all definitions of meaningfulness that are tangential to the actual discovery of the theory. Einstein's is a rare case, but I often wonder about the meaningfulness of smaller technological innovations, like the Internet, which also seem inevitable. The web browser, for example, was going to happen the year it happened, regardless of who made it or where it was made.

Steve Jobs makes for an interesting case study, because while there was an inevitability to the personal computer, or mp3 players, or touchscreen smartphones, there doesn't seem an inevitability to the way that Jobs made those products. Without Jobs, there may still be no awesome mp3 player, no phone that people love, and no easily usable operating system.

"What can I do or create, that if I wasn't born, would never happen?"

That's what I ask myself when I wonder about the meaning of what I do. I think there's a simpler, more colloquial expression that encapsulates the same idea: "make a difference."

(See Malcolm Gladwell's review of the Steve Jobs biography)

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