Field of Science

How Robin Williams helped me out in graduate school

Spring 2004. I was a callow first year graduate student, with an insouciance and naiveté befitting a first year graduate student. At that point like most of my fellow grads, I was hungry for knowledge and thought that everything that I needed to know would be found in books and lectures. Lab work was simply a question of putting some of this knowledge into practice and producing a passable PhD thesis.

I was a voracious reader and used to check out as many books on chemistry, physics, drug discovery, molecular modeling and the history of science as I could physically carry out of the library. Because I was cocky and stupid, I used to read these ponderous books and think I understood the world. I threw around jargon from quantum mechanics, biochemistry and the philosophy of science and thought that because I understood the jargon I comprehended how to apply it to real life situations. I lived in blissful ignorance of the fact that all my bookish knowledge was almost useless when measured against the fickle complexities of real life problems. 

Surprisingly, I had not seen "Good Will Hunting" until my first year of graduate school. It turned out that my introduction to the movie was also an awakening and I have to thank a fellow graduate student, more experienced and wiser in the ways of the world, for this. Once, as I was strutting around the lab, tossing out concepts from quantum chemistry and pontificating on how a particular protocol could be better for a certain kind of molecular system - all when I had never actually applied such protocols to real life problems - my fellow graduate student interrupted my chatter to suggest something.

He asked me if I had seen the movie "Good Will Hunting". I said I had heard of it but had not seen it yet. He told me to watch the movie, focus on the main protagonists and tell him what I thought. I checked out the movie from Blockbuster (I know) that very same evening and was blown away when I saw it. That's because I could relate immediately to the protagonist, Will Hunting (Matt Damon). I wasn't even remotely close to being a genius like him, but the similarities nonetheless struck home. Just like me Will was cocky and arrogant, and just like me he thought that his bookish knowledge made him an expert on the world's affairs.

But the scene from the movie that really left me feeling like I had been mowed down with a scythe is the scene in the park with Robin Williams and Matt Damon in which Williams's character (Sean Maguire) launches into what I consider to be one of the most beautiful and profound monologues in movie history.

In a previous scene Will had displayed his customary indifference and arrogance by presuming to know everything about Sean's life through the lens of a particular painting that he had painted.

In the scene Sean shows Will how deeply ignorant and naive he is. The monologue's basic message is simple: You may have read everything there is to know about the world, but that does not mean you have seen the world. Here are the lines that I found most poignant and profoundly true:
So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one. You've never held your best friend's head in your lap, watch him gasp his last breath looking to you for help. I'd ask you about love, you'd probably quote me a sonnet. But you've never looked at a woman and been totally vulnerable.
I could almost hear Williams speaking to me, translating his words about Shakespeare, war and love into ones about science and knowledge. 
"If I asked you about synthesis, you'd probably give me the skinny on every total synthesis ever done. Woodward, you know a lot about him. Life's work, academic aspirations, him and the MIT chemistry department, his marathon drinking binges, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it means to spend two years' worth of your life synthesizing even a moderately complex organic molecule and having your efforts fail in the twenty-fifth step. You've never actually stood there and compared the NMR spectrum of your product with its natural counterpart. If I ask you about drug design, you'd probably give me a long synopsis of the challenges in drug development. You may even have talked to an actual pharmaceutical scientist. But you can't tell me what it feels like to be a part of a multidisciplinary team of scientists, work on a project for five years, guide it through false alleys and a litany of frustrations, and then see it fail in Phase 2 clinical trials. And I'd ask you about the philosophy of science, you'd probably throw Kuhn at me, right, "Normal science often suppresses fundamental novelties because they are necessarily subversive of its basic commitments". But you've never been part of a paradigm shift yourself, seen the world shift beneath your feet the way the creators of quantum mechanics did."
At that point I felt more sober than what I would have had I suddenly stopped drinking after a twenty-year binge. It was as if a wall of wisdom had driven itself between me and some cherished destination that I now realized did not exist. I did not even know half the things that a fictional Williams would have admonished me about, and yet here I was, wallowing in the heady, careless naiveté of premature intellectual jubilation.

Since I first saw that scene it has probably become my favorite scene of all time, and the movie itself is now my all time favorite. I have memorized dozens of lines from it and I find myself watching it at least once every month. But the central message of the movie which has stayed with me is very simple: knowledge, no matter how extensively you acquire it, does not automatically translate to wisdom, let alone real world experience. It's of course important to get as much knowledge as you can and share it, but it's also imperative to be always mindful of what it takes to turn that knowledge into understanding and expertise. That extra something is experience, it's team work, it's character-building. Knowledge is important, necessary in fact, but not sufficient. No amount of reading about classical architecture is a substitute for smelling the air in the Sistine Chapel.

For the last ten years, many times when I was getting ahead of myself, many times when I thought I actually understood how to apply a scientific concept I have watched that scene. And so today, when I feel myself stunned and deeply saddened by Robin Williams's premature passing, I realize the debt I owe to him and that magnificent monologue. He may be no more, but I am hoping his words will keep my head sober and my feet on the ground. Every time I think I know, I will hear Robin's voice saying, as patiently and clearly as he says to Will, "You don't have the faintest idea what you're talking about."

In small and big ways Robin Williams touched the lives of countless people. Among them was a chemistry graduate student. Thank you for that, Robin.

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