In the first chapter of the new book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis, author Jared Diamond describes a crisis of his own. He was 21 and had always excelled academically—until he entered a doctoral program in physiology at the University of Cambridge.
Diamond was charged with measuring the movement of sodium and potassium ions across the electricity-generating membranes of eels. But he had never been good with his hands and was utterly unable to design and build the equipment he needed to perform that task.
So Diamond switched to a technically easier assignment, which required simply weighing a fish gallbladder to determine its fluid content, then measuring a voltage. But even this simple method to analyze sodium and water transport gave him fits, as no voltages appeared. He seriously considered quitting and finding another career, but decided to give it one more semester.
Two young faculty researchers helped Diamond solve his technical issues, and he started to get results. He went on to finish his PhD and reinvent himself as an ornithologist and historian. More than 50 years later he is an internationally recognized scientist and writer, having won the U.S. National Medal of Science, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (commonly called the “genius grant”) and a Pulitzer Prize for his book Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. His youthful failure was in fact a springboard.
I have not achieved Jared Diamond’s level of success, but I strongly relate to his story. As Digital Science is running a social media campaign about acknowledging and learning from failure (you can share your own failures with #failtales), I thought I’d tell my story.
I too had a history of academic achievement. I finished an undergraduate degree in chemistry and was accepted at Cornell University for graduate school. The chairman of the chem department was Roald Hoffmann, who had recently won the Nobel Prize and who was my advisor during my first semester. I later chose an advisor with whom I planned to do research for a doctoral thesis.
Graduate school was a shock to my system. For the first time in my life, I hit a wall in my ability to understand information I was expected to digest. I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on my work and became depressed.
So I played hooky. And where was the perfect place to not work while looking like one was working? Why, the library. My own science was going nowhere, but I still loved science. So I started reading science magazines. Stephen Jay Gould was writing his monthly columns in Natural History, and I became fascinated with evolutionary theory. I could hardly wait for the next issue of the New Yorker that featured another installment of a five-part series by E.J. Kahn about staple foods—which 35 years later I still remember were corn, wheat, potatoes, soy and rice. And from Scientific American I read articles about everything.
(A few years ago I saw the Kahn staple-food series described as one of the most tedious pieces of magazine journalism every published. I laughed, because for me they were as thrilling as reading Dumas: corn was The Count of Monte Cristo, wheat was The Three Musketeers.)
One day at the beginning of the second semester of my second year of grad school, I was browsing through an issue of Science when I saw an advertisement for a Mass Media Science and Engineering Fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Graduate students in the sciences who received the fellowship would spend the summer at a newspaper, magazine, radio outlet or television outlet as science reporters. I remember reading the ad and thinking, “Weird.” But the next day I looked at the ad again and thought, “Wait. This is what you should be doing.” I applied for and got the fellowship, along with about another 15 grad students around the country.
I announced that I would be leaving Cornell at the end of the semester to do the fellowship and then pursue a career in science journalism. I could take oral exams for a “terminal” Master’s Degree. I studied my butt off and fortunately closely reviewed some material that I was actually asked about during the three-hour ordeal. I got the degree, which I often think of as the “lovely parting gift” that unsuccessful contestants received on game shows. Hoffmann asked me to reconsider leaving the program, but I was sure I was doing the right thing, for me. I left a couple of days later for my fellowship site, WSVN-TV in Miami. After two winters in upstate New York, I would spend the summer of 1985 in south Florida. (I can’t recommend either.)
I took to science journalism—it fulfilled my terms of gratification. The journalist David Epstein exactly captured my feelings in his new book Range: “I worked in labs during and after college and realized that I was not the type of person who wanted to spend my entire life learning one or two things new to the world, but rather the type who wanted constantly to learn things new to me and share them.” Bingo!
While in Miami I saw another ad, this one in Broadcasting magazine, advertising an on-air position opening at a small radio station back in upstate New York. I had always loved radio—as a kid I listened to Jean Shepherd, Barry Farber and Big Wilson, names that may ring a bell to a certain demographic—and I parlayed my summer TV gig into a year as a radio morning man. I got a job offer at a 50,000-watt station in Albany, but turned it down to go home to New York City and try writing for print.
I eventually applied for a job at Scientific American—which I did not get. But a few years later I started freelancing for SciAm and then was hired as a writer and editor. I have been writing a monthly column in the magazine for more than 23 years. (Gould did his at Natural History for 25 years, a mark I hope to equal.)
The radio experience came in handy when, in 2005, Scientific American decided to start podcasts and asked me to head up that effort. We have now produced more than 4,000 episodes of our short podcasts, primarily 60-Second Science, and almost 500 of the in-depth Science Talk.
I kept in touch with Roald Hoffmann over the years. At one point I ran into him at an event in New York City where an acquaintance of mine attempted to introduce us. Roald stopped my friend and said, “Oh, I know Steve. He’s one of our most successful failures.”