Applause Worthy 12/28/21

Thoughts by Richard Bleil

We all have skills.  Our talents vary from person to person.  Some of us put our natural abilities to use, and some of us don’t, but we have them.  Personally, I had a talent for theoretical chemistry.  My perspective tends to let me see things in a way that others often don’t, and I could form mathematical models to test that vision. 

I was a visiting scientist working with a rather powerful chemist.  One of his post-doctoral research assistants had landed a job at a well-known university and invited me to join him before leaving for the new position.  He had me working on carbon clusters, something you might know as “buckyballs”, small inorganic clusters that became very highly publicized on their discovery in the ‘90’s.  As it turns out, there are buckyballs of various sizes (including one that seemed for a time like a promising treatment for AIDS because it was the perfect size to inactivate the virus that causes it).  The smallest is thirteen carbons, but there was great controversy in the literature as to its structure, that is, if it existed as a straight chain or a ring.  I did a little calculation and realized that it depended upon the temperature.  At higher temperatures, the cluster favored the chain structure (higher entropy), and at lower temperatures it favored the ring (lower entropy) form. 

It was a pretty simple thing to see if you understand the third law of thermodynamics, but apparently, I was the first on to think of the thirteen-carbon cluster in those terms.  I even found what I had termed the “crossover temperature” where the two forms were equally probable.  I laid to rest a literature argument that had been burning between chemists of far greater reputation than a little nobody like me, but I did it.  And for this discovery I got…nothing.

Academia is odd.  We don’t sing praises often.  Sure, there are high-end praises like the Nobel Prize, and scientific communities have their own awards, but most of these are for lifetime achievement type things.  A simple little paper like mine (actually, it was not even a paper, but rather a “letter” which is a smaller scientific publication) basically would go unnoticed except by the people arguing about that particular carbon cluster. 

It was (and still is) a rather proud moment for me, but as I think about it, I realize I’ll never really be praised for it.  I often think of the applause factor.  Some skills, like great musicians, actors, comedians and the like know what it’s like to stand in front of a crowd and earn their applause, or better still, a standing ovation.  But not all talents are “applause worthy”.  Nobody will ever applaud that tiny little publication.  But even if it isn’t applauded, that doesn’t mean it’s not significant.

Obviously, I’m still proud of it.  What’s more, it might have changed the way some people think about problems like this.  I might not, but clearly the kind of thinking that had lead to my publication was not common among that group of scientists, although frankly, it should have been.  It was thermodynamics that gave me the insight, and the inorganic chemists working on the problem apparently didn’t consider the thermodynamic approach.  Perhaps now they will.  There are many phenomena that are guided by the temperature, and the third law helps us understand these things. 

Skills that are not recognized or celebrated by others are just as important as those that are.  I used to work with a chemist that was brilliant at organizing and tracking samples.  He would run literally thousands of oil samples a week looking for PCB’s for the company I worked for.  I tried to take over for him as he was on vacation for a week, and on return, he discovered that I had messed up on the very first day, he determined the exact sample where I went wrong, and had rerun all of the samples the first day of his return.  This kind of mass-production analysis is something that I just have no talent for but thank God that he did.  He, on the other hand, was terrible at critical thinking and analyzing unusual samples that do not have a pre-written protocol.  Between the two of us, we could do just about anything, but neither had the talent for the job of the other.

Whatever your skills are, wherever your talents lie, don’t take them for granted.  You can do things that others simply cannot, whether or not it’s recognized.  Be proud, and celebrate your successes, even if nobody else does because, honestly, those are great talents.

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