Parallel of endeavours

While the Olympic spirit still lingers and the Paralympics is still ongoing, let us pause a little and consider what it is that excites and inspires us.

I suppose I don’t need to tell you about the excitement. Even for me who don’t go out of my way to watch the events, it’s exciting. I mean, I swim regularly, and it can be 3 times a week during school term, but do I watch swimming events? No. I twice volunteered in anti-doping section in a swimming event. Sure, it was cool to see Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos in flesh (Chad is a nice chap, by the way), but the race? You can’t even see the swimmers because they are underwater and the race is over real fast.

Yet. There is a strange kind of feeling when your country gets back the medal she lost since a few Olympics ago, and one’s heart swells when the country one calls a second home finally gets her first Olympic medal.

What’s that got to do with science, though? Well, this occurs to me when I was swimming, appropriately enough. There is a pretty simple parallel: sports is pushing physical boundary; science is pushing knowledge boundary. The Olympics and Paralympics are the culmination of sports; the Nobel Prize and the Fields Medal are the culmination of science. They are both human endeavours running in parallel.

The neat thing about parallel is that one’s brain makes more connections: there might be things you think about A but never thought it that way about A’. To wit: As a scientist, as I said, I don’t get excited about the Olympics as much as I do about the Nobel Prize, but if I consider that both are culminations of human endeavours, suddenly I go, ah, so this is how the athletes feel, this is also super important—to celebrate the expansion of the forefront of our capabilities.

Similarly, the other way around: applying what I think about sports to science. When I think about my reluctance to watch the Olympics I can think of at least two reasons. First, honestly, is inferiority complex. I don’t need a reminder that Olympic swimmers can cover 100m with my best 50m timing, yo. Secondly, and more importantly, the hard work has all been done. The Olympics is just the final exam, the tip of the iceberg.

Let’s apply these thoughts to science. Do I feel inferior to the Nobel laureates? Sure, but it doesn’t stop me from doing science. Perhaps one even needs that as something to strive towards. Maybe I shouldn’t get so negative about my swimming then. Do I get excited about the Nobel Prize? Hell yeah. Has the hard work all been done? A resounding yes, considering the Nobel Prize may come long after, after one’s achievement proves to be deserving of it.

Does that mean you should get at least as excited and inspired by the Nobel prize as the Olympics? If you have never been excited by either, or not as much by one as the other, I’m here to tell you, you should. Simply because both celebrate the frontiers of human endeavours. And because they are the tips of the mountains, they remind us of the mountains beneath.

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