In 1965, the French biologist, Francois Jacob, won the Nobel Prize in Medicine, along with Jacques Monod and André Lwoff, for work on the genetic control of enzyme and virus synthesis. Their deep insights into gene regulation (how cells switch genes on and off) continue to have deep and profound implications for post-genomic biology.
For most, a Nobel Prize would be the defining event of a lifetime. For Jacob, it was but one of many recognitions in an extraordinary life. Wounded while fighting to liberate France, he received France's highest World War II decoration, the Order of Liberation. However remarkable, all of that is a story for another day.
In the English translation of his 1988 memoir, The Statue Within: An Autobiography, Jacob wrote the following:
My obsession: a life that shrivels up, slowly rots, goes soft as a pulp. This worry about decline grabs me by the throat as I awake. In the brief interval between dream and waking, it flaunts before my eyes the frenzied dance of everything I would have liked to do, and did not do, and never will. As I turn over and over in my bed, the fear of the too-late, of the irreversible, propels me to the mirror to shave and get ready for the day. And that is the moment of truth. The moment for the old questions. What am I today? Am I capable of renewal? What are the chances I might still produce something I do not expect of myself? For my life unfolds mainly in the yet-to-come, and is based on waiting. Mine is a life of preparation. I enjoy the present only insofar as it is a promise of the future. I am looking for the Promised Land and listening to the music of my tomorrows. My food is anticipation. My drug is hope.
Since reading Jacob's memoir a decade ago, I have been pondering his poignant reflections on creativity and human motivations. What passions drive us to dream and imagine? What compulsion motivates us sacrifice wealth, comfort and in some cases, even life and safety, to ask and understand, to pursue and create?
The questions are more than mere academic ennui. The impulses are universal, deep and primeval, common to all cultures and human endeavors, not just academic ones. As my colleagues in AI are fond of saying, we are all intelligent agents – autonomous goal-seeking entities. Aware of our own mortality, we seek meaning and validation, and we fear running out of that limited and most precious commodity – time.
Can we put aside our differences to embrace common truths? Can we do the difficult but worthy things, knowing that the act of trying defines us? Can we find collective happiness, as the plains writer Willa Cather once said, by being dissolved into something great? Or is dissipative balkanization our inevitable fate?
As I now look backward to the mean and median of the human lifetime distribution, I find Jacob's angst ever more relevant. Am I capable of renewal? Can I surprise myself? Can I yet mount a compelling story that would overcome, albeit briefly, the repulsive forces of 21st intellectual reductionism to unite us in a shared academic endeavor for the common good? Can I still make a difference?
I still believe the future can be brighter than the past. Like Jacob, my food is anticipation; my drug is hope.