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1 + 1 = 3

28 April 2021

Dear Chemistry Colleagues,

This morning I was listening to NPR, and they were talking about the opera singer Christa Ludwig, who recently passed away. The announcer said that she made the singing of difficult arias look easy. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of meeting, working with, and hearing many brilliant scientists. However, I’ve only met a few who seemed like geniuses to me. I’ve come to appreciate two characteristics that I associate with genius. The first of these is that they do what Christa did: they make hard things look easy. Whether it be giving a lecture, writing a paper, or teaching a class, they can take difficult topics and boil them down to the simplest terms. One quote I love from Einstein is “If you can’t explain it simply, then you don’t understand it well enough.”

A few years ago, I was at a eulogy for Nobel Laureate Tom Steitz, and my friend Andrea Berman—a student of Tom’s and a Professor at U Pittsburgh who was speaking—pointed to another characteristic of genius. She told the story of how Sydney Brenner, another Nobel Laureate, said there are four types of problems in science, and they involve the combinations of low and high impact with easy and hard solutions. A touch of genius is picking those problems with high impact and easy solutions. Most of us work in some realm of the other three (hopefully not low impact with hard solutions). As new students join our groups—late this year because of COVID—these are things to keep in mind: picking impactful problems with tractable solutions.

I was listening to Springsteen on Broadway last weekend, having seen the show back in 2018, and I was impressed by the section where he talks about genius. He said “Now one plus one equals two; that is not magic. That’s the grind. That’s when you get up, one. Go to work, one. Go to bed, two. But when one plus one equals three, that’s when your life changes, and you see everything new, and these are days when you are visited by visions, when the world around you brings down the spirit and you feel blessed to be alive.” We actually have 1+1=3 in biological chemistry, with non-additivity, where two variants in a macromolecule give bigger effects when made together. So, I wish all new students, those in my group and yours, the best as they take on new projects. We have a mission in front of us: to help them choose problems and chart a course towards solutions that can be visited by a touch of genius, where 1+1=3.  

Best Regards,
Phil