Scientific Obsessives

In the author’s note for his book The Bomber Mafia, Malcolm Gladwell writes about people with obsessions. He writes, “I realize when I look at the things I have written about or explored over the years, I’m drawn again and again to obsessives. I like them. I like the idea that someone could push away all the concerns and details that make up every day life and just zero in on one thing. … I don’t think we get progress, or innovation, or joy, or beauty without obsessives.”
Obsessives, Gladwell argues, are neither good nor bad, but often play crucial roles in the advancement of technology, the winning of historical wars, and in the development of society. Making scientific breakthroughs, convincing large numbers of people to live their lives a certain way, and pushing through failure until one finds a new way to do something often requires an obsessive quality in order to persevere, connect minuscule dots along the way, and stay interested in something that others barely care about.  Mary Roach would agree.
In her book Gulp, Raoch writes, “Dr. Silletti was delighted to hear that  I wanted to visit the saliva lab. People rarely ask to visit Erika Silletti’s lab. I am honestly curious about saliva, but I am also curious about obsession and its role in scientific inquiry. I think it’s fair to say that some degree of obsession is a requisite for good science, and certainly for scientific breakthrough.”
Studying something as off-putting and seemingly boring as human saliva requires an obsessive quality about science, research, inquiry, and the human systems that form the first part of our digestive system. I can’t imagine lots of people are eager to listen to Dr. Silletti talk about her research, it probably isn’t fun dinner or cocktail party talk, but Dr. Silletti continues on with her lab. Her discoveries, and the discoveries of everyone working in rather gross areas of science, are dependent on a level of obsession. Without such obsession, the scientists and researchers would not carry on studying their particular fields, and we wouldn’t get the breakthroughs and discoveries that come from their science. This is the argument that Roach makes in Gulp, and it is part of her explanation for why she has written so many books that focus on the relatively gross side of scientific inquiry.
In the end, Roach and Gladwell reach the same conclusion. Technological and scientific advances require obsessives. Progress is not linear, science is not clear cut, and new discoveries and breakthroughs require patience and a willingness to believe that something is crucially important, even when the rest of the world doesn’t seem to care. Obsessives are the ones who will spend every minute of the day thinking about the tiniest new discovery and trying to apply that to their specific obsession, ultimately paving the way for breakthroughs. We owe a lot to obsessives, and we should thank the obsessive researchers and the obsessive journalists for the breakthroughs and stories about how those breakthroughs came to be.

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