To Everything, Turn

In the movie “Lucy”, with Scarlett Johansson, the character she plays ingests a drug that eventually activates every one of her brain cells. There is this long-standing belief/fact that we only use 20% of our mental potential. The theory is that achieving a greater use of our brain tissue would lead us to miraculous abilities. I won’t dare get into the discussion of what evolutionary purpose there is in having 80% of our cranium occupied by wasted cell matter. But in the movie, the brain activating drug eventually turns Ms. Johansson into, apparently, pure thought, expressed as free-flowing electrical signals that can go anywhere and do anything. Just for a frame of reference, Brainiac 9 on the Supergirl TV show has a similar capability.

In the middle of the movie, the mind enhanced, Lucy asks a world leading neuroscientist, what she should do with all of her intelligence. She is aware of the fact that she is in the midst of a process that will eventually kill her [although that term isn’t really appropriate for what happens to her], and she is basically trying to find purpose in her existence. Imagine the art collector who has the greatest trove of masterpieces and yet has no one to share them with. Human beings find purpose in their social connections. And again, I wouldn’t dare challenge a social scientist, an anthropologist or any such specialist on the topic. But I think it is pretty fair to say that a life without purpose, is very problematic. And for the character of Lucy, who is the smartest human in the world, this is unacceptable.

The answer of the neuroscientist is simple and truly perfect. He comes to the very human conclusion that due to our self-limited existences, our purpose is to learn, understand, progress and finally share, or in other words, teach. It is said many times in the scientific world that we stand on the shoulders of giants, who created the foundations for all of the magic we experience today. Take, for example, Calculus. Isaac Newton developed this whole field of mathematics that is nothing less than essential in the present day world of science. And he did it  in the mid-17th century. Any time a present day science-major is impressed with his own achievements, he should remind himself of Newton.

Because Newton developed so much of the modern mathematical groundwork, he is still referred to  as one of the ultimate greats. Yet, if he was magically transported into today’s age, would he continue to produce genius level work based on today’s standards? The point is obviously moot. Newton did his job by creating all that he did, and then transmitting it forward via his written works. And no matter how much we achieve in the long run in the field of science, Newton’s name will always be remembered.

Was Newton the first person to develop such advanced mathematics? By definition, since we have no written record of anyone else having done so, Newton is given appropriate credit  as the father of Calculus. We do know that certain ancient civilizations had very advanced engineering, knew the world was round, and performed such amazing feats of science that some take this as absolute proof that we were visited by aliens thousands of years ago.

I would posit that if in fact these ancient civilizations got their “advanced” knowledge from aliens, they must’ve been pretty stupid aliens. You’d think that at least one of the aliens would think to tell the humans “you should be writing this down”. Now, it is possible that the ancient humans did write it all down, but that it got lost or destroyed, such as in the library of Alexandria.  Once again, though, the aliens were pretty stupid. Either that  or they forgot  one last edict before they returned to the stars – “back up your data”.

This long introduction came to mind an hour ago after a conversation with one of my dearest, long-standing friends. You know what the definition of a dear friend is? Even when you are a total idiot, the dear friend lets it pass and still treats you well. In any case, I commented to my dear friend that at my age of 54, I was looking for a job that would allow me to use my skills, but that I no longer dreamed of climbing digital mountains.

I recalled, with him, that there was a 10 year period of my life (during which I did the majority of the development of my EHR and also implemented a range of medical standards) that I refer to as my Camelot. While living in my Camelot, dreams came true. Things that people told me could never be, came to pass. I was driven by a fire that actually ate me up inside. For all the success I had during this period, it left me, in many ways broken, but God forbid, not disappointed. I am proud of this time in my life. And I would like to think that what I achieved in my Camelot will continue to positively influence healthcare for many years to come.

But my dear friend told me is that he was proud of me. He said that I needed to be the way I was when I was in my 30’s and 40’s. But now at my present age, it’s appropriate to let the fire smolder, and focus on more reasonable and more easily attainable endpoints, until that time that I retire. I think my dear friend was actually paraphrasing Einstein who said “A person who has not made his great contribution to science before the age of 30 will never do so”.

This is in fact how things often are described in the academic world. The time of greatest yield for many scientists is in their younger years. As they approach the middle of their careers, many achieve a slow burn of productivity that might not revolutionize the world, but still lays another brick on the foundation on which future science will be built. I just found a fascinating article describing a study specifically linked to this topic of  “age of greatest work”. The authors of this study come to an alternate conclusion from that of Einstein.

By [the year] 2000, great work before age 30 almost never happened in any of the three fields. In physics, great achievements by age 40 occurred in only 19 percent of cases by the year 2000, and in chemistry, it almost never occurred.

So maybe, there’s still hope for me.

What my dear friend taught me in a few words, is a conclusion that I have only very recently come to terms with. And of course, the source is biblical as well as being a universal divinely-inspired hit by The Byrds.

To everything – turn, turn, turn
There is a season – turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under heaven

A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep

Based on Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1-8

We are living in a time when the rate of turn is so fast that most of us constantly feel dizzy. I have mentioned recently that I am formally trying to re-study advanced math so that I can learn  about and implement machine learning. It’s very possible that had my Camelot not fallen, and if I had not experienced all the things that happened since, I would not have the patience or the quietness of soul to sit and learn this whole new very complex field.

I do not know if I will succeed to remaster  the Calculus and linear algebra that I once knew, but is now a forgotten dream. Hopefully I will, and hopefully I will be able to use machine learning to discover new things, even at my age. And who knows – maybe some of those things  will be important.

I guess that as long as I am somehow contributing bricks to the foundation of science, even if those bricks are small, and more so, if I transmit what I have learned to others, I will have succeeded in my purpose. I know full well that very few people, even living today, are given the chance to truly explore and manifest their purpose. My dear friend reminded me how lucky I am to have had my own Camelot. And that is just one of the reasons why, he is such a dear friend.

Thanks for listening

About the Author
Dr. Nahum Kovalski received his bachelor's of science in computer science and his medical degree in Canada. He came to Israel in 1991 and married his wife of 22 years in 1992. He has 3 amazing children and has lived in Jerusalem since making Aliyah. Dr. Kovalski was with TEREM Emergency Medical Services for 21 years until June of 2014, and is now a private consultant on medicine and technology.