Friday, March 2, 2012

Wonderful, intense article

I wanted to share this NYT article, titled "Lethal Chemistry at Harvard". It is not a fun story, but given the mindset I was in when first reading it years ago, it helped changed my life. In my mind, it is one of the most important  pieces written about the modern life young scientists. The story unfolds with the suicide of a graduate student named Jason Altom, but it evolves into an accurate portrayal of the sometime cutthroat world of graduate student life. In particular the focus is on those attempting to complete their PhD. Unlike MBA or law students, those working in the hard sciences do not merely try to out-compete each other, rather they are sometime fighting nature itself. Some students will spend their lives searching for the next 'ultimate' discovery, maybe no more fruitfully than alchemists once searched for the philosopher's stone. Jason ended his life studying synthetic chemistry at Harvard while under the supervision of the famous (and infamous) E.J. Corey. His goal was the total synthesis of haplophytine. The synthesis was never completed. Feeling he had failed in his mission, he made the calculated, absurd and irreversible decision revealed in the article's opening paragraph: