Thursday, November 18, 2010

RIP: Allan Sandage; Joys and Sorrows of Failure

The great observational astronomer, Allan Sandage, died last Saturday. He was most famous for studying the age of the Universe, the speed with which it expands (the Hubble constant), and its ultimate fate. His obit in the NY Times concludes with this statement of his, which I find wonderful and thought-provoking:

“It’s got to be fun,” Dr. Sandage told an interviewer. “I don’t think anybody should tell you that he’s slogged his way through 25 years on a problem and there’s only one reward at the end, and that’s the value of the Hubble constant. That’s a bunch of hooey. The reward is learning all the wonderful properties of the things that don’t work.”

I've put a toe in astrophysics, as well as drenched myself body and soul in surgery. The things that don't work in surgery vary from the inconvenient to the catastrophic. Whatever the rewards of studying them with a view towards improving practice, they got under my skin, broke my heart and everything in between. Sandage's statement reminds me of Sinclair Lewis' Martin Arrowsmith, who rededicates himself to science at the end of the novel, whose last line, spoken almost triumphantly, is, 'And probably we'll fail!' But he'd compromised what he saw as his scientific ethics in throwing, uncontrolled, everything he had at his beloved Leora when she got sick, and, I'd guess, would do so again, as, in a similar situation, would I.

Which leads me to the observation all medical clinicians make: statistical significance arising from even the best-conducted study, and the right thing to do for the anecdote sitting across from us in the office, or etherized on a table, can be quite two things...

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