Concentrating the mind

“Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” — Samuel Johnson

If you are an academic, the summer is a golden time. That is when you get to do all of the fun research that you have just spent a year wishing you could have time for. That stretch from around mid-May to the end of August is your time to pull out the stops and go for it.

Then again, summer is also the time when academics are most free to travel — our best chance to visit other labs, attend conferences, and work with colleagues in other parts of the world.

Which means, in my case, that I can spend only a fraction of the summer here at our lab, with my own grad students, going all out to build on the ideas we’ve been discussing all year. As the days fly by, I try to make each one count. Each successive evening marks one day less day that we can all be in the lab together.

The funny thing is, that very scarcity creates a kind of abundance. Because we know these days together are numbered, everybody pitches in and makes every hour count. In just the last week we’ve gotten more done as a group than we had in the several months preceding.

So I understand a bit of what Samuel Johnson meant. Fortunately, unlike Mr. Johnson’s doomed friend Dr. Dodd, we will have more fortnights in our future.

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