‘Life Is Short, the Art Long’: Gaining Perspective from Ancient Wisdom

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Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the year 2020 slapped scientists across the globe with new trials and tribulations. It was difficult for them to make progress on their work, and they experienced emotional and social stress unseen in recent memory. Throughout this time, I was in the middle of finishing my doctoral dissertation in biomedical science, which was affected by more than three months of our lab being shut down.

Even after the shutdown was “over,” I regularly worked from home, had limited time in the laboratory to finish my final experiments and suffered from social isolation and depression. During the lab shutdown, I picked up an old hobby of reading classical literature. This caused me to stumble upon the aphorisms of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, which includes his thoughts on the art of healing and medicine. The first aphorism, perhaps the most regularly quoted, translates from Greek as follows:

“Life is short, the art long; opportunity fleeting, experiment treacherous, judgment difficult.”

This may seem like a depressing notion—that due to the shortness of life, we cannot possibly master its art. In Hippocrates’ case the art was medicine. In mine, it is scientific investigation. I choose instead to view this as a comforting notion. If my life’s art is so long and treacherous that it is impossible to truly reach an end, a completion or a judgment of my work, why not take away the idea of freedom instead?

My concerns during the lab shutdown—of not finishing my dissertation, not getting the next manuscript finished or not gathering the newest data that might spur me to greater scientific heights—rightfully caused me stress in the moment. And I was not alone. But these concerns all become trivial in the scheme of my life’s work.

In a career of scientific investigation, where the art is ever looming, I take freedom in the thought that no matter how good I am, how many papers I publish or discoveries I make, my work will never truly be complete. Instead, I am adding to the cumulative scientific knowledge that Hippocrates meditated upon in ancient Greece. I can take solace in the fact that, as a young scientist, I have a lifetime of investigation ahead of me. It certainly will not go perfectly. But, hopefully, it will build upon the foundation set by those before me. In the end, I simply hope that my work will advance the art.

Luke Schwerdtfeger is a PhD candidate at Colorado State University studying intestinal physiology. His main scientific interests center around interpreting the languages gut microbes use to communicate with the intestinal wall in neurodegenerative disease.

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