When I was 15 I was fond of home-made pyrotechnics and organic substances suited for demolition work. After my start in translation doing recipes from Prato's Süddeutsche Küche
, I spent many long hours on the eighth floor of Cal Tech's Millikan Library translating the original publications of research in Liebigs Annalen der Chemie
and other sources of information on organic molecules of interest. That's probably where I learned to make picric acid
. I could buy it over the counter in those days at a shop in Burbank, but I calculated that the cost to make my own from phenol, nitric and sulfuric acid was about 10% of the cost to buy the finished product, and since I worked hard cutting lawns in those days for my pocket money, I thought I would save some money for making the whistling fireworks and other things I hoped to do with the substance.
Unfortunately, for all my understanding of organic synthesis methods at that time, I had not gotten around to understanding practical thermodynamics at the time, and after a few successful batches, I decided to triple the quantity in the same reaction flask, which I assumed to be more than large enough. The resulting spray of hot nitrating mixture had an unfortunate effect on the skin of my face and swelled my eyes firmly shut. For a week of the Easter holiday as I lay in bed recovering from the accident, I assumed I was blind. At the end of that week, when the crusted seal of one eye broke as I washed and I could see just a little light, I felt great joy at just that little bit of vision as I still assumed that my reading future was Braille.
I was very lucky, of course, and made a full recovery, and I learned another one of many lessons about how little things can affect our lives far more than we realize. Anyone who has broken a toe or amputated part of a thumb (another stupid mistake I made once chopping zucchini for my sheep) or had similar "little" experiences knows this all too well.
Many people live rich lives without the gift of sight, but there are many difficulties inherent in such a life, and for one who has lived a long adult life dependent on sight, these might be greater. Years ago I asked a friend to research the religious implications of a collagen-based intraocular lens being developed in a laboratory for which I consulted, the collagen being derived from pigs' eyes. The conversation with an Orthodox rabbi which he reported later was quite interesting. He told me that Jews considered blindness to be akin to death and that saving sight was an act equivalent to saving life, for which the use of collagen from an unclean animal was acceptable. Now I had never heard such a thing before, and I have never asked a rabbi or anyone else if this is really true or whether this was just a good story he dreamed up after too many hits on his pipe, but it sounds plausible.
One of the things I am proudest of from my research days was developing the first optically clear silicone material for use in UV-blocking intraocular lenses; it was an inspiration that came after falling asleep in a lecture, and I gave the method away for others to make their fortunes. But each time I heard what it was like for someone blinded by cataracts to have their vision restored quickly by a painless, small-incision surgery, or I heard of doctors who would spend their holidays in a poor country giving sight back to many so afflicted, I felt very rich to be even a small, unknown part of such stories. And my interest in the field and the good it does has remained long after I left the laboratory, as friends and family age and sometimes require such surgeries.
This morning I was cheered by news from one such friend, blind in one eye and reduced to 10% vision in another. His happy letter, describing vision recovery in one eye to a level he had not enjoyed for decades was the best news I have heard in a long time. The sun was shining anyway as I read the news, but afterward the good day seemed so much brighter.
What is the bright side of translation? There are many bright sides I think, and which ones shine for whom will differ of course. The brightest for some that I know is that their work can facilitate the spread of important knowledge that can change lives, save lives. That might be medical information such as that related to the implantation of an intraocular lens, instructions for water purification or other hygiene methods or even educational material for the arts, which open up minds to a brighter side of life. These activities are deeply inspiring, so much so to some that they feel the need to give the work away, as I have done myself on some occasions. But on the whole, I think it is important for us to recognize the true professional value of such work and to compensate it accordingly, not fall into the traps of demonetization that are laid increasingly in our paths.
To light the day for others and see a better future for all, we need to consider the conditions and principles which allow us to do our best work and give 100% effort to the right things every day. Cui bono?
If we get the balance right, everyone.