Research and life have many things in common. In particular, it has always intrigued me that when following a line of research in the lab, we are constantly presented with branching points that make it imperative to make decisions about what path to pursue. In fact, in almost any line of research that my lab has ever undertaken, we almost inevitably (and regretfully) have to “shelve” a host of interesting and potentially fruitful projects along the way.
However, this requirement for making decisions and proceeding in a ‘linear fashion’ is not limited to research, but an essential part of our everyday lives. Sometimes there are crucial branching points: the choice of a partner, career, job, etc. Other times the choices may be simpler, like choosing what to order from the menu. But in each and every situation, one can envision how differently the course of our lives might have progressed.
Such was the case for me, on holiday in Israel over the Christmas and Chanuka break these past 10 days.
In 2001, I had offers to join 3 Israeli universities and had the gall to turn them down—without yet having made any attempt to secure faculty positions in the US. I was still enjoying the more focused responsibilities of a post-doc. Now, 10 years later, and 5 years since I last visited Israel, I had the opportunity to tour the country—or parts of it—as a tourist, as well as give a seminar in my former department in Jerusalem where I was a graduate student until 1998.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit as a tourist, feasting on some of the best hummous and middle eastern salads, appetizers and olives that I’ve had in ages.
We visited a Crusader castle (Kalat Nimrod) at the tip of the Hermon Mountains that stretch from northern Israel into the Golan Heights, Lebanon and Syria.
We stayed at my spouse’s parents’ kibbutz, and visited Haifa, the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and Jordanian valley.
And finally we visited Jerusalem, one of the most fascinating cities on earth—where I lived for 10 years.
Without getting into the very complex politics of the middle east (not that I shy away from voicing my views, but in this piece I’d rather focus on other issues), I couldn’t help wondering over and over how my life would have been had I returned to Israel 10 years ago. Would my science have led me to the same discoveries and areas of research, or would I have been influenced by the availability (or lack thereof) of specific equipment? Would Israeli students in my “parallel lab” have yielded the same findings as the rather international collective of students in my US lab? Would I have been happy? There’s little question that life in Israel is inherently more stressful on a day-to-day basis than life in the US; the traffic and driving, the need to be aggressive to achieve even the simplest tasks, the economic differences, security and on and on. But then again, one can sometimes appreciate the simpler things in life—picking your own clementine oranges, papaya, lemons, etc. from a tiny garden in your own yard. Without living a parallel universe, it’s hard to know how things might have turned out; we never really have a control, and can only judge how things are in our current universe, without a real basis for comparison. I’ve touched on some of these issues more deeply in my recent novel, “Welcome Home, Sir.”
Somehow I always get drawn back to politics—but it’s because in discussing parallel universes I recall what a columnist once wrote years ago before Israel’s current prime minister (Netanyahu) was elected for the first time. He wrote (and I paraphrase) “It would be interesting to elect him if we had a spare country or spare universe—just for the sport of it—but horrible to have him actually leading the country.”
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could second-guess our decisions in life and science through a parallel universe?