Impressions from a Parallel Universe

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.


Hummous in Israel, recently

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.

Salt crystals at the Dead Sea–the lowest place on earth


Salt crystals–a crystallographer’s nightmare. Dead Sea, Israel


The Dead Sea shore–shortlisted for the world’s greatest wonders

And finally we visited Jerusalem, one of the most fascinating cities on earth—where I lived for 10 years.

El Aksa mosque and old city from the east


Hezekiah’s Tunnel leading below the walls of the Old City to the spring and Pool of Shiloah

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?

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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13 Responses to Impressions from a Parallel Universe

  1. Fascinating analogy… gorgeous photos! Thanks so much for bringing us along!!

  2. chall says:

    Wow, I would love to see Kalat Nimrod for real. It’s been one of those places I’ve seen photos of and dreamt about… it looks amazing. As do the nature surrounding it…

    As for the parallell universe, your comments on “pick the clemintine oranges” reminds me about the “normal” things I grew up with (mushroom, lingonberry pickings and being outdoors much more without the ‘private property’ signs) and what is not part of “normal/regular” life where I now live in the US. It really is a trade-off, some things are ‘better’ some things are just lacking… hopefully the total of it makes it worth while? ^^

    [not jet lag in my case, only morning before coffee 😉 ]

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Northern Europe, I presume? I agree–everything is a trade off, and you just have to look at the positive side wherever you are.

      Kalat Nimrod is very special, although not as old as many of the other archaeological sites. But the surrounding mountains and its position on a hilltop in front of the mountains to the north and the Huah Valley to the south makes it stunning. If we had gone a week later, there would have been snow on the Hermon Mts…

      • Ancient public rights of way across the land, as we have in the UK, are certainly a treasure. France and Germany are rather more restrictive. Don’t know about other N European countries.

        In the UK, these ancient rights had to be defended at various points to prevent private landlords from ignoring and impeding them. A famous example from the 1930s is here.

  3. Steve Caplan says:

    I guess you should have some rights to Kalat Nimrod–after all the Crusaders who originally built it were from your neck of the woods…

  4. These turning points are often only obvious in retrospect, but I always felt the film Sliding Doors made an excellent point about just how different our lives could be with only the smallest of changes in what happened at some specific point. It might be an interesting challenge for each of us OT bloggers on our next anniversary to write about our parallel lives – if only we had done that little thing just differently: be it living in Israel, or some other way the choice of one appointment over another might have affected us. By the way, even the BBC in the UK is now talking about the effect the orthodox Jews are having on Israeli life, particularly for women, something I know you’ve written strongly about before.

  5. Steve Caplan says:

    I’m not sure I agree about the turning points being largely in retrospect. At least for me, I’ve always been quite conscious about considering how one decision or another might impact the next segment of my life. But I did enjoy “Sliding Doors.”

    As for the ultraorthodox in Israel–they are becoming more brazen by the minute. An ultraorthodox man was arrested for the first time for harassing a young female soldier on a bus who refused to go and sit at the back:,7340,L-4168565,00.html
    While the secular and non-radical public are beginning to wake up, I am pessimistic. The reason is that these radical manifestations are a direct result of the lack of separation of religion and state, and the coercive and discriminatory rules that make women second class citizens.

    In other words, if the law of the country says that women cannot obtain a divorce without their husband’s permission, then it is only logical that women who refuse to sit at the back of a bus will be harassed and called prostitutes. Only if the ROOT of the problem is dealt with can there be real change.

  6. ricardipus says:

    Nice post, Steve, and I enjoyed the photos too.

    I’m still struggling to understand where Austin’s comment (interesting though it was) came from though. Left field?

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Thanks! Wasn’t quite sure about Austin, though. You’ll have to ask him!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Perhaps Austin was playing simul chess with 20 people when he wrote that?!

      • Whut? Nah, haven’t done a chess simul since I was at school. And the most I ever did then was ten boards.

        I did play in the club post-Xmas time-handicap rapidplay tournament last week, though. Possibly a report to follow at some point.

        The trigger for my comment was chall’s comment near the top of the thread about access to the land in Europe vs the US, and Steve C’s response guessing chall was talking about N Europe.

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