It was almost 37 years ago that I was working as a radio astronomer in Holland, preparing a paper that I was to present at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union taking place that year in Yteborg, Sweden. As a graduate student at Caltech some years earlier I had met a couple of Dutch radio astronomers who invited me to come to Holland as a “guest researcher” after I completed my degree. I am grateful to them for giving me and my family this wonderful opportunity to live in Holland for two years and work with them.
What made this particular time of special note was that I had some interesting research to present, but was having a very difficult time putting it all together. While this problem is not so unusual, what concerned me was the attendance of certain people at the meeting who would have influence as to whether I would have a job when I returned to the United States. I wanted to impress them with the quality of my research.
Anyone familiar with the academic environment knows that one of the principles often stressed is that research must be original. This idea was so impressed on me in my training that I felt absolute terror over whether my paper contained anything original at all! I spent a lot of time discussing it with my Dutch colleagues. I re-ran my simulations, re-worked my diagrams and re-wrote my conclusions, all to no avail. I was in such turmoil that I finally came to the conclusion that something was terribly wrong. Research, after all, was supposed to be fun and rewarding. For me it had become just a time of intense pressure.
It so happened that at this same time I was re-reading a sermon by one of my favorite authors, C. S. Lewis. In the chapter entitled “Membership” found in his book The Weight of Glory, Lewis takes issue with the notion that “to be ‘original’ is the main end of life.” He goes on to say
No man who values originality will ever be original. But try to tell the truth as you see it, try to do any bit of work as well as it can be done for the work’s sake, and what men call originality will come unsought.
What Lewis calls attention to in this sermon is that anything we do is built on the work of others before us. Ultimately, the only person who is truly original is God. He is the creator, we are the creatures. The only thing we can do is reflect some of the glory that He incorporated into us when he made us in His image.
While this idea may not seem so profound in the telling, at the time it was a tremendously freeing insight. I was tied in knots trying to do something (be original) that was impossible. Now, of course, we know that what is usually meant by doing original research is that we are not simply copying what others have done. Instead we are adding some new insight or connection or piece of evidence that was not there before. I realized that even this new content had its origin in the Creator and I was merely a conduit for His originality.
Needless to say, this new perspective relieved my anxiety and gave me an opportunity to present a paper where my first concern was whether I brought Glory to God instead of myself. It must have achieved the other purpose, too, because I did end up getting a job back at Caltech, and went on to have a satisfying career in science at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, for which I am very grateful to God.