For the past six years, I’ve been watching myself die out.
Across three decades, I studied social organization in insects. Investigating how ant colonies went about their daily work, as well as how evolution shaped their societies, held me captive for most of my professional life. Then, six years ago, I closed my “ant lab” to devote my remaining academic years to gender issues in science and engineering. Moving into a completely different area of scholarship has been fun and exhilarating. But it has been unnerving to watch my earlier work fade into the recesses of the scientific enterprise.
For the first year or two after closing my lab, not much changed. I was asked to referee journal articles, serve on review panels, and give presentations on my ant-colony research. I kept in touch with colleagues on scientific issues and completed several manuscripts. Since then, invitations to speak about my ant work have evaporated, citations have plummeted, and email from colleagues on scientific questions has disappeared. Every now and then I receive requests from editors looking for reviewers, requests I now decline.
So this is how Salieri felt, as expressed in the last scene of Amadeus: Salieri, once a giant of the Viennese musical establishment, watched his work go extinct in his lifetime, while that of Mozart gained primacy. Like the character in a Monty Python sketch, I want to cry out “I’m not dead yet!,” but the fact remains that, like cuneiform, my life’s work on ants is now ossifying in the literature.
And this is what retired scholars must feel and surely fear. Once out of the work force, their accomplishments are moved to the sidelines. New discoveries, new theoretical methods, and new interpretations push older work to the edges. For someone whose main focus was the production of knowledge, this is a bitter pill indeed: Did any of it actually make a difference?
Of course, much of my legacy lives on in my former students, and I do take pride in their accomplishments. But seeing former students thrive does not fully compensate for the unease of watching one’s own work fade away. Salieri’s pupils included Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt—a legacy indeed—yet he chafed as his compositions disappeared from concert halls and opera houses.
I recall in my younger days being amused at the reactions of senior scientists to new ideas. Many a time have I heard “I discovered that 20 years ago” or “I published that idea in my paper on X.” I recall thinking it pathetic that a senior scholar needed to claim primacy for an idea. After all, few of us have truly original ideas but rather use insights gleaned from numerous scholars to guide our research. To paraphrase Newton, we all stand on the shoulders of other scientists. (By the way, Newton cribbed that phrase from the 12th-century scholar Bernard of Chartres.) But now I feel compelled to ask if anyone is standing on my shoulders?
I think what bothers me the most is not lack of attribution or recognition. No, what troubles me is the wish that someone else would take up where I left off. Some of my students are now working on complementary problems, but no one is (yet) pursuing the lines of inquiry I abandoned. How could problems that I found so fascinating not be of interest to other scholars? Will I ever learn answers to those questions that were nagging me when I decided to close my lab?
As I transitioned to my new career, piles of old notebooks were relegated to the recycle bin. Some contained data collected to tackle questions that have been answered or are no longer interesting. Many more data were still useful and could fortify other lines of inquiry. Even so, nobody wanted my notebooks and I needed the space. So out went all those numbers, gels, charts, computer printouts, and methodology notes.
What if those decades of research prove in time to be a blind alley? Will I join the ranks of the alchemists whose toil proved fatally flawed? Science moves forward by disproving ideas, and many of my predecessors were wrong. I do not like the idea of my work being cited because of its inaccuracies, but being wrong would be better than being ignored.
In Amadeus, Salieri bitterly ascribed his extinction to mediocrity, but who would not be judged mediocre next to the flame that was Mozart? People still read Darwin but are reading me less and less. Does that mean my ant work was mediocre? I have no illusions that any of my contributions has the influence that Darwin had, yet I do cling to the belief that what I did mattered. Yet my own research—how has it affected the development of the broader fields of ecology, evolution, and animal behavior? Quite simply, I have to believe that it did move science along. There are architects like Mozart and Darwin, and there are bricklayers like Salieri and me.
Perhaps, just as Salieri’s oeuvre has enjoyed a resurgence following upon the popularity of Amadeus, so too might mine be rediscovered in a century or two. If not, then I will have joined the legions of scientists whose work has quietly added to the edifice of knowledge. And that has to be enough.
Joan M. Herbers is a professor of evolution, ecology, and organismal biology at Ohio State, with a joint appointment in women’s, gender, and sexuality studies. Her book Part-Time on the Tenure-Track is forthcoming from Jossey-Bass.