Chemists love details and, like a pig in sh-t*, we love to roll around in the data. And for some, no detail is too small to bring the show to a complete halt while they wrestle with details. I’ve seen this many times. This makes it difficult for some chemists to make the transition to other job descriptions. It is a simple fact that we sometimes have to move forward with an incomplete picture.It got me to wondering -- why is that? Why do we stop everything to deal with one tiny detail? Certainly, there's the joy of proving someone wrong, of showing off, but there's also the desire to Get Everything Right. It reminds me of this wonderful passage from (sorry, excimer) Neal Stephenson's novel Cryptonomicon; it's a conversation between two characters, Randy and Amy:
RW: "My point is that precision, and getting things right, in the mathematical sense, is the one thing we have going for us. Everyone has to have a way of getting ahead, right? Otherwise you end up working at McDonald’s your whole life, or worse. Some are born rich. Some are born into a big family like yours. We make our way in the world by knowing that two plus two equals four, and sticking to our guns in a way that is kind of nerdy and that maybe hurts people’s feelings sometimes. I’m sorry."
AS: "Hurts whose feelings? People who think that two plus two equals five?"And I think that this is something to be striven for, in a conversation about new chemistry in a chemistry laboratory -- that as many statements as possible be literally true. It's important to know what has been demonstrated to be true, what is thought to be true and what is not known to be true. Otherwise, people get the idea that things that haven't been worked out have been worked out (and in the worst case, can be ignored until it's too late); in the immortal words of Donald Rumsfeld, there are things that you know that you know and there are things that you know that you don't know.
RW: "People who put a higher priority on social graces than on having every statement uttered in a conversation be literally true."
In the end, though, Gaussling is right. Almost always, there are some details that cannot stop the show (and won't); it's just that you have to know which ones you can safely ignore.