My favorite piece of the week paid homage to an unsung hero of the early 1900s, introducing him with this phrase: “Meet Santiago Ramón y Cajal, an artist, photographer, doctor, bodybuilder, scientist, chess player and publisher. He was also the father of modern neuroscience.” If the writer of my obituary doesn’t get to have that much fun playing with dynamic adjectives and a snappy punchline to describe my life, I will be severely disappointed.
The photographs in this piece were particularly striking – especially considering the stark contrast between Cajal’s meticulous and artful hand-drawn rendering of neurons and the stunningly detailed, computer-generated image of a mouse neuron that is commonplace in today’s textbooks.
My favorite substantive aspect of the brief biography was the account of Cajal’s passion for the arts and photography, which he was forced to make a secondary priority when his father required that he attend medical school. Spoiler alert: this turns out okay; he ends up winning the Nobel Prize for his research on neural impulses. And he illustrated his findings in an astoundingly beautiful and painstaking manner that is symbolic of the connection between art, medicine, beauty and the human body.
There are several takeaways from the story of his life that I want to emphasize. Number one: he was pushed into something by forces not entirely within his control, and he still ended up finding meaning in it. He was also able to make a substantial contribution to the Human Endeavor through his work, whether or not it was his natural first choice. We all should be so lucky. Not that I’m advocating for listening to your parents rather than choosing your own life (lord knows), but it is good to remember that even though you might have had to pick a certain career path for the sake of money or pragmatism or whatever else, it can still be fulfilling and important in ways that you may never get to understand (as was the case with Cajal, who died before he saw proof of his neuron doctrine, and as is the case for so many other artists and scientists.)
And number two: his artistic interests were part of his scientific success. I think it is so important for people to not get too caught up in choosing this major or that major, categorizing themselves as a math-sciences person or an arts-and-humanities person. This is detrimental to the learning process, as well as to the ideal of a well-rounded, fully educated and meaningful life. We all have both sides of our brain, and we are all capable of creativity in whatever field we choose. Interdisciplinary studies are the real way to experience the full spectrum of life, and they allow us to fully appreciate everything nature and the human race has accomplished. Not to mention that contemporary problems are all so complicated and intertwined with one another that it is practically impossible to isolate one field from any others.
As someone who has jokingly been told I can’t be a doctor because my handwriting is too neat, I feel personally invested in the idea that people should have many interests and will still be fully capable of excelling in whatever field they choose. Besides all that, this is a message of hope for all the kids out there whose parents are making them do stuff that they don’t wanna do. Maybe you’ll win a Noble Prize because of it. Or you won’t, and that’s fine too.