Something else gets under your skin, keeps you working days and nights at the sacrifice of your sleeping and eating and attention to your family and friends, something beyond the love of puzzle solving. And that other force is the anticipation of understanding something about the world that no one has ever understood before you.
Einstein wrote that when he first realized that gravity was equivalent to acceleration — an idea that would underlie his new theory of gravity — it was the “happiest thought of my life.” On projects of far smaller weight, I have experienced that pleasure of discovering something new. It is an exquisite sensation, a feeling of power, a rush of the blood, a sense of living forever. To be the first vessel to hold this new thing.
All of the scientists I’ve known have at least one more quality in common: they do what they do because they love it, and because they cannot imagine doing anything else. In a sense, this is the real reason a scientist does science. Because the scientist must. Such a compulsion is both blessing and burden. A blessing because the creative life, in any endeavor, is a gift filled with beauty and not given to everyone, a burden because the call is unrelenting and can drown out the rest of life.
This mixed blessing and burden must be why the astrophysicist Chandrasekhar continued working until his mid-80’s, why a visitor to Einstein’s apartment in Bern found the young physicist rocking his infant with one hand while doing mathematical calculations with the other. This mixed blessing and burden must have been the “sweet hell” that Walt Whitman referred to when he realized at a young age that he was destined to be a poet. “Never more,” he wrote, “shall I escape.