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Faces of Science: David Helfand

The Secret Life of Scientists and EngineersThe Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers

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Mariana Cook’s book , “Faces of Science,” portrays 77 scientists who have made many of the most important discoveries of our time. Each photograph is accompanied by a personal essay written by the scientists. The portraits in this online series are accompanied by excerpts from those essays. For more information, please visit Mariana Cook’s website: www.cookstudio.com .

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Faces of Science: David Helfand-david_helfand.jpg
David Helfand - Photos and Text ©Mariana Cook “Faces of Science”

It is convenient, I have found, to develop a neatly packaged mythology about one’s life to present to new acquaintances, to colleagues, even at times to oneself. While perhaps not fully consistent with the philosophy expected from a late-1960s coming-of-age, this approach does comport with my much maligned motto “The examined life is not worth living” (much maligned, that is, by my artist spouse).
An essential part of my myth involves my career choice while at Amherst College. Although as politically active and appropriately left-wing as most of my compatriots in the class of ’72, I had a great deal of trouble taking seriously the mantra of “relevancy” which droned on in the background of every conversation about career choice in those halcyon days; assertions concerning the social relevance of investment banking and plastic surgery always seemed to me a rifled strained. And so with characteristics irreverence, my mythology goes, I chose the most irrelevant career I could think of–understanding the origin and evolution of the universe.

It happens to be the case that astronomy is also great fun. I left Amherst 27 years ago and, having discovered the center of the universe (Manhattan), I now seek to explore its edges. This has sometimes meant frustrating nights on a mountaintop in Chile listening to the rain drumming on the shuttered telescope dome. It has included scrambling for support for my students, sitting through mind-numbing NASA committee meetings, and engaging (a trifle more often than absolutely necessary, I must confess) in those titanic academic battles in which the warriors are so vicious because the stakes are so small. But each time a few photons of light, having traveled uninterrupted for 11 billion years, are captured by my telescope and an image of a distant corner of the universe never before glimpsed scrolls up on my computer screen, I revel in my decision to be irrelevant.