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It is my contention that there is a strong negative correlation between the health and vitality of the passenger and the size and weight of their luggage.  The older and frailer the traveller the bigger and heavier the bag.

Moments before departure on the East Coast mainline train from Edinburgh to King’s Cross a small group of the decrepit have boarded.  With walking sticks and bags of snacks and the inevitable Daily Mail they manoeuvre cases larger than themselves up the crowded aisles.  Breathless, panting, close to passing out they find their reserved seats in the third carriage they have tried.  They shoo the two young students who have occupied their seats thinking they were on a safe bet as the train had just pulled out.  They refuse help with their luggage, but fearing that my CPR skills are a little rusty I press the offer—insist even.  Between gasps I am thanked. ‘Now, is it time for your injection,’ the old woman asks her husband.  I suspect it’s going to be a long journey.

The scenery rolls by outside and they settle down, their breathing returning to what has probably become normal for them.  They start their snacks and lose themselves in the moderate sudoku.   It’s clearly a partnership that works, their respective abilities compensating for the infirmities of the other.  One half blind, the other half deaf, but between them quite able.   One wields the pen with a steady hand, the other with a tremor suggests the answers—teamwork that has served to stave off the inevitable and make the improbable just possible.

We all need the gaps filled.  None of us are complete, and all of us can be more with the help of others.  In science, the days of the lone researcher are long gone.  You would be very hard pushed today to find a significant original paper published under a single name.  Instead, in the authorship of most papers you will find the acknowledgement of teamwork—each member bringing something different to the table, or the bench.  And, that is surely the way it should be, for science has become so large that it is no longer possible for any one individual to know it all or do it all.  We need leaders and followers; dreamers and realists; thinkers as well as those who know how to pipette.

The products of this teamwork should be greater than the efforts of any one mind or pair of hands, and they are, for the advances made in science in the last fifty years are cumulatively greater that the previous five hundred.  We have picked up the pace in this business of discovery by working together and we have learned to share, but not always to honour.

That Nobel Prizes can only be awarded jointly to a maximum of three recipients no longer reflects the complexities of modern collaborative science.  Perhaps, it never did, for the annals of history are littered with examples of those who should have been on the stage in Stockholm, but were passed over.  Recently, some researchers have reportedly turned down other major awards because, similarly, their teams or collaborators could not be included in the citation.  It was not enough for them to accept graciously on behalf of others and to stand, white tied and tailed, clutching the gold medal and exclaim that this was only possible because of the combined efforts of many.  No, these leaders wanted something a little more tangible for their teams.  And, perhaps that is what leadership is about— being first in the queue for the bad stuff, and last in the queue for the good.

But, this teamwork also has an historic dimension, for in science we do not only work with our temporal peers; we also with every scientist who has gone before.  The published record of research allows us to listen to the thoughts and conclusions of those who have worked on the same problems both yesterday and a century or more ago.  We build on what they have done, hoping to take our subject another excruciatingly small step along the path towards discovery.

Several have claimed it, but it was probably Isaac Newton who said, ‘If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have been able to stand on the shoulders of giants.’ This notion of altitude offering a better perspective is a fitting one, not least because it emphasises both the effort of the climb and the rewards the view can offer.  We work neither in isolation nor on a level plain.  Together, we can rise above the ordinary and glimpse over the horizon.

The train slows to a halt and my elderly travelling companions are now alighting.  That, however, is a word which barely does justice to the heft required to shift both them and their luggage from their seats in the middle of the crowded carriage to the platform.  I offer to help again, and again I am politely declined.  Eager to avoid a cardiac event and to see them on their way I ignore their protests and deposit their bags on the platform in York.  They gather themselves and their belongings, wave, link arms and hobble onwards.  Not exactly the shoulders of giants, but teamwork in action nevertheless.

© Allan Gaw 2013

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