If at any time during my professional career I had been asked, “What do you consider your most important scientific contribution?” I would have said, “The next one!” Like the Biblical Lot, I believe that looking back can be an unrewarding distraction from current endeavors. As I now glance in my rear view mirror, I see only a long stream of “nexts” in the general areas of interpersonal attraction and close relationships. No one piece of work stands out as “most” important, or even as particularly important in itself. I must hope that if the whole is not greater than the sum of the parts, it at least is not significantly less.
Identifying your most important contribution would be difficult in any case because scientific contributions are rarely made by one person alone. Any contribution attributed to me has been the result of collaboration (formal or informal) with others, and might have never been made without their knowledge and effort. A useful piece of advice to a young aspiring researcher might be: “Always try to work with those who have more relevant knowledge than you do and, preferably, people smarter than you are.”
My answer to another question, “How did you get the idea?” for each piece of work also remains the same as always: curiosity! Not the idle kind of curiosity, but an involuntary personal compulsion to seek the answer to a question. It is the kind of curiosity that dominates conscious thought and usually is the spawning ground for an active and organized quest to find the answer. Being captured by curiosity is not always welcome. For one thing, the search for the answer may crowd out personal relationships and previous activities, some essential to health and home. For another, failure is always a real possibility.
Success of a new pursuit is always in doubt because the answers to large questions – and most things that matter and that we are curious about are very large questions – are usually yielded by Mother Nature in a series of droplets, each one granted only in response to a small question associated with the larger question.