Some years ago, at a large publishing firm, I worked with a Harvard-trained geologist in his early forties who had left an academic post at the University of New Mexico to go into educational publishing. On a rainy afternoon over drinks he told me why. He had published widely and reasonably well, he said, but when he turned forty he came to the conclusion that, as a scientist, he was not first-rate. By “first-rate” he meant a giant in his field. Science, in his view, really was only a place for giants, and to be a second-line scientist, which in his own opinion he was, was to be condemned to spend one’s life doing trivial work. An extremely earnest man, he went into educational publishing, where he thought he could do more good.

In the modern era, there seem always to have been extraordinary essayists.

At the time that he told me this I...


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