Follow us on Instagram
Try our daily mini crossword
Play our latest news quiz
Download our new app on iOS/Android!

Knowledge nostalgia: missing the bleeding edge

I have less than 50 days until my thesis is due, and less than 100 before I graduate. Folks, it’s real. The inevitability of the approaching milestones and the immensity of the tasks at hand war for the attention of my overworked stress response. But last week, even while careening through my final months, I found more insight from a couple of serendipitous events than from any approaching milestone or academic achievement. Two evening talks — by a UC Berkeley molecular biologist and a University of Bath expert on intelligence — drove right to the heart of what I’ll miss as I prepare to leave Princeton.

Last Wednesday, I was fortunate enough to see Berkeley professor Jennifer Doudna speak on the gene-editing technique she co-invented, Crispr-Cas9. In just the last few yearsCrisprhas revolutionized biotechnology, allowing the rapid and precise editing of other organisms’ genes, and forced us to confront our suddenly-very-real capability to change our own genetic makeup permanently.


The talk was titled “The Science and Bioethics of Editing our Genes.” But what gave me pause was a point neither scientific nor bioethical. As Doudna emphasized throughout the talk, she did not set out to revolutionize bioengineering, but to understand an esoteric aspect of bacterial immune systems. The RNA-protein complex that bacteria use to protect themselves from viral DNA can be harnessed as a powerful tool, but Doudna didn’t know this when she began her work. Here curiosity, rather than necessity, was the mother of invention. It was inspiring to all curious people present to see how the pet-project of a self-described “RNA-nerd” turned into a world-shaking invention.

Doudna’s emphasis on the curiosity-driven nature of her work is an explicit counterargument to a philosophy which has for years been undercutting academic research: the insistence that research be “translational” — driving towards solving a specific problem, rather than discovering fundamentals of how the world works. The overemphasis of translational research (and the quick profit attached to it) resulted this month in Australia,slashing funding for basic climate research and thereby jeopardizing our ability to understand and respond to climate change. The U.S. House of Representatives followed suit with a bill requiring the National Science Foundation to justify how each grant furthers the “national interest.” Had Doudna and her colleagues tried to justify asking “why do bacteria have these funny repeating bits in their DNA?” on grounds of national interest, especially to Congress, I can hardly imagine Crispr being understood and applied rapidly, if at all.

Why should you, dear reader, care? Princeton and her peer institutions are the core of basic research, building our understanding not just of the hard sciences but about how human society functions and should function. And we, the undergraduates, are part of that.

The second seminar I attended, a dinner with visiting fellow Joanna Bryson, framed this for me. Bryson studies mechanisms of intelligence — both our natural intelligence and future artificial intelligences, somewhere in the overlap of neuroscience, philosophy and computer science. She described human intelligence as deeply indebted to human culture: unlike the brutal logic of natural selection, where the best strategies for survival are spread by simply letting every other strategy die out, our culture and language allow ideas to spread and intersect in a way that mirrors a single intelligence searching for the best way to move forward.

Bryson expanded on this in a recent blog post, pointing out that universities function as powerful nodes in the network of human culture — “knowledge batteries” which store humanity’s collective wisdom and apply it where needed. Sure, business and governments produce and apply knowledge as well, but it is academia where knowledge is created for knowledge’s sake, where the drive for unique — rather than money-making — broadens the pool of ideas from which humanity can draw and through which it can grow.

I’m going to bet against you discovering something as big as Crispr or relativity while you’re here. But Princeton gives us the knowledge — both academic and humanistic — to put ourselves at the bleeding edge of human intellect and ask the interesting questions. And many of us only have four years to do that.


If Princeton is to be the best four years of your life (I hope it isn’t — we have so much left to do), let it not only be for the carefree parties or the cheap booze. Let it not only be for your friends. And I beg of you, let it not only be for giving you a leg up on a prestigious or high-salary career.

When I leave Princeton, I may be leaving behind the richest pool of ideas I will ever have the fortune to immerse myself in. And I will miss that. But I will take with me the curiosity, the drive for the bleeding edge.

Bennett McIntosh is a chemistry major from Littleton, Colo. He can be reached at

Get the best of ‘the Prince’ delivered straight to your inbox. Subscribe now »