Time will teach thee soon the truth

January 9, 2002

In the elder days of Art,Builders wrought with greatest careEach minute and unseen part;For the gods see everywhere.The Builders by Henry Wadsworth LongfellowThe start of a new


In the elder days of Art,
Builders wrought with greatest care
Each minute and unseen part;
For the gods see everywhere.

The Builders by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The start of a new year is a good time to reflect on how our industry makes the extraordinary seem ordinary. Our machines allow us to look into the human body and see the tiniest underpinnings of life, to gaze into the nooks and crannies and explore. The question is, what do we see?

In the many conversations I have had with clinical luminaries, never have any of them questioned the reality of what they were seeing. Not with the most advanced MR or most powerful CTs. The closest anyone has ever come to such a query has been to point out artifacts, which have shrunk with each passing year and with each new generation of equipment.

In short, our technology provides us the luxury of focusing on grander questions, ones that hint at the very essence of life. That's one of the joys, I guess, of not having been the builder. We don't really know what to expect. But are we taking advantage of this luxury? Do we even appreciate it?

I stumbled on this question while thinking about the things we take for granted and how time changes perception. A century or two ago carpenters were artists as much as craftsmen, but I'll bet few people took notice. Today their handiwork is appreciated. Before old buildings are torn down, built-in bookcases, cabinets, fireplace mantels, church pews, and dressing tables are salvaged. These pieces are then sold individually for tidy sums, while the homes of which they were only elements, both functional and decorative, have been reduced to rubble.

Today, we can see, for the first time, the inner workings of the mind. We can see how thoughts are processed; how words are formed. We can see the processes that make us who we are.

Yes, understanding and treating disease and prolonging life are the primary goals of medicine, and the primary uses for imaging equipment. But we should also appreciate our technology for what it shows us about normalcy, about ourselves.

This is part of the challenge, I believe, that goes with medicine in the 21st century: to perceive the subtler aspects and deeper beauty of what we are discovering, while still conducting analytical science. How we meet this challenge will tell us how far we have come as a civilization.