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The Best Laid Plans

As I write this, the leaves here in Baltimore are just starting to turn, Halloween is a few weeks off — and my sister-in-law has just e-mailed to ask what my three boys want for Christmas. If past years serve as any indication, she will be done all her shopping, presents wrapped, by Veterans Day in mid-November. As someone who quite often doesn't know what I'll be serving for dinner when I arrive home at 5 p.m., this kind of long-range planning and execution blows my mind. As much as I try to stay one step ahead of the game, I inevitably find myself buying the 7-year-old's birthday present on the way to the party (and wrapping it with the tape I keep stashed under the seat) and writing my editor's note on the day we go to press. (This one was no exception.)

You can imagine then, how flabbergasted I was to learn about the team of scientists at Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory who have designed the New Horizons mission to Pluto. The spacecraft they've created will be hurtling through deepest space for 10 years. Then, sometime in 2015, they'll wake it up out of "hibernation," and all the instruments they spent so many months designing will start sending back streams of data from 3 billion miles away. A decade from now. Wow.

In chatting about the APL mission with my Hopkins internist, he noted how very different his own professional experience is from that of a New Horizons scientist. Doctors, as he warns the Hopkins interns he trains, must thrive on being "reactive." Most mornings, an internist has no idea what shape the day will take. That largely depends on the ringing of the phone: whose test results have come back showing cancer, which patient has woken up with bronchitis, whose chest pains warrant a consult with a cardiologist.

I found the conversation comforting because it made me realize that there is a place in this world for both types — those who take the long view and those who (by necessity) don't. Without the first group, we'd have no master plan for the Johns Hopkins medical campus, no 30-year efforts by Hopkins historians to edit the papers of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Without the latter, there'd be no hospital ER, no student counseling center, no Hopkins scholars writing political commentary in the daily paper.

All of which offers no excuse for why I can't get my act together enough to finish my Christmas shopping before December 24. But hey, this column's done — and with 30 minutes to spare.

-Sue De Pasquale

Return to November 2005 Table of Contents

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