An Exceptional Young Man

[Disclaimer:  this is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any individual living, dead, or in-between is purely coincidental.]

Sam was an exceptional young man.  At age three he could add,subtract, multiply, and divide in his head and read. By five he could solve algebraic equations and geometric proofs.  By eight he was learning calculus and taking college level physics courses.  He graduated from Stanford at thirteen, and completed a doctorate in theoretical physics at Cambridge proposing a new theory of subatomic particles promising to lay the groundwork for a Grand Unification Theory.   He was handsome and witty and had no problems landing either an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, a sizable salary and or girlfriend after girlfriend.

Sam was an exceptional young man and he knew it.  Paper after paper was accepted by top journals and led to sizable research grants while colleagues scraped to fund research programs.  Because of his reputation, even when collaborators did more of the work, his name was always first. Lectures and books on physics for a wider audience swelled his income.   Having always been afforded every advantage, he spared himself nothing–autos, expensive condominium, travel with stays at the best hotels.  Credit cards, mortgages and second mortgages piled up. Friends and women discovered that a what might seem an exciting relationship really was all about him and left them used, and often burdened with worthless IOUs.

Sam was an exceptional young man with an exceptional friend.  Her name was Sophia. They had played together as children.  Sam had lots of impractical ideas.  Sophia always was sensible and this carried into adulthood.  Sophia was a tenured professor at a midwest university.  She owned her home outright, volunteered to encourage disadvantaged youth, served on several community boards and was well respected locally but little known outside her home town.  Sophia and Sam ran into each other at an academic conference.  He unloaded about his crazy, lonely, and out-of-control life.   And Sophia listened.  Finally, he was exhausted and Sophia asked him if he really wanted a change.  He said, “sure, but how?” Sophia said, “Why not give up being exceptional?  Yes, you have some unique gifts and abilities.  Use them to set your life aright.  Do the math and figure out how frugally you can live and what you need to sell to get free of your debt.  If you live in faculty housing, you can sell the townhouse and the car and walk to work.  Go to your friends and apologize for how shabbily you’ve treated them.  Help them with their work and don’t worry about where your name appears, if at all.  Give up the globe-trotting and the easy publications and settle down to do good work–think of what you might accomplish if you combine your gifts with hard work.”  Sam sat deep in thought until finally he shook his head and got up to walk out.  “I just can’t do it!  I can’t give up being exceptional.”  He walked out into the night.

Sam was an exceptional young man until life came crashing down. Brilliant insights that could be turned into academic papers had always come easily until the strain of a busy life and commitments around the world led to the fatal compromise. He wrote a paper with “cooked” data. He feared that another researcher would publish good results first if he delayed long enough to get good data. Other investigators couldn’t reproduce his data. Neither could he, nor could he show the original raw data he cited in his paper. Investigation led to termination of his research post and the cancellation of his grants. Debt holders called his loans.  Friends became scarce as they learned of his downfall.  He and Sophia still talked but all he could do is vacillate between fantastic schemes to restore his exceptional life and despair.  None of the schemes worked and the day was at hand when the sheriff would come to foreclose on his townhouse.  No one answered and when the door was opened, they found that Sam had ended his exceptional life.

All that is left now is a grave visited yearly by his friend Sophia who weeps for an exceptional young man.

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