Why I Turned Down a Q-and-A in Nature Magazine

Today is not the first day that I’ve woken up to realize that my name will not appear in Nature magazine.  I send them my scientific breakthroughs quite regularly.  One of them even broke through recently, and If you love me, you’ll go download it and cite it a few times.  My experience with Nature’s publishing process is that first, a severely overworked Editor desperately tries to find a reason to reject your stuff, and then if he can’t, he sends it out to a few more guys who close ranks and tell you it’s shit.  Then you write a long measured response explaining patiently that they’re all wrong, and finally the Editor has to come down on one side or another, usually not yours.  I don’t have any evidence that this process doesn’t work exactly the same way for every poor bastard that submits a scientific report to Nature, regardless of creed or calling.

So today I learned that the publishing process at Nature is actually very different from the above.  I am now convinced that there’s a rat that runs across the keyboards late at night, accidentally hitting “command-P” here and there and producing content.  I’ve concluded this because apparently no one is responsible for what’s in the correspondence section of Volume 505, which looks like this (click it):

NatureCorres

Above I see two things that I don’t want to read about, one of them being Genital Itching.  I also see the Nature masthead, and a Nature volume number and doi assigned to a letter arguing that journalistic adherence to scientific quality will logically and inevitably result in my invisibility.  Well, that’s my summary, but I encourage you to read it and formulate your own.  This whole thing is a big old steaming déjà vu of Womanspace from a few years ago, which I also wrote about.  Anyway, it hurts to read that crap and so I’m all pissed off.  On Twitter, journalists have splained and splained to me that Nature-Jobs, Nature-Comments, Nature-Letters, Nature-TooManyIDK are totally f*cking separate and each is populated by Editors that positively abhor the values of the others.  It seems that Nature is always really concerned that I fully appreciate this after they publish something offensive.  At other times they’re more comfortable with the lines being blurry.  Like when I’m paying my subscription bill, for example.

I try hard to avoid having principles because they inevitably lead me to hypocrisy, and aside from that, very little else is accomplished.  Today was particularly illustrative: I used to have this policy that I never, ever declined to talk to a reporter.  Because I hold my practice of self-promotion sacred, it was an easy policy to follow.  Well, today I violated my own policy.  I told a very professional, smart and sincerely motivated freelance journalist that I wasn’t going to do the Q&A we’d planned for Nature Jobs.  I felt like shit for declining.  I told her again and again that I don’t want to make her job harder.  Just like Nature doesn’t want to make my job harder.  But it does.  At least I can take comfort in the fact that if readers wonder why my name is not in their issue of Nature, they can just flip over to the section with a letter that explains why you shouldn’t expect to see names like mine in Nature.  This will be handy for everyone, and yet I still feel the need to formally revise my principles in light of today’s events.  Below is my new working model:

THINGS HOPE JAHREN IS NOT WILLING TO DO (a complete list):

I will not serve as the poster child du jour for Nature’s version of GirlsRule!  I don’t want to be Nature‘s counterpoint.  I am my own point.

I will not wear pantyhose ever, for any reason.

THINGS HOPE JAHREN IS WILLING TO DO (an incomplete list):

I will do the exact same Q&A interview — with the same or a different reporter — for any other publication under the sun.  This includes Science, PNAS, Guideposts, Playboy, Hustler and Dog Fancy.

I will allow Nature to officially link to this blog post.  They could call it, “Here’s What Hope Jahren Thinks!”  After all, their wish to interview me proves that they want their readers to know what I have to say, so this will make it easy.  Watch for the link, everyone!

I will hold Nature responsible for choosing to print anything that it prints.

Oh, shucks, who am I kidding here?  Criticizing Nature is like throwing a rock at a tank.  C’mon, it’s Nature for Chrissakes.  Nobody there gives a shit about my hurt little feelings and they can find hoards of men far more interesting than me to interview.  It’s also not my place to tell Nature what to do about what just might be pernicious editorial problems somewhere within their chain-of-command.  And furthermore, I’m sorry for what I wrote about rats.  I feel bad for rats.  It’s not their fault that they spread disease and just generally gross everyone out.  And they clearly don’t understand the damage that they do.

Important point: The Itching-Genital information is not part of any Nature publication, it’s just a web ad.  If my genitals itch, it is not Nature’s responsibility.  Sort of like it’s not their responsibility if one of their editorial choices disempowers the shit out of me.
 

Got a comment? hahaLOL, send it to Nature!

Still wondering what this is all about?  You can read the whole story of the original dumbass letter on @rocza ‘s blog.
 
In addition to the inspired passages above, I also wrote a measured and professional letter directly to Editor-in-Chief at Nature, mostly because I like to hear myself talk.  They published  a 300-word excerpt of it within their Correspondence section.

I Love Science Because

Ever wonder why I love Science?  Probably not!  But I do, and here’s why.
 

I Love Science Because 

I love Science because I love plants.  I love that they are so different than we are, and so fundamentally unknowable because of it.  I love how they flaunt their success and tower over us, living longer, growing bigger and never coming inside out of the rain.  I love to pull their leaves off and the end of an experiment, telling them, “Ok you little f*ckers, you controlled my life for three months and now I control yours”.  I love that IRB doesn’t give a shit if I do this.

I love Science because I love the look I get when I explain something complicated and it really gets through.  I love Science because I love the look I get when I set someone’s Crackpot Radar off.

I love Science because it is so frivolous and lets me study things that went extinct long ago and are never coming back.  My research is like my earrings that don’t keep me warm or dry, and they only glitter if you stand very close and like that sort of thing.  I love Science because it is so necessary and every screw in every doorknob was first a calculation of rotational force, was first an experiment testing the tensile strength of a metal alloy.

I love Science because we make it up as we go along.  Each season we create a new terminology from scraps of last year’s jargon like hipsters putting together an outfit at the Goodwill.  I love to talk oh-so-seriously about Biomineralization, Geobiology and Paleoanthroposols at a conference that is actually an expensive Gen-X coffee house poetry slam.  I love Science because when I talk off-the-cuff about my research I find useful only simple words like work, try, want, care and love love love.

I love Science because it lets me be a child, to play in the dirt and laugh.  I love Science because it lets me be a teenager, to rebel and defy the university and demand to borrow its car keys on the same day.  I love Science because it lets me be an adult, responsible for machines that cost more than my house.  I love Science because it will never make me retire, and so someday I will be a wrinkled old lady in a dusty outmoded lab, providing a safe place for yet another nineteen year old who feels like they don’t belong anywhere else.  I love Science because it is my life.

I love Science because it lets me interact with young people who are trying to grow and change, and this has preserved me body and soul to the point that I may move undetected amongst them.  I love Science because it lets me ignore old people who are convinced that the world used to be so much better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I love Science because my hopeless task is to transform myself into the impossible, to get a little less stupid each day until I finally know it all.  I love Science because I have co-workers closer than siblings, who wouldn’t throw themselves in front of a bus for me, but would certainly throw with me, which I much prefer.

I love Science because I am constantly mistaken for a student, a secretary, a waitress.  It makes me remember being with my father at the community college where he taught, and the many who mistook him for a janitor after hours.  I remember how he would get out his huge ring of keys and amicably open whatever door they needed.  And how he would look at me hard and tell me to remember this, because there is dignity in all work that needs doing.

I love Science because it is the only friend I have that will stay up punishingly late with me and still get up early with me in the morning.

I love Science because if you look at my cv between the lines you can see three solid years of December 24 and 25 alone in my office, far away from my family, comforting myself with a ragged putrid manuscript that eventually staggered to publication in a weary but greatly improved form.  I love Science because in a different section you can see ten years of blissful hiking in southwestern Ireland, the most beautiful place in the world.

I love Science because parts of it are so hard — because after you fail forty-three times in a row, only rarely do you succeed on the fourty-fourth, and only rarely do you get to do it right more than once before it’s time to start in on the next forty-three, which could very well turn out to be eighty-three.  I love Science because parts of it are so easy, as it values publication over all things and I can write three pages without even looking at the keyboard.

I love Science because when I discover something new it is somehow mine until I give it away, and I can point to it as my own personal piece of The Revelation.  You are welcome to laugh at it or ignore it, but its substance feels real to me when nothing else does.

At least I think that this is why I love Science.  But to be honest, I’m really not sure.

I suppose that the real truth is that I love Science because it is very like my artistic high-school boyfriend whom I loved for years with a debased and aching heart.  I love Science because once in a very great while, it almost – almost — seems as if it loves me back.

Why do you love Science?  Tweet me and tell me about it.
 

#HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE

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Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

I heard you got Tenure – Congratulations!  Count me amongst the disappointingly small number of people in the world who get what a big deal this is.  Tenure is a complex concept that means many things, but it does not mean that people will stop telling you what to do.  Count me amongst the disconcertingly large number of people in the world who will continue telling you what to do.  Let’s begin directly!  Below are ten things that I want you to do.

 

Ten Things To Do After You Get Tenure

1. Be Careful … to tell only the small number of people that you are already certain will be happy for you.  Let others vine these grapes according to the whims of time and chance.  I know your first impulse is to race to Dr. Bozo’s office in order to taunt him, and it’s a laudable one.  “BOOM!” you rap to a victory twerk, “Dead-old-man-just-a-picture-on-the-wall  / I-still-be-getting-mad-pay-to-diss-you-in-the-hall!”  You’re recklessly risking your buzz in that Dr. Bozo may then respond with, “It was only because you’re a woman,” or the exhilaratingly direct, “I voted against it.”  Let him say these things to someone else while you are at home having a little party — a little party, not a big party.  Hey, I know Tenure feels like a victory over something or a reward for something.  IT’S NOT.  It will take you a little while to figure out what it is.  A while.  Like months.

2. Take A Walk.  Go to a hospital intensive care unit, go to a sewage treatment plant, go to your kid’s daycare – hell, go to the slaughterhouse where most of my friends from high school work.  Grab a cup of coffee and look around for a while.  You will notice lots of women and men working hard to make difficult things happen.  Now stop and wonder if any of these people will ever be eligible for Tenure at their jobs, regardless of how hard they work and how effective they are.  Then wonder the same thing about public defenders, sex workers and Starbucks baristas.  Realize that the answer is a resounding “no”.

3. Ask Yourself … why the concept of Tenure is reserved for academics.  Is it because what you do is more important than what these other people do?  Newsflash: it’s not.  Is it because you are a super smart special genius who deserves more out of life than the average unwashed global villager?  Glory be — if you believe that then you’re probably already beyond help.  Listen up: Tenure is actually some kind of a tool that might be particularly useful in your line of work.  It is up to you to decide if you will shove this rare and transformative tool into a drawer and let it rust, or if you will pick it up and use it.  It is your choice.

4. Get A Piece of Paper And A Pen … and write down a few of the things that you declined to do because you were Untenured.  Pick the things that you really feel guilty for turning down.  It can include all those STEM education RFPs to which you didn’t respond, or the Rape Crisis Center that needed a faculty liaison.  What about the OA journal that wanted new Editors, or the journalist that you didn’t have time for?  The fact that you actually got Tenure means that there will be at least five items on your list, but limit yourself to the ten most compelling examples.  And don’t get all freaked out on me dammit — you’re not necessarily going to sign up and do these very things, but listing them is a critical part of the exercise.

5. Now Write Down … the choice zingers that you declined to say because you were Untenured.  Pick your favorites.  It can be things like,  “Modeling plant evapotranspiration as a passive function of atmospheric temperature is feebleminded bullshit you dumbass,” or, “Why the f*ck are we still teaching optical mineralogy when our graduates don’t know the difference between a plant and an animal?”  Or perhaps, “F*ckyou you evil f*ckwad registrar, my best undergrad is dropping out because he can’t pay the exorbitant tuition,” or even, “We both know damn well that dickhead is also sliming on the students and the staff.”  Again, list no less than five and no more than ten.  We don’t want go down the resentment rabbit-hole here; whenever you start to feel put-upon, go back and do step #2.

6. Think Hard About #5.  What was really behind those things you didn’t say?  What was your truest motivation for wanting to say those things?  What part of those petty sniping sarcastic comments was your brave heroic best self trying to come through?  What was the real risk that you chose not to take when you bit down on your tongue?  Now rewrite those 5-10 things  within this new and better context.

7. Compare … the items in list #4 and list #6.  Is there any overlap?  If there is, then YOU’RE GOLDEN.  Somewhere within that overlap lies the key to your unique potential as an agent of real change.  Right there is the intersection between what you believe and the access that your Tenured position provides.  Now take a deep breath because what you just figured out is important: You just figured out Where To Start.

8. Make A Plan.  Here comes the hard part: It’s going to take you some time to map out a plan for how to activate this newly-found potential.  You’ll need to disengage from most of what you’ve been doing and decide what parts of the status quo to dump unceremoniously in favor of your new crusade.  Map out a great strategy, and then map out several fallback plans for when your awesome can’t-fail strategy doesn’t pan out.  Know that you are basically starting your career over, with a whole different set of performance standards set internally instead of externally.  A Sabbatical is the perfect time to do all this – in fact, this is what a Sabbatical is meant to facilitate, IMHO.  Removed from the habits and rituals of your accustomed institution, can you envision a new set of principles, the new resultant set of tasks and new inbox?  Can you come back from your Sabbatical meaningfully changed, ready to do your work differently and with more conviction?

9. Commit … to your new Post-Tenure identity.  Tell the people you love and who love you that you’ve decided to transform the nature of your job, and explain to them about the greater good for which you are now working.  Ask them if they’re OK with it, because if you do this right, your world – and perhaps theirs – is about to be rocked.  You are going to disappoint some people by ceasing to do what they have come to expect you will do.  It will be scary, too.  You’ve decided to stop relying upon what has finally been conceded as expertise in order to launch shakier skills that you haven’t tested yet.  You will inevitably upset some people.  You’ll lose some friends and gain others, and you’ll come to know yourself much better along the way.  You are opting for the discomfort of growth over the entitled ease of decay.  Many days, you’ll find comfort in one thing only: You are not wasting the most valuable tool you’ve ever been given.

10. Change The World … into what you wished it was when you were coming up, as an undergrad, as a grad student, as a new professor.  Go out and give someone what you wish you had gotten.  All these things you’ve been bitching so bitterly about for years: Public apathy over Climate Change, lack of minorities in STEM, how damn dumb the students are – it is up to you to make the data that shows these things are getting better.  So gird your loins, Take Up The Tenured Man’s Burden and carry with you all the good luck that I can possibly conjure.  Go change our world a lot or a little.  Or a lot.  Because you are now finally doing something that only Tenured You can do.

Want to leave a comment? LOL you can’t, and here’s why.  But you can tweet my stupid *ss and I’ll tweetcha back.

Five Things I Say To Career Women Who Tell Me They Might Want To Have A Baby

Recently there’s been a spate of internet discussion offering justifications for or against women becoming mothers as overworked graduate students versus as overworked post-docs versus as overworked pre-tenure professors versus as overworked decrepit old crones like the way I did it.  When I see this type of thing I am greatly affected.   I generally throw down my beer bottle and holler “Glory Halleluiah!  If it ain’t the ancient trope of Social Control Over Female Fertility all gussied up Academy-style!  What would us mangy old feminists do with ourselves if we didn’t have to get up off the couch every thirty minutes and lop another head off of that wretched Hydra?”  Yes, it is true that when women get each other alone, we sometimes talk about where babies come from.  Here’s five things that I say when the issue comes up.  Just like with the rest of this blog, just because I say it doesn’t mean I’m right.  Just like with the rest of my life, just because I might not be right isn’t going to keep me from saying it.

Five Things I Say To Career Women Who Tell Me They Might Want To Have A Baby

1. Having a kid is hard but it’s not any harder than a lot of the other stuff you are already doing.  In fact, it may be easier than some of the stuff you do every damn day.  Once your kid is born, you feed and water them and they keep doubling in size — a lot of that shit just goes on autopilot.  Pregnancy is the bad part, and I won’t lie to you.  The gestation my offspring sucked so hard that I don’t even have words to describe it.  But even so, there are women who enjoy being pregnant and go around all bursting with the cosmic power of fertility and whatnot, and I say more power to them.  Personally, I just laid around eating doughnuts and rejecting every single paper and proposal that came my way.  It just seemed fitting that everyone should be as miserable as I was.

2. Don’t fall for all that crap about how universally hard it is to get pregnant past 30 and get all freaked out that you’re running out of time.  Jeezus, look around you.  If it were all that super impossible to get knocked up there wouldn’t be so many goddam people in the world.  Never believe anyone who is trying to scare you into choosing one thing or another when it comes to your fertility.  As with everything else that’s important, only listen to people that you trust and respect, and even then make sure you decide for yourself.  You are the only person who can know what’s best for your life.

3. Don’t worry too much about whether you have the patience, maternal instincts, whatever, to be a “good mom” to your offspring.  Seriously, if you only remember one thing I say here, let it be this: You get special chemicals in your head that help you put up with their crap.  No one was more surprised to discover this stuff than me, and it’s just unreal.  I genuinely believe that every single stupid little thing my kid does makes for the world’s most interesting and fascinating watching.  I am also convinced that he is an angel beyond reproach.  Basically, my son could set fire to the dog and I would just take pictures and post them on Facebook as yet more charming proof of his irresistible precocity.  You will like the kid just fine, trust me.

4. Quality care is key.  I read (or I made up) an interview with Barbara Kingslover who writes genius books and also has like eighteen kids where someone asked her how she “does it all.”  She answered simply, “I write when my children are in someone else’s care.”  The bottom line is that some of the good work that you will do will need to be done while your kid is off being someone else’s problem.  The good news is that there are lots of women (and men) who can provide quality care: friends, relations and paid care-givers.  Some of these women in particular are absolute wizards when it comes to babies; they taught me amazing things like which end to put the diaper on.  The bad news is that quality care is f*cking expensive and if I had a solution for that one my retirement account would probably have more than eight dollars in it right now.  The other good news is that having a kid really does make you more efficient at work, and here’s why.  You can finally walk right past what used to be time-consuming hallway interactions remarking politely, “Listen Old Man, I’m not forking out $2k per month so I can come in here and listen to you gibber hatefully about how the ‘A-rabs’ have taken over Charles Street.”  Here’s another important thing: Babies aren’t really all that heavy at first and so you can take them with you almost everywhere you go.  Sure people might give you the stink eye sometimes, but they will usually stop short of calling security and having you escorted out.  I’ve learned that you can take a sleep-deprived toddler who has consumed nothing but Halloween candy for thirteen days into a faculty meeting and although he is hardly welcome, he will not prove himself to be the worst-behaved person in the room.  Oh by the way, in case it is news to someone, they eat from your boob and so do this whenever you want and wherever you want and if someone gives you a hard time tell them that I said “F*CK OFF.”

5. Take your folic acid.  It can’t hurt and you never really know what you’ll decide to do with your life, anyway.  Or maybe you do.  Maybe you’ll decide to have a kid and fall in love so hard and so irrevocably that you won’t even recognize yourself afterwards like I did.  In the end, my advice here is the same advice that I give whenever a woman tells me that she thinks she might want something — anything.  I automatically say to her, Go get it.  Go try.  Go get what you want.  And maybe you’ll even want what you get, like I did.  Because you can do this.  You can do this, too.

How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

Academia is funny.  At the beginning you keep asking yourself, “What if I am not really any good?”  Then once people finally start admitting that you are good you ask yourself, “What if I’m not really as good as they are finally admitting that I am?”  Now don’t get me wrong — I’m not judging — I used to ask these questions too.  A lot.  My own favorite version was always, “Why am I so much more famous than I deserve to be while not being nearly as famous as I want to be?”  But then I got over it and stopped giving so much of a shit, which makes me cured.  Here are six things that helped, in case you’re interested.

How I Cured My Impostor Syndrome

1.  I got Tenure.  Let’s just get that out of the way, shall we?  When you don’t fit the mold or look the part and you constantly get messages saying you don’t belong, there is no Earthly substitute for a piece of paper that says you can never ever be kicked out.  The people who say that tenure should be abolished because it doesn’t mean anything anymore are both full of crap and without exception white men who’ve never been anywhere near the wrong side of the line.  My only quibble with tenure is that the people who have it don’t exploit it nearly enough to take new risks and generally agitate the system.  But that’s a whole other and more bitchier post.

2.  I took a good, hard look at my stuff.  And some parts of it ain’t pretty.  Particularly my early stuff.  Some of that was just bad bad bad bad bad.  If it came my way now I would reject the shit out of it.  I would use Microsoft Paint to scrawl “Your proposal is bad and you should feel bad” across the summary page and then upload it to Memebase.  No friggin wonder there are people out there who think I’m way overrated.  But you know what?  My science has gotten a lot better over the years.  A LOT.  So while I don’t have any confidence that what I am doing now is good enough, I have tremendous confidence in my ability to fix whatever inadequacies are shown to me.  I’ve also accepted that some of the poor bastards who had to review my early crap will never respect me.  Others are just plain prejudiced.  I can’t do anything about either, so why stress over it?  By the way, the folks telling you that you should just grow a thick skin and not care what people say are not your real friends.  A thin skin is the way to go.  Only if you let the criticism cut to the bone can you fully examine the wound and clean it up so it can heal.  But promise me that you’ll also let the praise in, and absorb it just as deeply.

3.  I worked myself to and through exhaustion.   I could tell you the details, but they would make you question my sanity even more than you already do.  I will say that it involved years of high doses of nicotine, maltodextrin, lorazepam and prednisone, along with a lot of other things, and not always in that order.  And while I can’t in good conscience recommend it, it did accomplish something important for me: I don’t have to wonder if my Science could be improved if I just tried harder or put in a few more hours.  It might make me a lot deader than I am now, but aside from that nothing would meaningfully improve, and I have the data to show myself.  So Merry F*cking Christmas, because whatever you’re getting from me is the very best I can do, and we’re all just gonna have to live with that whether we like it or not.

4.  What I am is separate from what I know and how I perform.  I’ll even go you one better: I believe that my carnate self is necessarily and inescapably an imperfect approximation of my truest self.  Yea verily I say unto thee that I am one of those poor sorry sonsabitches who actually believes all that crap.  And you know what?  I lean pretty hard on this belief every goddam day.  Ok Dr. Bozo, you think that my science is garbage.  Well DUH!  Of course it is, you dumbass.  It is merely one rotten brick within this great subcelestial City of Shit that we are collectively tasked to remake for a better purpose.  So shut your hole, pick up a shovel and help me out.

5.  I lost interest in the question, How good do people think I am?  I wondered and wondered but I never came up with a satisfying answer.  It was like trudging around one of Dante’s circles minus even the companionable presence of other wretched souls.  I eventually realized that endlessly interrogating my intellectual worth was akin to weighing myself three times a day, which I also used to do and which was an equally pointless exercise.  When I finally conceded to myself that, well, f*ck it — maybe I’m not as good as people say I am.  Maybe I’m not as good as I should be.  Maybe I’m just actually as good as I am – then a more interesting question presented itself: What now?  What now.

6.  I realized why I the hell I am doing Science anyway.  And you know what?  It turned out that I am not doing this to please the Academy.  I don’t covet the approval of people who will never respect a face like mine.  I’m not even doing this in the hope of recognition, though should fame come my way I will unctuously welcome it with greedy open arms.  I confess that when Science is fun it feels like I am doing it for me, but in reality that’s not true either.  I am doing this because I am too small and the world is too big, and so I need to be part of something that is bigger than I am.  I am doing this for the women in my family who told me that they wanted to be scientists but never had the chance.  I am doing it for my grandmother who couldn’t have imagined the luxury of thinking for a living.  And I am doing it for the women who will come after me.  Each day I will deal with a little more of this shit in the hopes that they will someday deal with a little less.  I will roar like a dangerous Pekinese at my male colleagues, laugh in their faces as they twist the knife, and then go back to my office and cry into my blistered hands.  I will postpone lunch, then dinner, then pissing, then the dentist because I need Science now.  I will pound on the door of one funding agency after another until something finally opens.  And I will always keep doing too many things.  I will want too much, say too much and go too far.  But I will not wonder whether I am as good as I appear to be.  Because I am far too distracted with the fond labor of making myself into what I want to be.  Because I know that I am good enough.  For that.

Marie Curie Was A Difficult Woman

This is a factual account of Marie Curie’s life, nothing more, nothing less.  That’s all it means.  Anybody who tells you any different is lying and trying to start something.
 

 

Marie Curie Was A Difficult Woman

People love Marie Curie.  People lose their ever-lovin’ minds over how much they love Marie Curie.  People even believe that she is entitled to attend social events with her colleagues without being sexually harassed and assaulted.  Damn, I wish people believed that about me.  Turns out you only have to get two Nobel Prizes to claim that kind of privilege, so at least there’s a clear target.  Yes, Marie Curie is the Joan of Arc of Science.  And just like with good ol’ Joan, I believe that the people who love her are split into two camps: those who wish she was alive now and those who are kind of glad she’s dead so that they don’t have to deal with her.  This is muddled not only by the likelihood of overlap between the two groups, but also by assumptions that people are squarely in one group when they are actually in the other.  And also, just like with Joan, there’s that pesky group of people who actually killed her, but they’re too dead for us to care about.

I know a lot about Marie Curie.  The trouble is that I don’t know if any of it is true.  I’m not a Historian, I’m just the sorry old SOB who’s been walking in her muddy bloody tracks for twenty-five years.  I also have a pretty vivid imagination because I didn’t go to graduate school in the Humanities which is specifically designed to beat that out of you.  Unlike me, Historians spend years in Special Collections libraries and are under a lot of pressure to excavate facts that prove the stories people tell are not accurate and that things actually happened another way entirely.  Quite frankly, I’m amazed that they’ve stayed in business this long with a shtick like that, but you should check the comments below for relevant information.  Believe the ones that confirm what I say and take the others with a big grain of salt.  I’ve never trusted people who don’t believe I’m right about everything, and you shouldn’t either.

I remember my mother telling me stories about the drafty garret that Marie lived in when she first attended the University of Paris.  She told about bitterly cold nights when, after an impoverished Marie had covered herself in every stitch of cloth and newspaper that she owned or had scavenged, she took a chair and laid it upon herself, hoping somehow that the weight of it would make her feel warmer.  As I got older this story evolved from a quit-cher-bitchin fable into a study-or-else one and so I’ve progressed through life with a bony shivering Marie following me about like a hungry stray.  Some of the story probably goes back to my mother having grown up painfully poor in Minnesota and the frostbite scars on her nose.  Incidentally, the fact that stories of Marie Curie were used to guilt us into wearing our scarves probably explains a lot about my family.  I’ll tell you about our slide-ruler swordfights sometime.

Marie had a helluva two-body problem just like a lot of us do now and her university didn’t have any clear policy on it just like ours still don’t.  In fact, she wasn’t even employed by the university: her husband was.  She did get his job after he died, but that was after she had been awarded two Nobel Prizes so they kind of had to.  This makes my senior colleague right when he told me that it’s easier to get tenure nowadays.  His timing was unfortunate, it being the day after I got tenure, but I really can’t disagree based on data.  Unlike me, Marie didn’t have her own lab and so she did all her experiments in a hallway.  I remember something about the roof leaking on her stuff.  Because it wasn’t secure, she walked around with the most valuable thing she had – radium – in her pocket to keep it safe.  When she died and they cut her open, the tumors spilled out of her abdomen like a birthday piñata.  Maybe the radium that had pressed against her for years had something to do with that, but it’s kind of late to be pointing fingers.  After all, once she was famous every other damn place in the world the university had a big ceremony to honor her and there was likely free food.  And it was probably French food, too.  During her thank-you speech she got up and said, “I could have accomplished twice as much in half of the time if I’d had the proper facilities.”  That’s French for “F*ck You, Losers!”

Marie wrote lots and lots of letters to her daughters because they didn’t have Skype back then.  I’ve seen reproductions of this correspondence.  The letters are filled with chit-chat interspersed with the derivation of various theorems from first principles.  I don’t know if Marie was trying to lecture them into her world or desperately trying to fit herself into theirs, but I do know that being someone’s mother means that you do both constantly.  My own mother and I are two women who can’t stand being in the same room together but would kill without compunction or remorse anything that threatened the other.  It doesn’t make any more sense to me than the French chit-chat and the equations (me being an experimentalist and all) within Marie’s letters to her daughters, but I accept the validity of all three.  Whenever I think of Marie I automatically wonder what she would think of me.  I wonder if she would be proud of me or even like me at all.  Then I look at myself in the mirror and conclude definitely not.  I vow to get up an hour earlier the next morning, work harder, and finally make something that wouldn’t disgust her.  Thank God I have Marie to wonder about because I am too terrified to wonder about my own mother.  It feels safer to cry over poor old Marie and her womb full of tumors than to visualize myself as a parasitic blob within someone else’s.  A greedy growth to be cut out bleeding and raw and laid naked to a world bent on testing its viability over and over again.

Kindred as circumstances have rendered us, what woman actually knows the recesses of another woman’s heart?  We’ll never really know the important things about Marie: what she snickered about secretly to herself, what she silently yearned for and if she ever painted her nails.  Really I don’t know if any of what I know about Marie is true.  I suspect that some of it is.  Actually, I am convinced that all of it is.  I mean, it has to be.  Why would I make up a bunch of stuff to form a precise narrative projecting all of the resentment and ambivalence that I feel towards academia and my family of origin upon a female scientist that everyone loves, including me?  My conscious mind doesn’t like the idea and so I’m digging in on this one.  If you’re really curious about Marie you should read one or more of her many scholarly biographies, if only because the authors of those took longer than three hours during the middle of one night to write them.  Nonetheless, I will be shocked to hear anyone claim that Marie Curie was not a Difficult Woman.  And you should never envy Difficult Women.  They have Difficult lives and are Difficult to be around.  They might have a lot of friends online, for example, but they tend to utterly exhaust the real people that they know.  This inevitably becomes a Difficult thing that leads to many more Difficulties.  Yes indeed, Difficult Women generally say too much, want too much, and die too young.  They do not live forever, but once in a while, they change Science or Politics so thoroughly that their memory does.  En masse we neuter their ghosts and worship what’s left.  But my mother and I will always like the Difficult version better.

 

 

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on

In 2008 several animals in poor condition were discovered when a farm in western Pennsylvania went into foreclosure.  My dog was one of those animals.  A charity called Chesapeake Bay Retriever Relief and Rescue nursed her back to health and then gave her to me in 2009.  I wrote this about her.

 

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on.

 

I don’t know why I am so cold. The sun is finally shining but I am still shivering. It seems harder to move today.

I don’t know why I hurt so badly. Everything aches, and no matter how much I lick, it doesn’t seem to help. I don’t know what to do about the hurt.

I don’t know why there’s nothing to eat. My mind is racing trying to locate the smell of something to eat. I don’t know why I can’t find anything.

I don’t know why I can’t find the people I need. Somehow I know people are the answer. I need to be where they are, but where are they and who are they? I am cold, I am hurting and I am hungry. But it is the searching that exhausts me. I will keep searching as long as my ragged body will let me.

A woman looks at me. I go near. I will go with her if she lets me. Maybe she is the answer. I don’t know what’s going on.

Now I am with people. I don’t know them, but they don’t sound angry like the others. I will show them that I am soft, like them. I will go with them.

Now I am in a strange place and I don’t know what’s going on. They are hurting me but their voices are slow and soft and they hold me. There are other hurting dogs here and I smell blood and pee. But no one is angry. I will let them hurt me.

Now I am inside with people and other dogs. I don’t know any of them. From their smells I can see that these dogs eat good things. They are soft and they do not shiver or hurt. I will be with them. We are all waiting for something, but I don’t know what it is.

I am a dog, and I don’t know what’s going on. But I know who I am.

I am the descendent of the first wolf whose curiosity was stronger than her fear. I puzzled over those funny animals who sat near fire, slept, rose the next day and moved on. I dared to follow at a distance and learn their patterns, until the bizarre noises and smells became familiar.

I am the one who dared to creep forward and accept a bone from your hand. I saw you show your teeth then, but you made your affectionate noise, the one you make toward your own pack when you are happy. In time I learned to imitate you.

I realized that your babies, though furless and helpless, were not prey. Because they are sacred to you they became precious to me.

I learned to help. I stayed back with the old ones and the babies and raised my voice when anything came near. I helped secure our meat, then stepped back and trusted that you would hand me a bone later, as you did that first night by the fire.

I let you scoop up my darling puppy and carry her to your friend, who showed his teeth and walked her away. I trusted your world in its ability to keep her whole and sound, to tend her wounds and let her near the fire.

I am a dog, and I know who I am. I am the wolf who dared to cast my lot with yours. And because of this I know what to do. I sniff your hand and kiss it, and look up.

 
 
Epilogue: Our “Coco” is now the #2 amateur long-jump retriever in the state of Hawaii (title in 2010).  If you give to an animal charity this holiday season, please consider CBRR&R.

Howta maked cheezy noms

Like most laboratory chemists I can cook like a motherf*cker when I want to, which is about as often as a blue goddam moon.  You see the trouble is, it’s not like in the lab where I sometimes get something I can publish at the end.  Well, the below is apparently an exception, lucky for you.  Here’s my LOL-recipe for making your own cheese.

 

Ferst-thing ur going store to buyz 1 gallun hole milk. gotta be hole. then you boil it up in a big big kettel slow jus stan their stirrin an stirrin takes long

while yer attit makes sumone else beet toogethers a quarter buttrmilk wif 2 eggz then when yer boilin stir in buttrmilk-n-eggz SLOW I SAID SLOW dont ruin it now by bein too inpatient

now ull see the miricle kurds come up the rest of likwid is all klear thats Ceiling Cat doin that behold it for awile like evan an our or too but turn off heet first take pikshurs an stuff make ur FB status “I CAN HAZ CHEEZY NOMS” watch utubes

stir in 1 teesppon sugar and 2 teesppons salt the clear iz called “WAY” did u buy cheezcloffs? U hafta. Dont try n use nuffin else. ull jes maka messup. put cheezcloffs alla round a strainer, dubble layer pore kurds n way thru sum interwebz sites sez SAVE THE WAY FEED IT TO YOUR DOG PUT IT ON YOUR PLANTS DRINK IT ITS FULL OF VITAMINS

dont jes dont

let kurds drain 1 hour poke a lotta little wholes in bottum of a pie tin or so put cheezcloffs alla round in it, dubble layer spoon in kurds cover with cheezcloffs

now heers the trickzy put somefin WEIGHS A LOT on it and put whole thing in fridge it will press & drain 1 day

IS DONE! turn out of pie tin onto plate will be verry wite BUY A LOTTA BRED N KRAXERS why? kidz wont nom spowse will nom sum company will impress but notsomuch nom

u must nom wont keep like a reel cheez you only got about tree dayz

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I made this cheese. Cheese!

 

My 4-page Comic Book on “Twelve ways to save time at your faculty job”

Trying to save time at your job?  Reading the internet is a great way to start!

While you’re at it, why not Download this 4-page comic book (it’s a 2.3 Mb pdf file)?

Fire up your printer!  I bought all the vapidly cheery photographs from Dreamstime, so it’s all above-board.

And why the hell not read my other comic book as long as you’re here?

About the images: Yes, they are waxy-looking white people, groomed up all fakey and buffed to a high-gloss.  I don’t look like that and neither do you.  Neither do they most of the time.  I get that.

Ode to Carl Sagan

Ok, I was writing with these two Real Writers with my chest all puffed up like “I’ve Arrived, biotch!” and then the guy one says something about how he adored/worshipped Carl Sagan as a child.  AND THEN I HAZ A SAD.  An inexplicable SAD.  “Oh for Chrissakes, what’s the matter with you now?” my Inner Mother inquired compassionately.  So I thought about it.  And I wrote this poem.
 

Ode to Carl Sagan (0.7 pdf file)