Upon Losing Spock Last Friday

I remember the first time that Spock died. It was 1982 and I was a teenager. My brothers and I gasped as his coffin was shot into orbit during the final scene of The Wrath of Khan. Like most fans, we left the movie theater in shock, but also incredulous. They wouldn’t kill off Spock, would they? The fact that director Nicholas Meyer even dared to experiment with such an idea felt like a dangerous betrayal. As fans, we endured two full years of wondering whether the loss would stick.

Leonard Nimoy knew us well. It was he who directed the sequel to the above, released in 1984: one-hundred and five full minutes of The Search for Spock. Kirk and the rest of his crew, feeling as we did, stole the Enterprise from spacedock and risked everything to bring Spock back to us. They succeeded, we all forgave Paramount, and Spock was with us on the big screen for twenty-eight more years. No, the all-powerful Hollywood with its million-dollar special effects couldn’t kill off Spock. Indeed, in the end it was nothing less than God himself that could take Spock away from us.

Spock was such a popular character that Star Trek waited twenty-six years and 354 episodes before it tried to put another Vulcan on the bridge. In 1995, we met Tuvok (Captain Janeway’s head security officer) and eventually came to love him, though we never regarded him with quite the reverence in which we held Spock. And after all, even hard-core Trekkies like me will acknowledge reluctantly that the show was, in fact, fictional. Just like with The Brady Bunch and Gilligan’s Island and I Love Lucy and almost everything else on television in the 1960s, we knew that the Enterprise and her crew weren’t real. But there was something about Star Trek that seemed so tantalizingly possible that it became to us a vision of the world that we wanted.

Spock is the scientist that I thought I would become. Maybe I wouldn’t look like the rest of the team, or even act like them, but everyone would still believe my solutions. Maybe I didn’t have big muscles and couldn’t fight anyway, but I would still get to go along on every mission, and once in a while it would be me who would save the day. This is not what I became. Spock is also the scientist that I thought I would meet. Someone who would listen more than talk, and be detached and objective. Someone who could set aside ego and emotion in order to focus more clearly on Why. A teacher or colleague who wanted to touch me, but only to transfer information back and forth from my mind. This is not who I met. Instead, I think that Spock’s world is closer to the version of Science that I am still hoping to create. A world where we work with engineers and communicators and doctors and leaders and their security forces not as consultants, but as companions – valued, trusted, forgiven and understood. But most importantly, a world of Science with a place right up front for those who are different. I finally understand why Star Trek was set in 2260 and not any nearer.

Who hasn’t wanted to reach into the grave and pull someone back? To make them understand the full magnitude of how they were loved, and to beg for their blessing one last time? A whole generation of scientists is grieving today, but mostly we will say nothing. We will go to our microscopes, to our telescopes, to our computers and laboratories while nursing a quiet ache. We will mostly not cry. But as Tuvok the Vulcan once said, “Do not mistake composure for ease.” Condole with us anyway. We are realizing that our adolescent adoration of Spock never left us because it was our very first experiment in loving ourselves.

Goodbye Spock. Even a Vulcan who lives for hundreds of years can die too young. Goodbye Leonard Nimoy. I daresay you were loved far more than you knew.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

I’ve reviewed a lot of proposals lately and it has made me cranky, so here I am trying to teach the Hungry Man how to Fish and thus Eat for a Lifetime. I’ll be blunt: Have you been getting evaluations of “good” on your grant proposals? If yes, then you really need this information.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

1. Do the Math.  You’ve already done the budget, right? Because budgeting work comes apart in your hands like dry f*cking cornbread, creating more and more crummy little tasks as you handle it until suddenly it’s done and you’re not totally sure what happened, but you do have an excel file with a grand total figure somewhere near the bottom. Write this big fat number on the back of your hand with a Sharpie and stare at it for a few days. You know what? That number represents a crapton of money by anyone’s standards. Divide that number by ten, or even a hundred. Now ask yourself, “What would it take to convince me to give someone that much of my money?” Uh-huh, I thought so. Listen: your proposal has to be well-nigh perfect to even have a chance of being discussed, let alone funded. Yes, proposal writing is the hardest part of the job, simply because there’s so much at stake for all parties concerned.  So get ready cause this is going to be slightly less fun than a goddam root canal.

2. Be Specific.  I don’t know about you, but before I give my money away, I want to be fully confident that the person I am giving it to has both a clue about what they’re doing and a plan for how to get there. Paragraphs explaining how Climate Change is Real or why Cancer is Bad are not helpful to me; if I am even considering giving you tens of thousands of dollars to study something then I probably believe it’s important even more than you do. What I want are the specifics of how you are going to get the question answered. I want to evaluate the details of your approach. You need to convince me that you’ve thought hard about it, considered your options, and visualized what success looks like from start to finish.

Let’s start with the Title. Here’s a sucky Title for a proposal:

“Characterization of Rat Vomit”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Okay how about ‘rat vomit is gross?’ There, I just characterized it. Whoop-de-doo.

Here’s a better Title:

“Identification of Rare Amino Acids within Rat Vomit using Barfatron Energy Spectra”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Golly, I didn’t know the Barfatron could do amino acids. Let’s see what the kids are up to in this one.

Note that the better Title states not only what you want to figure out, but how you propose to do it. Now I’m going to read your proposal in order to find out how many rats, how much puke, which amino acids and why those, how you correct for bile and saliva contamination, etc., etc. Ironically, we both know damn well that you won’t end up following this exact course of action, best-laid-plans and all, but proving to me that you can form a realistic plan is absolutely key.

3. Be Quantitative.  After you write anything, go back and replace all qualitative statements with quantitative ones. General Rule for All Scientific Writing: If it is worth taking up the space to say it, then it is worth saying precisely. Knowing and showing the numbers is basically the only thing that separates a Scientist from a Guy Selling Vitamins At The Mall. Both callings have their place, I suppose, but government agencies are better oriented towards funding the former.

Example time! Here’s a sucky Methods sentence:

“We will collect vomit from each rat in sufficient volume for analysis.”

Here’s a better version:

“Once a week during Year 2, a cohort of one hundred post-menopausal female rats will be monitored for pallor changes upon the administration of 150 mL of Woolworth’s ipecac solution. All esophageal expulsions produced during the twenty-four hours following the initialization of regurgitation will be collected within sterile 1L Lufthansa sick bags fastened to subjects’ ears using STAPLES’ staplers and staples.”

4. Tell Me Why Oh Why.  While your proposal’s Introduction has to be mighty short, it must argue in stringent terms that academia as we know it will come to a grinding halt unless someone does the work you propose. Tell about how you examined the shit out of the literature only to become aware of a gaping hole in the current state of knowledge even as it dawned on you that you – and really only you — are perfectly set up to rectify this serious collective intellectual oversight.

Get it? Here’s a sucky Introduction sentence:

“Numerous studies have characterized the inorganic acids in rat vomit [refs. 1-8], but to our knowledge, no work has been performed to identify rare amino acids.”

Here’s a better version:

“The chemistry of rat vomit remains the gold standard for diagnosis of tummy health, a measure of wellness that can be usefully extrapolated to every organism that has ever lived [ref. 1]. My survey of the literature revealed that amino acid concentrations seldom exceeded 99.9 kg/ml in both pre- and post-menopausal rat vomit [refs. 2-9]. These studies, though current, did not incorporate the contribution of rare amino acids, as their detection has only been made possible by recent advances in Barfatron technology. My previous work has demonstrated exhaustively within other contexts how rare amino acids actually control the whole damn world [refs. 10-12]. Here I propose to definitively quantify the contribution of rare amino acids to rat vomit across menopausal status, thus making possible a new definition of rat nausea, integrated across an energy spectrum ranging from gamma to radio waves.”

5. Consider The Funder’s Objectives.  Newsflash: Funding agencies don’t give away money just to experience the Rockwellian charm of playing Santa Klaus. The agencies, as well as those in their service, are actually trying to accomplish something. To get funding, you not only have to convince reviewers that you’re competent, you must also convince the agencies that you represent the wisest possible investment towards meeting their objectives. The only way to get a clear idea of what the program’s objectives are is to call or visit the Program Manager and ask her (or him, I guess) directly. She’ll start out by saying, “It’s simple: We want to fund the best science,” but keep her talking and you’ll eventually hear things like, “Wow, I’ve heard a lot of buzz over rare amino acids, tell me more,” or perhaps, “Yeah, but so much of the Barfatron work that we funded in the 1990s proved to be a dead-end.” These conversations are invaluable when you are deciding which grants to apply for. Writing a fundable proposal is a huge task, you can’t just shot-gun towards every solicitation you see, it just ain’t gonna work. You need to get feedback about your idea’s fit before you start, and that’s where talking to the Program Manager comes in.

6. Write it Well.  Okay, now you have to make all that super specific arcane shit interesting to read. The better written it is, the more of the proposal the reviewer will actually read. More reading equals more chance at gaining an informed review and useful suggestions. Beware of joining multiple PI grants where each “writes her/his own section” and then someone stacks it into a 15-page science Jenga: such piles usually collapse into rejectionland before they even hit the panel. It’s simply inescapable that near to the deadline, one of the PIs has to take the reigns for at least three days and read the whole thing out loud a few times to make sure that it flows well and makes sense. And they must also format it beautifully, with at least one dazzling figure or colorful illustration per page – which looks a lot better than any whole page of monolithic black text. Sound like too much work? Then let’s do some more math! Take the grand total dollar figure and divide it by 15 pages, and guess what, that’s how much money each page of your writing thinks it deserves. Ask your journalist friends how much they get paid per page. Upshot: proposal writing has to be the best writing of your career.

7. Gird Your Loins.  Steel yourself for a long haul, because most grants will have to go around at least two times. It’s rather like the revision process with a manuscript in that it’s quite rare when something gets accepted without any revisions. Odds are that your reviewers are going to have expertise very close to your own and the funding agency is counting on them to help you tweak your proposal into a plan with the maximum likelihood to succeed. As with papers, the objective is not to get past the reviewers, it is to learn something from them. The best way to show that you’ve done this is to include an explicit boxed paragraph before the Introduction stating how any revised proposal has been changed due to input gained during the previous cycle. Mayhaps thusly:

“Within the previous version of this proposal, Panelist #1 objected strongly to our request for one large yacht within which to sail rats back and forth between Oxnard and Catalina Island as a method for triggering seasickness prior to actual vomit collection. In this version, we have reduced costs drastically by substituting four semesters of support for one RA who will spend 10 hrs/wk sharply kicking each rat in the solar plexus until a glassy-eyed retching posture is achieved, in keeping with the suggestion of Panelist #2 that we ‘hit the little f*ckers until they blow chunks’.”

8. Don’t Lose Hope.  Buck up because it’s probably going to be okay. If you can get just one decent-sized grant before you go up for tenure, that may be enough; it sure will be if I’m reviewing your file. If you can get into the habit of writing two good grant proposals each year, you’ll improve rapidly with each cycle and likely get there in time. I’ll say it again: always talk to the Program Manager before writing, tell her your idea and pour your heart out. And remember that even though you’re an expert, you still have an awful lot to learn.

Guess what I’m psychic! Lots of people are going to say that the above advice is sort of good but also sort of wrong and that I should have instead specified x, y and z. The people who say that should go write their own blog posts and specify x, y and z. Then they should tweet me so that I can read & RT them.

And just in case someone is still reading, I feel moved to gripe about how I really, really hate the words “Characterization” and “Implications” to the point that I wish that they had never been invented by the Greeks or Lats or whatever, both being so vague as to be utterly useless. I don’t care how you ‘characterize’ something, I want to know what you measured. I don’t care what you think the ‘implications’ are, I want to know what you claim this means. For cripes sake, quit dancing around and say something, so I can either agree or disagree with you and we can both move on with our lives.

Fortunately for the world at large, I have lots more unsolicited advice to give out, such as what you should do after you get tenurewhether or not to have a baby and how to make cheese.  You also can’t comment on this page and here’s why.

 

return to unsolicited advice

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My 2-page Comic Book on “The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia”

Here’s some deep wisdom for ya!

My 2-page comic book on The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia (1.5 Mb)

Can you print it? Yes you can! I bought all the photos from Dreamstime with my own allowance money, fair and square.

And why the hell not read all my other comic books?

About the images: I usually feature waxy-looking photos of women in my comics, but this time I sprung the extra buck for men. Switchin’ it up! 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter.  “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?”  I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available.  Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs. 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Twitter is like a river.  It’s a river of information flowing by.  Some of the information is important.  Some of it isn’t.  Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage.  It can be all of these things at the same time.  Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in.  They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony.  Once in a great while I make a small splash.  Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.

“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply.  “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me.  Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion.  The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most).  Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was.  This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter.  It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown.  Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be.  No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.

Twitter is useful for five things:

1.  Meeting people.  You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday.  People meet their soulmates on Twitter.  They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between.  Twitter is great for combatting isolation.  Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there.  Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf.  This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.

2.  Saying something.  If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years.  What do you want to say?  What do you need to say?  Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial.  Especially if it is controversial.  And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable.  Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL and on Twitter.  A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank.  You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge.  So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going.  Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing.  And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.

3.  Expressing rage.  Some users really go in big for this option.  If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source.  Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage.  I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted.  Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm.  Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long.  This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet.  Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness.  Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.

4.  Setting an example.  One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules.  No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that.  I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter.  First take the time to explore your values.  What kind of person do you believe you are?  What kind of person do you want to be?  Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you.  It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal.  It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here.  You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed.  Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone?  Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves?  Deliniate your personal threshhold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly.  Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know.  What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict?  What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?

5.  Experimenting with your identity.  You can claim any identity you want on Twitter.  Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you.  Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion.  What do you really think?  What do you really care about?  It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions outloud.  You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities.  There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next.  Many smart journalists have twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine.  Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is.  A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”

So there’s five reasons for ya.  Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything?  Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting?  Exactly.  So go ahead and set up a Twitter account!  Hell, set up two or three or six.  Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen.  Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not.  Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy.   On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you.  But you are the one who chooses what you say back.

Do you like being told what to do by people who think they know everything?  If so you’re in the right place!  Here’s my advice on how to Get A Faculty Job, How to Save Time Your Faculty Job once you get it, and what to do After You Get Tenure.

How I Fell In Love with Becky Sharp

I always wanted to be a writer, but I became a scientist instead because it is a lot easier.  Here’s the story of exactly how I made that choice.  I was a sophomore in college at the University of Minnesota and it was, well, the Eighties.  I told this story once when I was on a panel meant to explain to undergrads how their professors had chosen their majors.  I was never invited back.
 

While growing up in America you are taught that everything worth reading was written in England a long time ago.  I developed the expectation that after I’d spent four years in college exploring just how incredibly goddam true that was, I could then be a Writer, having absorbed all that Great Writing and understanding the Symbolism and Context, et cetera.  So I became what used to be called an “English Major” using this thing called a “scholarship” that used to exist.  I gave it a try — I really did — but it still didn’t work out the way I expected it to.  Here’s what happened.

The lectures for my English classes were downright bizarre.  It became clear to me early on that the students who showed up having even scanned the assigned texts comprised a pale minority, and that we weren’t meant to criticize or question what everyone had decided fifty years ago was a Great Work.  This made for predictable and tedious discussion sections perversely enforced on behalf of some cosmic curricular calendar.

We read Bram Stoker’s Dracula which contains a “Memorandum Left by Lucy Westenra” describing how a wolf jumped on Lucy and her mother causing the latter to die instantly of fright, while the former hung on bravely for a number of pages, but ultimately also proved mortally wounded by the aforementioned canine barbarity.  The scene affected me deeply in that I thought it utterly asinine, and during class I said so and furthermore postulated that Stoker had either never met a big dog or a full-grown woman, nor possibly both.  The professor countered with a short speech describing the widespread incidence of tuberculosis throughout the eighteen-hundreds.  I pushed my luck by describing how the bacteria guilty of causing TB, for all their sins, couldn’t rationally be accused of preferring female lungs over male ones, and that in Stoker’s follow-up short story Dracula’s Guest a wolf actually gets into the bed of an unnamed Englishman while he is sleeping and then French kisses him for a while, after which the Englishman goes on with his life not more worse for wear.  My soliloquy left me energized but my professor appeared depleted and my classmates only looked bored.

“Women in those days couldn’t breathe properly,” she explained patiently, and I marveled that she was serious.  “They were constricted by corsets,” she elaborated.

“Not all of them,” I contradicted, “The women in my family would have knocked that thing cold with a cast-iron skillet, drug it into the yard, poured lard on it and set it on fire to keep other wolves from getting ideas.”

“I think you are missing the point of the story,” she said in the tone that teachers employ when they’ve deemed it time for you to shut up, “This is an ancillary scene around a subordinate character.”

I slumped down in my chair and seethed for a moment, then looked around me and began to appreciate the comedy of the situation.  Maybe Victorian literature should just be left alone, I reasoned: if the only student who had actually read the book had also missed its point then even Bram Stoker and Henry James put together probably couldn’t save my woeful generation.  I waxed philosophical and reflected upon how the words “ancillary” and “subordinate” effectively summed up ninety-nine-point-nine-nine percent of the female characters depicted on paper during the nineteenth century.  I had enrolled in a class named “Great Novels of the Victorian Era” figuring that I’d encounter at least one book that I’d want to read twice.  I learned that there must be something wrong with me because I dutifully read and re-read the same passages that had charmed and inspired generations of intellectuals and was plagued by what I saw as their repeated demonstrations of insufferable insipidity.

Of all the stupid characters, the female ones were the stupidest, and damned if it wasn’t female authors that had cooked up the worst ones.  The four Little Women and their four hundred Little Problems didn’t much move me and I suspected it was because I didn’t really care which one ended up genetically replicating Laurie throughout her reproductive years, except that it seemed the only way for any of us to escape the tedious sermons that Reverend Marmee dispatched with chapteric frequency.  These characters can’t even die assertively, I thought when I finally got to page 456, smiled through my tears, and thanked God that Beth was dead at last.  All those acerbically witty Jane Austen characters never got around to discussing anything important because their life stories ended on the same day that they got engaged.  I even had to admit that the Dickens characters who had burrowed like chiggers into my heart were obviously too good to be anywhere near real, and I was aghast at his heroines who didn’t start out virtuous but mysteriously evolved into their better selves upon extended exposure to matrimonial brutality.  Why the hell hadn’t the mother and sisters of these characters already in-lawed the asshole husbands into a shallow grave by the time he administered his tenth beating?  Where were the granddaughters of the Viking women warriors who brought down war on your head for looking at them wrong, and could be killed only by an epic battle after which they marched straight into hell and told the entire afterlife to f*ck off?  Where were the granddaughters of the Greek heroines who revenged themselves even by murdering innocent children when wronged, giving terrible shape to the infinite injustice that they presumed attended any harm to themselves?  Had every single one of their descendants died of tuberculosis on Old Vicky’s coronation day?

Catherine Linton née Earnshaw was attractive because she had so effectively harnessed her God-given talents towards sadism, but I was disappointed to find that she never made it off the farm and instead spent her best years stomping around the bogs and caterwauling into the darkness.  Her sister-by-another-mother Jane Eyre used her formidable strength to stagger down a moral high road only to win the prized pile-of-cinders heart of a secretive and mutilated old buzzard, the moral of that story being Be Careful What You Wish For.  About the time that I pompously declared the English language fundamentally inadequate to the description of true womanhood, I noted that Charlotte Brontë had dedicated Jane Eyre to William Makepeace Thackeray and decided to read Vanity Fair in order to see what the hubbub was about.

I was immediately enraptured by Rebecca Sharp: without friends, connections or money she went more places and saw more things than all the other characters in the book combined, while forced to rely on her wits alone.  Becky didn’t have any love for the world that didn’t love her, though she could heartily pretend it if her survival required.  This was the role model that I’d been searching for, I decided, and she signed on as an indifferent and shadowy travelling companion for the years ahead.  I was further convinced of my evaluation when searching the voluminous canon purported to interpret Vanity Fair turned up no authoritative analysis of Becky’s multidimensional character.  The back cover of my filthy and frayed Penguin Classics copy described Becky as “free-wheeling,” and thus came closer than anything else I could find.  I decided that Becky was different because she was the only one of all these characters that was truly free: free from definition by others and so free to define herself, her marginality furnished an accidental means towards liberation.  Perhaps if you transplanted a Visigoth princess into Modern history, stuffed her into a corset and a complex social code, what you got was Becky Sharp.

Becky’s life wasn’t easy, and it didn’t end particularly well, although I suspected that she didn’t give a shit what the reader thought.  Plenty of literary analysts stared down their post-Industrial noses and judged her as “amoral”, but it rang hollow to fault her for rejecting a career as The Little Matchstick Girl in favor of hanging out in Bath and Brussels bedizened in silk shantung.  Becky’s abject deficiency as a mother was not lost on me: she couldn’t take care of her son and she hadn’t really tried, and if this failure at all pained her, the reader sure hadn’t heard anything about it.  You might scan chapter after chapter curious to see whom Amelia would end up with, but you didn’t worry about Becky.  She could take care of herself.

Having discovered far more value in a book that wasn’t assigned than in all the books that had been, I tapered off of the English courses and commandeered my own literary education.  I filled the daytime void with science courses that liked me back even more than I liked them.  There my curiosity and questions fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold (chemistry), some sixtyfold (biology), and some thirtyfold (physics).  I was astounded to find that diligent combat against my lack of preparation during high-school made me a precious “B-plus” sheep that when found and returned to the fold, they verily rejoiceth more of than of the ninety and nine which had easily earned an “A”.  Ironically, it was science that regarded my ability to write correctly to be nothing short of a divine harbinger of success.

I wasn’t ready and I wasn’t special.  I knew damn well that I wasn’t smart enough to be a scientist, and I was certainly not noble enough to deserve to be one.  I was merely audacious enough to want Science, and the more I learned, the more I wanted.  I decided that like Becky, I would take something that wasn’t meant for me, and I’d never apologize for my theft.  Like her, I’d just have to make it up as I went along.

I also love Marie Curie.  Or at least I think I do.  You can read more about that here.

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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