Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba was attracted to science from an early age. One of my first memories – I might have been seven – was announcing to my mother, as we were sitting in the parking lot of our favorite corner store, “I’m going to be a research scientist.”
Today, I’m a research scientist. Gaudeamus igitur, eh? I mean, how many seven-year-old physicians and lawyers were truck drivers and file clerks when they turned 40? Rather more than became physicians and lawyers, I reckon.
“Be careful what you request in life”, the cliché goes. “You might get it.”
That seven-year-old research scientist also spent a lot of time in the woods. Alone. Picking berries, catching toads, sniffing flowers, looking for snakes and salamanders under rocks and old boards, and being annoyed (not to mention freaked out) when he got ants instead.
Because people scared me.
They still do.
Nature is predictable. It’s safe. The mayflowers would always bloom in May, unless it had been an early spring. It was a challenge to find them, and a delight to succeed. The black-colored blueberry bushes were always in a patch next to the Indian fern where the fire trail turned into the woods, and they would always have their berries in early August, unless the bushes were too far under the trees, in which case there would be no berries. The salamanders could only be found under boards that were damp but not rotten, and they would be gone by first frost.
People, especially kids my age but many adults too, were unpredictable, dangerous. It wasn’t because they didn’t want to go for walks in the woods to look for ring-necked snakes with me, though most of them didn’t. It was because, at any moment, without warning, they could transform from smiling companion to snarling monster, demanding to have things that could not be had (usually, that week’s fad toy) or demanding to do things that were forbidden, like running around yelling, or playing poker for money, or deciding that the greatest possible graduation gift is a hit of cocaine. Do as we want, they announced, or you’re mean, or chicken, or (worst of all) boring.
Mean, chicken, boring children tend to go off by themselves for walks in the woods to commune with the box turtles. When there still were box turtles.
Nature, I found, doesn’t try to manipulate you. It just is. Pay close enough attention, and you can discover what each part is and how it works within the system. Giving you information that no amount of bullying will make untrue.
And when I discovered that there was a whole group of people, the scientists who (the advertising brochures said) put their emotions aside to discuss, dispassionately, the workings of Nature, judging your interpretations of it, not on the eloquence of your oratory or the caliber of your handguns, but on your mastery of the data you present – well, I said “Sign me up, that’s for me!” …
This morning (31 August 2009), a colleague sent around a series of discussions published by leaders in the field of organismal evolution, one of the areas in which I work. It was immediately clear that there was nothing dispassionate in the tenor of these discussions, and, in some cases, there was noting resembling data either. It was a bunch of grown men calling each other mean, chicken, or boring. And meaning it, if one accepts the accompanying note that says “they hated each other”. I have seen enough towering egos in action, at scientific meetings and elsewhere, to accept it.
And with one of these discussions, there was another note, which acknowledged that one of these men was a “first-class debater” – so good at his trade that “he doesn’t lose”.
Now, I can relate to not wishing to lose. I do not do losing very well. People who mean well keep trying to remind me that baseball players who fail at the plate 70% of the time wind up in the Hall of Fame. I want 50%, or I will be angry with myself for not taking enough batting practice, not studying enough films of the pitchers, not ingesting the proper, um, vitamins. In scientific terms, I expect that the data I gather will be enough to win the argument, or I have failed to gather or interpret the data correctly. And if I fail, I feel that I have no recourse in honor or justice but to slink away in shame, never to bother anyone else ever again.
But, a debater who doesn’t lose? In the sciences? That person is not putting the data first, he is putting himself first. After all, a debater is judged, not by the data but by the presentation – in formal debate, the speaker may have to persuade an audience to support a position that he himself thinks is totally hellacious. If he pulls it off, he wins – in despite of even his own interpretation of the data.
If emotive persuasiveness is a hallmark of a leader in my field, then Adolph Hitler was the greatest scientist that ever lived.
Had I known that, after the years of study and financial sacrifice that allowed me to become a research scientist, I would still be surrounded by the kinds of bullies who scared me when I was a kid picking berries in the woods, bullies who set policy on the basis of coercion rather than on dispassionate analysis of hard data, I’d likely have become a truck driver or file clerk and saved myself a lot of trouble.
I might yet.
– O Ceallaigh
Copyright © 2009 Felloffatruck Publications. All wrongs deplored.
All opinions are mine as a private citizen.