I have somehow managed to retain some semblance of a utopian view of science.
I don’t mean to say that I’m blind to its flaws or that I’m not at all cynical about it. But I think I’m less cynical (or maybe just blinder) than the average scientist: I still believe in the scientific method as the best means we have to understand our universe, and in science as one of humankind’s most worthwhile endeavours.
Don’t ask me how – it’s a miracle I’d rather not probe too deeply lest it collapse under scrutiny.
Stronger than anything, though, is my sense that Science People are My People.
I first felt this sense of being “home” when I met my fellow genetics students at the age of 18. I had a few friends in high school who’d chosen science A levels (a very few – there were five of us taking chemistry and seven taking biology (two of us taking both), from an intake of 180. There were also seven students taking physics, but I wasn’t one of them because I chose maths instead), but in most cases it was as a means to an end for a particular career (optometry, speech therapy, engineering, sports science) rather than because of any particular love of pure science for its own sake. But when I started my undergrad training, I suddenly found myself among people just like me for the first time ever – people who would breathe “cool!” to their friend during a lecture on virology or molecular evolution, people who not only didn’t think it was strange when I confessed that I wanted to do a PhD but rather said “oh, yeah, me too!”.
My feeling of having found my “tribe” only intensified as my training continued. I loved the atmosphere of working in a lab, of discussing science on coffee and lunch breaks. Less tangible – but more important – was my enjoyment at finding myself surrounded by people with an above average intelligence, sense of curiosity, and aptitude for logical thinking. Yes there were a few personality clashes, but my workplace encounters with genuine bona fide closed-mind dumbasses were (and remain) vanishingly rare.
The exceptions therefore come as a bit of a shock.
The first example (and the inspiration for this post) was brought to mind last night, the first night this year that I’ve left work at my usual time and noticed that the sky wasn’t completely dark; a long stretch of rainy days had obscured the progress we’d been making recently, suddenly revealing a much later sunset when the clouds finally cleared. This is one of my favourite moments of every year, even though Vancouver’s latitude of 49 degrees North (just marginally north of Paris) grants me much more winter light than Glasgow (55 degrees North) ever did.
And it was to Glasgow that my memory returned… specifically a lab lunch outing in the middle of winter, at which assorted colleagues were moaning about how horribly dark it was and how it wasn’t fair that those bastards south of the border got more light than us.
“I think it’s totally worth it to have longer days in the summer, though”, quoth I. “I mean, I wouldn’t want to go outside in this weather even if it was light, but in the summer I love having more time outside than when I lived in England”.
Blank faces all around.
“No, we get less light here”, explained one of the techs.
“Yeah – in the winter. We get more in the summer”.
More blank faces.
The whole table was listening in at this point, and it transpired that no-one else at that very well educated table of Brits, Germans and Greeks, from PI down to the newest student, knew this fact that I’d almost thought was too obvious to mention. I had to explain in excruciating detail about the poles and the rotation of the earth and the fact that the closer you are to a pole the more extremes of dark and light you experience, with the Arctic and Antarctic circles experiencing days and weeks of unbroken light in the summer and dark in the winter, with locations along the equator having essentially no variation in sunrise and sunset times… and it was news to everyone there.
“Were you originally thinking of getting into astronomy, or something, before you chose genetics?”, asked one of the postdocs once I’d finished.
“Um, no… I thought it was one of those things everyone knows”.
But the consensus was that there was no point learning and remembering that kind of information unless you were “really into” astronomy. So much for scientists’ unbridled curiosity about the world.
The second example was another seemingly minor incident that for some reason continues to bother me, and stems from my last job here in Vancouver.
I arrived at work at roughly the same time every day and brought my bike in through the back door, where the bike storage room was located. I tended to run into the same people over and over again, including one of the R&D scientists who seemed to be on roughly the same schedule. We didn’t work together directly, but it was a small enough company that everyone knew who everyone else was, at least by face if not name, even if they were on completely different projects in different departments. I would therefore always say hello – but she never, ever replied or indeed acknowledged my presence beyond an occasional scowl. (This may possibly have biased me against her and her other actions, because exceptions to bike room buddy friendliness are few and far between. In fact I think she was just one of two or three I’ve encountered in 14 years of cycling to work).
More often than not, I’d encounter this person while she was attempting to stretch her keycard to within range of the card reader by the door. At the time (i.e. before we had to start wearing photo ID cards around our necks AT ALL TIMES OR ELSE due to some kind of US regulation for Canadian companies who register to fast-track shipments through the border), most of us kept our cards on one of those wire reel clips that fit over a pocket or belt loop – or, indeed, a bike pannier strap. This scientist and I had very similar styles of panniers, both used two of them every day, and both chose to fasten our card clip to a strap on one pannier for the ride to work. But while I kept my cards clipped to my left hand side pannier, to match the position of the card reader to the left of the door, this other person put her cards on her right hand side pannier.
And then had to struggle to make the wire stretch over her body and bike so the card could activate the reader, all without letting the bike fall over.
So, several times a week I would ride up; spot her trying to maneuver herself, her card and her bike into position without falling over; say hello; get no response; activate the card reader using my own card, conveniently positioned on the correct side of the bike; hold the door open for her after I went through; get no word of thanks.
She kept clipping her cards onto the right hand side pannier, despite clear weekly demonstrations of the superiority of my method. Every time. For MONTHS, until I suddenly stopped seeing her at the back door.
Is that any way for a scientist to behave, I ask you?! If I’d worked on her projects, I do believe I’d have made a point of dedicating extra time and effort to a very close scrutiny of her methods and results!
As I said, this kind of incident is mercifully rare, and most Science People remain well and truly My People. But the exceptions really do jar – and apparently I remember them for years. That may well say more about me than anything else… or maybe an above average tendency for being judgmental is just another characteristic of My People!
What do you think, peeps?