Never gonna let you down?

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?

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in career, cycling, freakishness, idiocy, personal, science, whining. Bookmark the permalink.

48 Responses to Never gonna let you down?

  1. Alyssa says:

    As an astronomer, your first example infuriates me. This is why I spend half my time in classrooms explaining simple concepts that should be taught in grade 6.

    As a human being, your second example astounds me. Surely even a dog could learn something after seeing it repeated over and over again.

  2. Steve Caplan says:

    Science is the art of being judgmental…

  3. Liz says:

    For some strange reason, I’ve noticed that there is an huge amount of confusion among highly educated sciency folks when it comes to issues of longitute/latitude, timezones, and sunrises – maybe it is not actually so strange but speaks to the need for work like what Alyssa does!

    I had a recent conversation that began with the comment that there is only one timezone in China, and led to a half dozen people with science PhDs sitting there in confusion trying to figure out how the sunrise would differ from one end of the country to the other and how it would change in winter vs. summer. (This also exposed our ignorance of Chinese geography)

  4. bean-mom says:

    Ha ha! I am dying over here, Cath. Thanks for the laugh. Both examples you cite leave me boggled, but the second more angry than boggled…

    Yeah, I also thought it was common lay knowledge that the closer you get to the poles, the longer summer light is (and the shorter winter days are). “Land of the Midnight Sun”, anyone? My husband and I went on an Alaskan cruise for our honeymoon, and I remember the disorientation of seeing full daylight at 3 am (I think it was?)

    But it’s surprising the gaps in knowledge highly educated people can have. One of my favorite examples: one morning during his medical residency, my husband got a telephone call from a colleague. Afterward, he just kept shaking his head. His colleague, another medical doctor in her pediatric residency, had dropped her hairdryer into the toilet that morning. She unplugged it, but she was now staring at the thing, afraid to touch it because she thought the toilet water might be “electrified” and she was wondering when it would be safe to fish it out. She had called two other colleagues previous to my husband, and neither of them had a clue. Three people, all of whom had gotten through college and medical school.

  5. Catherine says:

    What Steve says is true 🙂
    I still remember learning about the seasons and latitudes at school – it was a “coool” moment. But perhaps it was also reinforced by driving 6 hours north every summer to visit my granny.
    As for the second, there are surely countless examples of “book-smart” people coming a cropper when it comes to common sense. But we also hate being wrong, and perhaps this one had noticed you breezing though every day but was just stubborn…

  6. Catherine says:

    P.S. I suppose this is the kind of thing that gets scientists a bad name as being elitist… closed-mind dumbass vs. intellectual snob. Luckily in this case it were scientists on the receiving end!

  7. chall says:

    haha, your first example made me giggle like crazy since I’m a Swede… ha, we would never ever live if we didn’t know after the first year that the winters mean “short sun span and day light” and summer means “a lot – some call it maddingly lots – of sun during a day and night” 😉 (difference lightly would be 6 hours of sun in winter, 22 in summer…)

    I’ve noticed it since I moved south, to somewhere about 35 latitude north compared to 59ish where my home was (is? we call is “homehome” as where you grew up and your parents might still reside). Anyhow, that’s a huge difference and most because the winter and summers here are less different in sun hours than I’m used to….

    As for the second example, I’m expressing my american right to keep silent 😉 ^^ I’m having way too much trouble right now with my intellectual pride/scientific pride/just about anything else … I’m trying to settle with “we’re all people, right!?!”

  8. rpg says:


    But these are just zingers, right? Outliers? Everybody else you know is insatiably curious?


  9. rpg says:

    (yes. You said ‘mercifully rare. But why do they insist on calling us ‘those bastards south of the border’?)

  10. Pika says:

    Great post.

    Your first example is mindboggling for me – I remember learning about Earth’s rotation, duration of day and so on in 5th grade geography! So how can anyone not be familiar with this? I’d be as flabbergasted as you.

    Second example, well, I think some people just can not see the obvious even if it’s under their noses all the time… 🙂

  11. Nico says:

    Being judgmental probably comes from being a cyclist and shaking your head every time you get close-passed only to catch up with the offender 100 yards further at the lights.

    In defence of the Weegies I don’t remember seeing much sunlight even in summer there, that cloud cover is stubborn. I preferred it in the English part of Scotland, Edinburgh. But as scientists they should have had theoretical knowledge of the existence of sunlight, at least. No excuses for the Germans and Greeks.

  12. Mike says:

    I suspect that the blank faces for day lengths might be more common amongst molecular/cellular type biologists than organismal biologists.

    However I remember learning about plants using p40 and p70 ratios to determine growing periods in high school biology and relating that to different strategies at different latitudes, so mol/cell types should have learnt that too. But then, maybe I’m just as geeky as you. I loved the spring equinox in Scotland and Finland, a celestial middle finger to all those further south who enjoyed less bone chilling winters.

    As for your 2nd example, I guess it’s like that “2% of the population are beautiful” ‘factoid’ – “2% of the population are just dicks”.

    In fact I think she was just one of two or three I’ve encountered in 14 years of cycling to work

    14 years? You should be nearly there by now…

  13. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I sometimes think when I post something “this’ll get AWESOME comments”. I’m not always right, but I was this time! (On the flip side, some amazing comment threads grow out of nondescript posts. I <3 blogging).

    Alyssa, I think even my friend's dog, who is not a very smart dog, would learn a new trick with that many repetitions!

    Steve, I thought it was the art of the quantification of doubt. Can we quantify judgmentalism? Maybe we could assign j values instead of p values.

    Liz, I love the Chinese time zone story! It sounds like it was almost time to get a globe and a flashlight…

    I do remember having rather involved discussions about how it's not just your latitude but also your longitude within your time zone that determines your sunset and sunrise time, but it’s only your latitude that determines how many hours of daylight you get each day… apparently some people are under the impression that the sunset and sunrise happen in 24 staggered increments one hour apart, rather than being on a continuum… I’m sure Alyssa has encountered this one too!

    Bean-Mom, that is too funny about the electrified toilet water! I would have been tempted to say that I was going to come over to help the person deal with it, invent a very intricate and complicated de-electrification ritual, film them doing it, and then put it on YouTube for general ridicule!

    I really want to get above the Arctic circle some time, preferably in summer to see the midnight sun but potentially also in winter to see the Northern lights. It’s on my bucket list, in fact!

    Catherine, yeah, anyone who gets through grad school will indeed have to be as stubborn as hell! And yeah, I remember noticing the difference in daylight even when driving only a couple of hours north to visit my Gran – it’s more noticeable at some times of year than others, but the difference is there if you’re paying attention!

    Chall, a 24 degree difference is HUGE! I think we might have talked before about how North American latitudes never seem to quite match up to European ones in the way we expect – e.g. Vancouver feels more northern than where I grew up because of its climate and landscape (i.e. mountains and pine forests, which I equate with Scotland), but is actually well south of it, and how New York matches up to Lisbon or somewhere like that.

    I’d expect Scots to have a similar appreciation of their long summer daylight hours to the Swedes, but maybe they’re just a wee bit too dour to see the upside like that and would rather dwell on the dark winters and how unfair they are compared to England’s (I love you, my Scottish friends! But c’mon. You know it’s true).

    RPG, I was paraphrasing. But not too much 🙂

    I should blog about my experiences of being English in Glasgow some time. I loved living in Glasgow and most people were lovely, but it was… interesting, at times. I never ran into any real trouble, unlike some of my male friends, but got drunkenly heckled at times and encountered some quite astonishing anti-English attitudes among the younger residents, even some who were colleagues. On the flip side, you do start to notice the English bias of the BBC and such a lot more when you live up there – and a LOT of English people say England/English when they mean Britain/British, and vice versa. I used to do it too, but luckily for my safety had had it drummed out of me by Scottish flatmates in Newcastle before I moved to Glasgow!

    There’s definitely a separate post there, I think! There are also many parallels to the Canada-US relationship, and from what I know of it the New Zealand-Australia relationship, too!

    Pika, I know, right?! It’s like someone not knowing that the moon goes around the earth, or something like that!

    Nico, that does give me excellent practice.

    The Weegies do know about the existence of sunshine, but seem to treat it as a fleeting miracle that must be instantaneously worshipped the second it reveals itself by stripping down and lying on the nearest patch of grass. Hence people abandoning their places of work on a sunny day and flocking to the park, where they rapidly go from blue to white to pink to red, then recover in the rain over the next few days. May was reliably decent, but no outdoor events could be planned more than a couple of days ahead at any other time of year. It set me up well for moving to Vancouver, where the winters are similar to Glasgow’s but the summers are usually glorious!

    Mike, I did study plant genetics and biochem at high school and undergrad, but don’t remember anything about p40:p70 ratios. I do remember about auxins (growth-promoting compounds) being broken down by sunlight, and that that’s what makes plants grow towards the light… and something about crown gall disease and, um, root nodules and nitrogen and stuff. And photosynthesis, of course.

    “I loved the spring equinox in Scotland and Finland, a celestial middle finger to all those further south who enjoyed less bone chilling winters.”

    Yes! That feeling of glee that it’s now our turn to have more light! I love that too, almost as much as I love the winter solstice!

    The problem with my 14 year cycling odyssey is that I got lost during the first week…

  14. Pika says:

    Off topic, but you can see northern light much further south than above Arctic circle, if there is a magnetic storm on-going. Check for predictions here:

    Here are some recent photos during the most recent storms (lots of those now, since we’re near the solar maximum) and if you browse these or older images, there are some submitted from Scotland and even from Ireland (and in extreme cases I’ve seen photos from the Alps and Texas!):

    And when that happens, you can go to these webcams to watch the aurora live:

    Yes, I am nerdy. 🙂

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      Cool, thanks for the links! Apparently the northern lights have been seen in Vancouver, but not while I’ve been living here, but I live in hope!

  15. John the Plumber says:

    Hi Cath – Diving from Manchester to John’ o ‘Groats one day at the end of June with about 100 miles to go, dusk fell at about 9-30 pm ish and it went dark – headlights the next 50 miles. Then it came lighter again till I arrived in John ‘o’ Groats in broad daylight 11- 00 pm ish. – Dusk came again about 2 am.

    It was really spooky that hour of darkness – as spooky as the dark during an eclipse. I still try to figure out this dark band, – Would have lasted longer in the middle May – would it not be there in the middle of Jun?

    Clearly the prof on the bike got so browned off at you being clever, she took to using the bus. 😉

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I guess you were driving faster than the rate of change in the sunset time as you went further and further north? Kind of like when you fly Trans-Atlantic west to east overnight and the band of darkness is compressed into just a couple of hours as you fly through it in the opposite direction to its own motion? Either that or your sunglasses had slipped undetected from the top of your head to your face and then to the ground…

      Alyssa will know. I’ll go and ask her on Twitter.

  16. Frank says:

    The astronomical observation that I never quite get is why the orientation of the moon changes with latitude. I can sort of see why, but I need a 3D model I think.

    • rpg says:

      Well, in the Antipodes the moon is upside down, so simply interpolate.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:


        OK, clearly I need to get out of the rather narrow band of latitudes I’ve visited so far (23 North – Havana – to 57 North – Inverness)

        • Grant says:

          OK, stupid travel story time.

          Prior to my Ph.D. studies I did a fair amount of tramping (hiking). You instinctively use the location of the sun as a rough guide to north.

          For weeks I had this infuriating instinctive feel that I was walking north to my lab (the LMB) when maps, etc., kept telling me it was to the south.

          It took me quite a while to spot my problem – that the sun was now to the south of me, rather than to the north as I was accustomed to it being.

          • Grant says:

            I can’t have been having a good day writing that 🙁 It won’t be at all clear to readers, sorry. Somewhere I left out that I did my tramping in New Zealand, prior to doing my Ph.D. in England where the reversed position of the sun put my instincts out.

    • Alyssa says:

      This is basically because in the northern hemisphere we look south toward the moon, while people in the southern hemisphere look north toward it. So, the orientation will look the opposite.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        so… potentially stupid question (but it’s only because I’m curious)…

        the moon orbits around the equator, then? Staying the same way up as it does so?

        • Alyssa says:

          The inclination of the orbit of the Moon with respect to Earth’s equator actually varies a lot over time. The plane of the Moon’s orbit is inclined about 5-degrees with respect to the ecliptic though (the plane of Earth’s orbit). Then you have to take into account the tilt of Earth’s rotation axis (23.5 degrees)…so my above answer was simplified, but it works in general.

          • Catherine says:

            Ooh, I love your simplified explanation! Now it makes sense. I had noticed that near the equator, the crescent moon looked more tilted over on its side, but hadn’t thought it through. Can’t believe that was more noticeable to me than the upside down moon in Australia, but, well, I was busy looking for koalas…

          • ecogeofemme says:

            So, why does the moon look so giant sometimes? Is it related to this?

            Since I asked that, am I one of the dumb lunch people now? Oh noes!

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            I would say that it’s closer at some times than others, but that may be laughably wrong.

            If Alyssa is still following this thread I’m sure she is rolling her eyes right now

          • Alyssa says:

            It’s true that sometimes the Moon is closer to us. The largest difference, which is about 14%, happens every 20ish years though.

            Mostly, it’s an optical illusion – it tends to look larger near the horizon than when it’s higher in the sky. The reason for this isn’t well understood. It might be because we know the scale of things on the horizon (buildings, trees, etc.), so we can compare the moon size more easily.

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            Heh – I asked Mr E Man last night if he knew why the moon looks bigger at times, and he gave the same answer about having perspective when it’s on the horizon but not when it’s higher in the sky. He’ll be pretty damn happy to have beaten some PhDs to the punch!

            It totally makes sense, now that I think about it. We were on a patio on Jericho Beach a few years ago as a beautiful orange moon rose over the downtown skyscrapers. It was so huge and so bright that at first we thought the roof of one of the buildings was on fire! It was amazing – everyone was watching. But once the moon was fully up and clear of the buildings, we kinda stopped noticing it.

        • Pika says:

          I actually asked my sister when she went to Kenya, to look at the Moon and tell me what happens with it. Because I knew it was upside down in the southern hemisphere, from my visit to Australia and I could not imagine what happens at the Equator. She says it turns around, goes up one way and goes down rotated. Maybe Alyssa can confirm this (or not)?

          Also, another thing that was completely confusing in Australia is that the Sun is in the north. I kept having problems comparing real life location with the map, since I automatically considered Sun to be in the south without thinking…

          • rpg says:

            Ha ha! That confused the buggery out of me for a while, too.

          • Alyssa says:

            I can see how this would happen, because the Moon doesn’t revolve right around Earth’s equator (see another answer above about the tilt relative to the ecliptic). So, if you’re on the equator, sometimes you’ll look northish to the moon, sometimes you’ll look southish, so it will appear to “flip”.

            It’s amazing how much geometry is involved in our “simple” Earth-Moon system!

          • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

            This is so cool! Thanks, Alyssa!

          • Alyssa says:

            I bet you didn’t think this post would turn into an astronomy lesson 🙂

  17. rpg says:

    Yeah. And dropbears, right?

  18. WTF!?! Scientist don’t know that days / nights are more extreme at the poles?! They teach that on freaking Sid the science Kid and Sesame Street!

    My only defense for you former colleague is that perhaps the location of her card was more convenient for getting into her condo / garage…..but srsly can’t you just unclip it then?

  19. Nina says:

    At first I thought it astonishing that scientists don’t get the sunlight/N-S thing, but then I remembered how I move to Freiburg from Amsterdam and the days in winter were slightly longer and everybody in Amsterdam assumed that was because I had moved East.
    Moving to NZ obviously has everyone still soo overwhelmingly confused that no phone or skype call can ever start without 5 minutes philosophizing about the time, date and season in each respective end of the conversation… And then we drive left, which of course has everything to do with being in the Southern hemisphere too. Because the sun is in the North, so you have to change sides on the road to still be able to orientate to the South, you see?

    • Pika says:

      Because the sun is in the North, so you have to change sides on the road to still be able to orientate to the South, you see?
      Oh, that’s hilarious! 😆
      I should go tell this to people here (driving on left, but not in southern hemisphere) and see how they react…

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        LOL! OK, if any of those people are scientists, then you win!

        I also have to start most Skype conversations with a discussion of the relative local times and weather conditions, but thankfully we can leave the seasons out of it!

  20. John the Plumber says:

    I love the simplicity and the complexity. – 12 months in a year – 24 hrs in a day – 360 ish days in a year – 12 constellations. Easy to divide a circle into 360 degrees. Sadly no one told the universe it was supposed to act to the exact dozen. – Imagine the guys who spent their time making the first observatories – pre stonehenge – wooden posts in the ground stargasing and handing down their knowlege over centuries. – Hang on a minute, the calculations have gone adrift – the moon didn’t come up right on the tip of that post when it should have done. “Who moved the post – come on fess up. – O K joke over – I’m making the next one out of damn big stones – lets see the joker move them.”

    I am in awe of the mathematicians who have sussed the job over the years. – Way to go yet though. Check out

    But not to lose the topic thread – have you still got your bike Cath?

    • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

      I have a bike, but not the same one. I’ve had, let’s see, four bikes in 14 years – two in Glasgow and two in Vancouver.

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Oh and I still have three of them (one is at my parents’ place), although two are in serious need of some TLC.

  21. Science Girl says:

    I too got blank stares all around a few years ago when I complained about how I miss the long days in the summer in Ukraine (as opposed to short ones in the Southern States). And then even more blank stares as I rummaged around and found a flash light and a ball to explain this on (it was a dark evening!). To a bunch of grad students. Sigh.

    And then, the other day, a (seemingly?) brilliant visiting grad student asked how the ducks got into our fenced-off facility. Oh, I dunno, you think they can fly?

  22. ecogeofemme says:

    Great post, Cath! You seriously have the most amusing life!

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