Friday, April 11, 2008

Open Thoughts on Open Lab 2007

“It just seems so negative,” I sighed to Friend over Greek food after reading first section of Open Lab 2007 from the proofs. “We aren’t overly effective at communicating with each other or the public. We lack diversity! Not all of us are ethical! And then you’ve got me going on and on about how faculty members can be sneaky snakes if you turn your back on them for too long. Our trusting and sweet heroine - that’d be me,” I added in case Friend grew confused, “is crushed under the weight of indecision by her committee!” I paused to shake my head. “That really did suck,” I told her and she nodded in response. “But it just seems there are so many things within ‘Chapter 1: Academia and Research’ that require fixing. Like we’re all rather disgruntled and unhappy.”

After giving me a long-suffering look, Friend indicated that many of us in academia and research are, in fact, disgruntled and unhappy. “And,” she said wisely, “it’s much more compelling to write and read about problems than someone who got tenure without any trouble or has fifty research grants at his disposal. So the picture the book presents is accurate in terms of reflecting what’s out there on blogs.”

Friend, as she is with annoying frequency, was correct. We likely should be thinking and talking about the problems students and post-docs and faculty members face. And the posts that reside in this section are uniformly well-written, expressing different views and being quite easy to read. And while I remain proud of my own little selection, shining like a beacon of terror for pre-docs everywhere in the lessons of what might go horribly and breakdown-inducingly wrong, I was especially fond of Henry Gee’s charming and moving essay and Black Knight’s entry that’s tucked in the section as the third chapter. On pages 12-13, there is an eloquent and exquisite narrative of why we do the work. Of why it’s worthwhile to fix communication errors and increase diversity and demand ethical work. Of why I’m so glad I finished my doctorate and am able to ask questions and search for answers and maybe, just once in awhile, be blessed with figuring something out.

I liked pieces of the Life Sciences chapter. The biology I use is based on human medical issues, but I made my way easily and happily through a vast majority of the entries. I learned about teosinte and corn, tapeworms (ew…), passenger pigeons, shrews and the color of feathers. I was delighted by John McKay’s posts on the mammoths though. I found his excitement and interest very endearing and felt more like he was telling me about a super-cool hobby than he was trying to impart scientific facts. It’s a difference in style, I decided. But it’s one I personally like a great deal. The other post I marked for specific mention was ‘In the Eyes of Aye-Ayes,’ written in a way that made me grin even as I gathered information, by Neil Kelley. I could definitely be encouraged to join a cult following for someone who entertains me as he teaches. Fantastic all around.

Now this is where I make a note. I don’t tend to read evolution posts. It isn’t at all that I don’t believe in evolution, I thought yesterday on the plane. Of course I do, and find nothing problematic about also being a practicing Christian. So I wondered at my reaction - as I paged through proofs on my computer screen and while flipping through pages of the book I held - to rolling my eyes every time I saw the name with the initials MB. Really, people, can we speak of nothing else?

“Who the hell is this guy?” I asked Friend over the same dinner at our favorite Greek place. “And why must he be mentioned and contradicted over and over and over?”

“Big Intelligent Design guy,” she replied (She so often knows the answers to my questions - it's completely cool.). “And the evolution people like to argue with and make fun of him. They find it very fun.”

I finally decided, as I watched the clouds out of my seat by the window while flying over the Midwest yesterday, that I think of evolution a lot like I think of feminism. It’s so blatantly obvious - women are equal to men just as men are descended through evolutionary processes from other organisms - that I get bored with any arguments. “Well, yeah,” I think when people start to discuss it. “Obviously.” So I can’t get all excited about someone being wrong because, well, if you don’t get the concept of evolution (or of feminism), we’re probably not going to have a lot in common. So you just stay away from me and I won’t spend my time reading about debates that have no bearing on how I think. I’m sure the posts were well written - and I certainly don’t mean to offend anyone by these comments - but they’re not my thing. So I skimmed a couple at most.

My undergraduate training was in Physics and Environmental Science. I therefore could not have loved a section more than Chapter 3. Kim’s mylonites post was beautiful. I didn’t know someone could be as utterly geeky and delightfully charming all at once until I read Phil Plait. I found Dr. Gay’s post to be profound and read it twice to make sure I fully appreciated all her points. I learned a lot from a lengthy, yet very fair and rather fascinating, account of cold fusion. I agreed with Craig (and was chilled at his predictions) and wanted to buy Peter an environmentally-friendly gift for being so bright and hopeful about the future of the sea. I faithfully read Chris, have already deemed him excellent, and expected to enjoy his testability post. And I did. So I was feeling all warm and happy that my section of blogging scientists (of whom I’m not a member - I don’t really talk about what I do) did such a fan-freaking-tastic job! Then I read Anne-Marie Hodge’s post about the destruction caused by coal mining and she absolutely broke my heart. A wonderful topic and beautifully written, but, good gracious, how utterly sad.

There was then a short chapter on math and technology. I read and enjoyed it. Same goes for the more lengthy chapter on medicine and health. I marked two posts as particularly interesting for me. One on sharing breast milk, another on overcoming sexual dysfunction in men. Breasts and penises, I thought, bemused, when I was tucking scraps of paper between pages to remember what I most liked. That can’t say anything good about me. So let’s move on, shall we?

“Well, hell,” I muttered while reading David Michael’s absolutely chilling description of popcorn lung - “a deadly, irreversible lung disease … that is caused by … a butter-flavoring chemical called diacetyl” that is used in microwave popcorn. “PhysioProf might be right. Someone should knit the boy a hat.” Because if anything deserves an outraged response or made me want to curse the various regulatory agencies even as I trembled in fear that I’m not very well protected at all, it’s this post. My fellow Americans, I fear we are ever so screwed right now.

Then I got to the final chapter and frowned when I realized we were talking evolution again, was briefly hopeful when I got to a piece about eye tracking, then slumped back into my seat for more flipping through pages about evolution.

But this actually brings me to my final point and why I think this book was so unbelievably well done and why science blogging is so powerful. There’s a tremendous amount of material out there. Different people who write with a range of intensity and who have various interests. There are some who educate, others who enrage and still others who fascinate and charm. If I don’t like one topic, there’s so much more to chose from! If you want to argue or question, write a comment or email. It's just impossibly cool to me. And the diversity and talent in the science blogging community is incredibly impressive to me.

So, while sitting in an airport, proudly reading a book not only about science, but about science in blogs, I looked down at my t-shirt for one institution covered by a zippered sweatshirt for another, pushed my glasses a bit farther up my nose and tugged at my ponytail before grinning. I might very well be nerdy among a population of nerds, I thought. Geeky even in academic circles where geeks come to live and work and thrive.

Regardless, I maintain that this is a very cool book. Well worth the price and the time it’d take you to pick it up, learn something and add some folks to your feed reader. Many thanks and congratulations to Bora and Reed. (And now I must get dressed to go interview. How I adore 10AM start times!)


ce4460 said...

Seems to me you were still reading some of the posts even though you didn't agree with what was being said. It is always good to know about other peoples perspectives don't you think? I wouldn't worry about offending anyone just because you disagree.

The bean-mom said...

Thanks for the review! I've read your entry in the anthology online (that's how I discovered your blog), but I haven't read any of the others yet...

bk said...

Thanks for the gratuitous linky goodness :)

I'll contact you by email... *knowing look*

Post a Comment