I have always loved science. I have never wanted to be a scientist.
Crudely put, I saw being a biologist (my first love among the sciences) as living indoors under fluorescent lights among large machines, decapitating mice. Or, if outdoors, counting things: birds, eggs, copulations. The discoveries of science, made by others more diligent, responsible, and perhaps ambitious than myself (my first boyfriend, a biophysicist, already had his eye on the Nobel at 22*), were to me an imaginative stimulus of the first order. What I wanted was to take the products of others’ years of hard, disciplined work and run free with them in wild, irresponsible speculation. (* He hasn’t got it yet.)
In other words, I am a bullshitter. You really can’t be a scientist and a bullshitter. If you try to be, you will get it beaten out of you by the end of your first postdoc, if not as a prerequisite to your PhD. (Disagreements and exceptions invited. I think maybe Lynn Margulis was a bullshitter, for example.)
If I had been a biologist, I might have studied spiders. I have loved them since childhood. Yes, I admit it’s possible that Charlotte’s Web had something to do with it. But the spiders in our backyard, much more. They were not orb web spinners, or not only, but the kind that spun little silk tunnels with porches. They’d sit dead still in the tunnel entrance until a fly or something touched the porch. Then, as if the strands of silk were extensions of its nervous system, the spider would pounce. Rarggh! I would watch this for hours, sometimes dropping a crippled fly on the porch to make something happen. (I couldn’t decapitate a mouse, but I wouldn’t have flinched from feeding my spiders.)
I love predators best generally: cats big and small, raptors, owls, orcas. The higher-order opportunists that let others do the hard, boring work of turning plant-spun sunlight into meat. They’re smarter, more beautiful, binocular like me—what’s not to like? Cruelty? You prefer perhaps the timid, attuned supersensitivity of the deer or rabbit? To each her own. Perhaps I’m a predator myself, letting scientists do the hard, boring work and making myself a rosette-spotted coat out of it.
My second love is cosmology. In this I am like so many women—cosmology is one of the fields to which women have made the most major contributions. This cracks me up because we are (or were once) supposed to be small-minded and domestic. Subject for a future post. And a past post.
I do digress. So a few years ago I became a science copy editor—for Natural History and The Scientist magazines and several book publishers. I also reviewed books for The Scientist for a while, and scienceblogged for Natural History. This has been the most stimulating possible second education. For one thing . . . I was going to say it has made me less of a bullshitter, because fact checking is part of the copy editor’s job. Let’s just say it has grounded my bullshitting. I have found that I am able to quickly grasp a wide range of scientific concepts, not down to their roots—oh god, far from it—but sufficiently to tell whether science writers are getting it right and writer scientists are saying it right. And, here’s the gravy, I have a ringside seat on the cutting edge. I get early news of some of the most astounding discoveries being made in cell and molecular biology, immunology, developmental biology, evolutionary ecology, and all combinations thereof.
And I’ll tell you, the more we learn the less we know. Our ability to discover has far outpaced our ability to understand. The confidence of scientists that we know how all this incredible interacting complexity could have come to be (random mutation, natural selection) is beginning to sound like wavery bravado. Random mutation was always the part I couldn’t get my mind around, so imagine my glee when I saw a scientist say that epigenetic marking of DNA in response to environmental conditions might actually bias the mutation rate.
The other part I could never get my mind around is the belief (note that word well—”belief”!) that everything up to the human brow ridge is the product of blindly, unconsciously colliding molecules. However it came to be, there’s no need to invoke any outside agency to notice that the stuff that runs us is orders of magnitude smarter than we are. Does it somehow know what it’s doing? Suppose DNA is an information storage and manipulation medium akin to brain tissue, but in another dimension. Then the first requirement for it to be creative about survival is information. One channel of information about what is and isn’t working is the death rate. That’s natural selection. Epigenetics just opened up the possibility of another, faster-working channel.
This is the kind of stuff you can bullshit about if you’re not a scientist.
Why “A Cold Eye”? Because if science casts a cold eye on human life and motivation, and working with science has certainly affected my outlook in that way, it also behooves those of us in the ringside seats—its fans and critics—to cast a cold eye on science.