Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bait and Switch

I've been thinking a bit about Kelly McMaster's book about Shirley, her hometown just a few miles south of BNL, and the air of mystery she tries to generate about the lab where I work, a sense which she passes on to those who listen to and interview her (and who often have never been out there).

The main disconnect I sense with her argument (and full disclosure: I haven't read the book yet, but have only heard interviews and read some of her writing online) is between her sense of wonder about the lab as a child, with her fear and loathing of it as an adult.

The wonder, from her Mother Jones piece:
As a child, I imagined the lab’s buildings were made of an igloo-like substance, and the rooms inside were full of metallic file cabinets, clinking glass test tubes, and notebooks full of secret codes. Men and women in crisp white lab coats and plastic goggles coaxed new species of frogs and lizards out of mottled purple eggs. Others hovered over milky glass globes of light whose kinked antennas sparked blue shots of electricity into the dim, silent air.
And the loathing, in the same paragraph:
My neighbor worked as a maintenance man at the lab, and he often teased that he glowed in the dark. After he died of brain and lung cancer, my imaginary lab became a much darker place—a small, sinister pocket hiding in the pines.
The strange part for me is that I can identify with the disconnect between the childhood fantasy and the adult reality, but mine is a different trajectory than hers (and don't assume I'm unaware of the emotional trauma of a close loved one with cancer).

I gravitated toward a scientific life with fantasies of sci-fi movies running through my head, with large machines emitting lightning at the flip of a huge Frankenstein-type switch, or several people poring over softly-glowing computer screens as an experiment produces fantastic data in real-time, and great discoveries are made. I thought this kind of thing actually happened even as I started grad school (even if I had never seen it in my various research summers...)

Unfortunately, the gap between fantasy and reality is as large as the gap between a scientific experiment and comprehending its implications. Things always take a long time to get started, a long time to happen, and a long time to understand, and often involve false starts, misundertandings, mistakes, retries, etc. This is because we have to constantly test our hypotheses against what we observe in the world around us, either through our own experiments or by scouring the literature (which also takes forever) for similar results. Kind of like a journalist, come to think of it. Bottom line is that the daily work of the scientific life just isn't as colorful -- or ever as sinister -- as McMasters seems to imagine (the conferences and talks etc are another matter -- fun as can be).

That said, maybe I speak as someone who is officially allowed to enter my lab on a daily basis (a privilege I share with 2500 other employees, less than 1000 being scientists, I should add). I suppose if you are put off by the fact that someone at the gate asks who you are, then you might wonder if the lab is hiding something, and develop a sense of mystery to justify one's feeling as an outsider. Then again, you might not have noticed that they have public lectures and musical recitals (always open to the public) almost every week. But it's possible that I only perceive the friendly-and-open side of things -- some bias of this sort is unavoidable, it seems.

So the child in me always wishes someone would take me to the secret parts of the lab --where the lights are flashing, and lightning strikes, and green goo runs out of a vat into the ground, i.e. where the wild things are. But maybe no-one seems to know where they are anymore -- or maybe they aren't there, and were never there. Or maybe I've just grown up a bit and actually taken a look around.

But when you get down to it, it's a bait-and-switch: when you are growing up, no-one ever tells you that things aren't so colorful and mysterious, so by the time you finally realize that it's not, you've found a much more interesting -- albeit prosaic --real world to ponder.

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