Science as a Plot

lab

I’ve written before about why, even though I know them well, I don’t make scientists protagonists in stories. Here’s why I don’t make scientific research a plot, either.

Many years ago, my husband made his first big splash as a scientist when he published the complete sequence for a gene that causes blood to clot. How big a splash? The research institute for which he worked issued a press-release, the local television stations sent news-crews, and an item about this discovery appeared in the News of the World, directly below an article headlined, “CHOCOHOLIC MOM GIVES BIRTH TO SUGAR-COATED BABY!!!” *

Hubby was briefly a minor celebrity; his hat-size increased by a full half-inch; and honestly, for a few weeks there was no living with the man.

Then it all passed off and he got back to work in the lab.

The cloning of that gene sequence was far from being the most significant work my husband has ever done. So why was it the thing that got the most attention? It was because the cloning of the tissue factor gene had a plot. It followed an arc from Young Scientist Embarks on Quest; through Difficulties Along the Way; through Gamble On Using Last Available Sample for Final, Risky Experiment; through Triumphant Moment When Final Risky Experiment Yields Desired Result. There was pathos: At one point Young Scientist was putting in such long hours at the lab that his two-year-old announced, “Daddy doesn’t live here. Only Mommy and I live here.” The press particularly loved it that the effort to clone and sequence the gene turned out, in the end, to have been a race. Two weeks after Husband’s lab published the sequence, another lab published the same gene-sequence in another journal; and a third lab published a slightly different sequence a month after that. The press made much (much more than there actually was) of the “rivalry” between the labs.

Science—real science—that makes good fiction is a once-in-a-career event. Most science makes terrible fiction.

For one thing, the path of scientific discovery meanders. A lot. Everybody knows from high school that research starts with a hypothesis, of course. What people sometimes forget after high school, however, is that the point of the experiments that follow are intended—not to prove—but to disprove the hypothesis. Trying to disprove something doesn’t lead to any big dramatic moments—the ones where the scientist turns to the members of his lab and says, tears in eyes, “That’s it! We’ve proven it!” because there’s always the chance that someone somewhere will subsequently uncover that crucial missing bit of information that means that everything the scientist postulated is wrong. The most the scientist can usually say is, “Well, our second-choice journal says if we do a few more experiments, they’ll accept our paper.”

Not much drama there. Just sighs of relief.

Even life-saving new medical treatments don’t generate drama—at least not for the scientists involved. By the time a new discovery makes it into the clinic it has gone through so many steps—promising result, to confirmation of result by subsequent researchers, to further research, to—and I’m simplifying here— tentative treatment, to hand-off to other scientists who do appropriate animal studies, to small-scale clinical studies, to many major and minor modifications to treatment, to licensing to drug company, to wider-scale clinical studies, to finally entering mainstream medicine—that any drama has been dissipated to the point of non-existence.

So, I don’t write about scientists as scientists (the scientist-type—and there is one—makes a great character, though); and I don’t write about real science, either.

On the other hand, I think the scientific community is long-overdue for “exposure” in some sort of modern Peyton Place-ish fiction (remember Peyton Place?), and if anybody wants material for something like that, contact me for some very juicy stories!


* Husband’s work was also covered by the New York Times; but I think we can all agree that the News of the World piece was the really important one.


Image source: wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/Biochemistry_laboratory_MPI-CBG-panorama.JPG

 

 

A Story with a Sad Ending

emigrants01

As I’ve said before, family stories are the easiest ones for me to turn into novels. The plot is fixed, the outline pre-written (can’t work without an outline!), and a plausible number and realistic variety of characters already exist, eager to be set in motion. My favorite part is that I don’t even have to think up names for them. I hate coming up with names for characters.

I’ve got a family story in mind right now that I think needs telling—one of those historical fictions that could easily be a multi-volume epic (although at my age I think maybe I’d better aim for something more like a novelette). It’s an old story, but a good one; about how one branch of my family came to this country from Ireland and made good. I think a lot of people would find it very relatable.

The family’s progenitor was the son of poor Catholic farmers—I’ll call him Paddy, since I don’t know his real birth-name—and he left his native land alone, in the midst of the Great Famine. I can’t decide whether or not to get deeply into all the reasons that my Paddy’s family, like so many in Ireland, were utterly dependent on the potato (and specifically on the commercially non-viable variety called the Lumper). The socio-political situation in early nineteenth-century Ireland is absolutely fascinating, but to discuss it might slow the narrative flow.

Putting politics aside, then, I’ll just get on with the story; which is that my progenitor—still Irish, and not yet Irish-American—took advantage of a British government-sponsored subsidized fare to sail to North America.Canada_immigrants

Naturally, the British government didn’t send Paddy to the United States. Why would they? His ship was bound for Canada, of course—a large, fertile member of the British Commonwealth that needed a larger population to fully exploit its potential to produce and export wheat. Britain needed wheat, and viewed Ireland’s “surplus” population as a convenient means to get it.

A parallel government plan was to undermine the Francophones by planting a lot of English-speakers among them, so Paddy’s ship landed in Quebec.

Unfortunately, in Ireland Paddy had practiced nothing but the spade-culture of the potato. In common with most poor Irish, he knew absolutely nothing about wheat-farming, which generally requires the use of tools like plows, harrows, disks and other mysteries. Therefore, along with most of his young, male shipmates, Paddy took the first opportunity he got of BETRAYING HIS PROMISE to the British government to stay in Canada in return for his fare, and slipping TOTALLY ILLEGALLY over the border into the United States.

(One imagines that the Québécois made no difficulties about this. In fact, they probably pointed Paddy south themselves, and wished him a hearty “bon voyage!”)

Going on with the story, I would then describe young Paddy’s initial struggles in the New World; where, in an atmosphere of hibernophobia and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply) signs, opportunities were few for displaced Irish potato farmers. But when he got to New York, Paddy modified his accent and his name (to the frustration of his genealogy-minded descendants), and landed a job with the fire department. Soon, he was married (to an Irish-American girl whose lack of any clear trail to the United States suggests that she was also in the country illegally), and had a bunch of children. These children did well; and their grandchildren did even better. Paddy’s adopted name has spread far and wide across the country, into nearly every state, and every trade and profession.

And some of them have now turned Nativist, and cast their votes for the candidate who most stridently vows to deny other would-be immigrants the chances Paddy had.

I don’t think poor Paddy would approve.

Rationalizing Your Way to Virtue

virtue-cropped

We now know for sure that it isn’t the ability to use language or tools that sets man apart from other animals; and the jury’s still out on whether, if there even is such a thing as a capacity to contemplate the divine (huh?), man is in exclusive possession of it. But nobody’s shown to my satisfaction that any other species but humans so consistently and imaginatively rationalize. Our ability to conjure up exculpatory reasons for what we do seems to be our great defining characteristic.

I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind when writing fiction. Any character who isn’t meant to be a certified psychopath should not only have clear motives for what he does, but should consciously (and—to be authentic—continually) rationalize his misdeeds.

In stories I’ve written, based mostly on people I’ve actually known, the rationalization often turns out to be the most interesting aspect of the work. This is because many times humans don’t just want to convince themselves and others that some unkind or unfair thing that they’ve done isn’t really so bad after all, or should be excused because of some extenuating circumstance. People often rationalize their behavior all the way from bad to good; even from positively evil to virtuous.

Take, for example, an elderly aunt of my mother’s, now long dead. According to Mom, this woman’s perennial state of simmering rage was likely genetic. She was apparently just born hating the world. But after being raised in the same tepidly Methodist household that produced my grandfather and several other perfectly normal people, Auntie embarked on a quest for a rationalization for her inner rage; which, after some early experiments with radical—really radical—politics, eventually led her to a small church which preached that to hate your neighbor was a sure sign of Salvation. Like the members of Westboro Baptist, the innate anger of the members of Auntie’s church was righteous anger; and intolerance of not only the sin, but the sinner, too, was virtuous and good. Everybody who ever met her disliked her; but Auntie was—in her own mind, at least—sure of Heaven.

I’m seeing the same thing in certain Trump supporters. For years, some of the ones I know personally kept their bigotry and sexism quiet (at least in public), though the rest of us were all more or less aware of what they really thought. Then along came the Trumpkins, relabeling political correctness (otherwise known as an effort to screen overtly racist and blatantly hurtful language from public discourse) as hypocrisy; and bad manners and aggressive self-promotion as authenticity. Some Trump supporters are simply delighted—beyond delighted—to see hatefulness and prejudice redefined as “virtues”, because they like to be virtuous as much as anybody. Now, without having had to abate their hate and prejudice in the least, they can tell themselves that they—like Auntie—are so full of virtue that they’re sure of Heaven or at least a tax cut.

Of course, the problem Auntie had with being actively disliked is a problem for some Trump supporters I know, too. And if I were writing them in a piece of fiction, they would definitely see very soon that real virtue, practiced properly, doesn’t alienate you from your friends and relatives. In the meantime, I’m getting a lot of good information on how to write about families torn apart and old friendships destroyed by ideology, which is useful, I suppose; though sad. It remains to be seen whether I’ll also one day be provided with many examples of happy reconciliations and tearful resolves to try, in future, to come to some better understanding.

BURNING DOWN THE SYSTEM TO THE GROUND?

K. D. Dowdall

20161126_blp902-bannonWhy does Steve Bannon want to “burn down our form of government to the ground?”  By Steve Bannon’s definition, it means doing away with our democratic system of government. With words like nationalism, populism, and his strong belief in Eurasian, the writing is on the wall, literally.

Eurasian means a system of authoritarian government that is, at best a dictatorship, at worse a medieval form of governance. Think, the Ottoman Empire. Bannon is not a conservative, he is an “Imperialist – like Putin – but worse.

Bannon’s belief in Eurasian, is a system of government that loathes secular modernity, like America and most Western European countries. Bannon’s belief heralds back to the Slavic-Turkic land empire and it is Bannon’s wish to do just that, democracy must go, ergo, he intends through Trump to do just that – “burn down our system of government to the ground.”

How do I know…

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As We Go Marching, Marching

march_for_womens_lives_1

The March for Science is scheduled for Earth Day. Please join me there.

In the meantime, stop telling me that there’s no point to marching in support of science or anything else because it’s not going to change Trump’s mind. I’m not (entirely) stupid, you know. I already know that. Nothing is ever going to change Trump’s mind about anything—unless maybe a large and aggressive brain-tumor.

All the marches against the Vietnam War never changed Lyndon Johnson’s mind, either—although they did make him sick of the presidency (something to consider). They didn’t change Richard Nixon’s mind, either. I’m sure that to the end of his days Tricky Dick was just fine with having sent thousands of young men off to die in a pointless, fruitless conflict. But after spending his first term as president bombing the shit out of Cambodia, Nixon got himself re-elected on a platform of Peace with Honor, and then he did, indeed, end the war.  (Not with any particular honor. Nixon—a man who, like Trump, would have actually been improved by a large and aggressive brain-tumor—threw the Honor part of his pledge straight out the window. As it turned out later, he was a man who didn’t actually know what the word honor even meant.)

So what made the difference? Why did Nixon suffer a change of—not heart—but policy?

The answer, I think, was simple mathematics. Nixon could count. During his first term in office he counted the protestors marching in the streets, but though they numbered in the tens of thousands, a lot of them weren’t voters, so he didn’t care. Then, in 1971, just when he was running for his second term, the voting age in the United States was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen. Nixon and his minions suddenly remembered all those young marchers, noted all the young people (like me; a senior in high school at the time) who were flocking to register—not for the draft, this time, but to vote—and so-called Peace with Honor was the result.

My point is that while Trump will never be a reasonable man, or in the least responsive to the wishes/demands/pleas/anything of the people who—nominally—elected him, most politicians are more like Nixon, and value their offices (and the perks that go with them) a lot more than they value any of their so-called “principles”. If we stand up in our numbers and insist that, to get our votes, they must respect our rights and the constitution, some—I hope many—will see where their interests actually lie.

—Just please, when you write to your congress-people, or attend one of their “Town Hall” meetings, don’t tell them that you would never, under any circumstances, vote for them anyway. Even if it’s the truth. Maybe especially if it’s the truth. This is the equivalent of writing a letter of complaint to a business and leading with the statement that you will never patronize their establishment again. Why should they even try to please someone whose vote/business they’ve already lost?*

I believe the present administration’s policy of “every day, another outrage” is deliberate, and comparable to the car-thief’s strategy of repeatedly triggering the alarm of the car he wants to steal until its owner gets tired of running to shut it off, and stops setting it. Trump’s people are hoping we’ll get tired of protesting and go home and just let them have their way.

Well, I, for one, am not going to. See you on Earth Day.


*Town Halls are a particularly effective means of registering our concerns, I believe; and the one that I’ve decided to adopt. If your congressperson won’t hold a Town Hall, consider joining Indivisible.


(image source:
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/87/March_for_Women%27s_Lives_1.jpg)

The Subtle Art of not Giving a Fuck

Okay, the language is definitely NSFW, but it contains one of the best definitions of “maturity” that I’ve read, and I can’t resist sharing. It also features a surprisingly compassionate analysis of that annoying old lady with all the coupons at the supermarket. I’m not her yet, but I’m headed that way, and glad to see that someone understands.

Meet You on the Barricades

womens_march

A long time ago, I used to wear a peace sign suspended from the love-beads around my neck, knew many verses to “We Shall Not Be Moved”, and kept a pair of good walking shoes handy for marching in support of civil rights, the Equal Rights Amendment, and against American involvement in foreign wars—specifically, in those days, the one in Vietnam. In the days before the internet and social media, getting together and marching was the only way people knew to counter the widely-disseminated official government position that the American people didn’t really want civil rights to be more broadly extended, or the Vietnam War to end. Thousands of people in the street singing songs and carrying signs was proof for anyone to see that yes, indeed, vast numbers of the American people certainly did want those things, and weren’t going to be stopped from saying so.

The results of our activism were somewhat mixed. The war in Vietnam finally ended and I ceremoniously threw away my peace sign; but then other wars came along. Women lost the fight for a constitutional amendment to guarantee our rights; but we resigned ourselves to the longer, harder road of securing them piecemeal and kept at it. Though we’ve made progress at it, the struggle for civil rights in general has sometimes seemed endless. But along the way, I stopped marching, because our elected officials seemed, finally, to realize that people who marched on behalf of a cause also voted for candidates who supported that cause in Washington, and that if they ignored the marchers, it would be at their peril.

Now that it appears that we’re going to be governed—not through our elected representatives—but by executive orders and fiats imposed by people whose positions are outside of our traditional system of checks and balances, and implemented immediately and preferably when no one is looking.* Many of the elective officials I counted on to be our bulwark against this kind of tyranny are, instead, either indifferent or complicit in it.

Clearly, they need to be taught the lesson again that as we march, so do we vote; so I’ve hung a new peace-sign on a chain around my neck; crocheted myself a pink pussy-hat, and got a sturdy new pair of walking shoes. I’m going out to demonstrate again.

Some things will be very different this time. In the old days, the police hated the demonstrators. Honestly, I always had the feeling they were just looking for any excuse to beat us up. Nearly every police force in the 60’s was made up overwhelmingly of white men. The idea of allowing non-white, female people to have equal rights with men like themselves, who represented the pinnacle of human evolution, seemed to strike them as a personal affront.

But my daughter, who participated in the Woman’s March on Washington, tells me that this time, the police were on the marchers’ side. To prove it she sent me a picture of a man with a sign identifying himself as a Muslim being embraced by a (non-white, female) police officer who was wearing a pink pussy-hat pulled over her regulation one. I’m thinking of having it enlarged and framed.

The police have gotten smarter about demonstrations, too; and probably feel safer, which doubtless contributes to their improved attitude toward the crowd. In my day, we used carry glass bottles to drink from, and elevated our signs by attaching them to dowels and yardsticks. Do I need to point out how easily weaponized glass bottles and sticks are? Sometimes the police got so nervous that they confiscated them, leaving thirsty, cranky marchers whose arms ached. If you’ll notice in the picture above, the person carrying the “I’m with her” sign has come up with an ingenious way to calm the nice police officers’ nerves and elevate the sign so that the cameras can see it, too. S/he’s made a tube of an extra piece of poster-board (permitted by the police), cut a slit in the tube, and put the sign in that. This is such a brilliant idea that I wish I’d thought of it myself. Also, water comes in thin plastic bottles now. I’m going to take a couple extra with me on my marches, and if I see a police officer, I’ll offer one.

Other things haven’t changed at all, it appears. If you should happen to take part in a march, keep in mind that no matter what the organizers tell you, there will not be enough porta-potties at the demonstration site. Not half enough. Possibly not even one-tenth as many as are actually needed. Be proud of this—it means you have a good turnout—but be prepared. In the old days, experienced marchers sometimes made a quick stop at the camping-goods store before the march, for what I’ll just call “emergency supplies”. Nowadays I think the old-folks section of the drug-store might have a better selection. I know you get my drift, so I’ll say no more.

If you demonstrate, take snacks to the demonstration. Share them.

Chanting slogans is fine on a march; but singing is much, much better. But in any crowd, there are more people who want to sing than ones who know the words to the songs. In my young days I heard “This Land Is Your Land” sung by both the demonstrators and the counter-demonstrators at the same demonstration, so I made sure to learn the verses as well as the chorus. It hasn’t lost its popularity since I was young.  It was sung by the women in Washington, too.

Also, I noticed early in my marching days that lots of people will join in on songs like “We Shall Not Be Moved” because the only words with which the whole crowd must be familiar are “we shall not be moved”. Verses can be handled solo.  You can keep people singing this one forever, since anybody with half a brain and a cause they believe in can make up a verse on the spot and sing it solo.

Also at any protest demonstration,  “We Shall Overcome” should be sung. I have known even hard, bitter people to be moved to tears by a chorus or two of “We Shall Overcome”.

Just say it’s a hunch, but I kind of suspect that something—some catchy jingle—with a chorus along the lines of “Super-callous-fragile-ego-Trump-you-are-atrocious” will catch on soon, too.

Although the exact date hasn’t been set, there are going to be Marches for Science in Washington and around the nation soon. I’ll be there, of course. I almost have to be. If you should happen to attend too, let’s meet. I’ll be the one under the “Science, Not Silence” sign, wearing comfortable shoes and a pink pussy-hat; and I’ll be singing: “We’ll take back the Congress! We shall overcome! We’ll take back the White House, too! We shall overcome!”

Also, all the verses of “This Land is Your Land”.


*And please don’t bother to tell me this is justified because, “Obama started it”. I have never subscribed to the notion that two wrongs make a right. As far as I’m concerned, people who believe that former president Obama was wrong to issue so many executive orders have less excuse for supporting those of Trump; not more.