Writing Dialog If Your Character Is a Scientist

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I talk with scientists a lot, as I’ve mentioned before. But until this last weekend, when, due to the fact that it was time for us all to March for Science (and I hope everybody did), what I’ve mostly thought about when I talked with a scientist was what words I would use if I needed to translate what the scientist was saying into Regular English. Translating Science, after all, is my job.

But I’ve been writing fiction for some time now, and a writerly mindset seems to be taking over my brain. Instead of doing as I usually do, and mentally translating the March for Science speeches into the common language of most of the crowd, I found myself analyzing them for the specific characteristics of Science-ese that really define the way a scientist speaks. I was trying to figure how to subtly incorporate those characteristics into dialogue in such a way as to give the impression that a character is a genuine, bona fide scientist.

Early on, I learned that in writing dialogue, it’s sometimes little things that make all the difference. One of the first novels I ever wrote was set in the very early nineteenth century, and though I naturally wanted the dialogue to sound convincingly early-nineteenth-century-ish (or at least not jarringly modern), I also didn’t want to try to reproduce actual speech from the era. I guess some writers can pull that off, but when I do it, it always sounds fake. So I immersed myself in period literature for a few months, trying hard as I did so to pick out some stylistic detail that I thought nicely defined the difference between early nineteenth-century and modern style.

I found it in the old rule that I was taught in high school English class: “Don’t split infinitives.”

This is a stupid rule, and no one has obeyed it for the last two hundred years. But briefly—very briefly—it was an absolute; and that brief period happened to be the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

So the characters in my novel never ever, in speaking, split their infinitives; and friends who read it said, “Oh, your dialogue is so good! It really evokes the era!” They were friends, so mostly they refrained from pointing out the hundred other things that I’d done wrong.

Scientists, of course, split their infinitives.

They also sprinkle a fair number of scientific words into their conversation, and you would probably think that mimicking this (annoying) tendency would work well to make a character sound like a scientist. Somehow—I don’t know why—it doesn’t. It is, however, unbeatable as a device for making a character sound pretentious; so keep it in mind.

Scientists also talk about their research a lot; and if, in a novel, every conversation involving a particular character somehow wound up back on the topic of, say, neutrophils, that character would sound convincingly like a scientist who studied neutrophils. However, this is tricky to write for the author who is not also an authority on neutrophils. You may believe me when I say that if you get one picky little word wrong, you will hear from every neutrophil-loving scientist in the world about it. There are a lot of them. Not all of them will be tactful.

Looking back over the texts of some March for Science-day speeches, what jumps out at me most is the fact—it is a fact—that scientists are never certain. Somehow they never forget, even for a moment, that nothing can ever be definitively proven. They know that even something as well-established as gravity may actually be wrong. One day we may penetrate to the earth’s core and find that dropped things fall because there’s a giant Stuff-magnet in there, pulling everything toward the center of the earth with its powerful Stuff-attractant Rays. You don’t believe me? A scientist at our local March was asked by a heckler if she believed in the theory of evolution (the questioner emphasized the word “theory”). After gently correcting her interrogator’s terminology (he meant “natural selection”), the scientist replied—not “yes”, although natural selection is a cornerstone of biological science—but “So far, that is the theory that best explains the evidence.”

Since I know that the shortest and best way to define a character is with one or two lines of really trenchant dialogue, I’ll write a book with a scientist in it when I’ve come up with something as brilliant to write as “the theory that best explains the evidence.” Or better still, I’ll aspire to something even more brilliant; something on a level with the exchange between Ray Stanz (Dan Ackroyd) and Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson) in the original Ghostbusters movie.

Winston asks Dr. Stanz if he believes in God.

Says Dr. Stanz, “I never met Him.”

That is the perfect scientist answer.


[Image of the March for Science at Portland, Oregon from Another Believer (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

A Plug for Ogden Nash

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We’re getting ready to redecorate a couple of rooms at my house—new doors, carpet, paint; the lot—and as is usual around here, prepping a room to be carpeted and painted involves much putting of books into boxes. Every room of the house is crammed with books (not excluding the bathrooms), which have to be packed and stowed somewhere before anything else can be done. So far I’ve packed and stored nineteen box-fulls, which only leaves about nineteen more box-fulls to be taken out of the rooms we want to decorate; and about five thousand more books not in boxes spread out over the other rooms of the house, unpacked and readily available to read.

So why is it that every book I need or want right now is in one of those nineteen boxes?

Yesterday I wanted The Collected Works of Ogden Nash.

I’ve always loved Ogden Nash. Most people only know him for his little poems about animals (“Fleas: Adam had’em.”), but he wrote all kinds of poetry. For a week after I turned thirty, I went around muttering “How old is spring, Miranda?” to myself at intervals, which comforted me, but made other people think I might be a dangerous lunatic. And after my daughter was born, I became especially fond of his poems about his own two daughters.

In one, Nash wonders why people condemn adults for a staggering gait and slurred speech, but find the same behavior adorable in a toddler. It’s not his best poem, but I thought it was cute, and I read it to my husband. I expected it to make him laugh.

I forgot he was a scientist. The poem didn’t make him laugh; it made him thoughtful.

A few days later, Husband announced that since hearing Nash’s poem, he had been closely observing our own and other peoples’ babies, and become convinced that infants are not, as Nash suggested, milk-drunk. Rather, Hubby said, they’re stoned out of their little minds. Demonstrating a worrying level of expertise about the subtle differences between alcoholic inebriation and drug-induced delirium*, Hubby said it was now clear to him that all babies are born completely zonked, their brains awash in psychotropic substances which gradually wear off as they mature, allowing them to engage more and more rationally with their environment. Puberty, with all its agonies, should therefore be regarded as a side-effect of drug-withdrawal, and be treated as such, including at least a short period of in-patient care.

He wasn’t joking.

And now it turns out that Hubby was absolutely correct. Recent studies confirm that the brain-scan of your average toddler closely resembles that of an adult tripping on LSD.

And that’s why I wanted my volume of Ogden Nash: To re-read it and see what other scientific discoveries he anticipated. Only now I’ll have to wait until the rooms are painted and re-carpeted, and all the books are back on the shelves. No point in attempting to find what I want now, in one of those boxes. I’ve tried that before. The volume I’m looking for is always in the very last box, on the bottom.


*Come to think of it, I’ve been meaning to ask him about that. For thirty years.

 

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

 

 

As We Go Marching, Marching

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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)

Meet You on the Barricades

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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.

Why I Don’t Write Novels about Scientists—and Why, If You Knew Them, You Probably Wouldn’t Either

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People who know me are sometimes surprised that I don’t write about scientists. “A scientist would make a great character,” they tell me. “People are interested in scientists; they’re colorful; and you know all about them.”

Even without asking, I know the people who say this all really enjoyed the Back to the Future movies.

Heck, I enjoyed them myself; and the character of Dr. Emmett Brown did, in certain key ways, actually resemble some scientists I have known. Just dial Dr. Brown’s eccentricity and flamboyance waaaaaay back, preserve (or enhance) his single-mindedness and drive, increase the Brown family fortune that he spent up doing his research to at least twenty million dollars* (it took him—what? thirty years?—and doing research is very expensive), then load him up with a lot of teaching duties and administrative responsibilities and the fictional inventor of the time-traveling DeLorean would make a perfectly plausible researcher.

But—and this is the critical part—not a very good character in a movie, or book.

While it is true that a lot of scientists are a bit eccentric (some quite charmingly so), to be successful they have a lot of other traits that are the opposite of colorful. Doing research, as I mentioned, is expensive and most real scientists don’t have a family fortune to spend. Therefore, they must secure grants, which requires, not flamboyance, but an organized and linear thinker who can marshal past research successes, the present research status, and a coherent three-to-five-year plan for advancing the field into a forty-page document that will convince a panel of competing researchers and at least one cold-hearted government agency that any large chunks of money they throw his way will be well spent. I’ve known researchers who sported flying hair and flapping lab-coats à la Dr. Emmett Brown, and even ones who, like Einstein, eschewed socks. But believe me, when it comes to getting funding, they are as practical and business-like as any CEO, and just as uptight.

And then, if Dr. Brown is a scientist, then why isn’t Marty McFly more educated about time travel? Hang around scientists for long (five minutes) and what you find is that they can’t stop talking about what they do. They’re used to talking about their research, because that’s a huge part of their job; and since they mostly talk to other researchers who find what they say riveting, they’re used to thinking that everyone wants to hear all about it. Scientists teach everybody, all the time. Even scientists in research institutions who have no classes to teach still have to educate their graduate students and post-doctoral fellows; the public (funding again!); and—through seminars and symposia—their peers. Marty was Dr. Brown’s friend and didn’t know about the flux capacitor???? He’d have heard all about the flux capacitor nine million times!

In my experience your average scientist, far from being a wild-eyed loony, is much too serious, driven, single-minded, analytic, practical, deeply but not widely knowledgeable (there are exceptions), and naturally skeptical for me to want to write about.

Also—and this may be the real reason they don’t come up in my novels—despite all this practicality, etc. etc., an incredible number of them love the Three Stooges. I just don’t think my writing skills are up to making that seem believable.


*Question: Are we supposed to deduce that Dr. Brown burned down the family mansion to get the insurance on it to fund his research? Because this has been suggested to me by several people in a “duh! Of course he did” tone of voice when I totally did not see that at all. Not that don’t believe that there are real scientists—a few—who might do this if all their other funding sources ran out; I just didn’t see it.

The New New Math

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A lot of people enjoy surprises. I don’t. Consequently, one of the things I like best about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer surprises left for me in life. The present election aside, almost everything I see these days looks an awful lot like something I’ve seen before, and as a person who reads the ends of books first so that I know what’s coming, “more of the same” always suits me just fine.

Right now there’s much breathless discussion in the local newspaper about the degree to which the STEM curriculum—which the paper characterizes as “new”—should be implemented in our local schools. From my point of view, STEM isn’t new at all. In fact, I myself am the product of an earlier, equally impassioned attempt to “make American students competitive world-wide in math and science” which resulted when our great rivals of the time, the Soviet Union, put a beeping stainless-steel beachball called Sputnik into low earth orbit. On the whole, I think the STEM curriculum is all well and good (and STEAM, which incorporates art into the program, sounds even better), but knowing how the whole Sputnik thing eventually played out has made me just a little bit cynical about the transformative power on students of one curricula over another.

As far as I’m concerned, anything that persuades the American taxpayer to invest money in education is great, be it a useless beeping space-ball or the creeping realization that high-paying but low-tech jobs are becoming scarce. But one thing I don’t like seeing included along with the extra dollars for STEM is the same mood of national paranoia that was issued to me and my classmates along with our books. This time the “threat” seems to be a generalized fear that people in other countries are taking over what we regard as “our” jobs; in my day it was the Commies. Long before I could reliably have pointed out Russia on a map, I already “knew” that the schoolchildren there studied harder, were far more disciplined, and just generally knew more about everything than I did. This wasn’t, in fact, the case (as we now know); but my friends and I were convinced that it was our patriotic duty to catch up with the Russian children because in some mysterious way this might prevent The Bomb from one day being dropped in the middle of our playground. (I don’t think anybody told us this in so many words, but we believed it with all our young hearts.) Overall, a vague sense that we might be learning math for our very lives wasn’t very good for us.  I wouldn’t like to see that mistake repeated.

I’d also like to know for certain that the STEM curriculum is a little better thought-out and more widely tested than the so-called “Enrichment Education” of post-Sputnik days. “Enrichment Education” was responsible for (among other things) the two years I spent (NOT) learning “New Math,” a scheme for teaching arithmetic that emphasized concepts over actual problem-solving. There were students in my class who loved New Math, and did well in it; but they were the kind of kids who, provided with nothing more than a small box of rocks, a piece of string, and the formula a2 + b2 = c2 would probably have independently re-invented calculus. The rest of us started middle school unprepared to do long division, far less algebra.  Luckily for me, calculators were invented soon after; but honestly, rather than a calculator I’d have rather had a firm grasp of the algorithms necessary to solve simple math problems for myself.

I also think the educators of today should keep in mind that, at least as far as I could tell, by the time I went to college, beat-the-commies Enrichment Education had produced just about the usual ratio of mathematicians and engineers to liberal arts majors. I suspect it will be the just the same with STEM. Don’t get me wrong:  I actually think that–with a few caveats–STEM classes are probably a wonderful idea; and as I said, I’m in favor of anything at all that puts dollars into schools. I even think that most of those extra dollars should be spent teaching on science and technology, since STEM subjects, which require laboratory work, are more expensive than the liberal arts to teach. But money is one thing, and classroom hours are another. STEM or no, I don’t want to see the liberal arts neglected.

I feel very strongly about this not because I personally love the liberal arts (though I do), but because I work in the Biochemistry Department of a major university, and I talk to scientists and science students all day long. And all of them tell me—laughing, but a little rueful, too—that everything that they presently know or are learning about science and technology will be out of date in ten years. On the other hand, new discoveries and ideas will never render the knowledge and values imparted to them in their liberal arts classes irrelevant or obsolete. Their whole lives long, any historical fact they pick up, or book they read, will add to–not negate or replace–what they already know.

They could even read a book about New Math.  Hey, better them, than me!

And by the way, on election day, be sure to vote.  If there’s a bond issue for the schools on your ballot, at least consider voting “yes” on it.  Democracies work best when the electorate is educated and informed.

 

Where’s the Beef?

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I don’t know what they’re teaching young people in other countries about American culture, but whatever it is, I think it must be wrong. The international students that I tutor all appear to be suffering from a high degree of culture-shock. As soon as I’ve worked with them just long enough that they’ve begun to feel comfortable with me (which, coincidentally, is just about the time that I introduce them to the indicative perfect, “have begun”) they announce that America is not at all what they expected it to be, and the questions start pouring out.

These questions, like the students’ difficulties with English verbs, are specific to their particular home cultures. Students from more authoritarian countries want to know why Americans are so lawless; the ones from the Netherlands ask me why Americans are so excessively law-abiding. Honestly, that one makes me wonder how the Netherlands even continues to exist. A lot of them are stunned to find out—often the hard way—that things like the “No Parking” signs around campus are meant to be taken seriously. I’m asked the same things over and over again, year after year, except that in the past decade the sheepish inquiries about how Americans signal sexual attraction have really tapered off. I guess I must look too old now to be a good source of information on that topic.

There are three things about Americans that all of the students, from every culture, want to know—and one thing that only one student has ever wanted to know, which was if I was afraid of Mormons. Yes, Mormons; and yes, afraid. Never did figure out where that came from.

Anyway—as I mentioned, there are three characteristics of American culture that preoccupy all my tutees, and the first one is:

Why do Americans eat so much meat?

So far I’ve been asked this question 4,652 times, and never once, as far as I can tell, in a disapproving manner. In fact, the point is most apt to be raised at one of the semi-annual lab barbeques my husband and I host at our house, where the foreign students watch, awestricken and envious, as the Americans heap their plates with beef, pork, and chicken, and afterwards never have to wonder whether they made the right choice among the meats.

“How do they do it?” the international students ask, and the correct answer to this question (which I supply) is that it’s genetic. America was settled by people who loved meat, and we are their descendants. If you have ever read—as I have—the letters early immigrants wrote back to their various Old Countries, you will have noticed—as I have—that aside from a little family news, they’re simply catalogues of Meat the Said Immigrants Have Eaten; Meat They Are Currently Chewing; and Meat They Happily Anticipate Eating Very Soon. It’s like a sick obsession. Meat was apparently available in American in a way that it just wasn’t elsewhere; and meat-lovers couldn’t stop talking about how good—in regard to meat, at least—they had it here.

And then those letters motivated other meat-lovers to immigrate to America too; and pretty soon the whole continent was filled up with humanity’s most avid carnivores.

(I also tell the students that quite a lot of the meat the immigrants bragged about eating was game that they’d shot themselves, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why Americans are gun-crazy, too.)

The next time I write a novel about early America, I’m going to put a lot more hunting and meat-eating into it to provide that nice little touch of historical veracity that divides the ordinary historical work from the one an editor is going to demand big changes to. Editors are not interested in history; they are interested in sales. I wrote a novel once about the 1830s wife of a Congregationalist minister, and an editor informed me that the book was basically great, but would be much more commercial if she wasn’t religious. I’m not bitter or anything, but this is why I self-publish.

After we’ve dealt with the meat issue, the students and I then move on to the two other burning questions they all have about America; but I’ll leave those for another time.  The only thing I’ll say for now is that, happily, questions two and three have nothing to do with food.

Simplify, Simplify

definition

Sometimes when I need cheering up, I remind myself that I’m one of the lucky few in this world who is able to make my living doing what I love—writing.

Of course, it’s stretching a point to refer to what I make as a “living”; and it’s also not absolutely true that, in the course of an average working day, I actually get to write very much.  Mostly my job consists of re-writing what other people have written.  I also fill out a lot of paperwork, because much paperwork must be filled out before anything, from a major scientific breakthrough to changing a lightbulb, can take place at a university.  But still, I like my job, and I wouldn’t change it for anything that paid less than three times as well.

Okay; two times as well.

I work with biochemists (and biochemistry trainees), and, as I think I’ve mentioned, I’m also married to a biochemist, so I think I may state with some authority that the reputation biochemists have for being highly intelligent beings is generally well-deserved.  Their reputation for being incurably nerdy and somewhat absent-minded is also well-deserved; but I’m not going to get into that now.  My point is that they’re as bright a group of people as you will ever find, and like most really intelligent people, they usually write pretty well.

But as English becomes, more and more, the international language of science (and I think it could be argued that it is becoming simply the international language), a new, sub-dialect of Scientific English is evolving, and part of my job—my favorite part—is to translate regular Scientific English into this new dialect.

I learned this dialect in part by doing another of my little jobs around the lab, which is to correct the written English of the international students.

The difficulties the students have are specific to their nationalities.  Chinese students have terrible problems with verbs.  In speaking, some of them actually try to avoid them altogether (not recommended), or consistently use a single, particular verb-form—usually, for some reason, the present participle.  Nearly all of them have trouble distinguishing between an actual verb and a noun derived from a verb.  I let “we mixing the reagents,” or “I rotation the test-tube,” pass in conversation, but when the students bring me drafts of scientific papers they intend to submit, I know I have a duty to do.  Luckily, clarity is everything in a scientific paper, and style is nothing, so I’ve decided the Chinese students can live without the pluperfect.

Europeans have difficulties understanding the fine differences in meaning conveyed by the use of the definite rather than the indefinite article; students from the Middle East resist using articles at all.  “Such thing have no purpose,” an Iranian gravely informed me.  (She had trouble with her verb endings, too.)  The entire French nation apparently nurses a stubborn conviction that the word “information” should be plural.  “This informations was new to the investigator,” French students blithely write; and then they resist me when I demand that they change it.  (I avoid arguments by endorsing the use of alternate terms, such as “fact”.)  To a Russian, a double negative makes, not a positive, but a particularly emphatic negative.  (Russians also like the word “informations” a lot, though not as much as the French.)  All of them mistake slang for Standard English, which gives their papers a casual breeziness that reviewers absolutely hate.

Then after I’ve worked on the international students’ papers, I take what I’ve learned and apply it to the scientific papers written by the lab’s native speakers of English.  World-wide, many scientific journals are now published in English only.  Consequently it’s necessary, when writing papers for submission to these journals, to keep in mind that English isn’t the first language of most of the people who will read it.  Years ago, when I first started at the university, I combed draft papers principally for slang, idiom, and (in those pre-Spell-Check days) typos.  Now I flag unusual words, and simplify complex grammatical structures for the benefit of non-native speakers.

I haven’t quite resigned myself to changing my own writing style, though.  I probably should.  With the decline of the corner bookstore and the rise of Amazon-style world-wide book distribution, the more generally comprehensible a book’s style and vocabulary, the more likely it will be widely read.  Unlike many other writers, I have the experience necessary to take advantage of this.

I’ve been thinking, in fact, that given that there are over one and a half billion people in China, I should probably write specifically for the Chinese market.  I’ll write a book with a suitably Socialist plot—comrade gets girl; comrade studies Mao’s aphorisms with girl; comrade loses girl—and without any verbs at all.  It’ll be a smash.