I never met her, but I think she’d be disappointed in me.
I had just finished a sandwich and I was sitting on a bench near the water. I wasn’t looking at the water. I had pulled out my cell phone to check my email – email I had checked 20 minutes ago. There were emails that needed responses and I started to respond.
Then I thought, what the heck am I doing? There’s a whole ocean out there? I looked up and saw that all the other people – all sitting near the water, were looking at their cell phones. A little boy yelled “Look at what I found! It’s over here!” His mother didn’t look up from her phone. The only adult person sitting near the water and not looking at a cell phone was Rachel Carson. Well, a statue of Rachel Carson.
Carson is a hero of mine not because of she helped start the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring about the effect of DDT pesticides on bird populations – but because she writes with the soul of a poet about the ocean in her lesser known, but just as impressive, books about the sea. If you haven’t read the essay about eels in Under a Sea Wind, you need to stop right now and go read it! Go!
Taking a cue from Rachel (we’re on a first-name basis now) I went snorkeling and completely abandoned work.
The water was cold water and I saw the comb jellies bob in front of me and fish dart into the rockweed. Oyster drills dotted the rocks and crabs ate their suppers while wedged in the rocks.
The most amazing thing I saw was (that’s an palindrome!) a polychaete worm with his bristly body swimming through the water. I followed him for ten minutes thinking, “Worm! Don’t you know that this ocean has fish in it!?” But he didn’t mind. He did not crawl like the other worms. He swam until he tired and then dipped back into the rocks.
Refreshed by the cool Buzzards Bay I returned to Rachel to look out over the ‘hole’ of Woods Hole and write.
As she might have done decades ago.
David and Rachel, different eras, but both writers and both scientists.
My career in science used to begin with a snake, now it may begin with a lie.
The snake is a garter snake. I have known this snake since I was 8-years-old when Mama bought me a book on snake identification. She bought it after I brought home a baby copperhead in my pocket. She knew I wasn’t going to stop bringing home snakes, so she wanted to make sure I knew which ones to bring home and which ones to leave behind.
I have told this ‘copperhead-in-my-pocket’ anecdote for two decades now. I’ve used it in essays and in job interviews as a watershed moment in my development as an ecologist.
But it may be a lie.
Last month I was sitting in an Asian restaurant in Falmouth, Massachusetts, re-reading Old Yeller (I mean, where would you re-read a classic from your childhood?). The narrator, a teenage boy, Travis, describes how his little brother, Arliss, has a penchant for bringing home snakes and frogs. I nodded remembering all the animals I brought home as a kid.
Then I stopped eating my cashew chicken with brown rice when I read the following:
“And once he turned out of his pocket a wadded-up baby copperhead that nearly threw Mama into spasms. We never did figure out why the snake hadn’t bitten him…”
Had I torn a thread from Old Yeller‘s story and wove it into my own? Was this anecdote I’ve told for years a lie?
Mama doesn’t remember the ‘copperhead-in-the-pocket’ story, but she does remember buying the paperback book on snakes. And she remembers books on dinosaurs and fish. She remembers me bringing home snakes, snapping turtles, crawdads, fish, frogs, bugs, and spiders. But not a copperhead in my pocket, baby or otherwise.
Did little Arliss’s life mimic mine or did I steal his?
I will never be able to tell you for sure . All I can tell you is that the snake in front of me is a garter snake. And I know this because Mama bought me a book on snakes when I was 8.
I just got an essay published in Science! This is a big deal because Science is one the premier science journals in the world. Unfortunately I can’t upload a pdf to my blog because of copyright issues, but I can link to the article, which is unfortunately behind a paywall. If you can’t get over the paywall, then please let me know (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll get you a copy of the piece.
The Easter Bunny, who goes by E.B., slumped in the chair across my desk like a box of melted crayons. Pastel colors smeared his matted and otherwise dirty fur. The only primary color was the red that streaked his eyes. The air was infused with the sickening smell of booze and sweat as the alcohol wept from his pores.
“Man, I don’t how much longer I can do this,” he said. “I don’t sleep. Do you know how long it takes to dye millions of eggs and coordinate their delivery? And some kids expect Easter baskets! I don’t even have a workshop like that fat-sack up north does.”
For millennia, E.B. has been trying to get in on the human belief game, get some of that good old ‘real creature’ recognition. Some time back he followed the lead of his peers the Tooth Fairy and Santa Claus. You know, the old “provide services to humans” game: he scratches your back, you provide him with validation . His appearance was too genteel to be considered scary like the Boogey Man or even Sasquatch, who have very small workloads.
Like Santa, E.B. inserted himself into Christian customs. Santa had already taken the birth of Jesus as his day. E.B. took Easter. He used Santa’s tactic of bribing kids, but instead of presents he started with colored chicken eggs that he ‘laid’ and hid from the kids. Hiding them reduced the number he had to produce. Kids who didn’t get any eggs just assumed they were hidden too well. And at the time, eggs were cheap. Then egg prices skyrocketed as did the number of kids. And then Easter baskets came into play. All of this to celebrate the resurrection of a 3-day dead Jesus from 2000 years ago. To his amazement, he was accepted this way.
But E.B. was tired. He wanted to be accepted by science as real so he could retire as the Easter Bunny and simply enjoy life as a large woodland creature.
This is how I came to find him sitting across from me. I am a scientist who advises ‘mythical’ creatures. I long-ago advised the painfully shy Loch Ness Monster to remain hidden in an undisclosed lake (not Loch Ness) and have deployed many disreputable hucksters who pretend to be scientists. You may know them ascryptozoologists.
E.B. chewed and ripped off a hangnail. “Can’t I just get accepted as a large rabbit?”
“Maybe, but you’re going to have to be more rabbit-like.”
“Like eating carrots and hopping around?”
“Certainly you’ll need to lose the bipedal gait and yes, you need to be more of a vegetarian. So no more bacon cheeseburgers.”
“Most of all, there are two things you need to do if you want to be accepted by science. The first is that you have to stop this ‘egg-laying’ business. All egg-laying mammals are known as monotremes, which is Greek for ‘one-hole’ and in this case refers to a cloaca. Only the platypus and the echidna (once considered ‘mythical’ themselves) are monotremes. And they live in Australia. You, my friend, are rabbit-shaped and without a cloaca. All rabbits are classified as lagomorphs, which is Greek for ‘rabbit-shaped.”
“ ‘Rabbit-shaped’? You scientists are clever, aren’t you?”
I said nothing.
“Okay,” E.B. said. “What’s the second thing?”
I leaned back in my chair. “You’re not going to like it.”
He leaned on his elbows across my desk, “Just tell me!”
“It’s Greek. It means ‘to eat feces.’ You need to start eating your feces.”
E.B. threw himself back in his chair. “You want me to eat my own…?” His eyes motioned downward.
“Your feces, yes. Lagomorphs produce both a hard and soft feces. Many of people have seen the small, round ‘rabbit pellet’s’. That’s the hard feces. Some rabbits eat it, but you don’t have to. What very few of us see is the soft feces. The reason we don’t see it is because a rabbit takes it directly from its anus and swallows it like pills.”
E.B.’s mouth was open and he was staring straight ahead. An uncertain and thick silence was held. He said slowly, “I didn’t know bunnies – those cute and cuddly and hoppy rabbits – were so…disgusting. Why would you eat that crap?”
“The short answer is nutrition. Rabbits mostly eat vegetation, which is difficult to break down and a lot of the energy in the vegetation isn’t assimilated and passes straight out of the rabbit. Many herbivorous mammals have this problem. Ruminant animals such as goats, cows, giraffes, and deer regurgitate a ‘cud’ and chew it again to further break down the vegetation. Lagomorphs don’t have the same digestive structure as ruminants (which have multiple stomach chambers) and instead re-ingest feces to increase caloric uptake. Impressively, the rabbit’s gut is able to produce hard feces, which has very few calories and produce a high-calorie soft feces.”
“Egads, man! Why not just eat more grass?”
“There is a cost to foraging for more food. Not just in terms of the energy to go out and find food, but the more time you are foraging, the more you are exposed to predators. Lagomorphs forage at night to avoid predation by visual predators such as hawks and eagles. At night they ignore feces as a food source. During the day they rest in one place and produce soft feces for re-ingestion. So the rabbit can basically eat all day.”
E.B. shook his head. “It’s still disgusting.”
“You’re in good company though. From dung beetles that eat other species’ feces to mice, dogs, pigs, beavers, nutria and lemurs, many animals re-ingest feces. Heck, it has been reported in mammoths from 10,000 years ago! Presumably because there was little vegetation to graze then.The overall notion is to gain nutrition.”
It’s just a piece of seaweed in February. Too cold to pick it up.
But you do pick it up despite your gloveless hands. You look at the rubbery leaf-like structures (which you later learn are called ‘blades’). You notice the root-like structures (which you later learn are called holdfasts) are holding something. It’s a shell. You hold it against the sky. Look at how those holdfasts hold fast onto the shell. How they curl and melt around the contours of the shell and of each other. How it looks like a soft claw clutching a stone.
You learn later that this is kelp, a large brown algae. And that algae are plant like, but not plants. They sit low on the Tree of Life and plants should really be called alga-like because algae were here first. But we don’t give bouquets of kelp for Valentine’s Day, so we are plant biased. But it was from algae that plants learned to harvest energy from the sun; holdfasts became roots and blades became leaves. But kelp found their formula for life suitable and hold fast to their primitive forms. A form that rivals that of any rose.
Ask this at your dinner table tonight. How many spaces do you put after a period? After a question mark?
I put two. Guess how many I’m supposed to put? One. One after this period. One after these exclamation points!!!!! Know what I learned in high school in my typing class? Two. Thanks public education.
Why are there still two-spacers in a one-spacers world?
According tothis article in Slate by Farhad Manjoo, it’s because the old two-spacing ways are still being taught out of habit. Two spaces were used for typewriters because the characters each took up equal amount of space. So a skinny ‘i’ had the same cozy space that a fat ‘W’ fit in. It makes the text look ‘loose’ and for the eye to follow to the next sentence it was best to give two spaces after the period to give enough definition to the sentence. The white space signalling, “Hey, the sentence is over buddy! Get ready for the next one!” Though I thought that was what the period was for in the first place. Computers use proportional typesetting so the skinny ‘i’ only takes up a small space and the fat ‘W’ takes up more space. Now we only need a small bit of white space to signify the end of the sentence. Again, which is what I thought the period was for in the first place.
And while we’re at it, why capitalize the word at the beginning of a sentence? To signify the beginning of a new sentence? Didn’t that question mark just signify the end of the last sentence and therefore the next word will begin a new sentence? Grammarians, please educate me.
And back to my education. 15. When I became a two-spacer. Now I’m trying to convert and it’s driving me batty (thanks a lot Farhad). And how much of my life has been wasted with all those extra spaces?
Let’s see, typing since I was 15…22 years now with an average of 5 pages per day, average sentence length of 20 words per sentence, 500 words per page each space represents a letter and there are on average 5 letters per word and I type an average of 45 words a minute (mock not my slow fingers!)…carry the 3…
Holy cow! I have wasted 1,003,750 spaces for a total of 200,750 words meaning I’ve spent 75 hours, or over 3 days typing extra spaces. Oh, what could I have done with those 3 days? Oh how misspent my youth. How misspent.
Harriet is simply thrilled to have her picture taken; especially when squatting in mud and plucking snails.
Mentor and mentee sorting samples.
Harriet and Meghan Short (another of my mentees!) collect mudsnails in Rowley, Massachusetts
Harriet and Kate (high school intern) at West Creek
There are so many stories from the Great Marsh (the thumbprint of marsh bordered by the rocky shores of Cape Ann to the south and the sandy beaches of New Hampshire to the north) and it’s wonderful when they are written down. The one below is from Harriet Booth, a recent graduate of Brown University, who also had the great pleasure of being one of my interns in the summer of 2012. And bless her heart, not only did she survive a summer in the boot-sucking mud and pain-in-the arm, face, and leg flies, but she went on to write an honors thesis. Recently, she wrote a wonderful blog post about her experience, some of which is excerpted below. I particularly like “…a small snail, muddy-colored and roughly the size of a peanut, emerged from the edge of the plastic, making a bid for freedom across the mudflat.” I encourage you to read the entire essay here.
Harriet is currently a Research Fellow at the Atlantic Ecology Division of the EPA in Narragansett, RI. She is looking at the effect of ocean acidification on bivalves. Way to go, Harriet!
“The square, plastic quadrat slapped down where I tossed it, splattering me with little droplets of mud. As I bent down to examine the sampling area, I noticed one side of the small quadrat seemed to be moving slightly, lifted by some tiny but determined force. I looked closer and watched as a small snail, muddy-colored and roughly the size of a peanut, emerged from the edge of the plastic, making a bid for freedom across the mudflat. I watched this little guy trundle resolutely away from me, making slow but steady progress across what must have seemed to him, a vast expanse of mud. His tiny antenna occasionally appeared from beneath the front of his shell, wiggling about and seeming to wave at me as I crouched in the creekbed. Eventually, I picked the snail up and placed him back inside the quadrat, counting the rest of the remaining snails at the same time. However enjoyable it was to watch these little creatures bumble around, I had many more quadrats to toss before making my own escape out of the sucking mud of the salt marsh.”
As a scientist you may ask yourself, Science communication, should I do it? Yes! Science communication has multiple benefits:
1) It increases scientific literacy. More explicitly, it garners interest for your particular field and explains why it’s important. Remember, science is often supported via government grants or kind benefactors. Science communication is voter education.
2) It makes you better scientist. Science communication forces you to distill your message to the protein and clarify your own thinking.
3) Other scientists need to know what you’re doing! Science communication gets your science out of your lab and into someone else’s. As Clara Chaisson points out, Science communication fosters better communication among scientists too!
4) Science communication is your most important tool for outreach, which helps you get jobs and funding. But you should also do it because it’s part of your scientific philosophy!
5) It exposes you. Yes, exposure is terrifying, but it is necessary. As much as we want to romanticize the hermit scientist cloistered in the lab, the market for jobs, funding, and peer-recognition relies somewhat on marketing yourself.
The next question is, How do I do it? Write a book? Give a tweet? Give a lecture? Dance a jig? Yes! Another excellent point by Clara, Science communication comes in many forms, big (for example, books) and small (for example, tweets). Every level of science communication can be important, so if you are intimidated or worried about how much time it’s going to take, start out small.
Below are suggestions for getting your science out there. If you have other suggestions please let me know in the comments and I’ll update the blog and credit you with thanks!
FOR THE WRITER IN YOU
Write a Letter to the Editor Happy news! Newspapers still exist! Some even in the analogue form! Letters to the Editors are typically brief (~200 words) and in response to a previously written article in that newspaper or journal. This can be a way to get your feet wet. Go ahead! Give it a try!
Write an Op-ed Op-ed means ‘opposite the editorial page’ and is an unsolicited opinion piece you submit vs. the editorials which are written by staff columnists. These are longer than Letters to the Editor and typically 750 – 1000.
Start a blog Blogs are free-form and are as easy to update as your Facebook account. Sites like WordPressand Blogger will host your blog for free and are extremely user friendly with a lot of options for displaying your content with many tutorials online. I started my blog to talk about the science I wanted to talk about. But blogs can take a lot of time and effort. Not enough time to start and maintain your own blog? Be a contributor to a blog. Some group blogs I enjoy include DeepSeaNews (my favorite article is why mermaids can’t exist ) and Southern Fried Science (great freakin’ title!). Try to find one in your area of expertise.
Want to Freelance? Maybe you want to Freelance? This means you write articles for targeted journals/newspapers/websites either on assignment (i.e., you have a contract to do the work) or you submit the work on spec (i.e., you write the piece and submit it to an editor on speculation). The essay I recently wrote for the local newspaper was written on-spec. Take a gander at what Sarah White’s sage advice on freelancing. Particularly, that you should get paid for it because freelancing ain’t free.
Write a book David George Haskell walked into Shakerag Hollow in Tennessee, sat down on a rock and observed a patch of the forest floor. He had a notebook, a hand lens and his senses. He visited this spot again and again for one year. Then he wrote The Forest Unseen. Then he got himself nominated for a Pulitzer. Sounds simple, but it took him ten years to write the book. But the idea that the simple act of observation, the first step of the scientific method, could serve as the foundation for a book is inspiring! Many scientists have written great science books. Rachel Carson. Carl Safina. E.O. Wilson. Are you next?
Social media Social media makes me want to jump into a tornado of angry claw hammers (not the docile ones) dressed as a nine-penny nail. There’s so much to keep up with. So instead of writing about it, I re-direct you to marine ecologist Jarrett Byrnes’ post on the matter. He says things gooder than me do (and I’m busy sewing together this Nail costume). I will repeat this line from his post, If you are not curating your online identity, someone or something else is doing it for you. In other words, that angry rant you posted years ago about how putting fruit, particularly raisins, in baked goods is abhorrent and wrong (and it is) is still there. And it can be found by your mama, your boss, and that woman in another lab that you’ve been trying to work up the courage to ask out (just do it already!). With the internet it’s one click and that’s it. It’s there forever.
FOR THE NON-WRITTEN COMMUNICATOR IN YOU
Maybe you don’t want to write but instead express yourself in other ways. Here are some ideas. Tell a story about your science
If you’re approached by someone who wants to hear your story, say a freelance writer, don’t be shy! If you’re really brave, you can tell the story behind your science yourself. I was recently introduced to The Story Collider. Story Collider is phenomenal. The stories are told by scientists and show them as humans with real emotions. You’ll laugh. You’ll cry. You’ll scratch your head. Imagine the Moth Radio Hour for scientists.
Guest lecture at local schools Schools sometimes receive small educational-improvement grants to support guest speakers. Regardless, biology clubs and science classrooms love guest speakers, especially if you’re a real-live scientist! I spent two days this month talking to group of middle-schoolers about ocean acidification. The kids loved sampling the pH of household solutions (did you know milk is slightly acidic at 6.5 pH?) and role-playing chemical reactions. Lobsters, microscopes, chemistry, and role playing are all things I’ve brought into classrooms to communicate science. The students usually respond well to them all. Remember, these are future voters and potentially scientists!
Radio broadcast/podcast In my opinion, Radiolab is one of the best example of this. If you’re interested in getting into this you might consider participating in the Transom workshops.
Videography Sites like YouTube and Vimeo are great repositories for science blogs. And they are blowing up! One of my favorites is Emily Graslie’s video blog The Brain Scoop. It is friggin’ awesome! And her enthusiasm for natural history great! I am jealous of her skills and ability and ease of explaining science. In fact, it is from her that I learned the difference between antlers and horns. I might have binge watched most them instead of writing a proposal.
In the marine ecology community is Beneath the Waves , a wonderful festival of marine science videos that is shown around the world (not just on the net!). I’m simply thrilled with what they’ve done. Take a look and maybe submit a video! Or find such a festival in your discipline. Or start your own festival!
On that note, there is a new ebook, The Scientist Videographerby Karen McKee, a coastal ecologist on videography for scientists. I haven’t read the book yet, but Karen is a great scientist and communicator so it’s worth a read. It’s only available on Apple platforms at the moment. I know, I know. Me too.
Perform a play Suitcase theater by Beth Nixon about her dad (a marine biologist), crabs, and dinosaurs. I saw this performance. Moving, powerful and human. I wish I could show it to you. Go see it if you can. Maybe I will see one of your shows soon?
Comic books? Street performances? Smoke signals? Crocheting? Be creative!
Thank you, Clara Chaisson (a science-communication graduate student at Boston University) for your helpful comments and contributions to this blog post. Check out Clara’s blog. Do it now!
Remember in the last post I began with thinking I should write about trees and their leaves? Well, I went from thoughts to paper! A newspaper even! I just published an article about leaf-color change in the Daily News, a daily newspaper in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Below are pretty pics for your viewing pleasure.The article can be found here.
As I shared this wonderful news with my writer friends, I was repeatedly counselled that it’s okay to build up a resume by writing pro bono, but not to let it get out of hand. David Berreby reminded this David Samuel Johnson of the words of Samuel Johnson.
None but a blockhead ever wrote but for money.
Well, fit me a square hat then because I got no money for the piece. I got the joy, but no money. As a scientist I may have been raised this way.
Scientists are complete morons when it comes to monetizing their talents. Probably because that’s not our goal. None of us went into science for the money. For the fame and the sex appeal, maybe, but not for the money.
We constantly write for free. The model for academic publishing is mind-numbingly and creativity-stealingly absurd. We write the grants to fund our science (yes, some of our salary is covered by the grant but it’s not quite the same as getting paid to write), then we write the papers/articles on that research and submit them to journals who DO NOT pay us to publish in their journals (if the paper is accepted). In fact, some publishing companies require US to pay THEM to publish (I’m looking at you Elseveir with severe and narrowed eyes). And then…AND THEN! We then have to buy our article back from the journal that we just published in. The publisher gets FREE! content from scientists and then charges us to view what we just gave them. It’s a strange bondage of an intellectual serfdom as service to publishing feudal lords. Though maybe my economic metaphor doesn’t work because at least feudal lords owned the land the serfs worked, publishers don’t own my data. Running with the imperfect metaphor: this intellectual servitude is reinforced by our peers and administrations because publications are the currency that we need to get jobs and promotions. If that isn’t the most bass-ackward thing you’ve ever heard of, I don’t know what is. For being smart, we scientists sure do have our heads straight up our ignorant keisters when it comes to publishing models.
I get it. Freelancing ain’t free. And I should follow the helpful advice from my friend Sarah White who has been a freelancer for the past decade. Regarding writing for free, she blogs (in what I imagine is a stern ‘mom’ voice and stamping her foot): “Right now. I mean it. Stop.”
Sigh. It’s hard. I say this as I write a blog without asking any payment from you. Your support and kind words are all the currency I need right now. But if you want to send me a big box of cash, my address is The Brilliant Dr. David Samuel Johnson, 297 Newburyport Turnpike, Byfield, MA 01922. Remember to send large bills. And some synthetic wool socks (size 9.5 shoe). It’s getting cold up here.