Silverbacks and Whippersnappers

Last summer, two fiftysomething scientists at my company were reminiscing about slide rules. I’m in my mid-30s and remember playing with one as a kid (a slide rule, not a fiftysomething scientist) but never for its intended purpose, which has something to do with logarithms. A slide rule—as every child knew—was a tool that scientists used to make an awesome marble ramp.

During this conversation, I felt a little ignorant, like a traitor to my scientific forebears, for not knowing more about slide rules—that is, until our 22-year-old intern stopped texting to look up “slide rule” on Wikipedia. She had never heard the term. “You moved the little plastic middle piece to calculate,” explained one of the older scientists, pointing to the picture on her computer screen, and the intern said, “Oh! It’s like an abacus!”

You put on that lab coat all by yourself? You’re a rock star! You win a puffy sticker!

Sometimes I feel old. Usually this happens when I see a younger scientist tweeting or Instagramming or Tumblring or whatever, and I experience something akin to contempt. These idiots! Probably hashtagging Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift or … who’s another one? Is Clay Aiken still a thing?

Back in my day, we didn’t have no fancy cloud computing. We had Zip drives, and we liked them.

Sometimes, though, I feel young. This happens when I watch a more senior scientist attempting to use technology. “I just Internetted my face mail!” someone older and with otherwise valid intellect will declare. “But I think the word page crashed its modem tubes.”

I’ve found it’s fun to dazzle the older scientists by using Microsoft Office in adequate ways. “He’s so fast!” the elders will shout. “How did he do that?” I’ll explain that Ctrl+V is a simple shortcut for “Paste,” and they really should try it sometime, but I know they won’t.

That’s what happens in one’s mid-30s, I’m learning. You bristle at the old silverbacks, harrumphing around the decaf coffeepot, but you also scorn the young whippersnappers, OMGing their Monster energy drinks. The silverbacks are irrelevant, and the whippersnappers are naïve. Who, exactly, has the perfect balance of gumption and humility? Why, scientists in their mid-30s, of course.

As I watched the senior scientists explain the slide rule to the intern, I could suddenly see my place in the conveyor belt of generations. And I knew I was feeling the same disdain for the young scientists—really, an abacus?—that the old scientists feel toward my cohort.

Kids these days, am I right? Let’s look at some of the common traits young scientists share:

Indications of a busy but frivolous social life outside the lab. You know what it means when the young scientist comes in with a faded black “X” on the back of one hand? It means the young scientist spent Saturday night somewhere interesting. And you didn’t. If it’s any comfort, “interesting” is a relative term, as young scientists often favorably regard situations that end in vomiting, loss of consciousness, and violation of Commandments IV, VII, and X. It’s a type of socializing that’s tremendously fun at a certain point in one’s life, but a decade later just seems idiotic. “My friends went to the bar, and we drank, then we went to another bar, and we drank, and some of us got drunk, but some of us didn’t, and then more of us got drunk, and then the next day we weren’t drunk anymore, so we went back to the bars!”

Annoyingly nimble familiarity with technology. I love technology. I don’t mean to brag, but I read a tech blog every couple of weeks and understand about a quarter of it. But the younger breed has to use technology every second. Even during activities that really ought to occupy the bulk of one’s attention, like riding a bike, mixing lab chemicals, or participating in conversation with a live human. What’s more, if you ask a basic question (“So, does your phone have the Siri?”) you get a pitying look that makes you feel 900 years old.

Convenient intellectual laziness. Even their familiarity with technology can fail them when an ounce of critical thought is needed. “I don’t understand this,” they’ll say sullenly, by which they mean, “I haven’t yet tried to understand this, and don’t intend to.” It occurs to you to suggest Googling, but there’s no way they haven’t already tried that—is there? Oh yes, there is. And when you show them a nicely written explanation that you found in—thanks, Google—0.31 seconds, you watch their despair fail to abate because, ugh, you mean they have to read it?

Shockingly, eyeball-gougingly horrific written grammar. How did you get through third grade—let alone college—without learning the difference between “its” and “it’s”? Or “they’re,” “their,” and “there”? Did you miss that day? Either all elementary schools taught grammar during the week when pinkeye took out 95% of the class or there is a serious epidemic of grammatical carelessness among young scientists. Worse, when their vocabulary runs dry, young scientists invent barfingly implausible words, like “gougingly” and “barfingly.”

Ignorance of administrative necessities. To a young scientist, as Arthur C. Clarke wrote, the day-to-day administration of a lab is indistinguishable from magic. You might even hear a young scientist say one of the following:

  1. “Do you really need to knowI bought?”

Expectation of constant praise and reward. The young scientist thrives on head pats, words of encouragement, and celebration of every tiny achievement. “You put on that lab coat all by yourself? You’re a rock star! You win a puffy sticker!”

Always on your lawn. And this time they’re not getting their Frisbee back.

But it’s not just those darn fool kids with their wheelie shoes and their Josh Groban hair. Older scientists—silverbacks—have their own collection of quirks and qualities that distinguish them from the middle generation:

An unwelcome ability to answer scientific questions using first principles. “Hey, Dr. Crusty von Oldguy,” you’ll say. “Do we keep the extra Post-its in the top drawer?” “Well,” Dr. Oldguy will respond, “That’s an interesting question. Let’s start with the Ideal Gas Law.”

Nostalgia for a time when science was unnecessarily cumbersome. You know that reagent you can now buy for $10? Well, time was, they had to make that reagent. From scratch. It took three weeks, and most of that time was spent collecting serum from an elusive herd of alpacas. And don’t get them started about making scatter plots back in the day, or visiting science libraries in person—in person! If older scientists had to do something the hard way, then darn it, why should you get off so easily? It’s not like science is all about new discoveries or anything.

Bizarre and thorough ineptitude with technology. Just hold down the “Control” key and press “V.”  No, “Control.” That’s “Alt.” No, that’s “Shift.”  See one that says “Ctrl”? Yes, I know it’s not the whole word. Yes, that’s okay. Good. Now press “V.” No, at the same time. What do you mean, “Capital or lower-case?” Figure that one out on your own. Wait, what? Yes, I know there are two “Control” keys. You can use either one, whichever is more convenient. Seriously, it doesn’t matter. Okay, so you’ve picked one? Great. Try pasting. No, press them at the same time. What do you mean, it didn’t work? You have a Mac? Who let you get a Mac?

An ability to convince funders to give them grants. How do they do that?  I mean, you’ve seen their research. Did anything about it make you want to give them $3 million?

Speaking of money: money. Scientists approaching retirement age make triple my salary? How is that fair? Just because they’re more senior? And more experienced? And do the job significantly better than I do?

A weird fetish for outdated lab equipment. When I see a spectrophotometer from 1935, I kind of want to walk right past it and use the new one. Yes, the old one still works, but I don’t feel like hand-cranking the electricity into the punch cards when the nice digital spectrophotometer can send the optical density right to my Droid. And it’s so shiny. But older scientists take a perverse pride in using museum-grade tools—when they do actual lab work, which is rare.

Because that’s another quality of older scientists: They’ve spent decades paying their dues, and now they have whippersnappers to do all their manual labor for them. They can just relax and think of new experiments for others to perform. It sounds … pretty awesome.

Maybe this progression, from the entitled artlessness of youth to the fundamentalist lechery of old age, is the way things are meant to go. You begin your career knowing nothing but thinking you know everything, and you end it actually knowing a lot but in awe of how little you know.

In the middle, you’re kind of nowhere. Should you join the silverbacks and use a slide rule? Or join the whippersnappers and use Google?

Neither. I know exactly where my middle ground is. If I need to calculate logarithms, I’ll pull back the black plastic cover of my generation’s slide rule: In a drawer in my lab, hidden among the pipette tips, I still have my old TI-85. And I like it.

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