Experimental Error: All That Glitters Is All We Remember

In an effort to expose ourselves to the wonders of our city on an otherwise enjoyable weeknight, my wife and I recently toured the United States Naval Observatory. (Previous excursions in this vein have included a staged reading of Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” a 3-hour opera about a depressed fisherman, and an all-ballet rendition of The Great Gatsby. I am the envy of none of my straight male friends.)

Toward the end of the evening, our guide ushered everyone into a domed building and showed off the observatory’s 26-inch refractor telescope. The group made the obligatory sounds of being impressed — the kind I make when someone describes components of their car engine to me — but since this stop occurred 90 minutes into our walking tour, I think everyone would have been just as dazzled by a row of comfortable seats.

One of the least relished parts of a scientist’s job is ‘selling’ our research to the public, and is it any wonder why we dread it? We know why our studies are important, yet we stand and watch, baffled, as people point to an irrelevant part and say, ‘Look! It’s shiny!’

As the guide reeled off facts about the telescope, he motioned to a set of manual controls a good 10 or 20 feet above our heads.

“How do you reach them?” someone asked.

“Oh, that?” said the guide. “We move the floor.”

He pressed a button, and as a series of counterweights slid down the wall, we rose.

“Cool!” people yelled. “Wow!” “Awesome!” “That’s so neat!” Faces lit up. Cameras emerged from pockets. Adults hugged their children and pointed at the approaching ceiling. Now this was science fit for a weeknight.

As a scientist visiting a “science place,” I shook my head in disappointment. Here we stood in front of the instrument that discovered the moons of Mars, and what aroused everyone’s interest was a glorified elevator. I expect the children returned home to report to their friends that they’d seen, “oh, some stuff, and some clocks, and a refractor something, and a guy talked for a long time, AND THEN THE FLOOR MOVED!!!”

One of the least relished parts of a scientist’s job is “selling” our research to the public, and is it any wonder why we dread it? We know why our studies are important, yet we stand and watch, baffled, as people point to an irrelevant part and say, “Look! It’s shiny!”

The experience reminded me of a recent trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland. Most of the fish tanks, usually surrounded by children, stood abandoned.

Then I saw the children. All of them. Every child in the state of Maryland had congregated around just one exhibit: the clown fish. “It’s Nemo!” they shrieked. “Look, Daddy! I found Nemo! Can I keep Nemo? Catch Nemo for me! I see him again! There’s Nemo!”

I pitied the parents who had imagined impressing their children with the vastness of the oceans’ bounty, and all the kids wanted to see was the fish that looked like the fish in the cartoon. In the kids’ minds, the world contained only two kinds of sea creatures: Nemo and Education Fish.

Maybe this phenomenon also explained why, in the gift shop of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, I saw more pictures of Einstein sticking out his tongue than of Einstein not sticking out his tongue. Or why the group of high school students I once led through a clean-room facility ignored my descriptions of all the fascinating medical research but loved the disposable blue booties.

Science isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. That’s why it’s called “science,” as opposed to, say, “happy-fun-awesome time,” which I think is the name of a Korean restaurant near my house. And the fact that we can see through the glitz and embrace the boring, important core is what makes us scientists.

Isn’t it?

I decided to ask my parents about the trip that I thought had started me on the path to becoming a biologist.

“Dad,” I asked, “do you remember going to the Philadelphia Zoo when I was 3?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Do you remember what part of the zoo I thought was the most fascinating?”

“Actually, yes, I do,” he said.

So this was it. The answer to this question would reveal my history, how I came to choose my career. I crossed my fingers. Come on, capybara.

“And what was it?”

“The trash cans,” he said.

The trash cans?

According to my mother, I loved that the trash cans had fake animal heads on top, and throwing away garbage was like feeding the animals.

“And … the actual animals?” I asked.

“Oh, you didn’t really care,” she said. “We just kept giving you napkins to feed to the lion head, and you were happy.”

So that’s that. Surrounded by the wonders of the biological world, I chose to discard napkins. A lion-shaped trash can was my moving floor.

What kind of crappy origin story would this make for a memoir? “And, sure enough, inspired by my first trip to the zoo, I grew up to work in a lab where I still throw things away.”

I was only 3 years old, but come to think of it, I’ve seen real scientists fall victim to the same sort of diversion we resent having to sell to the public. A geneticist gave a guest seminar to my graduate program a few years ago, and he began the talk with a short video showing bacterial conjugation set to a 1970s porno soundtrack. My classmates all laughed — it was a great gag — but 5 minutes later, the talk devolved into typical PowerPoint slides of Western blots and genotyping, and we did what graduate students do in seminars with too many acronyms: We fell asleep.

Now, years later, I remember the porno gag but nothing else about that seminar. In fact, 5 minutes after the end of the talk, I don’t think I could have told you the name of the scientist who spoke — but did you see the part where the one bacterium totally stuck its pilus into the other one, and it was like, “Hey, baby, let’s exchange F plasmids”? (I did think the video lost some credibility when a paramecium came over to repair the cable.)

Maybe these diversions don’t ultimately communicate what we hope, but in the end, maybe that’s OK. For a few minutes, I watched bacteria mate with fascination. I may only remember the porno clip, but this seminar was one of several dozen from which, years later, I remember nothing (except the free coffee and the one time a visiting lecturer claimed she could cure AIDS with — seriously — olives).

Lab work may be vital to uncovering the world’s truths, but much of it has also become routine. Making a new gene, for example, used to involve months of toil and creativity. Now I can have a gene synthesized without even putting on gloves. I just upload the sequence on a Web form, charge my company a couple thousand dollars, and in a few weeks, the DNA arrives in the mail. (I keep waiting for the synthesis companies to make recommendations on their Web sites the way that Amazon and Netflix do: “If you liked the metalloprotease, you’ll love this cyclin-dependent kinase!”)

Perhaps the reason we’re asked so often to sell our science to the public is that our science has stopped selling itself. We’ve lost a bit of the fun, the glitz, the distractions, that we all find interesting — and, with it, we’ve lost the willingness to admit that we, too, think it’s cool to find Nemo.

Granted, there’s nothing wrong with improving science literacy. We would do well to avoid errors like the New Jersey power company’s slogan that angered my college physics class: “Energy: It’s not just a force. It’s power!” (It was as though they had said, “Mass: It’s not just a temperature. It’s a unit of magnetic flux!”) But let’s be careful not to lose the gee-whiz sense of play that hooked us on science in the first place.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put a lion head on top of my lab’s biohazardous waste bin.

Chasing Down the Data You Need

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