How I escaped from the humanities and rediscovered science

A few days ago Kevin Zelnio, a science writer and Webmaster at Deep Sea News, wrote an incredible blog post about his non-traditional path to science. He tagged the post #IAmScience, which quickly spread through the sciencey part of the Twitterverse as others used it to hashtag short stories about their own unconventional routes to science.

Many of these stories can be found here. Mine is a tale of having an early interest in science, lapsing into the humanities, and rediscovering biology after being put off it in high school.

As a kid, all of my exposure to science was at home. Both of my parent have scientific backgrounds, and my dad is a professor in the applied sciences, so the house was always well-stocked with various interesting chemicals and contraptions. When I was very young we used to make our own fireworks, mixing powdered charcoal, sulphur, saltpeter and magnesium; I still vividly remember the searing white glow of the magnesium flame and the acrid, pungent smell of the burning sulphur. There were non-Newtonian cornstarch slurries, too, and tabletop Stirling engines, and all kinds of science books and videos. I spent endless hours on a computer program called Interactive Physics, where you could create objects in a two-dimensional universe and specify their physical properties, along with the strength of gravity, viscosity of the atmosphere, and so on.

It was great fun, and up until a certain age I did well in school science classes. In 8th grade I was interested in psychology, and for a science fair project I persuaded my dad, who has crippling arachnophobia, to get a tarantula (Theraphosa blondi) and undergo a series of therapeutic sessions in which he sat in increasingly close proximity to it, hooked up to a heart rate monitor and a potentiometer to measure the electrical resistance of his skin (i.e. level of sweat), and eating Mars bars as a form of positive reinforcement.

It was a hopeless experiment, based on silly and outdated Skinnerian ideas, with a small sample size (N=1) and no control group. Still: there was the excitement of having an idea and coming up with a way to investigate it, and of the possibility of gaining some insight into the world by doing so.

It was nearly ten years before I had that feeling again, because in high school I swiftly lost interest in science. Or rather, the curriculum seemed designed to drive out all of the excitement and curiosity from science, substituting rote learning and dry facts. Science was never presented as a way of investigating interesting questions about the universe: it was about memorising formulas and diagrams and the names of the inner parts of the cell, with no emphasis on achieving a deep understanding of the underlying principles.  I don’t remember evolution being mentioned. Math class was even worse, and I came close to failing it before dropping it in grade 12. Meanwhile I had become interested in literature, so at the end of high school I applied to university as an English major.

Majoring in English was a mixed experience – on the one hand you have a few brilliant professors who can make Shakespeare lively and relevant or Ulysses comprehensible, but on the other hand you spend a lot of time stuck in seminars having two-hour discussions about heteronormativity and “[fill in the blank] as text.” Take this excerpt from a seminal essay by Derrida: I ask you, is this the kind of thing to which you should expose impressionable young minds?

Nevertheless, the center also closes off the freeplay it opens up and makes possible. Qua center, it is the point at which the substitution of contents, elements, or terms is no longer possible. At the center, the permutation or the transformation of elements (which may of course be structures enclosed within a structure) is forbidden. At least this permutation has always remained interdicted (I use this word deliberately). Thus it has always been thought that the center, which is by definition unique, constituted that very thing within a structure which governs the structure, while escaping structurality. This is why classical thought concerning structure could say that the center is, paradoxically, within the structure and outside it. The center is at the center of the totality, and yet, since the center does not belong to the totality (is not part of the totality), the totality has its center elsewhere. The center is not the center. The concept of centered structure-although it represents coherence itself… (from Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences).

This typifies a style of writing and thinking that is fashionable in the Humanities and Social Sciences, in which one masks stupefyingly banal ideas by couching them in prose so tortuous that it is impossible to tell what, if anything, is actually being said. Let me be clear: anyone who is worried about the poisoning of young minds would do better to focus on eliminating the influence of postmodernism in universities than on curbing recreational drug use. (Later, at a college dinner in grad school, I sat next to an editor of a prominent journal of literary criticism who that it was nearly impossible to tell which of the articles were good and which were gibberish, but that the vast majority were definitely the latter).

But I digress. Around this time I started reading a lot of popular science: Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, various books by E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould, and above all Richard Dawkins, whose wonderfully clear writing style contrasted sharply with the literary theory I had to read for my degree. If you haven’t done so already you should read Dawkins’ Climbing Mount Improbable, which culminates in an exposition of the intricate co-evolutionary relationship between figs and fig wasps so beautifully written that I get a little choked up even thinking about it.

Anyways, I learned about evolution properly for the first time, and felt cheated for not having been taught it in school. It has been said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, and I would add that nothing in biology is interesting except in the light of evolution. Schools do their students a disservice by not teaching it to them early and thoroughly: it is the easiest of the major scientific theories to understand, and makes so many other biological ideas fall neatly into place.

This has turned into a much longer post than I wanted to write, so I’ll cut a long story short. I decided I was too interested in science not to pursue it, and ended up moving to England (from Canada) and applying to enter directly into the 2nd year of a 3-year biology BSc. (I was able to transfer some credits back home to fulfill the last of the requirements for my English BA, a Pyrrhic victory). After my BSc, which focused on evolutionary biology, I was accepted into a great biology MSc program, which I finished a few months ago. I was fortunate throughout to have great professors and supervisors, and the freedom to follow up on my own ideas even when they weren’t particularly good. They helped me rediscover the exhilaration of scientific inquiry, or, as Richard Feynman put it, The Pleasure of Finding Things out. To anyone regretting their choice of major, I would say: it might not be too late to switch.

I don’t plan to do a PhD, because it seems to me that academia is fundamentally broken. It’s not that careers in academia are under-compensated and next to impossible to get – although this is probably true – but rather that academia rewards the wrong things. In science, academics are assessed largely on how many papers they publish, and where, and how often they are cited. This is supposed to be a proxy for doing good science, but it is not, I think, a very good one. There are huge numbers of papers being published now – far more than are actually being read – and if you have spent any time perusing the peer-reviewed literature you will have noticed that most are cluttered with jargon, sapped of vitality by overuse of the passive tense, and generally more or less unreadable. I don’t want to spend my life writing things that no one will ever read. (And if I did, I’ve already got this blog).

Why do scientists suddenly write this way when they are being peer-reviewed? Most scientists are capable of being lucid and entertaining when writing about their research, as anyone who reads research blogs (or follows the #MyResearch hashtag on Twitter) knows. If there is anything I find encouraging about the state of science these days, it is the growing movement in favour of blogs, social media and open-access publications. As scientists make their research more accessible, their writing seems naturally to become more accessible, too: and exchanging ideas is at the heart of science.

Exchanging ideas brings us back to where we started, which was with Kevin Zelnio’s #IAmScience hashtag. My thanks to him for sharing his own story, and for providing a way for so many others to share theirs.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “How I escaped from the humanities and rediscovered science

  1. Pingback: #IAmScience is blowing up! The stories behind scientists « FerriMagnet

  2. I’ve always considered myself to me an arts-and-humanities girl but I wonder whether things would have been different if the maths and science teaching at my school hadn’t been so utterly uninspiring. I also agree with you about the impenetrability of a lot of literary academic writing. I’m all for using long words but not when it’s as if the author is deliberately trying make the text inaccessible to all but an elite minority who are familiar with the language.

    Have you read anything by Peter Hessler? He used to be an academic at Oxford and then went to teach English in deepest Sichuan province as a Peace Corps volunteer. The book he wrote about this, ‘River Town’, is great.

    P.S like the title of your blog.

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