Of Bad Odors and Good Yarns

I never liked science. In fifth grade, the dissections started: starfish, earthworm, frog, pig. These creatures, so beautiful in life, did nothing but depress me in their formaldehyde-soaked death. You could smell it in the stairwell, where the chemical stench of science mingled with the scent of stewed meat wafting from the cafeteria. I hated the lab notebooks, with their tiny graph-paper squares that seemed designed to make you hold the pencil so tight your hand would ache, and I despised the formulaic monotony of writing up lab notes—documenting the materials used, the hypothesis, the exact steps involved in testing it, the conclusions. I dreaded working with a lab partner; the mere sight of a Bunsen burner and its murky yellow rubber tubing could send me running to the school nurse with a stomachache.

My senior year of high school, I’d finished the required three years of science. I opted for an extra English course in lieu of chemistry. Finally, I was free! In college, I had a vague sense that there were science labs on the far side of campus, but mostly I steered clear. One year I took an introductory genetics class (“genes for jocks”), just to confirm that science still sucked, and when I earned a C+ I retreated, satisfied, to the comfort of literature, politics, and cultural theory.

And then a strange thing happened. Several years into my journalism career, I became captivated by stories about the environment. I couldn’t read enough of them. The climate was changing, rainforests were burning, species were vanishing, water supplies were drying up. Fascinating, disturbing things were afoot in nature, and I wanted to write about them. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. Eventually, I went back to school. I studied ecology, accompanied scientists on field expeditions, learned how nutrients cycle around the planet. I was hooked.

Still, I found it mildly amusing that anyone would award me a master of science degree. Didn’t they know? It seemed absurd that the National Science Foundation would fund my studies. Hadn’t they seen my college transcript? I scoffed at suggestions that I join the National Association of Science Writers. I wasn’t a science writer! I was just a journalist who thought it was neat that bug skulls buried in ancient lake sediment can tell a story about global warming.

Eventually, of course, I relented. I’ll say it, okay? Science is cool! Are you happy now?

I was sitting in on a class at Harvard the other day, taught somewhere in the ancient warrens of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, listening to a lecture on molecular evolution. The professor, a tenured Harvard biologist and museum curator, was talking about a particular group of genes in Drosophila. But first he said something surprising: he never liked biology as a kid. “It was always about Drosophila,” he told the class. “I just couldn’t get excited about flies.”

So before he got into the topic at hand, he put on some classical Chinese music. The mood thus set, he recounted the myth of Jingwei, about a Chinese princess who drowned in a rowboat and then came back as a bird to exact revenge upon the sea. Her plan was to fill in the sea with twigs and rocks so that no one else could drown. Jingwei, he went on, is the namesake of a Drosophila gene once thought to be useless but “reincarnated” after a University of Chicago scientist named Manyuan Long discovered its purpose. (It’s involved in regulating hormone metabolism.) There’s no real romance in fly genes. But now that this one was linked to emperors and reincarnation and revenge fantasies, I paid attention. I learned something about genetics. I cared because the genes had a story.

Science is important. It’s newsworthy. And it makes for compelling journalism. It’s worth remembering, though, that not everyone inherently cares about it. Now that I’ve become a science nerd, I’m trying my best to keep that in mind.

Photo via Cultural China

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