Friday, March 9, 2007

Anker: Scientist's Diaries (to Carl Djerassi)

From: Suzanne Anker
Date: Fri, 09 Mar 2007 15:43:25 -0500
To Carl Djerassi:
Perhaps your reading of my comment concerning the public perception of scientists suffers from a too literal interpretation. Let me explain my statement more fully. Issues of public perception of both artists and scientists are relevant to our discussion.

Depictions in films, literary works and visual art have represented scientist’s personasin less than favorable terms. Usually pictured as individuals seeped in hubris, the image of the “mad” scientist is still pervasive within popular culture and mass media. In these narratives, scientific experimentation usually goes awry and culminates in disastrous effects for communities at large. From Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein:Or the Modern Prometheus (1816-1818) to H.G.Wells’ The Island of Dr, Moreau (1896) to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Ape and Essence (1948,) the early modern period is ripe with reproach for the righteous scientist. This attitude of mind of the sinless scientist who feels his work is “for the good of mankind’ is further personified in more current work. From Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003) to Steve Reich and Beryl Korot’s opera Three Tales (2002)similar archetypical tropes are in play. Is this merely a coincidence or is the public’s perception of the scientist still a skeptical mix of fallen angel and rational soothsayer? Certainly the recent controversy concerning the legitimacy of Woo Suk Hwang’s research with cloned human embryos creates a “public image-problem” for the scientist.

With regard to scientist’s diaries, I am not referring to process notes, laboratory records or other procedural record keeping documenting the day-to-day working of an experiment. Instead, I am citing Jon Turney’s (ed.) text Science, Not Art: Ten Scientists’ Diaries published by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in 2003. Sian Ede, who unfortunately has not been able to join our interchange at this conference, wrote the forward to this volume. In her absence, I quote her text thus: "The science world, as these diaries clearly show, is almost brutally competitive and those on their way up are often obsessively occupied at their laboratory benches, computers, conferences and field trips Only when they have made it to the top have they the time to be spokespeople for science in general. We wanted to avoid-the elder-statesmen stereotype and to find scientists from a younger generation who, though high flyers, had perhaps emerged from less conventional backgrounds. The result is an extraordinary frank and sometimes poignant collection of personal narratives.”

I cite one such scientific diary entry from ecologist and meteorologist Yadvinder Malhi ,to clarify my point thus:

Thursday 17 January
“ In the morning we mark out old forest plots in a floodplain and dry-land forest, delighting in seeing armadillos, squirrel monkeys, giant millipedes, ground turkeys. In the afternoon I hike with Pedro, a likeable local Quechua guide, up and down trails to find a remote plot. The forest gradually soaks into my skull and I feel healthier and more centered than I have during the whole British winter. It’s hard to explain. Something to do with being part of a world ancient and mysterious and feeling it in your skin and senses, not just in your intellect. I wish that Rachel, my fiancĂ©e, were here to share this.”

Sunday 20 January
“I go home tomorrow but the expedition continues for another five weeks. Despite exhaustion, the field team drags itself out for a farewell drink at a near-by snack bar. The bar turns out to be closed, but no one minds the effort. We laugh our way home beneath a crescent moon peeking out between the tall silhouettes of the forest trees, the heavy air with the fragrance of white ginger flowers.”

Tuesday 22 January New York
“After a week of forest isolation, I connect back into the global mind while changing planes here. The talk is of war: it rumbles on in Afghanistan and may move to Iraq; the Israel-Palestine conflict continues and there is the threat of nuclear war over Kashmir. Much of my wider family lives a few miles from the India-Pakistan border. The big world and its tragedies suddenly overwhelm me. Returning home means facing an enormous backlog of tasks. I have to submit a paper on “Carbon in the Biosphere and Atmosphere in the 21st Century” to a special issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society by the end of next week. Then there are long delayed revisions to another paper and two reviews to deal with, all of which should have been finalized months ago.”

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