Friday, October 18, 2013

How Not to Be a Scientist

I was never going to be a scientist.

I thought I might be, once upon a time.  I managed to survive high school chemistry despite never really cottoning on to the whole notion of precisely measuring anything.  At one point during my senior year I thought I’d major in physics when I got to college, an illusion that a) caused me to apply to at least one university best known for its engineering program, and b) was quickly dispelled by second-semester AP physics, the first class I ever dropped.

All of that was mere fantasy.  Seventh grade should have told me that.

My seventh-grade science teacher was a nice man who really didn’t deserve to have all of us hormonal idiots bouncing around in his room for 47 minutes every weekday.  Eventually he ended up in administration, where at least his frustrations were with adults.  Sometimes I think we did that to him, but mostly I know that we were just one class of many over the years and I suspect it was more of a cumulative thing than anything else.  The constant drip-drip-drip across his psyche of seventh-graders ricocheting seamlessly off educational activities without a single mark upon them no doubt took its toll. 

You have no idea how much respect I have for junior high teachers now, looking back.

He persevered, though.  He came up with all sorts of activities designed to ram science into our skulls, many of which succeeded.  He was a good teacher. 

One day he decided to have us learn how to use microscopes.

These were the big old microscopes that you had in science classrooms during the Carter administration – heavy steel and glass instruments about a foot high, solid enough to serve as murder weapons should we have been so inclined.  They built stuff heavier then.  This was the age of the manual typewriter, after all.  We were a fairly affluent suburban school district, so there were enough to go around – we each got our own microscope that sat, brooding, on our desks for the better part of a fortnight.

Our surface mission was to find some small sort of something that could be placed under the lens and examined in detail, after which we would write an essay detailing the things we saw.

For some reason I chose to examine a quarter, probably because I had one in my pocket when the assignment was made and it was easier than trying to find something else.  And, in fairness, it turned out that when you examine a quarter under a microscope it is, in fact, fairly interesting.


But there were more interesting sights in that classroom.

I suppose in one sense I was doing what he asked of us – learning how to use a microscope.  I got pretty good at manipulating it to get it to do what I wanted, actually.  Except that mostly what I learned was that if I took the quarter out of the way and just fiddled with the little mirror underneath – the one that bounced the ambient light up into the lens so you could do your scientific work without need of electricity – I could, with care and precision, turn the microscope into a periscope.

And once I figured out the height at which the mirror had to sit in order to create this periscope, I could then rotate the mirror and scope out pretty much the entire room, notably one young lady in the back, upon whom I had perhaps the most hopeless crush in the history of junior highs across America ever.

She was much more interesting than that quarter.

So I whiled away a good week or so with my newly discovered periscope, happily not looking at my quarter, until it dawned on me about a day or so before the essay was due that perhaps I ought to change my focus and actually get some work done.

I got pretty much the grade you would expect I would get.  I still think it was worth it, even if it did indicate that perhaps a lab science career was not in my future. 

Eventually I married a scientist. 


beatrice in Paris said...

Science? I'm proof of recessive genes in my family. Dad and John are chemists, Rick's a mathematician, Mom's a doctor, Betty got her degree in electrical engineering, and me? political science! I'm told that doesn't count.

David said...

No, that doesn't count.

Neither does history, no matter how much my advisers tried to convince me it was a Social Science.

One thing I have learned very clearly over the years is that scientists and liberal arts people think very differently. Perhaps that should be a blog post in itself soon. :)