An intervention

I’m reclaiming my blog. I’ve fallen into the hole of high expectations: that I’ll blog only short, persuasive, well reasoned pieces, which I will never have any reason to feel embarrassed about or have to defend as the logic will be flawless and absolutely indisputable.

That logic is what turned this space into a pretty quote mill, and then a ghost town.

So I’m putting a new stake in this space! What are blogs really good for? Trying out ideas. Fleshing out thoughts. Having conversations. Practicing quantity, speed, and completeness. That’s the goal.

I am, personally, very much in the writing as thinking camp. Since I’ve retreated from the public-private space of a personal blog to the private-private space of a personal journal, my thinking has become more and more half-baked. This sort of public space requires more thought, review, and editing.

But it’s still for me. So I’m opening myself up here, allowing the far-less-than perfect writing out onto the internet.

Happy New Year!


Quote of the Day

A writer should concern himself with whatever absorbs his fancy, stirs his heart, and unlimbers his typewriter. I feel no obligation to deal with politics. I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.
-E.B. White

Quote of the Day

The Declaration also conveys another lesson of paramount importance. It is this: language is one of the most potent resources each of us has for achieving our own political empowerment.
-Danielle Allen, Our Declaration

[Thus ends my week of exclusively politicking! Of course it’s important to stay politically aware year round, but sometimes it’s good to take a moment away from the normal hustle and reflect on the contract that binds us as members of a democracy. We’ll be back to the normal eclectic assortment of quotes next week.]

Writing about Biology

I’ve been held up in my writing because I don’t know how to write about science.

This seems counter intuitive. I’ve been doing science for ten years, easily. That involves writing reports, conveying thoughts and plans, organizing data into manageable bundles. But this has always been for other people in my field, or people that I assume know more about the subject than I do, so the occasional hole in narrative is not rare.

On the other hand, writing science on a blog is a very open ended endeavor. Who am I writing for? Interested undergrads? People with no biology background at all? Myself?

Reading Janna Levin’s How the Universe Got Its Spots over the last few weeks, I’ve been inspired by the way physicists approach complex ideas. Although a lot of physics is unapproachable without an extremely high level of math, physicists have a tradition of “thought experiments” that can be easily utilized to make complex ideas about space and time more graspable. Imagine the speed of light is 25 mph. Imagine you have a twin on a train. Imagine you send a man with a stopwatch and a ruler to the other side of the universe.

It makes me jealous. Why haven’t we, as biologist, learned to talk about our field this way? But when I think of the actual subject to be explained, I realize broad thought experiments aren’t really the way to go about it. In biology we already have our unifying theory: evolution. It’s simple. It’s intuitive. It doesn’t need to be kneaded or morphed in order to be readily understood. The complexity of writing in biology comes from the innate microscopic messiness that has sprouted from millions of years of evolutionary divergence.

When you zoom in up close and personal on, say, DNA repair, you are not looking at a single process with an overlying theory or method – there are many mechanisms that have resulted from convergent and divergent evolution, all with implications which can be used to better understand our world. But in the end, you are looking at a small slice of what evolution has done – a band aide for one of the many problems created by the piecemeal system itself. In most cases, you won’t be able to extrapolate much from understanding this specific subsection, a reality that professors wrestle with every day when writing broader impacts for the NIH. So… In the end, what’s the point of knowing?

I want to know so I can marvel. As my favorite ‘armchair biologist’, Annie Dillard, wrote: “The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font.” Whatever you feel about the ‘creator’, is it not amazing where we’ve ended up from one source? How wonderful would it be to follow just one of these tangents, just to revel in the specificity?