She’ll subtract her height from ten feet, divide it into
hundreds of gallons of water, the numbers
bouncing in her mind like molecules of chlorine
– Sharon Olds, “The One Girl at the Boys Party”

“Who here is taking this course to fulfill the core arts requirement?”

That was one of the first questions asked in my introduction to creative writing course this past semester. I knew from the moment I raised my hand in response that I was not in my element. Doubly so since I had not participated in a humanities class since CIE, Ursinus’ version of a Great Books program. Triply so since my idea of a fun class involved heavy use of integrals, gradients, matrices, and vectors. I could go on to infinity with reasons for my apprehension about taking this course. The problem was, I couldn’t draw, dance, or paint. Writing had been my creative staple since high school. And I hoped it would see me through college.

In a room full of peers that dislike (or as I would like to believe, think they dislike) science and mathematics, I found myself in a situation I had been in many times before. In fact, it’s a situation that society at large faces. C. P. Snow summed it up in his book The Two Cultures. In this text, he describes two cultures that exist in Western society: the literary intellectuals and the scientists. He goes on to explain how in the 1930s the literary intellectuals began referring to themselves solely as “intellectuals,” negating the prominence of scientists in the popular zeitgeist. As such, without the help of the literary intellectuals, scientific thinking did not pervade into pop culture. The gap between the scientifically literate and illiterate grew. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or a James Joyce specialist) to see some of the results of this cultural divide in current events. Just look at the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 2008 election. She clearly could have benefitted from a stronger science education.

A growing group of scientists, myself included, wish to bridge this divide and create a new third culture, one that brings science directly into the common lexicon without dumbing it down to so-called pop science. Just as cultural literacy requires a certain amount of exposure to the Bible, Shakespeare, and War and Peace, scientific literacy requires exposure to evolution, the laws of thermodynamics, and the basics of statistics. More and more, science is defining the world we live in. As author Stewart Brand stated eloquently, “Human nature doesn’t change much; science does, and the change accrues, altering the world irreversibly.”

But if the third culture stands any chance reaching their goal, they must first consider their audience. The general populous is at once curious and fickle about what they learn. In general, they have no use for dry formulae and abstract hypotheses. Give them a story, an analogy, a metaphor to take hold of, and they will certainly grasp even the most difficult of concepts. If that is to be the case, an intellectual in the third culture must be both scientifically literate and entertaining. And as such, he must also be creative.

This was the context in which I found myself in introduction to creative writing: the one scientist at a humanities party (although a few compatriot chemistry and biology majors peppered the room as well). At first, I attempted to eschew from scientific topics. We’re all humans, after all, and it is not so difficult to write about human topics. However, as I became more comfortable in and with the class, I realized that maybe I should make an attempt at a third culture piece. As such, I wrote “Trinitrotoluene,” my short story selection. Although readers stumbled over the name and struggled to recall the Second Law of Thermodynamics, overall the reception of the story was very warm. Most people seemed to latch onto the human element of the story, which ironically I found was the least interesting part of the piece to write and read. Again, as Brand stated, “Human nature doesn’t change much.” We have been doing the same stupid things for as long as man could pick up a rock and knock his neighbor over the head with it. The only difference is that the rock is now a nuclear weapon and the head is now another nation. But the chemistry, that was new and exciting and recent! And always changing.

Regardless of how I felt about the piece, the little nuggets of chemistry hidden in a ‘human interest’ piece must have become dislodged and entered a few people’s minds. They now know what TNT stands for, and perhaps even how to pronounce trinitrotoluene. They may not know the difference between naphthalene and benzene. In fact, a classmate asked later in the semester regarding a fellow chemists use of benzene in a poem, “Is that an element?” But they have at least been exposed to a new scientific idea. And perhaps in the exposing, they will not find the next science class as distasteful.

Although I greatly enjoyed writing the short story, I am sure that my skills in turning science into quality edutainment have a long ways to go. One of my role models in this vein is physicist Alan Lightman. In his novella, Einstein’s Dreams, Lightman paints a vivid picture of turn of the century Zürich, as Einstein must have seen it while dreaming of riding on a beam of light. Not only does this book contain some of the most vivid and enjoyable prose I have ever read, but it also explains many of the ideas behind General and Special Relativity subliminally. Any reader will find himself entranced in the prose, lapping up a complex and beautiful theory despite himself. When my reader gets stuck on a name or a force-feeding of thermodynamics, I think of Lightman’s beautiful prose and realize how far I have to go.

One of the many benefits of a liberal arts education is a broadening of horizons, both personally and academically. It is rare for a science major at a state or technical school to participate in a creative writing course. But it is just these people that society most needs to truly ‘get’ creative writing. Journal articles are boring to read, even to the individuals well-versed in a particular field’s jargon. We must convert these important ideas into a language that the general public not only can read, but wants to read. Popularized science, not ‘pop science,’ is a necessity in a world where almost every policy decision, from environmental protection to biomedical research, and every private decision, from the choice of paper or plastic to the choice of a retirement plan, has scientific implications.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is room in every person’s life for both science and literature, for both quantitative and qualitative views of the world and life. In Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he makes the argument that a great deal of the scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century were predicted by authors, cooks, painters, and composers. If the artists of the world can so positively impact the scientific world in unexpected ways, the least the scientific world can do is make earnest attempts at translating important scientific thought into enjoyable prose. In that vein, I strongly believe that my introduction to creative writing course has made me a more productive member of the growing Third Culture.

Trinitrotoluene

October 29, 2008

This is my fiction piece for creative writing. Enjoy!

“It was a miracle!”

I’d been hearing that a lot lately. Since the accident. The explosion. But I didn’t want to hear it then. And especially not from Josh.

“It was a miracle that you made it out of there alive. And not like a ‘gee, isn’t that nice’ sort of miracle. I mean a ‘God is smiling on you’ miracle!”

Josh and I didn’t really see eye to eye. But of all my friends, he was the only one I ever saw regularly since the accident. Well, met with. I didn’t see much those days. Not since the explosion.

But I could imagine him there. His Bible in one hand and his rosary in the other. Did I mention that Josh would go to Divinity School? At the time he was a chemist. Some things never cease to amaze me.

“I don’t think it was so much a miracle,” I told him. “I mean, I just lucked out.”

Yeah, luck. Not exactly how I remembered. I was TAing an organic chemistry lab full of snot-nosed kids. The price I paid for a free ride through grad school. Half of students were ‘future’ doctors, if their future would ever come. The lab was pretty simple: the nitration of naphthalene. Naphthalene, more commonly known as ‘mothballs.’ So the lab smelled like old people. A comforting smell. Especially since the lab usually smelled like something that might kill you if you just looked at it wrong. Not this week, though. Just old people.

This week’s lab would be like all the others. The kids would mix together a few solutions, stir, and heat. Presto, chango, like alchemy, something different would come out the other end. I don’t think many people realize that chemistry is just glorified cooking. If you can cook a casserole, you can cook methamphetamine. One’s just worth a lot more. And the ingredients are a lot harder to come by.

Anyway, all the kids were scurrying around, pantomiming the molecules in the solutions they were stirring. So far, so good. I hadn’t heard the distinctive crash of glassware. Or the groan of someone that managed to screw up directions like ‘mix A with B.’ Nobody was crying yet. This was a good day, by any standard.

As I surveyed the lab, I could see the looks of despair on some of the students faces. No matter how much I tried to reassure them, they always had the same stunned look on their faces. I wished I could show them how it all fits together. Show them the great gleaming whole that was just beyond their grasp. Instead, I continued my parole, looking for problems before they got out of control.

Everything seemed routine. Then I walked up to the hood of Pyro. His real name was Pierre, but nobody called him that. He was that one kid in lab that nobody paid much attention to. To be honest, I don’t even think he was a science major. I’m not sure how he got into the class. But he did. And he enjoyed himself. This was a kid who took to the lab naturally. But not today. He was scanning his hood frantically. Something was wrong. I ran over to him, but it was too late.

That’s when the hood exploded. Plastic and glass came from all directions. This is why we wear safety goggles, I thought during the split second before the shrapnel hit me. After the initial shock of impact, I was surprised to find that I was still alive. That relief was quickly replaced by dread. The fireball had consumed half the lab. The sprinkler system was on, but the water stood no chance of stopping the fire. Everything was burning. I guess they’re not so far off calling this place hell, I thought. While running for the fire extinguisher, I slipped on some solution that had been knocked to the floor. Darkness consumed me.

I woke up in a hospital bed a few hours late. I couldn’t see. They told me later that the chem lab had been evacuated. A three-alarm fire destroyed the lab area. A group of undergraduates banded together to pull me out. But not before the fire had burnt consumed half my face. The safety goggles melted, fusing with my eyelids. So much for eye protection.  Pyro – sorry – Pierre hadn’t made it. Too many injuries from the explosion. Five other students had been badly burned.

The first moment I could talk, my curiosity got the best of me. I had to know what had exploded. So I asked. The arson team had just filed their report. “TNT,” they said.

It turns out that Pyro had gotten his hands on some toluene. Not many people know that TNT stands for trinitrotoluene. But Pyro did. Apparently he hadn’t been napping during his organic lecture. I mean, the professors don’t go and tell you this stuff. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an organic chemist) to figure out that if you polynitrate toluene, you’ll end up with something rather explosive. It just takes an internet connection and Wikipedia. Unfortunately for Pyro, toluene is a pretty common solvent. So all he had to do to get his hands on it was walk up to the dispensing hood and pull a lever. Out pours a clear, odorless liquid. A liquid that happens to be pretty dangerous when mixed with sulfuric and nitric acid.

Unfortunately, the professors also don’t tell you that the nitration of toluene can get out of control really fast. There’s a reason bombers used ammonium nitrate when it was available. You didn’t risk blowing yourself up. The nitration of toluene is incredibly exothermic. Add to that the heat Pyro was supplying to the reaction through the heating mantle, and he had no chance.

Yeah, all of this and Josh called it a miracle.

“Don’t you see? You’re alive. You were standing right in front of TNT when it exploded and you made it out alive!”

I could picture the look on his face. Exasperation mixed with wonder. Throw in a little disdain for good measure.

“You know I don’t believe in miracles, Josh. And losing my sight certainly isn’t going to change that. Not for the better, at least.”

I could hear Josh shift on his feet. A nurse walked into the room to check my chart. Susan. I could smell her perfume. My senses really had improved in the months since the accident. I could hear babies crying in the maternity ward. And I could swear that I smelled formaldehyde somewhere in the distance.

“They’re keeping your position for you,” Josh said. “I’ve been talking to Dr. Vansing, and he says that they’ll be happy to take you back when you’re ready to come back.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. I could tell Josh was trying to cheer me up. But how do you cheer up a blind man? Not with a promise of returning to ‘normal.’

“Do you know what we had been talking about in lecture the day of the… accident,” I said.

“Last I’d heard you were talking about thermodynamics.”

“Yeah, the Second Law. The one about disorder. I’ve decided it gets the short end of the science stick.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, everyone’s so focused on evolution. But the real bombshell is the Second Law. ‘Shit happens. The universe is unfair. And it’s just getting even more so by the second.’ Now’s the time to party before the heat death of the universe!”

Another awkward silence. Josh did not appreciate when I got this way. Not that this was anything new since the accident. In undergraduate, Josh and I would pull all-nighters talking about this kind of stuff. Wine and Sartre. Vodka and Dostoyevsky. We tried to keep our discussions themed. So what if we were chemists? It didn’t mean we couldn’t do some thinking on the side.

Josh had gotten me a Braille Bible. I fingered the pages now. Josh breathed a sigh of relief. It all felt like bumps to me.

“Do you ever think about it?” I  said.

“About what?”

“About the heat death of the universe? What it will be like once all the energy is gone and all that’s left is darkness?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t imagine it would be all that nice a place to be.”

“No, I don’t imagine so.”

Josh left me to my musings. I heard him shuffle out of the room. Close the door. Walk down the hall. If I tried, I though I could hear his car starting. Everything was normal.

Staring through the darkness that was once my vision, I could see molecules swirling. A simplified dance, for sure. But still comforting in its simplicity. There, in my minds eye, I saw a tetrahedron, a cube, an octahedron. Plato had been surprisingly prescient in his prediction of the building blocks of matter. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a hexagon, ornamented with four glowing orbs, three red, one blue. This too was beautiful. I could see it swirling, dancing, playing. But then more appeared, filling my view. Suddenly, they began to shake, shiver, vibrate. And then an explosion. And then nothing.

Sitting there in the blackness, I felt the weight of my body on the hospital bed. I heard the clanking of a candy striper in the hallway. I smelt, well, hospital smell. I could even taste the sirloin steak I’d eaten an hour before. Despite all the stimulation coming into my body, I couldn’t help but think about the darkness that was coming. It wouldn’t come for a googol years. But I could wait. From my solitary room in a solitary corner of a solitary planet in a solitary galaxy in a solitary universe, I would wait.

A study shows that a physical sciences major is harder than a humanities major, and thus those students should receive additional credit.

Well, yes. But. I don’t think us science majors need additional credit. It’s enough punishment to the humanities major that they have to waste so much time doing things they could easily do on their own (‘here, read this book and then think critically about it.’ Um, I could do that for NOT $40,000 a year at home by myself…). Whereas at least in the sciences, you are provided with the equipment and training that you might otherwise not have access to (try, just try to buy half the chemicals used in a freshman chemistry course without getting the Department of Homeland Security on your ass).

One of my favorite quotes:

“If universities and employers treat all grades as equivalent they will select the wrong applicants,” said Coe in a press release. “A student with a grade C in Biology will generally be more able than one with a B in Sociology.”

I don’t know how much that C in a biology class is really worth, either. Maybe if it’s molecular bio course. ;)

This weekend has been abnormally productive. Okay, probably not productive in the normal sense of the word. But still. I got a lot of [important] thinking done.

As I’ve mentioned before, computational chemistry seemed like a real option for me, something that doesn’t exactly get much pull in a high school career choosing system. At the time of that post, though, I just thought this would be a one of thing, something that’s pretty rare and not at all a sure way for me to go.

Then I started this weekend looking for information on computational chemistry, with an emphasis on Python (apparently one of the de facto languages for programming computational chemistry-type programs). That lead me down a long and windy road to the whole field of ‘computational science.’ Which, when I first read the name, sounded a lot like ‘computer science.’ I mean, they both have the ‘comput-‘ in them. But they turn out to be quite different things.

The basic difference? Computer scientists are worried about the basic structure of the computer, like the architecture and information processing. Computational scientists, on the other hand, use computers to solve real world scientific problems, mainly through some sort of mathematical modeling. While I have nothing against computers and computer science (and obviously they form the foundation upon which computational science stands), I personally find the computational side of the street much more interesting.

With that in mind, I’ve been devouring books on computational science, focusing a lot on Python and Maple (a computer algebra system [CAS]: think your graphing calculator, on steroids). Computational science is basically a subfield of applied mathematics. Unfortunately, Ursinus has nothing even close to an applied math curriculum (we have all the basics, like linear algebra, diff eq and numerical analysis, but nothing really far beyond that, and even those classes focus a lot more on the theory than the practice). So I’m kind of on my own learning the material that will be necessary to succeed in grad school. Which I’m cool with, because it means I can teach myself something that I’m not going to have to ‘learn’ again in some future class.

Like I’ve said before, I kind of wish I’d had this insight before. Like, maybe two years before. Could have saved me a whole lot of trouble with this whole chemistry thing (though I’m glad I’ll have a major in a laboratory science, because then at the very least I can emphasize with other lab scientists in the future… plus the skills never hurt), gone to a school and majored in either engineering or applied math, and circumvented this whole convoluted path I’ve taken to get to where I am today. But it’s a little to late for that now. So I’ll just work with what I’ve got and go from here. I figure I’ll do the chemistry major, definitely pick up the math major (man, I’ve oscillated between on and off with that bugger for some time now!), and try and pick up as many computer science / physics courses as I can along the way. At least I won’t have to think much more about my schedule from here on out: it’s basically planned as is, with every available slot filled.

This turned out to be a lot of me talking about myself. Sorry, gang, but I just felt like this was a major breakthrough for me, especially because I can really see myself being a computational scientist and LOVING it every day. Something I couldn’t honestly say about being a lab chemist. Plus, it combines my best skills with my scientific interests [matrices, vectors, differential equations, Fourier and Taylor series, what more could you ask for?]. It’s a win-win situation.

Time to put my head to the grindstone and make up for some lost time.

Namaste.

I have some free time on my hands (okay, a lot of free time, something I should definitely take advantage of while the picking is ripe!), so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on grad school. Considering that my regular readership consists of about 1 college aged student (plus or minus 3), I don’t see this being very useful to anyone. But at least it will allow me to consolidate my thoughts and leave something for me to look back at in a few years when I’m actually in grad school (hi, future self!).

The very first idea that struck me Tuesday (that was the first real day of this REU program, when I actually met formally with my research advisor and grad student mentor) was that if this is what being an adult is, I don’t want to grow up! Not like I have any other options, but still. In a talk that day, one of the professors (a physical chemist, no less!) warned us that we should expect to work 80+ hour weeks. This after we all thought this was going to be some sort of 9 to 5 type gig. At the time, that scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, I don’t like staying in one place for ONE hour at a time, now you’re telling me I have to stay somewhere for 12+ consecutive hours. That just blows.

But it turns out that his estimate of time is probably a little extreme. At least, it seems to be for my group. My professor basically told me that this summer is meant to teach me something about the field I’m working in (polymer chemistry), get me some experience doing the actual lab work, and possibly get a paper out of it (ha, that would be nice). No pressure, which is much better than ’80+ hour a week!’ man.

So, with all the nasty stuff out of the way, what are some things that I’ve noticed about research so far? The first and foremost is how interesting it is that an idea that sounds so interesting in theory could turn out to be so dull to prove in the lab. But for me to go on, I suppose I should give you some sort of idea of what I’m working on. So here it goes.

I’m working (for now) with the polymer Poly(N-isopropylacrylamide), or PNIPAM for short [even shorter if you pronounce is ‘n-aye-pam’]. It turns out that, because of the unique structure of this polymer (it has both hydrophilic amide and carboxy groups as well as the hydrophobic isopropyl group), PNIPAM goes into solution below 30 ºC [around room temperature] but crashes up when the temperature is raised above that point (that temperature is called the lower critical solution temperature [LCST], for obvious reasons). This means that PNIPAM is a ‘temperature sensitive’ polymer and might have some interesting applications in solutions chemistry. I don’t know what those interesting applications ARE yet, but hopefully I’ll figure that out soon enough!

Anyway, that’s the exciting part (which you may or may not agree with!). The dull part is what I actually do in lab ever day. I’m looking at the effects of salts on the LCST. Basically, some salts cause PNIPAM to crash out at higher temperatures or lower temperatures. Right now, I’m looking at sodium thiocyanate and sodium sulfate, which are basically at opposite ends of the crashing out spectrum (which, if you’re interested, is itself called the Hoffmeister series). To do this, I’m making up tons and tons of 400 μL solutions containing PNIPAM and one of the salt. Then I take 10 μL of that solution, put it into a capillary tube, and melt the top of the tube in to remove the hole (don’t want the solution leaving!). Finally, I put the tubes in a melting point apparatus (an automatic one, thank god!) and have it measure the ‘clouding curve’ of the solution for 20 minutes or so (think of the clouding curve as an S-shaped curve with intensity along the Y-axis and temperature along the X-axis that tells you when the PNIPAM has crashed out).

On the plus side, I get to use a Bunsen burner. On the minus side, I’m basically making up 20 or so solutions a day, and then taking a day+ to measure their LCSTs. Right now, I’m starting to work on mixtures of salts, to see if their effects are additive or synergistic.

Enough about the specific research, now back to basic principles. One of the weird things about research is that you go from being a passive learner of science to an active pursuer of information. From learning to making. What a giant distinction. I feel like it’ll probably be easy to get lost in the minutia of the field. I don’t know if that fits my tastes. I like to learn about broad swaths of things at a time. That’s why school has worked so well for me.

And now to another random observation: while here, all the REU students talks about chemistry. All the time. It’s kind of weird. I’ve never really been somewhere where the number one topic of conversation was chemistry. I guess it’s the one thing that we all have in common. I surmise that as time passes, we’ll start to talk more about normal things…

Another random observation: when you get to grad school, the question ‘where are you from?’ no longer means ‘where were you born and grow up?’ but rather ‘what college are you from?’ Which makes it unfortunate that I have to answer Ursinus, because people in PENNSYLVANIA haven’t even heard of us. Forget about Texas!

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. I sure did ramble on. But hopefully you’ve found this mildly interesting, if nothing else than as a case study of one individuals entrance into the world of (pseudo)grad school.

Now I’ve got to find a way to entertain myself for the rest of the night and tomorrow. No small feat when it’s 90 ºF most of the day and into the night. Eliminates a lot of possibilities…

Namaste.

I don’t really know if this is at all necessary. But I have a new keyboard and feel like typing on it, so this seemed like as good a topic to write on as any.

I don’t have anything particular in mind at the moment. Overall, this semester has been a really, really great one. In every way I can imagine. Something about me just kind of flowers in my sophomore year (here’s looking at you, High School). Let’s just hope that things continue to get better along the way!

The main thing I learned academically this year was that although ‘chemistry’ as it’s traditionally thought of is not for, the world of chemistry is rather large and inclusive. It’s not all about synthesizing some new polymer or mixing together a new catalyst. I can learn lots of cool math (like, who knew, all the things I learned in linear algebra in the fall semester [matrices, eigenvalues, determinants, etc.] would show up the very same semester while learning about quantum mechanics!) and then apply it in a field that seems to be lacking in mathematics. Well, not so much lacking. More that the mathematically minded don’t normally end up in the field. They’re more likely to end up in physics (math, physics, is like, a duh combination).

Which works out well for me, because it leaves open a whole field to explore with less competition than I might find in physics. And really, there isn’t that much of a difference between physics and physical chemistry. As you might guess from the name.

What else did I learn? That I’m still the wallflower that upperclassmen like to ‘adopt.’ That happened on two fronts this year: rugby and the chemistry seniors. It’s kind of funny how that continues to happen. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Most likely it’s just a neutral thing and I should enjoy it when it happens and work to reconcile it when it doesn’t. I just can’t help but marvel at how certain patterns in my life continue to show up over and over again, like some sort of crazy motif.

Um, I’ve learned a thing or two about teaching. Like the fact that I’m only okay at it (which is kind of sad, because I’m considering it as a possible future profession). And I get easily bored. I tutored Organic Chemistry I this past semester. And I can only teach someone about a substitution reaction so many times before it kind of gets boring. I suppose if I chose teaching as my vocation, I would find enjoyment and variety in teaching the material in a new and more approachable way every year. But for now, meh. I guess I have another two more years to play around with tutoring. And then I’m seriously considering doing a two year stint in Teach for America (I know, it ain’t no Peace Corps, but I think I might be better suited for a less hands-on volunteer activity).

Uh, well, I think that’s it. Now I’ve got that whole summer research program to look forward to. And wonder if I’ll be ‘completely different’ at the end of. Probably not. But stranger things have happened. That’s a certainty!

5. They haggle with their teachers for extra points.
As a teaching assistant, I would have been rich if my pre-med students gave me a dime every time they nagged me for partial credit on questions that they had gotten completely wrong.
4. They use questionable tactics to get good grades.
Some of them may turn to study drugs like adderall, dexedrine, provigil, and ritalin. Others will beg upperclassmen for copies of old exams, which give them an unfair advantage over their classmates.
3. They horde leadership positions and then run organizations into the ground.
To pad their résumés, they run for the presidency of science clubs and volunteer organizations, and then fail to fulfill their responsibilities because they are too busy studying.
2. They game the system to get good grades.
By strategically dropping any class that is not going well and carefully picking courses taught by the easiest professors they ensure themselves a good grade point average.
1. They are not motivated by curiosity.
If they ask a question in class, it’s often to find out what will be on an upcoming exam. Some of them volunteer to work in a lab on real research projects, but they don’t give it their all because they have no passion for scientific inquiry — it’s just another line on their résumés.

– From Wired.com

All in good fun, of course. It’s just… there’s SO MANY pre-meds here at Ursinus. So I saw this and couldn’t help but laugh. WITH you! :P

Best Quote of the Day

February 14, 2008

You guys remember School House Rock? The show with the Bill becoming a Law? God, I loved that show! Though I was usually high when I watched it. Man, Saturday mornings. Those were good times. Sat there eating my cheese wheel. I always had the munchies.

– An unidentified professor

Just goes to show you: all the stuff they tell you about pot smokers being deadbeats – totally not true. You can smoke pot and then become an awesome professor at a small liberal arts college. Not a bad deal!

February 4, 2008

I was born without the neural cluster that makes boys find pleasure in moving balls and pucks around through space, and in talking endlessly about men who get paid to do such things. I always knew I could never join a fraternity or the military because I wouldn’t be able to fake the sports talk. By the time I became a professor I had developed the contempt that I think is widespread in academe for any institution that brings young men together to do groupish things. Primitive tribalism, I thought. Initiation rites, alcohol, sports, sexism, and baseball caps turn decent boys into knuckleheads. I’d have gladly voted to ban fraternities, ROTC, and most sports teams from my university.

But not anymore. Three books convinced me that I had misunderstood such institutions because I had too individualistic a view of human nature. The first book was David Sloan Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, which argued that human beings were shaped by natural selection operating simultaneously at multiple levels, including the group level. Humans went through a major transition in evolution when we developed religiously inclined minds and religious institutions that activated those minds, binding people into groups capable of extraordinary cooperation without kinship. 

The second book was William McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time, about the historical prevalence and cultural importance of synchronized dance, marching, and other forms of movement. McNeill argued that such “muscular bonding” was an evolutionary innovation, an “indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time.” The third book was Barbara Ehrenreich’s Dancing in the Streets, which made the same argument as McNeill but with much more attention to recent history, and to the concept of communitas or group love. Most traditional societies had group dance rituals that functioned to soften structure and hierarchy and to increase trust, love, and cohesion. Westerners too have a need for communitas, Ehrenreich argues, but our society makes it hard to satisfy it, and our social scientists have little to say about it.

These three books gave me a new outlook on human nature. I began to see us not just as chimpanzees with symbolic lives but also as bees without hives. When we made the transition over the last 200 years from tight communities (Gemeinschaft) to free and mobile societies (Gesellschaft), we escaped from bonds that were sometimes oppressive, yes, but into a world so free that it left many of us gasping for connection, purpose, and meaning. I began to think about the many ways that people, particularly young people, have found to combat this isolation. Rave parties and the Burning Man festival are spectacular examples of new ways to satisfy the ancient longing for communitas. But suddenly sports teams, fraternities, and even the military made a lot more sense.

I now believe that such groups do great things for their members, and that they often create social capital and other benefits that spread beyond their borders. The strong school spirit and alumni loyalty we all benefit from at the University of Virginia would drop sharply if fraternities and major sports were eliminated. If my son grows up to be a sports playing fraternity brother, a part of me may still be disappointed. But I’ll give him my blessing, along with three great books to read.

– Jonathan Haidt, from The World Question Center

You know you’ll love a class when the professor tells you he got into neuroscience because he used drugs a lot in his younger years.

Young professors without filters are fun. Especially when their interests overlap with your own.