The time is 8:42 here at KURK, and we’ll get right back to “Soundstreams” in just a moment, but first we want to take a moment to talk about KURK, your public radio station for the greater Downbridge-Scallion metro area. You the people support your public radio station, and you trust it. Trust is important. We are responsible to you, our listeners.
That’s right, Mark. Remember, KURK is where you find such great shows as “NewsVoice,” “Talking Trash” and “Captain Walcott’s Down Home Atonal Music Hour,” plus our local news program “Dateline: Homefront”. These shows bring you the best in information and culture, all guided not by commercial concerns but by the ideas and tastes of our listeners. With your pledge of $50, $100 or more, let us know what programs you like, and what you’d like to hear more of going forward.
That’s right, Nancy, and if you call with the next, uh, 16 minutes, right Nancy?
That’s right. I guess I’ll have to be the timekeeper here.
In the next 16 minutes, if you call 1-800-GO-KURK and make a pledge of at least $100, or just $10 in 12 monthly payments, you’ll receive our CDC-approved Bio-Danger Kit, which is all you’ll need to survive an out-of-control super-virus. Whenever people are falling in the gutters with blood streaming out of their eyes, you’ll be safe at home with your family, breathing filtered air and eating narcotics-infused power bars.
I’ve eaten one. Yummy!
I see we’ve gotten one call. We’ve got some eager volunteers just waiting for you. And speaking of our volunteers, our thanks to the National Coffee Company, Connie’s Useful Pastries, Josiah Perlmutter’s Instant Breakfast Eggs, and The Pickled Fruits Basket, which sends the best in sour peaches, salted figs and brined bananas to needy families all over your local area. And thanks too to Cleveland Office Furniture, A&M Draperies and Bolsters, Mama’s Lighting Fixtures and the Tenafly Door Company for their generous help in getting our studios fixed up. We trusted them, the way you trust us. Trust is generously funded by Biscuit, the on-line money extender company.
And thanks to them, we can remain ad-free, always. But radio programming isn’t cheap. We have to pay National Liberal Radio for many of your favorite shows, including “Breakfast News,” “Midday News” and “News for Driving Home in Your Single-Occupancy Vehicle.” And that money comes from you, our listeners. We need you to keep us afloat during these difficult times. Mark?
And thanks too to our generous underwriters, including Castaneda Bio-Industries, making America great again through responsible cloning techniques; Klapman, providing security solutions for a changing world; PeaceWork, offering compassionate mercenaries to nations in stress; and QinTip, the first totally soluble art technology. Thanks too to Ragtop, the world’s first all-conifer energy source; Granular Partners, specializing in wireless brain-to-brain devices; BioMediClean, protecting to you from climate-generated hysteria; and Hill, Dale, Friedman and Fong, your first call when you’ve been taken away in handcuffs.
Mark, as I walked to work today…
Nancy, it was raining.
God knows I’m aware of that, Mark. But I like to save money wherever I can, so I can give back at least 50 per cent of my salary. Public radio has done so much good for so many people. A friend of mine with a serious Hello Kitty addiction problem listened to “On The Couch” (Saturday mornings at 2 a.m.) and was entirely cured, praise goddess. So I like to give back, and I hope our listeners will too at 1-800-GO-KURK. Give more than you can.
Nancy, I bring toilet paper from home, just to help out. We’re so poor around here, we’re lucky to get our $50 salary subsidy from Danielson Industries, putting the “you” in “unit” since 1954. And thanks too for this lovely croissant, from the guy who’s been stalking me for 18 months.
Volunteers are standing by, but let’s go to Sunny Flowers for a traffic report at 10 minutes before the hour.
Nancy, shit is out of control here.
Thanks, Sunny. We haven’t mentioned our premium gift at the $360 level. It’s a four-DVD set of the popular British comedy “Put ‘Er In There, Guv.” This hilarious romp that riveted a generation of viewers in the 1980s is now available to you at home, with special commentary from Jimmy “Bunny” Speaker, who played the rascally Squirt in this comedy about tenant farmers in 1930s Yorkshire, with English language subtitles.
And, Nancy, at the $680 level, we have an autographed copy of “Secrets of Greenwashing: Cashing in on the Clean Water Fad.” This book, which retails for $3000 (it’s printed in solid gold letters), is made entirely from vegetable-like products, guaranteed gluten free, non-GMO and organic, from PlanetLove Books. Become a billionaire and support your local public radio station.
Only two more minutes until “Soundstreams” returns, including a report on the Nova Scotia artisan who creates saxophones out of driftwood and gull guano, plus all the day’s news. We have a goal this hour of $1000, and so far we’re just a wee bit short. The last three phone calls have been from a home security company, a drapery cleaning firm, and a man named Harry wanting a volunteer to join him in Jane Austen cosplay. So that makes us $1000 short, and we’re in danger of losing our matched grant from White & Putz, a legal entity specializing in barratry and misprision.
Remember: Without you, we would be as nothing. We would be eyeless slugs creeping along the floor of the sea. Only you can save us from a life of misery and abandonment. So please call 1-800-GO-KURK and help us help you. “Soundstreams” is presented by a generous grant from Badboyz, providing clothes for the active intellectual, and from Gasper, the app that lets you connect with other smokers in your area.
The time is 9:00. The time is brought to you by Clocks Unlimited. Did you know the correct time can change the world?
On another note entirely: Jon Carroll Prose and associated entities is going to New York for 10 days, so next week will be barren at this fine blog. You can go back and catch up on posts you missed, or you could turn off the computer and revel in the beauty of the world. Entirely up to you.
My stepfather got his doctorate with a thesis on the purple pigment of the octopus. I never did find out what aspect of the pigment attracted him. He never followed up on his colorful mollusc; instead, he spent his life as a gypsy scientist. He gave emphysema to monkeys; he interviewed pilots in Vietnam; he designed gyroscopes; he worked on a public health project in Ethiopia.
In his spare time, he tinkered. At the suggestion of his mother, he designed a a coffee table on wheels with handles on each side. String was attached to the handles, so guests at a cocktail party could pull it toward them and thereby get cheese and crackers without getting up. In his later years, he designed and patented five devices for Scuba divers. Scuba was his passion well into his eighties.
Sound like a cool guy, doesn’t he? He wasn’t.
We lived half a block from Cal Tech, and before my mother remarried we took in students as boarders. They were very quiet, even shy, although when they would talk, the words came pouring out in a bubbling fountain of opinions, schemes and (almost inevitably) reasons why popular beliefs were wrong, wrong, wrong.
There are of course suave scientists, fashionable scientists, society scientists. But mostly not; mostly the lures of status and unearned admiration are treated as irrelevant to the process.
I found out that many scientists are quiet not because they have nothing to say; they just haven’t been socialized enough to understand how ordinary people modulate their opinions and their passions to suit the requirements of casual conversation. Rather than robotic data processing humanoids, they are in fact too passionate about the deep mysteries of nature. Everything is open to question, because science is about questions. It’s about refining the quality of the questions, and gathering information in often frighteningly intense ways, involving numbers in numbing array. Scientists are connected to the natural world in ways the rest of us can only imagine.
So there’s a subculture. Let’s call it a geek thing; it’s a imprecise term, but it’ll do. There’s geek habits (staying up all night in the lab); geek working conditions (muddy is good; muddy and cold is better); geek humor. I can’t describe geek humor, but I know it when I see it. There are, for instance, engineer jokes. This one is hoary, but enjoy it anyway:
Three condemned prisoners, a priest, a soldier and an engineer, were sentenced to the guillotine. Given the option to face away from the blade or toward it, each chose to face upward. The blade failed to fall for the priest, so he was released. It failed to fall for the solider, and he was released. The engineer lay face up for his turn. “I think I see your problem,” he said.
Heedless curiosity; that’s the mark of a true geek.
I had never read a book that described the scientists that I knew. Science books are often done by professional science writers, who (sometimes) explain the topic under examination with clarity and wit. But something is missing: the sense of what science is like. Scientists writing often describe their triumphs and failures (indeed, compassionate and impassioned books by surgeons is a whole sub-category), but usually the experiences are mediated by something, the urge not to bore or shock the reader, or the need to find a moral, a cheap nugget of uplift among the tales told.
All of which brings me to “Lab Girl”, a really excellent book by Hope Jahren, a geobiologist currently at the University of Hawaii. She’s something of a big deal in scientific circles (she’s won three Fulbrights) but not any kind of pop culture figure — no TV shows, no TED talks. But she sure can write about what science feels like, and what a scientist’s life looks like.
“Lab Girl” is surprisingly intense. Jahren is passionate about plants. “So humor me for a minute, and look out your window. What did you see?…Did you see something green? If you did, you saw one of few things left in the world that people cannot make. What you saw was invented more than four hundred million years ago near the equator. Perhaps you were lucky enough to see a tree. The mining of the atmosphere, the cell-laying, the wax-spackling, plumbing, and pigmentation took a few months at most, giving rise to nothing more or less perfect than a leaf.”
And she’s willing to look at that leaf for as long as it takes.
There are plant facts scattered about the prose. Trees have memory; did you know that? It’s a proven fact now, and Jahren was one of the people who helped prove it. But mostly it’s about the process, the loneliness, the overnight lab sessions, the excitement of finding stuff out. She describes her relationship with Bill, her lab partner for more than 20 years, a geek soulmate whose laconic sarcasm and unspoken dedication to the data, to the science, gives her nourishment. They choose to live like this, poor, living on coffee and pizza, running tests again and again, and going on road trips to muck through a swamp or dig unremarkable rocks out of the desert. The discomfort is part of the science; it’s proof that the passion is real.
Twenty years together, and never a whiff of romance, says Jahren. It was a strictly platonic love affair, or maybe a threesome — Hope, Bill, and science. The love is somewhere in there, and the love is relatively uncomplicated. Her tribute to Bill at the end of the book is heartfelt and complete.
Jahren’s personal story is complex. The way she chooses to present the facts is brilliant; I won’t spoil any of it. I hate reviews that just retell the entire story; I’m all for raw emotion and multiple surprises. “Lab Girl” is remarkable for its honesty.
Have you gotten the idea that I want you to read this book? I don’t know anyone associated with it. I got it because of a review, but by the time it arrived I had forgotten the review, and was uncertain why I ordered it. Three chapters in, I had a dawning appreciation of what was about to happen.
Scientists, like journalists, are under attack just now. Like journalists, they think the truth is important, that facts are all we have between us and chaos. But facts don’t seem to carry the weight the way they used to; “belief systems” are now all the rage, even if what people believe in their little systems is demonstrably untrue. Jahren is distressed and incensed by deforestation; each year, she says, we cut down one percent of the total forests on earth, a land area the size of France.
And what happens when the trees are all gone? We don’t exactly know, but it won’t be good.
But I’m editorializing. “Lab Girl” is not a polemic; it’s an autobiography, written by a woman with a unique ability to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us. And it’s poetic in the best possible sense; her prose is not purple but always, always, a dense dark green.