Monday, August 07, 2006

VANITY: His greatest sin

Let's face it. Scientists and graduate students like to gossip as much as middle aged women or wealthy businessmen at English country clubs. More often than not, I have found myself discussing who did something as much as what was done. My advisor is not averse to telling me stories about big shots bumbling, which I thoroughly enjoy. Of course there's also praise involved, but who doesn't like to take potshots at sacred cows. In a tribute to that simplest failing of humankind, jealousy, we also find ourselves jumping at a chance to criticise especially a big name, a prolific publisher, or that charismatic chemist who we think is getting more rock star like adulation than we think he deserves, or that we think we deserve. Without all the hard work of course. At some level, this gossip is well-founded and even wholesome, because through jealousy, it also signifies a deeply felt respect for the achievements of other scientists at pinnacles.

Especially when the scandal is question appears in the pages of a well-respected journal, whose usual fare consists of only honest research, we pounce on the opportunity. The La Clair episode for example, got more than 200 comments on the readable blog of Stanford graduate student Dylan Stiles. I was convulsing so much at the comments, now I know what brought on the bodyache cited at the beginning of the next paragraph. I am also one who is guilty of raking up leaves and occasional mud on those pages, although I also refrained judiciously from making obnoxious personal remarks (having enjoyed the ones others have made). That is one of the unfortunate trappings of the cybergrapevine. Slander can spread on it faster than light, and a name can be dragged in the mud countless number of times faster than one can say 'oops'. Now won't it be fun if all of us had to swallow those millions of words if the scandal turned out to be not a scandal after all. On the other hand, in this particular case, it seems that the hulabaloo is justified. I am still not loathe to keeping my mind open, but I don't want to keep it so open that all the knowledge in it, a smidgeon that has been hard won in the first place and widely scattered, does not rush out.

In other news, I am recovering from a strain of flu like microorganism that has left my body yearning for a bone replacement. Maybe La Clair's Bionic Bros. can help me (there we go again..). Also, I came close to being certified a nerdy nutcase when I dashed into the chem library 2 mins before it closed, grabbed a book, and told the librarian, "I was just looking for something interesting to read over the weekend". As she looked at me with that kind of look in her eye and said that 'she was worried about me', I quickly corrected her and told her that the book I had picked was a 'popular science' book (and I use this important phrase at a time when it has become much maligned, like the word 'knowledgeble'). The book is very nice, Philip Ball's 'Designing the Molecular World'. Now I am just a nerd, at least not a nutcase, or so at least I would think.


Blogger Hirak said...

Yes, it's true that we often indulge in nerdy gossip, but it is also true that you learn a lot about science that way. One of the best things about being a grad student is having lab-mates.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Ashutosh said...

True. And it really confirms that science is a human endeavor. Peer discussion is great; unfortunately, I have to say that my lab mates who are very nice otherwise are not as stimulating as I expected. So for me, the written word still remains the greatest intellectual stimulation, although I hope it is replaced by discussion sometime.

8:21 AM  

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