Wednesday, December 29, 2004

In Other Words...

Now, in addition to inducing mass comas, group meeting could sometimes turn ugly. When The Doktah first started doing experiments with isolated xenopus oocyte nuclei, she found that the nuclei swelled up when they were in the isolation medium, but she couldn’t figure out why. So she decided to use group meeting as a forum, looking for suggestions of what could be causing the swelling.

But the crowd turned on her. Do you remember the scene in Young Frankenstein where Gene Wilder is presenting his monster to a scientific audience, and the audience throws fruit? That’s not always so far from the truth. It can happen anywhere. At a national conference, a wide-eyed grad student might be presenting her poster for the first time and find herself facing a barrage of questions. “Did you consider the effect of the ubiquitin? Did you measure the force of the spectrin repeats? Have you quantified the rate of the enzyme reaction? DO YOU KNOW EVERY TINY THING ABOUT EVERY SINGLE THING HAPPENING IN THE CELL?”

OK, maybe that last question is an exaggeration. But it can feel like that’s what they’re asking. And for some reason, everyone seemed to be attacking The Doktah that day in just that way. Halfway through her talk, people started demanding to know why she hadn’t tried these 150 experiments to find the cause of the swelling, and the entire meeting began degenerated into a general shouting match.

At one point, Bitter Guy had the floor, and tried to make an analogy to explain his theory about the swelling phenomenon. “Imagine that you had a whiffle ball filled with blue dye, and you threw it in a swimming pool.” I said I didn’t understand, and he said, “In other words, say that you had a swimming pool, and you threw a whiffle ball filled with blue dye into it.”

I looked at him. “Those are the same words!”

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