Dear Science, please fix all the things you keep talking about or shut the fuck up.
My reaction (scrawled in kid’s handwriting):
As scientists, our goals are to understand where we came from, what makes us tick, and why things work the way they work. We’ve learned a lot. But some questions—especially the really interesting ones—are big enough that we just aren’t going to answer them anytime soon.
In fact, a large part of being a scientist is
being comfortable with failure. I often find myself facing a day in which nothing is expected to work. But in order to make progress, I need to spend that day (sometimes many days) confirming it.
It can wear on a person.
Some days, I honestly do feel like shutting the fuck up. Some days it feels strange, at this point in my life, to sit and label tubes or dispense liquids, wait for water to drip, for hours at a time. But there are rewards. Rarely, the reward is a home run. A Holy Shit moment where you see something that no one has seen before. More times than I’m comfortable admitting, those moments happen by accident. A mistake that suddenly clarifies weeks of confusion.
More commonly, the rewards are modest. Figuring out that you’ve consistently been doing something subtly different from what you’d intended. Realizing that a well-meaning colleague has, with absolute conviction, advised you to do the exact wrong thing. Usually, this is a small step. Nonetheless, it’s one that can be immensely rewarding. It’s the accumulation of these small steps that drives research. To be successful, you have to be at peace with the process. You have to willingly walk into failure.
* * * * *
I had high hopes for this post. Smoke. Lasers. Art forms new to the blog. I had intended to write a valentine to my neighborhood, with a dish inspired by its ethnic identities. Quite simply, that plan broke.
I had decided to base my dish on a somewhat fussy and time-consuming quiche recipe. My suspicion, after blind-baking the crust, was that it would not hold. It felt familiar to know that I had to try anyway. As predicted, the crust leaked. I continued baking until I was left with a sadly deflated pie adorned with a leathery mane of evaporated custard. It was, at best, inoffensive. Not “sexual,” or “seductive,” as Thomas Keller describes. Further research revealed that I was not the first person to have had difficulty with this recipe.
Weeks went by, during which I summoned the energy to try again. This time, I took much greater care with the dough. I realized that I needed to scale the recipe up, work the dough more thoroughly, and let it rest longer. Sure enough, the crust behaved much more like I hoped it would. It wasn’t nearly as fragile as my first attempt. It didn’t fall apart after blind-baking. It didn’t need much patching at all.
But it leaked again.
This time, however, it didn’t leak as badly. This time, the custard was silky and luxurious. There were many things about this time, some of them subtle, that showed I’d come a long way since not being able to bake my way out of an elimination challenge. I was faster, confident, observant. Small steps.
There was a time when I wouldn’t have taken on this recipe. When I would have given up after spending the better part of the day on an ill-fated quiche. But by now, I’ve tackled far worse problems. I know I’m still learning, and I know that I can handle this.
* * * * *
If you’ve ever attempted to reproduce an experiment from a high-profile scientific journal, you know that it’s often impossible to do without further guidance. The Materials and Methods section of a paper reads like a chef’s recipe, i.e., something that needs translating. It’s usually not malicious. Like kitchens, all labs are different. More important, the hands that execute each step are different. If you’re lucky, the author will communicate with you directly. But that doesn’t always help, and it’s ultimately up to you to navigate the myriad ways to proceed.
When I’ve cracked an ambiguous protocol, I like to document my process. Hopefully, I can save a colleague from making the same mistakes I made. One of these days, that damn quiche is going to work. And if I can understand why it did, I’ll tell you about it here. In the meantime, I have a message of my own to address to Science.
You can be a real motherfucker. But through you, I learned how to imagine, how to teach myself things, and how to communicate and connect with remarkably different people. I wouldn’t have become the cook, writer, or person I am today without you. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.