Why I love Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks suffers from prosopagnosia - the inability to recognise faces. But it seems his “forgetfulness [isn’t] limited to faces. He also forgets places, routes and names. Although The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat gained almost universal rave reviews, an opposing voice was the philosopher Colin McGinn, who found it unreliable and sentimental. Sacks was so wounded by McGinn’s review that he described it as a vivisection. Years later, having forgotten the author, he read a book of McGinn’s and liked it so much he sent a fan letter. The two men met up and became friends. It was months before Sacks realised who his new friend was. Tellingly, although deeply hurt, he forgave McGinn.”

Oliver Sacks: The visionary who can’t recognize faces

Wide-eyed, head tilted

Jonathan Yewdell gave a talk in our department with the attractive title “How to succeed in science without trying”. Naturally I wanted to go - since he was basically describing my PhD.

Alas, it wasn’t as funny as I hoped it would be.

Bear in mind that your friends, ladies and gentlemen, who are just as ambitious and hard working as you, but work in industry, not science, will earn more money sooner. Will earn more money full stop. Will have better positions, job security and, oh yeah, a pension. Maybe even a little time on their hands for crazy things like hobbies or a family.

80 hour weeks should be the norm, not the exception. I poke the girl sitting next to me and give her the ‘Yeah. Right.-eyebrow’. She goes, ‘Oh well, at least it’s not 120, right’. I blink. Then nod. Slowly.

Next, we hear about dim future prospects even after years of training and tiny salaries. And please let’s not forget the aggressively competitive climate dominated by hierarchies and backyard policies rather than the desire to expand knowledge.

I look around. Nobody seems frightened. Faces content. Smug.

Is that how it feels when you are actually going mad?

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Interactions with the outside world #2

I have become a bit of a regular at co-op. Shushing my future diabetic self when it tries to talk sense into me I find myself stopping there more and more often on my way home. I walk through the aisles and get some bread and…

ICE CREAM, CHOCOLATE, RICE PUDDING

hummus and…

STRAWBERRIES, BISCUITS, MORE CHOCOLATE

and tomatoes. Of course tomatoes.

The guy behind the counter is tall and dark. His name is Dale. Dale calls me darling. I like that.

You alright, darling?

Yeah, thanks.

I stack my goods on the counter before I risk a quick glimpse at his face. Hard to tell what he thinks. I guess they go on annual training courses on how to hide judgement?

Maybe I should just tell him I am doing a PhD.

Do you need a bag?

Yes please, I say, waiting for the card reader.

It’s my last year, you see, it’s a little stressful. 

He hands me the bag with a smile.

Have a nice evening darling.

Man. He’s good.

 

Night at the tissue culture

If you are very quiet, and patient enough to wait for the sun to set outside, you might be able to see some extraordinary wildlife in the lab. Peep through the bull’s eye in the door and watch nocturnal PhD students in the tissue culture room.

Two fume hoods form their natural habitat. During daytime, the PhD students can be found pipetting for hours standing quietly in front of the hoods. In the evening however, when it gets quiet in the institute, the PhD students are beginning to perk up.

If two female PhD students work next to each other, you might be able to witness the beginning of abstruse conversations interspersed with jarring fits of laughter accompanied by feet stomping. Despite numerous recorded attempts, researchers have not been able to decipher these conversations. The outcome, however, seems to be consistent: The intruder, usually a supervisor, leaves the tissue culture facility with a frown, bewildered, and often a little worried.

Very similar, the behaviour of a single PhD student in the tissue culture room at dusk. She, too, will be found engaged in a conversation. With herself. Note the lively facial expressions.

Another behaviour commonly seen in the single nocturnal PhD student is the switching of the radio station. Whilst her daylight equivalent listens peacefully to classical music, head slightly tilted during pipetting, the nocturnal PhD student will, almost despite herself, change the channel to a more pop music orientated channel. Initially, the PhD student will quietly sing along followed by gentle foot-tapping. Before long though the PhD student’s hips will start swaying and the singing will grow louder, until, finally, her whole body is twitching and jiggling. Pipetting remains uninterrupted though.

In this condition, intruders seemed to be welcome. “Oh how nice to see you, yeah, come on in. Maybe you want to join me and sing along to Katy Perry? Or maybe you go and save yourself. There is still time, you know. Just leave the building. Don’t turn around. Never come back.”

 

Notes from my pinboard

"I want to see what’s novel, what wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t been in that group, if somebody else had been there and been given the same problem.

Where did you come up with something that was so original that your professor was just shocked by it?

Where your colleagues thought,

'Holy cow, I wouldn't have thought that would have worked,

or I wouldn’t have gone that way,

or I wouldn’t have drawn that conclusion?’

The fact that grad students may work in large collaborative groups doesn’t mean that each can’t make an individual contribution.

We’re all part of a collegial team, but I can still tell you on a baseball team what the batting average is of the pitcher and the first baseman.”

He especially seeks scientists whose research shows an ability to work on hard—even “disruptive”—problems rather than building incrementally on a professor’s work. “If it were easy, people would have done it by now. I look for people who take on hard problems and solve them.”

W. Banholzer, previous chief technology officer and executive vice president of Dow Chemical Company in

How to Succeed in Industry by Really Trying

Rabbit in a hat

The longest relationship I’ve had is with my supervisor. 

As in every long-term relationship, honeymoon was over after the first year and with it went the daily discussions and holding hands. Now that we are in our fifth year, our conversations look like this:

She rushes past me saying, ‘you okay?’

Sometimes I just nod without looking up, on other days I through her a bone.

‘The synaptic input isn’t significantly different.’

Which jerks her into a halt. She turns around and fires a salute of questions at me.

I trip over my stammered replies, wishing I hadn’t said anything. Things accelerate, we start interrupting each other, eyes get rolled, voices raised until eventually we smile at each other to signify armistice. She walks off.

I turn back to my computer and for a moment I am confused. The problem I have been mulling over for days has gone. I can’t tell how it happened or when, but somehow my supervisor cleared it all up.

I smile. After all those years she still surprises me. They say that’s how you know it’s true love.