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Acids, Bases and Silence

Postcard from Pittsburgh, Pa.

By Matthew S. Meisel

PITTSBURGH, Pa.—“I’m doing chem research,” I said, cutting myself off in mid-stream, not knowing how I could possible describe my job any further.

My friends politely nodded.

Gathered in my living room in early June, several of my high school friends were relaying what we were doing this summer. Two were lifeguarding, another had landed a job as a maitre d’ at a local Thai joint and one was a camp counselor. And the three of us who were doing science research over the summer tried ever so briefly, as we’ve become accustomed to doing, to describe our research.

Having only begun work that week, however, I wasn’t nearly as articulate. When one of my friends got the courage to ask the three of us what exactly we were doing, we all rolled over. I couldn’t describe it if my MCAT depended on it.

The conversation quickly turned away from science; all my friends were mesmerized by tales of neighborhood rumbles between oversized ten year-olds at the local pools. This was hardly the first time I had witnessed casual conversation touch the edge of scientific inquiry and bounce back off, like a projectile not quite captured by a body’s gravity. Those of us “in science”—the very term conjures images of a chemist fighting off thick fumes of acid or a geologist emerging from a month-long stay in a sticky cave—find ourselves in a world misunderstood by so many others, even ourselves. The frustrations of the intellectual isolation are numerous: I can barely understand my own work at times, yet alone explain it to my friends, should they happen to care about it.

But of all the pleasure we can take from our academic work, doesn’t a goodly portion come from being able to gab about it with your closest friends? It’s true, during reading period, Cabot Library becomes a veritable motel, but nothing captures our passion for academics like the lunchtime debates and shouting matches that overflow from, say, “Justice” lecture into Annenberg Hall. Traditionally, academics use thousands of stuffy, jargon-filled journals to communicate their most obscure thoughts and discoveries, but the joy of college is the ability to air them over a good piece of chicken parm, free from abstruse prose and pompous lingo.

When University President Lawrence H. Summers says that every Harvard graduate ought to know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, I hope he’s offering more than just his support for genetics courses. All Harvard students ought simply to understand the vocabulary of science. This is not a trivial task—one Harvard chemistry professor likens the number of new terms taught in an introductory science course to the number of words taught in a semester of foreign language. At the very least, students shouldn’t instinctively recoil when we encounter any remotely scientific-sounding phrase—even if polite culture insists that we profess ignorance about science. But the challenge is two-fold: if those of us in science can’t make our research make sense to a poetry wonk, then our efforts are in vain. If we want our friends to understand our passion, we must make it more understandable than the latest issue of the European Journal of Biochemistry.

The shroud around casual science talk exists not only because of its intricate nature or sometimes theoretical nature. Plenty of theoretical disciplines in the social sciences develop their own vocabularies and pursue lines of research so obscure that they’re impossible to discuss with anyone outside the field. Perhaps academia itself, especially when it has no immediate application or use to society, is uninteresting and difficult to talk about. Still, science seems to suffer from an unusual silence, thanks in large part to cultural norms that portray scientific research as absurdly dorky, hopelessly technical and often fruitless to society.

None of these three claims reflects the truth about science, but we, as scientists, must bear in mind that we should try to disprove them every time we discuss our work. If we want our friends to find interest in our own passions, we must make our work understandable, make it sound remotely interesting and try to describe it in the most relevant terms, even if it’s highly theoretical. Only then can we expect our friends to listen to our exploits in the lab with the same attention that they give to stories of neighborhood brawls or debates over political philosophy—even if tales of acids and bases aren’t quite as sexy. But if we succeed at explaining our work with clarity, we’d prefer that you don’t tune out of the conversation as soon as you hear the word “molecule.”

So here goes: the lab I work in specializes in making thin pieces of gel—slightly thinner than contact lenses, with about the same size and consistency—that change colors in the presence of different materials. I’m attempting to create a sensor that detects cobalt, which might prove useful in quickly determining if a patient has had a heart attack.

Now you can politely nod.

Matthew S. Meisel ’07, a chemistry concentrator in Currier House, is an editorial editor of The Crimson. He’s not actually worrying about the MCATs right now.

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