Nov 142013

When I was eight years old, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.

I wanted to be this guy:

Forty-five years later, I finally look a bit like that. It’s not the wild hair and bulging eyes (which I’ve always had): it’s the glassware. At 53, I finally have an erlenmeyer flask!  I also have a box of pipettes, and a big fat falcon tube filled with a yellow fluid that might well turn into a powerful explosive if I ever let it dry out.  I do not have a brain in a jar, but it’s only a matter of time.

In short: at a fairly late stage of life I am trying to become, in my own small way, a kind of scientist.    I have no scientific training at all.   I am a poet, who happens to have written a bit about protists and microscopy.    I’m hoping this blog will give me a place to write about the slow and sometimes awkward process of learning to think scientifically.

What I’m beginning here could be described as a “citizen science”  blog, but that term doesn’t sit well with my inner eight-year-old.   “Citizen science” is all about “making a contribution,” like those diligent bird-counters, reporting their sightings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology; or telescope fanciers up till all hours, sifting the barely-perceptible specks from the almost-invisible flecks.   There’s nothing wrong with doing your bit for the cause, but that is not what pulled me into this.  (And really, can you picture a power-hungry “citizen scientist” cackling over a fuming flask?)

Since we do have to distinguish the self-taught amateur from the qualified pro (if only to decide who gets a turn at the electron microscope), I prefer the term “outsider science,” which hints at the kind of not-altogether-healthy obsessiveness that drives a person like me.   Of course, that epithet is, if anything, even less flattering.  While the “citizen scientist” may be, at worst, a gormless do-gooder, the “outsider scientist” appears to be (in the journalistic imagination, at least) a flat-out crank:

(Image: Reidar Hahn, via Symmetry Magazine)

But if the “outsider scientist” is a kook, he is at least a passionate one; and I’m not too proud to admit that something in that picture kind of reminds me of me.

Also, protistology is itself something of an “outsider science,” which has a long history of providing an intellectual home for dedicated autodidacts.  I will talk a bit about that in my next post, or the one after that.



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