If you must know, I’ve been shut away in my basement working on a book titled Sodomy and the Lash: An Unauthorized History of the British Navy. It’s an epic story full of lies. And sodomy. I think there’s a market for it.
Actually, part of May and all of June were spent forcing my head to form sentences brimming with scientific whatnot in an effort to justify my evolution from ‘common graduate student slime’ (vulgaris discipulus virus) to ‘PhD candidate’ (posterus scientia grandus poobah). A day spent with your head in your hands trying to figure out the best way to format a single paragraph is enough to make anyone not want to use words and punctuation to form sentences any more than absolutely necessary. This actually makes a convenient excuse for extended absences from frivolous wordsmithery (ahem). At the end of the second year in my particular graduate program, a 20-page single-spaced monstrosity in the form of an NIH grant outlining one’s proposed research for the next ~3 years is required. It needs to be well-written, well-researched, novel in some way (i.e. presenting the field with something new and beneficial), and able to be defended in front of people generally unwelcoming of scientific half-assery. Novelty is the trick. Much of it requires faith that you can actually come up with something worthy, but more important, that you can explain it’s worth in such a way that will cause science pukes to rub their chins and nod with appreciation. The epiphany for my proposal arrived in Wenatchee, of all places.
It could’ve been the rarified air of that little slice of the Pacific Northwest or perhaps that my host’s house was built atop an indian burial ground. It may have even been a byproduct of having recently snorted in lungfulls of Canadian air while fouling my liver with booze and poutine. Whatever the reason, it was there with my brain officially and purposefully in neutral that I found myself reading a few papers from a couple scientific journals on a whim, which led me to look at one or two other things a little more closely, when BOOM WENT THE DYNAMITE and I realized that I’d stumbled onto my ‘novel’, as it were. Or maybe ‘short story’ is a more accurate description. In any case, I presented the outline of the idea to my committee a few days later and they gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up. I owed my success to Canadian beer and possible indian poltergeists and will be sure to acknowledge them accordingly in future published work.
Thus was the deliciousness of the irony of tripping over something profound while not really looking. I think it nicely illustrates how the process works, in that there really is no process. There’s something else, though, that sort of caught my mind’s eye along the way. Throw scientific research into a pot and boil it long enough and what’s left will be fiction. An effective research proposal is a narrative effort wherein the writer tells a story based on established knowledge. The goal is to convince people that your fiction is supported well-enough by non-fiction such that your idea may itself, after a great deal of effort, eventually qualify as being worthy of non-fiction status. Such a qualification requires that your story be verifiable, mathematically, biologically, biochemically, etc. And therein lies the primary difference between science and religion, at least in the eyes of the more dogmatically inclined on either side. Verification of religious faith requires death, which has been proven to be an effective inhibitor of one’s ability to continue making science happen. This logic annoys the more hardcore science types, who in some ways are just as annoying as creationists, the yin to their atheistic yang, if you will. In the event that there is an afterlife and assuming that neither fire nor brimstone is involved, I feel certain that upon arrival, members of both factions will still find reasons to be disappointed.
< / digression >
And so it came to pass last week that I was able to successfully defend my novelty in front of serious people who then bestowed upon me the pleasure of their company for the next few years. The time will be spent trying to turn fiction into non-fiction in the slow and tedious way that’s required of such an effort. The payoff could be pretty profound. There may be a way to tweak something just enough to make something else very bad stop happening. It doesn’t require a major tweak, either. At first it seemed too simple, then too obvious, then later after heaping on some evidence, it acquired a clarity that was a little astonishing. Wondering how such a thing could’ve been missed by others, I can only surmise that I’m still naïve enough to the current vocation that I’m not blinded by expectations of what I should and shouldn’t see. I know just enough to be dangerous and and haven’t been soiled by academia’s occasional insistence on coloring within the lines.
And I’m fully aware of the long and distinguished history of minor tweaks promising profound results only to be dashed upon the fickle rocks of human biology. What works in a lab may not work in Steve. And yet, novelty is welcome because it has potential. There currently are no therapies for the diseases to which my short story is related, so the status quo is unacceptable. Not only could this work, it might work very well. This realization led to chins being rubbed vigorously. People smiling. Hands being shaken. Three cheers for the imagination.
Sir @ July 14, 2010