Friday, September 28, 2007

incisions, incisions...

Originally uploaded by sciencedave

Some people who have known me for a long time know that I am something less than graceful. Lumbering, gorilla-like at times, or more like a cross between lizard and weasel when I get hyper and excited. But absolutely, positively not a natural athlete. Coupled with bad eyes and poor coordination, you'd probably expect that I spent my youth squirreled away in books, or taking apart electronics, and avoiding sports and adventure.

Well, I was bookish, and I tore apart everything I could, and reassembled some of it into things far more dangerous than what I began with. But I was a pretty vigorous kid. I climbed trees and dug holes and waded through creeks. I pursued and caught all manner of insects and animals, some that punished me severely for my efforts. I played sports, even some that I sucked at so badly that all I ever got was knocked down, because it made me feel good to contribute even if only by being ballast. And I learned to put body english on other players, so my just-above-average frame saw lots of contact, and more than a few fist fights.

I was a nerd that had a big mouth, and who wanted to get along with the cool kids and the jocks and the stoners as well as the nerds. I wanted to be friends, but I had a lot of pissy Irish pride that I got from my Grandmother, and I was willing to fight any and all of them for respect.

I climbed rocks and rappelled down them in college. I ran, and played some silly intercollegiate sports. The great turning point came, though, when I had a brief dalliance with the military about 21 years ago, where I again ran afoul of every rule and obstacle in my way, and yet learned valuable things that have never left me.

I came in and they warned me that I was not allowed to join due to my status as a seminary student, as it turned out. That they would consider discharging me right away. I didn't want them to, despite also thinking that I had arrived in the Inferno. So I talked them into seeing if my status as a 'divinity student' could be changed, and embarked on the torture gauntlet that is basic training.

In the process of learning to shoot and bayonet and march in formation and deciding that I would tell the seminary to (ahem) go to hell, I twisted my ankle so that it swelled up as big as my thigh. Uncle Sam gave me some cortisone shots, a check for my troubles, and a bus ticket home. I have nothing but respect for warriors, and did what I could to join them, but I think, frankly, we were better off without one another. I don't regret the attempt, and I am glad for the resources they uncovered in me.

It took a while to recover, and I never really thought, at 22 years old, and despite my injuries, in the best health of my life, to go have a doctor look at my sore foot. So it sort of healed. And I re-injured it, again and again over the last two decades.

This last time, a few months back, it wouldn't get better. Xrays and MRIs later, they explained what I had been doing to my unfortunate body since the mid 80s. The posterior tibialis tendon was frayed and slackened by repeated tears. My arch collapsed. The insults sort of radiated up my leg, and caused some degeneration in my knee and hip.

So, the nice podiatrist referred me to a surgeon, and she repaired the tendon, and put a titanium pin about the size of a thimble in my tarsal sinus . And I am crutching, in a cast, for the next 6 weeks, having spent about 2 weeks already.

For a while, I was in a vicodin and vistoril haze, but now I have no real pain, just boredom and immobility. I just started going back to work, and have been keeping busy with data analysis and programming. But if everything goes right, I should get back, approximately, the foot I haven't seen in 20-odd years. If I can believe my doctors, I will be able to run and bike without worrying about my stupid foot. I'll still be clumsy as an orangutan, but that's OK with me.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


our 1st married dance
Originally uploaded by sciencedave

Today is my 15th wedding anniversary.

My wife and I met in the most random, unexpected way, at a traffic light. I was friends with her brother, and we had been out to eat. I saw the cute pizza deliver girl gesturing to get his attention. I said, "Hey, this chick's trying to get your attention." He said "That 'chick' is my sister."

A couple of days later, my buddy called and said, "You ought to ask my sister out on a date". So I did.

At first glance, we were not much alike. Neither of us had any idea that by the end of the first date, the die was already cast. We talked and laughed like friends long before we became anything else.

I am a lucky, lucky man. My wife and I don't see eye-to-eye on some things, and we fight like weasels on occasion. But we share a sense of humor, and she is good, honest, and incredibly supportive. She pulled things from inside me that I never knew existed.

If it were not for her, I would not have the children that have shown me the purpose of life. I would not have pursued the career that sustains my mind and provides our living. I would not have faced truths that had consistently come between me and success. In some ways, I would simply never have become myself.

Most of all, though, as I rediscover again and again, she is my best friend, my most loyal ally, my team-mate, and my partner.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


I left the following as a comment on another blog:
I have a buddy who is a communications professor. He speaks the Gramsci/Foucalt lit crit hegemony stuff all the time. Mostly, I haven't got the first goddammed idea what he's talking about, though I have given it enough of a try to encounter the Sokhal hoax and stuff like that. But once, he asked me what it would take to 'overthrow' the periodic table. I tried to make the point that, fundamentally, the periodic table is an organization of experimental observation, that has since been backed up with theory. He wondered why we 'privilege' this particular structure.

After trying really hard to understand what the hell he meant, I got the impression that he thinks, honestly, that scientists just make shit up and all agree to discuss it in a certain way. I basically told him that he had the luxury of this because he didn't interact with things that would mercilessly render him dead as a rock if didn't privilege the knowledge that has been gained over time, different ways of knowing be damned.

He thought, and then said, "Yeah, if I write down something that doesn't conform to the narrative of my field, my papers won't explode." I think that we may have understood one another for a few minutes, at least.

I used to think that it was just a caricature of loony professors that allegedly actually believed that science has no basis outside the conversations that scientists engage in. Admittedly, this is the strongest of a continuum of such positions, but I am beginning to realize that some people really think that this is true. I can't relate, but it is intriguing. I suspect that this is actually a posture that some affect, and that with experimentation, one could uncover a basic belief in physical reality that would belie this academic position.

update:Thanks to Ms. PsiStarPsi for catching a broken link. It looks right in HTML, but apparently, blockquotes baffle Blogger. Or maybe it's just me. The Sokal Hoax I refer to above was the demonstration by Alan Sokal, a physicist, that much of the 'scholarship' in the literary criticism and social sciences fields is little more than posturing, especially when they try to apply scientific concepts. The affair is still stinging to some, and some legitimate questions have been raised about exactly what Sokal proved. It just shows, in my mind, that if one follows the dominant narrative in social sciences, they don't care whether what you proffer as arguments are correct, or even meaningful.

In fairness, I do acknowledge that plenty of science is, in fact, socially constructed, and scientist are pretty naive about this. It is the prevailing consensus that drives what people choose to research, which de facto decides what gets funded. There are also plenty of gender and race issues in science that others are far more eloquent in describing. So I don't mean to suggest that social science is all bunk. In fact, I think physical scientists would do well to learn a bit about it, especially economics and sociology.

What I really object to is that the strongest holders of the position that all knowledge is socially constructed ignore the fact that we do, in fact, spend most of our time being wrong in science. If it were possible for a cabal of scientist to decide, by consensus, what counts as scientific fact, falsifiability would not be the center of our discipline. This lack of responsibility to something external to the community, and the lack of falsifiability, are really the points where other academic fields diverge from science. So far as I can tell. Maybe I'm deluded by the patriarchal, capitalist hegemony into believing that I shouldn't mix elemental Fluorine with Cesium metal, and perhaps a Wiccan High Priestess could do so because she isn't bound by my reductionist blinders. I'm still going to leave the room, just in case. And, in the end, science wins, because even this would be empirical knowledge. Next, we figure out which solvents dissolve Wiccan Priestesses...

Wednesday, September 05, 2007


Originally uploaded by sciencedave

These two seed heads were spotted by Sam, my elder son, on a walk. He wanted to know if these were evidence of evolution. I admitted that I couldn't be certain, but that it seems likely to me. We talked a long time about how life must have gotten started, which is something that I have found interesting since I was a kid.

Once one understands the implications of evolution and abiogenesis, there is the problem of how life got started. I recall how fascinated I was when my dad told me about the Miller-Urey experiment, and I have continued to follow this a little. A.G. Cairns-Smith, who has suggested that early life, before DNA and RNA, might have been templated by clays is especially compelling to me, though it hasn't been widely accepted. It is, though, an attempt to wrestle with this difficult question of how life could get started. If it is totally wrong, it is still important because it tries to see the steps involved.

Professor Cairns-Smith was kind enough to send me some signed galleys of a chapter he wrote for a book on the origins of life that covered this back when I was a post-doc. I used them to prepare a lecture on the origin of life that my physicist advisor included as part of an intro astronomy class. It was great fun to tie the explosion of stars to clay to life to Steve Buscemi in 55 minutes...

Despite some of my organic friends alleged hatred for "icky metals", a lot of organic chemistry's contribution to biology is in holding an icky metal in just the right place to do something important. The interplay between all of science, especially when it comes to understanding what we are and why, is something that I am still trying to comprehend.