I used to work as a scientist, did you know that? Arguably I still am. A few years ago – or so it feels – my life revolved around biochemistry specifically the structure of proteins. There are details, but I doubt anyone would care to hear much about the science. My explanations probably would only add to the confusion anyway. Needless to say, the work was good and interesting, but fraught with politics. Progressing projects halted half-way to fruition, shifting to the latest or newest research and then changing again within months. Structural biology experiments under ideal conditions take months to complete; some researchers never got around to finishing or publishing any research.
Choosing an appropriate journal was also a touchy subject. While some researchers would seek publication from any respectable journal; others usually lab heads would only be satisfied with high-ranking journals. An article chosen in Nature or Science certainly would be a feather in your cap, but the time needed to perform the necessary experiments required for acceptance was often underrated. Thus, your work would sit gathering dust until your boss condescended to a more “mediocre” journal (which was not likely) or these publishing titans felt that you had jumped through enough hoops to garner their pages (which again took many months).
In the end, drawn by my bibliophilia, the advice of my co-workers (“When you win the lotto, then and only then come back to science. This is a rich man’s game.”), and a mounting indifference, I left. Like the portrayal of war in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, I had grown tired of the business and institute of science than the craft itself.
“History did not demand Yossarian’s premature demise, justice could be satisfied without it, progress did not hinge upon it, victory did not depend on it. That men would die was a matter of necessity; which men would die, though, was a matter of circumstance, and Yossarian was willing to be the victim of anything but circumstance. But that was war.” (Catch-22. chap 8, pg 78)
“. . . that’s the way things go when you elevate mediocre people to positions of authority.” (chap 29, p 335)
Thus, my path to the Nobel Prize was sundered (ha!), and as Robert Frost said “it has made all the difference.” Yet both writing and science share a mutual respect for the world and its numerous observations. After all you do not always need a microscope or a beaker full of bacteria, to uncover wonders and make discoveries. The world brims with secrets that lie undiscovered the more we ignore them, bypassing the unusual or wonderful in favor of the marketable.
The world truly is an extraordinary place. Walking through the parking lot at Walmart earlier today, I spied shards of ice forming in a muddy sunken puddle. The tire of a parked Forerunner rose from the center like black obelisk, unaware of the harmless miniature knives weaving frozen nets around it. Above the tattered clouds strove with glittering spears of light, while torrents of red and violet shone on the horizon like great bonfires. Still the gluttonous clouds marched forward swallowing the calm of blue and gold in its wake. Sun-spears break, retreating to the upper stratosphere; sun fades and blue sky blanches. We wait for the white curtain to peel and flake to earth. I walk to my car, fumbling with my keys, which of course are in the other pocket. My car engine roars, and my packages and I drive home.
Winter mornings always welcome the scientist or artist with something extraordinary. Perhaps amidst all the cold weather, dying leaves, and skeletal fingers of tree limbs, my eyes dilate like a cat’s at midnight, sensitive to the unnoticed yet luminous morsels of life in the world. The flicker of a small candle stretches far in a dark world, they say. Evidence of life in the barren winter has that same effect, like the tangible air of magic in the throes of a cynical world.