Schistorian


Since I wrote this elsewhere first, here the link, to my review of And the Band Played On (by Randy Shilts) on Goodreads.

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Back in September last year I wrote about stepping stone projects and mentioned one that was in progress. Soon thereafter, sometime in October we (its a joint effort with a co-author) actually finished it and submitted it to the Journal of the History of Biology. Last night–or more accurately in the wee hours of this morning–I just received notice from the the editors that it has been accepted. True there are “minor” revisions suggested which are actually quite extensive but nothing that requires major rethinking or going back to the drawing board.

The paper is about the impact of electron microscopes the problem of defining viruses. While a stepping stone for me, it is quite the opposite for my co-author, who had written and presented a paper on the topic many years ago. Actually he was my co-author in my last stepping stone paper as well, but there our collaboration was a last minute thing. I was writing a paper and toward the very end found out that he had written one on a similar topic some 20 years prior. He kindly shared said manuscript with me and I found that our ideas were so much in synch that I asked him if he cared to join me in a renewed effort. He agreed and within 10 days we had the the paper ready for submission; a month later (Jan 2016) we learnt it was accepted–again with minor revisions except those were genuinely minor and after yet another month or so it was published online.

The current paper has had a slightly longer journey. Ton first sent me a copy of his paper very soon after the publication of our previous effort suggesting a new label/wine-skin for yet another vintage gathering dust in his unpublished archives. I set it aside then because of various other obligations, but wrote to officially revive it on August 30 because I was just beginning to embark on the chapter 6 of my book, which is where this topic was relevant. We broke apart his first paper and rebuilt it (except for one part which might have to become a second paper–albeit a spin-off in the future). This time around it took us closer to 2 months rather than 2 weeks. And the turnaround was 5 months rather than the less than 5 weeks window of the previous. Given that it’s JHB I’m sure everything from here on in will take even longer. But it’s a publication and in one of the premier journals in our profession.

One thing that took me much less time was adapting it for the book chapter… I managed that in 2-3 days I think, basically distilling the “good parts” (ringing any bells oh ye Princess Bride fans?) into a tenth of the size of the first submission.

This has been the first silver dot in a very dark could that’s been handing over me for a while now. Not yet a lining mind.. just a dot. But it brings to mind a song that I learned while in school in Fortaleza way back when. Something about a spark to get a fire going…

I was so delighted to read this morning (well okay, it’s now two mornings ago) that Kazuo Ishiguro is the winner of the 2017 Nobel in Literature. I’m stoked because I’ve been an admirer of his for a while now (check out this long ago post about his books). I won’t say fan because I don’t unreservedly love everything he writes, but I do whole-heartedly love the way he writes it. It reminded me too that I have a unread treat in my Kindle in the guise of the first of his books that I heard about, The Remains of the Day.

But this is not the only Nobel that I have ties of connection or affection to. There is the Physiology or Medicine award, one of the three recipients this year of which was Michael Young. The award brought back memories of my time in the information office at Rockefeller University (and which is now headed by a former colleague from another place and time) where the annual task in September was to draft out announcements in anticipation of certain  winners. Might that be taken as a conceit? Yes, but not an idle one, for that small university does have a formidable number of winners in its roster of employees past and present (and even some future). True there were not winner in the two years that I was there (1996 & 97), but then there were consecutive awards in 1999 and 2000 to Rockefeller faculty, and then in 2001 Sir Paul Nurse got it, and he later became Director at the Rock for several years. Then again in 2011. Not too shabby.

I also have a connection to this year’s prize in chemistry. It was for a technique called cryo-electron microscopy and I’ve already managed to mention it in a paper that I’m working on (my co-author was also pleased).

Three out of five ain’t half bad, to mangle a quote by Jack Nicholson in a dreadful (so bad it was good) film. Five I say, because I don’t necessarily count the Peace Prize.. but while we’re counting, this post brings me up (down?) to #34.

The thought occurred, while answering an email about my current book project, that in  that I should write about the various strategies I have adopted in the years since I conceived of this book, in order to tackle a large project  more manageable. That my title is alliterative is just a happy co-incidence.

Stepping stones: Every project has its stepping stones and they come in many forms. I am reminded as I am typing this that a formal proposal is a natural stepping stone, but the one that I was thinking of particularly when I started to write this is what I call a stepping-stone publication. Undertaking such a project eases one into the larger task so by the time one actually officially “begins” the latter, there are already bits and pieces ready and available to be patched-in, expanded or otherwise modified. Two papers that I published, in 2014 and last year, are two stepping stones of slightly different types. The first was a “preview” of sorts–call it a testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this paper goes back a few years earlier actually–but at time the “book” was yet a dim possibility. It still serves as the outline for my larger project–10 pages to the roughly 200 that my book is supposed to be. The second paper, is a far more specific, and details a specific argument based on a specific archival find. It was an actual stepping stone, the first official paper that I wrote before picking up the courage to tackle the larger, more intimidating book itself. Funny thing is that I didn’t actually get to the content of the paper until recently, almost two thirds of the way into the book. But having it there helped. A third project currently underway, is a segue from the book–a way to suss out some ideas and get into material that is less familiar to me.

Spin-offs: Such articles are exactly what the label implies. Home in on a particular aspect–one idea or something–that has already been written into the book and spin a slightly different angle or go into greater depth about it. I recently submitted my first spin-off effort. I actually began it as a stepping stone, but didn’t really get into until recently by which time the chapter had been written. But as I wrote the paper I found myself revisiting the chapter and changing details. Of course I do that at almost every reread in any case, but this time the changes were more substantive as opposed to merely cosmetic. I have more spin-offs from my dissertation (but no stepping-stones, although paradoxically, the first paper has that phrase in the title). And while it may seem repetitive, I think spin-offs are hugely useful exercises because they keep you in the game.

So that’s my two bits worth on my writing life (#38)

Somebody yesterday asked me, about my perception of the difference between a library and an archive, and how I as a historian (of science, yes I know) thought about and used them differently and I opened my mouth to answer, only to stop short. Because, you know what…? I’m not quite sure actually know. If I stop to think about it, I’m not sure there is a huge difference. After all archive to some extent, is a library, or part of one or perhaps a more specialized type of one. It is sometime even referred to as a “rare books library” as is the Beinecki library at Yale–that architectural wonder that I personally think of as a cross between the Taj Mahal and a bar of chocolate (or to use the terminology of a quirky former colleague, the “bastard child,” with which label she did not intend to be necessarily insulting as factual in that the offspring was the product of what would be an unacceptable couple in many cultures). My tangential architectural side comments notwithstanding, the only real difference as far as I can see is that archives often contain “one-of’s”–original documents, e.g. a cache of letters, personal diaries–where different libraries often have copies of the same book. Also I guess the  level of access to materials housed in the two types of facilities would be different. Minor difference all told.

Writing about this topic reminds me, I once proposed a project for a post-doc in which I characterized the genome as an archive, rather than a library — at the time I think I was gunning specifically for the “repository of relics from the past” definition of the archive. As the online dictionary I just double checked tells me (no surprises) there is considerable overlap… and a library often has a special archive section. As I should know from my work this past summer, scouring Howard Temin archives at the Steenbock Memorial Library. (#44)

 

Uh oh… doesn’t say much for my ability to keep a resolution if I’ve lapsed before my third week… I think this omission may call for an extra this week. True I’ve had other things on my plate–last week at the archive and some stuff that needs to be written to meet application deadlines, but that is no reason or even an excuse. Part of the point of this resolution was to take time out for random writing no matter what…

But what to write about? I took a look at some of the writing from the senses prompts that I saved as titles of unwritten drafts, and while each is lovely, not one feels right to write about at this time. But perhaps I can draw inspiration from the topics of one of my work-related themes: autobiography.

Autobiography is a theme I’ve dwelt on as a historian of science for a time now. I’ve taken courses on it, taught courses on it and used autobiographies as primary sources in my research. As for writing them, well I’d say the blog is most certainly an autobiographical form–offering the writer’s public facade to its audiences like a memoir, but with the immediacy or time-stamp of a letter (with one difference you can actually go back and edit things in or out later which you can’t really do with a letter). And in fact, one of my students even used a blog as part of her cache of primary autobiographical documents on which she built her final paper for the class.

Other than blogs though, what qualifies as autobiography or “ego-documents” as we sometimes say in the profession? The aforementioned memoirs and letters certainly, as well as private diaries (I remember writing my paper on the published but little read diary of Robert Hooke–a very strange document that). One friend would have it that virtually anything a scholar publishes is in a sense autobiography, a story of the self or rather work by oneself, that he/she wants to share with the outside world. But while I agree at some level, I also think that such a definition is diluting the category overmuch, taking it to a point where it ceases to be useful (maybe?). I think that a piece must contain a definite element of sharing information about the author in order for it be considered some sort of ego-document. For instance, I do not think either of the reference books I’ve written count as autobiographies in any meaningful sense of the word–they are about microbes and about genes in the genome. Even my upcoming historical monograph is not about me, although it will certainly contain certain parts in the foreword (or afterword) that are distinctly autobiographical. But the book itself.. no.

Another rhetorical question here–what to do with all these thoughts? Well for now, not much more than publish it right here and almost right now. But I hope that the exercise has unlocked enough to give me more fodder for one of my other projects that are due for submission in very short order. (#50).

2017-05-22 16.53.26I love puns–good ones (if there are such things) and bad with almost equal affection–and can never resist the opportunity to use them. Especially here in this blog since no one will cut them out. But really, how am I expected to resist this one ? After all, the reason I’m here in Madison is to work at the archives on the papers of the scientist Howard Temin, and his work will be the terminal event in my book. But other coincidences abound. Witness, for instance this photograph that I snapped my first week here. No one told me it was here… but as I was walking  from the Steenbock library (where the archives are housed) to the Memorial Union building, what should I encounter but this plaque! The walkway is a beautiful lakeside path along the north edge of campus on the shores of Lake Mendota, one of 3 (or 4) lakes that grace this town. It gives me a special feeling knowing that as I walk along this pathway the destination are the papers of the very same person.

A quick biographical note on Temin (since this post is marked as a schistorian entry). He was an American virologist who received a third of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that makes DNA molecules from RNA templates. Even before this discovery, Temin had made waves by suggesting while still a graduate student that such a thing might be possible. Since the suggestion flew in the face of what was then the Central Dogma in biology he was not taken too seriously. Nevertheless since he did excellent work in the laboratory, he got his PhD, and a few years later proved himself right. Why he features in my research is that the model or subject of his speculations was the Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) which is one of the two viruses whose tale (à la Dickens)  I’m trying to tell in my book. More on the book in a future post. Now I need to get to actually writing it.  (#52)

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