Schistorian


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.

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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 testing ground–where I first floated the central idea that eventually became the basis for the book. The inception of this 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 (which I actually began 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)

Finally I have some good news – make that great news – on the job front. But as often seems to be the case with me, things have been moving rapidly and in the last month, I’ve interviewed twice (via Skype – Hurray for modern technology) and received unofficial and now mostly official confirmation, again via the net, of the offer. And (drumroll please) the new job is in…

A place called Yonsei University. In Seoul, S. Korea! And it’s a tenure track position in the history of science to boot. Am I thrilled or what?

Talk about out of nowhere, I swear, Korea wasn’t even on the horizon of considerations even as a tourist destination but then a job ad floated my way in late October (Thanks to my fellow post-doc and scientific thinking colleague Brandon for first bringing it to my attention) and I added it to the growing list of applications. An interview in December led to a Christmas present (bright and early when I powered on the computer in Doha at Yasir and Suf’s place) in the guise of an email from the search committee chair that I was the chosen candidate, and while vacationing in India I had a second interview, also on Skype, with the higher-ups, which was followed a few days later with an unofficial offer. Its been a whirlwind naturally, but for the most part in a good way (the not-so-good is the prospect of good-byes to dear friends here in Cairo) and over the next few weeks I’ll be packing up and leaving for the school year and new semester in Korea begins in March! Meanwhile another interview, at MIT .. THE MIT in Boston .. went reasonably well also and more importantly went a long long way in bolstering my greatly flagging morale. Results for that search won’t be out till later, and besides, its a WAC (writing across the curriculum for the uninitiated) position not History of Science, but hey! I get to say that I interviewed at MIT. It’s a cool feeling.

But enough bragging. I’m delighted, thrilled, ecstatic and all those other words, besides being grateful for this opportunity, to travel yet again and learn about an entirely new world and culture. And the job seems fantastic for me as well. And as more than one friend has mentioned, the foodie in me is going to have a very interesting life indeed.

So watch out for changes soon, as the pyramids will recede to give way to Kim-Chee or some other Korean icon (or Hello Kitty whom I understand is immensely popular in Japan & Korea). Until I learn some Korean words then, its Sayanora everyone. And good night.

Does it bring another tear?

No not really, although 2010 was a tough year on my morale on the professional front. I can’t think of a month when I wasn’t filling out some application, or interviewing for a job that I didn’t get and worst of all, getting that dreaded reject letter. How I hate those things. I do so hope 2011 will be better on that score…

Meanwhile, I’m in India with family and friends. Rang in the New Year in a reprise of 2008 with Prathima and Rad at the Bangalore club with dancing and music and fun, having just the previous week celebrated Christmas-eve in high and ultra-decadent style with my ‘engulfed’ former Cairo-maniacs Sufia & Yasir. And this morning did a lovely nature walk in Lal Bagh, one of Bangalore’s hidden treasures, at least in terms of the wealth of information I received about it from our walking guide. The gardens which were formally established in the 18th century under the reign(s) or Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan – the latter being quite an avid, even fervid collector of plants – sits around an outcropping of rock (granitic gneiss) that is 3 billion years old. Talk about being half as old of time! And hey what a coincidence, there is a red connection here as well (the other one being the rose-red city i.e. Petra)

As usual I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Backing up… I’ve been hearing about the early morning botanical walks at Lal Bagh led by Vijay Thiruvady for my past couple of visits to India but circumstances surrounding the last two trips (mainly that they were too short!) prevented me from taking the tour before this. In one of those odd coincidences that happens to me so often, it was around the same time, that sitting next to an interesting guy on an airplane (we got talking because of my Kindle) I heard about Bangalore Walks for the first time, again something I never even investigated further because of the lack of time. Having experienced various London Walks earlier this year (God knows I wrote a lot about them!) I went online yesterday to find out more and possibly sign up for one for later in the week, when I found out that the nature walk I’d signed up for was part and parcel of the same. Go figure!

Anyhow as I found out today, Lal Bagh is what is called an exotic botanical garden in the truest sense of the word because it houses various plants and trees from pretty much all the five continents and a variety of ecosystems and habitats. Somehow despite having vastly different native habitats these various plants have managed to survive and even flourish (flowerish to make an atrociously bad pun out of some hapless Kannadiga’s poor pronunciation) here for upwards of 200 years in some cases. I’ve taken pictures of course not many but some great ones, but they’ll have to wait until I’m back in Cairo to appear on this page. In addition to plants it also has other transplants that have not only survived but outlived the original, for example the replica of London’s Crystal Palace from the 19th century where they now host horticultural shows. I also found out that tamarind, the name for which comes from tamr-el-hindi the Arabic phrase meaning Indian date, is neither Indian nor a date, (well I knew the latter, but was not aware that the plant was not native to India but came here from Senegal!). Meanwhile,  fu’ul sudanee or Sudanese beans as peanuts are called in Egypt, hail from the Americas.

This and many other fascinating bits of information were planted into my receptive ears (and into those of my at-the-outset-slightly sleepy comrade in walks, Krithika)  and some 2 dozen others for nearly 3 fascinating hours of a ramble through the red garden during which time we also munched on some derivatives of the botanical examples we had viewed like figs (we saw many different species of Ficus trees though none of the edible variety) and peanut-brittle with palm sugar (Indian brittle come in marble-sized urundai’s rather than sheets) and spiced buttermilk (my choice) to wash it down. But these nibbles were just a teaser. At the end of the tour we were marched off to MTR, Bangalore’s historic Mavalli Tiffin Room for a well deserved and by then much desired breakfast of piping hot rava idlis (invented there during a famine that caused a shortage of rice), and then equally hot dosais both accompanied with chutney and potatoes, some crisp pastry-like confection in an almond milk, all topped off with coffee served in pairs of sterling silver tumblers; you have to have a pair to pour it back and froth (deliberate spelling error that!) to dissolve what sugar you might add and make the temperature manageable. Not my usual cup of tea, granted, but a great treat once in a way.

I meant to reprise my year, but the post as usual took a life of its own and became a ramble about a ramble. Oh well, at least I got in a blog post bright and early in the year. Apparently, according to the message I received from WordPress (the host site for this blog) I’ve had a reasonably good blogging year. You’re doing awesome is what they said actually. Happy New Year everyone. More from me when I can.

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