Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 1

I'm reactivating this fiction blog. I've run out of fairly short and simple stories, or stories that have already been published, and I've decided to serialize a longer, unpublished short story.

A little background. For most of my professional life, I taught and did research in the biomedical sciences. In the beginning, I was extremely idealistic, believing that the practice of science was the pursuit of truth, and that scientists were acolytes in that almost sacred activity. It did not take many years for me to realize that this was a hopelessly idealistic notion, and that scientists are as flawed, emotionally and morally, as any other individuals. Many of the stories I wrote reflect this disenchantment, so they are not happily-ever-after stories. And because I was still practicing science, I chose a pseudonym for these literary efforts, some of which were published. I'm now retired, and anonymity doesn't matter anymore, but I'll still keep the pseudonym for fiction.

A Scientist's Conclusion, Part 1

Carl Sawyer's one-time research collaborator, George Ganon, had been an enthusiastic, imaginative man, although by Carl's standards, not a very thorough scientist. The two of them made a good team; George was full of ideas, and Carl tempered them with his thorough, analytical mind and tested them with rigorously designed experiments. But George and his enthusiasms had left the University of P... for a job in Texas, where free-flowing oil money promised better equipment and more ample funds for salary and supplies. Carl was left with the remnants of their shared equipment and with Sung Lee Park, a Korean graduate student who had been working on a Ph.D. degree in George's lab.

George had also been enthusiastic about Sung Lee--saw him as a diligent and willing pair of hands at a bargain price that could grind out answers to problems. Sung Lee didn't  want to go to Texas because his family had just settled in Philadelphia. So Carl inherited a student who was essentially finished with course work and already working on a thesis project. Carl saw Sung Lee differently than George did. Carl saw him as a moderately well-trained technician who needed to be turned into a scientist. Carl was willing to assume the responsibility for this transformation, but not without misgivings.

Carl thought both he and Sung Lee were at a disadvantage, having inherited one another. It was like taking on a half-sculpted piece of marble; the previous artist's vision can seldom be realized in another man's hands, and one who completes another's creation is rarely satisfied with the result. Carl realized the enormity of the task involved in turning a pleasant, uncritical Asian into a competent and confident scientist in the Western mold. Moreover, even if Sung did develop into a genuinely skilled scientist, it might still be difficult for him to find a good position. Carl did not have the network of colleagues and connections that a more self-consciously political scientist would have generated.

Carl took on the training of Sung Lee with the same thoroughness and objectivity that he used to tackle scientific problems. Carl began by asking Sung Lee, during their first few discussions together, to repeat in his own words what had just been said to him, instead of simply saying "Oh, yes." or "Yes, Sir." This was intended to determine whether or not Sung understood what Carl had said and could transform it into an alternative, comprehensible form of English.

During this time, Carl also asked Sung Lee questions about the research problem he was working on, which had begun under George's tutelage, and he examined the data Sung had already generated. Carl often challenged Sung's answers and data with questions like "How else could you interpret those results?" or "What could you do to verify that?"

When discussing the scientific literature relating to Sung's work, Carl often asked, "Was their methodology adequate to allow them to draw that conclusion?" or "What was wrong with the way those experiments were designed?" This line of questioning sometimes threw Sung Lee into confusion and Carl noticed that, when they were speaking together, Sung's mouth occasionally twitched visibly, which he tried to hide by drawing his hand to his face.

The next installment of this story is  here.


  1. This is really interesting! These characters seem to have pretty different personalities. It'll be interesting to see how they manage to work together. I personally would change "pleasant, uncritical Asian" into something having more to do with his personality than his ethnicity. I'm also curious about your characterization of Sung Lee's language competency. Is it that Carl is so oblivious he assumes Sung Lee doesn't understand him because he's Korean? Didn't Sung Lee have to pass an English Language skills test before being admitted to the university? Did you encounter a similar scenario in your own lab?

    My dark mind imagines Sung Lee snapping one day and clubbing Carl with a microscope, or something, but that's probably just me :-) You've got me really curious how this will play out!

    1. Thanks for the comments, Desi. You've already picked up on Carl's largely unconscious prejudice. Let's see what else he's unconscious of, despite his very keen intellect.
      And no, in the sciences, there is NO language competency prerequisite! Have you ever attended a scientific convention?

    2. I've never attended a scientific convention, but I have prepped students for their English Competency Exams, which are required to enter post-secondary science where I live. Maybe that pre-req doesn't apply at the graduate level? Curiouser and curiouser....

    3. Desi, I have to dial back the "NO language requirement" statement a bit. Students from another, non-English-speaking country are required to take a TOEFL exam in order to get into graduate school. This is for written English, but as far as I know, doesn't necessarily cover speaking or aural (or oral) comprehension.