Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bad Scientist

I decided to become a scientist in the gift shop of the Tanglewood Music Festival, in New York state, during a concert intermission. I was twenty-three or four at the time, living in SoHo in Manhattan, and on track to become a New York literary artistic type, a fate that had been practically seared into my flesh from early on. I’d started writing stories and making comic books when I was about eight. I went to a high school that valued writing the way a west Texas high school values quarterbacks. And, unlike hicks who come to New York to make it as writers, I was already in New York. I’d worked in ad agencies and for magazines. I was the humor magazine editor in college and had contacts galore around town. I had published some cartoons and pieces in a number of hip small magazines. And yet, standing in that gift shop some cosmic voice was telling me that this life that I’d been born for was really kind of crappy and that I should dedicate my life to being a scientist, specifically a marine biologist. It was as if a little birdie, with wings and brand-new feathers, ready for its first flight, should have decided that being an earthworm or a smelt was more suitable for its talents. Yes, crazy and sick, but so it was.

I went back to the city, quit my magazine job, applied to City College. Over the next two years I took courses enough to convert my BA in English into a BS-level biology qualification. These were hard courses: organic chemistry, physiology, comparative anatomy, genetics, statistics, organic evolution. I did reasonably well and then I took the Graduate Record Exam. As luck would have it, the exam that year seemed to be perfectly aligned with my reading and interests. I blew the top off it and got into every graduate school I applied to. The Marine Lab at Miami gave me a full-freight fellowship with a stipend, so I went there.

Well, the Marine Lab: a sleepy place dreaming in its marvelous location on a key in Biscayne Bay. The great physicist, Rutherford, once said that science is either physics or stamp collecting. Biology was converting itself into physics just then, but they were still collecting stamps in the sunny courts of the Marine Lab. There are so very many creatures in the sea, you know, and it’s important to collect and pickle every one of them and dissect them and count and measure their little spines, and place each species on a chart. I found I did not want to do any of this.

Alternatively, there were some people studying the behavior of live animals out in nature. This is what I chose to do. I found, though, that when one has a fellowship, rather than an assistantship, the faculty is not particularly interested in your fate. Unattached grad students with their own money do not make good serfs, and most research faculty spend their hours directing the serfs to add incrementally to the research project of the chief scientists. It’s a good deal all around. The serfs get a stipend and a project they can turn into a thesis or dissertation, and the research faculty get cheap labor and publishable work. I found myself out of this loop.

So I drifted and did marine biology things. I went on research cruises, where I was a useless supernumerary, and bored senseless. I went scuba diving. I spent hours looking at the tape from underwater cameras. Yes, romantic to get paid for cruising the Caribbean, messing around in small boats on an azure sea, and diving amongst the coral and jeweled fishes, yet it’s hard to describe how tedious it was to actually do it, day upon day. After a while the French-accented voice in my head telling me how wondrous were the mysteries of the deep faded and I was colossally bored. Did I take the hint? I did not.

After a while, I discovered the wily octopus and I announced that I was going to be a student of octopus behavior. Now, the wily octopus is actually pretty damned wily. It has the largest brain of any invertebrate, and since it has an entirely different evolutionary history from the other sorts of creatures with big brains, like mammals and birds, studying the brain and behavior of octopuses might tell us something about the general structure of brains in general. It was a story anyway, and in science you need, most of all, a story.

So I consumed the entire literature on octopus behavior, most of which involved experiments that treated octopuses like lab rats. This was during the high tide of behaviorism: offer rewards and punishment to an animal in a box and you’d find out what made it tick. Having flunked behavioral psych in college, I was not about to do experiments like this. Instead, I decided to observe the development of the animals in as natural a situation as I could, and so I found a female with eggs and put her in a big tank, The eggs hatched, the mother died, as they do in nature, and I watched the little octopuses dart around the tank and catch brine shrimp. I had all kinds of plans for launching a whole new field of octopus behavioral studies, based on the natural development of their behavior, but this was not to be, for in the spring of 1968 the reserve unit I was attached to was called up for service in the Vietnam war.

A little upsetting this, but I figured out a way to do my master’s research before I had to leave, by using my octopus babies in a neuroembryology study. I spent countless hours in processes of bottomless tedium: gently killing them at different developmental stages, embedding them in wax, slicing them on a microtome, staining them, making slides, photographing the slides, developing the film, printing photographs, and studying the photographs until my eyes burned, trying to figure out what was going on. I pulled a thesis together and they gave me my master’s degree before I shipped out, which they should not have done, since the works was a total botch. Some years later a real cephalopod biologist took a look at the work and declared it completely without value.

When I got out of the Army they gave me another fellowship, probably out of guilt, and I took it to another lab. I worked for a brilliant man who had made a career out of studying how rabbits controlled their heart rates. He’d learned how to place electrodes in the rabbit brain to find out what different neurons did when you did various things (like shocks) that would make the rabbit change its heart rate I proposed that I would develop a preparation that would do the same thing in the octopus, a project that if feasible at all, might take thirty years. But I was young and bored and arrogant.

Right off, I decided that I was only interested in natural stimuli. In nature, octopuses don’t get electric shocks. What scares octopuses in nature? Well, moray eels do, a chief predator out where they live. So I designed and built a plastic maze that forced a choice between a tank with just seawater in it and one with a moray in it. (I am, by the way, one of the few people who have been bitten by both an octopus and a moray eel in an experimental setting.) This was crazy thing to do. As I said, grad students are supposed to make safe incremental advances in their supervisors’ research field, under supervision from people who know the techniques better than they do. I had no supervision at all. I had to literally build my own lab in a disused building from the time of the second world war, haul water in from the sea, and maintain and feed two species of animals both famous as escape artists. It was lunacy.

It worked, however. I actually discovered a Scientific Fact, which was that the octopuses response to the moray was entirely dependent on whether it was dark or light in the lab. Morays hunt by night. When it was light out the octopus went into the moray tank without hesitation. When it was dark, it never did. The merest taste of the moray’s water made the octopus book out for the other side, but only in the dark. This suggested something important about how octopus brains process information about their environment, and got me a PhD.

I did not go to the graduation, so I never bore the glory of a doctoral hood. A few days later the mail brought a cardboard tube containing my diploma. It’s still in a closet somewhere, still rolled up. I looked into post-docs in a desultory way, went on some lab visits, but the heart had gone out of it for me. Later that year I started working as a restaurant cook.

I guess I’m okay with having a scientific doctorate, although I might have been better employed during those seven years, considering what I do now. Or maybe not. Something in me did not want destiny to play out in any easy way. Dr. Johnson said that no man thinks well of himself who has not been a soldier, or been to sea. Check and check, there. Maybe that was what it was all about.

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