But then came the MOOC's first real writing assignment: a 300-500 word piece which could be either a report on a scientific paper "in your own field", a review of a science book, or a profile of a working scientist.
The first option was not applicable, as I don't have my own field of science. Sentence fixing is an art, not a science.
Writing a book review initially sounded appealing, so I checked Gordon Shepherd's Neurogastronomy out of the library, hoping it would be full of fantastical neurobunk I could make fun of. But it turned out to be a very responsible, science-based work with low bunk content, so I lost interest.
That left one choice, profiling a real scientist. I browsed the Middlebury College website, picked out a couple of junior faculty science stars, and emailed them. One, a geologist, responded immediately and we made an appointment. To prep for the interview, I read everything about his work I could find online, including a chunk of his doctoral dissertation.
(I would tell you the title of the thesis, but it has no title, except for the word "Thesis." Titles or the lack thereof is a subject of considerable interest, which I will take up in a later post.)
The interview was set for last Tuesday morning. Just before I left the house, on impulse, I grabbed one of my household rocks, a dense two-pound speckled stream cobble I use as a doorstop. Some primal instinct told me I could not visit a geologist without bringing a rock to show him.
And the rock turned out to be a superb conversational icebreaker. After sitting down, and getting permission to start my voice recorder, I pulled the rock out of my bag and handed it to him. The geologist hefted it, turned it over and over, then offered his diagnosis. (Yes, the word for identifying a rock is "diagnosis," don't you love that?) Pointing out my doorstop's sparkly bits of actinolite, and rusted-out brown flecks of magnetite, he pronounced it to be an actinolite-magnetite schist from the Green Mountains.
My doorstop was extremely pleased, after millions of years as an anonymous oblong the size and shape of a mango, to finally be recognized for what he truly is. It perked him right up. It also raised my own estimation of him so much that I have promoted him to paperweight.