Friday, October 25, 2013

In which David interviews a rock star.

For the first few weeks, the MOOC's quiz software asked us to rewrite clunky sentences into graceful ones, then showed model responses, and asked us to grade ourselves on whether we had improved the originals. I got consistently high marks, and probably not even because I was grading myself. The simple truth is that fixing sentences is my life work and I'm good at it. As the song says, "It's the only thing I can do half right."

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.

No comments: