Last winter, on my annual visit home to New England, I received the sweetest reminder of why it is that I have such a fierce love of scientists. My treasured nephew was three at the time, and obsessed with both monster trucks and the Chimney Sweep dance from Mary Poppins, tumbling over my mother’s kitchen broom and occasionally bumping his big bowling ball-like toddler head on the side table next to the couch. After twirling himself dizzy, he’d crash on the sofa hardcore, and then drift off for an hour or so.
One night after dancing himself silly, he passed out in front of a public television science special on the universe, something about Jupiter, I think.
When he woke a couple of hours later, I was in the kitchen washing dishes. He crept up behind me, still rubbing his eyes and said, “You know what Auntie? The universe makes a lotta gas.”
“Yes it does, baby,” I replied. And then we made cookies.
At three, my nephew knew more about the universe through osmosis than I did at twenty-eight, the year I took a temp job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that ended up lasting six years.
I’m a lab secretary. If I’m your lab’s secretary, I have access to your credit cards, your CV, your passport, and your society memberships. I could write a crackpot paper about string theory and its effects on pineapple custard and publish it under your name on Optics Express.
But I wouldn’t do that. My job is to get you to the plane on time so that you can present your brilliant paper on quantum physics and gravity in the solar system to a bunch of people whose lives revolve around fun new uses for cesium fountains. I have no idea what any of it means, but if some government bureaucrat gets in between you and your travels, I will cut a bitch to make sure you get to your conference.
At some point in my career, I evolved from an apathetic Paperwork Processing Technician to a fierce advocate of scientists. It might have been the irresistible charm of listening to John Dick rehearsing some operatic melody in his office late at night while I was shoveling Material Safety Data Sheets off my desk by the truckload, or the careful explanation of the Bose-Einstein Condensate that was materializing in a laser cooling lab behind my desk. They called it a Quantum Blob for my benefit, and I still think it’s a better name for the odd little thing that appeared on the breadboard and turned a grad student into a Ph.D.
Mathematicians wandering the halls without their shoes, grad students forgetting tanks of fog-spewing liquid nitrogen in front of my desk, using a dead $10,000 Class 4 laser as a paperweight. Utterly charming. Still, it wasn’t the odd quirks, the hiccups of bad manners or lapse of understanding in social contracts that spawned my devotion.
It was a rail gun.
A friend had been hired to write a screenplay of Robert A. Heinlen’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and called to ask what the best way would be to launch a big chunk of rock from the moon to earth, scientifically. Heinlen had imagined a catapult sort of contraption, but since I had a large pool of physicists at my disposal, I posed the question.
A small crowd gathered at my desk, scribbling notes and figures on worn post-its. After some spirited arguing, the conclusion was that a rail gun would be the best option for such a task. There was some more arguing about distance and velocity and perhaps something about torque and the actual size the rail gun would have to be to hurl a boulder of moon towards earth, but in the end, I had an answer. Rail gun.
Whether or not there was enough ice for a mining colony was answered with a quick call to a soft-spoken and good humored Jim Williams.
Hundreds of tiny facts passed from their brains to mine every year. Maybe the universe is shaped like a soccer ball…or maybe that’s a crackpot idea. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It snows methane on Pluto. Whispering Gallery Modes. What happens when you toss a lit cigarette into liquid nitrogen. The universe makes a lotta gas.
All of them have this marvelous talent for explaining these enormous mysteries to me so that I can understand, which is a kindness and a blessing.
My scientists answer questions about general relativity with the same nonchalant tone of voice one would use when asked the question, “Do you have the time?”
Oddly, though I worked in metrology, no one ever wore a watch. And John Dick never changed his clock for Daylight Savings.
And so I fell in love with all of them. The high maintenance ones, the ones without shoes, the ones who dressed like they were rolled in glue and then attacked by clothes hampers on the way to work, and the ornery, cranky ones tend to be my favorites. There’s nothing finer than saving a cranky scientist from him or herself, when the bureaucrats and bean-counters call to harass them about the cost of a conference or a rental car.
And they’re all weirdly grateful when I pick up a gauntlet and call the accounting department to explain that they’re to call me with the bullshit questions, because when they tie up my scientists with a four dollar discrepancy on a rental car, SCIENCE IS NOT HAPPENING, JACKHOLE.
All of them were once my nephew, pondering the amount of gas the universe makes.
My mom called a few months ago, telling me that my nephew was asking her for a white suit. I pictured him in some sort of Steve Martin-esque get up, wearing bunny ears. She explained that he needed it so when the astronauts go to Mars, they will see him and pick him up for the ride.
I thought his logic was pretty solid, so I got him the suit. It’s what I’d do for any of my scientists.