Monday, 14 July 2014

Is this the end?

Ok, things have gone too far. I'm freaked out by the reaction to my story about Richard.

(Here are Part I and Part II.)

I went to so much trouble to mess around with the details to keep his identity secret, that I forgot to worry about myself.

The first responses were bad enough. But now I don't think I can handle it.

It started when my undergraduate tutorial students came to me last week to collect their exams results. That's always painful for a sensitive soul like myself. The whole point of becoming a scientist was to avoid other human beings, but it hasn't worked at all. They're everywhere. They come up to me and say things and wave their arms around and pull faces, and as far as I can tell I'm supposed to respond. That's fine: I can also say things, and I have a whole range of funny faces. But the things I say have an effect on people. Sometimes they become unhappy. Sometimes they even dislike me. And the facial expressions only make it worse.

As experiences go of direct human interaction, the return of exam results should be pleasantly ritualistic and mechanical. The student arrives, I tell them some numbers, they leave.

If only it was so simple!

There is no predicting what will happen. I brace myself to break the news of an especially poor performance, and they whoop, "Woohoo! I thought I was going to fail!" Or I set up my most jubilant face to offer congratulations, and they burst into tears.

And then this happens. My most talented and promising first-year student politely accepted her marks, and then announced, "I can't believe you told him to lie." It took me a few moments to work out what the hell she was talking about. I finally remembered my job interview advice for Richard. How could she possibly know about that? Oh yeah -- I publicly recounted it in last week's blog post.

This slow effort of memory recall was not the contrite reaction required.

"How can I respect a tutor who does something like that?" she demanded. She has since requested a change of tutor.

For someone so childishly sensitive and utterly spineless that I am regularly traumatised by confusion over tipping, this was devastating. It haunted me for days. The only way to deal with it was to become even more tedious than usual.

"But he was a brilliant scientist!" I complained to my colleagues. "He deserved that job."

"Uh huh."

"You don't know how scrupulously honest he was. Someone needed to give him some perspective."

"Uh huh."

"He was so disturbed by the experience that he was even more principled afterwards."

They were getting sick of me by now. "And what if he didn't? What if he turned into an asshole?"

I shrugged. "Then I wouldn't have told the story."

"And how do you know he's so upstanding? Maybe he fooled you, too."

Damn. I hadn't thought of that.

Now that I was on the defensive, it was their turn to become dull. All that bla bla bla about what a true and good and honourable profession science is. How privileged we are that it attracts such virtuous, conscientious students. Think of politics, they droned on. Think of all the idealistic do-gooders who should be entering public service. Instead it is so universally detested that they instead flee the country to dig wells in Africa. Is that what I want to happen to science? Do I want to drive away the good people, and wave in the swindlers and scumbags?

There was a raft of complex issues threaded through that argument, and it was difficult to address on the spot. But a well-trained intellectual and professional academic is never at a loss, and can always throw a tantrum.

I pulled a few faces and did some arm waving.

"Fine!" I snapped at them. "You want me to lie about science, to keep it honest. Fine!"

The whole experience put me in a foul mood, but then it all got much much worse.

It seems that half of the scientists I know thought the story was about them.

The emails flooded in.

"How dare you insinuate that my result was wrong! It has not been reproduced, but it's not my problem if everyone else is too incompetent to verify it." On and on, sometimes with many pages of indignant justification. You'd almost think they had something to hide.

Some carried veiled threats. "I rigorously checked and cross-checked before I published. To suggest otherwise -- to suggest that I knew it was wrong -- is tantamount to libel."

The most terrifying was a phone call from an extremely famous scientist, who I had never dared to dream would ever know my name, let alone speak to me. Now he was yelling.

"Did you think I wouldn't recognise your veiled accusations? Other people have spread these rumours before. I expect you haven't heard of them. There's a reason you haven't heard of them!"

He went on. "How would you like it if someone started spreading rumours that your papers were faked? How about if someone with lots of influence did that? And not just some nobody with a shitty blog!"

I could only jibber quietly back into the phone, while this maniac elaborated on his revenge.

"You'd probably keep your job. It would be touch and go for a while, what with the bad publicity, and the demands for your dismissal, and the embarrassment to the university. But in the end you wouldn't be worth the bother. You'd just be loaded up with all the dull administrative duties that no-one else wants, and a huge teaching load. And you could forget research! No-one would risk working with you, and only the most marginal journals would agree to publish you. You'd end up one of those losers who pretends to find teaching really stimulating. Because that's what happens when you fuck with the big shots."

That was the end of the conversation.

I informally asked people about this guy.

"He's a notorious bastard," they said.

Big surprise.

I hinted that he was angry with me. "I guess he just needed to get it off his chest. Right?"

"Good luck with that," they said, as they backed away from me. "He doesn't give up. He likes destroying people."

Now I'm freaked out. I'm not sure if writing this blog is worth the trouble.

If I'm going to get so much harassment for telling a harmless story, what happens when I get to the really juicy ones? I could pretend that they're fiction. That's what I've started telling people about Richard -- I just made him up! Really! I did! But I don't think that's enough. I can swap people into different fields, change their nationalities, give them a moustache, but still the paranoid egomaniacs will come after me.

I'm going to give this blog a rest for a few weeks, while I work out what to do.

See you soon. Hopefully.

Postscript (October 2010):
A solution presents itself.


  1. Why don't you just blog about black holes?

    1. I do have a blog on black holes. It's called the arXiv. Sadly, the quality of comments is no better.

    2. I'm looking at your papers. Hmmn. Gamma ray bursts. Did I ever mention that the original frozen-star interpretation is the one that's right? And that Friedwardt Winterberg's firewall is too? I wouldn't describe it like he did, but the end result is the same. Matter can't survive because it falls faster and faster and there's a crossover with the coordinate speed of light. Just a little something to take you mind off that other stuff.

  2. This is fascinating. As a blogger I have no advice, but you really do tell a good story. Maybe you should chuck in the black holes and become a novelist.

    1. Alternatively, write a novel and chuck it into a black hole.

  3. I like your wit. I hope to read new fictional(?) stories soon.

  4. The Fictional Aether you say? While I haven't read stories from the hallowed halls of academia that were this humorous since I last picked up a copy of Vonnegut, I have to say, I don't believe a word of it. I do however, applaud you on having, by far, the most amusing 'I'm going on vacation and won't post for awhile' post ever!

    Still, on the off chance you are telling the truth, or the far more likely prospect that it's more fun for me to suspend my disbelief, I have a revered professor friend Dr. Blake Launtrou who asked me to pass on a few remarks.

    On students picking up grades:
    Balderdash Man! Toughen up! Most, students have turned into grade seeking, whimpering, babies, so you may as well get used to it. I believe it has something to do with the endless supply of youth soccer trophies here in the States. Most of my encounters start with this simple expression, "I don't feel like I performed to my potential." Well, no, no you didn't. Strangely this is followed by a request to increase the grade. When this meets with failure, the student proceeds to bawl like a newborn calf looking for its mother.

    Regarding do-gooders in the sciences:
    Perhaps, just maybe, we could do with a few more crooks in the sciences. As you pointed out in your recent Vonnegut referencing post on adjunct professors, pay is extremely low these days. A few good crooks could be just the ticket! The admirable ongoing efforts of our brethren in the gravity wave interferometer community notwithstanding.

    Which brings us back to black holes:
    Please, please, please, do not make yet another blog on black holes! For God's sake, if I have to stop reading one more blog because it transforms into a "Isn't the beginning of the Universe amazing!?" rag, I'm going to scream! Sure, sure, all the outreach and journalism specialists will tell you that the average non-scientist is super-interested in the formation of the universe, but really??? I'll tell you what the public is interested in: flying cars! It's as simple as that! Lacking any credible news on flying cars,their next keenest interest is in the illicit affairs that they hear run rampant in Academia. You know, faking data, attending orgies of drunken undergraduates, and what have you. In this arena you have done very admirably indeed! Carry on!

    1. Flying Cars? I wrote a science fiction story about that years back, called Spin Dizzy. It's how I got interested in physics. Especially gravity. The raw electromagnetic force between charged particles is immense. In the current-in-the wire you have metal ions and electrons, and the forces largely cancel but not quite. Then when you stop the electrons the forces still don't quite cancel. Only we don't call it electromagnetism any more.

    2. Yes, let's pretend I'm going on holiday. Sounds perfect.
      On flying cars: if they ever become viable, I'm going straight into the insurance business!
      On gravitational waves and crooks. My erstwhile buddy Harry Collins was kind enough to end the preface to his whopping history of the subject with: "The search for gravitational waves is a heroic and exemplary passage of human activity. It counts among the things that make it worthwhile to be human." Isn't that nice?

    3. And good on you, Mr Duffield. At least you admit it's fiction.

  5. Toughen up, indeed. The median midterm grade in my pre-med physics class is consistently C-/D+. The students who end up with B- and higher feel like they earned a flippin Nobel Prize!

  6. As a complete layman I have been enjoying your blog immensely, and I really hope you continue to write them. If not, thanks for the ones you already have written and best of luck.

  7. Thanks! With all this encouragement, I might just manage to pull through...

  8. Please keep on the keeping on Mark; I'd be quite disappointed if there's no such uniquely exciting blog as this one anymore!

  9. Thank you. I have enjoyed your thinly veiled rant against the narcissistic dog race that is academia. As an outsider, with a taste for bedfellows who remain until granted an alphabet of diplomas after their names, I must say it is quite a giggle. Keep making them uncomfortable and get a little book for sale on amazon. Cheeky business looking at the creators of the data instead of their tower of results.


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