Wednesday, April 1, 2009
When I was in high school and someone asked me what my college major would be, I said chemistry. Or maybe biochemistry. Marine biology? Well, something in the sciences, but not physics.
Physics is boring.
Then I took organic chemistry my first semester in college and was given (yes, given) a B- by a very kind professor who made me promise never to take another chemistry class or any course that required organic chemistry as a prerequisite. His kindness kept my GPA reasonably intact and sent me scurrying to the English Department, where, word-nerd that I am, I made myself happily at home.
My love for science didn’t die, however, and I subscribed to both Discover Magazine and Scientific American shortly after graduation so I could get a monthly fix of science news. After a few issues, I realized that both magazines basically reported the same stories but for different audiences. Scientific American’s writers assumed that their readers already knew something about science and used more technical language. Discover Magazine’s writers, in contrast, assumed their readers had an eighth-grade education and chose their words accordingly. For a while, I appreciated getting both magazines but preferred Scientific American because reading it made me feel smarter, cooler, geekier, more in-the-know.
Even with that regular science fix, my valuable brain synapses dedicated to Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle and Boyle’s Law and the difference between meiosis and mitosis gradually atrophied from disuse. I formed new synapses to hold information on deconstructionism, zeugma, Old English verb conjugations, and James Joyce’s Ulysses. As a result, I had to let the subscription for Scientific American lapse. It no longer made me feel smart; it made me feel stupid with its big, technical words.
For the past 18 years, I have kept my Discover subscription going because it continued to make me feel like the geeky Renaissance Woman I perceive myself to be, even if this particular Renaissance Woman is only in eighth grade.
Aren’t we all deeply appreciative of the little things that keep our delusions alive?
A few years ago, I started getting harassing phone calls from telemarketers trying to bully me into extending my Discover subscription to six years: “You don’t want to miss out on this great opportunity! News stand prices are going up! You’re too smart to pay more, aren’t you?!”
I have written a lot of advertising copy in my life and am therefore immune to this sort of panicky, “act now!” tactic. My response to telemarketing rhetoric is as intelligent as the rhetoric itself: “Bite me.” Okay, so I really said, politely at first, “Take me off your call list.” But I thought, “Bite me.”
Unfortunately, the telemarketers were persistent. They kept calling, more and more frequently, in fact. I sent a complaint to Discover’s customer service department, but the calls didn’t stop. Finally, when the calls were coming about once every two weeks, I snapped. The polite veneer of manners lovingly glued onto me by my mother peeled away, and I got snippy: “If YOU PEOPLE call me ONE MORE TIME, I will CANCEL my subscription!”
“YOU PEOPLE” is a very satisfying phrase when you’re upset, isn’t it? It is the rhetorical equivalent of the pointed finger, yet even more insulting because the phrase makes the recipient a nameless member of a namelessly offensive group, the human equivalent of slime molds. “YOU PEOPLE!” Indeed.
The next day, George brought me the phone while I was blow-drying my hair. He looked suspicious. “It’s some guy named Bob,” he said, handing the receiver to me. I had no idea why some guy named Bob would call me at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning. My imaginary Latin lover’s name is Juan, as George well knows, and Juan knows better than to call me at home. Between George and my imaginary Latin lover Juan, I don’t have time for “some guy named Bob.”
Anyway, Bob immediately launched into his script: “Hi, Susan, I’m calling from Discover Magazine with a great offer for you….”
I interrupted Bob. Loudly. “I can’t believe YOU PEOPLE! I told the guy who called YESTERDAY I was canceling my subscription if YOU PEOPLE called me ONE MORE TIME! And now you’re calling me, pestering me about this ONE MORE TIME! I’m DONE with YOU PEOPLE….”
Sometime during my yelling, Bob hung up on me.
I finished blow-drying my hair and got on the computer. I wish I could find the email I sent to Discover. It was a rhetorical tour de force of outrage. Sadly, you’ll miss out on the entertainment value of the contempt that dripped from the rapier of my wit. I suspect you’ll get over the disappointment, but seriously, you would have loved it because I know each and every one of you reading this has been as mad at “YOU PEOPLE” as I was and you have all wanted to skewer “YOU PEOPLE” with your own rapier.
Come on. Admit it. You can be honest here.
That day, I received a subscription offer from Scientific American in the mail. I saw this as a sign from God and signed up immediately.
A week or so later, the phone rang. George answered, and when the person on the line asked for me, he asked, “Who may I say is calling?” I heard a pause, and then George started laughing. When he got himself under control, I heard him say, “I can’t believe YOU PEOPLE are still calling her! She cancelled her subscription because YOU PEOPLE wouldn’t stop calling.”
I now have three issues of Scientific American in my possession. I’ve had a lot of years to get stupider about science, so reading Scientific American is, not surprisingly, hard work. For example, the March issue contains an article titled “A Quantum Threat to Special Relativity.” The article is labeled "Physics," so it’s bound to be boring, right? Wrong. Doing physics is boring. Reading about it can be fascinating and even intelligible if you’re reading Discover for Dummies Magazine. When you read Scientific American, however, you find passages like this one:
“Quantum mechanics…embraces action at a distance with the property called entanglement, in which two particles behave synchronously with no intermediary; it is nonlocal. This nonlocal effect is not merely counterintuitive; it presents a serious problem to Einstein’s special theory of relativity, thus shaking the foundations of physics.”
Hmmm. Sounds serious. I know what all the words mean, but the authors seem to be using some of them in, shall we say, nonstandard ways. Take “entanglement,” for instance. I don’t think it means what I think it means, if you know what I mean. And “nonlocal” doesn’t mean “foreign” here. I don’t know what it does mean, but it doesn’t mean “foreign.”
Later in the same issue, the article “Saving New Brain Cells” places the final nail in the coffin of a long-held belief that adult brains don’t make new cells. Adult brains, it turns out, make new cells all the time, which really is a relief to me given how many brain cells George killed with alcohol on Friday nights at McConnell AFB in the mid-1990s.* The article states that our new brain cells “ultimately help with learning complex tasks—and the more they are challenged, the more they flourish.”
It’s good to know that my righteous indignation over Discover’s persistent telemarketing will ultimately give some of my new brain cells a fighting chance to flourish because my Scientific American subscription is certainly challenging them. On the other hand, I may need to thumb through a newsstand issue of Discover each month so I can see the Cliff’s Notes version of the science news and figure out what “entanglement” and “nonlocality” really mean.
That’s not cheating, is it?
*Yes, I promise to tell delightful stories of those drunken adventures eventually. Stay tuned.