Posts Tagged ‘meaning’

The Vagrant in Sweden

June 27th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.


We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862


P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

Fire is as Fire Does

October 29th, 2010 | Meera

It is the smoke that draws us there, but the fire that keeps us. You smell it first, lifting your head to nose the west wind and the soft ashy odor it brings into the apartment. I have been breathing it too, but like a dreamer—mind unconscious, for the moment, of what the body senses. Then “Do you smell something burning?” you ask, and suddenly I awake to it. Out on the back deck you sight the thick white clouds blowing at us on the middle currents of the great eastward windstorm we’ve been promised that day.

When you come back in the smoke comes with you. “There’s a fire somewhere,” you say, and there is no way to contradict the truth that the words are welcome. I almost laugh, you know. It is like hearing the grumble of a volcano in the distance—oh, far enough away that I know it would never touch me—and wanting the whole damn thing to blow so I can watch it blaze the sky right down. I step outside to find the world has turned a different color. Tiny cinders puff about, as if it is spring and all the cottonwood trees are burning and sloughing, burning and sloughing their seeds away.

I breathe this new version of air. It smells good: the spice and silver smell of burning wood, of food and warmth and comfort and hazard and all the history of hubris and devastation wrapped up in that same prickly whiff. I know it is wicked but I love the smoke. I suck it in, poison of course but still I want it to replace every molecule of oxygen in my lungs, wish for particles of smoke to be carried away on my blood like sooty diamonds so they can feed my tissues with proof of fire until I become a new thing, igneous in nature.

And now there are sirens: two, three, four? They scream into the clouds that billow toward us, but we cannot see the fire. “Do you want to go and find it?” I say, and you nod, and I smile because this, too, is wicked.

Although it is the fire I am looking for, when I see it I am surprised. We follow smoke and sirens two blocks westward; we reach a mad assembly of flashing lights and staring crowds; we stop at its heart and turn our heads to match all the other holy countenances that too are tracking what we sought. We are the last two poppies in an impromptu field of stalks. And what we see is what it was perfectly obvious must be there: a building on fire.

But still I am surprised. The fire advances and retreats in unpredictable ways, seems at first like nothing so much as a hot protean tide pulled by the moon. It flashes from windows, filling the space behind each pane with rufous light.

There are no screams, this is no house with sleeping child or cat or grandmother to be rescued from the flames, and as we stand transfixed you tell me the building is being renovated—or was, until this disaster—so it seems there is no one in danger from the fire’s lash. This feels like permission to adore it, but I haven’t waited for permission. It is not that the fire is beautiful, although it is: dazzlingly so. It is that it is so animate—quick and hot and above all vital against the stillness of the night, like a great flapping bird that might at any moment take off into the sky to inflame the moon.

I lean into you to watch the blaze and wonder what is in it that is missing from me, to make me so cold and slow. Why for years now I have felt that I cannot burn.


What allowed an object to catch fire, 18th-century chemists believed, was an undetectable substance it held inside itself: something that had no color, no form, no flavor, and no smell, but was, in its own way, eager to be free. Phlogiston, they called it, after the Greek word for flame. If a material was rich in phlogiston—charcoal, say, or oil, or phosphorus—then it had an inherent incendiary ability—a fire in the belly.

Under ordinary circumstances, phlogiston was trapped by its bonds to another substance: a sulky, chalky thing called calx. Like two ex-lovers in the habit of cohabiting, phlogiston was captive to calx and calx to phlogiston. But in the presence of heat, everything changed. Now phlogiston was released from its combinatory existence and could escape by itself in a blaze of glory. You could see it, then, leaving the talcum-white residue of calx behind like a crumbled shell. You could see it rising in masses of flame and smoke and ash. Nothing burned but for phlogiston; without it, there could be no fire.

When it was shown that some metals—having flamed themselves to powdery calx—weighed more than they did before, phlogiston was in jeopardy. But a few, to save it, said smiling that this meant it weighed less than nothing. When the matter of fire was trapped inside an object, you see, it lightened it. Ah then. What if? Perhaps what I lack is not a fiery heart, given to rages and conflagration, but an unseen effervescence: the very opposite of a burden.

I think of the woman who tells me I will never be happy until I stop collecting faults like pebbles. That to be fervently alive I have merely to be lighter in my mind. I want to tell her about phlogiston. In eighteenth-century terms you are correct, I will say. A life on fire, burning with passion and love, demands the matter of fire, and if such a thing exists then the form it takes is levity.

But no such thing exists.

I know the truth of the fire, that it is action and not object. That the flames and smoke I see are not what fire is made of but only a testimony to its affairs; that this blaze that rises before us tonight is a chemical reaction between atoms of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon—and that yes, something is being released here, but it is no ethereal substance. No magical matter. Fire is as fire does.

We watch the burning building until it falls still and black under floods of water. The next day my coat smells of its smoke.

The Naming of Things (Part II)

June 29th, 2010 | Meera

In Part I of this essay, I told you how a short story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson presented me with what seemed like a useful analog for talking about how I experience scientific nomenclature. This second part of the essay probably won’t make much sense if you haven’t read the first.

As a reminder, here is the sentence I stole from Gustafsson’s marvelous short story “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases,” and edited to suit my purposes. Apologies to him.

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

In case you’re one of the few people reading this who doesn’t know me personally, I’ll clarify that I’m a working, early-career science writer with a graduate degree—in the humanities. In other words, I’m an educated nonscientist with a deep interest in science and some hard-earned, on-the-job training in understanding scientific concepts (especially within the field of health and medicine, about which I have begun to write regularly in the past year). But my formal academic background doesn’t help me much when it comes to grappling with the nomenclature of science.

In Gustafsson-terms, I don’t have a right to the “funny names” scientists have for “their things.” And that can make science a difficult world to travel in.

At the simplest level, unfamiliarity with the naming of things in science can act as a barrier to understanding. As a writer, even one who has a defined “beat,” my livelihood depends on flexibility. I need to be able to sensibly cover a broad range of topics, each of which has its own names for its own things. The more specific the scientific field, the less likely I am to know all of those names and the higher the barrier I have to scale.

Droplets Entering Eye

I’ll give you an example. At the moment, I’m researching a story about multiple sclerosis. Even before I began working on the piece, I grasped the basic facts of the disease. I knew it was a neurological disorder marked by lesions in the tissues of the brain, spinal cord, and optic nerves. Specifically, multiple sclerosis causes patchy plaques in the insulating myelin sheath—composed of proteins and phospholipids—around the nerve fibers of the central nervous system. In doing so, it disrupts the smooth transmission of action potentials traveling along the axons between nerve cells. This leads to numbness, weakness, poorly controlled muscle movements, and changes in vision.

I would argue that the text above is reflective of some of the reasons names in science are problematic for a nonscientist. For one thing, it, like many clinical texts, uses two different names—lesion and plaque—for the same thing. For another, both those words have everyday connotations that contradict their scientific meanings. In ordinary English, a plaque is a flat object, while the plaques of multiple sclerosis are typically raised, or even wedge-shaped. In ordinary English, a lesion is often thought of as an open wound or fresh cut, but in the disease context it’s an area of scar tissue: sclerosis comes from a Greek root that means “hardening”. (I think of Gustaffson’s boy, bewildered by saws called tails, even though they have nothing to do with tails.)

In addition, though it is careful to avoid more specialized terms like CD4 T-cells or MS-susceptibility SNPs, the description also includes a number of words that are limited to the scientific domain. Of course, my job demands that I know, comprehend, and accurately use names like myelin sheath and phospholipids (and CD4 T-cells and MS-susceptibility SNPs). In learning them, I have added the concepts they represent (and the concepts required for understanding what they represent, which are themselves numerous) to the objects of my world. By extension, I have reached for the right to know that they exist. I consider them, and many other names like them, as tools in my shed.

Yet even when it comes to a single disease, that’s not saying very much.

This Dictionary of Multiple Sclerosis, for instance, spans 254 pages and contains over 600 entries, some of which define words familiar to me but most of which do not (I hadn’t encountered Experimental Autoimmune Encephalomyelitis before last week, and while it may or may not appear in my article, I’ve found it necessary for understanding several of the research papers I’m reading).

Before I finish work on this story, there will be several dozen more scientific terms that will have entered my vocabulary. Some of them will become permanent fixtures in my toolshed: old friends that I may use to pound in future fence posts. Others, though, will inevitably retreat once again into the world of things whose names I do not know. And the same will be true of the next piece I write, and the next. Though my comfort with and command of the naming of things in science grows daily, I will probably always operate, in a deep sense, within a world where what exists and what does not is at least a little “vague and uncertain.”

I say these things not to bemoan my fate, which is self-chosen and quite beloved (and not in order to defend writers from criticism when we get things wrong), but because I think it’s worth talking about. I think it’s worth examining the ways in which, when it comes to scientific terminology, many of us—even those of us who work with scientists—are akin to Gustafsson’s boy. We may feel unsure of what things the world contains, and we may lack a sense of true ownership over those things and their names.

Ode to Pay

I attended the wedding of an old friend two weekends ago. My roommate from college, a third-year medical resident and one of the smartest, most driven people I know, had brought some work with her for the weekend. Looking at the first sentence of a scientific paper on her iPhone—a paper she needed to understand in order to properly diagnose a difficult case—she chuckled to herself. “Can I read something to you?” she asked. When I nodded, she read:

Hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH) is also known as the autosomal recessive familial hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FHL), familial erythrophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (FEL), and viral-associated hemophagocytic syndrome (VAHS).

As soon as she finished, we both broke out into laughter. It was impossible not to laugh. The sentence, as written, was impenetrable.

This was the case despite the fact that we both recognized its capacity to hold and convey meaning. If you had complete access to the terms it used—if you knew all the funny names for all the things in it—you would have a fairly precise understanding of what the paper happened to be about (as it happens, a rare genetic autoimmune disorder affecting the cells of the blood and which apparently is known by at least four names).

You might argue that those words weren’t written with me in mind. This is partly true. My friend was much better equipped than I for the task of overcoming the barrier of all the terms in that first sentence. She continued reading the paper as I sat by her in the sun, bringing the full weight of eight years of medical training to bear on the density of terminology it contained, and (presumably) managing to hop quite neatly over the problem.

There are excellent reasons for science to keep its nomenclature separate from the vocabulary of ordinary speech. Scientific discourse values specific denotation, not ill-defined connotation. It values the compression of ideas. It abhors ambiguity. This is why so many scientific terms, including the ones that dominate the sentence we laughed over, have been derived from Greek and Latin: languages that, unlike our own modern tongues, have ceased to evolve and can provide (apparently) stable containers for precise concepts.

I appreciate these qualities of scientific speech, even though they serve to build a world in which I sometimes founder. Assuming the names for things really are precise and unambiguous, I can believe that in spite of any confusion I may personally feel, the language of science actually does serve to draw clear demarcations around objects and ideas. I can trust that no one will be sending me to fetch tools by the wrong name; or, worse, to look for tools that do not exist. And I—unlike Gustafsson’s boy—can quite happily accept the limits of my knowledge and work to expand it.

But there was still something true in the laughter I shared with my friend. The sheer bulk of scientific nomenclature, and (more problematic) the fact that it sometimes fails to live up to its ideal of clarity, isn’t lost on scientists themselves.

Physics PhD-holder Philip Ball called for his peers to be clearer and more transparent in their application of existing terms and the invention of new ones, not just for their own sakes but for the rest of us poor saps as well. Fertility, he points out, is now routinely used by demographers to mean both “birth rate” and “the ability to reproduce,” thus “allowing the existence of fertile people who have zero fertility.” And for an example that’s closer to home, take this. My husband is a graduate student in computer science. An early page in one of his textbooks lists several translations between computer science and statistics, which often use different language for the same thing. Estimation in statistics equals learning in computer science (and neither, as Ross can tell you based on many extraordinarily frustrating conversations with me, quite equals what these two common English words mean outside those fields).

We are sent for a tool, but by the wrong name.

Simon Young, co-editor-in-chief of the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience, ranted about the bloating of research vocabulary with jargon and neologisms in 2006, reserving his sharpest vitriol for words ending in what he considers to be the preternaturally ugly suffix -omics. Young’s aesthetic judgments aside, what he really objects to is a troubling disconnect between word and meaning that has arisen as a result of fashion. “I find it interesting,” he comments, “that all journals with it (the word neuropsychopharmacology) in the title publish papers not involving drugs and, therefore, outside the scope of the journal title. Why use such a cumbersome word if you ignore its precise meaning?”

We are sent for a tool, but it does not exist.

Don't Tweeze Me

True; research is not a woodshed. It is fluid, ongoing, additive. Uncertain names that mean uncertain things multiply daily in the world of science, thanks to the constant formation of neologisms and the lack of a standardized, universally accepted process for coining names for new discoveries or inventions.

To their credit, scientists recognize the problem of vague or inconsistent terminology, and frequently make recommendations to improve the situation. Should I go on? Because I can. What troubles me most is that even when clear and logical rules for how to name things are proposed by well-meaning scientists, as often as not they fail to be adopted by the community at large.

Why? Inertia, probably. Genuine disagreement with the standards, possibly. A simple attachment to what one knows and is habituated to, certainly. And, of course, there is the issue of control. Simply knowing the name of a thing means you have the right to know it exists in the world. But owning a name means you own the thing itself. It means you decide how it exists in the world.

This is not mystical talk. This is, very simply, about power. You only have to look at the heated historical disputes over the naming rights of atomic elements to know the truth of it. The late 1990s christening-pangs of element 104—a highly radioactive substance, most of whose isotopes decay in a matter of minutes or seconds—reflected a struggle for dominance, not just between individual scientists, scientific labs, or associations, but between nations. (The U.S. overpowered Russia. Surprised?)

Here is a sentence from “Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases” that I did not have to edit:

In actual fact, the strong decide what words should be used for.

In the story, the boy who lacks the names of things is not one of the strong. He has no way of knowing what does and does not exist. And he feels the world itself, governed by names he cannot grasp, to be a strange and unfriendly place: full of fearful things that rise up like birds out of the bushes. As a result, he rejects words entirely, retreating into an inner landscape of branching trees and mysterious mushrooms—a world he builds himself from the patterns of shadow and wallpaper.

Greatness strikes where it pleases, writes Gustaffson, and what we are meant to understand from this is that there is a kind of greatness in the boy and his shadowy world. In the context of the story this is a deeply satisfying conclusion. Exquisite, even.

In the context of reality, it’s frustrating. I have no wish to retreat into a world of my own making, and neither, I would wager, do most nonscientists. What I want is for science to meet me halfway.

I am happy to accept that I will never know all the names there are to know, and that I must learn the ones I will learn slowly, one by one. I can take on that work with pleasure. I am far less happy to accept that, having learned a name, it will not always point to the same thing. Or that, having learned about the existence of a new thing, it will not always be called by the same name. And I mourn the idea that the naming of things—in science especially—should fall to the strong, or be used as a national power-play or marketing tool for a discipline. In every scientific field, from genomics to geology to astrophysics, rational minds are calling for the simplification and standardization of language.

Don’t let the strong decide what words should be used for; decide sensibly, as a community, on how to name things. And then share those names with nonscientists as clearly as you can. It will still be difficult for us to understand you sometimes. But we all, I think, would very much like to have the right to know what does and does not exist in this extraordinary world of ours.

The Naming of Things (Part I)

June 28th, 2010 | Meera

Last Saturday night, I heard a reading of an extraordinary story by Swedish writer Lars Gustafsson, published in his 1981 collection Stories of Happy People. The piece takes as its central character a severely mentally retarded individual, following him from boyhood to middle-age in a dense fourteen pages and constructing a delicate contrapuntal narrative in which outward circumstances—harsh and melancholy—and an inner world—complex and immensely beautiful—act as intertwining melodies. In its entirety, the story is infused with sweetness and melancholy in equal measure, and it is well worth your investigation.

The reason I’m telling you about it here, though, is because I was struck by how Gustafsson uses nomenclature as an alienating force. In a deep and surprising way, the story reminded me of my own interactions with the scientific world and its language. More about that later.

First, here is how Gustafsson describes the uneasy relationship between the boy and the array of tools he encounters in his family’s woodshop. (Throughout the story, his inability to grasp the names of things sets the boy, who clearly suffers from a profound language impairment, apart from others—who approach objects and command them comfortably through their names.)

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have. He always laughed awkwardly and crept into a corner when his brother and sister tried to teach him those names.

Those things belonged to them: dovetail saws, punches. The old wooden mallet used for pounding in fence posts…they hit him when he came in from the woodshed with wounds and gashes from the tools in the woodshed. They were afraid that he’d really hurt himself. They wanted to keep him away from the tools.

His brother and sister, who knew how, were allowed to handle them. It gave him the feeling that the words, too, belonged to them. Sometimes they might send him to fetch tools that did not exist, “bench marks,” things like that. It gave him a feeling that it would always be vague and uncertain which things existed in the world and which did not. Evidently using words was harder than you might imagine.

They always laughed loudly, doubled up with laughter when he returned empty-handed, or when they had fooled him into going to the far end of the barn searching for impossible objects. In actual fact, the strong decided what words should be used for.

—Greatness Strikes Where it Pleases

The Cruelest Cut

When I heard this passage read aloud in the firm voice of actor Colm O’Reilly, I felt a funny tremor of recognition. At first it seemed odd to me that I should so empathize with the boy’s mistrust of language. I spend my life, after all, with words. They are my instruments and my toys. And generally, I love learning new words, especially nouns.* One of my favorite things about skinning a bird is the act of writing its names in my log. I take a special pleasure in tracing those letters, doing my best to control my wayward script and form the words precisely, as if it really matters that I get their shape just right; as if by laying down ink over Dendroica fusca, Blackburnian Warbler, I am not simply recording something that already exists, but re-creating it as well. When I name a bird it becomes known instead of unknown.

Of course, there are many ways to know a thing. I can scrutinize the patterns of a bird’s plumage, the shape of its bill, its size in my hands. I can construct knowledge of a thing, quite deep and true knowledge, in fact, by adding up a hundred different pieces of information. But to hold them together is difficult. Give me a name, and I have a sturdy container for those hundred pieces: a shape for my knowledge.

This is exactly what science tells us, isn’t it, about the human brain? That it craves order? That the unique gift of language is to provide a set of labels with which the brain can produce order out of the too-great tidal stream of data it accepts from the world through the sensory organs? In 2001, for instance, an elegant series of experiments with 36 no doubt adorable participants showed that as early as nine months after birth, saying words aloud while introducing two similar and unfamiliar toys helped babies to reliably differentiate between them.

Playing sounds while introducing the objects, like a spaceship takeoff or a car alarm, did not—and neither did a human voice producing a non-verbal expression of emotion, such as a sound of satisfaction or disgust. Words, and words alone, enabled the babies to place each toy into a separate category. (This was true whether the names were real or nonsense labels, ruling out the notion that the babies were simply responding to word-object pairings they already knew.)

There is also the possibility—not proven, but tantalizing—that language doesn’t just organize sensory information, but influences how it is perceived. Most famously, a number of experiments have shown that speakers of languages with a greater number of words for different but similar hues are better able to distinguish between those hues in the color spectrum.

Last year one study of Greek speakers—who unlike English speakers make a linguistic distinction between light and dark blue with the breathy nouns ghalazio and ble—went a step further. By measuring the electrical activity in their brains as subjects looked at visual stimuli, researchers showed that the greater acuity for color enjoyed by Greek speakers could actually be recorded, in the form of electrophysiological differences, as early as 100 milliseconds after being presented with a colorful shape. This interval is consistent with what we know about the time it takes information to reach the visual processing areas of the brain, and is considered too brief for the participants to have engaged in a conscious awareness of what they were seeing. In addition, the differences arose even though subjects were instructed to attend to the shapes of various stimuli, not their colors. (The paper, along with a few caveats, is detailed here by Language Log. The most interesting caveat has to do with the suggestion, drawn from previous studies, that this kind of language-based interference in color perception is likely limited to the right visual field, which sends information to the left—language dominant—hemisphere of the brain.)

So there is some evidence, preliminary though it may be, that the names we know really do affect, on at least some level, “which things exist in the world and which do not.”

This makes it easy to understand why Gustafsson’s boy, so ill-equipped to learn names, finds the external world vague and uncertain. When you cannot grasp how words connect to objects, navigating amongst objects is confusing and unpredictable. You might find yourself searching for impossible things or overlooking what is right in front of your nose. Also easy to appreciate, in the light of these color studies: the boy’s sense that the right to use each tool is inextricably linked to the ownership of its name. The things in the shed belonged to his brother and sister and so did the words for them. Whereas the boy, lacking words, had neither the right to use the tools nor to know if they existed.

What does all this have to do with me and science and scientific nomenclature?

Well, this: If I make a few edits to a sentence from Gustafsson’s story, it captures something of the experience I sometimes have when I try to navigate within the scientific world.

He wrote:

Grownups had such funny names for their things: that was their peculiarity, and they had a right to all those names which he didn’t have.

I would say:

Scientists have such funny names for their things: that is their peculiarity, and they have a right to all those names which I don’t have.

If anyone is still with me, I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this essay tomorrow.

Where to address all future correspondence

*(Incidentally, in Hebrew the prosaic “vocabulary” is rendered as the lovely phrase “treasury of words.” I still have the notebook, thin and yellowing, in which I collected some of my first words in that language: book, picture, boa constrictor, prey, primeval forest. If you don’t know or haven’t already guessed why I began with those words in particular, ask me sometime and I’ll tell you.)

On The End and What You Do Before

May 13th, 2010 | Meera

There are a few themes that preoccupy me in my life above all others: Death, if you know me, you know is primary. I can’t place when I first learned the word or grasped the perfect emptiness it contains, but I do remember (at the age of five or six or seven) regularly dampening my mother’s shirt with premature fits of mourning for what I had suddenly grasped would be her inevitable loss. Yes, she admitted, she’d die. Not yet, but one day. Not yet was too close for comfort.

That heavy terror is gone now —had slipped away, I think by the time I was eleven. My grandmother died that year. I spent what seemed like endless hours in the house where she lived, playing quiet games of cards with my cousins while her body was being embalmed upstairs in her room. I saw the tragedy of it touching my parents; my father especially seemed a new person to me. She had brought him forth, and now she was gone. He was a river with no source, the way I feared I’d be when I was little.

When her body was ready they brought it downstairs to lie before those who mourned her, and it was amazing to see her physical self so much the way she was before and yet so different. The same lines folded her face into rifts and valleys; the same powdery skin covered her fingers. But the smell that hovered around her, like sweet mint, was new. She hadn’t consented to housing six or seven liters of embalming fluid—a chemical brew of formalin, phenol, methanol, glycerin, and water that would preserve her flesh until it came time to burn it in a chamber where fires roared the air to 1600 degrees Fahrenheit—still, there it was now, having streamed through a small portal the mortuary workers made in her carotid artery and taken the place of her once hot blood.

Looking at her (She! The giantess with the jingling bangles and the frown like a stroke of lightning), what I felt was not tragedy, but awe. Yesterday, I knew, her muscle fibers pulled taut as she brushed her thinning hair, silver-white and soft as silk. Yesterday her nostrils flared with expectation at the scent of dinner. Yesterday someone joked that she was getting old, and set off a chain of events that began in the vibrating air about her ears and culminated in a parting of her lips and a stretching of her cheeks and a sound like laughter, and in between a hundred nerve cells transmitted their chemical signals across the minute gaps between them. Today, she was wholly untenanted. What an extraordinary metamorphosis.

The spectacular impossibility of death—the idea that all we are and ever have been, every quivering feeling and blooming idea that makes us sentient beings, will one day simply vanish from our bodies without warning or recourse—has amazed me ever since. So has the fact that, without truly knowing what death will mean for us, we live with it day after day. It is as if we stand at a station waiting for a train, fingering our ticket—knowing all along that what finally arrives could as well be a stone colussus stamping over the mountains as a chugging engine, could be a bird whose wings black out the sky, a fire that starts beneath our feet. Or rain. Or nothing. We wait, chat with strangers, pick up a bun to eat at the station cafe. With dying coming.

These contradictions are marvelous in their fascination. I would put it this way: The idea of death is a Rubik’s cube I carry in my pocket, always there to be drawn out and manipulated into a new configuration when I am waiting in line or staring into a snowy sky. After hours of adjusting I click one face into position at last and turn the thing over to find chaos flaring on the opposite side—yet I am convinced, despite all evidence to the contrary, that given enough time I shall put it in order.

Chicago Dreams: After Kurt Vonnegut

If I set the thought of death aside, I often take up work. I don’t mean to imply that I work particularly hard; given the choice I, like most of you, would rather do anything but, most days. But, diligent or not, I think about the shape of work all the time, because it, too, is a kind of mystery to me.

Here’s what I mean. If I am smiling at you while you hand me my croissant across the counter, I am wondering what it would be like to stand on the opposite side, days full of the beery smell and the heat of the ovens and the sound of the front door chiming as it opens and closes against the noise of the summer street. Is this work that brings you joy, or simple exhaustion? And what is the taste of it in your mouth?

If I crane my neck to see you jouncing gently down the side of a skyscraper like a water glider, squeezing its windows clean, I am wondering—try and stop me!—how much they pay you to do that and how you learned to fly and how much they would pay me to climb so high in the cold and then fall down, a little at a time. Would I exult in it? Do you? I peer, and try to tell what you are feeling.

And if you draw my blood out of me, tighten your black cuff around my arm to feel it push back at you pulse by pulse, peer in my eyes and my cells and tell me my fate, I am definitely also wondering what it would be like to do your work: the work of knowing the body and staving off death. What would my Rubik’s cube look like in your hands?

These are twin fixations, work and death. They are connected to each other for me in ways I can hardly articulate. Death, I trust I expect I presume I imagine I long to be true, is what makes sense of the work of a life, gives it a reason to exist at all. And work, I think I guess I wonder if I hope I believe, is what redeems a life in the face of death. And yet I have been very often mistaken about what work means for me.

Twelve years ago I thought I wanted work to be pleasure, that’s all: sheer pleasure. Find what you enjoy and do that; call it work if you want to, but it’s just a name. Doesn’t mean you have to sweat over it. I was wrong.

Eight years ago I thought I wanted work to be service. Find a need and fill it; maybe you’ll be good at it, maybe you won’t, the important thing is that it be important in the world. I was wrong.

Six years ago I thought I wanted work to be what I did so I could live the rest of my life. Work ought to recede into the background, leave you alone at the end of the day. This time I thought I’d finally figured it out, but I was wrong there, too. Work is more than that for me. I don’t want it to leave me alone. I want it to be a way—not the only way, but an important one—I can prepare for what’s coming.

So when I stand on the El platform in the middle of winter, or jostle my way down Michigan Avenue in spring, and you are all around me, each one of us here for not even a single systole or diastole in a single heartbeat in the impossibly long life of the universe—when I see you there, I want to shout my question to you all: What are you doing with yourselves, friends, while you wait for that other train? What work have you chosen? Tell me.

Maybe you mix water into flour, salt, sugar, yeast, pulling an invisible universe of life and chemistry into being and pushing it over a fire until it grows enough to offer me my morning roll. Maybe you teem up and down walls. Maybe you will be the one to check my heart, my breath, my blood, my brain, and see that they have each stopped once and for all. Whatever it is, I want to know.

I tell you this now because I’ve thought about both these things lately perhaps even more than is normal for me. (Normal is measured by Ross no longer being taken aback when I run through with him a new imaginary scenario of his death, or mine, or my parents, or our cat’s. I have envisioned airplane crashes, car wrecks, psychotic gunmen, sudden cardiac arrests while running, drowning in foreign oceans, and plain old getting old and losing our minds. I work through the event, the hospital, the phone calls, the funeral, the sitting in a chair, unable to sleep, the night after the funeral. I am nothing if not thorough.)

But, as I say, more than normal. That’s because on April 1, 2010, a young man I knew in college died. He slipped from a waterfall while trekking in northern Thailand and fell some 30 feet—gracefully, said the woman who was with him that day, as he had lived. He was my friend, but I hadn’t been as close to him as I might, and we had not seen each other in years. My experience of his death is not the same as what is felt by those who knew and loved him as a funny, wise, strange, dear, evolving presence in their lives. Theirs is not my grief to grieve.

What I have felt, besides a deep sorrow that someone so kind and loving is gone, is something akin to the awe that was in me when I looked at my grandmother’s body twenty years ago. It seems hardly credible that death could have come this way.

Come it did.

When my friend hit the ground below the waterfall, the impact of it sent shock waves through his head, and his brain shifted forcefully against the inside of his skull. Tissues swelled, blocking the passage of blood, which pooled instead of pumping. The long threads of injured axons sheared and detached themselves from cell bodies in the white matter of his brain, leaving no way for neuron to contact neuron. Messages, and the means to send them, died. It all happened in an instant. And in that instant went everything that was the person I knew; every muscle memory of the bear hugs he used to give, every e.e. cummings or Khalil Gibran poem that recitation locked into the networks of his cortex, every dream and every lust. First he was breathing, singing, laughing, jumping, living, and then he was not.

And because I know one day I will not, either, I find myself thinking once more about work. Oh, I prepare for death in other ways, too. I make my life with the person I love. I try to see what I can of the world. I dip myself in books like feet in the ocean, and when I emerge I am dripping with ideas as icy as the Atlantic. But these are easy choices to make. Work is the hard one.

For now, I do this. I’m working right now, if not for pay, working to find a path across these small, square keys, oily with my fingerprints. Making out of them things that are only slightly less temporary than myself. When you get down to it, spending your life writing seems a little foolhardy. But it is difficult work, and that seems to mean something.

In fact, I know that it does. I know because when I imagine that train coming in for me, and think how my cells will cease their motion and their talk and my skin be full of that sweet mint smell—when those thoughts come, as they so often do, I’m pleased to think that this is what I did before the end.