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In a speech titled “Bridging Science and Society,” AAAS President Peter Agre naturally discussed examples such as how scientists assist in diplomacy with hostile nations, and how medicine improves rural livelihoods. But one subtle theme in his talk may surprise you — the significance of the personal story.
Agre spoke to nearly a thousand attendees on Thursday evening to official open the 2010 AAAS Annual Meeting. The 2003 Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry said he wanted to share his personal “Facebook of science” — which at first seemed like a throwaway punchline.
But interspersed amongst jargoned explanations of the aquaporin protein — which Agre is famous for — were poignant and smiling portraits of the families and stories of the people who touched his career.
Like the story of Harvey Itano, a Japanese-American chemist who faced hardships in WWII internment camps in California. Itano later unraveled the mysteries of sickle-cell anemia with Linus Pauling.
Or the story of Giovanni Alfredo Puca, who researched the secrets of estrogen, but was also an actor and downhill skier.
Or of a colleague whose family fled the Iranian Revolution to the United States.
Or of his own father, Court Agre, a chemist himself who was a contemporary of Pauling. A man whose passion of research inspired his son to pursue science, attaining achievements from an Eagle Scout chemistry badge to the Nobel Prize. With both awards, the younger Agre accepted them in the presence of his own family.
Agre mentioned that the public view of scientists was one of “nerds in lab coats.” But scientists are people, too. They have families and hobbies and tragedies and triumphs. They innovate and apply the Scientific Method, but such innovations and inspirations were shaped by those relationships and life stories. Just as science influences society, so too do social networks, histories, and loved ones influence the women and men behind science.
Scott Carpenter is the fourth American to fly into space and the second American to orbit our planet.
That may not mean much to some in today’s world, when armchair explorers with a cell phone or netbook can scan the lunar surface via GoogleMoon with a few taps of keys.
But some 50 years ago, space travel was still science fiction. Then in 1957, the Soviet Union beat out Americans in putting the first machine satellite in space. The United States felt its power and security in the world diminished by that very fact. Space travel became national security. America had to put a human in space before the Soviets.
On April 9, 1959, the Mercury astronauts were introduced to the world (video here). These seven passed the physical and psychological exams designed by the newly formed NASA. These “Mercury Seven” were to be America’s answer to the Soviets, and America’s answer to the challenge of space.
Scott Carpenter is one of the Mercury Seven, whose exploits are the foundation for all that America and much of humanity have accomplished in human space exploration. I spoke with Commander Carpenter on Wednesday.
Researchers say that you move your eyes from side to side when recalling a memory, that this physical motion stimulates your brain to seek out the connections and details within our mental catalogue.
My friend Emily’s glistening, blue-grey eyes did just this when I asked her what her earliest memory of Australia was. A surprised, wondering gape stretched into a reminiscing smile; thinking, furrowed brows relaxed into peaceful, tickled raisings. She began.
My sister and I had started ballet — I was about two and a half years old, I think — and we would dress up in our tutus and leotards dancing around our house, running after our brothers.
Our brothers were much older than us, but we would still try to impress them and imitate them when they brought out those old movie cameras and they would take films of us. Our cousins would come over, too. We’d play all over the lawns that stretched all four sides of our house — this big, plastic rocking horse sat in the front, and in the back was our gazebo, with these big, beautiful roses all around them. I would smell them when I walked around the gazebo, and sit there, staring out into the harbor and horizon and ocean, and contemplate those big questions like ‘who is God’ and ‘what will I do with my life’ — those things you start thinking after going to Sunday schools when you’re a kid.
Emily grew up in Perth, in Western Australia. It’s usually overshadowed by Sydney and Melbourne when the southern continent is mentioned, more recently in the news only because it was recalled as Heath Ledger’s hometown.
Perth is a big city, but will always be a small town, Emily says. Perth can’t be blamed for this — Western Australia is nearly one-third of Australia, an expanse of deserts and lonely coastlines, far away from the focus and fame of the eastern cities and tourism. Perth is the only big city out there, a mini-metropolis hidden away, hours and hundreds of kilometers of roadway from the nearest major city. It was nearly conceded by Australia during World War II.
My parents are American, and with my mum being a scientist and my dad being a designer, they really didn’t get caught up in the very Australian things like the cricket or the rugby. But going to school and playing with friends — many of us were first-generation Australians, born here to parents from England or elsewhere — we felt Australian and were Australian. We made our family and our friends here. When people ask me where I’m from, I say I’m from Perth.
I have a good memory of Perth; I got to see so much of it and all the different sides of it every day when I go to school. We lived south of the Swan River, in Freemantle, which was the more working class part of town, but I went to a private Catholic school north of the river. I would have to take two buses and a train to get to school — it really would take only about forty minutes altogether. But I could see the cliff where my house was, that looked over the river and busy harbor, from the train as it went across the bridge over the River. I could see the coastline and the beaches where we would go play. Being on the train was a way of seeing where you came from and where you were going — that grew on me later, when I got older.
The pace was easy and slow — we stayed in the cool, limestone walls of our house to hide from the dry heat. At four-o-clock though we would come out, and we could have dinner in the gazebo. ‘The Freemantle Doctor’ — that’s what we called the sea breeze because it was so refreshing and soothing — would come right on schedule at that time, every day.
Perth has a Mediterranean climate; it would get up to 45 Celsius but stay around 16 or 18 at its coolest. A growing wine industry exists in the hills nearby, with many exquisite varietals now cultivated and crafted for export.
Emily went back to Perth to visit, twice, about two years ago.
It’s changed, but it’s still isolated. There’s now urban sprawl, although thankfully with great public transit and more train lines now. There’s a lot of hip cafes now by the harbor, too. But it’s still a place you can get stuck in. The isolation. The simplicity. My four years in the U.S., at college, changed me more than I realized. I didn’t want to leave Perth and move to America with my family.
But my friends in American know me as I am now. In Perth, everything would sort of go back to the way it was before. I would miss the deeper conversations and thoughts, the wanting to solve the big problems, that I always wanted to engage friends in and can pursue now in school, with college friends, and here in grad school. I couldn’t find that in Perth.
Oh it’s so different when you try really hard to think of your memories! When you think of them quickly or simply watch videos and pictures, they’re quite clear and obvious. But when you really dig deep and think about your home and friends and what you were doing –- it’s this fuzzy, dreamy view that you feel your memories more than anything! I’ll need to do this gain sometime; it really does make you realize how much has changed, how much you’ve changed, but also what will always stay the same and good in your memory.”