How to be interesting (the science version)

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting.  Which is to say: my professional life mostly consists of writing things; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers or grant proposals; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing papers such that objective third parties will recommend that they be published, or grant proposals such that objective third parties will recommend that they be funded; or, more accurately, my professional life mostly consists of writing things in such a way that objective third parties won’t be pissed off about the fact that they’re being asked to read them, ’cause if they’re pissed while they’re reading, they’re unlikely to recommend either publishing (in the case of articles) or funding (in the case of grant proposals).  I know (from long experience reading other people’s papers and grant reviews) that a good way to piss someone off about the fact that they’ve been asked to read your stuff is to not be interesting; so: I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to be interesting.

What’s interesting is, I imagine, dependent on context; my context (in my professional life, at any rate) is an academic one.  In an academic context, I can think of two ways to be interesting:

  • Show that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple.
  • Show that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated.

Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really complicated is actually quite simple:

  • Darwin showing that the amazing, astounding, overwhelming diversity of life is explainable by one principle.
  • Chomsky claiming that the incredible diversity of human languages is all based on a small set of shared principles.  (I’m leaving out a bunch of details here.  Hell, I’m leaving out a bunch of details everywhere in this post–I’m just painfully aware of them in this case, ’cause I’m a linguist.)
  • The ideal gas law, which describes the relationship between the pressure and the volume and the temperature and the number of molecules in a sample of a gas with one beautiful little equation.  (We were very amused by the equation in the Navy.  Written PV = NRT, you could imagine pronouncing it “pervnert,” which sounds a lot like pervert, which we thought was super-funny.

Some examples of being interesting by showing that something that looks really simple is actually quite complicated:

  • Newton showing that the single most obvious fact about the world–if you haven’t watched a baby figuring out that it exists, you’ve really missed something (and you could fix that–go adopt someone, the need is enormous)–is, in fact, what holds the entire fucking physical universe together.
  • Gender–it’s supposed to be super-simple (only two, and you can tell which one you are by standing in the mirror).  Turns out it’s much more complicated than that, and if you think that it all boils down to chromosomes: it’s more complicated than that.  (The link takes you to a World Health Organization page that talks about some of the possibilities beyond XY sex chromosomes–there are complexities in each of the seven ways that gender gets taxonomized in the biomedical literature alone.)

I had a hell of a lot less trouble coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently complicated is actually quite simple than I did coming up with examples of being interesting by showing that something apparently simple is actually quite complicated.  Does that mean that one is better than the other?  Does that mean that I have a biased sample of interesting things?  Does that mean that I have a warped sense of what is interesting?  Does that mean that I need to get more sleep (I was singing Il est 5 heures, Paris s’éveille (which, now that I think about it, is relevant to the how-many-genders question) at 5 AM, ’cause I had been awake since midnight)?  I really don’t know.  Someone have examples to add?  I’ll just step out on the balcony for a cigarette while you do that…

English notes

to step out on: A nice ambiguity!  To step out on someone has a very specific meaning, and it’s not what I meant here–so, why not take this opportunity to go over an odd little corner of the English language?

To step out typically means to–either literally or metaphorically–exit something by walking a very short distance.  It can be followed by lots of things, particularly prepositions:

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 05.57.06
I found these examples by using the Sketch Engine web site.  It provides access to hundreds of corpora (collections of texts with some data added, e.g. parts of speech of every word) in I-don’t-know-how-many languages, along with a single search facility that you can use for any and all of them.  I used it to search a corpus called enTenTen, which consists of 19.7 billion words of English-language text scraped from the Internet.  No, they don’t pay me for this–I pay them.  More accurately, my boss pays them–I use Sketch Engine for my day job, researching biomedical language.
  • You can step out on something, which you could paraphrase as to step out onto something, and it just means that you exited something by walking a very short distance, and then you were located on something:
  • Now Google is stepping out on that dance floor every day.
  • It’s like stepping out on the highwire in the big tent without the net.
  • Stepping out on the patio after getting into our robes, we felt the heat of the 80 degree sun – aah!
  • We have come to rescue you! yelled the young inventor, as he stepped out on the deck, with his electric rifle in his hand.
  • I was in complete shock after inching my drivers side door open with all of my might, and stepping out on to the pavement…
  • They paint an irresistible picture of Al in his bathrobe rolling over and over on the floor with his young son at his Miami villa or stepping out on the porch in his carpet slippers to smash bottles floating in the ocean with a machine-gun named Queenie.

However: to step out on (a person) means to cheat on them, to be unfaithful to them.  More vulgarly: to “fuck around on” them.  (Ooooh–two prepositions in a row!)  Some examples:

  • Poor Anna got caught stepping out on her old man – again.
  • Some of the boys heard rumours that she was stepping out on me.
  • Mom was never really all that happy, I think after he stepped out on her she had a fling, or tried.
  • Frank didn’t have the taste for that sort of work–chasing down bail jumpers or tracking husbands stepping out on their wives.
  • And it looks like Emma Frost will be stepping out on Cyclops with the King of Atlantis, which really doesn’t surprise me at all.
  • Yep, what if folks knew up front that he was stepping out on his wife; wouldn’t that pretty much kill the whole idea of being vulnerable to blackmail, etc.? 



13 thoughts on “How to be interesting (the science version)”

  1. WE took the 6 hour drive from Grenoble to Marcolès on Friday evening. My husband was telling me that one of his team argues that it is impossible to bring their science to high school teachers let alone translate it to children. We both disagree. You can make anything interesting and accessible so long as you speak in a language that the recipient understands and wants to listen to. I found this piece interesting 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have you heard of the 3 Minute Thesis contest? Designed by the U of Queensland, it asks PhD students to explain their dissertation research to a general audience, using only one slide, in 3 minutes.

      I’ve worked with students preparing for the contest. They all say the same thing: I’m in field X, and you just can’t explain field X in three minutes. Fields Y or Z or PDQ, sure. But not X. Because ABC.

      Despite all of them having conceits about the impenetrability of their discipline, the eventually put in some work and do a good job describing their work in three minutes.


      Liked by 2 people

      1. My version of this: I have the people in my lab practice their “elevator pitches” out loud at lab meetings. Since we’re in a medical school, I actually suggest that they have two–one for interacting with biomedical people, and one for interacting with language people.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’d never heard of the cheating version of stepping out.. I’ll chalk that one up. Freakonomics is perhaps an example of making something more interesting by complicating it. Taking the straight forward economic bible and mixing it up…


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