And take all your friends with you, or at least as many as you can; purge the city of your presence; you will deliver me from a great fear when there is a wall between you and me. Cicero - Oration Against Cataline
I don't know why, but those lines have stuck in my head since high school Latin class. I use them today to introduce the latest literary and media attempt to portray scientists as a different, pitiful, unfashionable type of human. In this case, the culprit is Walter Kirn, whose writing I have from time to time found of interest. But no more.
I am no Cicero, but Walter should leave, and take his friend, the NY Times book reviewer Janet Maslin, with him. Here is why:
Regarding undergraduate science students during his student days as an English major at Princeton, Kirn wrote in his recently published memoirs (which I have not read and know of only from today's NYT review):
Somehow, someday, they'd reproduce, but that phase was not yet upon them, blessedly. For now they were free to decline communication and dress in pants that didn't reach their shoes.
Ha ha. So clever. And not believable. His contemptuous tone as he repeats this stereotype is much more unappealing than the image of those dopey science students with their unfashionable pants and their unwillingness to speak.
Compounding the idiocy is this introductory line in Maslin's review:
About science students, with the fine-tuned accuracy that makes much of this account so enjoyable, he notes: (see above)
Fine-tuned accuracy? I wasn't an English major, but is that a synonym for contemptuous?
What is the evidence for accuracy? Show me the data. I want photographs, names, confessions. Kirn's description doesn't fit my impression of the science students I knew from Princeton or anywhere at that time. I want proof that "science students" at Princeton, circa early 1980s, were unable to speak, were identifiable by the vast distance between their pant cuffs and shoes, and .. whatever the first part of Kirn's sentence is supposed to mean -- that science students had no romantic experiences or that they weren't yet making or having babies as undergraduates? I think I started hating this author when I got to the word "blessedly".
No, it's not really important that someone has written that they thought science students were dorky in the early 1980's, though perhaps we are becoming inured to memoirists making up random things for dramatic effect.
What bothers me is the us-and-them attitude and the contempt. It reminds me of the ignorant writings of Mrs. Mortimer, the 19th century British 'travel' writer who wrote emphatically about people she had never met and places she had never been. It turns out that everyone who wasn't like her was strange and contemptible.
For example, on the topic of German women, Mrs. Mortimer (according to The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, by Todd Pruzan), she wrote:
..they are not fond of reading useful books. When they read, it is novels about people who have never lived. It would be better to read nothing than such books.
It sounds like Mrs. Mortimer would have approved of Kirn's memoir.
8 months ago