Monday, October 16, 2017


Choice is an attractive concept.  Do you choose coffee or expresso?  Do you prefer neutral or primary colors?  Do you read or go for a walk when you aren't busy.  The idea of free will is that you may choose for yourself what to do.  Nadia Boulanger, who came and conducted the Goucher Glee Club in singing Faure's Requiem when I was in college, once said, "The essential conditions of everything you do must be choice,  love, and passion."  She impressed us mightily on her visit to the US, and her mini-lectures made me fall in love with words and see humans as namers of the universe.  But I chose to rehearse long hours instead of working on experiments for my biology senior thesis.  That choose had consequences.  I still love choral music.  My thesis was okay, not spectacular.  I have retired from being a biology professor and now I'm a creative writer.

One aspect of choice that fascinates me is choice when that is the only liberty one has.  This quotation from Vic Vujcic expresses that idea well. "Often people ask me how I manage to be happy despite having no arms and no legs.  The quick answer is I have a choice. I can be angry about not having limbs or I can be thankful that I have a purpose.  I choose gratitude." I resonate to that response because I use a wheelchair a lot these days and can choose to be angry and downhearted about it or grateful I"m alive and can write and even go on hikes or outings using my scooter.  I first noticed this kind of choice when I read a biography of Anwar Sadat many years ago.  Imprisoned for political agitation in Egypt, he chose to feel at liberty to think and plan for his country once he could get free rather than feeling sorry for himself.  Later, reading Nelson Mandela's biography, I found the same concept.

In writing, one's biographical subject or fictional character has to make choices.  The kind of interior monologs  and actions towards others your subject chooses can reveal his or her character as few other actions can.  Showing us the inner conflict and decision to choose positive thoughts can make your writing memorable.


Science Awards for Women: A Sore Point  

I have written a lot over the years on NATURE's blog on Women in Science about major scientific awards and the very few women typically selected for them.  And in Breaking Through the Spiral Ceiling and other places, I've written about one possible advantage women might have as scientists: they may select high risk-high reward projects that men have rejected.  

This week, National Institutes of Health (NIH) announced twelve people received Pioneer Awards, intended to recognize people who take on risky projects that pay off big.  Eleven were men, one was a women,  She was Kay The of MIT, whose work clarified the role of neuron plasticity in the amygdala in learning.  The men awarded included Feng Zhang, one of the scientists who has developed the ways to use CRISPR-Cas9 in editing of genes in human cells.  

The list implies I must have been wrong about women's attraction to risk with big rewards if the recipients were fairly selected.  In the previous three years, four, three, and five women were selected, so perhaps this was just an unlucky year for women's grants with high risk.  But somewhere along the line, as described in a semi-anonymous web posting, the process went from nomination to application.  I would argue that women find it a lot easier to gracefully agree to be recognized for risky but rewarding research than to put themselves forward has having done such research.  The imposter syndrome is well documented for women scientists, suggesting that women don't feel sure they've succeeded because of their own skills and intelligence, but feel it's been accidental and they might be found out as an imposter who really doesn't deserve her recognition.  

I recall not being willing to apply to Rockefeller Institute (now University) for graduate school because what they required was an essay basically extolling yourself and your scientific potential.  Not that I lacked confidence back then.  I seemed very confident but underneath, I cringed at the thought I might over-represent my own scientific acumen.  Somehow that never bothered some good friends (male) who applied there and were accepted.  

So it seems possible to me that the mechanism for selection of Pioneers now selects against women when it didn't so much in the past.  The Nobel Prizes (all male in science this year) are a different story!


Monday, October 2, 2017

Wisdom or Catastrophe

I've been watching a TV program called Global Spirit. Jean Shinoda Bowen was a guest there recently,  We are at a crossroads and must choose to pursue wisdom or catastrophe.  So many kinds of catastrophe could await us.  I'm reminded of a Native American concept of evil, in which today's world was started without evil but humans sent back to the previous world, asking their messenger to bring "the way to make money."  That proved to be evil or imbalance or spiritual deficiency.  When people follow that way, they are not on the path of beauty, they lose the ability to empathize with their relatives and others. 

What is wisdom?  Is it the property of gurus or priests or others who spend their entire lives on issues of soul?  I think not.  I notice that from Athena to Sophia, wisdom is often seen as a woman.  Is it motherly insight that breaks through to real understanding and close relationship to others?  Maybe.  It's a mystery, as is the soul itself.  But nourishment is definitely a function of mothers, and true wisdom is thought to satisfy better than any money-based rewards.  

Rational thought, what we seem to glorify in schools, probably has little to do with wisdom.  As a writer, and I think as any creative artist, thinking isn't enough.  Immersion in the stream of deep feeling has to undergird art or it lacks the ability to connect to others.  Wisdom, not reason, leads us to the best human state possible it seems.

Have you ever written out of rationality rather than wisdom?  How?  On what kinds of topics?