representation

my slow, and anxious path towards self-diagnosis was kind of a long time coming; i’d spent my entire life trying to disentangle who i was, and why i was so different from other people. i literally read like huge books about myers-briggs personality tests and the big 5 and astrology when i was in elementary school, just desperate to have some explanation that rang true for me, and told me about myself. this never really panned out. probably because i’m too weird.

but in college, after a semester or two had started to show me that my mind was…rather unusual (in a good way, not just a bad way), i started to spend more time reading about how people understood things. how people solved problems. particularly famous thinkers and scientists and authors and such–the people with biographies and such that i could read, and letters archived for me to look over. that was, honestly, when i finally felt…not alone, really. i never got to say it; nor did i ever really try to: you can’t like go around telling people that you think just like virginia woolf, or henri poincare, or richard feynman did. if you did that, you’d sound like a pretentious ass. i try not to sound like a pretentious ass. try being the operative word here.

but i hold those biographies and quotes close to my heart, if only because they confirmed for me that i wasn’t crazy–or at least, if i was, i was the kind of crazy that you can’t not love, as well as hate. i have strong feelings about retrospective diagnosis when it comes to historical figures. saying “oh, so-and-so was totally autistic, or totally has aspergers” gives current diagnostic labels more credit than they deserve. but what i do approve of, and actually heartily encourage, is sharing and noting instances of people in history who possess similar traits, similar difficulties, and similar strengths as people that today get labelled autistic; this is how we can say “why is this a ‘disease’ when i do it, but not when famous-scientist-x did it? what purposes do these labels serve today?” i think this is more constructive than anachronistic armchair diagnoses of famous people.

this is my (lengthy) preface to some bits from a biography of barbara mcclintock (by evelyn fox keller DUH because she’s great), one of the most brilliant developmental biologists/geneticists of the twentieth century. i first read some of these quotes in other books about creative people and famous scientists, and immediately said to myself “THAT’S THE THINGS.” i think that barbara’s mind, and life, speak for themselves, though:

By McClintock’s own account, her ‘capacity to be alone’ began in the cradle: ‘My mother used to put a pillow on the floor and give me one toy and just leave me there. She said I didn’t cry, didn’t call for anything.’…Machines, tools, and the skills of mechanics were a bond with both uncle and father. ‘My father tells me that at the age of five I asked for a set of tools. He did not get me tools that you get for an adult; he got tools that would fit in my hands, and I didn’t think they were adequate. Though I didn’t want to tell him that, they were not the tools I wanted. I wanted real tools, not tools for children.

When Barbara was back at home, her relationship with her mother became more distant than ever. A resounding ‘No!’ greeted her mother’s attempts to embrace her…The experiences she valued most as a child were solitary ones. She was an avid reader, and, best of all, she loved to sit alone, intensely absorbed, just ‘thinking about things.’ All of this sitting alone worried her mother: ‘She felt there was something wrong,’ Barbara remembers. ‘I knew there was really nothing wrong; my sitting there was related to things that I was thinking about.’…Barbara loved music, but piano lessons with her mother were soon discontinued, for she applied herself to the instrument with a painful intensity that Mrs. McClintock felt could not be good for her. With another teacher things were no better, and piano lessons stopped altogether. ‘This intensity, or this sense of feeling disturbed about situations, or taking them too difficultly, led me to be taken out of school on several occasions.’

 

The portrait that emerges from McClintock’s recollections so far gives us only glimpses of the characteristics that would be so important in defining her as a scientist. As a child, McClintock had a striking capacity for autonomy, self-determination, and total absorption. But what was truly exceptional was the extent to which she maintained her childlike capacity for absorption throughout her adult life.

A crucial component of this capacity was her wish to be ‘free of the body.’ She’d had a taste of this freedom–first as a young child ‘flying’ along the beach, and, later, at moments of special concentration in her studies. ‘The body was something you dragged around,’ she says. ‘I always wished that I could be an objective observer, and not be what is known as ‘me’ to other people.’ Sometimes she managed even to forget her own name. She laughingly tells a story to illustrate how well she sometimes succeeded: ‘I remember when I was, I think, a junior in college, I was taking geology, and I just loved geology. Well, everybody had to take the final; there were no exemptions. I couldn’t wait to take it. I loved the subject so much, that I knew they wouldn’t ask me anything I couldn’t answer. I just knew the course; I knew more than the course. So I couldn’t wait to get into the final exam. They gave out these blue books, to write the exam in, and on the front page you put your own name. Well, I couldn’t be bothered with putting my name down; I wanted to see those questions. I started writing right away–I was delighted, I just enjoyed it immensely. Everything was fine, but when I got to write my name down, I couldn’t remember it. I couldn’t remember to save me, and I waited there. I was much too embarrassed to ask anybody what my name was, because I knew they would think I was a screwball. I got more and more nervous, until finally (it took about twenty minutes) my name came to me. I think it had to do with the body being a nuisance. What was going on, what I saw, what I was thinking about, and what I enjoyed seeing and hearing was so much more important.’

This capacity for total absorption, a wellspring of her creative imagination in science, took other forms as well. One of these was music. In college, she took a course in harmony, in which she had to write musical compositions, which the professor would play. “‘How’d you ever think of that?’ he would ask me. Well, I didn’t tell him the reason I thought of that was that I had no other way of thinking–I hadn’t had any experience.” What experience she accumulated in this course stood her in good stead when, in her senior year, she joined a jazz improvisation group playing tenor banjo at local places.

 

In her mid-thirties, Barbara McClintock’s particular scientific style was already well defined and emerging in ever-sharper relief. Its distinctive features were polar in character: its ultimate strength derived from a dialectic between two opposing tendencies. The reader may recall from the previous chapter a characterization of her work by Morgan as ‘highly specialized.’ And, although few would accept Morgan’s description of the cytology of maize genetics as any more narrow a category than the cytology of Drosophila genetics, one aspect of McClintock’s scientific preoccupations may easily have led him to such a description: her focus on the minutest of details. The tenacity with which she hunted down every observable chromosomal modification, the thoroughness and rigor that accompanied her virtuoso technique–all these might lead one to think of the focus of her search as narrow. In fact, what she consistently pursued was nothing less than an understanding of the entire organism.

The word ‘understanding’ and the particular meaning she attributed to it, is the cornerstone of Barbara McClintock’s entire approach to science. For her, the smallest details provided the keys to the larger whole. It was her conviction that the closer her focus, the greater her attention to individual detail, to the unique characteristics of a single plant, of a single kernel, of a single chromosome, the more she could learn about the general principles by which the maize plant as a whole was organized, the better her ‘feeling for the organism.’

She never married or had a serious romantic relationship. She worked most of her life in a lab of her own at Cold Spring Harbor, where she could focus on research without having to teach undergraduates. She figured out fundamental aspects of developmental genetics, including many that would not be fully understood and accepted until the latter decades of her career–and she did nearly all of this between the 1930s and 1960s, with like…plants, x-rays and a solid microscope. She was characterized all of her life as “idiosyncratic,” “difficult,” so smart she had no tolerance for fools; she dealt with anxiety and depression, wore pants back when they were called “knickers” (even though she had to have them specially made), and loved her work more than anything else in the world, really. Her peers considered her one of the foremost minds of their generation.

But at the end of the day, underneath all those accolades, she sounds a lot like me. Take from that what you will.

Barbara is the person on the far right. She’s with four other men (three young, one older) posing for a group photo together. The other three are also biologists/geneticists as well. She’s petite, about a foot shorter than all the men, with short hair like a boy’s, small spectacles, knickerbockers and socks, a white button-up shirt, and a checkered baggy sweater. 

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4 thoughts on “representation

  1. Barbara McClintock is really cool. I didn’t know any of this, only research stuff (as a developmental biologist, we learned about a lot of it). This makes me think she is even more awesome. (Although, I don’t like maize as a model system, but that is mostly because of its life cycle and how you only have one growing season a year, but that is just a personal thing, and when you look at her experiments they are really nicely done.)

    • One of my favorite recurring themes/currents in Keller’s biography (and, by extension, McClintock’s career) was the cytologist blood-feud over what made the best model system: Team Maize versus Team Drosophila. The Team Drosophila biologists wanted to gather data from a number of successive generations as quickly and efficiently as possible. The Team Maize biologists wanted to be able to keep close track of single life cycles and characterize individual samples/organisms for comparison.

      My favorite part about hanging around lots of different kinds of scientists is seeing the different, totally obscure and bizarre things they get really excited or compulsive about. I work in a synthetic organic chemistry lab; I’m the only person working solo, and the only person doing a mechanism study, rather than a synthesis study (i.e. “Would this thing work, and if yes, how the fuck does that happen?” vs. “How can I make this crazy thing without going bankrupt?”). I also know a lot of biologists and biochemists who kind of hang around/ask us for organic chemistry homework help. So everyone has their own weird victory yells:
      The synthetic chemists are like “We made the thingy! The thingy is here!”
      The analytical/Inorganic chemists are like “All of the numbers and lines mean a thing!”
      The normal biologists are like “The creatures happened, then died, and stuff is different!”
      The molecular biologists are like “The letters got numbers, and the letter numbers make sense.”
      The biochemists are like “The compound did the things in the bodiessssss!”
      And then I’m like “I know how these molecules make molecule babies together.”

      • Science is fun! Also, plant genetics is cool and you can do some crazy stuff because plants survive getting their parts messed up so much better than animals because they are weird and awesome and ridiculously pluripotent… but I do not have that much patience. I had enough struggles with Arabidposis and the 3 month life cycle. Of course, now I don’t really do much direct genetics at all, just lots of fun embryology… ALL THE PICTURES for my data. All the science people are great.
        Also, I need to go read that book. I think I will go investigate it.

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