Saturday, August 6, 2011

Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

As you might infer from the Friday Flora, I’ve been visiting my parents. Unlike me, they have a TV, so I spent some time ambling through Newton Minnow’s “vast wasteland” of network entertainment. I caught an episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which reminded me that, once in a while, the vast wasteland produces something of note. This was a science fiction show that occasionally did what science fiction does best: take a big idea, and see how it applies to human life in the laboratory of fantasy.

Further events at my parents’ house reminded me of another episode of this show. The big idea was that communication with different cultures might be complicated by a lack of agreement on what exactly is meant by “communication”. The intrepid space explorers encountered a culture that communicated entirely by metaphor, rather than plain language. Rather than saying “we should go over there and do such-and-so,” they would name a relevant story. The clever captain eventually figured this out, leading to a satisfactory ending.

My parents had an alien visitor as well, their friend Dr. C. from Australia. My father worked with Dr. C. in 1979-80, and since then Dr. C. has made quite a name for himself in the study of inflammatory responses. He wanted to fill me in on the state of research, and especially how his studies might cast light on my father’s Alzheimer’s disease. Now, the certain way to make time disappear is to ask a scientist “tell me about your research,” and Dr. C. had just finished writing a review with about 600 references, so he had a lot to talk about.

Scientists are sometimes regarded as being members of a unique culture, and often regarded as being unintelligible. As Dr. C. was discussing his work, I realized that he was, like the aliens in the TV show, communicating differently. Rather than saying “TNF has this effect on this class of cells, probably by this mechanism,” he would simply name a relevant paper and flash the abstract up on his laptop. It took me a while to figure this out—it’s actually a standard form of communication among researchers, but I’ve been focused on teaching for a while, and trying to communicate like a normal human. Now I’ve got a stack of reading to do and a growing appreciation of some interesting biology--and an appreciation of how alien scientists can seem.

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