Get Off The Altar

Marguerite Perey (left) and Sonia Cotelle, who worked in the Curies’ lab and both died from the effects of radiation exposure. Image from the Musee Curie.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a show-stopping piece by Veronique Greenwood about her great-great aunt, Marguerite Perey. Perey worked in the Paris lab of M. and Mme. Curie, where she discovered the element now known as Francium. It was also where a lax culture of safety, and abundant ionizing radiation, gave her the bone cancer that would kill her.

There is a certain kind of gothic romance still associated with the Curies, who are seen as martyrs to the progress of science. As Greenwood describes, they were martyrs who brought a lot of lab assistants and junior scientists down with them:

Several potent accounts come from Elizabeth Rona, a chemist who worked in various European radioactivity labs. She wrote of a lab assistant, Catherine Chamie, who transported radioactive sources to and from a safe each day on a cart, shielded poorly by lead bricks; Chamie later died from exposure….Rona records a litany of radioactivity researchers who followed Chamie, their lungs, hands and bones falling apart. The thumbs, forefingers and ring fingers of their left hands were especially prone to damage, because of the way they were exposed to the radioactive substances they poured from flask to flask without gloves.

This trail of dead could be traced back to a few causes, but the most important was perhaps a particular attitude in the Curie lab:

Bryce DeWitt, the husband and colleague of Cecile DeWitt-Morette, a physicist who worked in the lab in the 1940s, related that Irène Joliot-Curie “had a penchant for asserting that anyone who worried about radiation hazards was not a dedicated scientist.” ….you almost get the impression that in the Curie lab, dedication to science was demonstrated by a willingness to poison yourself — as if what made a person’s research meaningful were the sacrifices made in the effort to learn something new.

Things have changed since then. Somewhat. Our much-grumbled-about Environmental Health and Safety departments won’t let us mouth-pipette polonium anymore. But reading Greenwood’s piece reminded me of another article, titled This is Your Mind on Grad School, which I’ve had bookmarked since it was published in the Berkeley Science Review earlier this year. Your mind in grad school, according to a survey of grad students at UC Berkeley, has a 42% chance of feeling overwhelmed, a 40% chance of feeling exhausted, an 18% chance of feeling sad, a 13% chance of feeling hopeless, an 8.5% chance of being depressed, and a 0.7% chance of feeling suicidal “frequently” or “all the time.” The numbers were worse for women and international students.

There are a lot of ways to get stressed out and depressed in grad school. But one paragraph near the end of the article stood out to me:

Many [grad students] may even be driven by the intellectual, mental, and physical challenges of the highly intense and competitive UC Berkeley graduate experience, accepting these travails as a necessary—even mandatory—rite of passage in the development of their academic character. At the same time, some faculty members feel that a degree of pressure and stress is an essential component of the graduate experience. Removing this pressure, they fear, could undermine the drive for excellence that gives UC Berkeley its reputation as an elite institution.

This feeling is not unique to UC Berkeley. Mouth-pipetting polonium may be out, but driving yourself half-crazy, it appears, is still very much in. Aspiring scientists today have most of the same personal qualities—ambition, intelligence, ego, insecurity, desire for great discoveries—found in the young researchers in the Curies’ lab a century ago. These qualities are what keep us driven in the long slog towards new knowledge, but they are also the qualities that keep us from taking care of ourselves, and make us see our problems as purely personal and unique.

Our problems are not unique. They are shared, at one point or another, with most of our peers. And they are situated in history. It’s an old idea, that your professional worth is related to how much of yourself you’re willing to sacrifice on the Altar of Science. It is also bullshit.

It’s the end of the semester, which means that if you’re in the academy you’re probably stressed out with some combination of finals, papers, and grading, on top of whatever other research and writing you have going on. There are going to be stretches when stress is unavoidable, but let’s try to keep that stress from becoming something that defines us, or something we think of as good. It isn’t.

Take care of yourself. Take a deep breath, take time off, read a book, watch TV, go for a walk, talk to your friends. Take advantage of the counseling services on your campus. And if you find yourself laid out on the Altar of Science, don’t wait—get off the altar!

Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on RedditShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on TumblrEmail this to someone
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *