Peas, Poetry, and the Scientific Method

Tuesday afternoon it’s cool but sunny.  I’ve been eager to plant some peas – one of my favorite garden veggies but one I did not have great success with last year – and this brisk bright afternoon seems ideal.  I grab the seed packet and some tools and head out to the back deck to start the work.

I fumble with the peas, ripping open the packet then squinting at the tiny print on the back side: direct sow 4-6 weeks before last frost.  Yeah, I operate this way.  I dump the dirt in the pot, tear open the seed packet, and THEN double-check the instructions.  Sometimes I drill without measuring, too. When I cook I often heat my oil before everything’s chopped.  I estimate.  I eyeball. 

I suppose this is why I changed my college major from physics to English before the end of my freshman year.  I am delighted, enthralled, titillated with all aspects of science — both physical and biological – except the part where you’re supposed to be precise and accurate and follow a “Method” and look at “data.”  Ugh.  Better for me to drift on over to the English department where I can write poetry about grand trees rather than lab reports about xylem and phloem (which would be great names for a pair of kick-ass superhero twins in a short story, don’t you think?) 

Growing up, I loved listening to my dad talk about astronomy or geology; I loved learning to identify all the tree species in my neighborhood; I even loved reading my science textbooks.  In high school, though, Biology lab troubled me.  I know, it’s the part that’s supposed to “hands-on” and fun, but it filled me with anxiety.  I recall the objective of one lab was to determine the number of kilocalories in a peanut.  The “Procedure” involved jabbing a peanut onto a large pin and then setting it aflame with the Bunsen burner.  We were to calculate the temperature differential of a beaker of water that sat over the flame, and then plug said differential into an equation.

Two things about this lab stand out in my memory.  First, I skewered my finger on the pin.  Second, when my recorded measurements didn’t yield the result I desired (by my calculations a single peanut contained 197 kilocalories) I falsified my lab report.  At the neighboring lab station, Daniel Lee (who’d scored a 1580 on his PSAT) and his lab partner had recorded a result of 4.5 kilocalories.  No doubt Daniel had done a better job following the Procedure and hadn’t allowed unexpected variables — like drops of human blood — to mar his results.

I considered following the True Scientist’s Code of Honor and confessing all in the “Conclusions” section of the lab report: “Results were likely inaccurate for several reasons.  We may have burned a bit of human flesh along with the peanut.  Also, it was difficult to get an accurate temperature reading because frankly these lab kits were purchased in 1972 and the numbers are pretty much worn off the thermometers and to be honest, my lab partner and I were mostly talking about the Depeche Mode concert instead of paying attention to the experiment.”

It was a gamble.  Would my biology teacher reward honesty?  Or would it be safer to erase a few numbers, move a few decimal points around, and present the result I was supposed to have achieved despite unreliable lab equipment, chatty lab partners, and other unexpected variables?

With my peas, I’m still experimenting, and still feeling some anxiety.  I’m new at this and there are many variables – weather, soil, fertilizer, water, my ineptitude, etc. – but unlike high school bio it won’t do much good for me to lie about the results.  Either I will grow enough peas to cook a stir-fry or I won’t.

I drop the peas into an inoculant slurry in a glass jam jar and then agitate them with what I hope is just the right amount of vigor to get them completely coated.  Confession: I followed a similar procedure last year and got only about a cup of pea pods total.  But I also planted them in a fairly small container, didn’t provide them with a high enough trellis, didn’t stagger planting times, etc.   This year I’m altering those variables and I’m hoping for a bumper crop.

Science and poetry.  Variables.  Honesty.  Sometimes, like my peas, they can get all muddled up in a big slurry.  Is honesty rewarded in science?   Are motives confessed?  Variables acknowledged?   I watch environmental documentaries, where science is delivered with carefully chosen imagery and sweeping soundtracks.  Procedure: show factory belching smoke, cut to polar bear on chunk of ice.  Cue violins.  The poet in me is riveted, moved to tears; the scientist in me, the seeker of truth, is horrified.  I want to see the Lab Report.  What is your Objective?  Show me the data.  Pick up the bits from the cutting room floor, splice them back together.  I want that whole interview, not just the soundbite.  Turn off the music.  What did the economist say?  What did the Senator say?  What did the logger say? What did the logger’s daughter say?  Don’t show me a bar graph that’s three stories tall.  Show me the numbers.  Have three different people explain them.  Without metaphors.  Without hyperbole.  Without poetry.

Because if you’re not careful, you might persuade an entire country to heat the pan before they’re ready to cook.  To drill the holes before they measure.  To plant the seeds in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

See?  Metaphors.  Poetry.  Very dangerous.

8 thoughts on “Peas, Poetry, and the Scientific Method

  1. Love this post! I envy people with a scientific mind. I cut my English major with Philosophy. It was as if English was not subjective enough, so I pulled my anchor out of the waters of the real and measurable and sailed deeper into the abyss. You would be kindred spirits with Annie Dillard.

    Posts like this remind me how I intellectually fecund the topic of the garden is. A talented writer like yourself explores this realm with color and humor. Well done!

    • I took one philosophy class in college and loved it, but it was Political Philosophy so it probably didn’t go as deeply into the abyss as some classes. You are brave to have spent four years in that world!

  2. Mary! I am so impressed with this. You cover the entire field of knowledge in a way that is personal, incisive, poetic and scientific at the same time and you animate a consideration of some of the most important issues in life and in our benighted world. WOW!

  3. Mary, your honestly and clever repartee made me LOL! Loved the part about the kick-ass twins “xylem and phloem.” Your essay blended humor and somber observations. I’m hooked!! Can’t wait to read more of your writings.

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