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What scientists can be grateful for on Thanksgiving

Sitting in my parents’ basement recently, I discovered a box of old projects from elementary school. Besides reliving the horror of the infamous Honeybee Quiz (on which I’d supplied complete guesses about the honeybee life cycle, not realizing that all of the answers could be found in the paragraph at the top of the page), I concluded that teachers must love Thanksgiving, because a disproportionate percentage of the assignments I found featured handprint turkeys, cutout Pilgrim hats, feathered headbands, and colored-in drawings of Squanto that are probably legitimately offensive.

Among the relics, I discovered an assignment from my second-grade teacher asking us to write down what we were thankful for. I had written, “I’m thankful for the world because we live on it.”

We are thankful for that one colleague who knows statistics. There’s always one.

Now there’s the answer of a future scientist: to-the-point, matter-of-fact, and basically valid. If you’re going to give thanks for one thing, shouldn’t it be the world? If we didn’t have the world, then what? Just a bunch of floating people?

Thanksgiving is a time when we’re forced to verbalize what we’re thankful for. Not that we’re ungrateful in general, but we usually don’t sit around the dinner table taking turns expressing gratitude while our food gets cold.

At Thanksgiving, we identify the usual culprits. We’re thankful for family, we’re thankful for friends, we’re thankful for the food itself. We’re thankful that Farting Cousin Barry’s flight was delayed. But do we ever stop and express our appreciation for science?

No, says Google: A search for “Thanksgiving science” yields only articles about whether turkey really makes you sleepy.

So let’s do it now.

  • We are thankful for our families who don’t flinch when we say that we need to go into the lab at midnight, even though the gist of this sentiment is that we’re choosing bacterial cultures over them.
  • We are thankful that some branches of science have produced some pretty useful things, because their success allows the other branches to keep working on fun, pointless crap below the radar.
  • We are thankful for the goggles that keep our eyeballs intact, albeit at the expense of long-lasting dark lines on our foreheads.
  • We are thankful for the big words that make us sound smart.
  • We are thankful that our profession inspires an entire branch of wonderfully inventive fiction. Not too many jobs do that; you never wander into Barnes & Noble to find that the Science Fiction section is flanked by Construction Fiction and Answers-Phones-at-a-Nonprofit Fiction. Granted, historians can claim Historical Fiction, but which would you rather read: Orson Scott Card or a 950-page novel set against the backdrop of the Rutherford B. Hayes Administration?*
  • We are thankful to the funding agencies that support our research. Without them, we’d be at home experimenting on our cats.
Credit: Hal Mayforth
  • We are thankful for high-quality journals that allow us to share our advances with the world, like Science -- and there’s this other one, I think, a British one that starts with an “N”. Nurture? Neighbors? I don’t remember.
  • We are thankful for Web browsers that allow us to cover our search history, so that when a student asks us a basic question we can find the answer on Wikipedia and pretend we knew it all along.
  • We are thankful for the teachers who have mentored us and filled us with a sense of wonder about science. (We are not thankful for the teachers who just sat at their desks and doodled while we filled out worksheets about the solar system. You know who you are, Mr. X. Those worksheets taught me nothing but the word “gibbous.”)
  • We are thankful for the people who hear about scientific advances and don’t automatically put the prefix “Franken-” in front of them.
  • We are thankful that Ph.D. programs in the sciences, as much as we complain about them, aren’t nearly as horrifying as, say, Ph.D. programs in the humanities. I just heard today from a friend in his ninth year of a comparative literature Ph.D. who thinks he might finish “in a year and a half.” At least the job market for comp lit Ph.D. awardees is thriving, right?
  • We are thankful for coffee. So, so thankful.
  • We are thankful for all of the wacky people in lab coats who smash liquid nitrogen-chilled racquetballs or microwave bars of soap to show kids how awesomely radical science can be. Additionally, we are thankful that kids are gullible.
  • We are thankful for the knowledge that eating beets can turn your pee red. This has nothing to do with science, but seriously, I was freaking out this morning.
  • We are thankful for that one colleague who knows statistics. There’s always one.
  • We are thankful that we no longer have to conclude our findings with “because the Church says so” or “because of an imbalance in the four vital humours.”
  • We are thankful to the peers who review all of the peer-reviewed papers in the world, except when they ask us to perform additional experiments, because then they’re just being ignorant morons with stupid faces.
  • We are thankful for significant figures and for those who understand how to use them properly. So, not undergrads.
  • We are thankful for the general dearth of social grace at work that allows us to fit in so well.
  • We are thankful for the metric system. There, I said it.
  • But most of all, we are thankful that we get to spend our careers asking and answering interesting questions -- even when those answers only spawn more questions, and even when those questions are: “Why are the data so messed up?” or “Why didn’t the controls work again?” We are thankful for the opportunity to lead lives of investigation and discovery.

Can we eat now, please? Cousin Barry will be here any minute.


* “Oh, Emily,” said Robert, adjusting his four-in-hand necktie. “Our passion used to be as thick as the beard of Associate Justice William Burnham Woods! But now, alas, it is as unsustainable as the tenets of the Coinage Act of 1873.”

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