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Ideation Magazine
Joseph McClain

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Director of Research Communications
Editor, Ideation

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Getting it right

February 28, 2011 by

The heaven-born mission of journalism is to disseminate truth; to eradicate error; to educate, refine, and elevate the tone of public morals and manners, and make all men more gentle, more virtuous, more charitable, and in all ways better, and holier, and happier.

—Mark Twain, Journalism in Tennessee

Whenever I slip out to commit an act of premeditated journalism, I always attempt to “get it right.” Nonfiction writers often talk about getting it right, and we’re referring to not just the facts, ma’am, but also the assembly of a clear, compelling, explanatory narrative that is true to the essence of the story and to its context.

But first of all, you have to have the facts correct. Or at least mostly correct, and that’s not always as easy as it might sound. The College and the Commonwealth have entrusted me to talk to expert researchers and then to translate their splendid accomplishments into language accessible to the lay reader. I encounter a kaleidoscopic array of facts on a daily basis and when it gets busy, I’ll have to ask you to imagine a kaleidoscope shot through a fire hose. I may be required, in the course of a week, to discuss quantum mechanics, to write about geopolitical implications of the Treaty of Utrecht and to know who Laocoön was and how to spell his name. (I always have to look up which o gets the umlaut.)

To get it right here at William & Mary, I make it a practice to ask subjects of a story to review a  draft. This practice is by no means universal among journalists and among the working media, it is quite rightly controversial. The draft-review process causes some headaches when the reviewer tries to upset the delicate geometry of my deathless prose, but I have to admit it has saved faculty, College, Commonwealth and writer from embarrassment both potential and real.

I record virtually all my interviews and use either the raw audio or a transcript of the interview to write. Using a recorded interview would seem to solve one large aspect of getting it right, but an audio record only makes getting it right more problematic. People, you may have noticed, don’t always say what they mean. One memorable phone call implored me to change a quote that I used verbatim from the recorded interview: “I know that’s exactly what I said,” Professor Sendjoetwentybucks Orhewilluseyourname told me, “but that’s not what I meant. What this says here violates some of the [laws, principles, standards] of [insert disciple here].”

That was an easy fix and one I was happy to do. More often, it’s me who has something wrong and I am grateful for the corrections. I know writers who would argue with the professor, offering to share the recording in order to prove that the quote was accurate. Those are the kind of highly principled writers who end up either changing the course of history or ranting about their unappreciated qualities from the end stool in a shabby bar. To such a writer, getting it right means being as faithful to the writer-source dialogue as possible. I like to think that I take a longer view.

Writing about research for public consumption—and getting it right—involves a continual balancing act between accuracy and clarity. Accuracy versus clarity is at the heart of many writerly decisions. How much background should you include? What amount of reader familiarity with the subject do you presume? What’s the proper degree to which you should alter a direct quote in the interest of advancing communication? (“None! None! Not one bit, you hack!,” comes the scream from the shadowy and remote barstool.) At what point does simplifying an explanation become dumbing it down?

And that list of accuracy v clarity questions is a short one.

Getting it right, and all that getting it right entails, went through my head following a recent conversation with Courtney Wickel, my present intern. Courtney had just turned in a draft and spoke to me about her concerns with her piece. She was trained as a scientist, so a quote or a bit of information to her no doubt seems akin to a data point. By that I mean the quote, like a piece of data, is something not to be altered just for the sake of convenience.

She told me of having to massage a quote into grammatical place and doing some other minor editorial carpentry with the raw interview. She looked at me with a “did I do the right thing” expression and it’s clear she worried over it.

I gave her the introductory talk on accuracy versus clarity and told her that there was no set of rules I could impart. If she were to become a science writer, it’s something that she would wrestle with for her whole professional life. I do.

Who knew?

January 7, 2011 by

A couple years ago, Rogers Hall, the chemistry building, was transformed into the second phase of William & Mary’s Integrated Science Center.

The first phase of the ISC was built so that it would connect to the existing Rogers structure, thereby achieving architectural integration, yadda yadda.

The only portion of the old Rogers Hall that wasn’t gutted like a fish was the lecture hall on the far end, Rogers 100. After the ISC was built, people kept referring to Rogers 100, because, well, the lecture hall retained its old name.

Or so I assumed.

I learned just a few minutes ago, from Elizabeth Harbron in the chemistry department, that the official name for Rogers 100 is ISC 1127.

Not that I ever expect to hear anyone actually call it that. This, after all, is William & Mary, and we love our traditions.

PS: Charter Day is coming up.

1,000 Giddy Arcana*: Fruit flies have champagne tastes

November 12, 2010 by

The greatest pun in the English language is attributed to Groucho Marx: Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.

But what fruit flies really like is champagne. That’s right—champagne. I had business recently in the lab of William & Mary biologist Matt Wawersik and the conversation turned to the genus Drosophila. Avoiding fruit-fly talk in this environment is like not talking about art in the Muscarelle Museum.

Matt Wawersik in his lab in William & Mary's Integrated Science Center. The vials on the shelves behind him hold some of the hordes of fruit flies used in his research.

Wawersik and his group study stem cell behavior and sex determination in fruit flies. Consequently, there are vials containing thousands upon thousands of the little bugs in the lab and all of them need care and feeding. They usually get apple juice, but if the fruit flies were running the place, Wawersik said, they’d order champagne every time. Moreover, if flies had noses, they would turn them up if Wawersik offered them beer.

“Beer is fermented from grain and they don’t like that as much,” he said. “Champagne’s made from grapes, of course.” He added that the effervescent quality of the bubbly may make it especially attractive.

They may like it, but Wawersik’s flies have to make do with apple juice. Champagne, in more than one sense, is wasted on fruit flies. “They don’t get drunk very easily. They seem to be able to metabolize alcohol pretty well,” Wawersik said, a quality that makes the fruit flies ideal subjects for lab studies of alcoholism and alcohol tolerance.

There is an exception to Drosophila’s ability to hold its liquor, he said. One lab mutation was discovered to be extra-susceptible to alcohol. Its name? Cheap Date.

Chromium-doped beryl…in seven letters

October 18, 2010 by

Bob Pike is the Garrett-Robb-Guy Professor of Chemistry. He also writes a wicked crossword. (I recommend a pencil.)

Bob Pike’s research includes using X-ray crystallography to figure out the three-dimensional structure of molecules, so it’s no big surprise that he also does crossword puzzles. “Does” as in creates them. (What’s the proper verb to describe authorship of a crossword puzzle? Are they written, drawn, sketched, plotted? I don’t know.)

Pike has even submitted a baseball-themed puzzle to The New York Times, but it wasn’t accepted. “I’ll probably try again some time in the future,” he says. In the meantime, William & Mary’s chemistry alumni don’t have to wait for the puzzle editors of The New York Times to come to their senses—Pike contributes a crossword each year to the Department of Chemistry’s newsletter.
Like any self-respecting crossword, Pike’s puzzles have themes. Last year’s puzzle theme was Nobel laureates in chemistry and physics. This year’s theme is glassware.

You may not have to be a chemist to solve this puzzle, but it would help if you have logged some serious lab time. It starts with 1 across: “Glassware type.” There are a bunch of those maddening self-referential clues, such as “With 81 across, glassware.” Experience helps: If you have ever—hypothetically, now—gotten your thumb stuck in a piece of laboratory glassware, you likely will remember exactly what kind it was and exactly how much you were assessed for it after it shattered. (Don’t ask.)

The puzzle extends far beyond glassware. Consider 63 down: “FTIR method for solids.” And 41 down, “An alkyl group.” Don’t feel too smug if you know that alkyl group, Pike is not going to let you off that easy—60 down asks for A “Form of 41 down.”

Not all the clues are of the “Spin polarization transfer in NMR” variety. The humanities are represented, as befits a chemistry puzzle from a liberal arts university. Successful puzzlers will have to know the “heavy” in Othello, the Greek goddess of discord and what Romans called their mothers. Other clues stem from pop culture and general information. Pike points out that the puzzles are aimed at department alumni, not all of whom became professional chemists.

“For example, we have numerous alumni who are physicians, dentists, teachers, attorneys, etc. I know of one alumna who bakes bread for a living. We had one alumnus report this year about his travels in a rock band,” he explained. “So it seems only fair that most of the clues in the puzzle deal with the kind of random knowledge found in other puzzles.”

When Pike makes a puzzle, he sits down with a pile of graph paper and a pencil. (He told me that all valid crossword puzzles are symmetrical, something I never knew.) He has a list of “theme” words and works them into the puzzle, adding black squares at the end.

Once the theme words are in, he fills in the rest of the answers. He is careful to preserve symmetry and abides by the other rules of crossword creation:

  • No letter square may be a dead end. (In other words, each letter must connect to two words)
  • No words may be shorter than three letters
  • The words have to make sense.

“It takes a lot of trial and error and a lot of erasing,” Pike said. “When you hit a dead end and have to make a change, a whole section of the puzzle often comes unraveled.”

Once he has a valid puzzle plotted out on graph paper, he begins to write the clues. “That’s the fun part,” he says. “I’ve solved a lot of crosswords in my time and you learn how to makes clues fair, but slightly deceptive.”

He uses a freeware program, AcrossLite, to put the puzzle in its final form and then he generates a pdf for the newsletter. The solution for this year’s puzzle will be unveiled at the chemistry department’s homecoming reception on Friday, Oct. 22 at 5:30 p.m. in the Integrated Science Center. The solution will go up on the department’s website next week, as will the puzzle itself if you didn’t get a copy of the newsletter.

No cats were killed in the writing of this blog

September 7, 2010 by

To you, it may be a humble pontoon boat, but to the scientists involved, it’s a research vessel and deserving of a worthy scientific name. Accordingly, the College’s new pontoon boat—I mean research vessel—will be known as RV Schrödinger’s Catamaran.

Patrick Cunningham, a summer REU student from Moravian College, marks screens on the work platform of the Matoaka algae flume. Behind Patrick is the johnboat used to access the flume from the Keck Lab dock. The RV Schrödinger’s Catamaran will replace both the johnboat and the platform on the York River flume when it is deployed.

The name is a reference to Shrödinger’s Cat, a thought experiment that involves a sealed, windowless box containing a number of things. There’s a gizmo that emits a subatomic particle every now and then, a Geiger counter, a container of poison gas…and a cat. If the Geiger counter perceives the presence of a particle emitted by the gizmo, it trips a lever that releases the poison gas, killing the cat.

Now here’s the question: Is the cat alive or dead? There’s no way of knowing when the subatomic particle will be released. Could be seconds, could be days.

The answer is that, for the purposes of that portion of the universe outside the box, the cat in the box is both dead and alive. This is an obvious absurdity, of course. Schrödinger came up with the cat thing to illustrate how quantum mechanics provides for multiple simultaneous states of things, much like a cat that’s dead and alive at the same time.

(Disclaimers:  1. Don’t try this at home: It only works in the strange world of quantum dynamics and in thought experiments. 2. Keep in mind that Schrödinger’s Cat was thought up to make something that is really hard to explain just a bit easier to grasp. 3. I have never in my life explained Schrödinger’s Cat to the satisfaction of anyone. The scientists say that I gloss over the good parts and everyone else either gets hung up on the very idea of killing a cat or the concept that anything can be dead and alive at the same time.)

Schrödinger’s Catamaran emerged as the winning entry in a run-off vote for names of the new research vessel. Austin Ziltz, a grad student in physics, submitted the winning entry. The other two names in the run-off were RV Alga-Rhythm and RV Wave Function.

The boat will be used in a collaborative effort to investigate the possibilities of using wild algae to make biofuel. The runner-up names are science puns, just like Schrödinger’s Catamaran. If you don’t get the jokes, don’t look at me—I’m the guy who just massacred Schrödinger’s Cat.

The naming contest (and the boat itself) were the brainchildren of Karl Kuschner, a research scientist involved in the algae studies. This summer a team launched an algae-cultivation flume in Lake Matoaka. It consists of what Kuschner describes as a “forty-foot hole in the water” filled with substrate screens for the algae to grow on. At one end of the flume is a working platform, essentially a piece of square floating dock.

There’s another flume planned for the York River, and Kuschner’s idea was that a boat could serve double duty. “We put the equipment on it on shore, then motor it out,” he said. “We tie it to the experiment and use it as a work platform. When we are done, we go back in. So it is basically a ten-by-twelve flat surface. It has pontoons instead of the square plugs that we have out at Matoaka. It is a pontoon boat; a party boat.”

He means a research vessel, of course.

1,000 Giddy Arcana*: Bond. Flemish bond.

August 30, 2010 by

In the beginning, there is the artifact. Interpretation of what historians refer to as “material culture” enables someone to draw inferences about the everyday life people from the items they left behind.

I asked several people for their definition of material culture. Historian Susan Kern says it’s “getting history from ‘stuff’.” For instance, the glazing on a ceramic fragment might speak volumes about the socioeconomic status and likely national origin of its owner. Williamsburg and the Historic Triangle are full of such stuff, which can range in size from the Wren Building to a tobacco seed. Each artifact oozes historical context, but only if you know how to look.

Flemish bond brickwork

A sample of glazed-headed Flemish bond brickwork. You find it all over campus, but this is from Phi Beta Kappa Hall.

Take Flemish bond brickwork. A course of Flemish bond is laid alternating bricks longways, then endways—stretchers then headers, in masonry-speak. The really fancy stuff is glazed-headed Flemish bond, in which the headers (the short bricks) are fired to give a nice, elegant contrast. Today, it’s the default pattern for the veneer of even the newest buildings on the William & Mary campus, but when a trained interpreter of material culture sees Flemish bond brickwork in a house that dates from 18th Century, it’s a sign that the house was one of affluence.

“In the 18th Century, if you’re using Flemish bond, you’ve got brick to spare,” Carolyn Whittenburg says,  “You’re also at a level of society that was able to pay those brickmasons to do that pattern.”

Whittenburg is the director of NIAHD, the National Institute of American History and Democracy. NIAHD is observing its tenth year of teaching students how to get history out of stuff. Participants work with material-culture experts in the NIAHD programs and leave the program with at least the beginnings of a skill set (and a mindset) of how to draw a compelling scholarly narrative from something most people wouldn’t notice, such as the way a building’s bricks are laid.

*An explanation of 1,000 Giddy Arcana

The real story on Thomas Jefferson

August 25, 2010 by

It must be book season. In today’s mail, I received a copy of Susan Kern’s new book, The Jeffersons at Shadwell. I’ve already written a piece about this book, which literally rewrites our understanding of the young Thomas Jefferson.

Shadwell was the plantation birthplace of Thomas Jefferson and his home until it burned to the ground in 1770. Susan led a five-year excavation of the site. She began the dig looking for something not too far removed from a log cabin, but instead found evidence of a substantial plantation house filled with luxury goods.

Susan stressed in our conversation that the book is about all the Jeffersons—mother, father, their eight children and the sixty or so slaves that lived at Shadwell. It’s hard to remove your focus from the third president, though.

Jefferson is one of the most popular figures in American history, but there’s an absence of folk tales about his youth. Washington has the cherry tree story. Lincoln split rails. Franklin walked around Philly with three pennies worth of bread, no doubt ruminating on the invention of the cheesesteak. We grew up with those stories, but there isn’t one about Jefferson.

Susan told me that there is plenty of myth surrounding William & Mary’s most distinguished alumnus, even if the popular conception of Jefferson is bereft of a folksy peg. Some of the myth-building was politically driven, and came centuries after Jefferson died.

“Did Americans at the end of the 19th Century want their founders to be regular folks like themselves, or did they want them to be aristocrats, with high thoughts and privileged backgrounds that could rival European culture?,” she asks. A political cult of Jefferson hammered into shape a young T.J. with rough-and-ready roots, a diamond in the rough only slightly polished by his mother, a true member of the Virginia gentry.

Susan also told me that Jefferson wasn’t above a bit of myth weaving himself. He let on that his father’s death left him alone and adrift in a cruel world at the age of 14. Read the book (or at least my article) to get the lowdown on this one. For now, let’s just say that Thomas Jefferson didn’t come to William & Mary with a big work-study commitment.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up Dept.

August 24, 2010 by

The calendar and thermometer both say “no, no” but the presence of students on campus is a sure sign that summer is over. Regina Root and Giulia Pacini were on their way to lunch between meetings with freshman advisees when I ran into them.

I congratulated Regina on her new book, Couture & Consensus: Fashion and Politics in Postcolonial Argentina. Later that afternoon, Regina showed up in my office with a copy.

Regina is an expert in Latin American fashion (and her name was recently mentioned as a possible judge in the national beauty pageant of Colombia.) She took a few minutes to explain the subtle intertwining of dress with the politics of Argentina in the early 1800s, when power factions were struggling for control of the embryonic nation.

Color mattered a lot. Regina told me that the administration of the Juan Rosas regime insisted that loyal citizens all wear crimson or scarlet or some kind of deep red. “Wearing light blue, the color of the opposition, could get you killed or tortured,” Regina said.

She also said that members of the opposition, the guys who would wear light blue if they could get away with it, often expressed their political views through women’s fashion magazines. The press, Regina says, was heavily monitored, but magazines for ladies weren’t considered to be serious enough to be worth the bother. Hence, she said, many opposition leaders would write under female pseudonyms, issuing calls to smash the state in the guise of fashion commentary.

You can’t make this stuff up. Watch Ideation for a story on Regina’s book. There’s also an interview online with Regina.

I’m no longer going to scoff at all those “10 makeup tips from Beverly Hills” articles. For all I know it’s coded realpolitik.

Ladies and gentlemen, heeeere’s J.C.

March 24, 2009 by

I was walking down Jamestown Road on the Monday of Spring Break when a car swerved my way and came to a stop. Usually there’s a couple of bewildered tourists inside the car wanting to ask directions, as the geography of Williamsburg is complex enough to bewilder a troop of Balkan Boy Scouts.

But J.C. Poutsma is no tourist, for it was him, sticking his head out of the passenger window.

“Very nice,” J.C. said, beaming. He had obviously seen his write-up on the LiveScience website.

“Congratulations, J.C.” I replied. “You’re a media star.” J.C. also is a mass spectroscopy star and a member of our Department of Chemistry.

We were discussing his profile recently featured on the LiveScience feature ScienceLives. He is the first William and Mary researcher to be in this spotlight. One of our more distinguished alumni, Joshua Chamot ’98, is a media officer at the National Science Foundation. The NSF partners with LiveScience to showcase science—and scientists—that benefit from the NSF.

Josh sent me a questionnaire for the feature, which J.C. completed. I sent J.C.’s answers, along with a selection of pictures, back to Josh at the NSF. You can view the result.

Just when you’re ready to misquote Churchill

January 15, 2009 by

I was getting ready to say the following: We have killed the monster and thrust it upon an unsuspecting public.

That’s my private way of saying that the latest issue of Ideation is off the presses and in the mail. I know this because I received my copy at home already. The on-campus copies also have arrived, and have just been placed in department mailboxes. My mother, who lives out of state, has not received her copy yet. I put my own address on the mailing list so that I can know when the copies are delivered. I send one to my mother as tangible proof that her son has a job, a fact that still causes her a bit of surprise. It’s mailed third-class postage and sometimes my mother’s copy takes a few weeks finding its way to her mailbox.

The “monster” bit comes from a Winston Churchill quote describing the stages of an author’s involvement with a book. It begins with infatuation and progresses through the various stages (pleasant and not-so) of a love affair, ending, Churchill says, when at last you “kill the monster and fling him to the public.”

With due respect to Churchill, I like my version better. But I can’t utter either a quote or a misquote just yet.

Usually, when I misquote Churchill, I am speaking solely of the print version of Ideation, which is the twice-yearly magazine devoted to research and scholarship at the College of William and Mary. Since Ideation also exists on the web, I can’t fire off the quote (intact or mangled) until all the stories are entered into what is known as a “content management system” and so are available on the web.

Just as all the stories are loaded in and I think it’s safe to butcher Winston Churchill, I get e-mail from Joel Pattison. Joel is a person to whom the aforementioned content management system seems as rational and friendly as it seems hideously baroque and finicky to me. Joel says that I need to link the stories as widgets. (Don’t ask.) I just learned to perform this operation this morning and have to write some summaries, which I can’t get to today.

In the meantime, you can read the Ideation stories. This issue features William and Mary’s new Integrated Science Center. The ISC is being constructed in three phases. Phase 3 is still on the drawing board. Phase 2 is under construction. Phase 1 is open for ideas. I have a general story on the ISC as a work in progress and stories that represent some of the work going on in ISC 1.

It’ll be a day or two before I get this last widgety step done and then I can ceremoniously fire off the misquote, so that the demands of tradition will be satisfied.