Language and Science

Written by Chad Cowan

As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

T.S. Eliot begins the “Wasteland” with a line that has always stuck with me, “April is the cruelest month.” Now a resident of the cold northeast where he lived, I understand better than ever the sentiment. Although, I would argue it is March that has proven cruel this year by reminding us of winter’s doldrums. The last two months have been filled with work and colds and dark mornings and dark afternoons, but I see the beginnings of spring. At work, we are busy making plans for more social outings, including a company-wide event. At home, we are packing to go away for two weeks of glorious vacation in the Bahamas. Together these efforts combine what I seek in life, purpose, and joy. It has taken me years to realize that joy is not a private matter but found amongst those we love and those we live with and are together with. A hard truth to come by for a dedicated introvert. So, let’s hope some fun together will bring joy and make April seem less cruel.

As I have been reminded, this blog should speak about how my career path uses writing and language, so to business then. I am a scientist by training and now by mindset. In science, our greatest hope is to discover something worth communicating to others, be it a simple innovation or a deeper truth. As a native English speaker (if we as American’s can claim this), it has been my great fortune that the language of science is English, otherwise I may never have made progress in my chosen profession given my lack of facility in any other language. The reasons for English becoming the language of science are many and not worth re-hashing, but as of today, most if not practically all scientists communicate in a common language. We seek to share our insights and the problems we set ourselves against with the likeminded and learn from those who tilt against their own windmills but have inadvertently solved some of the riddles we seek to puzzle through.

As a result of our common language, I have travelled the world as an academic scientist and attended conferences on almost every continent (Antarctica is missing from my travels). It has been my pleasure to exchange information freely with scientists everywhere I’ve gone because we’ve agreed to communicate in a single language. Science and the community it fosters, transcends nations, cultures and creeds. In a way I have never witnessed in any other endeavor, except sports, it unites us. In my lab at Harvard, we had people from all over the world working together on a common problem. The same was true in the lab next door and the one across the country in California. In the company I’ve founded, it is the same. People from all walks of life gathered around a common purpose and united in their ability to exchange information in a common language.

A final digression, I have taught many scientists over the years how to ask questions and design experiments that will help them understand the answers. The most important lesson I have imparted to those I have worked with the longest is that the best scientists are often also the best at telling stories. As humans, we have always been drawn to stories, whether around the campfire, in print, on the stage or on the screen. It is no different, in science. The scientists I admire take our limited understanding of the world around us, craft a story and tell it. In a way, they are like poets and playwrights for the natural world.

My last words of wisdom for my students, is that whether we tell others stories or not, we are always telling ourselves a story. To make sure the facts as we have collected them agree with the story, we tell ourselves before we tell others. In other words, be willing to rewrite your own story rather than fall in love with the first draft. Otherwise, you may do the world a disservice and communicate a fiction versus a description of the wonderful world around us.

Written by Chad Cowan

Late Fall / Winter Reading with a Scientist

Written by Chad Cowan

Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation.

Late fall and early winter are very busy times for me, both at work and at home. First at home, we have two birthdays to celebrate and multiple holidays. My youngest son, Ellery, joined the double-digit club and turned 10 this October. Ellery has mild autism, and he is deeply fascinated by giraffes. We have gone “all in” with his obsession and his room and much of his learning seems to center on giraffes (or other animals).

Last year at his birthday, his two large stuffed giraffes, Super Doctor Mummy Raffie and Tall Neck, were married by his grandfather a sea Captain at a lovely party attended by friends and family members. This year, the young couple was expecting, and we threw a baby shower for his 10th birthday party. We celebrated the arrival of “twin” baby giraffes with cake and had several baby animals join the party for people to hold and play with. A good time was had by all.

This event was followed by Halloween, which we have perfected if the objective is to collect enough candy to eat until Christmas (we may have over done it and gotten enough to last until Easter!). Next up is one of our favorite national holidays, my lovely wife Lindsay’s birthday. More cake, more stuffed animals, and good times.

Then Thanksgiving, which we hosted for 18 people and made sure we had all the family favorites, turkey, ham, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, stuffing, brussel sprouts, asparagus, green beans, pies, cake and of course ice cream. On the horizon is our yearly trip to New York City. We plan to visit the Natural History Museum and the Metropolitan Museum this year. We usually catch a show but were unable to come to a consensus on whether to see the Rockettes or a Broadway play so may skip it this season. Finally, we will spend Christmas in the British Virgin Islands on a sailboat with friends.

At work, we just achieved 95% of our corporate goals for the 2022 (hooray!), finished a private financing, completed our performance management reviews, and set new Corporate Goals for 2023. We welcomed our 50th employee to our rapidly growing team and are moving to our new office and lab space. We’ve been so busy, we’ve all agreed to have our holiday party sometime next year when we can finally catch our breath and celebrate what we’ve been able to accomplish!

The two most selfish things I do every day are exercise and read. Reading has always been one of my favorite things to do and it remains my number one past time for relaxation. According to my Kindle app, I have read for 207 weeks in a row, with a current consecutive streak of 146 days. This year on Kindle I have read 37 novels. I read anything and everything, but still have a soft spot for science fiction and fantasy novels, my favorite sci fi novel this year was “Anathem” by Neal Stephenson and favorite fantasy series was the “Age of Madness” trilogy by Joe Abercrombie. I have to give a nod to a trilogy that I found unbelievably entertaining, “The Scholomance” series by Naomi Novik. I have recently begun reading more non-fiction books and some that made the list this year include, “How Not to Be Wrong” by Jordan Ellenberg (a delightful book about using math to make better decisions), “Algorithms to Live By” by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths (more of the same), “Popular” by Mitch Prinstein (which takes a hard look at the neuro-and socio-biology of popularity), and “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky (which integrates psychology, neurology and sociology to help understand human behavior). All in all a good year of reading.

Reading also is one of the main ways our family gets together. We still read either poems or passages from books at every dinner we sit down to. We have recently made this a bit more light-hearted for the boys’ sakes and two family favorites are a book poems, “Throw the Damn Ball: Classic Poetry by Dogs” by R.D. Rosen et al. and an updated field guide to the birds of North America, called “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America” by Matt Kracht. These have been huge hits as they are hilarious and irreverent. Caution, they both should come with language warnings as they use some very off-color descriptors to good effect.

Finally, I read almost every night to my youngest son, who in addition to autism has profound dyslexia. I want to make sure he learns to love the joy of stories and books and for several years his mental sophistication has been well ahead of his reading level, so rather than have him pay the price I am delighted to read books of all levels for his enjoyment. We just finished the entire Rick Riordan Greek Myths multibook series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Heroes of Olympus and the Trial of Apollo). I am proud to report that we co-read the last book together (I read a page or two, he read a page or two), a major step forward in his literacy. Perhaps more enjoyable, has been listening to him read aloud the books we read every December in the run up to Christmas. Just last night he read us, “The Little Fir Tree” by Hans Christen Andersen. It is amazing to see another reader blossom before my eyes.

Written by Chad Cowan