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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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March 19, 2007

Scientists, All Over

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Posted by Derek

Missed a day or two there - my apologies to the readership. I was out of town, up in Boston/Cambridge (and just in time for a fine March snowstorm). Every time I'm up there, I remember the first time I visited Cambridge, some years ago. I was walking along near Kendall Square and I began to notice that the visible number of thoughtful-looking bearded guys wearing oxford-cloth button-down shirts with the sleeves rolled up and khaki trousers (that is, to a first approximation looking exactly like me) had reached a level unknown to my experience.

It was a strange moment. I'm used to feeling a bit removed from my environment, so to suddenly blend in so thoroughly was a bit of a shock. The same feeling has hit me in just a few other places, mostly around large well-respected universities, and there have been a few isolated incidents elsewhere. I still recall talking with some other chemists at a conference once when one of the group made what is still the only casual conversational reference to Kurt Goedel I've ever encountered (well, other than the ones I've made myself, and I don't trot 'em out too often, for a lot of good reasons).

It can even happen at a distance. When my wife and I were watching the coverage of the first Mars Rover landing, broadcast from JPL in Pasadena, the way the people there talked about the project and the looks on their faces as they awaited word of a successful landing made me realize again that I am in fact part of a tribe, and that these people were members of it, too. We're scattered all over the world, but we know each other when we meet.

Comments (14) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Who Discovers and Why


1. daen on March 19, 2007 10:04 PM writes...

OK, I give in; how do you make a casual conversational reference to Kurt Gödel? Was it about Douglas Hofstadter's book "Escher, Gödel and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid"? That's about the only pseudo-casual context I can think of.

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2. Brian Siano on March 20, 2007 7:51 AM writes...

I always think of that clothing combination-- khaki trousers, usually a blue button-down shirt-- as the Unthreatening White Guy Uniform. Not that I don't wear it on occasion, of course. But you notice it a lot around academia. It's my guess that it's emerged because it's easily assembled from stuff at the Gap or Target, doesn't look horrible, and wears well.

As for casual conversational references to Kurt Godel, I can claim a couple of those. Or, how about this: the other day, _Ask this Old House_ had a segment where they examined an odd power tool. One guy described it as "a big red body, a metal nose, and a shaft that sticks out the front." I blurted out "Tycho Brahe with a sunburn." And my housemate _got it_.

For what it's worth, I'm not a researcher. I'm just an admin person who's _really well read_.

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3. Wavefunction on March 20, 2007 8:48 AM writes...

Incompleteness theorem for chemistry/chemists?

Godel, Escher, Bach is one of the most intellectually stimulating book I have ever read.

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4. JSinger on March 20, 2007 9:01 AM writes...

Heh, last summer I was fishing at the Charles River Dam and this Japanese guy came over and started talking to me. I asked why he was visiting and he said, "Oh, I'm going to a Gordon Conference." I'm not sure if he realized that elsewhere in the country you can't just walk up to a random fisherman, say that, and expect to be understood.

I've had the same thought you did watching the JPL webcasts, along with 1) "As many things as there are wrong with this country, there are things only we can accomplish!" and 2) "It must be an amazing feeling to have dreamed of doing this since you were a little kid and then gone out and done it!"

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5. eugene on March 20, 2007 9:18 AM writes...

Yes, this clothing for men is really easy to assemble at relatively cheap stores. I always try to do better, but it's hard to justify spending that much more money. It's even hard to move towards the good taste side in the khaki/button down shirt regime.

It is possible to get good dress shoes, and they can mean a lot. I try to not go for the traditional, rounded design with strings in either brown/black and people always say they look nice. It's theoretically easy to get a good button down shirt as monochrome shirts send a powerful message and make you noticed. However, most things in cheap stores come in plaid and it makes me cringe every time I carry something like that to the counter. Two tone clashing colors with vertical stripes will also do nicely in a pinch if it's available. I don't look good in non-button down shirts, so that's not an option.
As for pants, khakis look a lot like dress pants, but are cheaper and come in more colors for mixing and matching when you need it, so nothing wrong there. Vests/Suit Jackets: I had a dream once... to get a vest like these people I saw in Germany wear, that has a design (maybe a dragon) drawn on the front that only comes together when you button it. I even asked for something as picturesque like that in a really expensive European fashion store in San Francisco. They didn't have it. Sigh...

Basically, it's easy to look good by contrast. If you wear jeans and bad shirts and shoes on most days if you can get away with it, wear really good clothes the other times and you will be much more noticed than if you overdo it. And besides, it's hard to look good when you get older. Too bad winter is over, as I've got some really good winter jackets and a nice hat... and I'm not living in cold enough places anymore.

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6. Derek Lowe on March 20, 2007 10:37 AM writes...

Daen, it's been a good seventeen years, but I think that we were talking about how we didn't understand why a particular project/SAR was acting the way it did. I think I said something about how (since it was CNS) we might never figure it out, and we'd just have to live with it in med-chem. Someone else said that if we wanted to do something where everything could be figured out, we'd have to stick with mathematics, and that led to the Incompleteness Theorem.

Brian S., I wish I'd said that. But there just aren't enough opportunities where the phrase "metal nose" comes up. . .

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7. Jose on March 20, 2007 4:16 PM writes...

I love seeing the JPL folks, too. It is a shame that we chemists don't really have a forum for such positive, public exposure, the "gee whiz! Science really is cool!" factor. Instead, we get saddled with things like Pharma lawsuits, and Bhopal.

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8. Jon on March 20, 2007 5:30 PM writes...

I was reading "Incompleteness" once and chuckled at one of Goedel's personality quirks and the person next to me asked what was so funny. After about 15 minutes of trying to explain who Goedel was I decided cut my losses.

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9. daen on March 20, 2007 7:07 PM writes...

"After about 15 minutes of trying to explain who Goedel was I decided cut my losses."

So your explanation was incomplete ...?

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10. milkshake on March 20, 2007 7:37 PM writes...

Must be the higher eshelon of academia or something - because around here and in all companies I was at, the lab people tended to wear sneakers, jeans, T-shirts (or sloppy shirts and pulovers) that have seen too many washes or too few. Only a boss or a biologist would wear khakis. With few girly exceptions you can't call our medicinal chemists snappy dressers - or even tweedy dressers. Usualy they look just like a guy who comes to your house to fix the AC or adjust the sprinklers.

And no hairy faces either (except for one minimalist toothbrush-like mustachio next hood)

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11. Jordan on March 21, 2007 8:06 AM writes...

The funniest thing (now that I think back) in Cambridge/Boston was seeing people on the T (subway/metro) reading Nature, Science, Cell, Applied Physics Letters, etc. as if they were Time or Sports Illustrated. So casual, so commonplace (there, but not here).

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12. GATC on March 21, 2007 10:21 AM writes...

I had a similiar experience last fall. I was up in Cambridge for an interview with a small start-up. Not having been near a large university in over fifteen years the two things that struck me while sitting in traffic was the proliferation of student bikers somehow managing not to kill themselves weaving in and out of traffic (like I used to)and the fact that nearly everyone, student and townie alike had a damn cell phone stuck to the side of their head. I became painfully aware of this when I got to the hotel on Harvard square and needed to call my wife. The cell network was completely saturated. I was never able to get a call out except back at the airport.
I also was amused at learning about the concept of "chemical biology". I still am not quite sure how this differes from "biochemistry" but I would imagine it is a lot like the physiology systems--biology paradox. I suppose by the next time I visit good old academentia in another fifteen or twenty years, we'll be hearing about these cool new fields called "biochemistry" and "physiology".

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13. Anonymous BMS Researcher on March 22, 2007 6:55 AM writes...

Back in grad school a colleague who dressed even worse than the average grad student was running an experiment where a sample had to be taken every 30 minutes for 24 hours or somesuch, so he had an alarm clock and sleeping bag on the lab floor. Well, about 3AM one of the cleaners thought he was a homeless person and called the campus cops, who called the professor, etc., etc.

As for Hofstadter and GEB, my wife and both have well-worn copies we bought as undegraduates. I got my own copy immediately after reading Martin Gardner's review of the book in Scientific American.

Recently I took a couple of classes at a local college, which was the first time I'd been among undergraduates for a number of years (since I'm at an industrial site now and before that was a postdoc at Yale Medical school which is some distance from the main campus). I wasn't surprised at the sloppy appearance of the students because grad students, postdocs, and even some industrial folk dress worse, but one thing DID surprise me: about 75% of the female students wore flip-flops whenever the temperature was even slighly above freezing! Nevermind fashion, don't their feet get cold?

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14. Datadriven on March 26, 2007 11:07 AM writes...


It is interesting that you would feel at home in Kendall Square. I did my graduate work at MIT (15 years ago) and every time I go back, I feel so out of place. Alas, it is probably because it reminds me that my youthful, carefree days of poverty are over, and it just looks so darned different than it used to.

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