I’m rarely the smartest guy in the room. In fact, I’m only the smartest guy in the room when I’m the only person in the room. But Thursday night I knew for a fact I was the dumbest guy in the room.
Note to ego: Never have dinner with scientists.
Thursday night I was Pop Mannion’s guest at a meeting of his Torch Club. Torch is a national organization that brings civic leaders and civic-minded local high achievers together now and then for dinner and discussion and a general sharing of ideas and convivial spirits. The make-up of a given chapter varies from town to town. Pop’s chapter, meeting in the home of General Electric, is made up mainly of scientists and engineers with some mere doctors and lawyers dragging the median IQ in the room down to around 240. Among the members at our table, was a pleasant and mild-mannered materials scientist and electrical engineer who’d taught at MIT, shuttling back and forth between Cambridge and Schenectady where he worked in GE’s Research Lab, who, incidentally, was also a cellist. Even if he’d been temperamentally inclined to try to impress me, a lowly English major, with his smarts, he wouldn’t have done it because he was busy going on about how impressed he was by the smarts of a fellow musician, a violinist with whom he played in a quartet sometimes back in Cambridge, Mildred Dresselhaus, who, incidentally, is also an electrical engineer, physicist, professor at MIT, and winner of, among other honors, the United States National Medal of Science and the IEEE Founders Medal for her work in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
I think that’s what the awards were for.
As you can imagine, I lost the gist pretty quick.
For most of my life I’ve struggled to keep up with the reading. I routinely read articles in the popular science magazines, gobble up books like The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, and check in with the best science bloggers (Btw, if you’re on Twitter you really owe it to yourself to subscribe to my list That’s SCIENCE!), and while I’m reading the articles or the books or watching shows like Nova or listening to scientists talk in real life, I feel smart. I feel like I’m not just following but understanding the subject. I feel like I’m learning stuff! Lots of stuff! Important stuff! The big, grand unified stuff that answers all the questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything! Then, as soon as I finish the article, close the book, turn off the TV, or shut down the computer, it all goes right out of my head. If it was ever in there to begin with---and I feel dumber than when I started.
I had a good time, sitting there nodding along sagaciously, feeling alternately like a genius and a fool, and the dinner was good, and I’m real glad I went. So is Pop, who wanted me along not just for the company but because he thought the night’s presentation was right up my alley.
These Torch meetings feature an after-dinner speaker, usually a member of the club, giving a talk on a subject usually outside the speaker’s professional bailiwick. Thursday night, Walter Grattidge, a retired physicist (sample publication: “Thermoelectric electric effects in silver haldides,” and, no, I don’t think I’ve read that one.), spoke to us about Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Gratttidge, born, raised, and educated in England, had only recently learned that that was a question. Growing up he’d taken it for granted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and had never had any reason to doubt it or even wonder about it. As a visual aid, he showed off a handpainted ceramic bust of Shakespeare that had sat on his family mantelpiece when he was a kid. He’d always thought of it as an important and valuable family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation, and when he left home he felt, as the eldest son, entitled to appropriate it, and it has accompanied him on his travels for the last sixty years. At one point, though, he learned that the bust was a souvenir from Stratford-on-Avon sold by the crateload to tourists circa 1900-1910 and when he had it appraised he was told it was worth a whopping 100 bucks. Still, it’s priceless to him, not just for sentimental reasons but because of his longstanding admiration of Shakespeare and his plays. So it came as a bit of shock to him when one day, on a visit to the local library, a helpful librarian, thinking that as an Englishman, fan of Shakespeare, and physicist he might be interested in a book by a fellow physicist, suggested he check out 'Shakespeare' by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare and Grattidge learned that there were people who refuse to accept that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed him.
As Pop Mannion thought: Right up my alley!
Not only that but as Grattidge wrapped up and moved onto his Q & A with the audience, I realized that I was a whole lot better versed in the subject than he or any other member who asked a question did. Here I was in a roomful of scientists and for once I was the one who knew stuff!
Well, of course was.
This isn’t like a reversed situation in which for some lunatic reason I was giving a talk on the thermoelectric effects in silver haldides to a roomful of English professors and Grattidge happened to be in the audience. I’m not an expert, by any means. But Gittridge is new to the debate and he was recounting the beginnings of his own investigations while I’ve been following it for decades. I’ve been a committed Stratfordian---that is, charter member of the reality-based community when it comes to the authorship of the plays---since I was in middle-school when I learned that some people thought the plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon. When I first heard that, I scoffed and scoffed as only a precocious twelve year old can scoff at the grown-ups. The idea that Macbeth was written by a dull and dreary "natural philosopher" who was more comfortable writing in Latin than in English and not by an actor and poet was and is scoffable.
For the record, I enjoyed Grattidge’s presentation, which was filled with lots of juicy Elizabethan court gossip, even though I felt the urge to set him straight on a few things. His research, which has included one of my favorite books on Shakespeare, Contested Will by William Shapiro, has turned him into a skeptic. He isn’t ready to argue that any of the most popular alternative Shakespeares---Bacon, de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe---is the real author but he’s thinking that the real Shakespeare probably had a lot of help and the plays are works of collaboration not products of a single genius. Pop Mannion kept prompting me to ask questions just to help keep the discussion lively, but the only questions that occurred to me were ones that would have taken apart Gittridge’s main points and given me the opportunity to show off all the stuff I had in my head. It was his night and any way I have a classroom in which I can strut my stuff if I’m ever in the mood to be a pompous bore on the matter. On top of that, I never want to be one of those people. You know, the ones who take over a question and answer session to make speeches and ride their favorite hobby-horses. So I sat there, nodding sagaciously, answering the questions from other members of the audience in my head, feeling smug and superior and virtuous, confident that a good time was being had by all, thanks in no small part to my knowing how to keep my mouth shut, until…
Old Sneep made his presence known.
If you know the story of Lentil by Robert McCloskey, famous for Make Way for Ducklings, you know Old Sneep. The plot of Lentil revolves around the return of Colonel Carter to the small town where he grew up. Carter is a war hero, politician, successful businessman, and philanthropist who has given the town its library and hospital, so his homecoming is a big deal to the grateful townsfolk and they set out to make it a big celebration that will start with Carter being greeted at the train station by a big brass band. Sneep is an old schoolmate of Carter, who was never much impressed by him because he’s made a point in life of never being much impressed by anyone or anything. He decides Carter and by extension the whole town need “takin’ down a peg or two” and when Carter’s train pulls in and the band gets ready to play, Sneep appears on the station roof, loudly sucking lemons. This causes the all the members of the band’s mouths to pucker so they can’t play their instruments and so the day seems ruined until a boy named Lentil steps in with his harmonica.
One of my all-time faves.
But the point here is that the world is full of Sneeps, people who make a mission in life of raining on parades and taking others down a peg or two. And sure enough, there he was, Torch’s own Old Sneep, a political scientist who took advantage of the Q & A to break out the lemon and start sucking loudly.
“What does it matter who wrote the plays?” he demanded to know in a sour voice. We’ve got the plays and the plays are what’s important. It doesn’t make them better or worse if they were written by Shakespeare or by somebody else. The whole debate, he declared, is a big waste of everybody’s time, which, of course, amounted to telling Grattidge his presentation was a waste of everybody’s time.
My mouth didn’t pucker but my cheeks blazed and I was all set to jump in not just in defense of Grattidge but in defense of the idea that the debate is worth having. Although I think the question is settled and all the arguments that somebody else wrote the plays are scoffable, the scoffing itslelf can lead into interesting discussions of the plays, the times, and the nature of art and genius.
Fortunately, the members of the club know this guy for the Sneep he is and they’ve learned to deal with him with a mix of amusement and casual but tactful dismissal. Grattidge was affable and gracious in acknowledging Sneep may have a point and a dozen other hands went up, their owners ready with questions that eased the discussion onto other topics and I was saved from making a pompous bore of myself.
But I really would like to answer the guy. The questions are interesting and important. And I plan to make a stab at answering, because as you may know, not only do I have a classroom where I can make a pompous bore of myself, I have this blog. So there’s the subject of my next post.
Warning to my scientist readers: I know stuff, so watch my smoke!