"It's a kind of more open writing that I have learned from watching you -- something that a few years ago I probably would not have written, and certainly would have been afraid to share with more than a few close associates. I now recognize that such personal writing can have a positive impact on people I never met, as well as deepening bonds with those whose lives already intersect with my own."
You are what you hold dear. I've held
in my hands five days a week, since 1997, a coffee mug with a Labview
logo. Labview is a computer programming environment, the product of a
Texas software company, designed to control instruments, record and
analyze data: the hands and eyes of a scientist, if not the mind. I use
it for everything. I learned to use it in Zuerich on sabbatical, when I
was afraid to collect data on a rickety computer and had the time to
retool myself and the lab where I was visiting, learning a skill I knew
would be useful then and later. How convenient to learn and make your
first horrible mistakes, writing your first clumsy programs for someone
else's experiment! I learned enough to run the experiment and became
proficient enough to rewrite my own lab's data acquisition programs when
I went back to Long Island. As a Swiss memento, I brought with me a
Labview porcelain coffee mug, left by the sales engineer as just another
piece of crass commercial swag.
A lot of science depends on coffee, as much as programming, so I made this coffee mug my own, and would have it with me as I went to seminars, meetings, or just in the office, constantly adjusting the caffeine trim required to threaten the secrets of Nature with exposure (empty threat, that). It is my responsibility to enforce the eating and drinking ban in the labs, and I do usually set a good example, reducing the slim chances of taking a sip from the wrong beaker by mistake. Like so many portable treasures, it has been repeatedly left behind and rediscovered days or weeks later after abandoned searches.
This was only my second scientific coffee mug, artifacts by which a career is measured. The first came from a hippie potter in Toronto when I was a grad student, and lasted through my years in Ithaca and on to Brookhaven. That one had an organic brown and white glaze, a silly thumb rest on the handle, and enough texture inside that the cream-colored pottery would gradually take on an interior patina that resisted soap and water, needing oxidizing chemicals appropriate to a chemistry lab to restore the bright interior whiteness, once every few months. The day came, as it must, when I dropped that mug, and I wondered how my career would be affected -- and if I would ever find the right mug to replace it. So when I appropriated this Labview mug in Switzerland, I thought I had found the totem for the next phase of my career.
But this morning, as I rinsed it out and was wiping down the outside with a paper towel, it slipped from my hands. Plenty of time passed, as it accelerated from the height of my waist, past my knees and toward the carpeted floor, for me to think back on all the coffee that has passed through me by way of this mug, wondering and hoping, not too optimistically, that it might just bounce and come to rest, rebuking me for my carelessness. But my long reverie came to an end with a crack and shattering into a few jagged shards and a splash of white porcelain powder across the blue industrial carpet, lightly padding the concrete floor.
I poured my coffee into a Long Island Symphony mug left behind by R. when he retired and finally left the lab, 10 years after I was hired in anticipation of his departure. But it's not the same. There are a dozen other mugs to choose from, but I need to apply more deliberation than just picking one and using it.
The real loss this morning, however, was that it was V.'s last day at the lab, after three fast years with us. The young scientists we select and nurture are really what delimit the epochs in our own careers, sharing problems and successes, hoping that they can find their way to a real job, and that we will have helped them do so, rather than leading them into a dead end project from which the only way forward is to start fresh, leaving behind years of endeavor. The old-timers here have seen change and mused that they had lived through golden days of science and wouldn't know how to start over in today's world. And they are probably right -- we wouldn't know how. But fortunately we don't have to, and those that do have to will do just fine, like V.
A few weeks later, G. sent me a string of responses he'd received from his colleagues who had read the story of his broken mug. Among them was this postscript to the story:
I've had an interesting assortment of responses from the ten or so people to whom I intentionally sent the original essay, as well as an amusing thread returning to me by way of my friend C., who forwarded a copy of my essay to a Labview engineer requesting that they might arrange to have a new mug sent to this hopeless friend of his:
I really do appreciate your arranging to have a new mug sent to me. So of course I want to confirm receipt and thank you. But I'm wondering if there is some higher intelligence playing with us, testing to see if I can acknowledge that it is time to move on. Your mug arrived, carefully packed and with no sign of abuse, yet after rinsing it out and pouring in my first cup of hot joe, there was a little clinking noise and a hairline crack became visible, the color of seeping coffee, from lip to base, inside to outside, on the side opposite the handle, as shown in the attached action shot of my desk.
The cameo mug shot on the right side of the photo is an even older coffee mug, made by an Ute potter in 1970, and it was undergoing a probationary trial when the new Labview mug arrived. It is handsome, but a bit small and the handle is hard to hold, but I've had it a long time without using it much, and it is growing on me.
Next time you are coming by our lab, do drop me a note and we can get together for a drink of something hot.Best,