the universe makes a lotta gas

Last winter, on my annual visit home to New England, I received the sweetest reminder of why it is that I have such a fierce love of scientists. My treasured nephew was three at the time, and obsessed with both monster trucks and the Chimney Sweep dance from Mary Poppins, tumbling over my mother’s kitchen broom and occasionally bumping his big bowling ball-like toddler head on the side table next to the couch. After twirling himself dizzy, he’d crash on the sofa hardcore, and then drift off for an hour or so.

One night after dancing himself silly, he passed out in front of a public television science special on the universe, something about Jupiter, I think.

When he woke a couple of hours later, I was in the kitchen washing dishes. He crept up behind me, still rubbing his eyes and said, “You know what Auntie? The universe makes a lotta gas.”

“Yes it does, baby,” I replied. And then we made cookies.

At three, my nephew knew more about the universe through osmosis than I did at twenty-eight, the year I took a temp job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory that ended up lasting six years.

I’m a lab secretary. If I’m your lab’s secretary, I have access to your credit cards, your CV, your passport, and your society memberships. I could write a crackpot paper about string theory and its effects on pineapple custard and publish it under your name on Optics Express.

But I wouldn’t do that. My job is to get you to the plane on time so that you can present your brilliant paper on quantum physics and gravity in the solar system to a bunch of people whose lives revolve around fun new uses for cesium fountains. I have no idea what any of it means, but if some government bureaucrat gets in between you and your travels, I will cut a bitch to make sure you get to your conference.

At some point in my career, I evolved from an apathetic Paperwork Processing Technician to a fierce advocate of scientists. It might have been the irresistible charm of listening to John Dick rehearsing some operatic melody in his office late at night while I was shoveling Material Safety Data Sheets off my desk by the truckload, or the careful explanation of the Bose-Einstein Condensate that was materializing in a laser cooling lab behind my desk. They called it a Quantum Blob for my benefit, and I still think it’s a better name for the odd little thing that appeared on the breadboard and turned a grad student into a Ph.D.

Mathematicians wandering the halls without their shoes, grad students forgetting tanks of fog-spewing liquid nitrogen in front of my desk, using a dead $10,000 Class 4 laser as a paperweight. Utterly charming. Still, it wasn’t the odd quirks, the hiccups of bad manners or lapse of understanding in social contracts that spawned my devotion.

It was a rail gun.

A friend had been hired to write a screenplay of Robert A. Heinlen’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress and called to ask what the best way would be to launch a big chunk of rock from the moon to earth, scientifically. Heinlen had imagined a catapult sort of contraption, but since I had a large pool of physicists at my disposal, I posed the question.

A small crowd gathered at my desk, scribbling notes and figures on worn post-its. After some spirited arguing, the conclusion was that a rail gun would be the best option for such a task. There was some more arguing about distance and velocity and perhaps something about torque and the actual size the rail gun would have to be to hurl a boulder of moon towards earth, but in the end, I had an answer. Rail gun.

Whether or not there was enough ice for a mining colony was answered with a quick call to a soft-spoken and good humored Jim Williams.

Hundreds of tiny facts passed from their brains to mine every year. Maybe the universe is shaped like a soccer ball…or maybe that’s a crackpot idea. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. It snows methane on Pluto. Whispering Gallery Modes. What happens when you toss a lit cigarette into liquid nitrogen. The universe makes a lotta gas.

All of them have this marvelous talent for explaining these enormous mysteries to me so that I can understand, which is a kindness and a blessing.

My scientists answer questions about general relativity with the same nonchalant tone of voice one would use when asked the question, “Do you have the time?”

Oddly, though I worked in metrology, no one ever wore a watch. And John Dick never changed his clock for Daylight Savings.

And so I fell in love with all of them. The high maintenance ones, the ones without shoes, the ones who dressed like they were rolled in glue and then attacked by clothes hampers on the way to work, and the ornery, cranky ones tend to be my favorites. There’s nothing finer than saving a cranky scientist from him or herself, when the bureaucrats and bean-counters call to harass them about the cost of a conference or a rental car.

They’re busy thinking about the universe, and how much gas it’s producing, and such calls and emails can break them into quivering balls of cesium-flavored Jell-O. G_in_space_2

And they’re all weirdly grateful when I pick up a gauntlet and call the accounting department to explain that they’re to call me with the bullshit questions, because when they tie up my scientists with a four dollar discrepancy on a rental car, SCIENCE IS NOT HAPPENING, JACKHOLE.

All of them were once my nephew, pondering the amount of gas the universe makes.

My mom called a few months ago, telling me that my nephew was asking her for a white suit. I pictured him in some sort of Steve Martin-esque get up, wearing bunny ears. She explained that he needed it so when the astronauts go to Mars, they will see him and pick him up for the ride.

I thought his logic was pretty solid, so I got him the suit. It’s what I’d do for any of my scientists.

33 thoughts on “the universe makes a lotta gas”

  1. Y’know I was told when I got to grad school to be nice to the department secretaries, because they have all the power. And they do. And they have bailed me out (often of messes of my own creation) dozens of times. And personally I find them a lot easier to get along with than most of the other scientists. That sense of relief that has washed over me when I have gotten my payroll sorted out and found I *can* make rent this month after all, or got a part ordered in a hurry from a new vendor, without which my research is a standstill, has made me a fangrrl of good department secretaries.

  2. No kidding. {And a *bad* – or simply uncaring, unhelpful – admin person can basically fubar everything. Take, for example, the Purchasing folks at my current institution… but I digress :)}
    Also: where did you get the suit? My 6 year-old space-mad son would love it!

  3. This reminds me of my ow early days working for the American Physical Society — the first time I’d ever encountered professional physicists. Changed my life, changed my attitude towards science, and I got a shiny new career as a science writer in the end. It’s the humanizing aspect, I think. Just goes to show, one never knows what simply answering a basic question from a non-scientist can accomplish in terms of changing how they think about scientists… and the world around them.

  4. Awesome. And the best part is, when YOU love scientists, you can put that science into terms that the rest of the lay world can hopefully understand, appreciate and then support.

  5. I know how your metrologists feel. Once you’re surrounded by all manner of atomic clocks, wearing an imprecise instrument like a wristwatch, perhaps as much as a million times worse in performance, would just be silly. I have arguably the best clock system in the world not far from my desk. What do I need with a wristwatch?

  6. when they tie up my scientists with a four dollar discrepancy on a rental car, SCIENCE IS NOT HAPPENING, JACKHOLE.
    We have some great secretaries in my departmental office, but my university needs more assistants like you! 🙂

  7. I second that comment that you must always make friends with the departmental secretaries and admins. I found this out my first day in grad school and it was one of the most valuable lessons I ever learned. And I, too, got a shiny science writing career out of grad school, along with cosmic knowledge, thanks in large part to our admin, secretary, and, of course my advisor (who was the one who tipped me off to the right way to treat them).
    Cheers to you!

  8. That was a great read. I can’t say I’ve ever wandered the halls without my shoes, but trust me that the bad manners and ridiculously poor social skills aren’t us being rude on purpose.

  9. “…if some government bureaucrat gets in between you and your travels, I will cut a bitch…”
    Now if that ain’t love, I don’t know what is 🙂

  10. Alyson, as a secretary at JPL, I thank you for this. Because that is really how I feel.
    Mind you, I’ve been a science groupie since before I started working here, so the fact that I work with astrophysicists brings me no end of joy, but I firmly believe that my job is to make my bosses’ jobs easier. Otherwise, as you say, “SCIENCE IS NOT HAPPENING, JACKHOLE.”
    Which may now be my most favorite line ever. Along with, “[…] but if some government bureaucrat gets in between you and your travels, I will cut a bitch to make sure you get to your conference.”
    Hell ya.

  11. I have learned to deeply respect a good department secretary. Your group is lucky to have you! And yes, I have wandered the halls with my shoes off.

  12. WOW you reminded me of how much i love the two women in our department who protect me from all of this. i just wrote one an e-mail to tell her how much i love her. thank YOU for allyou do too 🙂
    -A shoeless graduate student

  13. I loved your post.
    It would be great to walk down your corridor and have you as secretary. My wife saved me from being one of those that dress like they were rolled in glue and then attacked by clothes hampers on the way to work. All I do nowadays is put on whatever she hands me out.
    You must be one of a kind.

  14. Loved this, but must take you to task about _The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress_; what Heinlein used was exactly a rail gun, although I don’t remember if he used that term- but from his descriptions, it’s a rail gun.
    To repeat, though: loved the post!

  15. I’m suddenly reminded of watching grad students from the CU math dept try to figure out a bar tab after an evening at the local Irish pub.
    Now I really miss living in Boulder.

  16. I came in from the Bad Astronomy blog becase Phil recommended it. I just couldn’t avoid the single tear that wanted to creep out. I love how you love scientists.

  17. That’s a wonderful story! As I head towards my graduate career, I hope to be as lucky with the office staff as your scientists are in you.
    Keep the love alive!

  18. Ah, so you understand why I went to attend a poster session about biology during my lunch break yesterday, and asked professors and grad students to explain in layman’s terms why they think autism is related to intestinal flora, or how the mammalian immune system learns to recognize intruders.
    The term I used to describe myself was “science groupie”. I can’t do the research myself, but I can certainly admire those who do.

  19. I was an astronomy secretary for 14 years, and you just encapsulated them for me. Thanks!
    (I took it further though, I married one of them…)

  20. I feel like we are kindred spirits in a way… I’ve always been a science junkie but I’m awful at math. Now, I produce science related shows for well known cable networks. I could write a bogus paper or two myself. Thanks for the lovely post!!

  21. Dearest Allyson:
    First off, I’m a writer. After reading the part about the guy working on “moon” I realized that YOU are EXACTLY the one person I TRULY need to talk to. I need your help on a few technical questions on my current project. And I’d rather talk to you about it than the scientists (although I love them madly. truly. madly.)
    PLEASE contact me at whenever you get a little time to yourself that does not require looking for Dr. Morton’s car keys, Dr. Chiang’s “lost” bicycle, or the making of cookies.
    That said, you are THE best sci-fi writer I’ve ever come across. And I’ve come across many. (And I can even relate to naked scientists who haven’t bathed in a few days because they were too busy discovering planets.)

  22. When my husband started his first corporate job, his department had a group of three admins. He started in January. In April, on Administrative Assistant’s Day, I had flowers sent to all three admins and continue that tradition today.
    Why? Because they do the shit that needs to get done so he can do his job.
    And it’s a good policy to NEVER fuck with the person who handles your food, your mail or your travel arrangements.

  23. Good thing someone mentioned Phil Plait, because I’d forgotten why this was in my “to read” tabs.
    I’m very glad I kept it there, though. This was a wonderful read. The world need more people like you. And reading this suddenly made me realise what is wrong with the Danish system – at least as it was two years ago when I had my breakdown.
    Thank you.

  24. Thank you, Sili:
    I appreciate that someone who saw my album dedication to Phil Plait and Allyson was that kind. It almost makes me feel (SLIGHTLY) less of a jackass.
    I wrote the Cocktail Party editor a request to kill both of those comments because I felt that I was going overboard in being both spammy and obnoxiously lame. Those links will only be in here for a little while longer. So I won’t have to feel so bad at my terrible misbehavior.
    Although they are both still dedicated to those people, the music is no longer a free download. Everybody but the heroes was downloading them and I’m the skittish type. The Fomalhaut record will come out officially at some future time. It’ll still be dedicated to Allyson and Phil and Kalas et al, if they can ever forgive me for being…well, me.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top