Saturday 15 November 2014

Holcomb Syndrome

Bill Bryson must have sold a million copies of his various books, but his best, funniest and most insightful is his first The Lost Continent in which he goes on a gigantic figure of eight road trip across the Continental US from Des Moines, Iowa where he grew up and back again via both coasts and a chunk of territory in between.  One of the most telling anecdotes is when he steams into Holcomb, Kansas for a bit of gristly rubber-necking.  Holcomb was where a whole family of stalwart citizens were murdered In Cold Blood by two deluded hoods looking for a non-existent stash of folding money which they couldn't be bothered to earn.  It was written up with patchy attention to the truth by Truman Capote with help from his pal Harper "Mockingbird" Lee.  Capote's book was a sensation at the time and sold thousands of copies. Yet when Bryson rocked up thirty years later and asks some of the local youths about The Event of their small town, none of them seem a) interested or b) to know anything substantive about it.  Later, Bryson compared notes with the high-school track coach, a man about his own age and they agree that a) in their day, they were more fully engaged b) the generation down didn't/couldn't read books and just didn't give a monkey's about their cultural-historical-geographical milieu.  "We agreed that this was, you know, weird".  I mention this, because today is the 55th anniversary of that nihilistic atrocity.

Eeeee, when I were a student, I was up for anything that was on offer that seemed to be interesting or challenging or a bit different.  I'm not saying I was a great student: a lot of the standard curriculum was uninspiring and occasionally tedious but the extras could be very good indeed.  When we were junior ticks in 1st or 2nd year, my pal Cliona and I signed up for a series of evening seminars on the philosophy of science  and learned a heckuva a lot about our craft even though we were lowly apprentices - not even yet foot-soldiers. Over the subsequent 40 years in science, I've made it a firm rule to go to any optional talks and seminars if at all possible, because you never know when you'll be surprised.

As I mentioned earlier today, we are up to 75mph at The Institute this last week running a slew of extra Science Week events for our own students and the local school children.  My Head of Department was up to 110, making things happen, including a whole morning of interviews at the Institute as outside broadcasts from the local radio station, a bang-and-stinks show for primary school children and a dozen other events.  Me, I was up to 90, making happen a showing of Ross Whitaker's film Unbreakable on the Monday as well as inviting Ireland's most cited scientist on Friday.  But the rest of our community seemed to take it all with a good dollop of 'meh', hence my calculation that on average 'we' were only up to 75. I thought that the interest in the film, at least, would be mega and arranged for it to be shown in a room with 250 seats. When I rushed over from another class with the DVD, I found the room occupied by three (3) students.  Eventually 30 people dibbled in and settled down to watch the film; 20% of whom were teaching staff.  That's out of a population of nearly 5000. That's a bit disappointing, I find. It was the same at the end of the week. I had booked a room and a time when our third (N=38) and fourth (N=32) year biologists had a scheduled class and arranged for the lecturers to bring both classes to the one room to hear The Great Man speak. I needn't have worried about the room having sufficient capacity, because it was much less than half full and only a dozen or so of the target audience thought such an event was more important than getting an earlier bus home, or writing up their lab books, or finding a quiet place to eat a Mars bar.
Afterwards, we agreed that this was, you know, weird

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