Sticking up for Your Colleagues, in the Lab and in the Field

This fall, I brought members of the Oregon Peace Institute to my town to lead an introductory bystander intervention training. The fatal stabbing of two men on a Portland commuter train a few months earlier had hit the community hard—many people had connections to the places and people involved—and I wanted to do something more than mourn. I chose to organize the training because friends (including Person of LWON Helen Fields) told me that it was a good crash course in how to better help others, both in extreme situations like that surrounding the train stabbing and more everyday instances of harassment.

They were right: The bystander intervention model is both a very practical set of tactics and a small but profound shift in attitude, and its approach is tremendously helpful to the everyday business of being a decent person, no matter who you are or what your situation might be. For scientists and science students (and science writers, for that matter), bystander intervention can be a powerful weapon against the chronic problem of sexual harassment in the lab and in the field. With that in mind, here are the basics, and some resources for learning more. Continue reading

A Wolf Named Asena

Cagan H. Sekercioglu is one of those people who seem to have more hours in the day than you or I. A biologist who studies birds, mammals, butterflies and also has a sideline in wildlife photography, he divides his time between his native Turkey and the American West, where he is an professor at the University of Utah. 

In 2011, he and a team of collaborators became the first scientists to collar and track wolves and other carnivores in the rugged, arid landscapes of eastern Turkey. In 2014, I interviewed him about his work for the now defunct Beacon Reader

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The Last Word

Happy 12th month, readers! Lurch with us into December with these fine offerings:

On Monday Christie brought back a 2015 essay in which she reminds us that, sure, posting our most enviable moments for all to see is good fun, but it’s way less fun than the actual doing. “When we focus on the rendering,” she writes, “something essential is lost.”

Tuesday: Ann’s pulled together history, drama, and a delightful email exchange in a redux about Farm Hall, where German nuclear scientists were held by the Brits after WWII. That’s a poor description of the post: Please read it yourself.

Jessa pondered (on Wednesday) whether kids produced via donor insemination should be told from whence they came. Parents in the UK and US tend to disagree.

It was Thursday when Sarah almost wept at a video showing a starving polar bear. She considers the value of bearing witness to and telling stories about the sad state of things for which we are responsible.

And finally, Friday, International Human Rights Day, statistician and guest poster Robin Mejia writes about what can happen when a government makes up stats rather than actually gathering them.

On International Human Rights Day, Statisticians in the Line of Fire

With International Human Rights Day coming up on Sunday, I’ve been thinking a lot about a Greek economist named Andreas Georgiou. In 2010, Georgiou was living in Maryland and working for the International Monetary Fund when he saw a call for applications for a job in Greece heading a new statistical agency. At that point, Greek financial and debt statistics were a joke in Europe. The European Union has a system where countries compile statistical information and submit it to EU-level bodies for review. These bodies had frequently expressed concerns about the figures Greece submitted, refusing to validate or certify the numbers. So, under pressure, Greece launched a new independent national statistical agency, and undertook revisions. Georgiou was hired to lead the effort. He took the mandate seriously, recalculating debt figures according to European and national guidelines, and showed that the numbers Greece had been reporting were far rosier than reality. This was news the country didn’t want to hear. The reality Georgiou helped bring to light led to the austerity measures than many Greeks feel have wrecked the country.

Soon, Georgiou became a scapegoat. Politicians argued that it was Georgiou himself who caused the crisis. He’s now fighting criminal charges in Greece for doing the job he was hired to do. Some of the crimes he’s being prosecuted for make no sense from an American perspective. For example, apparently simple slander involves saying something that’s true but unpleasant. More serious charges include trials for complicity against the state.  As Greece appears to have no concerns about double jeopardy; prosecutors have opened second and third trials when their initial efforts led to not guilty verdicts. Continue reading

In Visibility

On Tuesday, I texted my friend Michelle a brief video clip of a polar bear.

The bear is starving, all jutting hips and elbows, its fur sparse except for a thatch along its spine and Clydesdale tufts around its plate-sized paws. As with any bear, there is something disturbingly human about the shape of its body, about its movements and mannerisms. It staggers along on a green mat of tundra, foam dripping from its mouth. Dips its face into a rusty barrel and pulls out what appears to be a hunk of rotten meat. Sprawls on the ground, nose to earth, defeated by the visibly difficult work of breathing.

Watching the bear, I covered my mouth with one hand, suppressing tears. This perfect summary of unchecked climate change was like a knife to the kidney. Without sea ice, polar bears can’t hunt seals. And we are to blame.

“I honestly don’t think I can watch that,” Michelle replied. “I can’t get down with the voyeurism of photography generally.”

Michelle—an artist who’s been thinking a lot about polar bears and the Arctic these days—does not shy from engaging tough topics. What bothered Michelle was the lack of direct agency. The doing nothing in the face of such obvious suffering and then using the suffering to convey a message. Some key step had been skipped.

Neither of us was sure what the photographer could or should have done differently. To approach a bear is dangerous. To feed a bear is its own ethical wormhole, a mercy that is not clearly mercy, that carries with it a loss of wildness and the discomfiting admission that the system that sustains polar bears is beyond help. And to feed thousands of polar bears is impossible. We decided in a burst of desperate, dark humor, that oil executives should have to watch the film on repeat. Or perhaps simply be fed to the polar bear themselves. Continue reading

If you had a third parent, would you know?

On a quiet summer evening in Brighton, Alison Pike was reading to her 9-year-old son the Roald Dahl children’s classic, Danny, Champion of the World—perhaps the most flattering portrayal of fatherhood in literature. Harry turned thoughtfully to his mother.

“Sometimes I wish I had a dad,” he said, then paused. “But I’d rather have two mums.”

Pike and her partner have each given birth to one of their sons, both using the same donor’s sperm, so their children are biological half-brothers.

“He knows that some nice man donated his seed so that we could have these babies. I had to have IVF several times, and for some reason he’s very proud of the fact that this means he must have cost a lot of money,” says Pike. “He’s decided this makes him superior to his brother.”

Same sex couples are required by circumstance to tell their children how they came to be. It’s quite clear they did not come into parenthood in a traditional way. But many straight couples—especially in the UK—use donors and never tell their children. In fact, there seems to be a stark cultural disconnect across the Atlantic Ocean about whether to acknowledge a child’s genetic origins. Continue reading

Redux: Finding Peter Ganz

This first appeared in December 19, 2013.  I run it again now because I’ve been reading David C. Cassidy’s new book, Farm Hall and the German Atomic Project of World War II, subtitled, “A Dramatic History.”  Cassidy is an historian of physics, so the “history” part of the subtitle is not unexpected.  But he also wrote a play — the “dramatic” part — about a subject which for no good reason I’m obsessed with and which is explained below.  Cassidy’s dramatic history is a play followed by the nearly everything Cassidy knows about the subject, which is considerable:  so, a play with its historical context.  It’s an unusual and charming thing for an academic historian to do. The book isn’t making me any less obsessed.

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About a month ago, I wrote a review of a play by David C. Cassidy about Farm Hall.  Farm Hall was the English country house in which the British government, just after World War II, sequestered the German nuclear scientists they’d kidnapped.  The scientists’ rooms were bugged, and their conversation was recorded and transcribed by listeners.  The result was a transcript which had fairly cried aloud to be turned into a play.  David Cassidy, among others, did.  I reviewed it and afterward, heard from Dr. Oliver Dearlove, pediatric anaesthetist (retired) who lives in the UK.

Peter GanzOliver:  Very interested to read your review in Nature about the Farm Hall play. I remember 2010, Adam Ganz did another play about Farm Hall on Radio 4.  In the e-book of the Farm Hall transcripts, one of the listeners was a Peter Ganz.  I suspect/wonder if he was Adam’s father.

Ann:  How very extremely interesting.  I’ve never heard of either one. With your permission, I’ll forward your question to David Cassidy, who not only wrote the play I reviewed, but is also an historian of physics who wrote a splendid introduction to one publication of the transcripts.

Oliver:  Thank you for your speedy reply, dear madam.  Please send to Cassidy the following version of  my question which I have tarted up in true scientific fashion.

Tarted-up official question was sent immediately to Cassidy.

David Cassidy:  Dr. Dearlove, I am the author of the play Ann Finkbeiner reviewed, and I thank you for the reference to the Radio 4 play.  Do you happen to know how I might locate Adam Ganz?

Oliver:  I am sorry for not replying sooner. Adam Ganz is to be found here.  His play is listed on the Radio 4 website but as far as I can discern it is unavailable for playback.  Do you think that A. Ganz is related as I suspect to P. Ganz?

David:  I’ll try to get in touch with A. Ganz.  It’s a shame that his play isn’t available.

A short interval occurs before emails resume.

Ann:  But you CAN, you can, you can get Ganz’s play.  My work has been going badly so I’ve clicked around on the internet.  And the Radio 4 link really is dead but there’s another secret one.  This is the best thing I’ve done all day.

Oliver:  We are having an excited Adam Ganz experience via the internet.

David:  A jolly good find, indeed!

Ann:  And here’s Peter Ganz!  Or rather, his obituary.

800px-JudensandAnd what a life Peter Ganz had.  He was born in Mainz, Germany to a Jewish family that became Lutheran.  But converting didn’t help the family during Kristallnacht and Peter’s grandfather, Adam’s great-grandfather, was killed at Auschwitz. Peter himself was sent to Buchenwald but some reason, was released.  He fled to England, went to university, and became a philologist at Oxford – specialty, medieval German; sub-specialty, Jacob Grimm.  But while he was still in college, he was put in an internment camp as an enemy alien, and a little later, was sent to Farm Hall as a listener. 

Oliver:  This is clearly the father even from the internal evidence in the play – one of the characters specifically mentions philology and Grimm.  The names of all the listeners seem to be on p. 275 of Helen Fry’s book, The M Room.  And there’s Peter Ganz, on the list.

Ann:  And on p. 166, here he is, being transferred to Farm Hall.  Amazing what you can do on Amazon with a Look-Inside.

Oliver: Yeah the American Look-Inside must be bigger better all round than the British one – all I got was an index.

David:  My goodness, you two have been busy.  This is quite a treasure trove.  As I told you, I wrote to Adam Ganz, and he’s just written back.

Adam Ganz:  Yes, Professor Cassidy, my father was one of the listeners at Farm Hall.  His supervisor at college was the language consultant to Enigma. He found the work extremely interesting but he spoke little about it.  I talked with him a little toward the end of his life.  Of the German scientists, he liked and respected Otto Hahn very much, he admired Max van Laue, he really didn’t like von Weizsacker.

David:  I don’t think anyone liked von Weizsacker.

Nevertheless, Adam Ganz’s play, Nuclear Reactions, is kind to von Weizsacker.  In fact, it’s kind to all the German scientists, to all these famous physicists who’d been trying and failing to build an atomic bomb for Nazi Germany.  They are heard clearly in the transcripts to be creating an alternate version of the truth — a  lie, in fact —  in which they hadn’t built the atomic bomb because they wanted to work on a reactor for generating energy in peacetime.

At the end of the transcripts, they were released from Farm Hall and allowed to return to their jobs and universities. But the transcripts are reality and reality is of course messy – no single right interpretation,  no one clear storyline, no moral, none of the meaning that a playwright imposes.

Adam’s take on the incoherent transcripts is that the Germans were allowed their lie; that the Britain in its own interests sent them back to Göttingen to help post-war Germany rebuild its science and industry; that perhaps Germany needed “normal Germans who wouldn’t build the bomb,” the play says. “Germany doesn’t need any more criminals, it needs heroes.”

And it’s true that many of them, von Weizsaecker included, later signed the Göttingen Declaration, warning against the proliferation of nuclear weapons and promising that “none of the undersigned are prepared to participate in the creation, testing or deployment of any type of nuclear weapon.”    

§

The email conversation moved on to other subjects but I was still interested in Adam’s kindness to the would-be bomb builders.

At one time, Adam went back to Mainz and visited the cemetery where the Ganz family was buried.  The cemetery wasn’t old; each Mainz family had bought plots with its dynasty in mind, so the headstones had a name or two at the top and space left for the names of the coming generations.  But it was a German Jewish cemetery, and the Jews fled or were killed.  So the headstones are still blank.

Adam wrote an essay, “On Speaking and Silence and the Refusal of Historical Accuracy.”  It was about the cemetery, and about finding documents his great-grandfather had left behind before Auschwitz, and about trying to piece together his family history; and then about wondering what to do once he’d exhausted the documents, once he’d exhausted history.  Fiction, he wrote, “can help us to recreate the grandparents we needed and tell the terrible story of their eradication, and how through us, something somehow floated to safety. Like writers before us, we can simply make it up.”

So Adam made the play’s narrator a German philologist with a fondness for Grimm’s fairy tales — someone who could sound very much like Peter Ganz.  At the play’s end, with the nuclear scientists all back in the directorships of their scientific institutes, Adam’s narrator says that Grimm collected many stories: some like Hansel and Gretel we remember; and some like The Jew Amongst Thorns, we pretend to forget.   “We pretended they were heroes,” the narrator says, “and sent them back to Göttingen, and you know the most amazing thing? That’s what they turned into.”

§

In his play, Adam tells one of the Grimm fairy tales, The Shroud.  A mother has a little boy whom she loves dearly.  But the little boy gets sick, and dies.  And mother weeps and never stops weeping.  One night the boy comes to her in the little white shroud in which he was laid in his coffin, and asks her to stop crying because his shroud is wet with all her tears and it won’t dry.  So the mother stopped crying.

“And the next night the boy came again, holding a little light in his hands and said Look, Mother, my shroud is nearly dry and I can rest in my grave.  The mother gave her sorrow to God’s keeping and bore it quietly and the child came no more and slept in his little bed beneath the earth.”

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Note on historical accuracy:  the facts here are right; but the conversations are partly a reconstruction – a lie – from actual emails, organized and edited so that they make sense as a story.   It’s a process related to what Adam Ganz was doing, but not the same thing at all.

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Adam Ganz has written two other, related plays, Listening to the Generals, about a similar British bugging of a country house, this one full of German generals; and the Gestapo Minutes, about Mainz during the war.

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Photo of Peter Ganz through the kindness and courtesy of Adam Ganz.  Photo of the old (not the new) Jewish cemetery at Mainz by Ralf Mauer, via Wikimedia

Redux: I Did It Dad! I LOVE This!

This post first ran on February 9, 2015, but the message is as relevant as ever.401TrailSept
I’d been pondering the consequences of modern self-chronicling when Facebook sent me its rendering of my life in 2014. If Facebook’s Year End Review is any indication, my life boils down to this: adorable dogs, skiing, trail running and mountain biking. Lots of mountain biking. Continue reading