Friday, August 17, 2012

Are biologists repugnant kings of gross-out?

1. FYI, I am a  biologist; I get to ask this question. =)

2. I ask the question because of an international literary contest.

QUESTION: What do these 2 winning passages,
from a bad fiction contest, have in common?
(from the article on the San Jose State University's
 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest to write the worst opening line of a novel)

"As he told her that he loved her she gazed into his eyes, wondering, as she noted the infestation of eyelash mites, the tiny deodicids burrowing into his follicles to eat the greasy sebum therein, each female laying up to 25 eggs in a single follicle, causing inflammation, whether the eyes are truly the windows of the soul; and, if so, his soul needed regrouting."
Cathy Bryant, Manchester, England

(photo from here by Stephen Gschmeissner)

"As an ornithologist, George was fascinated by the fact that urine and feces mix in birds’ rectums to form a unified, homogeneous slurry that is expelled through defecation, although eying Greta's face, and sensing the reaction of the congregation, he immediately realized he should have used a different analogy to describe their relationship in his wedding vows."
David Pepper, Hermosa Beach, CA

Guano mining in the Central Chinchua (Chincha) Islands, ca. 1860. Photo of fig 3.1 on page 30 of Glantz, "Currents of Change", which shows Neg. No. 311830 from the American Museum of Natural History. Copyright to image presumed expired. (from Wikipedia)

ANSWER: Biology!

These were 2 of the 3 winning passages, and it certainly seems that the characters whose thoughts we're reading are biologists. The 3rd entry talked about humid Amazonian air filled with tiny bugs--still biology. 

3. I have been accused of grossing people out.
It's pretty much never on purpose.

On one occasion, (NPS) coworkers were talking during lunch about some stinky dead thing in the park, and I cheerfully piped up to tell them that part of what they were smelling was cadaverine, a happy chemical that, per Wiki:
"is a foul-smelling compound produced by protein hydrolysis during putrefaction of animal tissue."

I just figured they'd want to know. I was certainly excited to learn it in college (organic chemistry, perhaps??). I mean, really, how cool is that NAME?

Apparently, what I thought was a delightful factoid was, to some, one of the grossest things they'd ever heard.

And from then on, if someone talked about something icky while I was in that back room trying to eat my lunch and I complained, a particular woman would say, without looking up, "Cadaverine."

And my complaints were thus quashed.

=( We're so misunderstood.

4. So, yes, I do have a bandanna festooned with sketches of mammal poop.
But, I have taken it off to lay next to a mile-long fur-filled poop
so my co-workers and I could identify it (our job, donchano).
We concluded it was a mountain lion.
That, my friends, is not gross.
That's super cool.

If you study all things living,
and living things eat and kill and poop and die,
it's bound to get messy.

But, that's okay.
Life is messy.
And biologists are comfortable with that.

So, on the day that I found a small paper bag in my work-mailbox,
opened it up, and found a dead lizard (and no note),
did I scream and fling it across the room?
No. I sighed & smiled, mentally noting it was Sceloperus occidentalis.

And while dining at a fancy French restaurant,
when I spied a rat scurrying from table to table
amid the forest of (oblivious) diners' feet,
did I freak out, point to it in horror, and initiate a panicked stampede?

No. I giggled into my napkin,
my eyes wide with surprise and complete merriment.
It was one of the funniest things I'd ever seen.

You try to be fancy (fine French dining),
you try to live a refined, elegant life,
learn about oak-y wines, and which fork goes with what,
then Nature sends a giant rat into the room,
to remind people that they are just another species,
scrambling for survival.

So, if you need someone to catch that rat or giant spider,
to rescue raccoons from your dumpster,
or scare a bear away from your camp site
to restore your illusion of refinement and safety
(and that is exactly what it is),
call a biologist.

We might gross you out at the dinner table,
but we'll get the job done.

So you don't have to.




  1. LOL! That's what makes you so interesting. Smart AND funny.
    I was always fascinated by nature. Just not smart enough to realize it when I could have done something about it. Now, too old to start, I marvel at smart funny gals that really know their stuff. So, thank you. Gross and all.......

  2. I think information on cadaverine is a *great* contribution to conversation!

    Oh, wait: fellow biologist...

    It's amazing, though, the things other people get grossed out by. I admit to a pathetic phobia of cockroaches (a special problem for me in grad school, where our department was filled with giant cockroaches that were descendants of escaped former research subjects)--but who could possibly be disgusted by something as cute as cuttlefish? Who could fail to be fascinated by the predatory behavior of carnivorous snails that use HCl and their rasping radulae to bore holes into clams and, after liquifying the animal, suck out the flesh?

    Studying the sex lives of invertebrates? It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it...

  3. Not a biologist, but an archaeologist. We get excited over preserved human feces. So yeah, totally understand.

    1. Hee. Yay! =) I actually HAD MY PHOTOGRAPH TAKEN by a big PILE of "amberized" rat poop. And I was SO STOKED. I'd never heard of that before. Fossilized poop--high five, girl!! =) xo

  4. That rat story is hilarious!

    "I have been accused of grossing people out.
    It's pretty much never on purpose."

    Laurie is pretty patient with me, but at least once a week, he has to tell me not to tell him any more; I've spoiled his meal.

    Both my daughters are nurses. You should have heard the dinner-table conversation while they were in school! A guest would say, politely making small talk, "And how is school going?" and get a full, enthusiastic report to her obvious dismay.

  5. "Life is messy. And biologists are comfortable with that."

    I love that statement.
    I'll admit, I'm grossed out by some things (like parasitic nematodes), especially when they take me unexpectedly, but there is glory in the fact that curiosity can outweigh that.


Cool people write inside rectangles....