On Carrots And Plastic

winter vegetables

Dear Fellow Root Vegetable Lovers, Vegan Friends and Food Science Colleagues,

A friend of mine emailed me a link to an article that had captured her attention in the Norwegian press, and whose title translates as “Stressed Carrots Taste Worse”. I’m really glad she did, because it made me aware of a terrible carrot storing habit I had to this day. I realize that it was, respectively, an offense to your delicate taste buds, a crude lack of respect for your lifestyle, and a poor recognition of your hard work. Thus to all of you, I apologize.

All these years I have thought I could teach my grandma to suck eggs – or as it happens, to store carrots – and I was so wrong. My grandma, by the way, would have stored her carrots in the root cellar in a container full of sand, but as the article points out, today, luckily, we don’t need sand anymore: we have plastic.

Plastic. That’s were the shoe pinches. I confess that I have repeatedly lost my temper in front of all this plastic. I have savagely ripped these plastics bags, furiously thrown away these plastic baskets and called them “stupidly redundant” as I emptied carrots in the vegetable compartment of my fridge. I have wished I could teleport myself to the farmer’s market Place des Lices and have a bunch of sandy carrots dropped off straight into my reusable bag.

I wonder how I can have been so arrogant as to ignore that this plastic packaging, though “perhaps not very environmentally friendly”, was carefully designed to provide me with the healthiest, tastiest carrots? Now it all becomes clear. Of course the plastic basket protected my carrots from chocks during transport. And how can I have failed to notice that the plastic bags had perfectly calibrated holes to provide my carrots with the right amount of oxygen?

Now perhaps we should all just pause for a minute and wonder what exactly was wrong with our Grandmas’ root cellars. I am absolutely sure that conducting research on vegetation stress is very interesting and fruitful from a biological point of view. But I can’t help to think that this whole carrot and plastic story has a bit of a bitter aftertaste, and that this is what happens when one demands that research imperatively yields practical applications.

As a scientist and root vegetable lover, all this makes me, in fact, a little sad.

Take care and eat well,

Marion

PS: Did you know that carrot greens make a delicious soup? Here is my recipe.


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On Lecture Halls And Moments of Distraction

campus

Dear Campus Architects, Designers, And Whoever Else It May Concern,

There is a question I have long wanted — but never dared — to ask you. I have turned it over and over in my mind to make sure that no obvious answer had escaped me, but I cannot seem to come up with one. I feel a little embarrassed to ask and I certainly do not want to sound ungrateful, especially since everything indicates that you do put a lot of effort into creating ideal conditions for students and researchers to carry on their quest for knowledge. And, allow me to add, this is why I have been a great admirer of your work from my very first day on a university campus.

I remember that the absence of the letter “M” on the so-called “M-building” were I was to attend my first math seminar as a new Physics student, though it certainly caused me some embarrassment, was an eye-opener. It was amazing to realize how such a subtle design trick could encourage communication between new and experienced students. I felt incredibly lucky to have met one of the latter who was precisely on his way to the same building and who, seeing my helplessness, kindly suggested that I followed him. Sweaty, blushing and late, I entered a classroom full of strangers toying with the thrilling idea that there would come a day when I would be there to rescue younger students in distress. And indeed years later, proud as a peacock, I lead my youngest brother on a guided tour around the campus and showed him were the M-building was. A much-cherished memory.

On Thursday afternoons, my class was inflicted a particularly dull lecture. Most fortunately, it took place in a windowless lecture hall in which the scattered, discreet neon lights allowed us to plunge in a pleasant drowsiness as we digested our lunch. Even in the unlikely case in which someone would have wished to leave before the end of the class — though I personally do not see what is wrong with seating on a hardwood bench with a straight back and no space to stretch one’s legs; what are two or four hours when one is young and alert? — the escape was grandly facilitated by your clever architectural choices. First, the hugeness of the room allowed virtually everyone to seat at the end of a row, so that they could get out without having to bother other students. Second, the cozy dark carpet on the floor damped the sound of footsteps very efficiently. It might also have damped the teacher’s voice, incidentally, but as I said, the lecture was dull anyway. All this was absolutely perfect.

I can’t help remembering also how cleverly lecture halls were equipped to reconcile absent-minded scientists with energy-saving practices. Since it had become clear that no friendly note on the door would succeed in reminding us to switch the lights off before leaving, motion detectors had been installed to control the lighting. It was a brilliant idea, if I may say so. During lectures, as the teacher went back and forth in front of the blackboard and under the detector, we constantly had light. During exams, when he or she sat immobile at the desk, the light went off every fifteen minutes, which was life-saving for those of us who had been so careless as to forget their watch.

It took me a longer time to fully appreciate the ingenuity of color choices. I am ashamed to admit, for example, that I have long been convinced that the neon green paint in the bathroom of the Chemistry building had been chosen for common economical reasons – or even, I barely dare to say, bought on offer. How indelicate of me. It strikes me now that there could not have been a better color (apart from the bright orange in the Physics building) to revivify a sleepy student relieving her bladder during a much-needed coffee break in the middle of a demanding lecture. And over the years I have learned to appreciate the value of a coat of paint. When I visited a postdoc friend of mine, a while ago, I immediately appreciated how the dark brown walls of her office created an atmosphere that was obviously favorable to deep-thinking.

In short I am truly impressed by your keenness to grasp the essence of academic life, its highs and lows, its long hours of intense concentration and brief moments of distraction. I am especially touched by your deep understanding of the latter, and infinitely grateful for your indulgence. This is why I have to ask: why did you put the classroom and office windows so high that when we seat at our desks, we cannot look outside?

Respectfully yours,
Marion


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On Small Talk And Big Problems In The World

coffee

Dear Former Colleagues and Random Strangers In The Cafeteria,

You might have spotted me, sometimes, having lunch on my own in a corner. You’ve probably noticed that I often remained silent while eating with you. Of course it would be easy to classify me among the introverts and forget about it. Though I’ll readily admit that I am shy, I think perhaps we would all benefit from having a closer look at the situation.

Believe me, I actually used to talk a lot. I mean, a lot. All the time. The family archives attest it. Hours of video recorded by my grandfather prove it beyond any doubt – it’s almost embarrassing. And if you still don’t believe me, my brothers can testify.

But talking is one thing, and having a satisfying conversation is another. Probably because at times I have been lonely, I have an extra obsessive need of good conversation. Good conversation truly makes me happy. In fact nothing makes me happier than debating something so passionately with someone that we both lose track of time.

When I dig into my childhood memories trying to remember when I first felt this excitement and euphoria I associate with good conversation, I keep falling back around the coffee table. I always say that I started appreciating coffee itself much later than coffee time. I must have been about twelve when I started hanging around with the adults as they had coffee after lunch. While I couldn’t understand what they found so attractive about the dark beverage, I loved this moment. We would sit with family and friends, munching pieces of chocolate and putting the world to rights. The conversation was lively, we raised our voices, argued and disagreed – I thrived.

I have long thought that all conversations should be like that. I admit that I have been naive and arrogant. It probably has something to do with my socializing with philosophers and other social science freaks. You see, learning about things like theses and arguments really blew my mind. It opened a whole world for me outside of physics, and got me so excited I’m still trying to calm down.

But clearly, there is one skill I don’t have: I’m unable to produce small talk. I’m truly sorry if awkward silences made you feel uncomfortable. I just didn’t know what to say when I bumped into you at the coffee machine. Sometimes I preferred shutting up than hearing myself talking about the weather. I can assure you that I’ve been, and still am, working hard on it.

Despite my best efforts, sentences such as “let’s not talk about politics” still come to me every time as a slap in the face. I realize just how selfish and arrogant this can sound, but what I hate about small talk is that every time the conversation comes to something I’m excited to discuss, someone has to abruptly change the subject. I understand that the intent is to keep everyone comfortable, but these about-faces always hit me like a ton of brick. It’s like saying to me: “No. You won’t be happy.”

Yet thanks to you I have come to understand that in some situations, small talk is just appropriate, and I’ve learned to swallow my disappointment. I am truly grateful to you for showing me the value of smooth, pleasant social relations at work.

But then of course one cannot make big problems disappear by not talking about them. And somehow, political matters kept popping up in casual conversations. This mix-up drove me mad. Some problems just cannot stay in the realm of small talk, or we’re condemned to successions of snap judgments, clichés, and erroneous information. I remember some disappointing discussions we had about the situation in Greece last year. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we should agree. I just mean that some statements call for arguments. As physicists, you know how to approach difficult scientific problems with caution and rigor. I’m a bit mad at you for not showing the same rigor when it comes to problems about the human world.

I’m sure you’ve heard the news about the elections in Greece. Perhaps you discussed this again briefly. To be honest, I’m relieved I wasn’t there. This way you savored your lunch without being inflicted my disapproving frown, and I savored the news.

No hard feelings.
Love,
Marion


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in a new light

Old barn in Scandinavia

Dear Family, Friends, Colleagues, Acquaintances and Random Strangers,

Do you remember the picture of this old barn I took last month? Here is another one from yesterday.

Some of you worry about my survival in these Nordic latitudes. You’re worried about the freezing cold and ominous darkness. Some of you have even heard somewhere (where, by the way?) of alarming statistics about the rates of suicide in Scandinavian lands. I thank you infinitely for your concern.

Do not worry. Of course I am not denying that on December days like today, sunset is to be expected around 1:40 pm. If it’s cloudy (which is rather frequent), and in the absence of snow, the atmosphere can undeniably be gloomy, and it its hard to remember that these lands are submerged in darkness only half of the year, while summer nights are so bright they almost feel like days. But you can rest assured that, although I do sleep a little longer than usual these days, I do not feel condemned to total hibernation.

winter light in Scandinavia

You would be surprised to see how, far from moping around in the dark all day long, the locals live their lives anyway. I have noticed one thing they do to cope with the darkness: they turn the lights on.

Now I hope you’re sighing in relief. But I don’t want you, though, to imagine anything as vulgar as dazzling white lamps all over the place. Picture, instead, small touches of warm yellow light here and there. One small lamp at each window. Always a candle on the table. The most delicate Christmas lights. Nothing to flashy, nothing to bright.

winter-light2

There is not much sunlight, these days, it is true. But when there is, it is golden, and you’re immersed in it, and you cannot believe its beauty.

You see, living in Scandinavia has taught me one important lesson: for light as for so many things, it is not just quantity that matters. Quality does, too.

Love,
Marion

PS: Please do not send wishes of mild temperatures. I’m actually longing for minus degrees. I can hear you saying that this climate must have driven me nuts, but it hasn’t. You’ve probably heard somewhere that dry cold is much more bearable than moist cold. Well, it is true. Rest assured, though. Like the locals (can you believe there are millions of people living in this country? Millions!), I am taking all necessary precautions whenever I get out of the house: I always put on a coat, a scarf, a hat and mittens. No, really, I promise you, I’m fine. XOXO. M.