(Cliche alert!) I love how I often seem to find what I didn't even know I was looking for at just the precise moment I need it. Usually, this something comes in the form of a book. So, I’m *this* close to finishing my PhD and wondering what in the hell I’m going to do now that I’m not clinging on to the life raft that is academia when, on a whim, I start reading Eric Kandel’s autobiography. Kandel, apart from being a surprisingly wonderful writer and a total genius (such a babe!), won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2000 for his research on the physiological basis of memory storage in neurons. I don’t normally read autobiographies, but Kandel’s is awesome: aside from our shared interest in neuroscience and the quality of his prose, many of his insights have reminded me that there’s excitement, discovery and inspiration to be found outside of academia, somewhat surprising given that most of Kandel’s life has been spent in research labs.
There’s one anecdote that has nothing to do with science or academia, where Kandel describes his first date with his future wife, which properly cracked me up. According to Kandel, she resisted his advances initially, though eventually consented to go out on a date with him. When he picked her up, he asked if she’d rather go to a movie or to the best bar in town and when she said she’d like to go to the best bar in town, he took her back to his apartment. What pluck! I love it.
Kandel writes of what it’s like to work in a lab beautifully, but one of the most striking passages describes Kandel's excitement and pleasure when he first began to conduct his own experiments. Despite the fact that Kandel was merely replicating Hodgkin and Huxley’s experiments recording the action potential in the large axon of the crayfish, his joy at discovering his results match those of his predecessors is so uplifting. I won’t explain it well, but there’s something about the thrill of setting off on one’s own, whether in a lab or elsewhere, that's so intoxicating. And there's something about seeing these same feelings mirrored in the experiences of another human being... I don't know. It's reassuring and strangely moving.
Having said that, Kandel also speaks very eloquently of the importance of mentors throughout his career. I suppose that I had mentors as an undergraduate, or at least professors I adored and who steered me down the academic path of no return. But since then, in both professional and professorial contexts, there’s been not one person who’s seemed to me anything like what a mentor ought to be. I’m not sure if this is because everyone’s now so concerned with personal gain, that the idea of passing on knowledge to the younger generation is anathema or if perhaps because the idea of mentoring is simply old fashioned. I don’t know, but I do find it sort of depressing that learning comes only from reading books or from that ancient art of screwing things up and learning from mistakes/experience. Not that I have anything against either, but I think it would be wonderful to have someone around who just, I don’t know, rocked your world a bit and pushed you on to brighter and bolder things. Pipe dreams… Anyway, the book is fantastic and I heartily recommend it: you’ll learn a lot about molecular neural science, but also about the fascinating life of an equally fascinating man.
Happily, I did more this weekend than just read an autobiography that made me feel all wistful and uninspired. I also learned how to change my inner tube when my tire (sorry Anglo folks: I refuse to spell tire, tyre. Icky) got its first ever puncture.
Thankfully, tire got said puncture just before we rocked up to this lovely little café in Hackney Wick, the Counter, so I was able to scoff a plateful of eggs florentine before getting my hands greasy.
Bikes fixed, we realised how close we were to the Olympic site and cycled over to check out the progress. I’m not sure why it’d taken me so long to have a nosey round (hello, cynicism!), but I’m glad I finally went to have a look, because it’s actually pretty rad.
Also pretty rad is the cinema that’s been erected on the petrol station where we had our feast back in July. Some seriously ambitious kids knocked up stadium-style seating, a silver curtain and a cinema screen which will be up through the middle of September. I’m actually amazed they pulled it off, but pull it off they did and it’s great fun. I’m a total sucker for this sort of thing: no massive corporation pulling a marketing scheme, no money-making scamming, just good, old-fashioned DIY architecture at its best.