Love in the Lab

June 18, 2015
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Kerfuffle. Brouhaha, contretemps, a wrangle, rumpus, melee, a ruckus, a to-do. It is curious that some of the best words in the English language describe a commotion, a disturbance, a fuss. My big American Heritage dictionary, published in 2000, strangely does not include the word. But the online Oxford English Dictionary traces its origin to the early 19th century Gaelic “curfuffle” with the first syllable meaning twist or bend, while the ending used the Scots word “fuffle,” signifying disorder.

Kerfuffle has a light touch. A Boston Globe writer used it to describe the mayor’s aide bullying the president of the Boston Public Library at a public meeting for something she didn’t do. But that’s not the right usage. A kerfuffle must have more humor in it, more wonder, maybe a bit of irony. It’s not mean-spirited.

So I was happy to read about the outcry over comments about women scientists by Tim Hunt, a British biochemist with a Nobel Prize. The New York Times quoted him: “Three things happen when [women] are in the lab: You fall in love with them. They fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry.”

It was then that, in another wonderful English language phrase, the shit hit the fan.

According to the Times, one female professor wrote: “Dear department: please note I will be unable to chair the 10 am meeting this morning because I am too busy swooning and crying #TimHunt.” Etc. The backlash was as funny as the comments.

Then Mr. Hunt said more things that got him more in trouble, and he resigned from the faculty of University College London.

But I sort of thought he was wonderful. (Another trait women are accused of—a man supposedly wouldn’t hedge with the words “sort of.”)

When I read his words, I liked them. Working in a lab together. Falling in love. Sounds good to me. I love working with my husband—he’s smart, he holds up his end and he gets things done. If I we knew how to work in a lab it would be lovely. We could cuddle without having to commute. (In fact, I know a married couple working in a lab together. I don’t know how they met, but there is a good chance they fell in love in a lab.)

Falling in love sounds better than what I imagine would really be going on in such labs—infighting, competition, subterfuge such as ruining another lab workers’ experiment.

I know that falling in love with one’s co-worker is fraught with all kinds of concerns about professionalism, yada, yada, yada. But people do it all the time, maybe even most of the time. And isn’t “what the world needs now is love, sweet love? It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” We need to lighten up on love.

We also need to lighten up on crying. I can attest that I cry more than the men in my life do. My daughters, my sister and my sister-in-law, all professional women, don’t cry much, but they do so more than their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons. Sometimes it gets you somewhere. Remember when Hillary Clinton shed a tear that helped her win the New Hampshire primary?

Pity women like Hillary. If they don’t cry, they are cold. If they do, they are weak. Can’t we let women cry if they want to? And while we’re at it, let men shed a tear too.

The only place I disagree with Nobel Prize-winning Hunt is that love and crying should keep women out of labs. No. We should instead learn to love that love is in labs—and law firms and hospitals and venture capital firms and retail shops and construction sites. Mr. Hunt has described a heterosexual problem. But now that gays and lesbians are finally welcome everywhere, a man falling in love with a woman is only one of the kinds of people men can fall for. So it’s not women, but it is love we must learn to handle.

As for crying? Mr. Hunt, it’s okay. If you’re not bullying, just criticizing, your words may make the crying woman a better scientist, and she’ll be happy about it later.

Mr. Hunt was mocked, but he actually sounds like a good man. Women fell in love with him and he with them. Not bad for a lifetime. He had empathy for the women he criticized and didn’t like to see them cry.

            Maybe I wrote this whole thing just because I wanted to use the word “kerfuffle.”

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