Classon: Learning from scientists

Carrie Classon
Carrie Classon

My husband, Peter, and I just spent a couple of days staying with our scientist friends.

I’ve honestly never had scientist friends before, so there is a lot to learn. One of our scientist friends, Wolfgang, is responsible for filling the ice cube trays (which is my job at home) but seeing a scientist do it made me feel like a rank amateur. If there was competitive ice cube tray filling, Wolfgang would be in the elite ranking and I would not have made the preliminaries.

“What is he doing?” I whispered to Mary, Wolfgang’s scientist wife.

“He’s checking to see if the meniscus is even on all the cubes,” she told me.

I tried to look as if I understood. I failed.

“You know, the curvature of the water caused by surface tension.”

“Uh huh,” I answered, appreciatively.

This was impressive for so many reasons. First of all, if I get some water in each of the trays without spilling too much on the counter, I call it a good day. Secondly, I got a thrill just knowing I had a friend who used the word “meniscus” in a sentence – even if she did feel the need to define it for me.

The great thing about Wolfgang is that if you mentioned that, just perhaps, the ice cubes did not need perfectly matched menisci, (now I even know the plural of meniscus! I can literally feel my brain expanding!) Wolfgang would immediately agree. He does it because he is curious. What will happen when they freeze? Suddenly, I wanted to know, too.

After the ice cube adventure, we went on a hike. Going on a hike with scientists means learning the proper names of flora and fauna, as opposed to what Peter and I do – which is just make stuff up.

“There are a lot of toilet paper tube plants along the trail this year,” Peter will remark, and I know exactly what plant he’s talking about.

“They’re not actually called that,” I inform him.

“What are they called?” he asks.

“I don’t know.”

So, they remain “Toilet Paper Tube Plants” in the Carrie and Peter Lexicon, although there is undoubtedly an interesting name for them that we are simply too lazy to look up.

Wolfgang and Mary would never do this. They would want to know what the plant was really called and, on the way to discovering its name, they would learn something interesting about the Toilet Paper Tube Plant that we would never have suspected. I love how scientists make sense of a seemingly disordered world.

But the world is full of ridiculous acts of randomness that defy logical explanation, and this is probably my favorite thing about scientists. Even better than observing the meniscus of an ice cube or looking up a proper name instead of just making one up, I love how scientists seem to appreciate the absurd more than anyone else.

Because there is no scientific model to explain why a bird would decide to poop on Wolfgang’s head (not once but repeatedly!) when no one else was hit. And yet it happened. And that is hilarious – especially if you’re a scientist.

I will never think like a scientist. I will never be as curious or as diligent or as patient. But it is lovely to know people like them. It might even inspire me to a be a bit more curious myself.

As a matter of fact, I’ve decided I’m going to look up the Toilet Paper Tube Plant and see what it’s really called … someday soon.

• Carrie Classon’s memoir, “Blue Yarn: A Memoir About Loss, Letting Go, & What Happens Next,” was just released. It is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other fine stores. Learn more at

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