Saturday, January 12, 2008


She got on the train at Princeton Junction. It was seven and already dark. She looked twenty seven. She smiled friendly and sat down next to me. There was a man asleep in the opposite seat. She leaned back in the seat and closed her eyes. The train departed, leaving behind the light of the station. Outside the window it was but emptiness. Except for the lamp posts that threw periodic patches of rolling brightness. The light rolled over her face, illuminating a transient and soft profile against the darkness all round us. Then it went away, and came again, and was gone. I dozed off.

When I woke up, she was reading. I knew then that she, like me, was a scientist, for she was reading the latest issue of Nature, the preeminent science weekly. I just read the same issue. I said to her that there was an amazing report in that issue that some people had managed to turn adult human cells into pluripotent stem cells. She paused her reading and looked at me for a second, without saying anything. Then she said yes, it was a real breakthrough. The ice was broken.

She was a Ph.D. student in the University of Pennsylvania, in the department of chemical engineering. She was writing her thesis on computer simulation of amyloid formation, and was visiting her collaborator in Princeton. She said it was quite boring. She felt that she was wasting her life doing things that she didn't believe in, while other people were doing great things like making stem cells out of human skin. She said that she went into science with illusions of grandeur, but all there seemed to be for her was mediocrity.

I assured her that it was fine. I told her that it could be mathematically proven that at least 90% of people wouldn't make it into the top 10%. I told her that research was just another profession, above all one should find a high-paying employer.

The train stopped, a few people at the far end of the car got off. But no one stirred near us.

She said that she had dreams of doing great science. She had ideas of unifying biology into a theoretical framework like physics. She had hoped to invent cure for a disease. But that was before graduate school. Now she only wanted to publish as many papers as she could, so that she could eventually find a faculty position in a decent school.

She said that these days the number of publications alone does not count. Nor does the quality of the science. What matters is where one publishes. You are nobody if you haven't published in Science or Nature. She had just submitted a paper to Science, after it was first rejected by Nature. If Science would reject it, she was going to try Cell, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Plos Biology, Physical Review Letters, Biophysical Journal, in that order.

"Last time my paper ended up in PRL. It is like a dumpster and pretty much publishes any biological paper written by physicists." She said. "This time I hope I can at least get into Plos Biology."

I told her that I had a paper initially submitted to Science but it ended up in American Journal of Physics. She laughed. She thought that I made up the name of the journal. I didn't.

We both felt that bitter irony. We doubt the scientific merit of our own work, therefore we seek vindication by trying to publish it in high-profile journals. We are content with the illusion of doing great science as long as others get the same illusion about us. We are happy fooling ourselves as long as we can fool others. There is no need for true greatness as long as we put up a great front.

We griped more about the status quo of science. We felt trapped.

Then for a minute we were both silent. We looked into each other's eyes and knew that we shared the same sadness, that we were tormented by the same self-pity of unfulfilled lives. Suddenly it was unbearable. Our sadness reflected in each other's eyes began to multiply, like a tortured soul standing between two mirrors. We both looked away. Then she turned to me and took my hand into hers. It should have surprised me but it didn't. It was company in shared misery. Our eyes met again, but in them lust had taken place of sadness. She kept her eyes open until our lips touched. She lead my hand onto her breasts and then let it go. I slided my hand underneath the bra and felt her flesh, pulsating with the movement of the train. Then her hand sought me. When she touched it, it answered. She leaned against me so that her body covered both our hands. My hand glided down her body and found her wetness. A moan. We breathed heavily. Crushing every sound of ours was the noise of the train. All around the train was emptiness. Except for the lamp posts that threw fleeting patches of light over us. Sometimes her hand halted, withdrew, hesitated, afraid, expectant. Then it came back. Her grip tightened as I tapped her intensifying wetness. Then the train stopped. More people got off the train. The conductor walked through the aisle. Her body left mine. We knew it was over. The sorrow had returned to us, the sorrow of feeling cheated by our circumstances, the sorrow of missed lives that could have been. More stops in endless emptiness. We pretended to sleep. When the train arrived in Philadelphia we parted like strangers.