Experimental Error: Nobel Gas

Adam Rubin in Science:

Anobel I'm not good at meeting celebrities. I don't just mean the time I narrowly missed shaking hands with Judd Hirsch because my girlfriend had to use the bathroom, which still makes me a little angry every time I think about it. I mostly mean that the few times I've met famous people, my brain has locked up and I couldn't make normal conversation. Case in point: The summer before college, I met then-President Bill Clinton. He said, “Nice to meet you,” and I replied with the same. Then he asked where I was going to go to college, and instead of saying “Princeton,” I said, “Uh … I forget.” I think I even gave him a look that said, “Come on, help me think of the name of this place. Surely you've at least got a good guess — you're the president!” And that was the whole encounter. Which is why, when I learned that I would meet Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn (physiology or medicine, 2009), I had nightmares that she'd ask, “How are you?” and I'd reply, “Balloons.”

So I familiarized myself with the work that earned her the Nobel Prize: her co-discovery of telomerase, the enzyme that elongates telomeres within cells. But when we finally met, Dr. Blackburn threw me a curveball. Before I could say any of the intelligent scientific things I'd rehearsed, she told me that she'd read my book, which immediately filled me with shame, because my book is a comical guide to stealing free food in graduate school. I wondered whether I had negatively influenced the future of science by stealing time from a brilliant researcher, time she could have otherwise used to cure cancer. I imagined having to apologize to the world's cancer patients: “Sorry, guys. I know you were hoping for a cure, but I distracted the scientist who was your best hope with jokes about muffins.” Dr. Blackburn enjoyed the book, or at least she was nice enough to lie about it. “You're a very good writer,” she said, and that's exactly when my brain locked up. Knowing, at a primal level, that I ought to answer a compliment with a compliment, I said, “Thanks. You're … very good … at, uh, learning about … telomeres.” Then, following an awkward silence during which I realized I'd possibly just made the stupidest comment Dr. Blackburn had ever heard, someone else called her away to another part of the room.

More here.