Writing samples

From The Music Teaching Project, an afterschool music program for District of Columbia public school students.  

From The Catalogue for Philanthropy: Solar Light for Africa

An article just submitted for magazine publication: The Hidden Disorder: The Psychophysiology of Hyperventilation

And here’s something I’m working on just for fun — I like stories about discoveries:


Article draft

Finding That Which You Do Not Seek:  A Dutch professor’s collection of serendipities.

You’re walking down the street to the mailbox, bundled envelopes in hand.  Abruptly, you stop short, nearly dropping your bundle: that basement storage problem you’d been wrestling with for weeks but had put aside as unsolvable – suddenly a blueprint for what to sort, where and how high to shelve, presents itself with a tah-dah! in front of  your mind’s eye. What serendipity! you think.

Well, maybe. We tend to call serendipitous those useful things that happen or those constructive thoughts that occur when we’re busy doing things or thinking thoughts unrelated to the notable thing or thought that, unbidden, just pops up.  Many of us are familiar with events in the realms of scientific, geographic, or technological discovery that would seem to fall under this rubric: Jenner’s discovery that injections with material from the blisters of cowpox-infected milkmaids prevented smallpox in those so injected.   Or Columbus’ bumping into a continent no one knew was there, much less was looking for. Or the seemingly dysfunctional glue that stuck but not forever and had been discarded by the 3M Company until some smart person there thought up Post-Its.

Pek Van Andel, a philosopher and social science researcher at the University of Oostersingel, The Netherlands, defines serendipity as the art of making an unsought finding.   Van Andel made a survey of serendipities, which he said fall into a multitude of patterns, or forms, within the domains of science, technology, art, and daily life.

Let’s consider Edward Jenner’s discovery of a vaccination for smallpox.  Van Andel and others before him would call this form of discovery an abduction (to be distinguished from induction and deduction, those two workhorses of the scientific method.)  With abduction, the observer observes a fact or facts that surprise, and then follows up with methods to poke and prod that fact or facts until a hypothesis purporting to explain it or them is established.

Jenner had noticed that cowpox-infected milkmaids of his late 1700’s Gloucestershire never got smallpox. He thought it might be an idea to take the oozy stuff from their pox blisters and inject it into several trusting, smallpox-fearing residents of the shire to see what would happen. As we now know, his results were salutary. The discovery of a prophylactic vaccination for smallpox, then, was entirely serendipitous. Jenner wasn’t looking for such a thing.  It isn’t clear that he was looking for anything at all. However, he found, through abduction, one of Van Andel’s unsought findings.

But what if he had been looking for something else and found the smallpox vaccine instead—would that have been serendipitous, too?  Or what if he’d been looking for a smallpox vaccine and found something else? The researchers at 3M were looking to create a more tenacious glue, they weren’t looking for Post-Its. Columbus was looking for India, but he found America instead. And many of us are the beneficiaries of pharmaceuticals found to work on our specific condition as a byproduct of research into other, very different conditions.

Van Andel says that Picasso’s famous blue period was a form of serendipity, too. Blue was the only color of paint the artist had one day; he became so intrigued by the possibilities inherent in blueness that he made an entire painterly epoch out of them.  This epoch seems to fall, along with the advent of the cigarette, into what Van Andel calls the serendipity pattern of scarcity (it seems that the cigarette was first improvised by a Sevillian beggar who fashioned them out of discarded cigar butts.)

Now, let’s get back to you and your serendipitous storage solution.  There’s a pattern that that Van Andel calls the forgetting hypothesis, which is probably the closest he gets to anything that feels Freudian.  We’ve all done things that would fit into this pattern, consciously or not.  We back off trying to figure something out, and then later on, without warning, we just get it.  This is rather like forgetting a name you should have remembered at a crucial moment, only to have it jump out at you an hour later when it no longer can do you any good.

Your basement storage solution will do you some good, though –provided that you can find a handy, reasonably-priced person who shows up at agreed-upon times to help you implement it. Now, that’s a science unto itself.