On Robert Harris (Imperium, The Ghost)

I just read a good novel by Robert Harris “Imperium” about Cicero so I was curious when I saw him on Andrew Marr’s show this Sunday. As usual, the artist did not live up to the expectations as a human.
1) He thinks that democracy was “an interlude” and not a natural/aspiring state of humanity. First “they”* said that democracy wasn’t right for the Middle East and Russia, now they are waiting for the dictatorship to be rolled out everywhere.
2) Robert Harris wrote a thriller “The Ghost” that was adapted for a film, The Ghost Writer, a passable thriller starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan and directed by Roman Polanski. When asked about his thoughts about Polansky’s conviction for having sex with a 13-year-old (after 4’5” in the clip). Harris said: “I don’t see why I should change MY position [regarding Polanski] because the fashion’s changed”.
I could have understood any excuse, for example, “these were different times” (they were). But to think that just as Harris is calmly predicting the death of democracy, he is also waiting for the return of society’s acceptance of grown men having sex with underage girls with impunity along with a return of the flared trousers.
The rule of   “What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for a bull” where Jove is a talented individual as accepted by his peers was written by the same grey-haired white men who keep their ranks closed against “the others” and then use the resulting Pantheon as a proof that the others cannot do anything of value.
I don’t think I’ll be reading his other books.
*The Establishment that contains 95% of grey-haired white men

Girls, don’t cry – an advice to the emotional scientists

My boss had a plague of crying females recently. First it was a BSc student, who started  weeping suddenly in his office because she felt that she wasn’t doing well in her project (the result: a 1st, which is the highest degree denomination in the UK and a successful application to a postgraduate studies degree). Then it was a first year PhD student: same reason, in everybody else’s opinion she was doing really well as confirmed by her first years report committee. Then an MSc student cried during her viva puzzling a female external examiner.

May be this is a specific British problem, contrary to the legend about the stiff upper lip? However, Dr. Lise Eliot, an Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science wrote in her excellent book “Pink Brain, Blue Brain” how she broke down in her supervisor’s office.

I wholeheartedly agree with her advice, which is simple – do not do it. Your supervisor is not here to hold your hand and help you in a research-related distress; your lab is a professional environment.

Of course, nothing extraordinary happens if you do cry. But do consider that you make your supervisor uncomfortable. Your crying ever so slightly decreases chances of a high professional estimate of females in general and you in particular, as I never yet heard about a male scientist crying while sober in his supervisor’s office. Given the same qualifications of a female and male candidate, this reputation of the emotional instability can tip the balance.

Personally, I find that crying in a locked cubicle of an otherwise empty bathroom is much more satisfactory. Additionally, as all the above examples show, there was no real reason for crying, all these people were doing well at their respective career stages.

Perhaps, it is better to ask for a frank appraisal of your progress before crying, not after. In addition, if you feel tears coming you can excuse yourself and leave the office.  Excluding sociopaths, we all feel sometimes like frauds and hopeless cases, even J. Watson of the double helix had had his moments of doubt in his abilities.

Onward and forward, colleagues!


  1. Eliott. Pink Brain, Blue Brain: How Small Differences Grow into Troublesome Gaps and What We Can Do About It (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009).

2. James D. Watson, The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA (1968), Atheneum, 1980, ISBN 0-689-70602-2