I arrive in Boston tired after a long journey from Guildford, via Woking, Heathrow and a nice chat on the plane with Ryan, a undergraduate physics student at Brown University (which has recently entered the public consciousness in the UK, it being the choice of Harry Potter actress Emma Watson). We have a long chat about genetics (he’s reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene) the Large Hadron Collider (he’s not a big fan, saying that the money spent on it could have funded thousands of other labs globally) and what to call meals when your flying between timezones. We can’t decide whether it’s ‘Linner’ or ‘Dunch’. Thinking about the LHC, its current ‘out of operation’ status is something of an embarassment all round, not least I suspect for the person who had to make the phonecall to all the funders… ‘What do you mean it’s the parts and the labour?!’
Hungry, I find a seafood bar near my hotel, where I’m rewarded with a cool beer and the hugest starter I’ve witnessed, well, since the last time I was in the US. Even in these first few hours Boston reveals itself to be a town that values intellect. My waitress is training to be a pychotherapist after quitting her job as a producer at ABC and I chat to senior couple (childhood sweethearts) one of whom worked on Byte magazine, which was something of a sacred text for computer geeks everywhere in the late 70s. Before going to bed I e-mail my article about the psychology of humour to The Telegraph and note with amusement that they’ve let me have my gags about Ed Milliband (Labour) and Lembit Opik (Liberal Democrat) but have removed my suggestion that Tory’s get caught naked more often than representatives of other political parties. Hmmm. I’ll refrain from wondering what this says about The Telegraph’s sense of humour.
A jet-lagged inspired early rise the next day sees me set of to explore Boston, which is deserted. I put this down to the early hour but it stays ominously quiet. Outside the MIT media lab (where I’ll interview Cynthia Breazeal on Wednesday) I meet a grumpy PhD who explains it’s a national holiday, ‘Labor Day’ (like William Shatner, a Canadian import). He’s not happy, explaining he’s left completing his doctoral dissertation a little late, hence having to work on a holiday that traditionally marks the end of summer for US citizens.
The day warms into one of pure summery goodness (if this is the last day of summer it’s going out on a high) and I walk and walk and walk. All in all I’m out for 8 hours, and walking for 7 of them. In the Public Gardens I stumble on a large demonstration in support of President Obama’s proposed health reforms. It’s interesting to think that while I’m here I’ll be meeting scientists that may make many of the conditions that these demonstrators believe need legislative reform to provide equitable treatment a thing of the past. Indeed, my research on the genomics revolution shows it has the potential to drastically reduce the healthcare burden in all societies… but as ever politics will need to play its part. Let’s hope it’s an equitable one. Genomics has applications in reducing the cost of health care but also raises the ugly spectre of insurance firms turning you down for cover based on a risk-assessment of your genome.
I chat to a few of the demonstrators and ask why they think some people are anti-reform. A few mention the worry it’s ‘socialism by the back door’. In America it seems anything that might have the word ‘socialist’ attached to it is treated like one of the ugly tumours genetic medicine may banish. It strikes me as sad that the word has become devalued by misinterpretation, like ‘feminism’ seems to have and, to a certain extent, ‘optimism’. One thing that is bothering me is that everyone I speak to asks me where in Australia I’m from.
Boston is a city built on learning. You can’t move for college campuses. I wander to Harvard Medical School, where I’ll interview Professor of Genetics George Church on Friday and feel slightly awed by how important the building on 77 Louis Pasteur Avenue is in relation to the future of medicine and synthetic biology.
Today, by contrast, was a research day, reading up on sociable robots… and comedy clubs in the city. I’ve scored a gig tomorrow night at Mottley’s Comedy Club which should be fun, my first gig in the states…
I’ve just stayed up to do an interview on BBC Radio Wales about the psychology of humour, it’s 1:40am. Time for bed.