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Namnezia

Namnezia is a neuroscientist working as an assistant professor at a university in the Northeastern United States. This blog will feature selected, science-based cross-postings originally appearing in my regular blog, "Take it to the Bridge" on Wordpress. For more about my life in life sciences and in academia, please head on over to my regular blog. Hope you enjoy!

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

So I was asked the question: what would you be doing if you were not doing science?

This is tricky, because you can answer this in a couple of different ways. One is, if I were to quit science now, what would I do? The second is, if I had taken an alternative path what would it have been? The first is somewhat scary to answer, because honestly, I have no fucking idea. I'm sure I'd come up with something, but I'm not sure what. The second is far more fun to answer - and that's the one I'll answer here.

To me, the obvious answer would be to become… an archaeologist! Although my wife kindly pointed out that archaeology IS a science; but it's different enough from what I do, so it still counts. Growing up in Mexico City I was always fascinated by the fact that buried literally beneath my feet was a whole ancient civilization. That you could basically dig a deep enough hole and you would find evidence of this, just there, in the ground. Some subway stations even have pyramids inside them. I was obsessed with the National Anthropology Museum, one of the largest in the world, which houses artifacts from every important archaeological dig in Mexico, laying out all the different pre-columbian cultures in chronological order from the Olmecs all the way to the Aztecs. I made my mother take me there over and over again until I had the ginormous museum memorized - I knew the difference between the Toltects and the Chichimecas, the Mayans and the Zapotecs. I could tell their different artistic styles apart and had my favorite pieces. I was an archaeology geek. My favorite piece was the "Luchador Olmeca":

Luchador Olmeca - the the kickingest piece in the anthropology museum.

It was made by one of the oldest civilizations in Mexico and I liked it because it was so different from the others - it looked so modern as opposed to the highly stylized pieces around it. It also helped that it was on its own little alcove with a spotlight on it. But then again the jade Mayan mask was in its own little tunnel, and I still like the Olmec warrior more. I also dragged my mom to see every archaeological site within driving distance from Mexico City - the giant pyramids in Teotihuacán, the human-like pillars in Tula, and the pyramid of Cholula, near Puebla, which has a church built on top of it, and you can visit both the pyramid and the church. The pyramid also has these long tunnels carved into it so you can see the inside.

When I was a kid, at some point some utility workers discovered the ruins of the main Aztec temple, the templo mayor, in the center of Mexico City, just off the Zócalo. Tenochtitlán was the capital of the Aztec empire, and the present day Mexico City is built right on top. So it was quite amazing that they found these ruins after so many years, probably because the buildings in the center of the city are old colonial buildings and are historic on their own, so they don't usually knock down buildings in the ceter of the city to see what's underneath. In any case it was incredibly cool to visit the archaeological dig right in the city and finally be able to visit the site once it was mostly completed. One of the highlights was a giant stone, which they called the stone of the moon, with an engraving of Coyoxautli, who was dismembered by her brother, the god Huitzilopochtli (the baby warrior), after she tried to kill their mother. I somehow convinced my third grade teacher to have the class put on a play about Coyoxautli - it was a hit, at least with the class, not sure about the parents. This came on the heels of having a class field trip to see the Templo Mayor and having the docent describe to us how the Aztecs would sacrifice prisoners atop of the temple and throw down the bodies down these stairs (which we were standing next to) and then proceed to make pozole from their dismembered bodies for the priests to eat. That kind of stuff will make anyone want to become an archaeologist.

Another cool thing about the Templo Mayor is that you get to see what would have been inside the pyramid. Many pre-columbian cultures had a belief that the world would renew every 52 years. So they would bury all the old pyramids and temples and build new ones on top of the old ones. So if you dig inside a pyramid you will like see the foundations of all the previous cycles that preceded it.  Again, a hidden civilization underneath the present one.

So there you have it - that's what I was sure I was going to study until pretty much high-school, when biology somehow became more interesting. I figured, biology is just as cool and I still get to dig holes in the ground and explore cool places, little did I know I'd end up in a field where no fieldwork is required. I really like what I currently do, and am as enthusiastic about my current work as I was into archaeology, but I have to admit that I am jealous of colleagues who get to do field work. It would be a nice break from the lab and office. For the last few summers I've spent a few weeks at a time teaching part of a course at the Marine Biological Lab at Woods Hole. And just walking through town I'm always longingly looking at the research vessels from the Oceanographic Institute getting outfitted for different trips, being loaded up with all sorts of scuba gear and little submarines and all sorts of sensors and radars mounted on top, and I think, wow... I want to do that!

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Thomas Joseph
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When I went to Mexico (Playa del Carmen), I visited Tulum. My favoritest picture I've ever taken was from there (it hangs in my office to this day), and I was fascinated with the whole site. Archaeology is indeed a great field.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great Post!  I'm really jealous of your upbringing.  I bet it was a lot like being a young Indiana Jones exploring all of those amazing historical places.  We didn't have anything cool like that in the Chicago suburbs :(


Nikkilina
Washington University School of Medicine
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I don't think I would have the patience that the field requires. I can't imagine sifting dirt for hours, but I really love to look at the artifacts once they're out of the ground.


Evie
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That is soo cool!! You've inspired me to go visit Mexico. I too love archaeology, it is fascinating stuff!


Jason Goldman
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When I was a kid, there was definitely a period when I wanted to BE Indiana Jones (not be *like* him, mind you, but *be* him.) I'm kind of jealous that you lived so close to those archaeological sites.


Evie
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Yea, I'm jealous of that too, I wish I was exposed to more of that cool stuff. We had some ancient roman bath houses and of course the ruins in Jerusalem, some old jaffa, but I get the feeling the Mexico stuff is far more fun n exciting..


Namnezia
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Evie said:

Yea, I'm jealous of that too, I wish I was exposed to more of that cool stuff. We had some ancient roman bath houses and of course the ruins in Jerusalem, some old jaffa, but I get the feeling the Mexico stuff is far more fun n exciting..

Are you kidding!? If you grew up in Israel, you were in one of the most archaeologically rich places in the world! And it's not even buried in the ground - there it is, all above ground, all mixed together over millennia. I've never had a chance to visit, but I'd totally want to go... Now I'm jealous. I can understand complaining about the Chicago suburbs, but ISRAEL!?! Plus you can go to Egypt, Jordan, Turkey...


Evie
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There really aren't that many sites that you can visit. Most of the stuff in Jerusalem, other than the major religious places, are closed off to the public. The roman ones in Caesarea are my fav, but that's something you can see in a few hours. Growing up Egypt/Jordan were not exactly friendly places. My parents never let me go Egypt. In fact it wasn't till 93 when we even signed a peace accord w Jordan. Turkey was never on the list, as you would need a plane to get there, and if you're already taking a plane somewhere, the only justifiable money expenditure would be to visit family.. So none of that was a viable option. During my mandatory military service, which was the first time I made my own money, and could conceivably go anywhere, you are NOT allowed out of the country. And when that was done I moved to the US. I imagine getting to the ruins near your home was far less dangerous and probably less of a hassle. There is a lot of cool stuff here, a lot of it is at museums that I did frequent when I was a kid, still, maybe I'm wrong, but it feels like there would be more of an exciting feel to the stuff you were around. Perhaps when you make it to Israel, you can compare and tell me what you think.


JanedeLartigue
UC Davis
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I love the idea of utility workers discovering ancient ruins!

One of my favourite comedians (Eddie Izzard) does a sketch about archaeology and jokes that "we've spent hours painstakingly brushing away dirt with a toothbrush and have discovered...a series of small walls...and we think this means they had walls in olden days!"

Very funny, and maybe sometimes true, but I still think archaeology is fascinating stuff, delving into the lives of ancient people and finding they were just people, much like us!  My mum went back to school to study archaeology after my brother and I left home and worked on an old Roman dig near our home (I'm lucky enough to come from England where there is also archaeology - though of a very different kind - aplenty).  I helped her study and was sorely tempted to give up my degree and follow in her footsteps!  At that point in my life the question was did I want to be a female Indiana Jones or a female David Attenborough, and Dave won out, though like you I somehow ended up veering down a path away from field work and animal behaviour studies in my degree and into the lab to watch cells mitose.  Still pretty cool though!

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