Thursday, July 12, 2012 • 6:16 PM Post a Comment

Mea culpa

posted by Caleb Rounds

Most scientists cling to the passive voice in the belief that it makes their writing more objective sounding. I've worked with a frequently mad scientist who believes he is one of the finer writers in the field. He contends that scientific authors should use active verbs to describe the work of the paper’s author (often the professor) and passive verbs to describe the work of the poorly-paid experimentalists (usually graduate students and postdocs). We really don’t need Karl to help us with a Marxist interpretation of that do we?

I find myself wanting to invoke the passive voice this week because, well, mistakes were made: probably by a graduate student. I purchased dry beans at a garden center named after a town across the river. I read the packets, but most dry beans grow with a “bush” habit and I must have missed the fine print. These are pole beans. I planted two long rows and happily watched them germinate and grow. About a week and a half ago I noticed that the leading stem of the plants seemed to be reaching for the sky. Disturbing. I tried ignoring them. Perhaps, I thought, they’d go back to normal if I didn’t pay them any attention.



I tried thinking positive thoughts and I tried lecturing the plants. Often lectures induce a catatonic state, so I figured it might work with plants. No luck. After a week or so I gave in and bought some trellis netting. Sounds easy, but I had to visit several stores before I gave up and headed to the Home Despot (I did try two local stores). Now I’ve belatedly set up a trellis system. We’ll see how that goes. I predict disaster. My family will probably starve.


Speaking of starvation, some poor cultural practices that were chosen (passively) have led to a fungal infection in my potato crop. I noticed a plant that looked a bit wilty and got worried. I poked around and found its lower stem felt slimey. A bad sign. A famed potato blight 160 years ago forced many Irish people to move to Boston. I don’t want to move to Boston!

I eliminated all the plants that looked blighted, netting a pile of tiny potatoes. The harvest won’t keep my family though the winter, but I do have some plants left. I wish I had someone to blame for this. If only I had graduate students, I could yell at them, “you couldn’t predict this? you didn’t work on Sunday? I don’t pay you to have a life!” Sadly, I have no one to blame but myself: I planted the potatoes too close together then failed to hill more soil onto them as they grew. My potatoes were too tall and too close together. Air couldn’t circulate through so when the stems got wet, the wet and dark-loving fungus moved in.

I will know next year to actively read the seed packets and plant the potatoes more carefully. No more passive gardening for me.


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