Pretentious, moi? Literary quotes in science

The most important thing to consider as a PhD student writing up is, of course – I’m sure we’d all agree – what quotes you plan to use in order to show of to your examiners just how cultured and well-read you are. A decade and more after submitting my thesis, I’m still proud of my selections, feeling they tick both boxes. (I will leave it to you to decide whether they also tick a third, ‘pretentious git’.) Having finally, reluctantly come around to the fact that the total number of people ever to have read my masterwork is unlikely to increase any time soon, I thought I’d share them with you here. First thing to note: I took this quote selection process very seriously (as is right and proper) and started noting down potential candidates fairly early in my PhD. I was determined to avoid anything commonplace, and in particular steered well clear of quotation dictionaries. Also – I only now realise – it never really occurred to me to quote a scientist, still less a scientific paper. I guess I thought that side of me would be well represented throughout the rest of my work, and I wanted these choice quotes to reflect instead my more arty, sophisticated, fancy-cocktail-and-complicated-music sensibilities.

I also need to give some context. I spent my PhD studying the phenomenon of rarity. Rarity is common: most species are extremely restricted both in terms of numbers of individuals and spatial distribution. What are the causes and consequences of this? In particular, I was interested in whether rare species are in any sense special – for instance, do their biological characteristics differ consistently from those of common species? So throughout my studies I was on red alert for any interesting use of the word ‘rare’, and especially anything that carried connotations of oddity arising as a function of being rare.

The perfect quote finally arrived in the cinema, as I was watching Terry Gilliam’s masterful interpretation of the great Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I had no notebook, no pen; however, I knew I had the novel at home so simply had to re-read it (always a pleasure) to find the quote, no? No. Turns out it’s not in the book; so I bought the VHS (OK, OK: I'm old) when it came out and watched it, finger poised over the pause button (and rewinding several times to make sure I’d interpreted Johnny Depp’s drawl perfectly) until I grabbed the quote:

There he goes, one of God’s own prototypes – a high-powered mutant of some kind never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, too rare to die. Raoul Duke, Doctor of Journalism, of his Attorney

The rather odd attribution was because I was unsure if it was a Thompson original, or directly from Gilliam’s sceenplay, so I stuck with the character names. Only later did I find the original source, in The Great Shark Hunt, a collection of Thompson’s writing, where he uses it to describe his (HST, Doctor of Journalism, alter-ego: Raoul Duke) real-(if larger-than)-life attorney, Oscar Zeta Acosta.

So that was all nice and relevant to the topic of my thesis, but how should I demonstrate the true depth of my intellectual facilities? Being a bit of a francophile, I thought I should have something in French; and who better to quote than Enlightenment poster-boy Voltaire? But I didn’t want anything run-of-the-mill – nothing from Candide, say. Fortunately, I’d read a collection of Voltaire’s work, and came across this from Memnon to start my introduction:

Memnon conçut un jour le projet insensé d’être parfaitement sage. Il n’y a guère d’hommes à qui cette folie n’ait quelquefois passé par la tête. Voltaire, Memnon (ou la sagesse humaine), 1747

My French is far rustier these days, but a (very) loose translation is something like, “One day Memnon came up with the ludicrous plan of becoming perfectly wise. There are few men to whom this mad idea has not occurred, from time to time.” Seemed somehow apt.

Finally, I needed something to start the general discussion. My thesis was rather a rambling affair (the first comment of my external examiner was, “Tell me, why did you decide to write two theses…?”), and I found a gem in Francis Wheen’s terrific biography of Karl Marx. I was not trying to make a political point – although it’s hard to disagree with the sentiment of ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ – but through Wheen’s book I had become quite fond of Marx the fallible man, especially the contradictions between his socialist ideas and his own rather upwardly-mobile social pretensions. He was quite the procrastinator too, and as a writer nearing the end of this major project, my PhD thesis – and freshly out of funding and relying on benefits and the generosity of friends – I certainly empathised with the sentiment expressed here:

The material I am working on is so damnably involved… but for all that, for all that, the thing is rapidly approaching completion. There comes a time when one has forcibly to break off. Marx, letter to Joseph Weydemeyer, 1851

I have never really stopped struggling with this. (Neither did Marx: it took a further 16 years after he wrote the above for the first volume of Das Kapital actually to appear…) Knowing when to finish something, to submit and move on, is not my greatest strength. Perhaps this is the place.