In science, no work is completed until it has been picked to pieces

Dangerous dithering.

What does a scientist have to do to convince you? The answer used to be “wait until his critics die” – hence the physicist Max Planck’s assertion that science advances one funeral at a time.

But sometimes even that is not enough. Late last month, the smell researcher Luca Turin published striking new evidence supporting an idea first put forward by Sir Malcolm Dyson in 1938. Dyson presented his “vibrational” theory of how our sense of smell works to universal apathy. Three generations later, scientists are still saying “meh”.

That year, 1938, was also when it was first argued that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. The idea came from the steam engineer Guy Stewart Callendar; the broad response was “implausible”. Today, in 2013, scientists have shifted: they generally agree that Callendar was right. Yet there remains a dangerous level of disagreement about the detail.

At least Turin’s scientific peers have presented him with a clear path to follow. Dyson’s idea was that when a molecule gets up our nose, its characteristic smell is created by the way the bonds within that molecule vibrate. In a clever piece of experimental work, Turin has shown that human beings can distinguish between two molecules that differ only in the way they vibrate. The two molecules tested were both cyclopentadecanone, but while one contained normal hydrogen atoms the other contained “deuterated” hydrogen, which has an added neutron in its atomic nucleus. The additional particle creates a difference in the way the molecules vibrate. And that is why, according to Turin, they smell different to us.

The experiment punches a hole in the accepted theory of smell, which says that smell experiences are triggered by differently shaped molecules fitting different receptors in the nose. This “lock and key” idea can’t explain why two identically shaped molecules smell different. But Turin’s critics said last month that before they will even consider accepting his theory, they want him to show exactly what goes on in human smell receptors.

They are right to make such demands. This is science, where no work is finished until it has been picked to pieces. But that is exactly why it has been so easy to do so little about climate change since 1938. Later this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will make some highly equivocal, backtracking announcements. In a report due for release in December, the IPCC will concede that we can’t be sure tropical cyclones will become more frequent, or that droughts will get worse. Worries that the Gulf Stream will collapse, tentatively raised in the 2007 IPCC report, are allayed: such an event is “unlikely” to occur in the foreseeable future.

Concern over details can have an unhelpful effect, masking the big picture on climate change – the one that Nicholas Stern, who wrote the UK government’s 2006 review on the science, said at Davos last month is “far, far worse” than we were led to believe originally. Until that, rather than the detail, becomes the focus, we can continue to dither over whether to do anything, let alone deciding what course we might take.

It does not matter a great deal that no one is willing to risk his career by backing Luca Turin – but to wait for absolute certainty over the details of climate change before we do anything about it will spell life or death for many. If science continues to advance one funeral at a time, its acceleration is assured; and there will be no shortage of funerals in a world that’s 4° warmer.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Assange Alone

Maggie Goldenberger
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Living the Meme: What happened to the Ermahgerd girl?

Four years after going viral, Maggie Goldenberger reveals what it was like for her childhood photo to become a meme.

Maggie Goldenberger is not the Ermahgerd girl, not really. Although she is the star of the four-year-old meme of an awkward tween girl holding up her favourite Goosebumps books, she was actually in costume at the time.

“I was in like sixth grade [year seven] maybe, and I’d always dress up and take photos with my friends,” she says. “I don’t feel that offended by it [becoming a meme] or feel that embarrassed by it, because I was just messing around.”

Now 29, Maggie is video-calling me from her home in Phoenix, Arizona, where she works as a cardiac nurse. Although she was 11 or 12 in the now internationally famous picture, it only went viral when she was 25 and on a six-month-long travelling trip. The image spread across the internet and was quickly captioned phonetically to imitate a speech impediment, and thus a rhotacised pronunciation of “Oh my God” was born. “Ermahgerd,” an internet user emblazoned the image, “Gersberms!”

If you’re not exactly sure what that means, you’re not alone. Maggie’s mother, although immediately proud of her daughter’s new-found fame, was a little bemused by the internet’s captions. Maggie tells me her mother, “had the picture up in her office and she thought it was hilarious. But she kept telling me like: ‘Maggie! They’re putting all this German writing all over your picture! What’s going on!’

“She didn’t quite understand it but she loved it.”

Like her mother, Maggie didn’t immediately comprehend her new online fame. She is happy to share her story, and laughs about it, but admits she still doesn’t really “get” the meme. “I’m even more confused about it now than I was then,” she says. “I kind of got like the novelty of it and it being fun but I don’t understand how it’s lasted so long.”

It is this confusion that means that Maggie, unlike most of the memes I have spoken to, has not made much money from her viral fame. “It’s hard for me to get behind something that I don’t understand,” she says when I ask if she ever considered releasing merchandise. “Also if I’m gonna make shirts I wanted them to be like fair trade, organic . . . and it just seemed like a lot going on, like the responsibility of it.”

Though Maggie could potentially have made thousands of dollars, not cultivating her online fame means that she is now able to live a relatively normal life. Most people don’t recognise her from the image, although word-of-mouth does mean that sometimes strangers approach her to take a picture. Maggie doesn’t mind this, but she is annoyed when people won’t reveal why they want a picture with her. “Then I’ll just find out a couple weeks into knowing them that they know about [the meme],” she says, “and I’m like, oh, just say it upfront.”

Yet while Maggie has never been embarrassed of Ermahgerd girl, she did get a taste of the darker side of internet fame when her friend’s brother uploaded a more recent photo of her, in a bikini, to Reddit, and revealed in his post that she was lesbian.

“I could finally feel for other people like in those tabloid magazines,” she says. “I thought I was a pretty confident person, not that weird with my body and things, but to have someone put your photo out there without your knowledge and to have people sharing it and making ugly comments . . . it's kind of an ugly world out there.”

Although Maggie did not enjoy being exposed in this way, she says the best thing about becoming a meme was when Vanity Fair wrote a profile on her in 2015. “I was going through a break-up at the time and when it came out I was getting attention for that and it just took away attention from the big break-up, so that was good timing.”

Despite enjoying the renewed attention on that occassion, however, Maggie is generally very grounded, and says she doesn’t normally announce who she is when she meets new people. “I usually try and not say anything,” she says, when I ask if it affects her dating life. “I keep it on the DL.”

 



Via Maggie Goldenberger

In many ways it is fortunate that 29-year-old Maggie is detached enough from her Ermahgerd persona to be able to do this. “I try to feel for others that have their meme go viral and it's their real picture,” she says. “It was kind of weird that people were just making fun of a child without trying to figure out who the child was . . . I just don’t understand why people feel like it’s okay just because it's online and it's a stranger.”

For the future, then, Maggie says she is “still working” on embracing her meme status. She has no plans to cultivate it online or to make any money, and instead intends to do some travel nursing across the United States or potentially abroad. I ask her, if she could have been famous for anything else, instead of this, what would she choose?

“Initially I think like comedy,” she muses. “But then I think I should do something for the greater good.”

 “Living the Meme” is a series of articles exploring what happens to people after they go viral. Check out the previous articles here.

To suggest an interviewee for Living the Meme, contact Amelia on Twitter.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.