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Photos by Chris Svetlik

Words by Walmsley

The Big Shebang

Near the lawn where aliens landed in The Day the Earth Stood Still (the 1951 sci-fi cinematic masterpiece, not that Keanu Reaves rubbish remake), our great nation ushered in over this past weekend a New Age of Discovery with the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival. Yes, it would be a glorious display of technology and advancement with space-aged materials; groundbreaking gizmos; aeronautic achievements capable of soaring to the far reaches of the universe; robots with better personalities than your current friends; and Wicked Rhymes, The Science Rapper.

Having already forged together hip-hop and the periodic table of elements, how would this word alchemist manage to rhyme something with “neutron” – or, an even more momentous breakthrough, “algorithm?” I didn’t know and neither did Chris Svetlik, the photographer who’d accompanied me, but we boldly dared to wake up on a Saturday morning to find out.

Cue the trumpets…. bauuum… baauum…baaaum… BeDaaaaaaaaAHHHHHH… dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum.. dum….

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The Washington component of the national event features over 500 exhibits and four stages of performances spread out over The Mall, Freedom Plaza, Wilson Plaza and The National Museum of Natural History. In total, more than one million people are joining in this celebration, and on Saturday there is a visibly impressive turnout of nerds of all ages and parents who clearly don’t want their kids to ever be popular….What am I saying? Einstein has 633, 940 Facebook fans….I shouldn’t be so hard. Science, after all, can be sexy.

In fact, the performance at 11:30am in Wilson Plaza is titled “The Science Cheerleaders! ProCheerleaders-Turned-Scientists,” and I hypothesize that it will upstage “The Magic of Chemistry” display that is scheduled during the same time slot. But that’s just based on my rudimentary understanding of evolutionary biology.

I find Chris around 10am along 12th Street and he looks as if he’s been conducting experiments on the human liver until late last night. I’m sure I’ve also recently undergone significant genetic damage. Really, don’t the organizers of this event know that brain activity peaks after noon?

Soon we pass what looks like the front car of a monorail. Its broadside is emblazoned with the words, “Journey to the Center of the Lung.” Sounds dull to me, but a couple women standing nearby notice us holding a camera and a reporter’s notebook in our hands. They try to do a bit of PR for their organization, the COPD Foundation, which educates the public about chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

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“Sure, we’ll be right, back,” I say. “We’re just going to grab a smoke.”

Oh, I hear how they groan as we walk by….Cough, cough (serves me right).

Wait….over there – I think it’s them! I’ve spotted the flash of a rustling pom-pom and the glint of a picture-perfect smile….It’s the cheerleaders….Go! Go! Go! .

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We scurry after those sashaying bunches of blue-and-silver ribbons like lab rats with electrodes that are embedded in our tiny brains and zapping our frontal lobes.

Which way did they go? I shout at Chris. Did we lose them?

How, by Darwin, does a reporter misplace a gaggle of cheerleaders wearing hot shorts and sheer hosiery on a brisk autumn day amid a crowd of science geeks? Curse you, Copernican Revolution, this must be the work of the Dickens!

Chris can’t shake his post-binge stupor, but I’m going haywire. After all, these are no ordinary, run-of-the-mill cheerleaders who only have to offer the world corporeal perfection, acrobatic dance moves and an energetic disposition. These, these are “Science Cheerleaders,” that is professional cheerleaders who have balanced their high-splits pyramids with a heavy load of high-flying academics to spur on the conquests of humankind…AND…I…WANT…TO…GAZE…UPON…THEM!!!

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And then….suddenly standing merely a few fathoms away….radiates a phalanx of brainiac Amazons dressed like comic-book super-heroes. Oh, how I am melting like agar in a microwave!

Chris snaps away with his camera whilst I am reduced to a muttering hunchbacked lab assistant who feeds on live bugs. But by performing a bit of self-hypnosis, I am able to straighten out. I simply recall that time in high school when the captain of the cheerleading squad gave me “The Look” during a football game. If, that is, she wasn’t just zoning out or something. Nonetheless, I now introduce myself with typical aplomb. And, given these lovely ladies’ touted erudition, I seek to challenge them with a question of the utmost intellectual significance. Instead, however, I glance downward at their thin tights and ask, “Aren’t you cold?”

The cheerleader directly before me shakes her head and gives a half-cocked smirk to note that I am an idiot. Having empirically experienced her ability of keen, quick discernment, I should know that this war of wits is going to be a lop-sided slaughter. I also now recall the bio of the woman I am speaking with, as per the Science Cheerleader’s website.

“Regina graduated from college with a major in Molecular Biology and a minor in Chemistry. She won a scholarship from the National Institutes of Health to spend summers doing biomed research at Stanford and Yale. She was a Molecular Biologist at the National Institutes of Health researching the genes that cause rare skin diseases (she found a few and had papers published in Nature Genetics, Human Genetics and The Journal of Dermatological Science).  Then she went to law school at Georgetown University while she was a Redskins cheerleader (Georgetown rescheduled her final exams so she could participate in the swimsuit calendar photo shoot!)   Also during law school she competed in a few pageants and was 1st Runner-up to Miss D.C. USA. Oh, she’s licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia as well as the United States Supreme Court. She worked as a patent attorney until science called her back to medical school. She earned an M.D. and took up a surgery internship in Texas and now she’s putting it all together by earning a LL.M., an advanced law degree she plans to someday apply to a career in health law as in-house council at a hospital. She’s also an adjunct professor teaching anatomy and physiology to nursing students and has her sights set on competing in pageants and trying out for another professional team this year.”

Holy Darwin, this woman is the absolute paragon of our species – the glorious product of five billion years of natural selection!

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What am I to do?

I mean, my biggest achievement in learning has been completing one side of a Rubik’s Cube, and here she’s isolated genes and been given the nod to argue before the highest court in the land.

Clearly, I am not qualified to conduct these interviews. Where’s that “Science Friday” guy from NPR? Does he know about Brightest Young Things? Won’t he need a job when his station gets defunded by Congress?

I give up and wish the cheerleaders luck with their pirouettes and PhDs and look for a six-year-old I can still intimidate with my intellect. Somebody make me feel smart again! And get me a cup of coffee, while you’re at it – it’s cold out here and my legs are freezing.

I see a big parked trailer that looks warm and go on to enter these cramped quarters that are stocked with expensive equipment just waiting for someone to spill something on it. The exhibit, presented by the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network, for example, features a Retiga 4000R progressive-scan CCD camera attached to a low voltage electron microscope. I bet it would look neat on my desk. I wander around the trailer wondering how much of this stuff I can fit into my pockets. The room starts to fill up with parents and their children, and the lab technician decides it’s time to power up the toys and show the kids a thing or two about itty bitty things. He flicks on the microscope’s monitor and begins his spiel.

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An insect’s eye that’s been magnified a gazillion times pops up on the screen. The cluster of kids emits a chorus of oohs and ahs. Until, that is, one pipes up who looks like little-foster-child Joey Lawrence on Gimme a Break!

“But that’s not the future,” declares the pint-sized pundit with a bowl haircut. “Because the future doesn’t exist.”

What the hell does that even mean? What is he, a test tube baby made from a splice of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir? I’m old enough to be the boy’s estranged father and I still have to get someone smarter than me to explain existentialism. And yet here’s this mutant kid who just summed it up in a Zen koan. Even the six-year-olds have got more brains than me!

Fooey.

I decide to go back to give the women at “Journey to the Center of the Lung” more of a hard time. I may not be a lot of things, but at least I’ve got being a proper jerk down.

The two ladies are still standing in front of their shuttle or whatever it is, and they’ve also come prepared with a spiel. Miriam O’Day is the senior director of public policy at the foundation and her colleague Ifdy Perez is the assistant director of communications. Together, they do their best to parry my nonsense…

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PEREZ: “Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is one of the biggest killers in the country. The latest morbidity/mortality report from the CDC actually says that COPD is going to be the third leading cause of death by 2020.”

ME: So you’re excited then?

PEREZ: No, not really….Prevention is one of the biggest things. Eighty percent of people with COPD are smokers. So that’s why one of our biggest messages is to stop people from smoking.

CHRIS: This is like lung cancer, or something?

PEREZ: It includes chronic bronchitis, adult onset asthma, emphysema….

O’DAY: It’s an umbrella term for pulmonary diseases.

ME: Does that mean that you’re inflating the numbers by making up an umbrella term instead of being more specific? You’re not just trying to pump up the stats are you?

(They both look dumbfounded.)

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O’DAY: “No. What we really have done is we’ve rebranded emphysema. I mean….

ME: Wait, did emphysema have too good of a reputation?

O’DAY: Because we need to focus on the treatment and early diagnosis and positive health intervention. There’s a number of things you can do environmentally to lower risk factors, such as fix outdoor air pollution, indoor air pollution….

ME: This is probably a stupid question, but I think a lot of people wonder it: why can’t you clean out a person’s lungs? OK, let’s say I’ve got all of this tar and this asbestos and bad stuff that’s accumulated over years. Why can’t a doctor just go in there and kind of swab ‘em clean? Like their areolas or whatever they’re called.

PEREZ: You mean alveoli?

ME: Yes. That’s the ones.

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O’DAY: The problem is that the tissue dies. There’s no way you can regenerate lung tissue. There’s a lot of interventions you can have….So there are bronchial dilators that are available, and oxygen therapy is very effective and so is pulmonary rehabilitation exercises.

ME: Making the cells that still exist work better?

O’DAY: Yes, it’s maximizing what you already have but…

ME: Like ephedrine, for example?

O’DAY: Well, I’m not going to give you any brand-specific names, but there’s nothing that makes you regrow lung tissue. We don’t have a successful regenerative medicine yet.

ME: Not yet…But when you do then we can all go back to smoking, right? I mean we’ve all quit because everyone says smoking’s so bad and it’s going to kill you, but if you could regenerate lung tissue then everyone could always have a cigarette in their hands all the time like in the 1940s. Right?

O’DAY: Ah, I don’t know. Maybe.

ME: I mean there’s no reason not to. If you could regrow lung cells then I think we could all smoke.

O’DAY: Yeah, possibly. I don’t know.

ME: I’m recording this, you know? I’m going to quote you: ‘Yeah, possibly, I don’t know…’

PEREZ: Dot, dot, dot.

O’DAY: Who are you reporting for?

ME: Brightest Young Things.

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O’DAY: What are Brightest Young Things?

ME: What’s this thing anyway (pointing to the shuttle thingy behind me)?

CHRIS: What does it do?

O’DAY: It moves through…like…what’s that movie called where they went into the body?

ME: Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

O’DAY: With Raquel Welch…. …

ME: Journey to the Center of the….No

O’DAY: They start outside the atmosphere and then they go into the….

ME: The Incredible Journey! The Incredible Journey!

O’DAY: Yes, The Incredible Journey.

ME: How am I doing, folks?

PEREZ: Okay, I think.

O’DAY: So you go into the body and then you travel though the lung and then you get spit back out again. And it moves around as you’re going back and forth.

ME: So you would only check out my lung and ignore all of the other problems that I have?

PEREZ: Totally ignore them. We want nothing to do with anything else but your lungs.

O’DAY: Actually there are multiple co-morbidities with COPD. One of the ones a lot of people don’t think about is depression and anxiety.

ME: Because I get depressed after I don’t have a cigarette after a while…..

O’DAY: Not being able to breathe freaks people out.

ME: Yeah.

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O’DAY: We’re really pleased because it’s the kids that really want to get on this (points to the queue of middle-schoolers waiting to board the simulator).

ME: Yeah, but that’s just because they don’t know how boring it is inside.

PEREZ: Ow! Hold on!

ME: I mean, it’s science. All they see is a ride, and then they figure out, ‘Oh, I’m supposed to learn something’….I’m just saying that I don’t see a lot of them coming out smiling.

PEREZ: Oh my God.

Ok, I’ve done my best to give these nice people with a good cause a hard time. And I feel better now. Chris and I move on to try to sow more chaos amid the encroaching order of science and reason.

I find another trailer dedicated to dinosaurs that’s been set up by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. As kids are filing out, Rebecca Taylor, a coordinator at the museum, greets them, answers their questions and hands them some pamphlets. I take the opportunity to ask her to clear up what has always been a great mystery to me: why do kids like dinosaurs? I mean, do they even really like them or is this just a product of clever marketing that has told kids that they must like dinosaurs? After all, if you give kids toy soldiers representing two sides of the Crimean War and tell them that’s what they’re supposed to play with, then they will. Or if you feed them bland, unhealthy food and call it a “kid’s meal” then they’ll eat it. My point is that kids are highly vulnerable to the power of suggestion, and I believe that, as museums’ revenues have dwindled over the years, they’ve consistently turned to new generations to exploit for a profit by peddling their old dinosaur bones to callow youth who don’t know any better.

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I stick the question to Taylor. Does she agree? Of course not – she’s part of the conspiracy. She says kids like dinosaurs because “They’re big and scary and they’re not around anymore.” Yeah? So are certain types of prehistoric algal blooms, I counter. You don’t see kids running around collecting those figurines and going as plankton for Halloween, do you?

If all of the people like Rebecca Taylor were finally taken off the street once and for all then maybe kids could have a chance to live in a world where they’re not forced to turn to gangs and drugs and dinosaurs for the attention they’re not getting at home. American Museum of Natural History, shame on you!

By now I am developing an appetite and I follow an herby aroma wafting in the breeze to Wilson Plaza where there’s a stage set up with a chef who’s fussing with some pots and pans over a cooking station. There’s another guy up there who is going on about eating vegetables and not junk at McDonalds. Except this is no ordinary health nut – he’s Pete Thomas, a contestant on Biggest Loser a few years back. Like other successful members of the show, Pete used to be a man of considerable heft. In fact, his loss of more than half of his body weight in a short time merits a scientific explanation. At least that’s what the event’s organizers were thinking when they set this up.

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Pete’s long since turned his big bones into big bucks by winning on the show, and, at 42-years-old, he’s touring the country as a motivational speaker and weight loss/lifestyle coach.

To put the Biggest Loser in perspective with a bit of serious media analysis, I have an unemployed friend who catches every episode because he says he likes to watch fat people cry. That’s awful, I told him. But secretly I know that I do watch car racing for the crashes and my favorite part of game shows is when contestants get booed by the audience for being dolts. Sit down for five minutes of daytime TV and you’ll see that we thrive on morose delectation. So it goes, America. (I told you that I could do serious.)

But somehow Pete makes you feel good. He’s upbeat without being cloying, a very likeable fellow, really.

After the presentation he and I move to the sidelines for a brief chat, starting with a little set-up for people who haven’t caught the show.

PETE: On season two, in 2005, I lost 83 lbs in 62 days and went home and lost another 102 lbs. That was a total of 185 lbs in nine months, and I was crowned the at-home champion and won a hundred grand. So it was a good day.

ME: You were on the show for how long? I mean, they don’t run it in real time, do they?

PETE: I was on the show for seven weeks and then voted off in episode seven.

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ME: Tears?

PETE: When I was voted off did I have tears?

ME: A lot of people do.

PETE: I…I was, how can I say?…I was kind of ready. If it had been a week earlier I would have had more tears. Of course I wanted to stay longer, but by that time I had learned everything I needed to know to be permanently successful. So from that standpoint I was like, ‘I’m good. I’m ready to go.’ Not tears. I was disappointed to have to leave, and of course you want to stay as long as possible, you know, because there’s a little bit larger prize there. But I wasn’t upset to the point of crying. I knew I was gonna miss some people because….It’s amazing – you’re sequestered, you’re in seclusion, and you’re gonna miss all the people on the ranch who have become such a strong part of your life.

ME: Do you stay in touch?

PETE: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You know, it’s interesting. The people who don’t stay in touch, those are the ones who are struggling with their weight and so, you know, you’ve got to stay in touch.

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ME: It seems like there’s just so many reality shows now that when people come on one of them they have a strategy in mind. More than ever before it’s like there’s this scheming involved. Is that really how it is. Lots of intrigue?

PETE: Well, here’s the thing. They literally took 1,200 hours of footage each week and cut it down to a one hour show. And the majority of that was people working out. To be honest, America doesn’t want to just see a whole bunch of fat people sweat. And so what has to happen is that the producers have to play up what’s going on behind the scenes and, you know, how this person’s fighting with this person. They look for that. If it’s there, they’re gonna magnify it. The truth is that when they’re doing the casting for the show, they pick type “A” personalities. So as a prerequisite you need to be overweight, of course, but then they also take those dominating personalities and they cast them. So with all of that, yeah, you’re definitely going to get some drama. And that’s kind of a natural part of it. But ultimately what you don’t see is all the sweat and hard work that goes on. In my season I was working out approximately four hours a day each and every day. And now they do more.

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Behind us is blaring AC/DC’s T.N.T. The cheerleaders have set up on stage and look to be ready to perform an opening routine. Chris and I excuse ourselves to take another gander. The cheers about math and science lack the kind of Hank-Williams-Jr.-enthusiasm seen on Monday Night Football. But they’re pretty good. And the cheerleaders look, well, like cheerleaders. Chris points out that this is probably the one event in the festival where all of the kids are tugging on their dads’ sleeves asking to leave while the fathers are saying, “No, no, let’s just stay and watch this a little longer.”

I nudge Chris and motion to a guy in the center of the audience who is camcording the whole thing with the lens zoomed all the way out. Like I said, its rudimentary evolutionary biology, folks.

Some guy named Mr. Freeze is scheduled to perform next. Let me guess: he’s going to dip things in liquid nitrogen and then astound the audience by showing them that they’re frozen. Oh, I bet he’ll pop a banana in there and then use it to hammer a nail into a board. I bet if we ask to take his picture he’ll put his head real close to the vapor from the ice so it looks spooky. Yep, that’s exactly what he’s doing right now…

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Here’s a better idea: why couldn’t the festival get the “nuki nuki”girl from Youtube to do her thing with Diet Coke and Mentos? She’s got more than 121 million views and her act is as fresh as the first day she squealed her way into our hearts.

I notice a sizable group of kids crowding a booth on Pennsylvania Avenue and figure something good must be going on. On the table are sheets of paper with little splotches of pink, purple, blue, yellow, red and green paint. A creepy crawly is squirming in the middle of each dab and dragging the color across the page. The exhibit is called “Maggot Monet,” and it is being staged by the forensic entomology department of Southeastern Louisiana University. One of the undergraduate research assistants tells me that these critters are the larvae of flesh flies and that they’re used by investigators to determine such things as the time of death of a decomposing body. I ask her if these particular larvae have been used in that work – because that would be gross – but she says no.

As I watch the maggots be picked up and prodded with forceps by six-year-olds and realize that those little maggots are actually hard at work here, my empathy for them grows. Their lives, I think, are remarkably similar to that of journalists. Only they get to show up to work naked while journalists are just bad dressers. The pay is about the same.

I ask Dr. Erin Watson, a spunky scientist who seems to really love her work, if she has ever done consulting for law enforcement. Why yes, she says. She worked with the FBI on a famous case in Tennessee and also testified in court on behalf of the prosecution in that trial. She directs me to an article written in the Chattanooga Times Free Press about the surrounding events.

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Considering I am interviewing Doctor Watson while I myself am surrounded by a dozen sets of young, impressionable ears, I am quite content to go home and read for myself the facts of the Howard Hawk Willis murder trial.

But Doctor Watson has other ideas.

The professor relates to me in person the gory details of the triple homicide. She lowers her voice a bit and cups one hand around her mouth every time she uses phrases such as “the 17 year-old-boy and the 16-year-old girl were married but the girl, she was sleeping with Mr. Harris to get drugs.” Or this: “Then he shot him, decapitated the father and removed the limbs with a chainsaw.” Or my favorite: “She was found nude and hog-tied with zip ties, shot in the back of the head and put in a sealed Rubbermaid box.”

Of course, Doctor Watson was brought in on this case to provide analysis on the larvae, pupae, flies and rove beetles found in and around the rotting bodies. I’ll spare the reader these details, but let’s just say that a dozen kids may be asking their mommies and daddies right now about the basics of forensics and theodicy.

We head over to the National Museum of Natural History to try and catch The Amazing Nano Brothers Juggling Show on a stage inside. The funny thing is that as we’re walking along The Mall in front of the museum, we notice a busker standing on an embankment and juggling one tennis racket, one basketball and one bowling ball. Pretty impressive.

The man’s name is Kevin Lee and he says he comes here to juggle for fun and for tips. Chris asks him if he has any idea that inside the building behind him right now the Nano Brothers are top billed for their juggling show and probably earning pretty nice compensation. No, no idea. But Kevin does mention that he’s also a stand-up comic who appeared on HBO’s Def Comedy Jam. We try to egg him on to challenge the Nanos to a juggling duel, but Kevin says he’s enjoying the fresh air. So are we, and so we pass up the chance to go through the museum’s metal detectors.

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Along The Mall there are many more exhibition tents, but the one that looks the most appealing is labeled “comfort station.” We ask the man in charge if we can have a glass of water. He apologizes and says he was supposed to get four cases of bottled water this morning but the delivery never came and so all he’s got is hand sanitizer. Not very comforting, is it? I ask if we couldn’t round up some scientists to make a few buckets of water out of readily available hydrogen and oxygen. He seems nonplussed.

You see, that’s what I mean. Even at a science fair it’s clear that this country is really lacking a solid foundation in science. I bet these clowns couldn’t make water from ice.

I head to a big hall in the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium where Lockheed Martin, the festival’s host, has set up a series of exhibits. There’s a simulator for an F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, a stand showing off the Desert Hawk III Unmanned Aircraft System, and an interactive screen displaying 3-D models of Skunk Works’ latest designs for military hardware. And then, in booth number 1125, Lockheed presents “Don’t Get Stung: Bee Cyber Savvy,” a fun and games show for tykes that uses the following logo:

How cute.

It reminds me of the fact that, according to its website, Uzi, the manufacturer of machine guns, also licenses an official line of toys.

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Who’s the shmo at Uzi who’s in charge of that?

Don’t get me wrong, there may well be good reason to have either an Uzi or an F-35. But I just think it’s funny that somebody designed that logo for Lockheed Martin.

I head back to Pennsylvania Avenue where an exhibit is roasting marshmallows and making s’mores using solar power. I pass by another exhibit set up by Draper Laboratories that Chris, who has gone home to recover by now, pointed out earlier in the day. The booth’s sign reads “Hot Spot of Innovation – All About Gyros.” Chris, bless his heart, had pronounced the last word like the Greek shaved-meat dish served with tzatziki. Well, the folks at Draper Laboratories were thinking more of the devices for measuring spatial orientation – but that’s not to say that they couldn’t make a top-of-the-line sandwich if they tried.

Back near Wilson Plaza I am accosted by a very excited young woman from Portugal named Sara Cleto. She’s a visiting research fellow in microbiology and molecular genetics at Harvard who will complete her PhD training in biochemistry next year. She’s down in DC for the weekend and currently spouting off to me the miracles of microbes.

“Just think of bread. Without yeast you’d either have no bread or only flat bread. Then it’s not fluffy and nice like you like it.” She says, as I wonder how she knows how I like my bread.

What about alcoholic beverages? I ask.

“See, how would you be without microbes?” She asks

I’d still have my $60 from last night….

What, I ask Sara, will she be writing her dissertation on?

“Well, I work on the discovery of antibiotics. So it’s actually against bacteria.” She chuckles at the irony of her advertising the benefits of microbes as she’s simultaneously seeking their destruction. “But right now here I am spreading, you know, bacterial love.”

As are many of us on our weekends in D.C.

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*****

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