The death of the author

“A text’s unity lies not in its origin, but in its destination.” – Roland Barthes (1967, translated 1977)

I am in the middle of writing my PhD thesis. This is generally not considered an easy process, and I concur with that sentiment. For me, it includes stretches of intense productivity, digging for long-forgotten data, and dry eyes. There are also long periods of staring out of the window, while stewing on my thoughts. In one such stewing session, my thoughts wandered towards the quote above. It is from the essay “The Death of the Author” by Roland Barthes. Barthes disapproved of the idea that to find the true meaning of a text, one must consider it through the identity of its scripter. Instead, he argued that meaning lies exclusively in the words themselves, and their impressions on the reader. Thus, the unity of a text is not found in its origin, but in its destination. As Barthes wrote himself, “writing is that into which every subject escapes, the trap where all identity is lost, beginning with the very identity of the body that writes.”1 “The author enters into their own death, and writing begins.”2

The two-body problem

Scientific research is an exercise in failing. Imagine you have to overcome an unknown obstacle course – it is already hard when you can see what you are doing (and where you are going). Now imagine doing that in the dark! This is what most research is like. Many attempts to explore beyond the edge of human knowledge, where we are in the dark, are simply doomed to fail. There is hope though: each failure teaches us a little bit more about the obstacles we will encounter. Bit by bit, more experiments and failures light the way. Until eventually, we happen upon success. Then we write a paper about it, and hope the reviewers agree with our definition of success. A career in academia thus requires dedication, luck, and an unfailing ability to get up after falling down. Most of all, it requires time: time to learn, to struggle, and to do good science.

A peek into a DNA-robotics laboratory

As has escaped nobody’s attention, there is currently a pandemic going on. I’m currently in my 8th week of lockdown. The first few weeks were fine, I dare say even a nice change of pace. Plenty of opportunity to focus on the office tasks of doing a lab-centered PhD: updating your labbook, writing future protocols, and reflecting on your projects in general. However, for the past 6 weeks the walls have been closing in on me and I cannot wait until I can finally get back into the lab (or attend a BBQ). If you were to ask my parents, “the lab” is this mysterious alchemy-like place where I mix one brightly colored substance with another, and where we will eventually find the cure for all diseases. That’s unfortunately not the case; the substances I mix all kind of look like water. However, the lab is still a super exciting place. In this blogpost, I will give you a tour and tell you about my experience visiting another lab.