Blog Posts


Real Magic

Learning about Mollie Woodworth, neuroscientist, slicer of mouse brains (!), and MIT cheerleader, made me think about my first-ever MRI scan on my brain. I dreaded it. I had nightmares and daymares about it! I dreamed of feeling trapped inside a steel coffin with weird zoort-like noises and the sound of somebody somewhere banging on metal with a hammer.

Featuring 250 shades of gray!

Turned out it was a little like that but not so bad at all. I eased my early anxiety in a way perhaps peculiar to nerds, by thinking about all the people whose intelligence, imagination, and hard work had come together to create and make routine the use of this amazing contraption.

And amazing it is. Imagine: a giant magnet that makes hydrogen atoms dance around and align inside our tender tissues, yet we feel nothing at all. Three-D pictures of our innards result, with as many as 250 distinct shades of gray! And a radiologist waits in the wings equipped to decipher their meaning. How ordinary. How extraordinary!

I’ve since learned a little about the pioneers of MRI, about chemist Paul Lauterbur and English physicist Peter Mansfield who engineered and perfected its use. But I wonder, too, about all those who came before them, the unnamed researchers laboring away in subterranean labs, unseen, like little moles in white coats! Their diligence led the way to this extraordinary process that is now so routine. I wish I knew who they were. Did they find their work exciting? Did they have any idea where it would lead?

The technician whose job it was to position me on the table and slide me into the tube, kind and competent though she was, seemed uninspired by her task, borderline ho-hum and yawny. Who wouldn’t be, doing the same thing day after day?

But I hope sometimes the fog that overcomes most of us as we labor in the workaday world lifts for all those who do science—from those who theorize to those like Mollie who research and test, to those who apply it over and over in everyday settings. Thanks to all those who practice science, those whose work results in real, practical magic.

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Sherry Austin

    Sherry Austin was nine years old when she admitted, during a class discussion, that evolution was possible. After school a bunch of bullies arrived on bikes at her house to beat her up if she didn’t recant. She didn’t. Forty years later, she had published three books of fiction and was traveling regionally giving a talk for the North Carolina Humanities Council on literary nonfiction about science when a neurodegenerative illness put a stop to that. These days, along with (and sometimes in spite of!) her comic alter-ego Trixie Goforth, she works what’s left of her brain to share her wonder about the natural world revealed to us by science. She values the work of scientists more than she can say. And you can find out more about Sherry at her website.