On the North Shore of Long Island, not far from where I grew up, sits the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. A place of scientific legend, it’s where Dr. James Watson and Dr. Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, which governs the inner workings of cells. It’s also a place of family legacy; my grandmother worked at “the lab,” as we call it, and my aunt still works there. In high school, my sister interviewed for a position, and family lore has it that Dr. Watson walked by the open door of the office during her interview.
I never worked there, but I remember when a science teacher placed in my hands a model of DNA, spiraled tightly, and I uncurled it, stretching out my arms, feeling the rungs of the ladder it became, picturing these ladders inside us, inside every one of my cells, that tell who we are, that tell the body how to grow and when to die. Blueprints repeated millions and millions of times, read by the other parts of the cell. My father, an engineer, worked on blueprints in his downstairs office, and I tried to decipher them, but never could. We wrapped presents in the discarded sheets, buildings imagined but never realized.
One of Cold Spring Harbor’s directors is Andrew Solomon. As a writer in the vein of Oliver Sacks, Solomon approaches the mind with a sense of awe and wonder. Here I mean “awe” as it is derived from the Old English word ege: terror, dread. His own struggles with depression are examined in his book The Noonday Demon, which seeks to understand “depression in personal, cultural and scientific terms.” To put it more simply, he looks at how we make meaning in our lives. His videos usually make me cry.
His colleague at Cold Spring is Carol Greider. Like a comic-book superhero, she is an explorer of the immortal. Think of the mythological monstrous Hydra, who grew back two heads for every one that Hercules chopped off. It turns out the real hydra, a half-inch-size creature closely related to the jellyfish, resembles the mythological one: It is potentially immortal. By studying what can, in theory, live forever, Greider studies death.
The Cold Spring Harbor itself is in Suffolk County, Long Island—glacial moraine, hometown. On its rocky shore, I spent my teenage summers lifeguarding, watching the tide turn in and out of the harbor.
In times of difficulty and sadness, I often find myself turning over the words of Claudia Rankine from her book of prose poetry, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. In it, she writes, “Any kind of knowledge can be a prescription against despair.” I think of despair like that tide, receding and revealing what is underneath while it shapes and changes what once seemed permanent. Stones, seaweed, jellyfish. Lost flip-flops. Mussels and snails exposing their stony backs to the salty air. As we pick our way along the shore, what knowledge could we gather, like a person collecting shells, that could protect us against despair?