"If it blows up, it's chemistry. If it dies, it's biology. If it doesn't work, it's physics." These immutable truths seemed to govern classroom science in my high school, and they drove me to become an English major in college.

I went reluctantly. As a boy, I had collected insects, fossil seashells, and just about anything from nature that didn't emit foul odors and annoy my mother.

But in classrooms, my fascination with the natural world slowly withered as my science teachers recited only the bare facts - units of neatly packaged knowledge, purged of any of the agonizing and exhilarating detective work that produced it. And I couldn't seem to do the canned experiments or dissections right. Disappointed and bored, I knew by age 16 that whatever I did in life, it would be as far from laboratory science as I could get.

Ironically, after going all the way...

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