The Tea Table

Sara Lippincott

[Editor’s Note:] SARA LIPPINCOTT (1938-2023) was an editor specializing in nonfiction who edited some eighty books about science for the general public including bestsellers such as Bill Bradley’s Time Present, Time Past, Timothy Ferris’s The Whole Shebang, Lee Smolin’s The Trouble with Physics, and John McPhee’s Pulitzer prize-winning Annals of the Former World.

A longtime nonfiction editor at The New Yorker, she moved to Los Angeles in 1993, where she taught writing for ten years at Caltech and later became an editor at the now-defunct Los Angeles Times Book Review. From 1996, she edited the sixteen books in the Edge Annual Question series, and the twenty-two books in the Science Masters I and Science Masters II series. 

Several days ago, Sara called to give me the sad news that she was very ill and the end was near. She also had a request: "I have something I’ve written that I would like you to publish on Edge." Yesterday, on Sunday, October 29, 2023, Sara died peacefully. 

Thus, it is with great sadness, but also with a deep sense of love and appreciation, that I share with you Sara’s piece, "The Tea Table."


The Tea Table
By Sara Lippincott

I got out of Wellesley in 1959, shortly after Lolita got out of Paris. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. (Na-bwak-awf: a trip down the stairs with a loud bump and a glorious sprawl at the bottom.) I fell in love with it.

         I had majored in English, with a minor in Moby Dick, and now planned to become a full-time poet. So I looked for and found a garret in Cambridge, in a seedy gabled house on Kirkland Street. The third floor—two tiny bedrooms and a hall bath—was shared by me and a young woman of about my own age but not my aspirations who was drinking herself to death.

         To support myself while writing poems, I took the first job the Harvard personnel office suggested—as secretary to Dr. Frank Carpenter, a paleoentomologist and recent chairman of Harvard’s Biology Department. The department was quartered in the Bio Labs on Divinity Avenue, an impressive pile whose front entrance was guarded by a pair of giant bronze rhinoceroses. Dr. Carpenter published a bug quarterly called Psyche. Now that he was through with his chairmanship, he wanted to turn more attention to it, and he needed someone who could spell and knew where the commas should go. I’d do fine.

         One year of extremely introductory biology was the extent of my exposure to science at Wellesley. It was taught by Mrs. Houck, a sweet, hopeful woman who had us cut up frogs (I wouldn’t) and one day took us on a field trip to Paramecium Pond, a reedy puddle in mid-campus next to a magnificent pine tree with come-hither branches. Up this I went, quickly and quietly, with a like-minded pal, and we hid there until Mrs. Houck and the crowd of giggling future biologists marched off. Then we climbed down and went back to the dorm for lunch.

         C+ from Mrs. Houck. The "plus" was nice of her.


So I typed and took dictation and proofread for Professor Carpenter, a formal, exacting, but kind boss, and poked around the Bio Labs, which I found exotic. Every Wednesday afternoon, Dr. Carpenter would host a tea in his "lab," a large room off his office proper, dominated by a long table large enough for a dozen invitees to gather. (One Wednesday, on the way into town to pick up the cookies, I ran into Mrs. Houck on the Bio Lab’s front steps; her eyes widened in surprise—or perhaps shock—when I told her I was working there.) Any member of the Biology faculty who was interested in something called "the Modern Synthesis," or in fossil insects as they bore on evolution, was free to attend these weekly teas. The Modern Synthesis was essentially the marriage of Darwin and Mendel, goosed by new advances in molecular biology. I know that now, but I didn’t then (and wouldn’t have cared).

         Because I made the coffee and got the cookies, I was allowed to sit at the tea table with the guys. They were mostly old-guard Harvard biologists, one exception being Ed Wilson, a young assistant professor and ant-man (short trousers, white socks) whose considerably more interesting lab was across the hall from Dr. Carpenter’s. Ed had an ant colony in a large glass terrarium, and he told me I was free to visit whenever I wanted, to watch the ants crawling all over each other in their underground tunnels.

         Others I remember from the tea were the evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr, the director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, which adjoined the Bio Labs; Bill Brown, the MCZ’s associate curator of entomology; and Herbert Levi, its associate curator of arachnology. Stephen Jay Gould was around at the time, but I don’t recall him coming.

         James D. Watson was around, too, recently recruited to bolster molecular biology at Harvard—but he would not have been caught dead at that table. To Watson, Harvard’s biologists were just morphologists—dinosaurs. What were bug fossils to the discoverer of the structure of DNA? He used to carry a water pistol in the halls and amuse himself by squirting at them—or so I was told. The disdain was mutual. I encountered Watson myself one morning in the Bick—Hayes-Bickford cafeteria, which was an intellectual hub on Mass Ave. People spent all day in there, over coffee and an occasional English muffin, in spite of the "No Loitering" sign posted by the desperate management. I was at the counter when I sensed an enormously tall person staring at me with intense protruding eyes. "Would you like to have breakfast with me?" he blurted out. By then I knew how non grata he was, so I said yes. He was probably lonely. Unfortunately I cannot now remember anything else he said.

         Anyway, these Wednesday teas were lively affairs, with lots of camaraderie and animated cross-talk about such matters as changes in wing venation from the Lower to the Upper Carboniferous, or who planned to give what "paper" at the next meeting of "the triple-A-S." Sometimes, in an effort to get them to talk about something interesting, I would mention a book I’d just read, or a film festival at the Brattle, and they would smile politely at me and renew their discussion of Blattaria and its stunning illumination of modern evolutionary theory.

         I’m twenty, mind you. I felt very sorry for them. I thought they were wasting their lives.


That would change, but not quite yet.

         One afternoon I went over to the MCZ to watch Dr. Levi feed the tarantula he kept in his fourth-floor digs. The tarantula was fed once a week on waterbugs (Blatta orientalis), which Dr. Levi collected from the halls of the Bio Labs, where they were abundant. These bugs were so big that they were reportedly able to climb the stairs between floors instead of riding on an elevator. The feeding was an unforgettable spectacle. Seizing the waterbug in a pair of tweezers, Dr. Levi dropped it into the terrarium housing his tarantula. After a few ominous seconds, there was a scuffling motion in a little cave in a mossy pile of rocks, from which the tarantula emerged and . . . swoosh!!. . . plunged its two glistening fangs into the flailing insect.

         It would take a while, said Dr. Levi, for the venom to liquify all the nice parts of the waterbug, so I didn’t stick around for that. Instead I started down the MCZ’s stairs on the way back to my own mossy cave in the Bio Labs. On a landing halfway down, I stopped and looked into the hall to my left. Why? To this day, I don’t know. There I saw a whitewashed office door, and, very faintly, beneath the paint, I could read a name: "V. Nabokov."

         This was electrifying. I knew that the author of the wondrous Lolita was a lepidopterist and had taught for a while (before my time) at Wellesley, only 15 minutes’ drive from the MCZ. Could this have been . . . his office? Now I would have something to talk about at the next tea—a link, at last, between my predilections and theirs! So next Wednesday, at the first lull in the conversation, I jumped in:

         "Guess what I saw in the MCZ the other day!"

         Polite, puzzled gazes.

         "I saw a door with ‘V. Nabokov’ on it, painted over. Could that have been Vladimir Nabokov’s office?"

         Dead silence. They all seemed to be looking at their shoes. This went on for an ungodly length of time. Finally, Professor Carpenter, at the head of the table, turned to me and remarked gently, "Sara, I’m afraid that some of us think he turned out rather badly."

         "I’ve got to get out of here," I thought. And I did, some months later, when I left Cambridge—and the garret, where I’d written exactly one poem—for New York and wound up at The New Yorker, where (I liked to think) I belonged. But it seems that I was not the same person. I hadn’t managed to change any of the Harvard entomologists, but they had changed me. (This dawned on me, slowly, as I worked on a number of profiles—I. I. Rabi, Hans Bethe, Marvin Minsky, Michele Besso—by the physicist Jeremy Bernstein, one of the magazine’s few science journalists.) It was their zeal, their patient attention to detail, their utter, absolute faith in the fundamental importance of understanding Where We Are and What’s Going On.

         I did a one-eighty and ended up checking and eventually editing most of the science pieces in The New Yorker for the next thirty years. A kind of mid-career validation came when, invited to give a talk about science editing at the 1988 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the tea-table "triple-A-S") in Boston, I ran into Ed (now "E. O." and famous) Wilson. I was sitting on a bench outside the auditorium, going over my notes, when he came striding down the hall swinging his briefcase. I jumped up and reintroduced myself. "I was hoping to go to your talk," I said, "but I’ve got to miss it, because I’m giving a talk at the same time."

         Baffled pause.

         "You’re . . . giving a talk??"

         "Yes," I said, ignoring the bafflement. "I’ll be talking about that tea table."

         "I’m talking about that tea table, too!" said Wilson. "And I’ve got slides!"


The Shifting Terrain of Scientific Inquiry

David Kaiser

Most historians of science, certainly these days, consider themselves historians. That means we use historical methods of research. We comb through the published literature, investigate unpublished things—correspondence, notes, notebooks, grant proposals. For more recent periods, we interview people. (There's a colleague of mine who likes to say that the historian's job is reading dead people's mail, which captures a lot of what we try to do.) We are trying to figure out the texture of lived experience and how that informed the people about whose world we're trying to get our heads back into. On one hand, it is an interpretive effort squarely within the humanities and social sciences to make sense of our world in times and places gone by. With the history of science, we get to have this productive, ongoing discussion with much more contemporary events and efforts in the sciences today. Why do certain ideas take hold and become so prominent? Why do certain questions rise to prominence and get asked in one setting versus another? These are the larger questions about the present-day scientific enterprise that a lot of work in the history of science can help us better understand.

DAVID KAISER is the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science and professor of physics at MIT. He is the author, most recently, of Quantum LegaciesDavid Kaiser's Edge Bio Page

Interrogating and Shaping the World Through Science

Ainissa Ramirez

What I noticed over the years is that people were starting to see science as entertainment and not as a tool or a lens to understand the world. The thing that scientists do is ask great questions. We need people who can interrogate and probe the world so they can develop their muscle of being critical thinkers. I saw that missing. I thought that I was becoming part of the problem of just showing science's entertainment with great demonstrations. I was hooking them, but I wasn't doing the next step, which is to say, “This is the enterprise of science; it's a great way to understand the world, and with it you can shape the world.” 

I've spent a lot of my energy recently thinking about how to get science to resonate with people, to make people who usually feel excluded feel included. I thought one of the best ways to do that was with stories. I like to tell a lot of stories and share the impact of materials. The reason I've taken this approach is that there are many books about technology and science that profile information and lather people with lots of details. But what I've learned in my journey is that stories are stickier. They allow people to be part of the journey, and then you just pepper in the science. You don't have to wallop people with science.

AINISSA RAMIREZ is a materials scientist and science communicator. She is the author, most recently, of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One AnotherAinissa Ramirez's Edge Bio Page

How to Create an Institution That Lasts 10,000 Years

Alexander Rose

We’re also looking at the oldest living companies in the world, most of which are service-based. There are some family-run hotels and things like that, but also a huge amount in the food and beverage industry. Probably a third of the organizations or the companies over 500 or 1,000 years old are all in some way in wine, beer, or sake production. I was intrigued by that crossover.

What’s interesting is that humanity figured out how to ferment things about 10,000 years ago, which is exactly the time frame where people started creating cities and agriculture. It’s unclear if civilization started because we could ferment things, or we started fermenting things and therefore civilization started, but there’s clearly this intertwined link with fermenting beer, wine, and then much later spirits, and how that fits in with hospitality and places that people gather.

All of these things are right now just nascent bits and pieces of trying to figure out some of the ways in which organizations live for a very long time. While some of them, like being a family-run hotel, may not be very portable as an idea, some of them, like some of the natural strategies, we're just starting to understand how they can be of service to humanity. If we broaden the idea of service industry to our customer civilization, how can you make an institution whose customer is civilization and can last for a very long time?

ALEXANDER ROSE is the executive director of The Long Now Foundation, manager of the 10,000 Year Clock Project, and curator of the speaking series' at The Interval and The Battery SF. Alexander Rose's Edge Bio Page

How to Create an Institution That Lasts 10,000 Years



We’re also looking at the oldest living companies in the world, most of which are service-based. There are some family-run hotels and things like that, but also a huge amount in the food and beverage industry. Probably a third of the organizations or the companies over 500 or 1,000 years old are all in some way in wine, beer, or sake production. I was intrigued by that crossover.

Cultural Intelligence



Getting back to culture being invisible and omnipresent, we think about intelligence or emotional intelligence, but we rarely think about cultivating cultural intelligence. In this ever-increasing global world, we need to understand culture. All of this research has been trying to elucidate not just how we understand other people who are different from us, but how we understand ourselves.

Cultural Intelligence

Michele Gelfand

Getting back to culture being invisible and omnipresent, we think about intelligence or emotional intelligence, but we rarely think about cultivating cultural intelligence. In this ever-increasing global world, we need to understand culture. All of this research has been trying to elucidate not just how we understand other people who are different from us, but how we understand ourselves.

MICHELE GELFAND is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the WorldMichele Gelfand's Edge Bio Page

The Urban-Rural Divide



When I describe an increasing correlation between density and Democratic voting that took off after the 1980s, this is the rise not only of globalization and the knowledge economy in that period, but also the rise of politics related to religion, gender, and the social transformations that came about in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then were politicized in the ‘80s. Before the 1980s, it was not clear if one was a social conservative and one was anti-abortion whether one should be a Democrat or a Republican.

The Urban-Rural Divide

Why Geography Matters
Jonathan Rodden

In the past, it was dispersed rural interest groups who favored free trade, and concentrated urban producers who wanted protection for their new industries. Now, in the age of the knowledge economy, the relationship has reversed. Much of manufacturing now takes place outside of city centers. Ever since the New Deal and the rise of labor unions, manufacturing has been moving away from city centers and spreading out to exurban and rural areas along interstates, especially in the South. In an era of intense global competition, these have now become the places where voters can be most easily mobilized in favor of trade protection.

Moreover, much like manufacturing in an earlier era, the knowledge economy has grown up in a very geographically concentrated way in certain city centers. These are the places that now benefit most from globalization and free trade. We’re back to debates about trade and protection that occupied Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, although the geographic location of the interests has changed over time. Changing economic geography has shaped our political geography in important ways, and contributed to an increase in urban-rural polarization.

JONATHAN RODDEN is a professor in the Political Science Department at Stanford and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. Jonathan Rodden's Edge Bio Page

Childhood's End

The digital revolution isn’t over but has turned into something else
George Dyson

Nations, alliances of nations, and national institutions are in decline, while a state perhaps best described as Oligarchia is on the ascent. George Dyson explains in this, the first Edge New Year's Essay.

GEORGE DYSON is the author of Turing’s Cathedral and Darwin Among the Machines. George Dyson's Edge Bio Page

"To ring in the New Year in the most depressing and hope-crushing way possible, Dyson sat down with” — Brett Tingley, Mysterious Universe

[Click for media coverage of "Childhood's End"]

Childhood's End

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

The digital revolution began when stored-program computers broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things. Numbers that do things now rule the world. But who rules over the machines?

Once it was simple: programmers wrote the instructions that were supplied to the machines. Since the machines were controlled by these instructions, those who wrote the instructions controlled the machines.

All revolutions come to an end, whether they succeed or fail.

Two things then happened. As computers proliferated, the humans providing instructions could no longer keep up with the insatiable appetite of the machines. Codes became self-replicating, and machines began supplying instructions to other machines. Vast fortunes were made by those who had a hand in this. A small number of people and companies who helped spawn self-replicating codes became some of the richest and most powerful individuals and organizations in the world.

Then something changed. There is now more code than ever, but it is increasingly difficult to find anyone who has their hands on the wheel. Individual agency is on the wane. Most of us, most of the time, are following instructions delivered to us by computers rather than the other way around. The digital revolution has come full circle and the next revolution, an analog revolution, has begun. None dare speak its name.

Childhood’s End was Arthur C. Clarke’s masterpiece, published in 1953, chronicling the arrival of benevolent Overlords who bring many of the same conveniences now delivered by the Keepers of the Internet to Earth. It does not end well.


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