Treasure Your Exceptions

23 July 2014 by Susan E. Swanberg, posted in Blog Posts


Logotype by Thomas Splettstoesser

New beginnings are exciting. We approach them with enthusiasm, but often with a little trepidation, especially if we have an audience.

How does one start a new blog? What do you say in that first post? I guess you just dive in! So that’s what I’ll do.

If I could choose a phrase to describe myself, I would say that I treasure my exceptions. I first saw the words “treasure your exceptions” on a whiteboard in the laboratory where I completed my PhD in genetics. The originator of the quotation was William Bateson, a famous geneticist who helped promote Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance.

One of my favorite exceptions -- the leafcutter bee.

One of my favorite exceptions -- the leafcutter bee. Photograph by Susan E. Swanberg

Intrigued by the phrase, I looked it up and in doing so learned a little bit about Bateson’s work and a little bit about myself. It’s been almost fifteen years since I first read those words, and they still ring true.

For me, science writing is the process of uncovering and sharing some of the exceptions in the world, whether they represent new scientific discoveries or old ones reexamined. The key to sharing these exceptions is finding the story that makes them come to life for a reader. What’s so exciting is that ordinary life is filled with exceptions just waiting to become stories.

With this new blog I hope to share with you the science stories and science-related events that I find exceptional. You might not share my point of view, but that’s OK. Having some lively (and civil) debate will be fun.

Oh, I forgot to tell you. Those three words are not all Bateson said about exceptions. If you want to read the rest of the story, check out his lecture The Methods and Scope of Genetics and search for the phrase “Treasure your exceptions.”

5 Responses to “Treasure Your Exceptions”

  1. Maynard Olson Reply | Permalink

    Here is a belated reply to your "treasure your exceptions" post. I did a Google search on this phrase, well known to all geneticists, and discovered that it is due to Bateson, as you point out. The Tenacious Telomere was the 7th Google hit, behind several others related to Bateson (including mention of a recent biography entitled "Treasure Your Exceptions"--alas the book does not yet have a single Amazon review). The only outlier in my Google search (an exception to treasure?) involved geneology in Northern Ireland.

    You deserve a substantive reply to your choice of Bateson's famous bit of advice. I am a retired geneticist with an interest in the philosophy of science. Philosophers prefer physics to biology largely because physicists allow no exceptions to their claims--this is the idea of necessity in the philosophy of science. Biologists know better. Biological generalizations derive their power because they lead to expectations that are never quite met: hence, we learn to "treasure our exceptions." It is simply wrong to associate necessity with science. Even physicists, treasure their exceptions: cosmic inflation, dark matter, and dark energy are three of the most active frontiers of physics and all involve ideas motivated by apparent exceptions to seemingly well established models. So,go for it! My only advice is to post a little more about your background. Evidently, you worked on telomeres--I know this field well and had many interactions with Jack Szostak and Elizabeth Blackburn before they became famous. Where do you fit in? How did you get from telomeres to writing updates on the Ebola epidemic?

  2. Susan E. Swanberg Reply | Permalink

    Hello Dr. Olson! Welcome to the Tenacious Telomere.

    Are you the Maynard Olson who worked on the human genome sequencing project? My research in telomere biology did not reach the heights that your work and the work of Jack Szostak and Elizabeth Blackburn did. I was a small cog in the telomere machine -- long after Blackburn and Szostak published their ground-breaking findings.

    I'll take your suggestion and post more about my background at some point in the future. One never knows whether readers would be interested in such stuff, but I'll trust you on that one.

    "Treasure your exceptions" works for writers, too. I'm always looking for a good story, and the best stories have exceptional characters, events or circumstances.

    I'm experimenting with this blog. I'll have some newsy posts and some fun posts. Ebola is important news, and visuals of the data help explain the enormity of the problem.

    I'm always open to suggestions on topics.

    Please come back! I'd love to hear some of your stories.

  3. Andrés Klein Reply | Permalink

    I'm a cell biologist by training and a geneticist by passion. I'm working on the identification of the genetic and cellular basis of phenotypic variability observed in monogenic disorders, or if you prefer I'm fishing modifier genes of disease progression in these diseases. One of the strategies that I'm using is by "Treasure your exceptions". So glad to hear about your blog.

    all the best,

Leave a Reply

seven + 1 =