Small p

My p < 0.2 x 10-9.­

My flipping p is less than naught point two times 10 to the minus effing nine! My p. My p.

I hope you’re thinking what you should be thinking? You should be thinking O M frigging G. You should be thinking W T actual F? You should be thinking what a tremendously exciting way to begin a story. You should be thinking no wonder you, as in I, seem to be celebrating by polishing off the best part of a bottle of whisky. You should be thinking this is surely what you, as in I, have been waiting for.

I should be thinking this is what I’ve been waiting for.

Why aren’t I thinking this is what I’ve been waiting for?

I’ve been waiting for something. Waiting is all I seem to do. I was waiting here for Maria. Of course, Maria doesn’t know I was waiting for her, but I was. Maria’s working late again in her big shiny phallic building overlooking the river. Can you call it “working late” if she always works at this time? Whatever, she’s working in her huge glass penis in her pencil-skirt suit. The suit looks great and she says it fits perfectly, but she can’t sit or bend comfortably in it, so that doesn’t seem an optimal fit to me. I thought one of the benefits of being a lesbian is we don’t have to wear uncomfortable clothes? Apparently not.

Anyway, she’s working to a late hour, so I pretend I’m working late too. I’m in my tiny office in my two-storey building in Camberwell with a view of the mental hospital from one window, and a car park from the other. The car park’s empty because as much as we all bitch and moan about how stressful academia is, no one actually works late here. Compared to Maria I’m already pretty comfortable in my lab-monkey uniform of baggy jeans and a hoody, but I take things further now by kicking off my trainers and popping my feet up on the desk. I think the occasion calls for it.

So I pretend to work late sometimes to impress Maria. Or not to impress her really, but rather to avoid de-impressing her. Depressing her? I also lie about when I get to work. She rushes out of the flat so early every morning that she has no idea when I leave. No one’s clocking me in, so I often text her to say I’ve arrived while I’m still in bed. Sometimes I sit around in my pyjamas watching terrible morning TV for hours before I wander up the hill to work. Then after everyone else has left, I text Maria to tell her how hectic my day has been because I’m also very important. I tell her I simply must work late again tonight *sad emoji*. When actually I’m just playing Sims, killing time until she heads home.

Tonight I was feeling a bit of Sims overload, which I’m sure you’ll appreciate is extremely difficult to achieve. So I thought maybe I should actually do some work. All good lies are based on a grain of truth, after all. Plus I figured getting a bit extra done might give me a sliver of a chance of becoming what Maria wants me to be, compared to the absolute zero chance I was cultivating otherwise.

But what does Maria want me to be? Well, she doesn’t necessarily want me to be anything in particular. She simply wants me to fulfil my – feel free to note the resentful airquotes here – “potential”. When we met in a grotty gay bar years ago I was starting my PhD. And when you’re starting your PhD you could absolutely totally possibly one day be a great Nobel-prize-winning professor, because all great Nobel-prize-winning professors were at some point starting their PhD. But then I graduated with only one published article in a sub-par journal. And now I’m in my tenth (tenth!) year as a post-doctoral researcher, going from one temporary contract to the next. And sure, I won a grant once, but that feels like ages ago now, and I’m not sure many great Nobel-prize-winning professors have been in dead-end post-doc jobs ten years after graduating from their PhD. Meanwhile, Maria’s moved into financial consulting and she keeps getting promoted and she’s stopped wearing jeans even at the weekend. Maria’s become a somebody. She deserves a girlfriend who is a somebody. Instead she has somebody, as in me, who’s moving further and further towards nobody territory.

So I decided to try actually doing some work while “working late”. As the cluster wasn’t being used, I figured I could run some analyses. But I’ve already investigated everything we’d planned for this project twice over. Despite the lazy picture I’ve painted, I do work quite hard really – in office hours at least. It just hasn’t yielded anything anyone would give a damn about. My predecessors grabbed all the low-hanging fruit, identifying large sets of tiny genetic effects that when added together can influence height, weight, anxiety, and depression. Even these findings weren’t the strongest. In the ocean of hundreds, thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of tiny genetic effects which stack up and interact with each other and the environment to determine risk for something as complex as, say, dyslexia, they were only a tiny puddle influencing a tiny portion of that risk. Not as sexy as the Daily Mail would have you believe. But at least they found something, and it was enough to open doors to permanent lecturer jobs. Since I came along we’ve detected a big fat nothing. We couldn’t locate any combination of genetic variants that predisposes the thousands of people in our sample to antisocial behaviour. Ditto for eating disorders. Ditto for learning disabilities. Yes we know genes are important, but no, I haven’t found any important ones. Not even just ever so slightly important ones. Soz.

What was left? My boss has been studying these kids annually since they were born, and now they’re all twenty-nine. There’s always data left to mine, but the traits are becoming increasingly obscure. I considered looking for genes influencing aversion to trying new foods? Not especially hot. Plus I remembered we looked at that last year. Hand size? I didn’t even know we had that. Weird. Then I noticed an unannotated column I must have missed before. It was labelled “Hom”, with entries from ages sixteen and eighteen only. I had to dig out the original questionnaire from the storeroom, but it turned out the mysterious data corresponded to a question about gayness. The kids were asked to rate themselves in terms of homosexuality – 1 being absolutely no homosexual feelings, 10 being flaming homo feelings they had either acted upon or planned to one day. Bit of a controversial question someone slipped in there. Looking back through the files I see it was a PhD student who left years ago, probably before the data came in. Maybe that’s why I’d never heard about it.

I was pretty sure no one in the group would’ve looked at it before, so without thinking I plugged it into my analysis code and started it running on the cluster. It’s a hell of a lot of data – thousands of people’s entire genomes – so I didn’t expect the analysis to stop chugging for at least a day. After a few more hours of messaging Maria about how snowed under I was (while playing Minesweeper and watching Gilmore Girls), I checked to see if any bugs had been encountered. To my surprise the empty cluster had been extra speedy and the analysis was done. Tired and bored, and with absolutely no expectations, I pulled up the output file. And, well, you know what I saw there:

p < 0.2 x 10-9

I don’t know how much you know about statistical analysis? But basically, when it comes to p, size matters, and less is more. Big is pointless. Big is failure. Big is insignificant. Small means you’ve got something real. My p was bloody tiny, and the real thing I had was a combination of genetic markers that together account for 6% of the variation in self-reported homosexuality across the sample. 6% may not sound a lot, but believe me it’s whopping. The best any predecessor in this mediocre group has achieved is 1.9%, and that was for mathematical ability – no one’s favourite trait. Homosexuality is far more glamorous. People will be all over this. I’ll finally get to use that media training we’ve all been forced to have.

After checking there hadn’t been a mistake, I popped the champagne of course. Well, one of those individual-serving prosecco bottles I had hanging around in a drawer actually, but same same. Then I remembered some red wine I’d been given last Christmas and never taken home and I poured myself a glass or three of that. Then I remembered the unclaimed bottle of whisky left in the kitchen cupboard after our last summer party and I started on that. Big time. And so now here I am. Drunk and staring at my screen.

p < 0.2 x 10-9

That is a career-making p. That is a Science or Nature paper p. That is the p of a somebody. No wonder I’m so drunk and jubilant.

Jubilation feels like this, right? Like, an inability to think clearly accompanied by a burning sensation in the pit of one’s stomach? I guess the whisky might explain both of those symptoms. But shouldn’t there be, like, smiling? In my (vast) experience, alcohol usually brings about a bit of smiling on its own. In conjunction with this monumentally tiny p, surely I should’ve been guaranteed to crack a smile or two? But the reflection in my computer screen tells me I haven’t. Why not?

“Maybe it’s because,” comes a voice from behind me, making me jump, my heartbeat suddenly pounding so loudly in my ears I almost miss the end of his sentence, “you’re not sure you should’ve been poking your greedy little fingers in that particular hole in the first place.”

I spin around in my chair, making my whisky-soaked brain groan, but there’s no one there.

“He’s behind you,” the same voice coos, and I turn to see a suited, bearded man leaning against my desk, grinning. Feeling terrified and asking who the hell he is and how he got in seem like very sensible reactions. But I don’t do these things, because somehow I know exactly who he is. Sure, the beard is a little more trimmed and hipster than I’ve ever seen pictured, and the suit more exquisitely tailored, not to mention a good deal tighter around the crotch. Also, I don’t recall ever reading accounts of him sounding quite so, well, camp. But there’s no mistaking this guy when you see him.

“Yes, yes, that’s me dearie, Charles Darwin. Charlie to my friends. Charmed I’m sure,” he says as if reading my mind, leaning off the table for long enough to perform a sarcastic curtsey. “Perhaps you’re feeling so rotten because of the cheap swill you’re downing, darling? That poison should either be mixed or binned, preferably the latter. But perhaps you’re feeling rough as old houses because you don’t know what to do with your teeny tiny p?”

“What to do with it?” I reply, confused.

“Do you ride that little p for all it’s worth? Or do you steer well clear? I felt the same when I made my own little discovery … perhaps you’ve heard of it?” I move to answer and he gives a dismissive wave of his hand. “That was a joke sweetie, of course you have. Oh yes, I was in quite the quandary – although on a larger scale, you understand – when I made my findings. Do I keep shtum or tell the world? I was terribly worried about the impact it might have on Christianity, you see, and the wife” – he smiles and arches his left eyebrow at the word – “was quite the godbotherer, so that didn’t help matters.”

He’s right of course. My face is refusing to smile because maybe this isn’t a smiling matter. What will the world, especially a world of Trump and Brexit, do with this knowledge? Do I want to risk finding out? Or is it better to throw this analysis out and pretend it never happened? I recall that as a fitting Christmas gift, last year my boss paid for everyone in the team to have their genomes run through a commercial genotyping service. I learned my genes endow me with twice the average risk of developing heart disease. The risk is still pretty low, yet I, someone who has always detested sports and physical activity, was moved to take up running. What will someone with an increased “risk” of being queer be moved to do? Take up football? Give up football? And more importantly, what will a parent do with an “at risk” child? Would my parents have tried even harder to wrestle me into dresses if they’d known I carried the risk genes? Would they have forced me to show more interest in dolls? Would they have even let me exist in the first place, given the option?

“My thoughts precisely,” Darwin says, responding to worries I’m certain I never shared aloud. “And of course there are all those terrible consequences your struggling mind can’t even begin to fathom. In my case, so concerned was I with the religion problem, that I quite underestimated some of the other horrid things people might do once they got their grubby little mitts on my theory. I can’t be entirely blamed of course, but I might have seen all that nasty cleansing of the gene pool business coming if I’d given it a little more thought. Galton always was a frightful scamp. You don’t happen to have a homophobic cousin do you…?”

I vaguely recall Galton fathered eugenics after reading his cousin Darwin’s survival of the fittest theory. That must have sucked, to inadvertently fuel that. I take a swig of whisky, nearly missing my mouth, and consider that I do indeed have a few Trump-sympathising homophobes in the family, but surely Gary doesn’t have the intellect or influence of Galton? Claire on the other hand is not to be underestimated…

My homophobe top-trumps reverie is interrupted by an accented cry of “Ignore him!”, and a thick fist crashing on my desk. I look up to meet a piercing stare I recognise. She’s a little squarer than I’ve ever seen her represented, and I don’t remember such short hair, and has she always worn dungarees and smoked cigars? Even so, it’s plain who this handsome figure is.

“Yes it’s me, Marie Curie.” She grabs my hand to deliver a bone-crushing handshake. “And why not smoke cigars, eh? Should I be afraid of the cancer?” She slaps her knee and lets out a deep roaring laugh. “Anyway, enough fun. I’m here to be serious. Don’t listen to this nonsense,” she orders, “he is simply, how do you say, chicken? If you live in fear you do nothing. You must act now. You never know when time is up. Knowledge is the goal of your work, no? Well you have scored my friend. Knowledge is always worth the price. Take it from me.”

Knowledge is the ultimate goal, right? Gaining a deeper understanding is always a good idea, isn’t it? That’s why we’re looking for this stuff in the first place. To learn. To understand. To help. I mean, finding a firm genetic link to homosexuality should really be a good thing. It should even be a great thing. Yes … a truly great thing. It will finally shut all those bloody “it’s a choice” people up. Even though, sometimes, for some people, it is totally a choice, well, sort of, and that’s absolutely fine too. But this would prove when some people, people like me, say it’s not a choice, we’re not lying.

“Oh yaasss Gaga, everything will be fine once you prove you were born this way?” Darwin grins, gesturing in a way that can only be described as vogueing. “Is that why we look for the genes that make people autistic and dyslexic and depressed? So we can say it’s okay honey, they were born this way, let them be?”

Autistic and dyslexic and depressed? No. I guess we look … why do we look? We look so we can find “targets” in the body so we can develop drugs that help? Is that true? Is that why we’re doing it? Maybe for depression … but for the others? Drugs? I guess so. Targeted interventions. To help.

“Congratulations, darling!” Darwin slow claps in between dance moves. “Your finding may pave the way for a new kind of targeted intervention – a chemical conversion therapy!”

Oh god, I feel sick.

“This is possible of course,” Curie chimes in, and then barks “Cease silly dancing while I’m talking!” at Darwin. He stops until Curie turns back to me, but then proceeds to vogue especially exaggeratedly but silently behind her. Curie, clearly aware, chooses to rise above it, although the labrys tattoo on her neck pulses from the effort. “Yes, bad may come from your finding. Bad as well as good can come from any knowledge. But by running from the bad you are also cancelling the good.”

I ponder this and attempt to take another swig of whisky, only to find I’ve finished the lot. I let the bottle fall to the floor as I sigh loudly. Progress comes with risks. Sometimes trailblazers like Curie take the damage so future generations can benefit. But I won’t be the one to take the damage this could cause, or not the only one. This could be so much bigger than me, and impact people who never asked me to look for this stupid genetic link in the first place. Those people would surely want me to bury this result right now, before it causes any harm.

“It’s all relative, I suppose,” comes a gruff German voice from the corner of the room. I look up to see a muscled and thickly moustachioed figure leaning against the wall, dressed entirely in black leather, with tufts of chest hair protruding from his vest. I’m no longer surprised by the incongruous outfit and manner – this is obviously Einstein. “Call me Big Al,” he says as he removes his aviator sunglasses. “My friends here make good arguments.” Curie nods proudly, Darwin giggles shyly as he eyes up Einstein’s biceps. “Sometimes you must trust in the bigger picture. You must trust that the balance of progress will eventually fall on the side of good, even if you’re no longer around to see the balance tip, or to feel the benefit.”

I understand what he’s saying, I should have faith that good will eventually win out, but surely this particular leap of faith is too big?

“But for better or worse,” Einstein continues, “the fact remains that this truth exists. Maybe it exists at different times for different observers, but it exists. In the future it will exist for another observer. But today it exists for you. The world will need help understanding this truth. And the best person to explain it is you.”

Am I the best person to explain it? I’m not so sure. What gives me the right? What gives anyone the right? I guess even if I’m not the best though, I’m certainly not the worst. After all, a part of this is my personal truth, not just my science. I suppose maybe I can try to own it? Facts never exist in a vacuum. Maybe I can not only release the finding, I can also add my very gay voice to it…

“Exactly kid, you can be part of the conversation, like I was. The Americans listened to me when I said they needed to beat the Germans to the atom bomb. They listened because I had authority. You need to be someone with authority.”

Damn right I do! I stand up and reach for another glug of whisky, then remember the bottle is finished and on the floor. I kick it out of mock frustration. My aim’s a little off, so instead of sending it across the room as intended, I clip the edge and it does a little spin in front of me. Looking at it makes me feel dizzy, so I sit down again. Where was I? Yes. Damn right I do! I can shape things. Just like these tired gay stereotypes my subconscious is attributing to ghosts of scientists past, this data is dangerous, but it’s better in my gay hands than in others. Sure, I’m no Einstein – “No you certainly are not,” Darwin quips as he leans back to view Einstein from a slightly different angle – but if I found this then I’m the authority and I’ll decide how it gets used, and I’ll ensure it’s only ever used for good!

“Now that’s a bit of a leap,” Einstein interrupts my triumphant thoughts. “Why are people always misunderstanding me when I believe I’m making myself perfectly clear? You can work to be part of the conversation, that’s true. But you will never have the final say. People with power will always listen to their own hearts, and if you happen to agree with them you will be credited. If not, oh well, you will be ignored. I was ignored over Japan, and nuclear weapons still proliferate.”

I pop my head between my knees, which has the twofold effect of calming my nausea and helping me think. I remember reading Einstein was a pacifist really, and totally against the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings. They ignored bloody Einstein? Big Al? If he couldn’t prevent carnage, disaster, death, what hope do I possibly have? It must have been awful feeling partly responsible for all of that, not being able to stop it…

I concentrate on my breathing. Deeply. In, out, in, out.

…but at least he tried, right? He did something. He stood up and was counted. It didn’t always work out the way he wanted, but he still did all he could. He shared his truth, and people heard what he thought. All these years later and even I’ve heard what he thought. And it’s influenced me. Surely that has to matter? Plus the truth is out there, or something, is that what he said?

“The truth exists,” Einstein repeats, a little snippily.

Yes thanks, the truth exists. All of these truths always exist. I happen to have uncovered a bit of queer truth. Even if I hide this for now, in time others will uncover the same bit and more. I can’t stop people using it the wrong way. I can’t stop all harm. But I can at least try. I can do more than just have faith that good will eventually balance out bad. Only a tiny bit more, but more nonetheless. I can use my voice, a queer voice, and I can make it a voice that counts, that influences, that matters. I can make it the voice of a somebody.

With my head still between my knees, I wait for another dead-scientist-turned-oversimplified-queer-apparition to contradict me. But no one does. I look up and the room is empty. I hiccup, and realise the fact I’m on my own again must mean my decision is made. Maybe I never really had a choice. I finally smile, but only slightly.

I call Maria and tell her my p < 0.2 x 10-9. She asks if I’m drunk, and says she doesn’t understand what this p business means. I tell her yes, dangerously so, and that she soon will. I’m going to be the gay somebody who tells everyone exactly what it means.

She tells me to drink some water, she’ll see me at home, and that I’ll always be her gay somebody.

About Effie Black

Effie Black has a background in science, and enjoys writing fiction with a link to science, often from a queer perspective. She’s written several short stories and is currently working on a novel.

Effie Black has a background in science, and enjoys writing fiction with a link to science, often from a queer perspective. She’s written several short stories and is currently working on a novel.

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