Adventures in the Petri Dish of Love

Scientists go online in search of rational soul mates.

By Josie Glausiusz|Friday, February 23, 2007

Eric McRae, a six-foot-four electrical engineer with a trim goatee, an engaging smile, and a passion for playing the didgeridoo, was seeking companionship after his 12-year marriage ended two years ago. His needs were modest: After squandering time on half-baked relationships, he was just looking for friends who could discuss science with him. Still, he harbored a not-so-secret desire for someone special: "A smart woman with a sense of humor, wearing hiking boots, a backpack, and carrying a magnifying glass," he recalls. "I'd be hers!"

At first McRae tried hanging out in bars, "conspicuously reading science journals," but met no one that way. So, on the last night of July 2006, he signed up with Science Connection, a Nova Scotia–based dating service for scientists. He sent three messages to women on the Web site and fell "head over heels in love" with his first respondent, a woman with a Web site displaying her own beautiful bug drawings. Last Labor Day weekend, the two met for the first time and went walking on the beach in McRae's hometown of Port Townsend, Washington. At one point, McRae recalls, they simultaneously pulled out their loupes (a small magnifying lens) to examine the fine structure of a seaweed. "We were both incredulous when we realized what had just happened," he says. "A person carrying a loupe reveals a trait of deep curiosity. We were both more than a bit pleased."

FAMOUS SCIENTIST COUPLES:

MARIE AND PIERRE CURIE, who married in 1895 and shared the 1903 Nobel Prize in physics for their research on radiation. Sadly, Pierre was run over by a horse-drawn wagon in 1906 and killed.

The Curies' daughter IRÈNE married Marie's lab assistant, physicist FRÉDÉRIC JOLIOT, in 1926; the two shared the 1935 Chemistry Nobel.

ALBERT EINSTEIN married fellow physics student MILEVA MARIC in 1903; he credited her with "solv[ing] all of his mathematical problems." They later divorced.

GERTY RADNITZ married CARL CORI in 1920. The pair captured the 1947 Nobel in medicine for their work on carbohydrate metabolism.

MARY and LOUIS LEAKEY, who married in 1936, unearthed a number of important hominid fossils, including 2-million-year-old Homo habilis, or "handy man."

Wildlife biologists AMY VEDDER and BILL WEBER, who married in 1972, conducted pioneering studies of Rwanda's gorillas and co-founded the Mountain Gorilla Project.

Planetary geologist ADRIANA OCAMPO and her husband, archaeologist KEVIN POPE, investigated the Chicxulub crater in Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula, which was carved out by a meteor that probably killed the dinosaurs.

In today's Internet-obsessed era, online dating has become a favorite way for singles to connect with those who share their (sometimes very particular) interests or cultural backgrounds. There are dating sites for Jews, Asians, Christians, gays, Ivy League grads, and green-minded vegans. So why not for scientists, who were some of the earliest adopters of the Net? As it happens, Science Connection has been fostering matches online since 1995, an era before it was common to dazzle strangers with hyperbolic Web profiles and witty instant messages. Founded by Anne Lambert, a wildlife biologist seeking to start a new business—she had briefly considered becoming a garlic farmer—Science Connection claims a fair degree of success. More than 13,000 members have joined since its inception, 146 members have reported becoming engaged or married, and a further 253 are in a "serious relationship." Over a thousand others, Lambert estimates, have dated casually. At least 12 babies have been born to couples who met on the site. Still, it's small potatoes compared with Match.com, which claims 15 million members worldwide and a reported 400 marriages or engagements every month.

Science Connection's membership may be slender—at any time, it has only 1,000 to 1,400 enrollees—but its focused goals mean that it has had a big impact on its targeted community. Back in the early 1980s, while working at Long Point Bird Observatory in Ontario, Lambert noticed that a fair amount of mating was going on—not just among the birds but among the birders too. "I thought that there's a deep affinity, a compatibility, based on that kind of interest," she says. So she set up a database, designed a questionnaire, and in 1991 began advertising Science Connection in nature and science magazines, offering free membership to the first 100 of each sex to join. She quickly built up a thriving clientele, who corresponded by mail until the service went online four years later.

Part of Science Connection's appeal, according to Lambert, lies in the high intelligence of its members. "I think people in science are naturally drawn to other smart people," she says. "Scientists are generally articulate, well-adjusted (not always, but more than average), socially confident and capable people. They're often witty, and they're usually well-read outside of science. They are great people to bring home to your parents."

Although they have plenty of opportunities to meet partners—traveling to conferences, collaborating on papers—scientists can also face dating obstacles peculiar to the nature of their work. They may put in long hours or spend years pursuing tenure to the exclusion of all else, including marriage and raising a family. Or they may be perceived as socially inept outside their circle (a smattering of Science Connection members are self-diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome). Yet Lambert insists that the tongue-tied geek stereotype is often just a matter of mismatched attitudes. "Put any two science types in a room together and they'll find lots to talk about," Lambert says. "Whereas if you put them with someone chosen at random from the population, they might struggle with small talk on subjects like sports, TV, shopping, and Hollywood movies."

Scientists also tend to be highly analytical in a way that seems alien to many nonscientists. As one Science Connection member puts it, they are "used to scrutinizing every detail, which most people see as a negative trait. They spend their lives looking for patterns in data. The average population is not this way at all; neither do potential partners understand it. Scientists tend to think from multiple points of view simultaneously, which drives most people crazy." The flip side is that Science Connection members often come across as curious, clear thinking, and flexible. For people who appreciate logical thought combined with a lively mind, who can tolerate long working hours in a partner, who love the outdoors and have little patience for superstition, Lambert's service can be a real boon.

To log on to Science Connection is to enter a singles site that alternates between quirky and sincere, a niche culture worlds apart from mainstream sites like Lavalife or eHarmony. Its logo is two lab rats, and its introductory blurb reads, "The world is a crowded petri dish, and yet for those of an intellectual bent who happen to be single, it's not easy, especially past university age, to find that certain microbe for a great symbiotic relationship." Ironically, Science Connection boasts no special insight into the science of human reproduction, unlike services such as eHarmony, which claims to have "a scientific approach to match highly compatible singles," using a system based on "29 Key Dimensions of Compatibility," or Chemistry.com, which professes an understanding of core aspects of personality, "even down to the level of brain chemistry." Automated matchmaking based on algorithms "sounds gimmicky to me," says Lambert, who argues that the factors influencing human mate choice are complex and mysterious. "I think we have an exaggerated sense of our own rationality. Most of what goes on psychologically is below the conscious level, including why we like certain people much more than we like other people." She cites experiments in which women were given sweaty T-shirts worn by various men. The women preferred the smell of the shirts worn by men whose immune systems differed most from their own.

Science Connection's sign-up questionnaire is straightforward, as perhaps befits a group of people who are broadly reluctant to divulge intimate information. Lambert notes that scientists are often "rather circumspect. They are not people who can relate to pouring out their hearts on Oprah or to people boasting about themselves in personal ads." Instead, members are asked about their favorite books and music, as well as desirable characteristics in a prospective partner. "I think you can retain your dignity through this process, but it's hard to do if you're being asked personal questions about all your disappointments and past relationships," Lambert says.

A glance through Science Connection's profiles reveals physicists, psychotherapists, microbiologists, geologists, and high school science teachers, among others. Many display a disarming wit and refreshing candor. A physics grad student, "midway between couch potato and running vine," pledges to "try for reasonable unchauvinistic chivalry." "Deeply happy as a hermit," reads another, "but looking for like-minded women . . . with whom to scientifically explore the wilds of the introspective." Exploring the real wilds appears popular: Birding and hiking are commonly cited pursuits. Most members are defiant nonbelievers—not surprising, since a 1998 Nature survey of National Academy of Sciences members found that only 7 percent professed faith in a personal God. "A spiritual but not religious type—disdain dogma and religion," one typical profile proclaims. The most common religion listed on the site is "none," closely followed by atheist and agnostic, with a few Christians, Jews, and an occasional deist, pantheist, or humanist in the mix.

Take Elliot Frank. A 57-year-old high school biology teacher—"I'm on the front lines of the evolution issue," he says—he describes his religion as "Einsteinian/Spinozan," lives surrounded by books, loves dancing and blues guitar, and lists his greatest sources of enjoyment as "kids, thinking clearly and critically, walking in the woods." He tried Science Connection "because I'm overwhelmed with reasonably intelligent people who ask for my sign or recommend homeopathic remedies. I'm tired of being regarded as weird."

Or take Sue Phillips, a 51-year-old divorced math teacher, who says that she feels most comfortable with men "who tend to be structured, analytical, and rational." People in the sciences, she says, "are better at critical thinking, are freethinkers, are healthier, and are interested in environmental conservation." Also, "I love facial hair on men, which is very typical for science types."

Environmental protection and nature conservation are topics that pop up frequently in Science Connection profiles. But the truly dedicated green soul can try another, similarly specialized site, GreenSingles (www.greensingles.com). In a sense, environmentalists and scientists face similar obstacles when it comes to finding partners: They are often uncompromising in their ideals, do not suffer fools gladly, and carve out lives for themselves that may take them to remote spots in which dating options are few. "We're often looked on as strange people, weirdos," says Lee Schulman, founder of GreenSingles, as well as a sister site for vegetarians and vegans, VeggieLove.com. "People don't understand why we're so passionate about these issues. We get ridiculed. It's as if we're wearing a big red X on our foreheads when we talk to people who have no interest. They think they can ride their Hummers and it doesn't affect anything." But GreenSingles members know "that the environment is a fragile thing and live their lives accordingly." On Match.com, an environmentalist might have to scroll through thousands of profiles to find a green soul mate. On GreenSingles, "you start with the same values, and you build the relationship from that," Schulman says.

GreenSingles members are willing to go the extra mile to find other green devotees, as demonstrated by some of the success stories on the site. About 45,000 people have joined GreenSingles since its creation in 1985 as a postal newsletter (it went online in 1996), and Schulman estimates that about 300 members have married partners they met on the site. Chris (a.k.a. "Sealion") writes from an island in British Columbia that a woman he met through the site, "a real heart-stopper," lived "a scant one-hour drive, followed by a seven-hour ferry, followed by another six-hour drive (and another ferry) away. We quickly made a connection, and now we're happily hooked up. She even moved on over to my island and is enjoying the fresh start." A good thing, too: According to the writer, "another lonely winter huddled up alone in my cabin and I fear I would have just embraced the madness . . . and started talking to animals. Actually I still talk to animals, but you get my drift."

Other GreenSingles members choose a less extreme lifestyle—recycling, driving hybrid cars, eating a vegetarian diet—but they aren't prepared to abandon their principles for the sake of love. "I could get lucky with a supermodel—not likely, but a great idea—and then face the prospect of her ordering ham and eggs for breakfast. I couldn't hang with that," says sales manager Jeff Harris, 46. And Douglas Johnson, a 52-year-old scientist who runs Environmental Intelligence, a company that steers clients (including NASA) to new green technologies, says that "at a fundamental level, being green is about loving others—other people, other species."

Divorced since 1999, Johnson is prepared to wait for a while to meet his intellectual and emotional equivalent. "I failed to do this in some of my prior relationships," he says, "and the lesson of the difficulties that ensued stuck with me." It's the same lesson that brought Eric McRae to Science Connection. "There were times in my life when I got into a relationship just to avoid being alone," he says. So he is happily surprised to have found a woman who is compatible with him on so many different levels—a common intellectual curiosity, a mutual attraction, a shared love of singing and nature. Though his new love lives far away in Georgia, they plan to spend the summer together and see a future with each other. "She strikes me as a person who hasn't given up," McRae says, "and neither have I."


Einstein in Love by Dennis Overbye details the romance between Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić. See also Albert Einstein/Mileva Marić: The Love Letters, edited by Jürgen Renn and Robert Schulmann and translated by Shawn Michael Smith.

Also read about women's adventures in science in Space Rocks: The Story of Planetary Geologist Adriana Ocampo by Lorraine Jean Hopping, and Gorilla Mountain: The Story of Wildlife Biologist Amy Vedder by Rene Ebersole.

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