So close. So very close. But what an epic finale.
The finale included seven challenges meant to eliminate the eight and ninth competitor, leaving only the winner standing. So on the morning of the second last day of shooting, Owen, Andrew and I climbed three different ladders to reach the roof of the warehouse that had been our set. And the magic that began at the beginning of the individual challenges which allowed me to eliminate Scott, the hands-down frontrunner, continued for the race on the roof.
We shot the introduction to the challenge and said hi to Ted, which was nice because I had never met him before. Andrew and I were then left on an isolated section of roof, out of sight of the crew, to wait for our turns. Then Andrew was called up. I sat under a black umbrella on a gravel roof with three bottles of water and sang songs to stave off boredom, then misgivings that I had been forgotten or was the butt of a joke, then fury. In the end I estimate I was there for an hour and a half while Owen and Andrew did their challenges which made me so mad and hungry that by the time I started my turn, I couldn’t care less to figure out the clues and count footsteps. We were supposed to solve clues and count out the number of feet or metres given by the answer, in the directions provided on the clue. But due to the number of discs and their proximity to each other, a slight miscalculation in direction or the length of a foot meant that there were too many ways to be wrong to bother wasting time trying to count steps perfectly, so, educated guessing seemed like the best approach. I abandoned careful counting and started flipping disks, but I didn’t stress: when I had one minute penalties I chatted with Daniel and Ted about the weather. With 45 seconds left, I turned over the third correct disk, got high fives, and was relieved to be able to leave the roof and eat something. I met Owen and Andrew for lunch and ice cream and the mood was tense. I didn’t realize that neither of them completed the course.
The bus driving was hilarious – again I didn’t stress it, but merely drove slowly and berated the cones that got in my way. I slammed on the brakes in the warehouse to give Chris, the cameraman, a hard time keeping the shot. It was over quickly and we gathered for the results. By this time I knew that I had done well and felt a certain amount of glee. I didn’t want either Andrew or Owen to go home, but was thrilled that it wouldn’t be me. Owen left, and I didn’t even get to cry – Andrew did that for me, uttering his funniest line of the season (and trust me – there were many, he’s a very witty guy): “I believe you call this ’emotion.'”
So, the two nerdiest competitors of the season, the two professional scientists who didn’t compete so much as run their own races, ended up in the finale. Daniel called it the Revenge of the Nerds. For me, it was the final event in the science Olympics for which I had wistfully wished in an unguarded moment during my first interview. It became clearer to me over the weeks that though my official reason for doing the show involved grand ideals about communicating science, my deeper drive was the need to pit my wits against the smartest in the country. After years of frustration as a grad student and postdoc, with dwindling career prospects and a waning interest in the career path to which I had sacrificed so much, I needed something to restore my faith in my abilities. And I got it: after three days of magic, when it seemed like I could do no wrong, I felt a sense of pride that I had been lacking for years.
The first challenge of the finale involved designing a maze that would entrap your opponent. There was only one hour to design and complete the maze, which ended up being very difficult. The difference between mine and Andrew’s designs couldn’t be more stark. His: geometric and rational, mine: a spaghettiesque mess inspired by intestines. It was as if we were both drawing the insides of our brains.
The second challenge was to assemble a puzzle while blindfolded, and I had some misgivings but figured that if I didn’t over-think it I’d be OK. In actuality I should have given more thought to choosing my puzzle. We were given a minute to look at three puzzles: a circle, square and triangle, and chose one that we would have to reassemble. I picked the triangle shape, without really looking at the square, if I had I might have noticed that its centre piece was very distinctive, while the centre piece of the triangle was a pentagon: a non-descript shape with five almost identically correct orientations. As it turned out it took me almost eight minutes longer to finish the triangle than for Andrew to finish his square. I heard him start the dune buggy and take off. I heard the helicopter fly over head, with Martin the camera man filming his circuit. I heard Andrew finish and the helicopter leave. And I could have sworn at that point I started to hear crickets. It was the first moment in weeks of shooting that I felt complete frustration, anger and almost despair. I wanted to throw that goddamn triangle across the quarry. Instead, I took a deep breath, started the puzzle over but this time from the outside in, and got it.
By the time I finished my two laps I was almost 7 minutes behind Andrew. I beat him on the remaining two challenges, but didn’t gain back enough time to win the title.
I stayed upbeat and supportive of Andrew and cheerful for the remaining afternoon, that evening as we ate and drank beers, during breakfast the following morning and until I checked out. But I cried in the taxi to the airport. In the weeks that followed I was glum, beat myself up for losing the competition for such a simple mistake. I was embarrassed, and felt like I had let down family and friends, all the worse for not being able to explain to them what happened.
In the months that followed the ending mattered less and the experience meant more. In reality I got everything I came for: I came to shake up my career, and did; I came to see if I could go toe to toe with other smart asses, and did; I came to see if I would enjoy talking about science and becoming more of a communicator than a scientist, and I do. I came to see if I liked working in television, and I do not. I came to experience something grand, and I did, for 24 days.
I learned a great deal: that those t-shirts that I thought were so flattering are in fact frumpy, I don’t wear baseball caps as well as I thought, and I can actually wire a three way switch and operate a mini hoe. I also learned that all those entrepreneurial types are no smarter or savvier than me, and in fact, it might be time to take charge of my career and do something I love. I learned that the only thing holding me back was doubt and a pernicious tendency to be more self deprecating than I should. I learned that the moment that you’re driving a dune buggy through mud, with a helicopter flying overhead, is a moment to be cherished because when, without committing a major crime, will you ever experience that again? But the most important lesson I learned was that I did everything with an eye to what it could teach my daughter, and that the experience was in fact an homage to her. Like me, courage does not come naturally to my daughter, it’s going to be something that she’ll have to learn. I want my little girl to take the challenges, to do what scares her, to always say yes, to not be afraid to try and most, most importantly, to not be afraid to fail. I’ve been struggling to put into words why I think there’s a certain poetry to coming in second: sometimes the magic works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the journey is the thing that matters.
Now the show is over, and for all the joy it brought me I am ready to move on to a new chapter. I have started my own consultancy, and have been writing and teaching more. I am trying to spend more time with family, and slowly extricate myself from the academic institutions that have made me more and more miserable over the years. I took a holiday, and I occasionally ignore my phone for days. Hannah had her third birthday and is blossoming, slowly letting go of fears that seemed more prominent in her second year. She’s seen the show and says “that looks like you, Mommy!” but her attention wanes and she colours or runs around on her hobby horse. But someday, when she’s old enough, I can show her the DVDs and say this is how you should live your life. If you have the opportunity to try something crazy, say yes. Always say yes.