The Cartoon World of the Scientist

I’d like to begin this blog by commenting on something interesting that Jarrett noted in class, specifically on the way that scientists view the world. In the cartoon (ed note: Aaron is refering to this comic from Abstruse Goose – JEKB), one version of the world contains the sun, some trees, a river, a rabbit. It’s a beautiful scene, and seems pleasant enough, if a bit innocuous. Yet in his opening remarks about the importance of statistics, Jarrett suggested that those who study science, through a mixture of personal interest, passion and professional responsibility, see the underlying equations that tether seemingly disparate characters in this neat cartoon scene. The sun’s rays become hν, photosynthesis yields C6H12O6, etc, etc. The mathematics of statistics reveals these relationships to us, and serves to help the observer understand important underlying relationships, connections, stories.

And those are the things that I find most compelling, most important. The equations, as Galileo once noted, are the language in which the universe is written. And while I find philology interesting, it’s the meaning behind the language I find endlessly fascinating. Part of my passion for science comes from the quest to understand the stories of everything around us: where did this originate, what is currently happening and what might happen in the future? As one tries to peel back the surface of everything he or she superficially interacts with, visually, aurally, tactually, a great sense of humility is necessary to accept the idea that everything related to the observer, in this moment, is nearly completely insignificant to everything that has come before and everything that will, at some point, come to pass. That underlying everything that we as scientists attempt to understand, are great processes, ancient forces that are only accessible to us as a brief moment of time.

I spent the last three days traveling around coastal New Brunswick attempting to locate tiny newly-settled mussels, no bigger than grains of rice, within a 28 vertical foot intertidal zone, in a country I had never, for all intents and purposes, been to before. I drove huge distances, illegally parked next to condemned piers, climbed algae-covered cliff walls to access remote headlands and pursued third-hand, second-hand and very occasionally first-hand reports of where someone’s third cousin had once seen mussels. It was difficult, occasionally frustrating, and by far, the most fun I’ve had in months. I walked into sea caves at low tide, jogged through forested paths to a nearly land-locked interior salt-water lagoon (which actually hosted several mussels) and enjoyed hearing the suffix, “eh”, more than I ever thought I would. But as I jumped from remote headland to remote headland and spoke with the occasional local as we both walked up and down the coast, I realized how much my perception of the natural world differs from the casual observer.

While traveling through New Brunswick, I was often struck by the sheer stunning beauty of its coast: the deep greens and rich browns of algal sheets, hiding dark blues and subtle purples of underlying metamorphic rocks speckled in shining white barnacles amidst armies of rounded periwinkle shells, carefully making their way along rough vertical escarpments. And while the scientist-cartoonist may have seen equations, I saw stories. In grappling with understanding what I was looking at, I saw the ancient rise of Laurentia, the erosive forces of the Iapetus ocean in carving out this section of coastline; on a different time-scale, the first algal photosynthesizers invading the rocks, followed by associated arthropods, herbivorous molluscs, omnivorous crabs, predatory birds. To the casual observer, the shore is simply beautiful. To me, I was walking within the thinnest moments of time, sharing space with the other organisms around me, who all had rich ancestries and hidden secrets waiting to be discovered. How did they get here, what are they doing, how do they shape their environment and how does that environment shape them: evolutionary radiation, phenotypic plasticity, environmental adaptation, community relationships.

And yes, statistics underly the fundamental explanations of all of those processes. So that’s why I completely understand the great importance of this branch of mathematics. Without these tools, our understanding of ecology would be limited to observation, conjecture, mythology. Aristotle’s Physicae Auscultationes is of course, astonishing and one of the most important documents in history, but probably not as rigorously completed as Einstein’s 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies” which gave birth to his notion of special relativity. Rigorous scientific observation, methodology and data analysis has likewise dealt swift and mortal blows to the geocentricity, alchemy, phlogiston, spontaneous generation and the “World Ice Theory” (look it up, it’s as awesome as it sounds). And mathematical analysis is clearly the only way forward, through the cluttered ruins of debunked science. But to me, the math is just the alphabet, simple letters which, through collaboration, provide stories and ultimately, meaning.

I have argued in this book that we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will be regained. I offer this as a formula of reenchantment to invigorate poetry and myth: mysterious and little known organisms live within walking distance of where you sit. Splendor awaits in minute proportions.    — E. O. Wilson

Looking back at the cartoon, I don’t see equations, I see stories. I see the sun, and think about the cooling of celestial gases coalescing into elliptical orbits. I see the mountain in the background, and I see tectonic uplift and fluvial erosion. I see the fern and the trees and think about seed/spore dispersion, the advantages of vascularization and C4 and C3 dark and light reactions. I see the rabbit and I think of the advantages of endothermy and viviparity, of herbivory, carrying capacity and the Red Queen’s coevolutionary arms race. And while equations and statistics underly all of these stories, they simply reveal hidden truths that lie just below the very thin veneer of the world to which we have all have immediate access. And while the casual vacationer strolling along a lonely New Brunswick tide pool doesn’t need to see all of these underlying relationships to appreciate the raw power and beauty of the natural world, there is so much more, always more, lying hidden just below the surface. As I was wrapping up my fieldwork, I saw the stranger walk down the beach into the distance. I kneeled beside a small pool, left behind by the falling tide, and slowly slid my hand underneath several wet sheets of sea lettuce. Quietly tucked into a small crevice below was a tiny blue mussel, sandwiched between a few scattered barnacles and limpets. A 9-hour drive from Boston is a long way to go to find beauty and meaning in the nearly invisible organisms hidden just out of site. But well worth the trip. Ron, you’re covering my gas bills, right? Right???

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