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Saturday, September 6, 2008

Like me and orcas

"I was transfixed. As I now recall it, there was only one sensation in my head: pure elation mixed with amazement at such perfection...I remember thinking, with what was left of my consciousness, that I wanted no part of the science of beavers and otters; I wanted never to know how they performed their marvels; I wished for no news about the physiology of their breathing, the coordination of their muscles, their vision, their endocrine systems, their digestive tracts. I hoped never to have to think of them as collections of cells. All I asked for was the full hairy complexity, then in front of my eyes, of whole, intact beavers and otters in motion." ~ Lewis Thomas

I've been reading Lewis Thomas' "notes of a biology watcher" in his book The Medusa and the Snail. You may know him better from his book The Lives of a Cell, but his way with words and his wit is at its best in this collection of essays, where he explores all sorts of biological wonders.

This passage really jumped out at me, since it reflects exactly how I feel while I'm watching orcas. My heart pounds and I'm in total awe of the animals before me, and I care nothing about physiological processes or theories of animal behavior or chains of chemical reactions. More and more, as I question whether I really want to be a full-fledged scientist, I realize that many of those who are doing research have become blinded against that raw passion that draws so many of us to the field of biology in the first place.

Several instances from last summer come to mind: I was sitting on a research boat while Grace (L2) was swimming along beside us. You could look right down into the water and see her whole body gliding effortlessly along, so rare to have such an extended view of them swimming underwater, then she turned on a dime and disappeared the other direction. All the scientists were uninterested since it wasn't an opportunity to collect data, some were not even looking. I was in a classroom listening to a lecture that had a title that led me to believe we would be talking about boat-vessel interactions, but instead we were talking about cylindrical versus spherical sound propagation models. Had these people ever even seen the whales interacting with boats? I was on the rocks at the lighthouse while the whales were passing by, and a researcher wanted to talk about how I tell the difference between two different vocalizations. His back was to the whales swimming a hundred yards behind him! I didn't want to answer his questions, I just wanted to watch the whales.

I know it's very possible to both be a scientist and maintain the passion and intrigue that got you interested in the first place - the best scientists succeed at doing both - but I also see how easy it is to get so wrapped up in that science that the pure amazement of the natural world can get lost in it all. I still don't know what my true calling is, but it's starting to feel like what is considered good, hard science is far removed from what really matters to me about the orcas, continuing to understand them better, sharing their magnificence with others, and helping to make sure they're around for a long time to come. Ultimately, science always comes down to observation, and I feel like that's when I always learn the most about the whales: when I'm observing them, just taking it all in.


Vera said...

All right! Go, Monika!

juliana said...

Excellent post! I kept thinking, before I got to the end of it, "But why AREN'T there more people who are in between, who can appreciate the awe of life and study it at the same time?" This is really perplexing to me, too.