Science and Writing

I want to write about science. Well, I don’t really, I’m dragging

my heavy arms to the keyboard, I have surfed every website I can think of, I

have even done the washing up. It’s not that I don’t like science.

I find some aspects of it fascinating in small doses. It’s just so big.

I don’t know where to begin. Or end.

There is no beginning or end, just a story spiralling ever inwards and outwards,

over itself and through the gaps in the middle. People know lots but no-one

is ever sure of anything. That’s the whole beautiful premise of science.

But equally, in our society, it’s somehow seen as fact, as Truth, as having

the Answers. And the answers are held within, they’re out there for the


I visited a primary school a while ago to talk about Antarctica and was introduced

as an explorer. It made me smile, but this was the way the teacher had managed

to fit me into the national curriculum; explorers were the topic of the week.

Initially we decided that I kind of was an explorer, yes, since I was going

to Antarctica and that was an exciting place that not many folk went to. But

as the classroom chat developed, and the kids asked more questions about my

work, we learnt that I truly was an explorer and that one way of being an explorer

today was to be a scientist. (I would argue that any academic, or independent

thinker is an explorer by the same premise but that discussion wasn’t

entirely relevant to the 6 year-olds in front of me.) Anyway, it suddenly made

it feel exciting, and relevant. The discovery of things we don’t yet know,

the pushing back of knowledge boundaries. Exploring unchartered territory. And

then I felt very underqualified and returned to the safer topic of what we did

with our poo.

Going to the Antarctic as a scientist was another a very humbling experience.

Until then, I had done my thing, taken courses, read books, splashed around

in a lab happily confident that nobody really cared about what I was doing and

that in the grand scheme of things it wasn’t very important. To me it

was life-changing and misery-making, but that’s the nature of a Ph.D.

The rest of the world didn’t bother with details, they were content as

long as I jumped through and over the various hoops and hurdles necessary to

qualify. And then I got this job with BAS.

I’d like to say that the work suddenly became important and relevant

because it was important and relevant. Because it was crucial to our understanding

of climate change. Because it was cutting edge and would ultimately save the

world. These things might well be true and have certainly been argued convincingly

(well, maybe not the world-saving bit) which is why we had the funding in the

first place. For me, however, the scariest bit was the faith my colleagues on

the ice seemed to have in the value of our work. Sometimes it was justifiably

skeptical faith (‘bloody beakers’ was not an uncommon phrase to

have directed at us) but the entire infrastructure nominally existed to make

science programmes possible. On some level, therefore, everyone justified their

existence by the science that happened there. And again justifiably, they wanted

to know what they were going to all this hard work for. Builders, plumbers,

electricians.. everyone but scientists really, would ask me for bite –sized

explanations of the point of our lab. And seeing as we’re government-funded,

that’s not an unreasonable demand.

So why do I shy away from talking about it? Why didn’t it crop up the

whole time on this website while I was down there? Even strangers sent me emails

asking for a description of the science I was doing!

Well, firstly, it was my job and it was hard work and often not much fun and

at the bottom bottom level of field science that we were working at it seemed

to take all my energy just to keep kit running, let alone explain and understand

its greater purpose. I knew I had known it once and been convinced then and

that was enough. At the time, it was my job to get the numbers and someone else’s

to do something with them. I didn’t have the energy or interest to do

any more.

Secondly, it’s incredibly daunting to speak authoritatively about anything

scientific because I’d probably get it wrong, or not entirely right. I’d

far rather rant about something I know nothing about (politics, capitalism,

the relative merits of golf) than about something I am meant to have studied

in depth but actually have just realized how much there is to know and how little

I know. I have known bits at times, generally the night before an exam, but

I have a memory like a sieve and get myself in a terrible muddle when trying

to piece the jigsaw back together. Plus, people ask questions that I quite simply

don’t know the answer to. Is using chip fat a good idea as a new fuel

for cars? Is nuclear fuel bad? Are the objectives set in Kyoto achievable? What’s

the truth about climate change? Are your results good news or bad?! They’re

good questions and I’m getting better at answering them, realizing that

educated banter is an acceptable response, but my information source is often

exactly the same as that used by the questioner. So often I just wish that one

of the wise people I look up to was there to produce the Right Answer. Or at

least make us believe there is one.

Anyway, Science at Halley is extremely important. Not only for itself, as

itself and for what it sets out to do, but also for the psychological peace

of its inhabitants. Most of the guys I wintered with might not agree with me

on this but it did on some level keep the base going, keep us going, give us

the tiniest hint of a sense of purpose. Without the greater umbrella of our

work, I would have struggled hard to justify the imprint we were leaving on

the continent. In fact, I did often struggle with our existence there and came

up with a variety of bluffs to keep me happy. Sometimes I saw myself as a park

warden, other times convinced myself that the science we did had the potential

to be really helpful, more often than not, I settled on the thinking that if

we weren’t there then someone else might be and they could easily be exploiting

the land even more than we were. And anyway, isn’t the whole Antarctic

presence thing just political?

Since getting back I have been approached to consider turning my web diaries

into a book. Initially I didn’t really see the point. They’re on

the web after all and were never meant to be anything other than a way of keeping

in touch with my friends and family as well as recording memories for myself.

As a collection of stories, they might have been fun to read at the time but

I still don’t know exactly what the allure was to people I have never

met. Why did you read and why would you read? Or what would you read? As they

currently stand, they lack something. They lack a lot and are incredibly lopsided.

Most obviously, they don’t tell anyone else’s story and they barely

mention the daily work we did.

I can’t change the bias that they are my experience and mine only. And

I can’t and won’t tell someone else’s story or pretend that

anyone had the same year that I did who was there at the same time. Some people

hated it. Some people were not moved either way. For many, I have no idea what

they thought. We weren’t on summer camp, we didn’t sit around and

discuss out deepest philosophies on a regular basis. We won’t become one

strong cohesive group in the future, one for all and all for one. But we had

a good year. We had a great year. Or rather, I had a great year. And I’m

thankful to every winterer, and summerer, who made it so good.

So I’m a bit stuck. It has been suggested that what I could perhaps add,

and which might provide some glue between the diaries, is some background, some

science. There are a number of grand arguments for this: maybe I could inspire

young people to become scientists or help shake the stereotype of my profession,

maybe people reading the entries might inadvertently learn something about climate

change and remember to turn a light bulb off, once, after reading that one chapter..

maybe maybe maybe… but I don’t think that’s why you read this

far or why you’d buy the book. Or is it? So instead of chasing my tail

I’ve decided to come clean and ask you straight, those of you who have

read this far, why did you and what else would you like to see added? Or, and

be honest now, have they had their time and place and should they be gently

left to the multifaceted archive that is the internet.

3 thoughts on “Science and Writing

  1. I like the way you look at the world from various perspectives in wonder and amusement. What you choose to focus on is as interesting as what you think about it – lopsidedness doesn’t really come into it. You are the Michael Palin of Antartica, Cambridge, and various bathtubs. Why is there a need to add anything else? Apart from more, that is!

  2. That’s a very nice post: there’s an issue there, scientists talking about science, that not many people tackle properly. I’m going to say more about it, but no time just now.

    About the book idea: do you mean you are thinking of submitting it to a commercial publisher? I’m guessing it wouldn’t be much work to put together a PDF available to download on the web, and you could see from the reaction the PDF gets whether you think the work of putting together a book is worth it.

  3. Hi Rhian,

    I have been reading your posts since you went to Antarctica. For me its a gateway into a world I could not possibly observe myself. Despite all the globalisation and technolgy, frankly I don’t believe we’ve come any closer to knowing each other. It just seems that we hear about each other too much with knowing anything at all. In this context, your simple style of witing about everything from penguins to fogs to hot baths and living in a closed community really brought the whole experience to me, as if I were there. That is the strength of your writing as compared to other books, on whatever subject. I do think you should consolidate your experiences in Antarctica and publish them, especially for developing countries, where such a possibility is distant not due to lack of interest but lack of opportunity. I could elaborate more but, I do believe you get what I am driving at.

    Enjoyed your escapades in NY too :-). Have fun.

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