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
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.
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!
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.
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.