Editor’s note: This week, Aaron Hartmann is preparing for coral spawning in the Caribbean. He arranged for a guest post from Nayantara Jain, a masters student at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
When I was in high school, I thought science was all about memorizing the order of elements I would never see, figuring out the difference between direct and alternating currents and finding the boiling points of random liquids.
In a physics class once, I was asked to find the boiling point of one such highly-flammable liquid – toluene – and I nearly set my hand on fire. I ran out with a test tube ablaze in my hand. I doused the flame in the toilet outside and never fully entered a lab again.
More than ten years after that unfortunate incident I find myself in a masters program at Scripps.
I have always thought of myself as a humanities sort of person. I never even liked to be referred to as a “social sciences” student, because I thought philosophy – which was the focus of my bachelor’s degree – was about the mind and analytical thought rather than some method-based science involving hypothesis, lab experiments and disproving with a margin of statistical uncertainty.
This was my error, and I think many people share the same. So what changed?
Curiosity. It may have killed the cat, but it gave birth to a scientist. A series of events after my undergraduate degree led to me living and working as a scuba diving instructor in the Andaman Islands. Inspired by the beauty around me, my writing flourished.
I wrote about the different fish I’d see, about interesting dives, about amusing guests I encountered. I worked for a year assisting biologists collecting underwater data at an island ecology research base called the Andaman & Nicobar Environmental Team, and I began asking questions.
I wondered why nudibranches were so colourful. I wondered why the coral was dying in some places but thriving in others. I wondered why sometimes the ocean was murky, and why sometimes the currents were strong. I wondered why the surface was sometimes still as glass, and sometimes frothing and rough. I realized that the questions inspired art, and that the answers were found in science.
So I applied to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, where scientists were answering questions like mine. I arrived in San Diego only the night before my program began. Compared to a remote island with no running water, scarce electricity and sporadic dial-up internet, San Diego was an enormous change.
And yet what scared me most was not any of the lifestyle changes, but the fact that I was about to be surrounded by, compared to and working with scientists. I had a picture of science in my head, I guess, and while I wanted to know what they did, I was still wary.
What did I find? I found that science was all about finding out more about what you loved. I met a surfer doing a doctoral work on waves. I met a long-haired professor who has the most intriguing coral facts and looks just like a fellow diving instructor (missing only a tan).
I met a guy who has the immensely envious job of flying a small aircraft low over the ocean to photograph whales. I met a professor who tells the most beautiful stories about how life diversified, and knows more about worms than I thought there was to know.
I went on research ships where I held fish that had been brought up from thousands of metres under the sea and saw mola-molas and dolphins and whales at the surface.
The first time I looked under a microscope I saw a teeny-tiny little crustacean, replete with all his arms and legs and organs and colours. When I picked him out of the petridish with tweezers he looked no different than a grain of sand. Yet here he was, from hundreds of meters below the surface, a fully functioning living being with stories of his own to tell.
Stories — one of the main reasons why I am here. I think for every question that is thought of while looking at something dramatic in nature, there is a story waiting to be told. And the best stories are fantastical ones, based on true life. So while I am not quite ready to trade in my pen and my creativity for a Bunsen burner and a data chart, science is helping me bridge the gap between fact and fantasy.
I am working on an educational app for children, where different reef fish will talk to them about their lives, their habits and their threats. I write a blog where I hope to share lessons about life from the deep. I intend to go back to teaching people to scuba dive – and to teach in a way that introduces not only the colourful sights of the sea, but also its deep mysteries.
Science is not about absent-minded, grey-haired, short-trousered professors looking at obscure particles and measuring them in units we’ve never heard of. Well, at least, it’s not all about them.
It is also about incredible creatures, adaptations to extreme conditions, winds, storms, oceans and the atmosphere in which we all live and must all protect. And this is what I hope most to share.