Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Why go back to all those places?

In my research I have been all over the Philippines looking for shells. There is one beach in Sorsogon that has a lot of tellins, these are thin shelled pink or yellow clams. I was there in 1999. Now I plan to go back in the third week of May.

No one journeys without a reason in mind. For some it is a search for identity, their selves lost in the business of daily life. Some seek spiritual enlightenment and an encounter with the Divine. Some seek better economic pastures. Some seek liberation. Some seek some aspect of truth.

John Steinbeck before leaving on the now celebrated "Sea of Cortez" expedition used a fish to illustrate why we need to travel to distant places. He used the Sierra as an example. This mackarel is an important fishery product of the Southern California coast. Steinbeck said you can learn about the fish from a book, see the fish itself in the museum or sold in the market. You can count it's spines and characterise its DNA . You can be sure that indeed it is the Sierra.

But can you really know the Sierra? or any marine animal for that matter? Well this sounds like a fundamental question in epistemology. We want to know the truth about something and once we think we do, we are pleased with ourselves. But as Steinbeck knew, we need to experience the truth about something that is alive or unknown. Without beholding the hidden beauty of the Olive shell as it emerges from the sand, could we know everything about this animal from the shell cabinet?

Most likely not. In order to appreciate the wholeness of the animal you must observe it in its habitat. Some beauty we behold in the shell cabinet are really hidden. Hidden by the periostracum, a brown covering that protects the shell from the elemental wind and waves is the mathematical beauty of the shell. The secret and beauty remain hidden until the eye is opened and sees.

That's why I have to go back. The science is a job. It is an exciting job. I have to keep my eye open and mind alert whilst appreciating the endless beauty of the coast. I will spend long hours on the intertidal, looking everywhere.

There will be publications to follow. But the best product is the new questions that I will have to answer and others especially that my students will have to answer. Then they will undertake their own journeys of discovery. That is the only certainty in science. That is the only absolute truth in science. And it doesn't matter how and when you get there.

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