July 14, 2010
For much of my life, I have read about explorers and their expeditions. I am fascinated with their exploits. I wanted to know more than the material stuff-shirt historians deemed appropriate for publication. I wanted to know the human stories – some dark, some terrifying, some humorous – that never quite seems to fit in the plot of a scientific narrative that focuses on data collection and analysis, results and significance.
From my own experience, I knew there were more aspects to scientific stories than what is usually covered in the "authorized" publications. You don't always like your colleagues. The food may be bad, the insects may be insufferable, government officials may be corrupt, and you may run into a party on an isolated highway set up for a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style ambush (true story, but not to be related here).
These stories are important for future scientists to know. How do you respond when it is "suggested" you offer a bribe – oh, excuse me, "tip" – for speeding you through a border checkpoint? How do you tactfully get out of your camp when you're joined at your fire by a group of men in the middle of nowhere? Why it is a bad idea to be in a party of three? (Because someone usually ends up the odd-man out, as has happened to me on occasion.)
Many of the mundane irritants (which often don't show up in scientific narratives) can eventually overwhelm an expedition's participants. Interpersonal friction, too much heat or not enough of the same, too much water or too little, not enough sleep, dodgy food (definitely NOT a problem here), malfunctioning equipment, tedium, and boredom sap the soul and can turn a band of happy adventurers into a miserable, mutinous mob.
We began as a band of happy adventurers. We end as a band of happy, though exhausted, adventurers.
I have made it a point to report on the mundane aspects of this expedition, whether it be overflowing drains; broken coffeemakers; or sweaty, smelly clothes, I hope I have helped you, the reader understand the sacrifices we – and all field scientists in general – have made and continue to make in the name of better understanding our world.
If months from now, you hear a news report about plastics in the ocean and – while pondering what you hear, wonder how the hell we put up with stifling heat, broiling sunshine, and days and days of seeing nothing but water on the horizon – I will have done my job well.
Forget the images you see in the media of clean labs, spotless white lab coats, and eccentrics who speak with perfect diction – and who never let a colorful metaphor (i.e., a curse) slip past their lips in the heat of scientific battle. Scientists are as human as anyone else. But their efforts to learn about the world around us often come at a great cost – sometimes the ultimate cost, death. They are my heroes. My shipmates are my heroes. I hope that some of you will share my admiration for what they have accomplished.