Who studies the studiers?

I am interested in the increase and growth of knowledge.  The more bizarre facts of life, the odd little quirks of behavior and situation, fascinate me.  Finding out the root meaning of a word like awful or rediscovering that Rainbow Brite had an enemy named Murky AND one named Lurky are true joys for my oddly-cornered mind.  Mindless details about dinoflagellates interest me simply for sheer randomness.

And then of course, there’s the extrapolation.  How does language and TV culture and science form a social trend, a cultural belief, or a political understanding?  How do we think about what we do?  How do we understand who and why we are?  How do the big questions get answered through the tiny little details?

Stefan Helmriech is finding out.  His current area of study – microbial oceanographers, formerly known as marine microbiologists – is targeted towards understanding the people who do the science, why they do it, and how they see their role in the wider world.  I’ll leave you with the last excerpts from MIT’s article:

‘Helmreich says. “The question I wanted to answer was this: How is it that people working in the field of microbial ocean biology come to see their work as meaningful both to them and to the rest of us?”

He learned, for example, that Chisholm saw ocean phytoplankton as a kind of forest that could, in time-lapse photography, be seen to breathe. “I believe the earth is a living entity,” she told him. He saw DeLong as claiming that, “the entwined orders of nature and society cannot exist without microbes” and that “microbes are mostly allies to be understood rather than enemies to be defeated.”

DeLong said his post-doc students, whom Helmreich pressed to explain their work, benefited by being questioned about their underlying beliefs about science. “Sometimes we’re so swept up in the details, that we don’t see the forest for the trees,” DeLong says. “Often times we take a lot for granted. We consider many points of view and facts as being given, but they aren’t — they’re built on presumptions.”

Science, Helmreich concludes, cannot be divorced from culture. Medieval Christians saw the ocean as frightening chaos; 19th Century Romantics saw it as a symbol of the sublime, both beautiful and terrifying. In the 20th Century, filmmakers like Jacques-Yves Cousteau made the underwater world seem downright friendly. Today, we speak of saving the ocean from overfishing, pollution, and global warming. And, he says, we do not know whether the future sea will be friend or foe; much depends on what we humans do.’

It sounded like dinosaurs were walking.

I love the descriptive techniques of children.  They help us remember to see in ways we’ve forgotten, to approach the world with wonder, to allow our minds to leap across improbabilities as easily as we step across a puddle.  Life becomes simple: problems become places to experiment, rather than mourn.  Crops drying out?  Rain dance.  Flight delayed?  Ride the unicorn.

In that spirit, I give you a meteor.  Its sound may not quite be like the Giants of mythology or Paul Bunyan wrassling with his ox, but it is something that can be imagined as powerful.  Its light may not have taken the world, but it has illuminated something, a brief, intense flare of great beauty.  Perhaps it will spark some of that childlike wonder in you.