The following essay comes from Lynn Margulis‘ new book, “Luminous Fish.” Lynn has agreed to swing around today to answer any questions you might have for her, whether they be related to this post or other topics you’d like her to weigh in on. Please post your questions in the comments section below. If you’re curious to see what she has discussed on previous stops of her blog tour, check out this post on Pharyngula.
Mas tira un pelito the Spaniards have been saying for centuries que cien bueyes: a pubic hair pulls more forcefully than a hundred oxen. The lure of science and knowledge is very strong but is often outmatched by the lure of pelitos. That human attractions for each other have enduring effects on the great course of scientific inquiry is perhaps underappreciated by readers of literature. Myriad original analyses and observations by hundreds of quietly obsessed scientists profoundly, if circuitously, influence the â€œcivilizedâ€ world. But how does the private life of some obscure researcher alter public â€œprogressâ€ or inspire technological â€œrevolutionâ€? How might the sex life of the chief of medicine at the urban research hospital impede (or accelerate) the newest medical â€œmiracleâ€ that saves (or destroys) the reproductive organs of his young mistress . . . and of hundreds of other anonymously sterile women who are ready to pay?
How does the direct study of nature in nature, say of the night sky by an awkward and shy teenage astronomer, directly affect the probability of a lander to Mars and its return to Earth in 2025? Will the private dramas of two geologistsâ€”say, a petrologist and a geomorphologistâ€”influence verification that magnetotactic bacteria, rod-shaped cells with tiny aligned magnets, were common inhabitants of our red, dusty, and today, entirely barren neighboring planet? Perhaps. Or maybe not. In this era where the majority of well-read, highly educated gentry ignore the wetness of nature in which we are all embedded, the consequences are as numerous as they are obscure.
Perhaps my rude exposure of the personal lives of real people (J. Robert Oppenheimer and Kitty, Phylis and Philip Morrison) as well as the fictional characters [in Luminous Fish], all of whom have little in common except passionate preoccupations with first-hand generation of scientific truths, helps to answer these questions.
A small decision (say, whether to study Geology 101 or Chemistry 101 on Mondays and Wednesdays where the schedule has an opening) may have huge consequences to the future scientist. When a student elects chemistry, she is likely not to be aware of her invisible commitment to retorts, distillation apparatus, laboratory organics, heavy metals, weekends inside a deserted brick laboratory rather than fieldwork on the Triassic slopes of Mt. Sugarloaf or in the tin fields of Malaysia. How do the textbooks, computer programs, educational magazines obtain their â€œfactsâ€?
A very few dedicated loners generate the â€œscientific truthsâ€ that the rest of us must accept on authority. The curious investigator himself fills up with doubt and self-criticism; when he reads the oversimplification or exaggeration attributed to him, he is usually embarrassed. He is dismayed by distortion of his work; he knows he never meant to contribute to problems of human health or environmental degradation. He knows in his heart of hearts what I know and what all my very best colleagues know: The continuous underlying international story of science may exist in some platonic sense, but it can never be told. Not only does no one even know the whole story from end to end but no one even can know it, in principle.
Glimpses accompany flashing insights. One fish at a time, Photoblepharon scintillates. The school reveals patchiness as the swarming swimmers expose their bacterial light in the dark waters of the Gulf of Aqaba. They illuminate and then darken the scuffling sediments below to provide an occasional glimpse. The dazzling flashes sparkle amidst the dullness of routine. I have modeled my prose after these denizens of the deep.
Nature, as we see, yields only with great reluctance and to very few who attempt to engage her. All spread of new knowledge is complicated by the lure of the pelitos and the warm, scented bait of the newborn. But science, in spite of its ignorant detractors, continues to spin its narrative, the big story of our natural history and the probable future of mankind. Potential young scientists and aged returnees in the scientific enterprise are not excluded, at least in principle, by the luck of their village of origin, the shape of their eyelids, or the hue of their skin.
â€œScience,â€ as Stewart Brand says, â€œis the only news. Everything else is â€˜he said, she said.â€™â€ How, in spite of all diversions, selection pressures, and scarcities, science successfully describes a very few scenes illuminated by a very few fish is what I intend to bring to you. We remind each other that deep inside each flashlight fish, apparently without foresight or intention, when the density of trapped and healthily growing bacteria reaches some 10 million per teaspoon, the cold light abruptly turns on. The drab, now white-bellied fish becomes luminous to lead itself and its glow-in-the-dark symbionts to choice food and safe haven. Unplanned and unprayed-for nature just does it. And we are the beneficiaries.