Streams

Doing Science In The Wild

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The river was ice water and the forest so dense that every sightline disappeared into green fog. We had been moving slowly upstream for hours, blind to the jumbled rocks making up the riverbed. A misstep earlier in the day had filled my waders with freezing water. I didn't want to repeat that experience.

For me this was uncharted territory, living out of an ancient, overgrown camper miles upstream in the dense rain forest of Washington's Olympic Peninsula. But for my buddy, a marine biologist who'd been out here for six months studying the river's salmon population, it was just another day at the office. Science for him was more than a day job; it was an ongoing and sometimes death-defying adventure that came flooding back to as I read the news about John All.

Last week All, a professor in the Geography and Geology Department of Western Kentucky University, made the headlines after falling 70 feet through a crevasse while climbing in Nepal. In an effort worthy of an action-adventure blockbuster, Professor All — bloodied and with numerous broken bones — managed to pull himself up to safety where he was rescued. He told CNN:

"It probably took me four or five hours to climb out. I kept moving sideways, slightly up, sideways, slightly up, until I found an area where there was enough hard snow that I could get an ax in and pull myself up and over."

There is, of course, something inherently thrilling in stories like these — cheating death under perilous of conditions. But what's important to note is the reason why John All was wandering across a dangerous ice field in Nepal.

He was doing science.

All is director of the American Climber Science program, using "science to improve conservation efforts in the high mountains of the world." He was in Nepal to lead an on-going project comparing changes in the Himalayas with those in the mountains of Peru. After his fall the mountain science Facebook page John All and his team use to track their progress suddenly become a record of his fall and rescue. When he reached the hospital, All used the page to thank everyone for their good wishes remind them why he was there:

"I am ready for a safe trip to Peru, but first I will work on interviews ... on climate change impacts in local mountain communities. It will be a great distraction during the healing process."

The guy falls 70 feet and almost dies. But before he leaves he hopes to collect some more data points. Dang!

So why does this matter? In this blog we have a lot of discussions about the importance of science, the role of science and the meaning of science. Somehow we forget that there is also a time-honored tradition in this grand human endeavor involving being a badass for science.

Going impossible places, enduring impossible conditions, overcoming impossible odds — all in the name of getting new observations — that insane aspect of the focused human spirit represents one more reason to celebrate science.

Need some specific examples?

  • My marine biologist buddy sneaking up through rookeries of Steller sea lions in the Aleutian Islands trying to get radio harnesses set on the (often large) animals to track their feeding patterns.
  • My UR colleague John Tarduno, hiking across dangerous, narrow canyons on an island 50 miles from the North Pole searching for clues to Earth's magnetic history.
  • Astrobiologist Chris McKay diving into ice pools in Antarctica looking for extremophile microbes that might have Martian analogues.
  • Former NOAA Chief Scientist Sylvia Earle making record-breaking solo dives into the murky blackness to explore deep-ocean environments.
  • Ethnobiologist Maria Fadiman trekking through the Ecuador rainforest looking for ways peoples interact with thriving ecosystems.

All these researchers know something we often forget; doing science can take a kind of courage that has nothing to do with the fear of getting laughed at by colleagues at a conference. It has nothing to do with winning grant proposals or getting tenure. It's about pushing physical boundaries for something grand and vital and important. It's about going to extremes as an expression of a life well-lived and full of both meaning and purpose.

Which brings me back to my own adventure with my friend in Washington state. After walking the freezing river all day, my buddy and I made our way back to the cramped and rusting camper that served as home for the duration of his fieldwork. Later, over a fire and whiskey, we talked about how much we both loved science. We waxed eloquent about how my explorations of mathematical physics and his explorations out in the wild were two sides of the same coin. On one level I believed it then, as I still believe it now. But deep in my heart I was jealous. I too wanted to be a badass for science.

Don't we all?


You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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