The voracity for exploration
Humans have set foot on the moon, multiple times in fact. We didn’t go once, we went six different times. Six times. That feels both like an incredibly large number and an incredibly tiny number all at the same time. For you and me it probably doesn’t feel like anything special, but for the people who’ve done it, they KNOW it was life altering. They told us so and it’s a shame that in my lifetime I will probably never set foot on another planet and have the chance to feel so… insignificant.
I like to think we all chase that sense of exploration one way or another. Some of us skydive, or deepsea dive. People climb mountains or sail around the oceans. We explore the world around us because life is such a fragile and short thing and the world is so massive, which says nothing of the size of the universe itself, that we have to go. That’s what drew me to science as a kid. It was the sense of exploration, of finding something new, and venturing into the unknown. To be the first.
I don’t regret the choice at all, 100% worth it, 10/10 would do again. I’m always excited when others get into research too because I get to see the excitement on their face when they find something for the first time and it reminds me what I’m doing in this field. Research is tedious, it can be incredibly boring at times, and the amount of stress and anxiety that comes from, at least the academic side of things, is brutal. In fact, it’s probably very deadly and I don’t have the heart to google the statistics of suicides in academic environments because I’m sure the number would both shock me and not shock me.
Four Quartets is argued to T.S. Eliot’s last “great work” and the quote from Little Gidding is probably over used, as are most quotes, but I still like the sense it invokes. The thought of exploring and when the time comes and you’ve reached the end, you go back home to find the place irrevocably different. I often imagine Neil Armstrong coming home after looking back at our insignificant speck of a planet, one of the first people in all of human history to have that view, and wondering why we waste our time fighting over things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Doing research and getting the chance to see some hidden truth of the universe, no matter how tiny, is the closest I’ll ever (probably) get to looking back at our planet in awe.
Recently one of the undergrads I mentor approached me and asked me to write in a book she keeps. She has asked important teachers or people close to her to give her advice for the future and I was honored to be selected as one of the few people she’s picked in her short academic career. I’ve been working with her basically since I started my PhD and I will be working with her until her graduation, we’ve met weekly for essentially her entire undergrad journey and I’m excited to watch as she takes the next steps and heads off to whatever amazing adventure she is bound to have.
I didn’t use the T.S. Eliot quote though when I wrote in her book of advice. Instead I opted for a quote that I hold close to me. It’s from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Yet another overused quote for sure, but one that really inspired me when I read it and reminded me to ask, why? Now, most of us probably know that the story doesn’t end well for Victor, but I still think that the quote itself reminds us that we should question, basically everything and especially scientific dogma that may or may not be rooted in fact.
It’s what led me on the journey I’m on today and I see a lot of that same exploratory spirit in her. Oftentimes in education, in particular high school and some of undergrad, you’re taught not to question things. Sometimes why we know something is just as important as the thing we know. I’m reminded of the scientific dogma that women are born with all the eggs she will ever have. This was proposed because it was an attractive way to explain the issue, but it turns out that it’s probably not true, it was just so thoroughly repeated that no one ever decided to double check (here). Granted we did look and are questioning the science, but that’s the great thing about science, it evolves and changes.
The equipment gets better, so we can ask different questions, or we can revisit old answers and find new insights. The life of a researcher, when viewed in the lens of endless exploration is exciting. It’s the stuff science fiction stories are written about. I may not climb Everest, or dive to the mariana trench, but for brief moments in my life I get to feel the same sense of awe and wonder. Maybe it’s not as magical as being surrounded by the unknown, alone or mostly alone, but it’s magical enough for me.
Anyway that’s where my head is today apparently. Remembering why I got into research to begin with and getting to watch as someone who’s just starting out is getting excited about the endless possibilities in front of her. Over the years, because it has been years now, she’s asked me dozens of impossible questions that I couldn’t answer and science couldn’t answer. I hope she has a chance to find the answers to those questions.
And I hope that you, my dear readers, find something that gives you that feeling too. That feeling we had as children seeing the world for the first time, where even a simple magnet was a thing of magic, because it really is.