Hemingway and the essence of science

The great thing is to last and get your work done and see and hear and learn and understand; and write when there is something that you know; and not before; and not too damned much after. Let those who want to save the world if you can to see it clear and as a whole. Then any part you make will represent the whole if it’s made truly. The thing to do is work and learn to make it.”

  –  Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon.*

There is quite a lot written about the scientific process, but I think the essence has rarely been more poetically laid out than in the above passage. Realistically, anything that most scientists do will only form a tiny part of the whole; carefully contributing to the sum total of human knowledge. We must be happy with this if we are to carry on doing it, and to teach others how to do it as well.

Teaching others how to do it is something outside my research I’ve really enjoyed during my PhD. Acting as a postgraduate teaching assistant may be a useful source of extra income, but I would not consider doing it if it wasn’t enjoyable and rewarding in itself. I’ve previously written about teaching as a post-grad so I will do my best to not go back over the same points.

What I wanted to do in this post was simply revel in a particular, recent experience of this. I helped demonstrate on Imperial College London’s Marine Ecology and Conservation field course, in Jersey. Along with Dr. David Orme, I helped a group of students design small research projects to carry out over 6 days. They either looked into some aspect of the ecology of the marine organisms that live in the inter-tidal region or at the behaviour of animals in the Durrell zoo, part of the Durrell organisation that works to conserve threatened species. I only ended up on the course after a last-minute call for help, and had some doubts over whether going as a good idea, having a thesis to write and all…

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the fact that Jersey looks like this can’t have hurt either

I absolutely loved it. Partly because I got to spend lots of time on the sea shore or wandering round a nice zoo looking at some interesting animals. But mainly for the enthusiasm of the students for their nascent research projects.

It mattered not whether they were looking at endangered Ibis or bat behaviour in the zoo, or measuring snails or limpets on the sea shore. It mattered not that most of them couldn’t tackle the original question they were interested in as study organisms didn’t behave as expected or certain organisms couldn’t be found. It didn’t matter if it was raining or sunny or if it meant getting wet in rock pools or sweltering inside enclosures. Each group set at their project eagerly. Perhaps most amazingly, this extended to their statistical analysis, where we had circular data, generalised linear mixed models and fitting multiple linear models to different parts of a data set in one analysis.  None of them knew how to handle this at the start, yet by questioning, searching and exploring they tackled these problems and dealt with them each.

It was a joy to be part of this rapid learning process and to help them along the way. By helping them, as Hemingway says, to make their part truly, then their little 6 day projects do genuinely represent the whole of scientific endeavour and advancement. Its something they and I can feel immensely proud of.

so much fun the bats wanted to get involved as well
so much fun the bats wanted to get involved as well

This all served to remind me how much I enjoy teaching, and now that I’m in the job market for post-docs, any position I can pick up I hope will allow me to carry on engaging with students like this. It would be a terrible shame if I didn’t get to experience many more of these moments; grasping at the essence of science on those hot Jersey afternoons.

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*I finished Death in the Afternoon and read The Old Man and the Sea while on the field course. Hence the tangential insertion of Hemingway into this post. But he has an economy of words that is entirely suited to scientific writing, so seems an appropriate author to invoke.

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