Unweaving the rainbow

Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wing

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—

Unweave a rainbow

(John Keats, “Lamia”)

When I first came across the Keats poem “Lamia”, I was a defiant science student sitting in a third year English class, fighting to prove to myself and to my somewhat sceptical professor that there was no reason a Biology major shouldn’t also do a minor in English Literature.

The poem immediately got my back up.  In it, Keats laments the rise of science, which he claims has robbed the world of its mysteries and made it predictable and boring.  Science will, he says, “unweave [the] rainbow” in a quest to understand it – and in doing so, destroy its magic.  No leprechauns and pots of gold for scientists; they’re all about wavelengths, prisms, and refraction.

Of course, when I read the poem as an undergraduate, I was full of enthusiasm for my chosen field and leapt to its defence.  It’s true that scientists conquer mysteries (if they’re lucky), I found myself arguing in class, but that doesn’t mean they take the joy out of the world.  Why should knowing how things work make them less interesting?

A bad day for Webster: Western bluebird male attacks Webster, my bluebird decoy.

“This is my box!”: bluebird attacking my decoy.

In fact, I thought – and still think today – that understanding the world, knowing what things are and how they work, makes life more interesting, not less.  For example, over the last decade or so, I’ve spent countless hours trying to catch birds, using a decoy and recorded birdsong to make individuals think their territory is being invaded.  And despite having done this hundreds of times, I still get a thrill when the territory owner reacts as science says he should, and comes in to defend his turf – every single time.

But I have a shameful admission to make: as I’ve continued in science, I’ve occasionally had the guilty thought that maybe Keats had a point.  The thing is, science can sometimes be really, really boring.  You can spend whole days weighing the smallest things (beans, bugs, fragments of bird claw) with a mind-numbing degree of precision.  You can spend so long staring up at the trees, looking for birds – or staring down at the ground, counting plants – that you develop a permanent crick in your neck.  You can enter data until your vision blurs, pipette until your wrist begs for mercy, and label samples until your fingers cramp.  It’s easy, while you’re wrapped up in the small, tedious, and sometimes mindless details, to miss the big picture.

And when you’re out in the field, the single-minded focus necessary to collect your data sometimes feels a bit like having blinkers on.  There may be beauty all around you – the view from your ‘office’ may be the most spectacular one imaginable – but there’s so much that has to get done, and so little time to do it.  Who has time to waste on stopping to smell the roses when it feels like your whole PhD depends on catching this bird or collecting that sample?

For example, people often assume that, because I work with birds, I must be an expert on them – the person to go to if you’re not sure what kind of bird you saw at your feeder last week.  These people are almost always disappointed.  In fact, I probably know less about birds than your average outdoor enthusiast, because when I’m out in the field collecting data, I divide them into only two categories: bluebirds (interesting; keep watching to gather data) and not-bluebirds (not interesting; forget about them or risk being distracted).  While this is kind of a sad way to look at the world, it’s also understandable. When you’re panicking about collecting every scrap of data you can in the little time available to you, it’s all too easy to forget to appreciate the mysteries, the haunted air, and the rainbow.

All this has been on my mind recently because I’m currently in the midst of completing perhaps the most joyless task a scientist can undertake: writing the Methods section of my PhD thesis.  Normally, I love to write – but every time I open this particular document, my heart sinks.  If there’s a way to make the meticulous detail of a scientific Methods section interesting, I haven’t found it yet.  Intellectually, I know that these details are important, because science is all about repeatability – but I can’t help but feel that focusing on them is sucking the magic out of what we do.  As I labour through lists of dates and times, equipment manufacturers and specifications, sample sizes and standard errors, I feel slightly sick that all my blood, sweat, and tears have been reduced to numbers on a page.

But when I sat down to write my blog post this week, I realized that that’s where stories come in.  To me, telling stories – like we do here at Dispatches from the Field – is a way of finding my way back to the magic that sometimes gets lost in the everyday routine of science.  The stories we tell here exist at the intersection of art and science: they provide context, let us focus on the big picture rather than individual elements, and allow us to capture parts of our experience that could never be conveyed in the minute detail of a Methods section.  Writing and sharing stories reminds me of the mystery and wonder in the work we all do.

I still think it’s incredibly satisfying to understand how the rainbow works – but I also see value and joy in using stories to weave it back together again once in a while.

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