Memories of Discovery
Marc Guttman had a neat idea. Having edited essay collections about the nature of peace and liberty, he wondered: What if scientists were asked about the nature of discovery? Does any career follow textbook story of rational incremental step-wise experimentation in which a scientist tries to falsify hypotheses? If not, what was the journey of exploration as it shaped one’s professional life and personal understanding? From this inquiry came We Discover (www.amazon.com/We-Discover-Marc-Guttman/dp/0984980237/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1460409911&sr=1-1&keywords=We+Discover), an anthology of short memoirs about the search for insight, clarity, wonder and meaning. Here is an excerpt from my contribution:
Next to saving agriculture from grasshoppers, my biggest accomplishment was saving ranchers from the USDA. The feds planned to import pathogens and parasites from around the world to suppress North American grasshoppers. They were on the cusp of releasing an Australian wasp when I used the Freedom of Information Act to acquire data from their files showing that the parasite frequently attacked a beneficial species of grasshopper in laboratory studies.
The snakeweed grasshopper eats its namesake, which is a poisonous plant that costs the livestock industry more than the grass-eating grasshoppers. I didn’t figure that I’d be celebrated for preventing a really bad idea from becoming actualized. I also didn’t figure that the USDA would call me into their star chamber and threaten my career, which they did at a national meeting of the Entomological Society of America in a small, dark conference room.
Science is objective and value-free, except when money, ego, or power is at stake; which is to say, always.
Here’s the hardest thing about success: quitting. Most people quit too soon, but you can stay in a fight too long. I took piano lessons until I was 12 and then I quit, too soon. I hung onto a hard-driving rationalism for too long.
Sometimes it’s a matter of quitting the right part of an endeavor. I quit being Catholic when I was in college. But I didn’t quite being religious and I’ve been Unitarian for the last 30 years (and gained respect for Catholicism).
I quit being a professor of entomology after 20 years in the field. I knew that while science was a necessary part of who I was, it was not sufficient. So now I’m working on environmental ethics, philosophy of ecology, and nature writing. That one was about right.
As the story goes, Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” upon discovering that the volume of irregular objects
(like his body or a crown placed in a bath) could be precisely measured by their displacement of water.