- My Acid Cruise
I thought I'd grow up to be a scientist. As a child I was infatuated with pet mice and guppies and studying trees from the shapes of their leaves. And don't I remember, as a kindergartner, being ushered into the school basement to watch on TV the Russian satellite, Sputnik, soaring into outer space? We were lectured on the spot to start studying science and math, or the Russians would pound us all into the ground.
There was no higher goal than to reach for the stars or dive to the bottom of the sea, to comprehend the universe. The Alan Shepards and Jacques Cousteaus who did these things were our heroes. King science and its applied technology informed our lives and the promise that was the future. Who knew, in that bright and shining time, that so much in our culture and politics would soon turn corrosive?
But along the way, I found that science—the actual doing of it— is tedious, at least compared with watching guppies eat their young. The collection of data is a repetitive business, the same careful measurements over and over, across hours and days, years, decades. You gain small increments of understanding—or perhaps not. Your only understanding may be one of failure: an inability to find pattern or meaning, the need for more data, additional data sets, a new theory.
We don't have time for this. We're an impatient people. I'm speaking of Americans now. We don't trust science, in any case. We don't understand it, which is reason enough not to trust it or the people in the white coats who, surely, can manipulate numbers any way they want as part of that vast scientific conspiracy to get rich off government funding.
Why spend tax dollars for a bunch of wonky people to measure cow farts or fuss over some bit of whatever floating around in the ocean? We know what we know, anyway. We don't need those fancy-pants, with their heads in clouds and all those crazy charts and numbers, to tell us how to live.
But wait. We don't understand irony either. [End Page 90]
Instead of a scientist, I became a writer of the creative sort, but then— wouldn't you know?—the fish and the trees and the stars all kept calling to me and, increasingly, seemed to demand attention for more than their own sakes. In a crowded, warming world, I was drawn back both to the wonders of nature and to wanting to better understand the systems we all rely on.
And so I find myself, the lone writer among scientists, aboard the research vessel Tiglax, on Alaska's Seward Line. September along the southern coast is often stormy—not an ideal time to boat on the open ocean. But here I am.
The Seward Line: an imaginary straight line that extends from the mouth of Resurrection Bay south of Seward, Alaska, 150 miles into the Gulf of Alaska, to where the continental shelf falls off into very deep water. The Seward Line: also the name of a long-term observation program that studies changes in the marine system, especially in relationship to climate variability. There are twenty-two stations spaced along the Line, and we—a team from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, made up mostly of volunteer graduate students, with a couple of professors and me, a writer invited to help bring some public awareness to the work—stop at each station to collect basic oceanographic data. When we finish, we duck into Prince William Sound and do the same at stations there.
We are enormously lucky on this week-long cruise. The sea has been so calm that the other day we drifted with a pair of fin whales and could see, looking down through the glassy blue surface, the entire body length of the whales as they passed by and under us. The larger one, when it lined up beside us, approached our own 120-foot length. Pale chevron markings descended its dark back. Its white right jaw, distinct from its dark left one, flashed...