The scientific mind: Knowledge valued for its own sake

July, 1999

By Dodge Morgan

Those of us who take great pleasure from the sea develop a spiritual relationship with her. It is a relationship that is built haphazardly over time on a collection of gut feelings, anecdotal knowledge and personal experience that falls together with a compendium of individual facts processed one at a time. We sail. We read. We study the waves and the winds on a given day. We tend our boats. We delight in naming the birds and the fish we happen upon. We watch for the evidence of seasonal evolution. We share our thoughts with other sailors and learn from them. We understand the sea, essentially, as generalists in an experiential way. And we wonder at it all.

Because I realize I am most certainly one of these generalists, it is with no small amount of awe that I listen to those who have focused their entire lives on deep, intense scientific study of specific subjects of our oceans and the ocean environment. I am privileged to be able to do this as a Member of the Corporation for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), arguably the world’s premier organization devoted to ocean research. At a joint meeting of trustees and members held in May, several hundred generalists of the sea were treated to a very different perspective – the depth and focus of science. Several WHOI scientists briefed several hundred nonprofessionals.

Senior Scientist Dr. Jean K. Whelan is a rumpled, middle-aged woman with thick glasses who moves like an excited child and speaks like a machine gun. She has a compelling enthusiasm for what she is saying. She told us of her evolving discoveries on the ocean floor that could redefine oil as a renewable resource, a startling and radical change from the established view held by oil companies that the world’s supply of oil is finite and that it was deposited in horizontal reservoirs near the surface in a process that took millions of years.

Whelan has found evidence that oil is actually a renewable, primordial syrup continually manufactured by the Earth under ultrahot conditions and tremendous pressures. As this substance migrates towards the surface, it is attacked by bacteria, making it appear to have organic origin dating back to the dinosaurs.

The most fascinating lesson to me occurred in the questioning that followed her presentation. She was asked what this discovery could mean to the commercial oil industry and how the oil companies were coping with it. “I don’t know,” she answered. “I am just a scientist.” Even though her research is beginning to change the fundamental ways we think of oil reserves, she would have no interest whatsoever in how it could be used. Science for its own sake; science unpolluted by political or commercial concerns or any advocacy position.

Although as a scientist I would make a good plumber, if you get what I mean, I found myself celebrating her answer. It is sort of like the way I see sailing – not as an arena of social or legal or commercial or competitive activities, but simply as an act unto itself. It is why I don’t sail to go somewhere or to beat someone. It is why I sail for its own sake.

The next scientist, Dr. Andreas Teske, told us of his work under 300 feet of water off the southern coast of Africa. There he has found thiomargarita, the world’s largest bacterial cell, some 100 times fatter and 500 times longer than the previous record holder. Teske, whose eyes and lips flashed excitedly from a bush of hair, obviously did not even consider or care what his discovery might mean to anyone wanting to interpret science.

All of sudden I could see why so often the fisherman and the scientist do not understand one another. The scientist really doesn’t, really cannot focus on what his discoveries can mean to others impacted by them. The scientist must make his discoveries simply for their own sake.

Dodge Morgan broke all sorts of records when he single-handed American Promise around the world without stopping in 1985 and ’86. He lives in Portland, Maine and is setting up camp on Snow Island in Brunswick.