I went home to visit my family for spring break, and naturally I went to the California Academy of Sciences to visit the Steinhart Aquarium. I was curious if the way I looked at the displays had changed after a few semesters of serious science. I watched myself for reflections of my new knowledge as I wandered among the exhibits, but gradually I realized nothing was coming to me that I hadn’t thought about many times before. I used to be concerned I would be a bad scientist because I never noticed anything new or exciting about the fish, a feeling that came back to me on this visit.
I wandered to a marquee exhibit, a glass tunnel beneath an Amazon display, and sat on the benches lining the tunnel, leaning back against the curved glass walls, and let myself drift into a reverie. It always puts me in a trance when I watch fish swimming, they are so beautiful. Perhaps my appreciation of fish, instead of giving me direct scientific insight, merely gave me the ability to think about them for long periods of time. After a while zoning out, I realized that as a youngster I had the viewpoint of a nature documentary. In documentaries, animals, thanks to editors, constantly perform spectacular behaviors, but fish in aquariums display the normal behavior (more or less) of living organisms. They spend most of their time doing nothing special.
As I reflected further I made a connection to my current work. As I sort through the contents of fish stomach samples, the main task of my master’s thesis, I’ve frequently felt a sense of amazement that a particular fish chose this particular prey item (and not because I find sticks and rocks in more than a few of the diet samples). Through these prey items I am getting a fish-eye view of nature, specifically those bits of nature that look good to eat.
There’s a strange continuity between these cases. I was bored when visiting an aquarium, even though aquariums are meant to entertain, but interested in a very tedious activity, identifying and measuring diet components. I have to believe if I hadn’t allowed my simple appreciation for fish-watching to draw me back to the aquarium again and again, exhausting my ability to see anything novel, I wouldn’t have the capacity now to perform a tedious activity that is leading to some exciting and novel ideas.