So I was sitting in ichthyology class today learning about fish growth. Growth is complicated – I don’t want to bore the reader with excessive details, but temperatures, diet, activity all play a role. These factors are links to other parts of the environment, living and not, and they all work in concert to produce an organism.
This was familiar material to me, but today it hit me in a different way. It was as if I could imagine each factor as a part of the fish, contributing more or less to the overall picture. Their dynamics appeared to me as colors, changing intensity in proportion to their importance. As I imagined a fish eating a meal of energy-rich fish, the tissue began to glow a more vivid red.
It was a remarkable moment, and it connects to my idea about the what of learning biology versus the why, the rewards of the long hours of study. Studying, believe it or not, can be tedious, and it’s worse when you don’t understand a topic – in fact, it can be maddening. Many times I stagger out of the library long after sunset with my head reeling, feeling like I can barely understand the simplest things, like how to talk or drive. Despite this, scientists persevere. The ability to sit with confusion is one of the hallmarks of scientists, but when it mysteriously comes together in an intuitive picture, it feels magical. That feeling is why I continue to study science, instead of enjoying nature the way some others do, like birdwatching, for example. I obviously enjoy watching animals, but I’m also after this rare integrative payoff.
It also connects to an idea I’ve been mulling over since I began to think about grad school. A person like me who has a longstanding interest in a particular kind of organism has a library of memories to draw on when confronting a new biological idea. If I read a paper on population dynamics, I can summon up a river with fish swimming in it for an imaginary model, and this helps me not only to understand the paper more easily, but also to enjoy it more. This feeds my desire to learn more and closes a self-reinforcing loop of fish-based thinking. Scientists baffle people who can’t understand why someone would want to know that much about any particular topic, but I think this loop explains it – scientists like their topic because it helps them understand their topic, and the world, in a deeper, more satisfying way.