The past week on our cruise has been spent collecting gallons and gigabytes of data and interpreting and processing these data in waves of intense focus and emotional investment. The project I share with Casey and Cat, mapping the undersea tectonic spreading ridges between Baja California and mainland Mexico, gives the rest of the science team a chance to relax their pace and take a big-picture look at their progress. And for the three of us, the long, slow track of the survey as the sonar picks away at the seafloor becomes a metaphor for the progress of a scientific idea from observation to knowledge.
I’ve spent a lot of my time during surveys and in between scheduled watches reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which manages to only briefly mention motorcycle maintenance but has quite a lot to say about the philosophy of observation, reason, and the quest for the definition of “Quality.” For me, it’s provided a much clearer foundation for thinking about the science we do on the Thompson and at UW, and how we observe, interpret, and function in our daily lives. Most oceanographic research involves indirectly observing systems that we’re physically unable to reach and directly observe ourselves. This leaves plenty of room for debate on whether we can arrive at to a scientific conclusion – a truth – about a particular oceanographic system if we’re unable to directly sense and observe it.
“The purpose of the scientific method is to select a single truth from among many hypothetical truths. […] But historically science has done exactly the opposite. Through multiplication upon multiplication of facts, information, theories and hypotheses, it is science itself that is leading mankind from single absolute truths to multiple, indeterminate, relative ones.” (p. 141)
It was easy to come up with questions and hypotheses that our incoming mapping data could help answer. Variation over space: sedimentation, roughness, orientation. The links between the physical space in these results and the time scales of oceanographic processes: tectonics, biology, currents. But as we wrote more drafts of our research proposals and read feedback from our instructors and other students, these questions branched out and formed new hypotheses to be tested. It was frustrating for all of us, because at this point in our oceanography education, we are highly aware of the limits of our equipment and of our own knowledge and endurance. It often feels like making a tiny, highly-specific contribution to the body of knowledge is futile, but it’s worth remembering that scientific breakthroughs stand on the shoulders of a whole crowd of contributions, many of which are uncertain and often disagree with each other.
“The material object of observation, the bicycle or rotisserie, can’t be right or wrong. Molecules are molecules. They don’t have any ethical codes to follow except those people give them. The test of the machine is the satisfaction it gives you. There isn’t any other test. If the machine produces tranquility it’s right. If it disturbs you it’s wrong until either the machine or your mind is changed. The test of the machine is always your own mind. There isn’t any other test.” (p. 207)
These confusing and unexpected results happen all the time in any observational science, and especially in the earth sciences. In our classes, most of the example data, plots, and photos of a particular oceanographic system are just that: clear examples. When studying such a huge and variable part of the Earth, the answers will rarely be obvious, and many phenomena lie behind direct observation. In multibeam sonar, the main dataset – the data cloud of altitude soundings that make up the bathymetry map – doesn’t tell us anything about the material of the seafloor, only its shape:
But with a few clicks, we can switch our view from depth (the speed of sound through the ocean multiplied by the time from when the sonar pings to when the receiver hears the ping bounce off the bottom) to a map of the intensity of the returning sound. A bumpy but otherwise unremarkable region near the spreading ridges then reveals stress lines from nearby transform faulting – exactly the tectonic phenomenon we’re searching for in our projects.
When we’re finally able to fully reconcile our surface impressions of a system with our knowledge of their inner workings, that’s when I think we’ve come closer to the truth.
“The divorce of art from technology is completely unnatural. It’s just that it’s gone on so long you have to be an archeologist to find out where the two separated.” (p. 209)