In Isolation, Community
By Frankie Pavia
I was talking to a colleague on board today while we were subsampling sediment cores we had taken from the last station. The cores were especially interesting—the entire surface was covered in manganese nodules, some the size of baseballs. Our conversation was interrupted by a mysterious occurrence. In one of the subcores we’d taken, there were manganese nodules sitting at 15 cm and 18 cm deep in the sediment. Conventional wisdom and that infamous beacon of knowledge, scientific consensus, stated that the nodules stayed on top of the sediment and were never buried after formation. There were also bright streaks of white carbonate nearby polluting the otherwise pristine red clay that occupied the rest of the core.
We had been talking about what it would be like to be back on land after a long cruise like this. My colleague has been to sea a few times before, and I was curious as to what she thought would be the most different to us upon returning to dry land. She explained that for her, the biggest change was interacting with strangers. There are only 64 people aboard the boat, and by now I can match a name to every face. I may not speak to them regularly, but I may have seen how they take their coffee, or what kind of cake they prefer in the afternoon, or exchanged a casual “moin” (hello) in the hallway. I haven’t seen a new face in almost four weeks.
I anticipated that being at sea might be lonely. I knew I would miss my friends and family. It has hit especially hard the past two Sundays when my hometown NFL team, the Seahawks, have played playoff games. I usually watch Seahawks games with my best friends in New York and fire texts back and forth to my friends I grew up with the entire time. Those are the times I am most in contact with the people I love. Sitting alone in my cabin aboard the ship, frantically updating Twitter, trying to follow the happenings and score of the game, feels especially isolating.
In a way, being a scientist is an isolating endeavor, no matter what. A friend of mine who writes for a hip-hop website is easy for any music lover to connect with. I talk to him every time a new mix tape drops, debating which tracks are the most fire. Another friend works for a soccer analytics company; he tracks the most popular sport in the world. I talk to him every time I’m watching an entertaining game or have a question about a soccer article I’ve read. But not many of my friends have burning questions about isotope geochemistry. The rare conversations we have had about protactinium have tended to be short and one-sided. I love talking about my research. I love learning about other peoples’ research. On land, I have limited opportunity to have these conversations.
On the ship, these conversations are nonstop. Oceanography is what the scientists on board all have in common—how could we not constantly talk about it? I might not know what someone’s favorite color is, or what town they grew up in. But I could probably give a pretty solid explanation of the questions they’re trying to answer with their research. I’ve detailed the systematics of protactinium and thorium isotopes countless times to other scientists on board and gotten genuinely interested responses, rather than blank stares. I began to understand what my colleague meant about interacting with strangers being the most difficult thing about returning to land. Returning to land will mean returning to the real world. There, my research and much of my identity will get suppressed until I can find my way back to the company of fellow scientists.
But as I had that realization, I was immediately distracted. The manganese nodules had made their first appearance within the deep sediment where they didn’t belong. Reality on land could wait. My colleague and I began to volley back and forth ideas about how they could have been emplaced so deep, and what experiments we could design to test our hypotheses. This is my beautiful reality at sea.