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Repetition, precision and chaos: Experiments Four

Promotional photograph of dancer Darcy McMurray performing on the set of Experiments.  Photo by Peter Eastwood.

This is the fourth in a series of articles inspired by Experiments, an evening-length dance production expressing the essence of scientific creativity.  It will be performed November 25 – 27 at the Scotiabank Dance Centre. 

Fairly early in his masters research in ecology at UBC in the late 1970s, Dave Marmorek, now President of ESSA Technologies Ltd, a consulting company in Vancouver and Ottawa, came to my office one day to announce an important discovery.  Dave’s discovery was not about the lakes he was studying, but about how to study them, and he was not the first scientist to have discovered it. 

At the time, he was confronting hundreds of carefully-labeled small glass jars of lakewater that he had collected under exacting experimental conditions.  He needed to prepare samples of the water in each jar, following a strict protocol, perform various chemical analyses of the samples, then analyze this enormous data set to answer his question.  That kind of information is gold to an experimental scientist, and everyone knows it.  What not everyone appreciates is that it can be boring to collect it. 

I used to tell students that if they didn’t love figuring out how not to be bored, they shouldn’t even try to be scientists.  Normal people can’t stand that kind of thing, but Dave worked it out and became a fine scientist.  My point here is that I think what Dave discovered was how not to be bored.

That is the way it is for scientists.  “Pile it higher and Deeper”, they say about the PhD.  Exactly what “it” is is open to discussion, of course, as is whether any of it is worth doing in the first place.  But whatever “it” is, scientists surely need a lot of it and it has to be good.

Over and over and over again, and it does seem endless, we perform the same operations as closely as we can to the same way, ad infinitum, looking for slight variations in the results and recording them carefully.  If we can’t get a computer to do it for us, that is.  Back in Dave Marmorek’s day, computers couldn’t analyze lakewater samples automatically (but now they can), so he had to do it himself, painstakingly, by hand. 

What was Dave’s discovery?  What set the world on fire that afternoon for him, and why did it make both of us so happy for him that he discovered it?  It was simple. 

Because Dave didn’t like to be bored, he realized that if he broke the work down into simple tasks he could practice and perfect, he could get the work done faster, and do a better job of it at the same time.  He made an assembly line out of the work.  It was almost as if his body was a robot and “he”, himself (what Dave would call “I”), was in charge of it.  If he split things up like this, then while his robot was attending to the details of the work, he was free to think ahead, plan things, reflect back on what he had done, catch mistakes, improve procedures, imagine meaning, and things like that.  Exercising the thinking, imaginative, reflective part is what made Dave a creative scientist.  Exercising the robot part is what made him effective.

Here's what Marmorek says about it today: "When I thought about each step of the work as part of a dance, it became fun.  I attended to the thing I was doing, then danced on to the next."

My own masters student Glenn Sutherland, now working with Cortex Ecological Consultants in Vancouver and Victoria and a composer of symphonic music in his spare time,  experienced a similar revelation.  To celebrate it, Glenn wore a T-shirt with a big sign declaring “SLAVE” when he worked in the lab.  According to Glenn, wearing that shirt reminded him that he had to be both the robot and the scientist in the equation, and that he had to make sure both of them did their jobs well.  Glenn’s T-shirt helped him work out how to make that happen.

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