Dallas Murphy: Science story-teller (part 1)

Dallas Murphy's new book To The Denmark Strait, in collaboration with videographer Ben Harden.

Dallas Murphy’s new book To The Denmark Strait, in collaboration with videographer Ben Harden.

I find myself often shying away from conversations about my research for the fear that I am going to bore people to death. I’m starting to realize that it might not be my science that will bore people. Maybe the problem is how I tell my science story.

Sometimes it’s hard for us scientists to see the wood through the trees, or see the story through our science. Indeed, we (should) love our research. However, if our work becomes routine and dare I say it, tedious,the stories we tell risk the same fate.

There are some talented people out there who are both inspired by our science and inspirational when they talk about it. Sometimes, if we are very lucky, they also do the talking for us.

Dallas Murphy is one of these people; an author, turned science writer, with a deep passion for the sea. And the science of the sea is what he writes about. In his new book, To The Denmark Strait, he shows us that our scientific stories might be more inspirational than we first imagined.

The research vessel Knorr that Bob, Kjetil and their team unravelled the mysteries of the North Icelandic Jet onboard the research vessel Knorr (photo credit: Ben Harden)

The research vessel Knorr that Bob, Kjetil and their team unravelled the mysteries of the North Icelandic Jet onboard the research vessel Knorr (photo credit: Ben Harden)

The story he tells is about a exciting new discovery: a new ocean current that could be instrumental in controlling climate. To see this first hand, Dallas joined a research team from WHOI and UiB –lead by Bob Pickart and Kjetil Våge– on their search. Using the latest oceanographic technology and working with a team of dedicated sailors, scientists and communicators, their search was a success.

The resulting book came out last year. Its not only a good read; I really think it can inspire scientists to think about the story within their own work. If I can also see the story in my science then maybe I might not shy away from talking about my research.

In this first part of my interview with Dallas, I asked him about the what inspires an author to write about oceanography and what surprises he met along the way.

[Part 1] [Part2]

What was the main aim of  To the Denmark Strait?

It was to portray, from a firsthand perspective and for a general audience, the conduct of a particular ocean-science expedition searching for the origins of a newly discovered current north of Iceland.  To the NSF, which funded the cruise, this is outreach, and “outreach writing” might be a useful term for the genre.  This isn’t the first time I’ve done this work, but it was the first time it’s appeared in book form.  Though my name appears on its spine, it was a collaborative effort among the photographers, the designer, and Chief Scientist Bob Pickart (WHOI).  Together, we’d had some practice on other Arctic cruises, and we’d developed a few guiding principles.  One was that the science, the reason we were out there, comes first.  We wouldn’t talk down to our audience and, we wouldn’t dumb down the science.  We’d assume, without qualification and with good reason, that the science story was inherently interesting; all we had to do was tell it well.

However, ocean research requires that unique combination of and collaboration between heavy industry, fine-tolerance science, and demanding seamanship, particularly in the Arctic.  So to tell the story, I quite happily wrote about the ship, her crew, and technicians without whom there could be no ocean research of this sort.  One way to say it is that we approach the science by documenting it in action at sea. 

If someone is going to write a book about oceanography, I assume they must be interested in it. How did you gravitate towards the subject?

I’ve been “sea struck” since childhood.  My earliest and still fresh memories are of the ocean, of staring out toward the horizon wondering what’s beyond it.  Into adulthood, I viewed the ocean from a romantic, aesthetic viewpoint.  It was about adventure aboard sailboats in high latitudes, you know, seeking oneness with the ocean, that sort of thing.  I’d read some marine biology, but of physical oceanography, I was totally ignorant until about 2005 when I wheedled myself aboard my first cruise on a research vessel.  I was hooked.  This was what I’d always wanted but didn’t know it, a field of people actually going to sea to figure out how the ocean works!  I still cleave to the aesthetic/romantic view, but, my, how that relationship to the ocean has been enhanced by its science—and by writing about it.

Your writing and To The Denmark Strait can be considered as science outreach. How did you get involved in this type of work?

About 2005, I proposed and sold a book about the Gulf Stream.  At least that’s what I thought it was about.  And I thought I was qualified.  I’d written a previous nonfiction book, Rounding the Horn, about maritime matters; I grew up within sight of the Gulf Stream; I’d spent a lot of time on and under it; and I knew some maritime history.  Then, researching the book, I discovered physical oceanography.  All those currents, of which the Gulf Stream was but one, flowing warm and cold on the surface and in the dark depths, all linked one to the other to form one world ocean.  I was fascinated, but also flat terrified when I recognized that the book had to be about the great global system of the GS was part and how it all worked….But I still knew little to nothing about that.  I’d never even thought to ask why the Gulf Stream exists, or any other “why” questions.  (I still wonder about that.)  but I had to catch up, and quickly.  I spent the best part of two years reading nothing but textbooks and technical papers with my oceanography dictionary in hand and pestering scientists to educate me.  They were remarkably willing after they recognized that I wasn’t in it for a quickie.  I learned a lot, and was reasonably pleased with the book.  To Follow the Water was published to scant attention, but I didn’t want to leave the science or its ships.  And I wanted to go to the Arctic on one of them.

In 2008, I read a paper by this guy Bob Pickart at WHOI about convection in Nordic seas, so I called him, volunteered to go on his next cruise as a CTD operator.  He replied, “You’re a writer, why not come and write about it for the public website?”  Well, sure.  Since then, I’ve been to sea with Bob on five Arctic expeditions, three with Lisa Beal (RSMAS) in the Indian Ocean, and a river expedition in northeast Siberia (mosquitoes).  Almost daily I remind myself how fortunate I am to get to do this work.

Through these cruises, and your writing, it’s clear that you have developed a clear understanding of how science works. One thing that really shines through in To The Denmark Strait: how one previously accepted theory can evolve into another. How important is it to explain this aspect of science for people?

Yes, I think there is significant misunderstanding about how science works.  Maybe less so in Europe than in the U.S., where fringe groups on the religious right are dismissing evolution on the grounds that ‘It’s just a theory.”  Those people, for whom belief trumps facts, are not my audience.  But even those more sensible and open- minded don’t exactly understand the march of science, how one paradigm is replaced by another and perhaps, with time, still another.  They may not grasp the scientific concept of “theory” or the thrust of the scientific method.  Scientists and those of us in the humanities part company very early, maybe the second year of college, and without conscious effort, never come back together.  In Darwin’s time, science was part of culture along with the arts; now it’s a separate and slightly mysterious endeavor; we’ve all seen the stereotypes.  Until I began work on To Follow the Water, I had never even met a professional scientist.  I knew a couple science journalists, but no scientists.  We simply don’t travel in the same circles.  (I’m glad to say that’s changed.  Association with scientists has deeply enhanced my intellectual life, but it took conscious efforts from both directions.)

The Denmark Strait expedition set out with a specific hypothesis to test.  Close resolution ocean measurements proved—by the completion of the cruise—that the hypothesis was correct.  That meant that the previously published paradigm describing the origin of the water flowing south through the Denmark Strait, while not exactly wrong, was an oversimplification.  But during the cruise, Bob said more than once that his own measurements might prove him wrong; I think he says so in one of Ben’s video. This really was science in action.  We were aboard to see one paradigm fall, so to say, to a newer one.  That this doesn’t happen every day in oceanography—that it so directly illustrated the advance of science—was one of the reasons we made the book.

From a story perspective, I was fortunate that Bob affirmed his hypothesis.  The alternative would have been a resounding anticlimax.  “More research necessary….”  But here’s a viewpoint disparity between the scientist and the writer.  I’m sure Bob would have been disappointed if his hypothesis had proved incorrect.  But when asked about that on a recent NPR interview, he said, “Well, it would have just introduced other questions.”  He added, “And that it was proven correct, also introduces new questions.

A quick other point about that disparity in viewpoints: heavy weather.  It blew hell on our 2008 expedition to affirm the existence of the North Icelandic Jet, 65 knots sustained for about 20 hours, gust into the 70s.  We had to hide in Icelandic fjord for a week while the beast blew itself out.  I was delighted at the wealth of material presented by the storm, but I neglected to mention that to Bob, for whom the delay was a source of deep anxiety.

What has surprised you most about oceanographic research?

What surprised me most when I first sailed on a research vessel was the  technology.  Rough, variable, vast in multiple dimensions, and sometimes choked with ice, the ocean is a tough subject to measure.  And unlike some other scientists, the oceanographer can’t usefully see his/her subject with the naked eye.  Oceanography is a young science because of what Carl Wunsch called the “brute difficulty of measuring the ocean.”  To learn much of anything, oceanographers needed to invent or adapt from Cold War technology surrogate eyes in the form of sonar and solid-state electronics.  CTDs, ADCPs, moorings, acoustic releases, bottom landers—this stuff is esoteric.  I’m pretty used to them by now, but every time I try to describe those instruments, I’m reminded of their brilliant performance and the creative solutions to a difficult problem they represent.  Then there are the people who deploy and retrieve the instruments from a pitching deck, water sloshing around their shins.  Without them, the brilliant instruments would remain on deck, which makes the techs an essential part of the science-in-action story.

The complexity and viability of the ocean continue to surprise me.  I’m surprised that after all these expeditions in all oceans we know so little about how the ocean works in its own right, let alone how it affects climate.  This is not for want of trying or the absence of technology.  It’s because of that brute difficulty.  Almost every time I think I know something about oceanography for an amateur, I find, well, there’s more to it than I thought.  Bob never tells me what to write about, but I’d never post an essay without running it by him.  It was a joke at first: I write a declarative sentence, and Bob qualifies every verb and modifier in red ink.  But I’ve learned a lot about the ocean’s complexity from that interaction.  We both want accuracy—even when accommodating it mucks up a clean, crisp sentence.  And sometimes I’m just plain wrong in the draft I give to Bob, or to Lisa Beal on the Indian Ocean cruises.  I couldn’t possibly do the work to the standards of accuracy we impose without editing by a real scientist.

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Mathew Stiller-Reeve

I am a postdoc researcher at NORCE Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. I research the monsoon in Bangladesh and I am the founder of ClimateSnack; a community that hopes to give all young and early career climate scientists an opportunity to practice and improve their scientific communication skills.

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