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From Hypothesis to Home: the insider/outsider dynamic of science and society

Simona's picture

I have often wondered why I gravitate toward science, why this way of interpreting the world speaks to me. And yet, I have often wondered why despite being given the tools to dive right into the nucleus of science—research—I instead prefer to circumnavigate the nucleus in a quick-paced orbit like an electron, buzzing around but never quite finding home in the heart of scientific investigation.

Reading The Hungry Tide, I immediately connected with Piya’s character. A scientist, and marine biologist at that—a field I have explored many a day and night during my Sea Semester as I collected phytoplankton data aboard a rocking ship in the middle of the Pacific. New data was exciting, especially with the thrill of acquiring it in such dynamic and challenging conditions. The excitement Piya felt when seeing her first dolphin aboard Fokir’s boat resonated with me deeply—I have felt so similarly. But in this excitement lies tension too: when does science cross into the realm of self, community, and place? When does it grow from the act of forming a hypothesis to an act of building a home?

“Piya knew that if she could establish any of this she would have a hypothesis of stunning elegance and economy—a thing of beauty rarely found in the messy domain of mammalian behavior…But the hypothesis begged as many questions as it answered. What, for instance, were the physiological mechanisms that attuned the animals to the flow of the tides? Obviously, it could not be their circadian rhythms since the timing of the changed from day to day. What happened in the monsoon, when the flow of fresh water increased and the balance of salinity changed? Was the daily cycle of migration inscribed on the palimpsest of a longer seasonal rhythm?” (104).

This questioning, in my mind, is characteristic of a scientist. We are taught to ask and investigate questions like these—but until recently I didn’t recognize them as subjective, influenced deeply by Piya’s background and her way of interpreting the world. And, I didn’t recognize them as bounded, asked in such a way as to appear objective because of their distinct lack of both humanity (as part of the ecosystem) and self (as the questioner).

In a way, her “objective” separation from her hypothesis mimics her physical act of peering through binoculars at the water. Binoculars, which confine your vision to a small intensely focused section of the world, also distort things close to you, remove context, and remove self. Our society’s scientific framework sometimes performs similar actions. But too, the focus and clarity given by binoculars (and often by science) serves a crucial function in understanding the world. As Piya describes, “at a certain moment the binoculars’ weight ceased to matter. It was not just that your arms developed huge ropy muscles (which they did); it was also that the glasses fetched you the water with such vividness and particularity that you could not think of anything else” (63). The clarity afforded by such a tool consumed her, just as her scientific questions did too.

“Now, as she sat in the boat thinking about these connections and interrelations, Piya had to close her eyes, so dazzling was the universe of possibilities that opened in her mind. There was so much to do, so many queries to answer, so many leads to follow: she would have to acquire a working knowledge of a whole range of subjects—hydraulics, sedimentation geology, water chemistry, climatology; she would have to do seasonal censuses of the Orcaella populations; she would have to map the dolphins’ movement corridors; she would have to scrounge for grants, apply for permits and permissions; there was no horizon to the work that lay ahead…it was the work of a lifetime…an errand that would detain you for the rest of your life” (105). 

I wonder if, in part, Piya began to add herself to the hypothesis when she became immersed in it, when it became the work of her lifetime. If she became consumed by the nucleus of science, did she also begin to claim it as home? 

But, how can she claim hypothesis as home when it is so narrowly focused? Does she at some point metaphorically drop the binoculars that bind her to the close and narrow, that flatten viewpoints into two-dimensions, that keep her consumed with science as separate, that remove self from the magnified image projected straight to the eyes, that distort people and closeness into blurred segments? As she drops these binoculars, does she begin to reframe her world of science as three-dimensional, interconnected, all encompassing, and contextual? Can she embrace place as home, all while still focusing intently on the water? Do context and connection bridge science towards conservation? Must science be separate to be science? 

And yet another contradiction: “she had been drawn to field biology as much for the life it offered as for its intellectual content—because it allowed her to be on her own, to have no fixed address, to be far from the familiar while still being a part of a loyal but loose-knit community” (106). If adhering to the traditional definition of home as stability, then Piya was drawn to homelessness. This is reminiscent of my first paper—finding self in wandering, finding home in self. But, how can science be home when, for her, science itself is homeless? Is it less that she finds home in science, but more that she adds self to science, and then builds a foundation of home upon this new contextual way of interpreting the world?

Here, at this intersection of self and science, I begin to wonder about Fokir and Kanai’s roles in her character development. Did Kanai’s focus on translation teach her to (re)interpret the world (and thus, science and self) differently? Did Fokir’s deep connection with the natural environment push her to see humans (and thus, self and community) as part of the ecosystem instead of separate?

Kanai, as a translator, recognizes that translations are truly interpretations—never directly passed from one being to the next, always with the addition of self. He poignantly writes to Piya before translating Fokir’s song, “For once, I shall be glad if my imperfections render me visible” (292). His own self is hidden within his translation, just as Piya’s own self is hidden within her science. 

 “She imagined the animals circling drowsily, listening to echoes pinging through the water, painting pictures in three dimensions—images that only they could decode. The thought of experiencing your surroundings in that way that never failed to fascinate her: the idea that to “see” was also to “speak” to others of your kind, where simply to exist was to communicate. In contrast, there was the immeasurable distance that separated her from Fokir. What was he thinking about as he stared at the moonlit river? The forests, the crabs? Whatever it was, she would never know: not just because they had no language in common, but because that was how it was with human beings, who came equipped, as a species, with the means of shutting each other out…For if you compared it to the ways in which dolphins’ echoes mirrored the world, speech was only a bag of tricks that fooled you into believing that you could see through the eyes of another being” (132).

Perhaps she was “no longer fooled into believing” she could see through the eyes of science, without too seeing through the eyes of herself. Hypothesis became a reflection of self. 

Kanai continued to challenge Piya’s paradigm of separation while talking about Nirmal’s mindset: “’Marxism and poetry?’ Piya said drily, raising her eyebrows. ‘It seems like an odd combination.’ ‘It was,’ Kanai agreed. ‘But those contradictions were typical of his generation…For him it meant that everything which existed was interconnected: the trees, the sky, the weather, people, poetry, science, nature. He hunted down facts in the way a magpie collects shiny things. Yet, when he strung them all together, somehow they did become stories—of a kind” (233). Through Nirmal’s eyes, there may have been no reason for things like geology and mythology to be separate, and no reason Piya shouldn’t combine science with community and even activism.

Another crucial character in her development was Fokir, a local fisherman with such an intense understanding of (and even communication with) the tide country. He guided her through her (their) journey of mapping the dolphins, but also guided her through developing an emotional connection with tide country—an emotional connection to place. While he sang one night while on his boat, “She knew too that a river of words would not be able to tell her exactly what made the song sound as it did right then, in that place” (83). There, with him, she contextualized hypothesis in place and emotion.

As their relationship and character development progressed, a hurricane hit, stranding them alone in the flooded mangroves. When Fokir died to save Piya, it seemed to be a culmination of her attachment to the tide country, to place, and to Fokir. Perhaps she metaphorically built this attachment while moving from separation towards closeness. As she filled the space between Fokir and the tree like plaster poured into a mold, she became the cast of community and ecosystem. When Fokir and the tree both fell away, she became an embodiment of their past forms, a blend of science, place, and people. Perhaps with his death, her connection with him became a connection with the greater community.

Now grounded in self, community, and place, she began to interpret the world differently. “Looking at these discarded odds and ends in the light of another day, she saw it was not the boat but her own eyes that had infused them with that element of enchantment. Now they looked as plain and as reassuringly familiar as anything she had ever thought of as belonging in a home” (279). As she embraced connection, the nomadic enchantment wore off. She saw her surroundings no longer from the point of view of an outside wanderer, but saw them as an insider. The concept of an insider necessitates a connection to people and place—and as she looked at Fokir’s odds and ends, she was home.

Looking back on her original excitement, her initial scientific vision in many ways mirrored her community-based dream in the end—mapping the dolphins’ movement corridors via the GPS trail left by her journey with Fokir, scrounging for the grants and permits that would allow her to do this. But, although the goals seem similar in concept, I see a fundamental change in mindset between her starting point and her endpoint—the addition of “home” to her scientific investigations. “’You know, Nilima,’ she said at last, ‘for me, home is where the Orcaella are, so there’s no reason why this couldn’t be it” (329).

If to transcend that boundary between scientific research and community-based conservation is to also transition between outside and inside, between hypotheses and home, then I wonder: how? As I graduate from Bryn Mawr, I am searching for home. How and when do I become an insider to a place and a community? When can I call it home? And, how do I even (or can I even) choose my home? In weeks time I’ll wander to Alaska with no return ticket bought. As I seek the nomadic lifestyle Piya described early on in her journey, am I seeking life as an outsider?  In order to create meaningful change, must I settle down in a place as Piya did? But did her actions resemble Teju Cole’s white savior complex too much? Or, as an echo of Cole and Tim Burke, is it even time to enact change yet?

Or, in the translated words of Rilke as contextualized by Nirmal,

“Look, I’m alive. On what? Neither childhood nor

the future grows less… More being than I’ll ever

need springs up in my heart” (230).



Anne Dalke's picture

"adding self to science"

I don’t generally give feedback on final papers any more (in the old days, no one ever came to pick up the paper copies I’d labored over @ such length, so I eventually came to substitute review and brainstorming sessions TOWARDS writing the last papers …)

but since you asked, I’ll say briefly that I’m delighted to see you develop your earlier project on science and subjectivity by “drilling down” into a character analysis of Piya’s growth, finding her home in her work, and wondering if the same will be true for you…

I love especially the question “Must science be separate to be science? “ (you remember that this is Ghosh’s claim, in his essay on “Wild Fictions”?: “Since the conditions of scientific inquiry are such as to require a radical separation between the inquirer and the field of study, it is surely no coincidence that the scientific experts' responses to conservation challenges so often consists of attempts to recreate these conditions on the ground – primarily through the expulsion of people. It is as though they were seeking to create the conditions of a laboratory within inhabited landscapes, an endeavour that can only be futile and in the end, self-defeating….”  I think you offer an alternative to this perspective, in your description of those, like Piya and yourself, who, as you say, “add self to science,” as you “transcend that boundary between scientific research and community-based conservation.”

If you had more time/were re-working this? I’d ask you to rethink the way in which you make each of the other figures in the novel “crucial characters in Piya’s development.” There’s something uncomfortable-making about that construction, as if each of them is a means to the end of her growth, rather than each of them (Piya included) interacting with and so enabling the growth of one another. The way you’ve framed it now (understandable, since you are focusing on Piya) it seems too uni-directional (and so, of course, not quite ecological enough for my taste!)

Send updates from the field, okay?