The Chronicle Review

Casting Into the Unknown

Stuart Bradford for The Chronicle Review

August 21, 2016

Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded forever.
— Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

G rowing up in Rio de Janeiro, I couldn't possibly neglect the vast expanse of Atlantic Ocean right in front of me. The beach is part of our collective identity, a place we go to see and be seen. To me the beach was also a portal into the unknown. I marveled at the joining of the ocean and the sky at the horizon, the huge ships emerging from behind top-first, proof of the curvature of the Earth. There was more to it than just the sand and the waves. There was a vast network of living creatures underneath the surface, mysterious and unreachable.

At age 11 I started fishing. I would arrive at Copacabana Beach when the day was almost at an end. It was just me and a bunch of retired men in their 60s with little to do, their skin leathered from years under the tropical sun, beer bellies bursting out of their shorts. I rarely caught anything, even though I came two, three times a week. There was the line and the hook, the only tools I had to explore a world I knew little about. It was only much later that I realized that the line between two worlds — the airy one and the watery one — was also a link between the known and the unknown.

With the intensity that comes from building a career in academe — finishing a Ph.D., postdoctoral positions, getting a faculty job, grants, tenure — I forgot all about that boy fishing at Copacabana Beach until one day about 10 years ago. As I walked by the Dartmouth Green, my eyes caught bright-colored lines whooshing from long rods during a fly-fishing class. I was smitten. I decided to immerse myself in the difficult art of fly-fishing.

As I struggled to master fly-fishing, I learned about my own shortcomings, about the fragile environments of rivers and lakes, and about the interconnectedness of the natural world. As John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe." In fishing and in science we learn quickly that reality is a weblike structure of mutually interdependent influences, of which we perceive very little.

In my kind of work, theoretical physics, you often think alone. Sure, we have our groups, postdocs, grad students, and colleagues whom we exchange ideas with. But what you choose to work on reflects in unique ways who you are. Our best ideas may come during an exchange with a colleague, but we unpack them alone. I didn’t know it then, but those afternoons fishing at Copacabana were a prelude to a life of immersion into the unknown.

A few years ago I went to a conference in Florence, Italy, organized by the International Astrobiology Society. The focus of the conference was the origin of life on earth and the possibility of life elsewhere, a huge multidisciplinary research area that attracts professionals from astronomy to zoology. After a quick internet search, I came across a fly-fishing area known as the Tail Water Tevere, the birthplace of the Tiber River, which cuts Rome with its chalky waters. Access is through the village of Sansepolcro, the birthplace of Piero della Francesca and other luminaries from the Italian Renaissance. Sansepolcro is not too far from Caprese, where Michelangelo was born in 1475.

When I arrived at my lodgings, I was given the fly-fishing club’s general manual and immediately realized this would be an altogether different experience. Quoting from the manual: "To fly fish is to come together, to seek unity. Fortunate is the fisherman who can free his senses from the grip and formalities of life, for he is elected. In the water, a fisherman only becomes one with his craft when he blends archetype and memory. A great fisherman is at once romantic and medieval, a Flemish painter, an Italian from 1200, a lover of the imaginative dimension that defined the Renaissance; he is heart and intellect." My guide, Luca, reminded me that the brown trout there are called "trota Michelangelo," probably because their beauty seems to be a product of the master’s design.

After a day in the river, Luca promised me a surprise: He would take me fly-fishing at night. Under a moonless night, headlamp on and rod in hand, I stepped timidly into the water. "The beautiful thing about fishing at night is that without your eyesight to guide you, you must fish on instinct," said Luca. "It forces you to be one with the water, with the rod, with the trout; no distractions. It’s pure poetry." It was hard, but to my surprise I managed to catch two trout, which I released back into the water.

That night I came to understand why fishing had been an important part of my life. Fishermen, even the most masterful, never know if they will catch anything. In the same spirit, scientists never know if their ideas will bear fruit. In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive, trying to stack the odds in our favor even if ultimately we have no control over what will transpire.

For a fisherman, the line and the hook are the probes into an unknown world, underwater, invisible to the senses. There is no certainty. Every fish is an unexpected surprise. For a scientist, the tools of exploration are reality amplifiers, the instruments that allow us to probe into the unknown, hopefully helping us expand our knowledge and, very rarely, our worldview. As with the fisherman, we can’t know what’s below the surface of reality, what lies beyond the reach of our tools. However, as in fishing, you only know how far you can go if, when seemingly defeated, you make yourself cast again and again.

Marcelo Gleiser is director of the Institute for Cross-Disciplinary Engagement and a professor of natural philosophy, physics, and astronomy, at Dartmouth College. His new book is The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected: A Natural Philosopher’s Quest for Trout and the Meaning of Everything (ForeEdge/University Press of New England).