I’m sitting right back where I was last summer now, sitting in the same room with the cheap wooden desk and the grape vines shading the window. (It only now occurs to me in the second summer of living here—maybe dolmas? The second-floor grape vines are decorated with strings of beads, errant earrings and pendants hung there by previous tenants, and I could just reach out thru the screenless window and snip the leaves and blanch them for about a minute for something perfectly edible. I am not Greek, but I think I might need to get sumac? What even is that? A spice, or a tree? I distinctly recall that at least one variety of sumac is called “poison”…)
Last summer I was here making radio for Voice of America, interviewing sometimes three scientists in a day, then editing both our voices, clipping out awkward pauses and “um”s, into a stutterless conversation that might be broadcast to Indonesia or Africa. I’m here for a different reason this summer: straight-up science! My thesis research. I’m not going to go into detail here—public speaking about research tends to be kept quiet until publication, a good idea for many reasons—but suffice it to say I’m researching dolphin cognition, trying to figure out how bottlenose dolphins think about themselves, each other, and the world. Kind of a niche position, but one I have wanted to be in for my entire life. I’ve had a lot of experience “getting to know” animals, which is what made me want to study them in the first place. I know cat’s moods, like exactly which tail-twitch will signify when your petting has overloaded them and they have begun to consider killing you. (Cats are relatively un-domesticated compared to dogs, which means we are exposed to all of their predatory notions in our interactions with them—I think this is why so many people are afraid of cats.) I got to know horses, too—that they sigh when they are relaxed, what scares them, and what they like. (My teacher-friend Liz taught me that horses especially like leading-following games, since they echo the intricacies of their social lives—dominant to submissive and back again—which is why a horse who likes you will imitate your movements.) Oddly enough I don’t know dogs that well—since I never lived with dogs I still have trouble telling the difference between a happy dog and an aggressive one. Animal knowledge and stuff like species-typical personality only becomes clear when you’ve spent a lot of time in the presence of this creature that is quite different from you—it’s the same between any two people. Someday when we’ve made alien contact this is how we’ll get to know each other. (Who else saw the Ender’s Game movie? Despite any irritations you may have had with the storytelling…wasn’t the Bugger Queen insectly beautiful?)
Ever since I knew dolphins existed I’ve wanted to “know” them in this same way. I know what a dolphin looks like when it’s echolocating on something (very intent; sometimes their heads wiggle), and when it’s surprised (they puff out a fat bubble of air, often while sinking slowly, it looks like they’re saying “bloop!”). More, I hope, will come in time. The best way to learn is by watching; science is always an extension of this, and usually starts that simply: watching things happen, writing a few notes, asking a question. Of course from there it gets much more complicated—modeling of the real world, how things work, systems—but that’s the fun. Onward always in slow steps.
The title of this post is from one of my favorite poems, by Ray Bradbury of all people; I watch this video whenever I need a lift and feel that it would be a good replacement for the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools. Skip to 1:30 if you’d rather get to the poem.