27 September, 2006

Mountain musings 1: The hard climb of science

I’ve just spent a week hiking in the Vanoise National Park; we did a five day loop around the main glacial massif. On the whole, it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience; after an unpromising start the weather was fabulous, the scenery fantastic (I took an old film camera so no photos to show off as yet) and I had the unforgettable experience of a golden eagle flying 10 feet above my head, close enough to pick out individual feathers on his underbelly. I’m glad I didn’t look like lunch, although his long stare indicated he was thinking about it.

The hike was no without it’s challenges, however, and the second day was particularly hard work. On paper, it was difficult enough; 1200 m of ascent, including a stiff climb to 2916 m to get across the Col d’Aussois. In reality, we proceeded to make it even tougher for ourselves by getting un peu perdu. As we approached the Col, we lost the trail, but we could see a track going up the hillside across the river and decided that must be the route. We persevered with this belief even after we discovered that the bridge promised in our guidebook had apparently vanished; it was only when we’d spent an hour struggling up it - and reached a much lower col on the wrong side of some rather hefty mountains – that we realised that we’d gone a bit wrong. When we looked back into the valley, we could see the actual track, heading upwards into the next valley. Merde.

Fortunately, our elevated perspective also showed us that we didn’t have to completely retrace our steps, an option almost as unpalatable as heading on and trying to find another route across the ridge; instead, we just had to descend enough to contour around into the next valley, and then re-ascend to rejoin the trail up to the Col d’Aussois after it crossed the river (on a very existent bridge). Despite this short cut we lost almost two hours, and fretting over time combined with tiredness from our abortive first ascent, the altitude, and an unrelentingly steep path to make the ascent to the top of the proper col one of the toughest things I’ve done in quite a while. My world contracted in on itself; the track was reasonably well marked by cairns, and rather than focussing on the distance to the summit, my mind was fixated on driving myself onward to the next cairn, and then the next one, and then the next one… all the time my breath was getting shorter, my rucksack was getting apparently heavier, and lifting my feet was becoming ever more difficult. And then, just when I thought I’d reached the top, I struggled over the break in slope to discover yet more up. By this stage, it’s only slightly melodramatic to claim that the point of the ascent was only a dim recollection in the back of my mind; pretty much the only thought in my head was, “I’m not going to let this bloody hill beat me!”

By 7.30, we’d all got to the top. Unfortunately, that was not the end; we now had to descend down to the refuge on the other side of the col. Down was good (although gravity can be a fickle friend when you’re knackered), but we had the small problem of about 90 minutes’ walking and half an hour of daylight left to do it in. Fortunately, thanks to one of my companion’s inspired twilight route-finding, we only needed our torches for the last 20 minutes, but even so we almost overshot our destination.

In the end, what should have been an eight hour trek had taken almost 12. However, although negotiating mountain trails in the dark is hardly recommended, we were never really in serious trouble; as a tale of danger and fortitude, this is hardly Touching the Void territory. However, looking back as the hike continued, I found myself thinking back to a post I started writing a few weeks back, discussing the vast gulf between the public perception of science and the process of actually doing science*, and I couldn’t help drawing parallels between that the physical ordeal of that day and the mental struggle of a PhD, or any research project. You start at the bottom of a big hill, and despite previous research as a guide the way forward is not clear (especially if you don’t find the key publication, as we neglected to properly consult the map). When a route does present itself, it may not be the correct one, and it may take you considerable time and effort to discover this. Your wrong paths may not be a complete dead end; a negative result can still constrain the problem, or (as happened during my PhD), the result which undermines a key assumption may finally reveal the true path to understanding. It’s disturbingly easy to get so lost in the day-to-day grind of generating and processing data, that you almost lose sight of the reasons you were interested in the first place. Just when you think you’ve got there, you discover a new complication with your data. And, of course, it takes much longer than it was supposed to.

If I really wanted to get lost in the metaphor, I could run with the whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” angle by musing that the hard day’s climbing gave us access to some spectacular mountain scenery in the following days. That, however, is somewhat immaterial to my point. I’ve often thought that a shortcoming of most science reporting, centred as it is around (if we’re lucky, informed) regurgitation of Nature press releases, is that it is exclusively concerned with the outcomes: the exciting results and nifty new hypotheses. Results are important, of course, but I sometimes think that focussing only on the final part of the scientific process means that many people do not realise exactly how many years’ graft has gone into attracting the public attention for that fleeting second (if it ever does). A scientist’s week does not consist of thinking up a nifty idea on Monday, running down to the lab and testing it on Tuesday and Wednesday, writing it up on Thursday and getting the plaudits on Friday. The view is great from the top - but it takes a whole lot of climbing to get there.

*Yes, I was thinking about blogging. But a nice walk has always provided good thinking time for me, so it’s not quite as sad as it might appear. Honest.

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