Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On Fishing and the Meaning of Everything

By Marcelo Gleiser,

The boy inserted his fishing rod into a plastic pipe secured deep in the sand. The surf was low and the sun was already setting behind his back. Gone were the girls in scant bikinis and the muscular guys playing volleyball. Copacabana beach lay bare in front of him, a perfect, golden horseshoe. Here and there, older fishermen tried their luck along the beach, retired men in their sixties and seventies with little to do, their skin leathered from years under the tropical sun, beer bellies bursting out of their shorts. They all knew the persistent eleven-year-old who would come three or four times a week to the same spot with devout discipline. The routine was always the same: he’d string three hooks to the end of the line and carefully load each with a small piece of sardine. Then he would run to the water with the rod behind his back and cast the line as far as he could beyond the breaking surf. After placing the rod into the pipe, he’d sit down on the sand and wait. He paid little attention to the older men. Entranced, he shifted his gaze back and forth from the distant horizon to the tip of the rod. He didn’t know then why he had to fish. But he knew he did. Alone.

Usually, he’d go home stinking of bait and empty-handed, or at best with a meager catch of a small catfish or a cocoroca, a bony relative of the sergeant fish common off the beaches of Rio. His older brothers would smirk, clamping their noses, amused at the boy’s stubbornness. But not on that day. Two large silvery shadows darted fifty feet away, high on a wave. The boy retrieved his line quickly, hooked some fresh bait, and cast right behind where he had spotted the pair.

For ten minutes, nothing happened. Discouraged, the boy started to retrieve the line. Suddenly, he felt a strong tug. The bamboo rod bent in half with a fury he had never seen before. His arms turned rubbery. “It’s a shark!” he yelled. “It’s a shark!” Two older fishermen nearby dropped their rods and came closer. It had been years since someone had caught a shark there. The boy ran to the water’s edge, holding on to the rod with all his might, trying to reel line in. But he could hardly turn the handle. “It’s gonna snap! The line is gonna snap!” shouted one of the men. “Give up some line, boy! Let the fish run!” The boy, trembling head to toe, released the reel’s lock. Line swished out as the fish tried to regain control of his destiny. The mighty predator had become prey to an even mightier predator, a stunned eleven-year-old boy. After some ten minutes of give and take, the boy finally reeled the fish ashore. It wasn’t a shark. But it was big, bigger than anything he had ever caught or seen anyone catch at Copacabana beach. Silvery, flat on the sides with a large yellow tail fin; probably a young albacore, weighting about eight pounds, a beautiful creature to behold.

The older men circled the boy, amazed at the sight. Bursting with pride, the boy collected his equipment and tried to shove the fish headfirst into his bag. It wouldn’t fit. The V-shaped tail stuck out as he walked the two blocks back home, pretending not to notice the looks of amazement from the passersby. He opened the door to his apartment and placed the fish on the kitchen counter. The cook, a large black woman in her fifties, came running in. “Lindaura, look what I caught for dinner tonight!” the boy said. “Grandpa is coming, right?” The cook eyed the fish with incredulity. “You caught this down by the beach?” The boy beamed. “I did. And no one helped me either. I wanna see who’s gonna make fun of my fishing now.”

It took me over thirty years to reconnect with that boy.

Life took me adrift and I forgot all about that young boy and his big fish. My head turned upward to the Universe, and I became a theoretical physicist, interested in questions that, not long ago, wouldn’t have been considered scientific: How did the Universe come to be? What about all the matter that makes up stars, planets, and people? And life? Can we ever hope to understand how inanimate atoms first joined together to become living things, and then thinking brains? And if life took hold here, could it exist elsewhere? Could there be other thinking beings out there in the immensity of the cosmos? Even as a teenager, I marveled at the fact that such fundamental questions about existence could be answered in rational ways, without invoking supernatural agency. At the very least we could try to answer them, if not in their entirety, at least in part. The value, I realized, was in the trying, in being a participant in this continuous process of discovery we call science.

I now nderstand that those long afternoons of fishing and contemplation were a prelude to what was about to come. After all, fishing teaches us to be patient, tolerant, humble—key qualities needed in research. How often do fishermen go to the water with their rods, dreaming of the day’s catch, only to come home empty-handed? Likewise, how often do scientists passionately explore an idea for days, weeks, months, years even, only to be forced to accept that it leads nowhere? Notwithstanding the frequent failures, and just as in fishing, they keep coming back, even if the odds for success are pretty low. The thrill is in beating the odds, occasionally landing a big fish or an idea that reveals something new about the world.

In fishing and in science we flirt with the elusive. We stare at the water, and sometimes we see a fish stir underneath the surface or even jump, betraying its presence. But the watery world is not our own, and we can only conjecture about what really goes on down there, polarized lenses and all. The line and the hook are our probes into this other realm, which we perceive only very imperfectly.

“Nature loves to hide,” the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote some twenty-five centuries back. We see very little of what really goes on around us. Science is our probe into invisible realms, be it the world of the very small, of bacteria, of atoms, of elementary particles, or the world of the very large, of stars, galaxies, and even the Universe as a whole. We see these through our tools of exploration—our reality amplifiers—the telescopes, the microscopes, and the many other instruments of detection, the rod and line of the natural scientist. If we are persistent, once in a while we see Nature stir, even jump, revealing the simple beauty of the unexpected.


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