I can't remember when I became interested in science. Maybe when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. I certainly remember where I was, with my parents at Perry's Motel in Hot Springs, Ark. We watched it happen on a small black and white TV in a darkened room. I could probably find the room if I went there today.
Maybe it was before the landing. I don't remember much of my childhood, but I do remember Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. I recall the concern everyone felt when Apollo 13 nearly blew apart on its way to the moon, and the joy and relief we felt when Jim Lovell, Fred Haise and Jack Swigert safely arrived back on earth.
Of course, I'll never forget Alan Shepard's tee shot, either.
The astronauts were my heros. But as I learned more about science, I found out about other heros. Like Ernest Shackleton, who lost his ship, the Endurance, but none of his men, to crushing Antarctic ice. Or Louis Pasteur as he developed vaccines against anthrax and rabies. There was also the Leakey family, searching for the origins of humanity while Jane Goodall studied our cousins, the chimpanzees.
As I grew up, I became addicted to nature programs. Marlin Perkins and Jim Fowler seem hokey now, but I never missed Wild Kingdom. Life changed dramatically, however, when cable TV made its way to north Louisiana where I grew up. I thought I had seen a lot before, but now there was Nature, Nova, Carl Sagan and James Burke.
Thanks to these programs, and the influence of college teachers like John Hall, Laurence Hardy and Steve Lynch, I decided to become a scientist myself, eventually pursuing biogeography because I wanted to find out why plants and animals occur in some places and not others. I've more or less followed this path for the past 17 years, training for an ordinary career in the Ivory Tower.
It once seemed like enough, but I have changed. I once wanted to become one of those heros I idolized in my youth, but now I'm quite happy just learning things I didn't know before. Also, the rarefied, isolated atmosphere of academia no longer appeals to me. Hiding in a lab for days on end seems like serving time in jail. Sharing what I've learned only with my fellow scientists is as challenging as trying to convert those already faithful.
I'd rather take my mission to the uninitiated. To renounce the not-so-splendid isolation of the tenure track, to step out of the tower and into the light. And maybe, like the heros, teachers and communicators who influenced me in my youth, to inspire someone else to take up the call.
Copyright © 1996-2004 David M. Lawrence
All Rights Reserved