Teaching Lessons

Ocean of Possibility


By Helen Czerski

October 17, 2016


When I finished my PhD, I left behind the delicate spires and gently clinking teacups of the University of Cambridge in England. I also left behind the physics of solid matter and the fiddly trappings of a lab designed to handle explosive materials. My new home was 5,500 miles away at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California. On my first day as an oceanography postdoc, I walked over the crest of the steep ridge behind the institution, dazzling sunshine at my back, and met the gigantic Pacific Ocean for the first time.

The realization that flowed into my life over the next three weeks was enormous and shocking: No one had ever told me about the ocean! I’d barely heard it mentioned, and yet here was a whole campus of people who swam in what they studied, who understood its rhythms, and who were happy to work below the waves in an alien environment. I owe my introduction to this world to Dr. Grant Deane, simultaneously one of the most intellectually brilliant and also most unashamedly human people I’ve ever met. But for the first year, it seemed as though I were missing out, that all these people saw something in the water that remained invisible to me. I could feel the immensity and importance of the oceans, but something hadn’t quite clicked, even though I was learning so much and so quickly.

The real lesson came a year later, just before I left to take up a second oceanography postdoc elsewhere. I walked around campus, and asked every senior researcher I encountered to recommend one book to me. And the floodgates opened. Nobody recommended a straight science book. Instead, they eagerly recalled books like Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World and Callum Roberts’s The Unnatural History of the Sea, among others—books about people who had worked in the oceans, who had fought to travel across the oceans, and who had seen the oceans for what they really are: the vast blue engine of our planet. Suddenly, I could see. I had learned the technical information, but I hadn’t learned about the human connection to the seas. Those researchers knew the books that resonated, that said the things they couldn’t express. Every book presented a different perspective, because the ocean is not one place, and there are many ways of relating to it. But those books were the gateway to a world that I can’t now imagine leaving.

Helen Czerski is a physicist in the mechanical engineering department at University College London. Her book about how physics is woven into our everyday lives, Storm in a Teacup, will be published in January.

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