The blue marble

The blue marble

Want to climb a peak like Everest? Become a scientist

Climbers aren’t the only ones who face steep, challenging peaks: scientists are rising to a huge challenge too. James C Farmer

May 29 2013 marks the 60th anniversary of the first ascent to Everest by Sir Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay. National Geographic celebrates with an article in the June edition. It includes shocking photos showing a long trail of mountaineers to climb Everest. At the stage called Hilary’s steps, which leads to the summit, climbers queued waiting over 2 hours to take a photo quickly before they were pushed away for the next one to take the photo.

There isn’t any higher peak to be climbed for the first time, nor deepest trenches in the ocean to descend for the first time (although the latter has only been reached by three people thus far), nor more fountains of the Nile to be discovered.

Have we run out of opportunities for adventures?

No, the best still remain available: scientific discovery.

Scientific discovery has a lot of adventure, exploration, just as climbing. Including its very motivation. When asked why Hillary was so committed to climb Everest his response was “because it’s there”. The scientific challenges are just like that: they are just in front of us, challenging, waiting to be resolved.

Scientific research requires the same passion and determination to overcome challenges as climbing does. Our society values and admires the tenacity and sacrifice of mountaineers, as they also value, perhaps without realising how similar they are, these same traits in scientists. But in science the tenacity and sacrifice of a few drives progress for all.

Like climbing, scientific research must overcome great difficulties and challenges. As in climbing, the researcher will reach many false peaks, just to find yet other higher peaks behind them, more complicated and difficult to overcome. As in climbing, the scientist undergoes a long period of technical training before facing the highest peaks and, once qualified, will spend long periods in base camps, high up but safe and well charted, studying the difficulty of alternative paths before attacking the summit. As in climbing, the researcher will sometimes have to backtrack before the summit, not to give up in defeat, but to try, again and again until reaching the summit. As in climbing, the researcher does not rise alone, but in rope teams benefiting from routes opened by others who attempted the ascent before them. Like climbing a few will take the glory, but this will be, always, the merit of many.

In my research I have climbed to some modest summits, always false, with other summits more rugged ahead, but I have always found it stimulating to reach these intermediate peaks, even if they were modest. These intermediate reaches provide the opportunity for a brief stop to enjoy the landscape below, just enough to feel again the itch to attack the higher peaks. For precisely the same reason as Hilary, because they are there.

The vocation of service in science is important, but I would say that in only a few cases it is the decisive vocational element. Without the passion for the challenge to reach where no one has arrived before, exploration and discovery, it would be impossible to overcome the sacrifices and undertake the risks necessary to achieve the greatest scientific achievements. It is that excessive curiosity, passion to know, to learn, to decipher riddles, which promotes scientific research.

The most phenomenal adventuress in the 21st century will be a scientific one. Scientific discovery provides access to interior peaks, contemplated through the lenses of rationality, and the feeling of having accessed a new level of understanding - almost a Buddhist concept. To stare at what we’ve always had in front of us and see something new, something that no one had seen before.

It is this passion that will take us to overcome the difficulties and challenges. It is particularly in times like this, when world leaders do not show sufficient appreciation for the value of science, when the task of recruiting new scientists is as difficult as the recruitment of volunteers for high risk adventures.

To recruit the participants in his epic failure at crossing Antarctica on foot, Ernest Shackleton posted an ad in the British press that read:

Men wanted for hazardous journey, low wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, not assured return alive, honor and recognition in case of success

More than 4,000 people applied.

This same advertisement would be appropriate to recruit scientists, particularly in countries such as those in Southern Europe where austerity measures have done away with scientific funding, gone with the wind, or in the US or Australia where academic jobs for early career researchers are almost extinct and success rates at application for scientific funding come ever closer to lottery odds.

Yet, I’m sure that, as for Shackleton, tens of thousands of young men and women will respond to such advertisement. Their passion for participating in the adventure of science will lead them to overcome all odds and difficulties inherent to science. I am fortunate to know many of these passionate young students.

It will not be easy, they will go through major difficulties and challenges, and will have to make tough decisions. But if they endure over the cold, loneliness and sacrifice they will arrive to any of these intermediate peaks to see for the first time ever a landscape that no one would have seen before. They will open a new route that will take their name and will conclude, if they manage to reach with the spark for adventure intact, that everything was worthwhile.