Rules of Engagement: Ships, Science, and Democracy

The FS Polarstern will leave port tomorrow night for scientific work between Greenland and Spitsbergen near 79 degrees north latitude about 1200 km or 770 miles from the North Pole. It will be hard work, as there is more ice in Fram Strait than any other area that I sailed into the past 20 years. The early June departure date is the cause not a changing climate. I am usually home during the birthday of my wife this week and our wedding anniversary next week as usually my work does not get me into the Arctic until the end of July, but this year is different.

As on all ships everywhere, the rules of engagements, the daily cycle of life, the access to friends, family, and the news cycle change once at sea. Some things one leaves gladly behind such as dirty laundry, washing dishes, and cutting the lawn, while others are a little harder to let go such as a blooming garden, growing children, riding bicycles, and open internet connectivity. The latter does not fit romantic notions of life at sea, but a button on my jumper says “Geek” for a reason. Furthermore, I found the button in an ammunition box in the woods near my hometown while geocaching with my wife of 20 year; Mary Ann, I miss you.

The ship is afloat, loaded, and a new set of rules now applies about how one lives aboard. This is my last post that will not be approved by the Captain, the Chief Scientist, and/or one of their designated representatives. This is a perfectly acceptable, reasonable, and normal way to do business, because the ship represents more that just one perspective of one writer with one national or one educational background. Every ship has a mission and there are formal ways to report on those. Blogging is not one of them, but public outreach, education, and perhaps serving a greater public good is. Once at sea, the Captain’s rules of engagement are absolute on any ship anywhere for good reason.

Hence ships are not democratic institutions, but authority, command, and accountability are all vested in one person, the Captain. Ships such as the FS Polarstern do represent democratic societies, cultures, and values rather well on a time scale longer than a news or blog cycle. Furthermore, fun stuff happens anyway and may not need reporting in gory detail: over breakfast today, we had six scientists sitting together from six countries with divergent perspectives on issues ranging from ice algae and ocean currents to gun and tax laws. Most of us had never heart of each other, because we all represent diverse disciplines such as biology, chemistry, meteorology, or physics. Diversity is both fun and strength; nothing is more boring than everyone looking or thinking the same about religion, politics, or science.

There exists, I believe, an analogy between the non-democratic character of ships and the non-democratic character of science. On ships as in science the majority does not rule or decide what is right and what is wrong; a committee may vote and advise on how monies are allocated, but no committee decides on what is and what is not accepted truth. The data we collect, the though experiments we codify, the observations we simulate, and the predictions we make, all these are facts that test our ideas, that scrutinized our theories, and that show what is most likely to happen from a multitude of scientists of diverse training and background. Yet an essential part of this process is that the data must be shared, the results must be published, the publication must withstand scrutiny all according to democratic rules such as fair play, checks and balances, and transparency, however, the process itself is not democratic.

So, where does this leave me now? I move my mind towards being at sea where a different set of rules applies. Uncertainty exists on what can and what cannot be written and published on what schedule. There need not be a design to limit or censure communication, but Ocam’s Razor applies: People aboard work tirelessly at almost all hours of the day, those with command authority are burdened with multiple, often contradictory demands, or internet access off Greenland is so severely limited that only ice-charts and data for navigation reach the ship.

I love to write, share, edit, and think. And if the blogging does not work the next few weeks, some other form to share excitement and results will eventually find its way, as it always does. The path is the goal.

P.S.: Happy Birthday and Anniversary, Mary Ann und einen wunderschoenen Achtzigsten, Vati. Ich denke an Euch all, I am thinking of you all 😉

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