Friday, February 3, 2017

Built like Rome

In recent years, I've found myself watching the American comedy The Big Bang Theory, a fictitious series about physicists at the California Institute of Technology, with ever-increasing frequency. It's an intelligent comedy, and the producers go to great lengths to include real scientific and mathematical concepts in the episodes. Their accuracy is lacking, however, when it comes to matters of academic life. For example, in the most recent season, two characters have a brilliant, ground-breaking idea, which they record in a furiously-written manuscript and post online just hours later.

That's not how it works.

The barnacle Hesperibalanus hesperius on my plates,
magnified 16 times
Scientific papers are never written, much less published, in mere hours. Ideas and analyses take months, even years to develop, record, and distribute. Scientific theories are built like Rome - certainly not in one day.

Friends, I bring up the lengthy time-line for scientific analyses to introduce and remind you of one of my own long-suffering projects. Does anyone recall my Cape Arago barnacle project? If not, I'll remind you.

It started in 2014. I built homemade moorings out of ready-mix cement, attached settlement plates to them, and dropped them in the ocean at varying distances from a rocky reef on the southern Oregon coast. I had all sorts of elaborate hypotheses, but in the end, really only one species of barnacle recruited to my plates. The project suffered from all sorts of logistical issues, made me the most seasick I've ever been, and was frustrating at every turn. I made a bit of progress by looking up the larval forms for each of the species that recruited to my plates, but even that was just a qualitative analysis. I wasn't sure if my hard-won data would ever be publishable.

Dense barnacle recruitment on a settlement plate. The brown
dots are a snail, Astyris cf. aurantiaca.
Enter my friend Y. He's a physical oceanographer and a former WHOI post-doc. We met when he gave a seminar at OIMB (where I did grad school), but we've been in contact much more frequently since I've been at WHOI. I convinced him to have a look at some of my barnacle data, and Y did what oceanographers do best. He made a map of the sea surface height offshore of Oregon, and it turns out there was an eddy right over my study area during most of my experiment! My plates saw decent barnacle recruitment while the eddy was there, but as soon as the eddy disappeared, my plates got exponentially more barnacles than before. What a strange pattern!

This, my friends, is the value of scientific collaboration. Someone from a different discipline may have a completely new perspective on your data, and you never know what you can learn from them until you ask. With Y's help, I finally have enough material for a publishable manuscript. My barnacle project now makes a solid contribution to our understanding of nature. It is long-developing but cross-disciplinary. It is built like Rome.

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