The Sea and the Science She Inspires
The Sea and the Science She Inspires

The Sea and the Science She Inspires

For centuries, painters and poets have looked to the ocean for insight. Researchers, too, have found their muse in the Earth’s salty realm.

Nov 1, 2019
Bob Grant

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he style and sensibilities of Impressionist painter Claude Monet emerged from the ocean. He is arguably most famous for his paintings of the ponds and water lilies that dotted his verdant home in landlocked Giverny, but Impression, Sunrise, the painting that christened an artistic movement, depicted the bustling port of the seaside town of Le Havre in Normandy. Monet was raised from the age of five in Le Havre, and it was there that he met Eugène Boudin, a marine painter who would teach the young artist to use oils and paint outdoors. The eager student would paint numerous seascapes throughout his robust career, and Monet once famously said: “It is extraordinary to see the sea; what a spectacle! She is so unfettered that one wonders whether it is possible that she again become calm.” Monet’s contemporaries, such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin, and artists who came before, including Japan’s Katsushika Hokusai, were similarly drawn to the ocean’s dynamic charm.

Writers, too, have been moved to create throughout history by the salty waves. From poems such as Emily Dickinson’s “I started Early—Took my Dog” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to timeless books by Jules Verne, Herman Melville, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, literary figures of all stripes have committed the mystery, brutality, and potentiality of the sea to the page.

The same holds true for seminal works of science. Charles Darwin’s dogma-shattering theory of evolution would not have arisen from the primordial ooze of creationism without his arduous, nearly five-year sea journey aboard the HMS Beagle, which ferried him around the globe and further changed his mind about the immutability of species. Even before that, as a student in Edinburgh, Darwin made some of his earliest forays into biology by studying marine invertebrates under the tutelage of Robert Edmond Grant (no relation, as far as I know).

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Another paragon of scientific thinking referenced the unfathomability of the sea as a way to downplay his own unmatched contributions to physics. Sir Isaac Newton is said to have declared: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

To me, this connection between the ocean and scientific inspiration makes perfect sense. After all, the consensus among biologists is that the likeliest scenario for life’s initiation and evolution is intimately entwined with our planet’s seas. The first rudimentary biomolecules probably assembled and began replicating themselves in or near ocean waters. And marine organisms, already established and evolving for millions of years, made those first, fateful slithers into terrestrial living at some evolutionary launching pad situated where the sea met the land. My own journey through science was greatly influenced by the sea, and were it not for the allure of journalism, I would have finished my PhD and most likely would be a marine biologist today.

It is in this spirit of discovery that The Scientist decided some time ago to prominently feature stories of marine research in one issue per year. Over the years, never have we found any shortage of fascinating research or inspiring stories to be harvested from the ocean. From the confluence of literary and scientific currents highlighted by Rachel Carson’s relationship with the sea  to the tale of the paradigm-shifting discovery that humpback whales sing songs, this issue is packed with salt-tinged tales to delight and challenge the mind. Reporting my feature story on Florida red tides reinvigorated my own fascination with marine research, reminding me that there is so much we have yet to learn about the boundless waters that connect us all and about the organisms that make their homes in that vast expanse. 

Bob Grant
Editor-in-Chief