Essential, Yet Under-Emphasized, Keys to Success in the Field: Wonder

This week we finish up our multi-week discussion of qualities that help ensure success in the field. Last week we focused on selflessness, or putting the needs of others or the team ahead of your own.

We finish up with the big one, wonder, or awe and inspiration in the beautiful, unexpected or “inexplicable.” Wonder is why we’re out there, and if you are not experiencing a satisfactory dose of wonder nearly every day in the field, it may be time to re-examine how, or what, you are doing there.

If you can't experience wonder out here, go home.
If you can’t experience wonder out here, go home.

Scientific inquiry is driven by wonder. None of us as researchers would be doing what we do without drawing on wonder. Of course, it forms the foundation, the first step, of the scientific method; ask a question, explore an inquiry, contemplate an observation, and don’t be content with simple acceptance. Science and discovery are driven by the desire to find answers.

These questions are derived from that initial wonder. One of the most motivational aspects of the research endeavor is asking the question. Field locations are ideal venues for asking these questions because you are literally surrounded by and inundated with potential material. Every time you take a hike, sit down in the grass, take a look at an outcrop, or scan the ground for bone fragments you are met with endless opportunities for inquiry.

The field is the basis from which the great minds of the Enlightenment addressed the questions we take for granted today. Charles Darwin, William Smith, Nicholas Steno, Carolus Linnaeus, Charles Lyell, Adam Sedgwick, Roderick Murchison, and countless others developed the study of biology and geology as we know them today because of the wonder they experienced in the field. Every field scientist follows their example when we experience that wonder that drives our investigation.

You’ll note that in the definition of wonder the word “inexplicable” is in quotes. The reasons for this should be obvious. As field investigators we are not content with “inexplicable.” We strive to decipher the inexplicable. Obviously this is what separates true scientists from those investigating cryptozoology, ufology, or claims of the paranormal. While wonder may also drive pseudoscience, legitimate science does not stop at “inexplicable” and will not be content with “answers” drawn from anecdote or personal incredulity. No field scientist should be content with “inexplicable”. Wonder is the fuel that drives this search, even if the “inexplicable” seems impossible to address.

Wonder is also more utilitarian; it provides rejuvenation and improves attitudes in the field. We’ve all been there on a sweltering afternoon covered in dust, overwhelmed with fatigue when someone yells in excitement at a discovery. Suddenly everyone is energized and ready to go once again. Despite the pitfalls of the finder’s mentality, the wonder of initial discovery is often a boon to a field crew. It can instantly turn the worst, most grueling day into one of complete excitement and satisfaction. This is why I never ignore those cries of excitement, because you never know what someone has found, nor do you know from where the next burst of motivation will arise.

I encourage my field students to find wonder wherever they can. As field geologists and paleontologists, our efforts are generally focused on stratigraphy and fossil finds, but don’t discount the sources of wonder that are not directly related to your field of study. Take a bit of time to observe the wildlife, spend a second with the nest of juvenile cliff swallows, marvel at how those ants are better at collecting rodent teeth than you’ll ever be, enjoy that cool breeze, or wonder how that old liquor bottle shaped like a cowboy managed to survive this long exposed to the elements. Bask in the scenery, admire the natural setting, and let that wonder direct your activities and keep you going when you’re away from the lab or office.

Sources of wonder can be anywhere.
Sources of wonder can be anywhere.

Have the time of your life in the field, but remain secure, cognizant, industrious, selfless, and filled with wonder every second you’re out there. These factors will make all the difference.

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