Pearls and Perspectives

In 1870, the French writer Jules Verne published a science-fiction novel, entitled ‘ Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas.’ The French professor Pierre Arronax, his Belgian servant Conseil, and the harpooner Ned Land end up on the Nautilus, a submarine controlled by the peculiar Captain Nemo. During one of their many adventures, they walk around the island of Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka) in sophisticated diving equipment, looking for pearls. Before they explore the underwater world, professor Arronax explains what a pearl is:

To the poet, a pearl is a tear of the sea; to the Orientals, it is a drop of a dew solidified; to the ladies, it is a jewel of oblong shape, of a brilliancy of the mother-of-pearl substance, which they wear on their fingers, their necks, or their ears; for the chemist, it is a mixture of phosphate and carbonate of lime, with a little gelatine; and lastly, for naturalists, it is simply a morbid secretion of the organ that produces the mother-of-pearl amongst certain bivalves.

If you struggle through these long sentences, it becomes clear that a pearl can be many things, depending on your perspective. To romantic poets, it is ‘a tear of the sea’ , while for (wealthy) ladies it is precious jewel. Professor Arronax then turns to the scientific perspectives: chemistry and biology. The chemist focuses on the different chemical compounds, such as phosphate and carbonate. The naturalist, finally, is realistic and sees the pearl for what it is: the ‘morbid secretion’ of an enclosed mollusk. The paragraph ends here, but we could go even a step further. To the physicist, a pearl is a collection of atoms, each composed of neutrons, protons and electrons, which are in their turn composed of different quark flavors.

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A physicists’ perspective of a bird

These different views on a simple pearl highlight one of the most exciting characteristics of science: perspective. Give an object to a molecular biologist, a chemist, a physicist or an ecologist; and they will all tell you a different story.

I used to be a chemistry teacher. If you would have given me a pearl at that time, I would have told you about its chemical composition (as already explained by professor Arronax). Now, some years later, as a PhD in evolutionary biology, I would tell you about the evolutionary history of the creatures that make these jewels.

So, over these years, my perspective has changed. Ask me again in ten years and I may tell you another story (maybe as a nostalgic and romantic poet, describing the beauty of these molluscan miracles).

Here is another important lesson: perspectives change over time. You learn, you discover, you discuss, you think, and you change your mind. Or at least, in a perfect world, new information should trigger you to change your mind (if necessary). But often people adhere to their specific world view and ignore or reject new facts. Some might even refer to ‘alternative facts’ that better fit their world view (I could start writing about the new president of the USA, but I refuse to use that trump card here). By adhering so strongly to your view of the world, you restrict yourself and impede personal growth. So, open you mind! But, as fantasy author Terry Pratchett wrote, ‘The trouble with having an open mind, of course, is that people will insist on coming along and trying to put things in it.’ That is why we have to remain critical as well.

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The cover of ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ by Jules Verne

From a paragraph in a 1870 science fiction book to an important life lesson (have an open mind, but remain critical). Just by changing our perspective and letting the waves of our minds carry us along. To end, some appropriate lyrics from the Pearl Jam (what did you expect?) song Tremor Christ:

Little secrets, tremors turned to quackes
The smallest oceans still get big, big waves
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