I was probably about thirteen years old. I wanted to put pasta into a pot of boiling water, when I suddenly stopped and stared at the bubbling liquid. It’s not like I had never seen boiling water before, but I had never seen it like this. Instead of just noticing the movement and the steam and the heat, I saw molecules zooming around, breaking bonds and escaping the pot at a dazzling speed. I looked at the whole thing and suddenly realized ‘I know how this works!’
I was hooked!
Since then I have started to experience this all the time. When I first learned about vectors, I started seeing the imaginary arrows of people and vehicles moving, while riding my bike through traffic. When I read about Microbiology I was suddenly able to look through my skin into my own body, seeing all the little helpers and enemies at work before my eyes. When I participated in my first geological excursion, I had already worked with marine seismic data a lot. I remember standing on a mountain road, looking over the valley, while our professor was explaining the structures we saw. I suddenly realized how vast and big everything is. What I would see in my data as a small dip of colorful lines on a computer screen, was now filling my entire view. And I try to remember that feeling, whenever I stare at data nowadays.
These examples are still all about the physical world in a way, or rather about seeing more than there is. But knowledge can also have an impact on more abstract things. It can topple your worldview, when you realize that, with your new knowledge, you are no longer able to hold on to long held beliefs. Whether that is a religion, the good intentions of a former friend or that the world is simple, it can be upsetting to know the truth. On the other hand, it can help you to develop your personality, to gain confidence in yourself. “Know thyself!” may seem as banal as “Knowledge is power!” but those sayings are true. It may be a silly example, but in my early twenties, I was still in denial about a fundamental part of my personality (perhaps because as a teenager my peers thought I was weird, when I talked about it). It was only when I saw a video of myself, aged eight or nine, performing a gymnastics choreography on the floor to the theme song of the Star Wars soundtrack, that it dawned on me: I always have been and always will be a proper nerd. Only then was I able to fully embrace it and allow myself to love all those nerdy hobbies I used to have. So, in a way I started to see more of myself, because I had more knowledge about who I am.
Curiosity is the drive of research. It is our job to ask “How does this work?” or “Why does this work?” and if you asked me, what brought me into the earth sciences I would answer “I want to be able to explain the world! Literally!” There is something wonderfully satisfying about looking at the landscape and knowing how it came to be. To tell the story of plate tectonics and uplifting and orogenesis (the generation of mountain ranges). And then of glaciers and rain and wind and how it all works together to create the complex and beautiful landforms on our planet.
With geophysical methods, we can even look beyond the surface of the earth or below the sea, where no human can ever see anything with their own eyes. They enable us to tell even older stories of the beginning of the earth and how life was before the humans and the catastrophes it learned to recover from. And from time to time that knowledge from the past even allows glimpses into the future. Just like having the second sight.