the late ’70s, MSc student
Dave Marmorek, now retired
president of ESSA Technologies Ltd,
an ecological and social systems consulting
company in Vancouver and Ottawa, came to me to
announce a discovery, not about the lakes he studied
but how to study them. He was not the first scientist to
discover it. He had to prepare samples from hundreds of
glass jars of of lakewater collected from the field, at
all depths and in all seasons, perform chemical
analyses on all of them, and interpret the
enormous data set to answer
that is gold to experimental
scientists and everybody knows it.
Not every one knows how boring it can be
to collect it. I used to tell undergrads who thought
they wanted to be scientists that if they didn’t love
working out how not to be bored they shouldn’t even
try. They’d hate it, get bored, make mistakes, and
vanish down black holes of frustration. Maybe
you have to be crazy to be a scientist, because
‘normal people’ can’t stand doing the same
thing over and over and over and over
again, in precisely the same way,
hundreds or thousands
Dave worked it out
and became a fine scientist. My
point here is that I think what he discov-
ered was how not to be bored. They say
“Pile it higher & Deeper” about the PhD and
there’s lots of truth in that. Over and over, and
it does seem endless, we do the same things as
nearly as we can the same way, almost ad
infinitum: observing, recording, looking
through binoculars and microscopes.
If we can’t
get computers to do it
for us, that is. Back then, computers
couldn’t look through microscopes for us or
analyze samples automatically like they can now,
so Dave did it for himself the only way there was:
painstakingly by hand one after another. What was
Dave’s discovery? What set the world on fire for him
that day? What made both of us glad he discovered it?
What was so earth-shaking about it and why? It’s
simple. Dave realized he didn’t like to be bored
and did something about it. If he broke com-
plex tasks into sets of simpler ones, he
could work faster, get better data,
stay sharp and attentive,
and have a good time.
We don’t get Nobel Prizes for
discoveries like that. But
might get prizes be-
cause of them.
that as something worth
celebrating and I did too. By making
an assembly line out of his work and manning
all the stations, almost as if his body were a robot and
he, the one he called “I”, were in charge of it. If he did one
kind of thing at a time, his robot could attend to the work
and leave Dave, himself, free to reflect on what he’d done,
think ahead, imagine things, plan things, catch errors,
improve procedures, and other things. His thinking,
imaginative, reflective self made him a creative
scientist. Exercising his robotic self made
him a good technician. Until he was
a good technician he didn’t have
time to think, imagine,
was the key to his discovery.
Here’s what Dave says about it now:
“when I saw each step of the work
as part of a dance it became fun.
I attended to the thing I was
doing, then danced on
to the next.”
A little later,
Glenn Sutherland had a
similar revelation. He was an MSc
student in my lab at the time, then got a PhD in
advanced mathematical and statistical modeling
of ecosystems, worked at ESSA for years, and is now
with Cortex Ecological Consultants. He is an award-
winning composer of symphonic music. To
celebrate his revelation, Glenn wore a
T-shirt declaring SLAVE! when
According to Glenn,
wearing his Slave shirt when he
did slave work reminded him that he
was both the robot and the scientist and
both had to do well. Glenn’s cheap trick helped
him make that happen. It sounds kind of schizy,
to say it that way, I know. Scientists “should”
be more rational than to play tricks on their
multiple personalities with T-shirt
labels. We all know that
and it’s true.
But scientists like
Glenn are rational enough to
think up tricks like that to fool themselves
into learning action patterns that work better
in many ways than the automatic, inefficient, error
prone, unproductive, habitual ones we want to break.
But we don’t like being bored, making mistakes, or
taking forever to finish things that ‘should’ be quick
and dirty and when we’re desperate to do a
good job but aren’t, we have no aversion
to silliness if it gets the job done.
An added benefit of
Glenn’s T-shirt trick was that every
one in the lab could see it. Early in his spatial
memory experiments, before we automated the
worst part of the Slave work, he had to do so many
things during one minute out of every 10 that no
one could say or do anything to distract him,
then when he relaxed we continued.
But only if he was his SLAVE at
the time. If he wasn’t it
That is the nature
of experimental science, boring
and repetitive as it is. It is a creative
human venture as well – – exciting and
beautiful to experience when it works
well. What about dance, sculpting,
choreography, or anything else?
One thing I learned
from of working in Experi-
ments, a dance production expres-
sing the essence of scientific creativity, is
that what I just said about experimental science
applies just as well to dance. I hinted at some of this
in a story about my daughter Susan learning to dance
and about our learning to talk about that over the
phone. Here I will flesh out the idea a little more.
Take the simple notions of repetition
and precision, for example.
And take chaos.
dancers rehearsing seriously
for a year under the guidance of a chore-
ographer and a team of others who know their
stuff. Dramaturge, costume designer, sound, video,
and lighting experts, publicists, scientists to give
feedback and suggest new ideas, and several
investors such as the Government of Canada.
All want a miracle of precision, beauty,
and meaning conveying something
significant about science and
art, and that is a tall
happens in rehearsal
to ask Gail Lotenberg and the dancers
for the real story. I’m no choreographer or dancer
and haven’t been through this before, but I’ve gone to
rehearsals, talked back and forth on the phone with
Gail, responded to a million emails, and
observed the evolution
Here are a few things
worth thinking about. It is crystal
clear to me now that when Gail first imagined
Experiments she didn’t know what she was doing and
knew it. She had good ideas and some survived to the final
production. Most were vague, half-formed, and unworkable
in practice, just as they would be for scientists at that stage,
and they changed as she explored them, which is also true
of scientists. She tried other things, dancers suggested
changes, or scientists didn’t get it and she returned to
the drawing board. Sometimes we didn’t get it
when Gail didn’t get it and the production
grew richer and more real as
we worked it out.
and experiments evolve that way.
Even the best of us learn what we are doing,
each time, by doing it. Also like scientists,
dancers improved things accidentally
sometimes by making mistakes,
then the mistakes became
Possibilities emerge. Things flow
into other things that they didn’t flow into
before. This happened for a year in the rehearsal
studio, not that dancers need years to practice moves.
They don’t. But if anyone suggested something different,
Gail usually considered it, then they tried it the new way.
It astounded me that they could discuss specific moves
made months or years earlier and apply them in
new situations. What they needed the year
for, I think, was to ‘get’ what they
were doing deeply enough
to do it well.
Repetition, precision, and chaos.
The blocks falling in this photo remind me of
unpredictability in the real world: accidents,
lives changing suddenly, new realities,
especially during transitions. Chaos.
Those issues are what scientists
on the team study in
Look again at
Darcy McMurray, the dancer
in the photo. Imagine being her in the
studio, live, Vancouver skyline vaguely in
the distance, just before Take One, then motion,
then blocks falling around you, photographer
taking your picture, hoping for a perfect
shot, just what you’d imagined.
But look at the blocks
Back up the tape
to when the motion started.
Imagine motion, collisions, all falling
down. Try to imagine timing, controlling,
or predicting any of it exactly or repeating
any of it, ever, in precisely the same way,
even once in 1000 takes. I don’t think
anything as complex as choreo-
graphy could come out the
same in a lifetime of
But not exactly, and that’s
the way it is in science too. As
hard as we may try, it just isn’t possible
to repeat ourselves exactly, and it
doesn’t really matter in the
long run anyway.
is not that we behave as robots,
but that we specify accurately enough
what our robotic selves must accomplish, not what
they must do, and make clear to ourselves, first,
what difference it makes that they
stay within bounds we
set for them.
That’s how it
is in science and sculpting, and
something like it is true in choreography
as well. I am beginning to understand that
choreography and rehearsals are conversations
about what might be. They push action toward
limits of human capability, considering how
audiences perceive, understand and re-
member from scene to scene, and
all of it is imaginary until
conversation must have included
the size and composition of blocks, both of
which determine what it takes to make them fall,
what they do when they collide with each other or
hit the floor, how long they take to rest, etc. All of
is both affected by and affects dancers’ move-
ments. Little things like that make enor-
mous differences in what the
audience takes away.
And affects the
Here is an example
of lengths Gail Lotenberg went
to improve Experiments. At a continent
wide conference of dance professionals, she
staged three performances of one scene, early
in its development, and invited her peers to
comment on it in public (see Liz Lerman).
The professional feedback was deep,
candid, insightful, and figured
in the evolution of the
Again, my point
is not that I know anything
about dancing, which I don’t. It’s that
I see many parallels between how experiments
evolved and how wild animals, human children and
adults, families, and organizations of various sizes
learn anything. The feedback session with
the pros is what we call peer review in
science. Colleagues tell us what
does and doesn’t work, and
we adjust what we do,
usually for the
A note on Experiments’ subtitle,
“Where logic and emotion collide”.
What a deliciously
ambiguous figure of speech that
is, especially with reference to experimen-
tation! What could Gail have meant by it? She
might have wanted to contrast cool, emotionless,
limitingly logical science with warm, emotional
dance but I don’t think she meant that at all.
My story about Dave Marmorek puts the
lie to that notion anyway. Besides, her
her husband of 18 years is a living,
breathing, Latino behavioural
ecologist , which clinches my
point about emotions.
Here’s what I think.
I think that subtitle
points not to a difference between
science and dance or between science and art
in general, but to a deep similarity. She just said
Experiments was where the collision occurs. Logic
and emotions almost necessarily collide whenever
we commit, without reservation, to learning any-
thing difficult – it is a Yin and Yang of experience.
i.e. the production, is a difficult
choreographic experiment partly because
the dancing is difficult to perform. More funda-
mentally, it is challenging to communicate the
experience of discovery. To the extent that it
works, it will succeed in senses of
what it is ‘to experiment’.
Dave Marmorek’s book of poetry
Passing Through: Mountain Paintings and Poems,
with painter co-author Dennis Brown,
was published in 2018.
This story relates to many others.
The Silver Dollar
has examples from my
first few years of navigating the
world. The story about olives curing
in The Case of Gerald Gass comes to mind
in relation to fine cuisine, and Saw Filer Guy
is a perfect example in industry. As my story
about Gerhard Herzberg makes clear, “if you
know what you’re doing, you’re not doing
science and It’s Not Just a Matter of
Technique addresses the same
set of issues from another
angle in teaching.
First published in the Vancouver Observer.
Edited January 2019