Editor’s Note: This is part of a series of dispatches from the Knight Science Journalism Program’s 2020-21 Project Fellows.
In the most old-fashioned sense, a scientist can be thought of as someone who observes the world directly. A naturalist spots a curious insect and sketches it in a lab notebook. An astronomer points a telescope to the sky and peers at the stars. A microbiologist examines a magnified organism plucked from a pond.
But as science has advanced, researchers have been compelled to find more and more imaginative ways of seeing. During my Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship at MIT, I spoke to dozens of sources from all walks of science — ecology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, and so on — to find ideas for my book, an essay collection about the scientific process. The exercise felt like playing a wild pinball game, my brain careening from one mind-bending concept to the next. But I saw that across these disparate studies, many scientists were pursuing hidden worlds, struggling to observe something beyond their field of view.
A geologist, for instance, wanted to understand the movement of water within and underneath a glacier, but could do so only by securing instruments to the surface and inferring what was going on below. Astronomers sought to observe elusive moons outside our solar system based on indirect clues: gases emitted from the surface, a slight dimming of light. A paleontologist was trying to reconstruct the physiology of a creature that lived more than 200 million years ago, based on enigmatic marks on its fossils.
Perhaps the most obvious example of a hidden world was the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, an event that upended society but felt utterly unseeable. Scientists did take direct images of the virus. But its transmission, the intricate network by which infection passed from person to person, was like a set of invisible chains that held the world in its grip.
As part of my reporting, I spoke to biologists around the world who were trying to reconstruct that network. They were just a few of the many scientists who sequenced hundreds of thousands of SARS-CoV-2 genomes from infected patients and tracked tiny changes over time. What emerged were elaborate trees, evolutionary histories showing how the virus had mutated over and over into new versions. Based on which version had infected each person, scientists could then make reasonable guesses about how Covid-19 had spread within and between countries.
This, I imagine, is what it’s like to do science: straining to see the truth through panes of colored glass that obscure your view.
As the pandemic dragged on, I found comfort in looking at these trees, which were updated and posted frequently on the website Nextstrain.org. The visualizations gave me something to hold onto; they made a threat that seemed amorphous, uncontrollable, and invisible into one that felt more concrete, understandable, and, well, see-able. We were all hiding from the virus, but it couldn’t hide from us.
Of course, the picture was still incomplete. Even if scientists knew that two people had been infected with exactly the same version of the virus and had recently interacted, they could never say with absolute certainty that one had transmitted it to the other. And many links in the transmission chains remain missing.
During my pre-pandemic reporting, I visited a paleontology lab where I saw a magnified image of a fossil from Antarctica on a computer screen. When the scientist turned on a polarized light filter, flecks of red, gold, violet, and tangerine appeared, making the image look like a weathered stained-glass window. Later, I thought of something another paleontologist had told me—that researchers see the fossil record “but through a glass darkly.”
This, I imagine, is what it’s like to do science: straining to see the truth through panes of colored glass that obscure your view. The often-tortured process never yields perfectly clear answers. But there’s something kind of beautiful about it too, isn’t there?
Roberta Kwok is a freelance journalist based near Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in publications such as NewYorker.com, NYTimes.com, Nature, The Southern Review, Audubon, and U.S. News & World Report.