An essay by Dr. Erick Loadston, as provided by Adam Wykes
Art by America Jones
To you, dear readers, the significance of these findings cannot be overstated. Their implication(s) relate to the whole of human experience after humans first spoke. But perhaps this begins incorrectly: the story will and must build itself up, bootstrap excitement in you as it originally did for everyone it has affected–for all human information processing is inevitably correlated within a narrative framework, an indication of the sort of mind this species has. In this way and no other may it be understood, and to be understood in this way it must be told in the form and attitude of an adventure, beginning with the sharks.
Really, the event wasn’t so dramatic. It was the ancient sharks themselves, smooth and feline and so absolutely powerful in their mental impressions–especially up close–that lent the first moment its gravity. The crew that you must join for the course of this moment, the whole crew and yourself (had you been there), was rapt at the sight of these animals behaving as they did that day in the clear waters off the coast of the most remote location in the world.
The Matador del Mar was a leased 22-meter Chilean coast guard patrol vessel refitted for the purposes of marine biology, sturdily constructed and holding up–considering its fifteen years of military service–quite well. Not everyone was on the boat that day, unfortunately–just his captain, Gregori Zhitomir, his first mate and wife Olga Zhitomir, the author, and Iris Poole, a grad student from the University of Florida. And you, now, if you may be so persuaded. The rest were not on the boat then and make no indication of joining its crew now. Such, perhaps, is the importance of a proper introduction.
What the Matador was doing was at the suggestion of Gregori. He wasn’t a part of the expedition–rather a hired hand–but he had expressed sympathy for the group’s bad luck and offered his own personal advice based on his experiences at sea. Gregori claimed that if sharks were to be attracted, they might be brought by trolling rather than dropping, his reason being that the motion might be a more effective bait than the chum and blood already tried earlier in the week. Gregori was composed of that Russian captain’s stock reminiscent of Sean Connery atop the Red October‘s conning tower, squinting into the salt-sprayed wind with a tolerant wisdom born from Siberian patience wedded to a long and colorful naval tradition. This demeanor, really, was the reason he was taken on his word, and is offered here as a prime example of how unscientific some of the most fortunate decisions can be, even (especially?) on scientific expeditions.
In any case, he assured everyone that the boat was fast enough for the job and soon, for lack of any better ideas, the Matador was kicking up quite a wake as we rounded the northern peak of Rapa Nui. Several of the great heads for which this island is famous were in view. Those constructed in the inscrutable attitude of staring out over the waters with their lidless, dispassionate eyes were witness yet as Olga and Iris ran out the tuna bait on a trolling line and began dropping in chum and blood on the way.
Soon they had several prospective clients, probably Gray Reef Sharks but possibly Makos, chasing the bait, dorsal fins now and again high out of the water. Gregori adjusted his speed so as not to outpace the animals too quickly while making them work to get the bait, regaling everyone in his broken English with some tale about sharks that favored eating a harder catch. As preparations were being made for the cameras and tag guns, the Matador del Mar passed over a darker patch of seabed–and the pursuing sharks were gone. Disappointed but encouraged by the show, the crew tried the gambit again–and again the same results: the sharks would break off pursuit over the darker patch of seabed.
“What is that down there?” Iris asked Gregori, as you may well ask yourself. The answer eluded the captain and his crew then, but was answered some days thereafter, courtesy of a timely e-mail by a friendly geologist back at the university, who correctly determined it to be an igneous flow of magnetic rock from the island’s now dormant volcano. He reasoned that because sharks possess a finely tuned sense organ dedicated to the detection of electromagnetic fields that all living things give off, they might be spooked by the presence of the rock’s undoubtedly strong magnetic field. As long as future ventures avoided the magnetic flows, he advised, there would be no trouble. Paige Decker, the team’s most informed individual on that particular organ, supported this hypothesis.
And so things might have resumed normally had it not been for a particularly serendipitous rainfall later that week, as the expedition was grounded on Rapa Nui due to the rough seas a thunderstorm was working up around the island. You must put yourself in the position of the author, who was caught on the docks as the storm came in. Imagine:
The sky, angry and black as coal, is simply dumping water on you in a driving rain, and the waves are threatening to wash you off the dock. You quickly get as much of the equipment you were unloading as you can and dash off, a wave taking what you’ve left behind over the side only moments later. Rushing into the nearest building–one of the sheds used by the island’s archeologists–you’re thinking you’re too old for this. The team’s shelters are more than a kilometer distant, and there’s no way you’re hauling this camera and line all that distance on this muddy ground. Nor are you staying here in this drafty metal shed, your clothes dripping wet. You’ll leave the gear here in the shed and come back for it later when things have cleared up.
You’re not even halfway back when the rain, coming in nearly sideways in enormous gobbets, forces you to seek shelter behind one of those enormous stone heads, called Moai by the natives. It’s the only thing around for hundreds of meters, and the only thing worth looking at other than the sky, which you check frequently. You’re wondering how often these old statues are hit by lightning, but gradually you become more fascinated by the appearance of the rock when wet, which you realize you’ve never seen before. And yet it seems familiar, because you could swear it looks exactly like that patch of rock the sharks wouldn’t swim over.
That, probably, was the essential moment of connection–to be poetic about it, the point of critical mass, the moment at which a ball of interstellar gas becomes a bright shining star. What is to come is not yet clear, but the light, where before there was none, cannot be ignored.
To read the rest of this story, check out the Mad Scientist Journal: Autumn 2015 collection.
Dr. Erick Loadston is a former marine biologist recently turned systems theorist and cognitive scientist, formerly specializing in the behavioral dynamics of shark groups. His expertise in this field has been noted in several peer-reviewed scientific journals prior to this publication, which is intended for the general public. His book, “Applied Electromagnetic Imaging and Duplication of Nervous Systems,” coauthored with JohnJoe McFadden and Susan Blackmore, is due out later this year.
Adam Wykes is a technical writer at Forte Automation Systems, and fascinated with science in fiction and reality–especially complexity, cosmology, cognition, evolution, or ants. He lives in Rockford, IL, with his wife Emily, his new son Joseph, a dog, and the target host for toxoplasma gondii. In his spare time, Adam games, builds computers, learns Linux, reads, and tries to write a novel. His work also appears in the Von Neumann/Darwin-inspired game Boss Constructor, due for release on Steam soon, and the self-published (and free!) “Witness to the Dawn” on Lulu.
AJ is an illustrator and comic artist with a passion for neon colors and queer culture. Catch them being antisocial on social media @thehauntedboy.
“Apophenia or Apotheosis” is © 2015 Adam Wykes
Art accompanying story is © 2015 America Jones