a true story by @McSweatervest
I used to be a marine biologist. I don’t mean a plays-dress-up-with-an-imaginary-mermaid-girlfriend-while-building-a-romantic-undersea-bungalow-out-of-Legos sort of marine biologist (although I was that too). I mean I literally dissected sharks, studied the reactions of Siamese Fighting Fish to different color swatches and graduated from a reputable 4-year college with a degree in marine biology. That degree is something—much like my student debt—that no one can take away from me, and which, now that I am in a completely different line of work, continues to grant me a lifetime supply of cocktail-party fodder and opportunities to do atrocious impersonations of George Costanza.
In my senior year, during a particularly intense semester of research, I took a class in biological modeling. This was not, as the more prurient underclassmen joked, a progressive title for a course in oil painting nudes, but rather a course in the attempted distillation of the world as we know it into a series of equations. In those days, we had nothing but Microsoft Excel and a few rudimentary programs to mess around with, and it was hard. I spent the entire semester trying to calculate how an oil spill would affect light penetration in water, and in fact, despite countless all-nighters and rebooting of crashed 1st-generation iMacs, I never did get my model to work.
But this story isn’t about the class; it’s about the professor. Let’s call him Blackbeard, because that was always how I thought of him—a pirate moonlighting as a landlubber. He was a giant of a man with a booming voice and an even bigger black scraggly beard. He was as intimidating as he was gregarious, and would pound the desk, podium or nearest student’s back with equal vigor whether in anger or in eureka. When he laughed, it was a bright tsunami of sound and you could almost feel the plank beneath your bound ankles tremble.
As his pitiful tiny crew (it was a seminar), I and the three other students shipped out nervously on the first day of class, hunched over a table in a tiny room, half of which he filled. We would spend a lot of time in close quarters with the captain, and I was going to spend more time than the others, because, desperate as I was for cash, I had volunteered to do work-study a few days per week with Blackbeard. I tried to imagine, with a mixture of anticipation and terror, what this corsair cum PhD could possibly want me to do for him. He did not disappoint.
Blackbeard loved lobsters. He loved lobsters the way dogs love squirrels, the way politicians love to hear themselves talk, the way Miley Cyrus’ tongue loves vertical surfaces. Whenever an example was needed in class, the protagonist was a lobster. I imagined him spending his sabbaticals picnicking with lobsters in the Lesser Antilles. If he were ever hiking through the alps and it were an option, he would doubtless carry a lobster or two with him for good conversation. You get my point.
Blackbeard had spent his entire career studying lobsters. But this was not a man wont to do things just any old ordinary way. No sir. The fearsome pirate Blackbeard studied robot lobsters.
Now, to be fair, he claimed he was building and studying all these robot lobsters only because it was the most efficient way to study real lobsters. “The damned little monsters die on you!” But we all knew the real reason: the only thing Blackbeard may have loved more than lobsters was robots. By the time I started as his first mate, Blackbeard was well into beta testing, and I had the privilege of working with his little Roomba-like minions throughout the semester.
At the time, Blackbeard was particularly interested in lobster mating. For those unfamiliar with Nephropidae reproduction rituals, here’s how lobsters mate:
- Female lobster gets horny.
- Female lobster climbs the nearest rocky outcropping and stands statuesque, a recently molted madonna, her antennae swaying sultrily in the ocean breezes.
- Female lobster releases eau de toilet-water pheromones into the currents.
- Every male lobster within a quarter-league comes drooling at her pleopods.
- NSFW lobster activities to a Babyface soundtrack.
The thing of it is, no one really knows how all those studs, after catching a whiff of Channel Island no. 5 in the tumultuous currents, are able to trace it back to its source, over reef and dune, like Bugs Bunny finding a carrot. The calculations of fluid dynamics involved are so complex that we are more or less boiling little super-computers alive and eating their circuits with warm butter.
Now, a rational person might have gone to law school or business school or opened up a seafood restaurant without a second thought about lobster olfactory capabilities. But Blackbeard was no rational man. Oh no. Blackbeard was on a quest for the mysteries of the Great White Lobster Nose, pegleg and differential equations be damned. So he did what any self-respecting privateer would do: he built artificially libidinous robot crustaceans and set them loose in large aquaria to chase trails of artificial lady-lobster ass smells.
When Blackbeard was setting these robolobs loose in his laboratory (pronounced la-BOR-a-tory in his presence), this is where I came in. You see, despite Blackbeard’s passion for this question of the ages specifically, and for artificial intelligence generally, his robots were actually pretty terrible at following lobster perfume. With alarming regularity, they would get stuck on walls, or fall onto their backs, or just give up and accept their fate to live out their days as lonely lobster bachelors forever. And when they did so, I had to go retrieve them from their artificial Davy Jone’s locker. Clothed in galoshes and banana-yellow dishwashing gloves, I would reach into the arctic 30°F saltwater (Blackbeard refused to heat the water—”Another variable!” he would shout, eyes sparkling maniacally), cradle the writhing joints and gears in my arms and then put them back in their assigned starting place, where they would again embark on a never-ending quest for a mythical robot lobster love.
Between iterations, I would sit on the side of the giant tank—my frail Floridian limbs recovering, armpit-deep in a bucket of lukewarm water, earning my $4.26/hour—and contemplate the plight of my little robot friends. Are they aware of their part in this mad pirate’s quest? Do they dream of electric sheep or boiling pots? Do they all just pine for their glory days singing with the B-52s? Remind me again why I wanted to be a marine biologist?
At the end of the semester, Blackbeard called me into his office. He clapped me heartily on the back, bestowing a moderate hernia, and said, as best I can recall, “Aarrrghmatey, thanks for all yer help, we really got a lot accomplished in the frontiers of lobster mating!” He then proceeded to explain (completely incoherently) his plans for exciting new research on how little remote-controlled crawfish might present groundbreaking clues on global wind patterns, or something. Or perhaps he just quoted a bunch of Shakespeare. (He did that. A lot.) I can’t really remember.
But I do remember, and will always cherish, his parting gift. It was a surprise yet somehow not, like a token of plunder bequeathed over a final shared rum before the captain dismissed his lackey to explore more exotic ports. After commending me on my non-working oil-light-penetration model, he gave me with great reverence a little book called Vehicles, a series of thought experiments in artificial intelligence. I smiled. How could I have expected anything less.
As I left his office, still smelling that stale musty mix of books, beard wax and the sea, I opened the book and read the inside cover:
I am not a marine biologist anymore. I left that to the maverick scientists of the world, eccentric geniuses bent on conquering knowledge the way buccaneers of the past conquered narwals. But Blackbeard was still right. There are many things I’ve yet to explain about myself and my potential. And that experiment doesn’t require a lab. Just imagination, hard work and at least one amazing professor. Ahoy, life.