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July 26, 2000.
The Radar
Real Audio

Our radar set when properly adjusted to see other boats on a rough sea is covered with speckles. As the beam sweeps around the circular display, it erases the old plot lying ahead of it while leaving a new plot of speckles behind. This freshly speckled pattern is an update of all the echoes from land, waves and objects that have reflected from the radar beam during the most recent sweep. Each time the beam rotates, the collective dots of which the speckled surface is formed appear to shift slightly from their previous position (because the boat's heading has changed slightly and because the faintest of them are reflections off ever-changing wave patterns).

When you are looking for boats that might run you down, what you are looking for is something that stays in the same place on successive sweeps of the beam, something a bit larger than a single speckle, something composed of several speckles in a cluster. So you stare for a couple of beam sweeps at some patch of clutter within the two-mile central bull's eye ring which is your warning zone, hoping that the clutter you saw for two sweeps will vanish and prove not to be some ship that has sneaked up on you since you last checked the screen. If on the third sweep it is gone, and on the 4th and 5th sweeps it stays gone, you breathe easily again.

It is as if the radar made visible our worries, laid them out in a plot-each speckle a possible disaster. It is in the nature of our evanescent, flickering worries that they can fill a whole new screen as fast as our old worries are erased behind the beam of our present concern. As each screen is erased, it brings up an infinitude of new concerns which appear real until a few more tests of reality erase them too and we await a new, speckled family of fresh worries to fill our screens. I imagine the minds of the first European voyagers or of their even earlier Asian predecessors who came here on foot from the West. Both parties moved into the Entirely Unknown facing fresh affrights which instead of being resolved by knowledge got transformed into myths. Surely we have come a long way, yet in the modern world our radar screens with their million new speckles on each rotation have the potential to create new myths. And because of science, we are now in pursuit of something real but no less fascinating than myths-ultimate understanding, something that only religion used to claim to offer. Religion was the first way we had to deal with our speckled worries. But now we have science (which seems to have gone a long way towards erasing many of our earlier worries, and with it much of our earlier dependence on religion). As I see science is the beam of the radar-the solid green line patiently sweeping through a speckled field of ignorance and worries, cleaning them up, but alas, leaving behind as many new theories and superstitions as it just swept clear. The truths revealed by science are occasional, very widely scattered, persistent dots that glow steadfastly out of the snow of superstition that covers all else on the screen. To improve the view we need to re-tune the entire system.

The hope is that this will be achievable by upgrading everyone's education. When that has been accomplished, we will collectively see far less clutter-may even be able to agree on the reality of the few glowing pixels which by their persistence become accepted truths. The promise of science is that it can reduce the clutter of myth and at the same time illuminate some truth. That's what attracts me, moth like, to science; and that is why I am on an expedition that is trying to use science to learn more about the ocean before we, in our unassailable ignorance, have destroyed ocean beyond recovery.

2000 - Roger Payne

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