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Getting lost to get found Add to ...

In the fall of 2006, I walked down the steep hill from my rented house in LaHave, Nova Scotia, to have my morning coffee on a craggy bit of beach at nearby Fort Point. On the way, I stumbled across Gary, a ruddy-faced long-time resident of the Point. In accord with time-honoured Maritime tradition, we had become old friends in a matter of minutes. I knew all about the boat he was dressing up so that it would survive the winter and he knew that I was a professor from Ontario, possibly a nut-job, who thought I'd found a good place to write a book. He sized me up as if assessing the odds I'd see another spring.

"Lots of people visit LaHave," he said, "but not many stay for the winter."

What had possessed me to ditch my nice house in Kitchener, ON, uproot my family, and drag the whole lot of them to a little seaside village with the promise of an ocean view, taking nothing more than two wooden crates of essentials? Some might call it a mid-life crisis, but we academics have another name for this kind of madness - we call it a sabbatical.

My year-long academic leave was a little bit off the beaten path. Most sabbaticals include visits to laboratories to learn new skills, sojourns in foreign libraries to examine archival material, or other kinds of exotic site visits. My idea (though I was careful to use different wording in my request to the chair of my department) was to separate myself from my old habits to see if I could figure out what to do with the second half of my career. It sounded a little strange to my friends and colleagues, who would nod stiffly with pasted-on smiles while listening to my ill-formed musings. I knew what they must have been thinking. Career suicide: another case of a perfectly useful professor of psychology (whatever that is) who will soon be rambling the halls wearing a caftan and a beret, muttering about Carl Jung and quantum consciousness.

But I really couldn't see an alternative. I'd spent many happy and fulfilling years teaching, mentoring some great students, and toiling away in my research laboratory to wrench tiny but hard-won pearls of wisdom from my measuring instruments. Yet for as long as I'd been an academic, there was one piece of business that had remained undone.

I think it may have first come to light when my father asked me a few questions about the dissemination of research findings. When I told him that new findings were published in journals, he asked me whether these journals paid the authors any royalties. I answered that, not only do journals not pay royalties, but they sometimes ask the authors to pay to offset the costs of such niceties as colour illustrations. My father arched an eyebrow and asked me who read the journals. "Not many people," I said, "just specialists." As I recall, he changed the subject to hockey, but the can of worms had been opened.

Who knows what I'm doing in my lab? Who cares? Should anybody? And if so, who will explain it to them? In Canada, we're lucky to have some superb science journalists who specialize in getting messages out to the public, and our taxpayer-funded grant agencies place such high value on these activities that they recognize the writers with prizes. But shouldn't scientists have to shoulder some of the responsibility for helping the public to understand what's happening in the scientific community and what impact it might have on our lives?

This kind of thinking was the rumbling subtext to my crazy junket to Nova Scotia. I wanted to get away from the culture of science for a while, to walk in a different pair of shoes, and to try to understand the bigger picture by looking back at my life from the outside. Why did I spend my days taking careful measurements of the movements and perceptions of a strange variety of different critters (including people) and documenting my findings in journals read only by specialists? I considered myself to be pretty good at telling a story, and I wanted to tell my own. (In fact, some of my critics have suggested I'm a dab hand with a tall tale. But that's another story.)

I spent a good deal of time trudging up and down a perfect stretch of empty beach (and yes, I know exactly how lucky I was to have had a chance to do this), trying to imagine why anyone would care about the work of a psychologist obsessed with how we find our way from one place to another. I mean, who cares that a hundred years of studies with rats and mice have shown us how good these little animals can be at solving mazes? And how important could it be that if you put a human being into rat-sized shoes and ask him to solve the same kinds of problems as a rat, he often failed in ways both profound and hilarious? We're not rats. End of story.

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