“It is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things—plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.”
For me, this quote by John Steinbeck resonates viscerally as it captures the quintessence of a lifelong commitment to scientific-thinking, to the pursuit of truth, to a lust of the mind that never ceases to ask questions. Yet, it concedes that some of the awe and wonder that accompanies this process of understanding the world is sustained and nourished from the part of science that’s much closer to art, an art that doesn’t necessarily come with the package of a classical scientific education.
My fields of specialization are molecular genetics and genomics but my first loves have always been zoology and astronomy. I was born and grew up in Singapore where education was all about tiger mums and rote learning. In first grade, as a plucky, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed student eager to “do” science, I launched into an extracurricular series of experiments and activities that culminated in these two awards: the Young Zoologist and Young Astronomer of the year!
Over the years of formal schooling, these passions were steadily eroded from my soul and what was left, was a lucid pragmatism for pursuing a path with a “career” in mind, things that are lucrative, fields that attracted better funding or with better future prospects for “work-life balance.”
Amid the tedious routines of pipetting minute quantities of liquid from tube to tube, running arrays and executing sequence alignments, the lifeblood of lost childhood yearnings occasionally bubbled up, initially manifesting as an interest in devouring pop science books on animal behavior and the intricacies of space and cosmology.
As an armchair naturalist, what got me off the couch was my first trip into the wild. On assignment, I had gone into the Amazon forest in Brazil to collect soil samples for microbial meta-sequencing but I couldn’t help but fixate on the fauna that was several orders of magnitude bigger.
It was then that I realized that I could watch animals for hours. And I really mean hours. From poking around the humble oases of life that are tide pools, to frolicking with the majestic big cats in African sanctuaries, I’m obsessed with all creatures big and small – not just the wonders and features of their physiology and behavior, but how that fits with the narrative of selfish genes and evolution, and it all ties into the big phylogenetic tree of life.
When I graduated, as a present to myself for publishing my first scientific paper, I decided to trek down to the Space Coast in Cape Canaveral to watch NASA’s penultimate launch of the Space Shuttle program, STS-134. Endeavour’s final journey into space rekindled the space-faring dreams I once had as a kid and that kicked off two things:
2) Dabbling into amateur astronomy
Which leads us here, to this point.
Facebook, powerful a medium as it is, is too fleeting of a platform to function as a proper vestibule for the myriad of micro-blogs of topics and ranging from zoology to genetics to cosmology. This website here fills that role, and in addition, I hope to focus more on rekindling the old romance I had with the terrestrial (animals, evolutionary biology) and the extra-terrestrial; with the occasional contemplation of sociopolitical issues an other miscellaneous thoughts that might arise from my stream of consciousness.
What spurred me to become a scientist (and incidentally, an atheist) was The Selfish Gene by Professor Richard Dawkins. To paraphrase the Lord of the Rings, it was one framework, one framework to rule them all. The first chapter was succinctly titled: Why Are People?
Answering that question has been a lifelong quest. To add to that, I now ask:
Why Is Nature?
Why are the Heavens?
And What does it all mean for People?
These are profound questions. I hope that you appreciate my ramblings here, and that you too find that abstract connectedness to the fabric of life on this planet and to the cosmos.
Perhaps, as Steinbeck waxed lyrically, it’s best to start by looking at the tide pools and to the stars and then back again.