I have made many decisions over the course of my scientific career that some people might consider dangerous. I have sampled flowing lava, climbed into volcanic vents, hiked dangerous mountain passes, and worked in areas that are remote and sometimes populated with less than savory people. While undertaking these activities, the reality of the inherent dangers has never been far from mind. The driving force behind what I do, however, has been the demand for high quality data. Why would I risk my personal safety to collect data about rocks?
Scientific research began thousands of years ago with simple observations of the world. We have grown more sophisticated in our approach to conducting this research, but the amount of information we can collect has increased exponentially. The study of our planet in particular is a classic example of "the more we know, the more we realize how much we still have yet to learn." The recent discovery of a new species of four foot long flying squirrel in Laos serves to remind us of how vast the planet and its environments truly are. The reality is that many of these potential discoveries are not laid out conveniently on our doorsteps, just waiting for us to stumble across them. In order to discover, we must refuse to remain content with the ordinary, safe journeys. We must push into the unknown. We must be explorers.
Exploration of the world around us cannot wait until we can make it completely safe, either. The scientists and explorers I have had the privilege of working with are consummate professionals who are well aware of the risks of their studies. Cattle rustlers, narcotraffickers, landslides, earthquakes, malaria, yellow fever, civil wars, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, and labor strikes will continue to create danger no matter how long we wait, and no matter how many safety precautions we take. It is up to each individual scientist to decide what an acceptable level of risk is, and that is what makes the work done in these extreme conditions so valuable. Many people have died in the pursuit of scientific inquiry, and their legacy is best honored when we continue to explore our world in the effort to understand it more fully.
The need to advance exploration and understanding of the planet led me to found Blueprint Earth with a group of extremely talented scientists, educators, and business people. Our organization's goal is to create blueprints of each of the earth's environments that will combine knowledge of biology, hydrology, geology, and atmospheric elements into coherent systems. The fundamental connections between different elements of an environment are too often overlooked, and they hold critical information about how life on this planet functions. By understanding these environments on their own terms, we will be able to break them apart into pieces and then put them back together again. We will have the plans to build our planet.
With these blueprints in hand, we can then attempt to build these environments for future use underwater, on spacecraft, or perhaps on distant planets. This extremely ambitious goal cannot be accomplished if we refuse to accept any risk at all during our work. Firefighters know that they cannot save lives in a burning building without a level of personal risk, and scientists must make similar decisions when we weigh the risks of what we do against the rewards of what we can discover. I believe that anything worth doing is difficult, and that is what plays in my head when I have a tough decision to make. I will continue to undertake calculated risks to collect data in the hope that it will bring us closer to understanding the mysteries of our world.
Blueprint Earth is designed to light fires in the imagination and to remind us of our childhood dreams, when our favorite question was, "why?" That question still needs to be asked, and we must push the boundaries of what is possible in pursuit of the answer. Scientific research is not designed to be comfortable. We need to stand on the edge of the volcano and measure the gases that it belches out. We have to slog through the deepest jungles to find the last population of jaguars left. We must brave the unforgiving Antarctic to record life beneath the endless ice. The science we do now is the heritage of humanity, the knowledge that is ageless and essential to the future of our civilization, and this beautiful and dangerous planet we call home. We cannot afford to be afraid, or to be complacent. We must each calculate how much we are willing to risk for this knowledge, and what we are willing to do to obtain it.