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Scientists’ risks benefit us all

Research leads to greater knowledge of diseases, nature

Mountains on the North Cascades Highway, a little beyond the edge of Okanogan County. They have been chiseled into this shape and size by erosion, working endlessly on the raw rocks of the range, and studied by researchers.

Elizabeth Widel


Mountains on the North Cascades Highway, a little beyond the edge of Okanogan County. They have been chiseled into this shape and size by erosion, working endlessly on the raw rocks of the range, and studied by researchers.

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There have been times when geologists and other scientists have undergone certain hazards to obtain the information they sought.

Take, for instance, John Wesley Powell and his hazard of boating down the Grand Canyon with his company. They were warned of its perils, but lured by the information to be gained by such a traverse of the great river in its mighty canyon and what could be learned from seeing it close up.

No lives were lost, but on occasion an overturned boat in the surging water brought it close.

There was J. Harlan Bretz, hiking through the heat, rocks, rattlesnakes and numerous canyons of the channeled scablands as he sought the answer of where the water had come from to cut such varied and numerous canyons, of all sizes, in a rock as hard as basalt.

No lives were lost, but his findings touched off a battle in scientific circles that raged for decades.

There was Louis Agissez, in his study of ice sheets, being lowered into the depths of a glacier. When the handlers of the ropes mistook his signal, they lowered him into a pool of icy water until his frantic yells stopped them.

There was Charles Lyell, who climbed a steaming volcano in Italy and was sickened by the fumes from its crater. He recovered and went on with his work.

There were the three men in the little vessel named Alvin, which got stuck in the great depths of the Atlantic where the pressure on the little craft was two tons per inch. Later, there was developed a vessel with remote controls so information could be gained without risking men’s lives under such circumstances.

There was the team that went to the South Pole and lost at least one member in a savage storm.

There was the intrepid little group that set out to cross the Pacific Ocean in a raft and encountered heavy storms on the way. The raft was named Kon Tiki, and they published a book about it later.

I don’t remember what it was they were looking for, but they encountered a fish called a whale shark which was enormous and followed their raft for a time.

But in addition to those who sought physical information from land forms, there have been explorers in other fields who have sought information and thus enriched the lives of everyone. Libraries are filled with books detailing what they sought, what they found and who did not stop until they found it.

Maj. Walter Reed of the U.S. Army Medical Corps, in brilliant research, established that it was a certain species of mosquito which was the carrier for the yellow fever disease and reduced, if not eliminated, this dreaded and often deadly disease. He survived, but not everyone who worked on it did.

There have been many other such heroes in other fields. We all benefit from their searching and finding. And fortunately, they keep doing it.

And why do they do it? Why do they take the physical risks, put in the hours to years of seeking for answers?

Perhaps it’s like the question a man once put to a mountain climber.

“Why do you do it?” he asked. “Why climb these heights?”

“Because they are there,” the man replied.

Elizabeth Widel is a columnist for

The Chronicle. This is the 2,860th column in a series. She may be reached at 509-826-1110.

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