No matter how much I try to focus on other themes, this week I just can’t shake the whole Chilean miner rescue scenario.
October 14th, 2010

No matter how much I try to focus on other themes, this week I just can’t shake the whole Chilean miner rescue scenario. It’s been such a dramatic media event, to put it mildly, and there are so many images now snugly stuck in my head, highlighted in the orange, yellows, and reds of their Hazmats, that they keep crowding out other topics.It’s probably obvious by now, but the unfolding events of the last few months have already taken the shape of a well plotted play. We have now experienced the first two and half acts, with the climax having so vividly occurred in the last few days as each of the 33 miners has been hoisted to the surface of that forbidding Chilean landscape. What remains to be experienced, both by the miners and ourselves as spectators, is the uncertain denouement—the unraveling of each of the miner’s lives as they attempt re-entry, normalcy, perhaps even some serenity after all the trauma. But trauma, like money, dragons, and rust, never sleeps, and so we should all be expecting various narrative threads to develop in at least 33 different ways over the next few months, if not forever. Story and story-telling—making meaning of all this—has a lot to do with our experience of this intense spectacle.

What has really compelled me throughout about the story is the problem-solving nature of the rescue operation. It offers such a life-affirming vision of collaboration, expertise, training, and engagement that it is tempting to see it as a model for so many kinds of huge and demanding challenges in the world. In view of the dense international network of skills and supports that grew around the huge rescue operation, a happy ending was almost guaranteed. How could so much human talent and skill fail to save the day? It’s the perfect multi-disciplinary problem-solving paradigm.

Clearly, the operation has demanded and will continue to demand expertise across the entire knowledge spectrum. On one end a concentration of technical skills has been critical: deep knowledge of science broadly speaking, more particularly engineering, geography, geology, physics, and, for all I know, paleontology. Other science-based domains clustered around medicine/physiology, as big questions about the physical capacity of the trapped miners needed to be raised and satisfied. Physicians of all specialties and dentists have had to be consulted in order to determine how best to keep these guys alive and relatively healthy without a hint of a ray of sunshine in their lives for months at a time. Knowledge of nutrition has been pretty urgent. NASA is apparently been wisely exploiting the whole unintended experiment to measure the effects of extreme conditions on the human body, good prep for a trip or two to Mars.

On the other end of the knowledge spectrum are all the human- and social-centred concerns of living in such stressful conditions: in demand have been sociologists and psychologists who have been theorizing about both the nature of the experience for so many men living in such close quarters for so long and the inevitable effects of all of this on their futures.

Now that the heavy drama has, pardon the pun, lifted, other areas of knowledge are likely going to enter the discussion. I am thinking in particular of the areas of political science, communications and cultural studies. Why did the miners break into the Chilean national anthem when they were all finally above ground? Had they planned to do so ahead of time or was that a spontaneous reflex? Would 33 rescued Canadian miners do the same thing? Somehow I doubt ‘O Canada’ would spring to their lips. Those Chilean guys did a lot of singing down there, surely a cultural practice that says more about their experience of history and nationalism than many of us who live in the north know much about. What is the role of music and traditional song in sustaining community? Many of them also prayed hard for a safe rescue, and one can’t help but wonder what role such faith might have had in keeping them going through the darkness. These are questions for humanists and social scientists, to be sure.

The fascinating darker side of the play, so to speak, is about to draw on other human-centered fields of inquiry. The media have barely been able to restrain themselves from reporting on the tangled webs of mistresses and wives that have come to light at the crisis site. As promises of compensation and reward have been issuing from government officials’ lips, more and more women have been coming forward to claim their stake in this and that miner. You have to wonder whether some of these guys actually dreaded whom they’d be embracing when they faced the light of day, a qualified celebration, indeed. How fascinating  to examine these elements of the personal, the way families have been sustained or even threatened by these events, the pressures on traditional gender roles, the airing of dark secrets, the revelations and scandalous disclosures. How will these events shape the lives of their children? The repercussions are largely unpredictable and will take up much of the interest of the rest of the unfolding drama. Let’s not even begin to talk about the role of the media, popular culture, or product endorsement that will follow from all this stuff.

Ultimately, all of these elements partake of an immensely interesting narrative experiment. The 33 miners are main characters in a richly complex spectacle involving a cast not only of thousands but of nations—all working together towards a happy ending, with the promise of life at the end of the long narrow tunnel. The event reminds us of what it takes to secure such an ending. Wish we could all pull our advanced knowledge, education, and expertise together like that for other crises the world endures every day.

NG

Dr. Faye Murrin is Dean pro tempore of the School of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Biology. She completed her B.Sc. (Hons.) at Memorial University, her M.Sc. at Acadia University, and her Ph.D. at Queen's University. Her research interests have always been focused on fungi, in particular the cell biology of insect pathogenic fungi and, more recently, the ecology of mycorrhizal mushrooms in the boreal forest. Dr. Murrin has served in a number of positions on the Council of the Mycological Society of America and was awarded the title of MSA Fellow for her contributions. She was awarded the Women in Science and Engineering Lifetime Membership Award as founding co-director of the Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) Summer Program. Dr. Murrin participates in public lectures and workshops, and is a Director on the board of Newfoundland Foray, Inc.

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