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3 November 2021

Edith Widder Q&A: “My Mastermind subject? Sea creatures that make light”

The oceanographer on a volcanic eruption, Nelson Mandela, and advice from Shakespeare.

By New Statesman

Edith Widder was born in Massachusetts in 1951. An oceanographer and marine biologist, she is the co-founder of the Ocean Research & Conservation Association, the US’s first tech-based marine conservation organisation.

What’s your earliest memory?

Seeing Mount Etna erupt. It was very scary. I thought the world was exploding.

Who are your heroes?

My mother, a Canadian farm girl who spent her youth travelling to and from school by horse (she calculated she travelled 20,000 miles with horses to get her pre-college education) and then went on to get a PhD in mathematics from Bryn Mawr College. She was a source of inner strength whenever I ran up against sexism.

What book last changed your thinking?

Caste by Isabel Wilkerson.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. When I feel frustrated by the pace of our conservation efforts on behalf of the ocean, I think of what he endured and it fosters perspective.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Marine bioluminescence – the fantastic creatures in the ocean that make light.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would have liked to have been on Nonsuch Island in Bermuda in the 1930s when William Beebe, Otis Barton and a merry band of adventurers travelled half a mile down into the ocean depths in a Bathysphere that allowed Beebe to see creatures previously known only from dead, net-caught specimens.

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Who would paint your portrait?

My grand-niece, who is only in high school but whom I have watched with amazement and envy as her artistic talents have grown.

What’s your theme tune?

Enya’s “Storms in Africa”. I want it played at my celebration of life, with a video of bioluminescence hitting the Splat screen in front of the submersible during a deep-sea dive.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My mother spoke often about the importance of truth, especially being true to oneself. She would quote Shakespeare:

“This above all – to thine own self be true/

And it must follow, as the night the day/

Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

I have tried very hard to follow it.

What’s currently bugging you?

The level of falsehood that is becoming prevalent in so many aspects of our lives.

What single thing would make your life better?

A new home for the Ocean Research & Conservation Association. For the past 16 years we occupied a historic building overlooking the Indian River Lagoon in Florida, but we recently lost our office.

When were you happiest?

On a research expedition in 2004 when I got proof-of-concept for a new way of exploring the deep sea, which focuses on attracting animals, not scaring them away. Just 86 seconds after activating an optical lure that I developed, it attracted a large squid that was so new to science it couldn’t be placed in any known scientific family.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Dog trainer or successful artist.

Are we all doomed?

No, but there is a lot of misery ahead unless people realise in time that our most precious resource is not oil or metals – it’s life, which means we have to develop a very different relationship with the natural world and our planetary life-support systems.

“Below the Edge of Darkness” by Edith Widder is published by Virago

[see also: Bill McKibben Q&A: “Are we doomed? It depends how hard we fight”]

This article appears in the 03 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Britannia Chained