Sunday, June 27, 2010

Too much fun!

The bad news is, I haven't been keeping up my goal of a post per day.

The good news is, it's because I've been working hard and having fun. As of last count, I've dissected and preserved over 500 guts from 12 different Cephalotes species. (This, of course, doesn't count the guts that I've dissected and mangled beyond recognition.) This puts me into an elite category of humans skilled and experienced at pulling the guts out of insects -- something that I'm sure is far rarer than, say, offensive linemen for the NFL or CEOs of multinational corporations. Combine this with my even more esoteric deep-sea provannid gastropod dismemberment skills, and I believe that I can say with some confidence that I am the only person in the history of humanity to have dissected more than 500 hydrothermal vent gastropods and more than 500 Cephalotes ants in the same calendar year.  How is that for accomplishment! 

There's a comic strip, I believe it's a Far Side, in which a man at a podium is introducing the plenary speaker for some scientific conference -- "Please give a warm welcome for Dr. Smith," he says, "the world's foremost authority on slime mold reproduction." 

Dr. Smith, meanwhile, head in hands, is asking himself, "God, what have I done with my life?" 

I love this comic. It captures, for me, the tensions between external understanding and appreciation of basic science (or lack thereof), and the internal motivations that drive us as scientists. A lot of basic science, such as the study of reproduction in slime molds, can be really hard to explain and justify to the public -- and consequently, funding for research into slime mold reproduction is generally pretty tight. It's much easier for the government (and industry!) to earmark research money for stuff like "curing cancer" (incidentally, it is easier still for these players to fund stuff like "killer robots" and "giant lasers," but that's the subject of another post). 

The thing is, slime mold reproduction is really interesting. When you dig down into it, slime mold research has implications for everything from the philosophical meaning of individuality, to the evolution of cooperation, to, yes, cancer research. But it's hard to communicate this to a senator, and I wouldn't even bother with someone like Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh -- the connections to these more tangible subjects are deep, and it takes a lot of background understanding to really capture that depth. 

For better or for worse, the same depth that obscures the importance of basic research is simultaneously its greatest strength. Slime mold research isn't interesting to us because slime molds are inherently interesting (although they certainly are), but because their unique biology gives us a new perspective on the rest of life. They provide a test case for the theories we develop to explain ourselves. The dividends to this research aren't payed out in specific drugs or cures within the decade, but in fundamental advances to human understanding that enable new discoveries thirty or a hundred years down the road.

That Far Side cartoon is funny because it inverts the usual scenario -- the scientist stands on stage, doubting the import of his research in front of an adoring public (well, a very small adoring public). Most days of the year, it's the opposite, and our private excitement for our subjects contrasts to the public's skeptical boredom. 

We all have our moments of doubt and reflection, as we should. But for the kind of work I and my peers do, these moments are bends in a rushing river of curiosity. There's no way I could spend a month in front of a microscope, using $100 tweezers to dissect hundreds of ants, without being pretty damn motivated. Seriously, I have killer ADD. 

But there's something really amazing going on in these ants, something that may give us insight into the amazing things going on in ourselves. And I aim to get to the bottom of it -- I mean, is writing expense reports really any better? 

Plus, look at these leafcutter ants. Just look at them. 

When I was collecting the other day, this leafcutter nest was right under my focal tree. This was cool because leafcutter ants are amazing to watch, but uncool because they're basically mindless biting machines. If I left anything anywhere for more than a few minutes, it became basically covered in swarms of giant ants intent on reducing it to small pieces and using it to grow fungus. For some reason they were extremely interested in my nylon backpack:

Atta colonies have a few million individuals, and are generally the most important herbivore in their habitat. A quick google was unhelpful in revealing the biomass of the colony, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was approximately the size of a cow. They do, apparently, move 40 tons of earth in the excavation of their nests. They're truly nuts. 


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