The Vinegar and the Ants, or: How did I become a biologist?

My last post on science and academia , which explained why finding a job outside academia is not such a bad thing, stirred up quite a few questions among friends, colleagues and readers.

Some people continued to disagree. Some had good arguments for that. Some did not, and disagreed simply because a little voice in the back of their head told them to disagree. Overall though, the replies and encouragements told me I had hit upon a subject which, though very much alive, is still a bit of a difficult topic around the academic coffee- and cafeteria tables.

But gradually, the debate became a bit more philosophical. After all, it’s all very well to say that being a scientist has something to do with the way you think, the way in which you solve a problem and see the world. But where does it start? When do you become a scientist?

And, more specifically, how do you become a biologist?

Now, as always, there are people who have asked these questions before. One of these questions has been answered quite brilliantly by my Twitter contact Anne Osterrieder (or @AnneOsterrieder , if you like). Her excellent story in drawings which describes her journey through science is a very good illustration (mind the pun) of the bumpy, long and winding road most people follow in their travels through science and research.

My own story follows similar roads. But I am not as good a communicator as Anne, and I cannot hope to match her drawing skills.. so I will try to do it in words only. Well… almost.

Consider…the ant.

An Ant

My earliest contact with (what you could consider) science are the ants behind our rented holiday house in the South of France.

And a bottle of vinegar.

Now, before you start calling the Ethics in Animal Testing commission, let me explain. I was six years old. No, that’s not an excuse. But still. Hold on. It’s not as bad as it sounds.

There was a nice trail of ants all the way across the stone stairs behind the house, leading from their colony to whatever food source they were interested in. I never found out what it was, of course. Mainly because I quickly got distracted and lost track of whichever ant I was following. After all, their tendency not to go to their destination in a straight line is really quite annoying. But we digress.

Then, for some reason, I started playing God. What would happen, I wondered, if you pluck an ant out of its trail and put it down a few inches to the left? Would it have a kind of Flatland experience, being pulled out of its world and transported to another part within seconds? Of course, this was much too tempting to resist. And so it began. Dozens of ants did not find their way home that night.

I then discovered I could divert them to a different food source. If you soak a sugar cube in water and place it not far from their trail, eventually a stray ant will bump into it and then something magical happens. The lucky individual starts running around in circles as if it has hit the jackpot (in a way, it has), until it bumps into a colleague. What follows is a thing that, until this day, still marks me as a defining moment: they communicate. You can see them exchange information. Now, I know it is easy to anthropomorphise such things, but you could *see* them exchange the information. And I knew. Because, instead of going on to whatever it was going to, the second ant went straight for the sugar. Obviously, I did not decide there and then that I would become a biologist. Let alone an entomologist. Or an ant-ologist (I prefer that to ‘Myrmecologist’). But it did place the living world into a new context for me. It had suddenly become a lot more interesting.

So, when 12 years later I was sitting in that lecture hall in Antwerp for my first lesson of Zoology, I was looking forward to it with a certain feeling of excitement. Now, I know we’ve gone a bit fast-forward here. But really, for 12 years, not much had happened. At least not on the ant-front. Somewhere along the road I must have become a scientist, at least in thought, because I had nicely followed the path to exact sciences during my entire school career and here I was in the 1st year of BSc. Biology. Had I been drawn towards science? I don’t know.

So there you have it. The great reveal. I really don’t know exactly when I became a scientist. All I know is that I started to enjoy (and still enjoy) every bit of science I could read  hear about. At some point the Milky Way in the sky became not only a pretty sight, but the delayed light of millions and millions of stars. At some point, the seemingly quiet world became a fascinating place where living things cover every inch of surface and most of our living space (yes, even those exploding face mites are fascinating). Scientific knowledge has, aside from its role in increasing the understanding of our world, another very important function for me: it adds a layer of fascination and detail to the world. Like an Instagram filter, only slightly less hipster. It makes things much more interesting than they seem.

And once you understand how science works, how it builds new knowledge out of previous facts, how it advances by question, falsification and answer, there must come a point where your mind tells you to release your inner explorer.

And then you become an academic.

An academic

Just kidding, of course. Really.

I realise I haven’t told you about the vinegar. Or the lemons. Or the explosions.
But that will have to wait.

One thought on “The Vinegar and the Ants, or: How did I become a biologist?

  1. Made me think about this EO Wilson’s ‘Letters to a Young Scientist’

    Inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, Edward O. Wilson has distilled sixty years of teaching into a book for students, young and old. Reflecting on his coming-of-age in the South as a Boy Scout and a lover of ants and butterflies, Wilson threads these twenty-one letters, each richly illustrated, with autobiographical anecdotes that illuminate his career–both his successes and his failures–and his motivations for becoming a biologist. At a time in human history when our survival is more than ever linked to our understanding of science, Wilson insists that success in the sciences does not depend on mathematical skill, but rather a passion for finding a problem and solving it. From the collapse of stars to the exploration of rain forests and the oceans’ depths, Wilson instills a love of the innate creativity of science and a respect for the human being’s modest place in the planet’s ecosystem in his readers.

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