Book review: The Invention of Nature

Book cover

I’ve decided to write up small reviews of the books I read, that a I believe are of possible interest to ecologists. Maybe one day it will turn into a list of 10 must read books for ecologists. To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Alexander von Humboldt, I, like so many others, read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature. Despite being in the final stages of finishing my PhD, I have to admit I devoured this book. It may be because I also had a broken foot for five weeks, and couldn’t do much except sit around and read. But it was captivating.

Andrea Wulf’s description of Alexander von Humboldt and the many famous people he interacted with, is sure to have you wishing to be transported back in time where the world was still largely unexplored, where salons appear to have been a daily occurrence and the line between science and art was practically nonexistent. Of course you tend to forget about the dysentery, the inapropriate clothing for scaling mountains and the lack of modern comforts, such as flushing toilets. These could perhaps easily be tolerated for the opportunity to be in the company of famous personas like Simón Bolívar, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron and Edgar Allan Poe, who all read and were influenced by Humboldt.

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) acchieved many things in his life, the least of which was living to age 90. He has multiple geographic places (including mountains, towns, counties, lakes and rivers) and species (including the humboldt penguin and the humboldt squid) named after him. It probably also isn’t far fetched to call him the founder of what we today call macroecology. Through his many travels he noticed similarities between continents, predicted the devastating effects that humans have on nature. The following quote is from a book review published on goodreads by William2, which I think captures mostly everything about the book:

“But his insight into the unplumbed market for science writing is secondary to his real achievement. Humboldt’s revolutionary act was to view nature as a unified force dependent upon myriad interactions and mutual reciprocities, not reduced to mind-numbing categories as taxonomists and other systematists were then doing. Humboldt saw the full ecological impact of forests; therefore, he was the first to warn about deforestation. He saw how greedy cash crops (monoculture), cleared needed forest, leeched the ground of minerals and emptied aquifers, thus touching the fates of countless animal species, including humans. Moreover, he saw the importance of expressing one’s personal emotional responses to nature and he wrote with a passion that repelled some cold men of science, but enlisted scores of readers from all walks of life.”

William2 on Goodreads

Most importantly in this quote, is the realisation that, although many say science should be free of emotion, reporting only the facts, scientists may capture scores of new readers (and nature lovers) by expressing their own personal emotional responses to nature. If you need motivation to fall in love with nature (again), read this book. If you are a PhD student in ecology and you’re starting to wonder why you’re doing what you’re doing, read this book.

Hetch Hetchy Side Canyon, I by William Keith. Uploaded to fineartamerica on January 25th, 2016.

Opportunities in STEM

During December 2015 and January 2016 I participated in an outreach program between Brown University and Lincoln School for girls, which paired female scientific graduate students with AP biology students from Lincoln School. The project was intended to connect the students with young women in the field of scientific research in order to expand their horizons on the many opportunities within STEM.

The students were to conduct personal interviews with their grad students and then create a poster, which was presented to their classmates and all the graduate students during a poster session held at Brown University.

While the project was of course aimed to benefit the Lincoln School students, I felt it a tremendous benefit to myself as well. During the interview I not only got to communicate my scientific interests, but also reflected on the path that had led me to choosing biology as my career when I first applied to college, the various successes and challenges I had encountered and where I thought I would end up in the future.

Reading habits

It’s the Christmas holidays and I’m trying to catch up on the stack of papers on my computer and desk labelled “To read”, among which is a few papers on how to develope good reading habits. One has ten simple rules for developing good reading habits, including trying to avoid a pile up of “to read” papers. From Méndez (2018):

  1. Develop the habit of reading on a daily basis. Alot time for reading.
  2. Read thoroughly to build a sound background understanding of your topic
  3. Do not ignore the pillars of your discipline; read the classics
  4. If you have to get familiar with a new topic, consider reading in chronological order
  5. Avoid narrow-mindedness by reading beyond your discipline
  6. Create a list of relevant journals (I immediately signed up for alerts for a lot of journals, though far from the 20+ suggested)
  7. Not all interesting stuff will appear in articles; read books (Yes! I love books, but often end up reading 5 at once, which gets confusing)
  8. Use a reference manager to keep track of your literature (I use Mendeley)
  9. Keep a long-term review for your own use as a way to remember what you read (This is actually a really good idea, hadn’t thought of that. Could be a spreadsheet for each topic and it might turn into a published review)
  10. Build your own library to make yourself independent and inspire others (Definitely working on this, I love books)

Change of research environment at the BRC

As part of your PhD at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, it is required that you do a change of research environment for 3-6 months. The idea is that you leave your comfort zone for a while and talk to scientists within your field from a different institution. It’s supposed to open your eyes to the fact that not all research institutions are the same and not everyone thinks like you do. Also, it is a great opportunity to expand your scientific network.

The hard part is figuring out where to go. Some students end up going to a different institution, but don’t really get the chance to interact with other researchers. They end up sitting in a corner, working alone on their own stuff. Others have really great experiences. That’s what I wanted: a great experience. I wanted to learn some new methods and join an active research group with frequent scientific discussions.

I’m now at the Biological Records Centre at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in a small town in Oxfordshire called Wallingford and I do believe I’ve come to the right place. For three months I will be working with Nick Isaac and his mixed team of PhD students, PostDocs and researchers.

They are developing an R package called sparta (Species Presence/Absence R Trends Analyses which I will be using to analyse a combined dataset on ants in Denmark from two natural history museums, a private collection and a citizen science project (The Ant Hunt, of course). I often get asked “How are ants doing? Are they declining like bees?” and this is exactly the question I hope to answer during my stay: Has there been any changes in occupancy of some of Denmarks most common ant species over the past 100/150 years and if so, what is driving these changes.

The BRC has been running since 1964 and provides a focus for the collation, management, dissemination and interpretation of species observations (biological records). As such, they work closely with volunteers and have extensive knowledge on dealing with citizen science datasets. Their 50 year anniversary booklet can be found here.


Space ants!

Choosing a certain study or career to excel in gives a sense of purpose and accomplishment. However, I have always found myself interested in many different fields. I therefore found the end of high school rather stressful. How could I choose one subject to work on for the rest of my life?

Of course, I now realise that the end of high school doesn’t mean the end of a diverse education. It just means I have to seek it out myself. This is why I try and make a point of leaving my world of ecology and talk to people from different fields, believing that all disciplines have something to learn from each other.

I recently had a conversation with Thomas Johansen from the Brorfelde Observatory . From 1953-1996, Brorfelde was an engaging workplace for astronomers. Last year (2016) it opened as an exploration center, focusing on astronomy, geology, technology and nature. The observatory has 42 hectares of land and Thomas wanted to know if I was interested in doing an Ant Hunt with them. Of course! I thought. But what do ants have to do with astronomy?

Turns out that, besides having conquered most of Earth, ants have been to Space. Don’t get too excited. We have not found extra-terrestrial life. However, the pavement ant (Tetramorium caespitum) had its’ moment in Space in January 2014, when taken aboard the international space station (ISS).

The aim was to see how ants would perform collective search in microgravity compared to on Earth. Perhaps not surprisingly, they weren’t as effective. I doubt anyone would be systematic and effective in searching if they lost contact with the surface, floated around for a while and then landed somewhere different. In fact, at any one time 7 % of the ants were floating around in the best astronaut style you can imagine. Furthermore, ants communicate through odours and we know that, at least for humans, the ability to perceive odours is affected by microgravity.

This being said, isn’t it impressive that only 7 % lost contact? With no exterior aid to keep them grounded. On top of that, a lot of those who lost surface contact were able to regain it again.

“An ant that lost contact with the surface usually turned and tumbled in the air, or skidded rapidly, in the small space between the two surfaces of the arena. This indicates that the ant exerted some pressure on the surface before losing contact with it; otherwise the ant would have just floated away from the surface without turning in the air or going quickly in one direction. Sometimes an ant attached itself to another ant to climb back down to the surface. Once back at the surface an ant appeared to hold on to it by flattening its body toward the surface.” (Countryman et al. 2015).

This behaviour may relate to how ants can hold onto each other to form bridges, or balls so they stay together during a flood (see youtube video). Some ants can also glide through the air and then find contact with a tree.

The study was carried out by Deborah Gordon and her collaborators and resulted in the publication Countryman et al. (2015) Collective search by ants in microgravity, Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution 30.