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The Quasi-Kuhnian shift

An interview with Dr. Quintin Huber, The Leprechaun of Science

Tal Yarkoni 30 September 2006

'Big Science': not for the faint at heart

I mean, how exciting is
that, three dozen physicists standing around watching a bunch of computer

The following is an exclusive and unedited transcript of a January 2006 interview between science writer Mary Weiss and Dr. Quintin Huber, the well-known biological anthropologist and wilderness explorer. The interview was conducted for a segment in an episode of a popular science program on public television (which for legal reasons cannot be named), but due to pressure from Dr. Huber’s publisher, it never aired.

MW: Dr. Huber, in your books, you’ve called yourself “The Last Explorer”, “Quintin Da Vinci”, “The New Renaissance Man”, and “the Leprechaun of Science,” among other self-conferred titles. Well, which is it?

QH: It’s all of them, Mary. I’m an accomplished individual, and I don’t see any reason to try to hide that.

MW: It doesn’t strike you as…immodest?

QH: Well, when Shaquille O’Neal decides to call himself “The Diesel” or “The Big Baryshnikov”, no one says he’s being immodest.

MW: But they’re probably afraid he’ll crush them between his thumb and forefinger.

QH: Fair enough. But my point still stands!

MW: Ok, fair enough.

MW: Let’s talk about your most recent book. It’s called Secrets of the Andes: A scientific journey into the history of Incas, Aztecs, insects, and plants. What’s the book about?

QH: Well, it’s a pretty riveting piece of scientific non-fiction, if I say so myself [chuckles]. Basically, I tell the story of how I led a group of adventurers on a crazy scientific expedition into the Andes last year, in search of some Big Science.

MW: When you say ‘big science’, I take it you don’t mean large projects in the natural or life sciences. You talked about this in your last book, Quintin Huber’s Big Science Travels…

QH: Right. No, I don’t think what makes a scientific idea or project big is the number of people working on it. To me, what defines Big Science is how well it captures the imagination. I mean, you can have an insect, just a small bug under a rock, and that can be Big Science if the context is right. Size doesn’t matter.

MW: But don’t particle accelerators and genetic models of cancer also capture the imagination? In your books, you sometimes seem to downplay the importance of other sciences…

QH: Well, to some extent they do, sure. And look, I was involved in some work at Stanford in the early days of their accelerator, when they first bought it. But I quickly determined that wasn’t where the action was. I mean, how exciting is that, three dozen physicists standing around watching a bunch of computer monitors? Can you think of anything more boring? What you really need is some mountain air, some fresh hiking boots, the excitement of knowing you’re venturing onto terrain people haven’t trodden on in thousands of years…

MW: Do you ever find yourself oppressed by all the pressure?

QH: I’m sorry?

MW: I mean, the pressure of being the first man to explore all these places, discover all these new species. It seems like a lot for one person to take on.

QH: [Chuckles] Well, Mary, what you have to understand is that I’m uniquely equipped to deal with this kind of situation. It’s what I live for, actually, and what differentiates me from other people. I’ll give you an example. In my new book, I have a chapter that talks about an encounter I had with a wild capybara, half-way up Tres Cruces. That’s one of the tallest mountains in the world, by the way. I’ve been up it twice. Now, a lot of people don’t take the capybara seriously, because it’s a rodent species. They think it’s just a large rat. And for some people, that’s – unfortunately – been the last mistake they’ve made.

MW: Aren’t capybaras herbivorous?

QH: [Pauses] They’re… I’m surprised you knew that – but I guess you read my book… Yes, you’re right. But herbivorous doesn’t mean harmless! That’s another mistake people often make.

MW: Right. You’re very brave.

QH: Well sure. But my goal in describing these adventures isn’t to make myself look brave, Mary. It’s to excite the public, get them involved in science, make them take it personally. I see it as my job to help induce a quasi-Kuhnian shift in attitudes towards science.

MW: Quasi-Kuhnian?

QH: Well, alright, maybe semi-Kuhnian. I mean, the paradigm is changing, but it hasn’t changed all the way yet. There are still some stragglers, people who want to throw all our money at poliomerase [sic] chain reactions and things like that. I think those are just tools, but they shouldn’t be ends unto themselves. We need a revolution. I talk about that a lot in my 2002 book, The New Scientific Revolution: Exploring science with a pickaxe. You should definitely read it. I think you’ll like it. I know you’ll like it.

MW: I see. Well let’s stick to your latest book, since that’s what they’re paying me to talk to you about. Among the many discoveries you talk about in the new book, which are you most proud of?

QH: Oh, no question, my favorite discovery was the Smithsonian earwig. We had to go all the way to Pular for that one. And we lost several guides, and two members of our party. But I kept driving them further into the mountains. You can’t stop, I told them! Big science is just around the next 20,000 foot peak! I just had a feeling we would find something. Maybe something big, like a lost Aztec city, or maybe a little smaller, like a dung beetle. And you know, I was right. And that earwig’s now safely ensconced in its own little shrine in D.C. My Forficula smithsonis

MW: When you say you lost people on the expedition… you mean people actually died on your expedition?

QH: [Flustered] Ah, no, I didn’t mean people died in the sense of, you know, car accident dead, or fatality dead. I mean we lost them, in the literal sense. We didn’t know where they went. It was a miscommunication… we found them back in Santiago several days later.

MW: Alright… Since we’re already talking about your earwig, what do you make of Dr. Antton Joseba’s claim that Forficula smithsonis is a hoax – that it’s actually an ordinary eastern North American earwig, with some interesting markings painted onto its abdomen?

QH: [visibly flushes] Well Mary, you know, I like Dr. Joseba and all, but between you and me, his doctorate’s from the University of Arkansas. With a pedigree like that, it’s really not surprising he can’t tell Forficula auricularia from Forficula smithsonis.

MW: His doctorate’s from Arkansas, and yours is from…

QH: Yale University. But the important thing is…

MW: [Interrupts] You know, I contacted the registrar at Yale, and they didn’t have any record of you completing a Ph.D. there.

QH: Well, technically I transferred there after a year at Michigan State, so the paperwork might have gotten lost in the shuffle.

MW: Actually they maintain fairly detailed enrollment records, and according to them, there’s no record of you ever attending Yale.

QH: [Yelling] Listen, this is ridiculous. Are we going to talk about my earwig or are we going to talk about Yale? Who do you think you are? What the hell kind of story are you writing anyway? Are you jealous of my success?

[Calms down after a few moments] Why don’t you just shut up and let me tell you about Allocareproctus unangas, the bald snailfish species I just discovered in the Aleutian islands.

MW: The uh… snailfish in the Aleutians were discovered by an NOAA survey last month. I covered that story. I wasn’t aware you were involved.

QH: That’s because they kept me out of it. They’re jealous and they’re trying to discredit me. I could tell you that story, since it’d probably be relevant to your article. It’s also pretty shocking – you’d never stoop scientists could stoop to such depths. There might be a movie in it. Maybe you could write a screenplay and I would produce it…

MW: No, that’s alright, I think we’re done here.

QH: Listen, it’s still pretty early, and I’m kind of hungry. Why don’t we go out for dinner somewhere nice. I’ll treat you, and we can talk some more about your article, or our screenplay…

MW: That’s really not necessary, I think I’ve got enough to work with already.

QH: Mary, I haven’t even told you about the six new species of lemur I found in Madagascar yet. One of them has these opposable hind legs, for cracking nuts...

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