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Lab Rats

Cutting edge of retro

Why can't science stand still?

Tom Mahony 19 April 2011

Revisionist theory: bulrush gets updated

You can scoff at the old-timers, but you know that, at some point, your time will come

Twelve years after the end of my graduate education I’m approaching the first phase of scientific obsolescence. Fresh out of grad school, you’re on the cutting edge of science, theory, and technology. You can scoff at the old-timers using outdated terminology, methods, and equipment. But you know that, at some point, your time will come.

My particular situation calls for earlier obsolescence than most, because: (1) I work in applied ecology, so I’m not involved in the latest research, though I do read several key ecological journals religiously; (2) I’m self-employed and work at home, so I don’t get the latest scientific or technological tidbits around the coffeemaker; and (3) I’m lazy.

The first inkling of my unplanned obsolescence came courtesy of one plant: California bulrush (Scirpus californicus). It’s a common plant in California wetlands, and I encounter it frequently during wetland delineations. But, while I wasn’t paying attention, someone or something changed the name to Schoenoplectus californicus, and my outdated nomenclature was pointed out by another biologist. I’ve always prided myself on being taxonomically current, but the name change irritated me. Scirpus has a nice ring to it, crisp and clean. It just sounds like a native wetland plant. But Schoenoplectus? It sounds like a contagious skin disease.

One by one, all the species I painstakingly learned in grad school are being lumped together, split into varieties or subspecies (is there a difference?), moved into new families or genera, or are just vanishing altogether into some taxonomic black hole. It takes a lot of effort to keep abreast of all the changes. Many of them are vital: as scientific information advances, taxonomy needs to fit the new data, with important implications for biodiversity. But some of the changes seem to result from nothing more than graduate student disease. Who wants to spend years writing a thesis that concludes: After all that work, I’ve determined that nothing needs to change. It’s the same old species everyone always thought it was!

And it’s not just science, it’s technology. I do a lot of GPS/GIS mapping, but I’m still using mapping software I learned years ago. New versions arrive, but in terms of practical function they’re no better than the old ones, at twice the cost and three times the technical headaches. Perhaps once a decade they’ll develop something truly useful for the average user, but I don’t want to waste time and money learning a new program every year that does pretty much the same thing as the old one.

So maybe I’ll take a principled stand against progress and start a new movement taking science and technology back to the late twentieth century. I can be on the cutting edge of retro, ushering in a new era of scientific inertia, where the motto is: Everything in science is known. Nothing needs to change. Those grad students in the last century figured everything out!

If big hair and bad music can come back in style, why not Scirpus californicus?