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Biology is weird

On the otherworldiness of field work

Tom Mahony 4 August 2012

www.lablit.com/article/733

Rare breed: a single-minded focus

What would a casual observer think while watching a group of biologists trudging through the desert in triple-digit heat for twelve hours straight?

Biology is weird.”

That was the vaguely frustrated quote from a PhD I once worked with. He was referring to both the profession of field biology and the science itself. Perhaps a simplistic analysis from a learned man, but he couldn’t have nailed it better if he’d published a brow-furrowing treatise in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.

Let’s face it, the field biology profession is not normal. You spend all that time and money obtaining advanced degrees, and endure all those years of low-paid training, to reach the level of crawling through the weeds in uncomfortable conditions. Most sane people spend all that time and money obtaining advanced degrees to avoid crawling through the weeds in uncomfortable conditions.

What would a casual observer think while watching a group of biologists trudging through the desert in triple-digit heat for twelve hours straight, staring at the ground, walking fixed transects like rats in a symmetrical maze, silent except for an occasional burst of excited shouting about finding some tiny species of Cryptantha that looks no different from every other Cryptantha except for microscopic variation in the shape of the nutlet scar? And, just when things couldn’t get any stranger, the casual observer sees one of the biologists pick up a turd, break it in half, sniff it, and then take a picture, notes, and a GPS coordinate.

How could you blame the casual observer, wisely sitting in the shade with a cold drink, for thinking that these people have simply gone mad?

But all this apparent madness is not without purpose. There’s an absolute truth in the universe. We may never find it, but all these organisms, all this strange organic stuff from the smallest microbe to the biggest redwood tree, is part of that truth. Studying plants and animals involves looking at small, obscure, and seemingly insignificant things in order to figure out the bigger picture.

The biology profession can take you to remote places and show you things few people get to see. It can, in rare instances, show you things nobody has ever seen. And if that serves the purpose of revealing a piece of the greater truth, and of conserving it for future generations, then I think there’s something noble in the pursuit.

But man, biology is weird.