Friday, May 04, 2007

The Secrets of a Bug Person Exposed!

John over at Blogmeridian has been asking for volunteers to be interviewed. So never knowing what questions John can come up with, I volunteered. So what follows are John's questions and my responses. By the way, as part of this meme...I am supposed to interview a blogger. So if you want to expose your secrets to the world by responding to five questions from me, now's your chance.

1) So. Like, you study, like, bugs?? Why?

I study bugs because they are easy to find and yet show such great diversity in terms of the sorts of adaptations they have evolved to the environment. Ultimately my interest is really in evolution and if you want to study evolution insects are great for this. Indeed our understanding of evolution has been deepened by investigations into insects ranging from fruit flies to honeybees. Many fundamental areas of genetics such as chromosome structure, the arrangement of genes on a chromosome, and the evolution of natural populations were and are studied using insects. Even Gregor Mendel, famous for his pea work, did breeding experiments with honeybees.

Insects are fascinating to look at under the microscope so there is the aesthetic aspect to insects as well. On the other hand I am not much of insect collector so while I appreciate the beauty of insects, I only collect those specimens needed for identification.

2) What is your favorite insect from a scholarly standpoint? And from an aesthetic or philosophical or other aspect? Please explain why.

I have a real soft spot for social insects, especially ants. First of all ants are highly social and I have always been interested in group behavior and the evolution of what is sometimes referred to as 'altruistic behavior', that is behavior that reduces an individual organism's immediate reproductive success but increases the reproductive success of other members of the group. So I got interested in the whole area of what sometimes is called sociobiology.

Also, I have always been fascinated by what today are called emergent properties. This refers to properties that arise because of how the parts of a system interact with each other. An individual ant is basically analogous to a little automaton and yet from the limited learning ability that ants have, along with group interactions complex colony behaviors arise.

This appeals to me because I am philosophically somewhat of a communitarian in that I believe that I as an individual have larger social and civic responsibilities-that probably comes form my Catholic upbringing. At the same time I am very individualistic and so in ants I see how individual decisions can work from the bottom up to affect change-what to environmentalists is captured by the slogan "Think globally. Act locally."

3) What are the three best pieces of advice you've ever received?

Tough one since I am not really good at listening to and following advice. From my father, I would say "Be constructive". I wasn't always sure what he meant when I was growing up. I just figured it was one of those things parents say to distract adolescents from thinking about sex. But I think he meant to do something to enrich your own life and that of others. He's dead so I can't really ask him.

When I was at my first real job, my boss advised me to tackle big projects by starting in the middle and I think that has served me well when I have bothered to remember that advice.

The third bit of advice I would have to say- breathe from the abdomen and don't slouch. That is from my voice teacher when I was taking private vocal lessons at KU. Combine that with St. Augustine's aphorism about "those who sing pray twice" and you have a pretty powerful way of living.

4) What is something you wish more people knew or understood about you?

Which do I pick? I think a big reason I blog is to answer the very question you pose. So many people think of scientists as being always rational and empirical, but the scientific approach is just one way of placing one's self in relation to other people. I have a strong mystical side, and I know at least some other scientists have this as well, even if they are atheists. One scientific friend of mine who professes to be an atheist told me that he doesn't like organized religion(including my own faith) because it gets in the way of spirituality.

My tendency growing up was to keep my feelings and identity tightly inside. I learned that expressing the way I felt about myself and viewed the world would get me into trouble with my peers and for that matter, some of my teachers. I wish I could get people to understand the deep conflict I have about my gender identity, something I have learned to accept as part of what I am. Many people just can't wrap their minds around this sort of thing and it's relegated to some sort of confusion or some sort of odd perversion-perhaps another thing to not tell political opponents were I to run for political office. I don't make a big deal of this in my every day life, but I don't hide it either.

5) Keeping in mind the response to Mitt Romney's choice of Favorite Book, imagine that you are running for political office and someone asks you what your favorite book is. What is a favorite book of yours that you will be sure not to mention?

Actually I had to look this one up and rest assured, Battlefield Earth is not it. I am familiar with L.Ron's Scientology writings since for some weird reason Scientology was big at Cornell among some of my friends. There was even the Cornell equivalent of the "Sea Org". Now don't get me wrong, Scientology was not really big at Cornell-I must merely have hung out with a crowd that became temporarily insane. They must have been really insane since Hubbard's Scientology books are about as logical as George Bush's rationale for invading Iraq. So I have avoided Hubbard's Science Fiction.

I can think of lots of favorite books I would be sure NOT to mention were I running for political office. I would not mention Sex Changes by Pat Califia which I think is a fascinating look at the evolution and politics of the transgender movement. I might not mention, since Romney opened up the science fiction genre to reporter's scrutiny, my love of Samuel Delaney's Dahlgren. There are some scenes in there that would really get the opposition researchers all hot and bothered. I might not mention that my favorite book in the Bible is The Song of Solomon, which almost didn't make it into the canon for reasons that are pretty obvious.

There. That wasn't so painful. So if you are a blogger and want me to ask equally penetrating but different questions of you, just respond here or drop me a note. And thanks John for the questions. Here are links to some other folks John has interviewed and the questions John was asked and his answers can be found here.

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