Embracing Your Inner Scientist

| 3/5/2010 5:13:14 PM

A writer walks into London’s Natural History Museum, and leaves determined to transform herself from a “rank amateur” into a specimen-collecting, data-analyzing, jar-labeling citizen scientist. That’s because a veteran entomologist tells her something she can’t shake: “There is so much we don’t know! You could spend a week studying some obscure insect and you would then know more than anyone else on the planet.”

As she writes in the new issue of OnEarth, Sharman Apt Russell takes the comment as a challenge, setting out to become “a leading world authority” on Calligrapha serpentina, a beetle that’s taken up residence right in her backyard.

“This leaf beetle is a stunner,” Russell writes, “with shiny green-gold wings marked by a sinuous, symmetrical pattern of black dashes, swirls, and fillips. Even the name is beautiful, the name of the lover in a poem, “Oh, Calligrapha! Oh, Serpentina!”

Ultimately, she doesn’t make any earth-shattering discoveries about her beautiful beetle, but she does offer some hopeful observations about the promise and potential of citizen scientists, both in the scientific realm and in our personal relationships with nature:

The further job of the citizen scientist is to mesh the world of science with, well, the world of citizenry. We trumpet the beauty of Calligrapha serpentina to friends, co-workers, relatives, real estate developers, and politicians. The more we fall in love with our own backyard—with the marvel and complexity of life—the more committed we are to protecting its diversity.

In my case, once I started looking for one beautiful green and black beetle, I found so much more: many more eggs, brown or white, red or yellow, and many more larvae, some that deceive by looking like bird droppings and some that hide by rolling up in leaves. In a single morning, I might find a marbled orb weaver like some aproned, plump grandma, 1,675 ants, and the grace of a pipevine swallowtail. I saw that Dick Vane-Wright was truly right when he said, “There is so much we don't know,” and that lots of things I don't know are outside my front door, the theater of insects playing all summer long.

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