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A Fork in the Red, 2013 (Medium: algae on glass)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Isn’t it great when your art subjects cooperate and model themselves?

Algae are inherently photogenic — especially if they look like fuzz or goo to the naked eye! While many macroalgae (this big seaweeds you find on the beach) require considerable skill and equipment to show off at their best, filamentous algae are usually thin enough to fend for themselves. And while we’re well-acquainted with seeing green in photosynthetic critters, red algae really take a turn for the alien. And vibrantly so — the camera hardly does justice to what you can actually see in the scope!

Sometimes, in life, you have to make decisions. And you come across a fork:

The fork is but a part of a much larger series of branchings.

Which is especially hard to keep in mind when you’re hyperfocused on details, as fascinating as they may be.

Of course, as a microscopist, you tend to be all about the details. The universe is a fractal entity, and gets considerably larger the more attention you devote to tinier things… eventually leading you to see nothing in the grand scheme of everything. Or something like that — I’m no philosopher. Though, to stay in touch with Things In Life That Aren’t Data, sometimes I like making things a little weird. (like turning the analyser filter completely perpendicular to the polariser — cancelling out most unaltered light, giving a dark background — “pseudo-darkfield” effect.)

But even the weird must have its humble beginnings as a mere spore, snuggling tightly within its thick cocoon of cellulose fibres.

Infer from this all the deep philosophical meaning you’d like… ’tis art. Just don’t write any inflated sesquipedalian (a self-referential word) essays or formal critiques — then we veer into the land of Art, which is pretentious and unnecessary. art, not Art. Or something. Apparently I’m technically sober, in case one wonders.

No complaint about the pretentiousness of some Art would be complete without generously giving the same to Science though. Science is a highly ritualised practice of science, largely performed in establishments dating back to monastic times (which, by the way, were extant all over the world — universities are not merely a Western phenomenon!), and about as viscous and eager for progress as they were then. science is the act of careful observation leading to improving our model of how the universe works. Many crucial scientific procedures and techniques enhance the link between observations of reality and the models we infer from them — for example, statistical analysis (not claiming as a ‘fact’ something that just happens once), hypothesis-testing (you can never prove anything, but you can reject competing hypotheses), and, often imperfect in Science/Academia, peer review of observations and their conclusions — which diminishes reliance on Authority, and ensures we have many pairs of eyes on each idea.

Those are just some of techniques in science — in other fields, error analysis is a big thing, where instrumental error tends to be more prominent than variance in what is actually being studied. But the most important feature is that the models are open to constant modification (with sufficient observational support) — and, perhaps somewhat paradoxically, this is what makes science robust. Unfortunately, the ‘molasstic’ (molasses, get it? ahaha… okay I’ll leave soon.) properties of recently-monastic Science often interfere with that, compounded further by the little issue where different fields often don’t talk to each other — also limiting the efficacy of peer review! But on the other hand… this is the institution most capable of doing science at the moment — outside of Academia, who really has the time and money to explore the wonders of the universe for what they are?

The point remains, however, that science is not merely the domain of Science. Everyone who practices the scientific method can, technically, participate and contribute. This means YOU. You can indeed practice science. It is generally harder to make contributions without the background education, but education itself is not restricted to Academia. If you are humble and willing to learn — you can become an expert. A poet-trained friend of mine is rapidly rising towards the ranks of true ciliate experts — academic specialists regularly ask him for identification help and what he’s observed. This expertise has only been developed within a few years as an ‘amateur’ (how about ‘independent’?). Observational and descriptive science in particular is struggling in the current funding climate — we (Industry) want answers to specific questions! Who cares about some cool new species, given how low is the probability of it becoming important! Even though it requires so little funding and effort… actually, because it requires so little funding and effort.

You see, universities make money off of researchers’ grants via this thing called ‘overhead’. Whatever meager money you successfully “win” off the government lottery (success rates rapidly approaching those of lotteries…) gets a healthy chunk of it skimmed off by the university. The principle of it is fair — the lab space, facilities, infrastructure… and yes, even some administration, need support. But, as with all things economic… personal interests, politics, etc etc etc. Old story. If you bring in lots of big grants — the university makes a ton of overhead off you. If you do small scale science with one student, pencil and paper, and miniscule grants — you might as well not exist. And economically-speaking, you shouldn’t — your grants hardly pay for your share of the facilities. Thus, Big Science reigns, at the expense of numerous no-less-essential Smaller Science fields. Most of them exploratory — the stuff that ultimately helps feed many of the Big Science questions.

But you, if you’re free of this bullshit — you have a tremendous advantage. If you have a bit of extra time on a weekend, and a strong driving interest: you can do real science that we Scientists can’t afford to, ironically. And I think protistology is excellent for what is called Citizen Science (a major topic elsewhere on SciAm blogs and the rest of the science blogosphere). Ultimately, all you need to begin is a microscope, the Outside (harder for those of us who live online…), and some literature. Contact any of us in the field and we’ll be absolutely ecstatic to share our online libraries (and scans)! It’s nice to be noticed, when you hardly ever do within the larger establishment.

Start by poking around and immersing yourself into the alien world of the small. At first, everything is new — and, you know what… the more you learn, the more new and strange this world becomes. It’s like fine wine. Eventually, you’ll start getting a sense of what your favourite wine varieties are. Maybe you’re simply obsessed with amoebae. Perhaps adorable sun-creatures. Ciliates, the giant hairy monsters. The lush world of the termite rectum. Or, hell, the bright colourful algae like the ones earlier in this post.

And just as neither of us could have predicted that a couple pictures of red algae would lead to musings about the nature of science towards the end of this post… you never know where a chance exploration of the microbial world could lead you. After all, don’t most of us dream of exploring some frontier of the great Unknown?

Not all reds come in red.

PS: Yes, I notice the irony of this discussion stemming from a facetious plea to not write an essay about the art. Then again, I suspect a large part of human existence consists of falling prey to the very things we so gleefully criticise ;-)

Psi Wavefunction About the Author: Psi Wavefunction is a graduate of the University of British Columbia working as a protist researcher (soon to be graduate student) at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and blogs about protists and evolution at The Ocelloid as well as at Skeptic Wonder. Follow on Twitter @Ocelloid.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. GeorgeX 8:03 pm 11/19/2013

    Nice photos; what’s the red alga in the first three photos?

    What are some discoveries that have been made by avocational protistologists?

    If someone wants to make a contribution to the field using inexpensive equipment, what are some good taxa or environments to observe?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Bruce Taylor 10:04 am 11/25/2013

    @GeorgeX Alfred Kahl, the preeminent ciliate taxonomist of the mid-20th century, was a self-taught amateur. In his nine years of active research, he described about 700 new species, and some 57 genera of ciliates. As for interesting environments, consider looking at soil protists, as desribed by Sina Adl, here:

    Link to this

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