Andy Deans, the director of the Frost Entomological Museum gave us interns (guinea pigs) a challenge this week. Could we observe a 4×4 patch of land and its insect inhabitants for 4 hours and document our findings? Andy calls this experiment, “Discover[ing] Your Inner Darwin”. He told us that he drew inspiration for this challenge by reading an article in the Harvard Magazine entitled, The Power of Patience. In this article, art-history professor, Jennifer Roberts requires her students to engage in a similar practice- focus on one painting for 4 hours. Roberts describes this amount of time as “painfully long”, but crucial to her goal. She states, “What this exercise shows students is that just because you have looked at something doesn’t mean that you have seen it. Just because something is available instantly to vision does not mean that it is available instantly to consciousness”. I think this is what Andy was trying to get at. I might see a beetle or damselfly in a natural landscape but key details of its very existence may be lost if I only give it a brief amount of attention.
So I sat. While sitting I recorded my observations, hypotheses, questions, and sketches in the notebook provided.
I sat at a creek in Whipple Dam State Park and watched water striders (and a variety of other specimens) for about 4 hours. As expected, when forced to sit and observe for a long amount of time (without internet), you begin to formulate different questions and hypotheses than if you were to simply look at them and then begin to observe something else- something that I think we have all become very accustomed to in this age of rapid information. Rather than asking myself, “what is that insect?”, I began to ask, “Why is it behaving like that?”. It was hard for me to begin asking myself these questions because my undergraduate education was very focused on memorizing structures and names and not asking creative questions on behavior. During this experiment I even began delving into the big questions such as, “Why was that morphology evolutionarily beneficial and how did it come to be?”.
One thing I noticed was how territorial it seemed water striders are. I even wrote in my notebook, “The waterbugs [excuse my basic description] seemed very ‘respectful’ of each others space. If one begins to encroach then the other will usually begin to move in the opposite direction, almost like bumper cars”. I show my rudimentary sketch of this below.
I think there is something quite special about this experiment and Andy should be very proud of developing something like this for his students. It allows creative thought to flow freely. It allows students to escape distractions of their everyday life and get outside (perhaps even better than Pokémon Go – as I didn’t have cell service at Whipple Dam). It allows students to get comfortable with the feeling of being uncomfortable. The Internet and the age of rapid technology have absolutely benefitted us of course. Sometimes, however, one just needs to sit down and watch water striders for 4 hours to appreciate our eyes and minds at work.