The Darnedest Things

I learn the darnedest things in my job.

I’m currently proofing a college textbook on Biology. Fascinating stuff. Next comes a textbook on Mathematics. I don’t typically edit or proof textbooks; my line is more academic books…books published by professors on their expertise (diplomacy, literature, psychology, philosophy, religion, DIY Indonesia, music of the Fifties and Sixties, etc.).

Every book is filled with new facts and insights for me. That’s why I love my job. The biology book immediately grabbed my attention, with its discussion of Gregor Mendel’s work with genetic inheritance, and an indepth discussion of the workings of mitochondria. Another fun fact was about desert ants and how they navigate back to the nest after wandering for hours and many kilometers in the searing heat.

Experiments showed that the ants don’t use landmarks to navigate, but they do use the relative position of the sun. Plus, they count steps.

The pedometer hypothesis suggests that the ants always know how far they are from the nest because they track the number of steps they have taken and their stride length. The idea is that they can make a beeline back to the burrow because they integrate information on the angles they have travelled and the distance they have gone—based on step number and stride length. It doesn’t matter that they have wandered off on tangents on the trip away from home, because they can calculate a direct-line return.

To test this innate ability, scientists created three test cases: the legs of one group of ants were shortened by cutting off the lower segments; the legs of the control group were left as-is, and the legs of the last group were lengthened with the use of  prosthetic “stilts.”

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All of the ants were then released into a 10-meter-long channel and allowed to wander. When it came time to return to the burrow, the control group returned with no problem. But, the group whose legs had been shortened stopped short by about 5 meters before looking for the nest opening, and the group on stilt legs passed the opening by 5 meters. Over time, some were able to recalculate and find their way unerringly to the nest, while almost 50% never made the adjustment. Fascinating!

Okay, so now I place that information in my mental lockbox, and keep it safe for use in my writing at some point in the future. Which brings me to my point: even if you aren’t force-fed new knowledge as I am on a daily basis, as a writer you should make it your task to read outside of your knowledge base. Do the random Wiki reads, or pick up a book of facts and peruse its contents regularly. You never know what you’re going to find that will feed your imagination and give greater depth to your writing.

(For starters, if you’ve never read the short story “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” by Carl Stephenson start there.)

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