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Stupidity is the mother of invention

By Dr. Terry Wheeler, Director of the Lyman Entomological Museum, McGill University

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Warning: the following post contains content that makes a university professor and museum director look a bit ridiculous. Readers who wish to cling to the fiction that University Professors are smart, infallible and wise may find this post unsettling.

“Do you have everything?” A logical and reasonable question from The Students as The Professor exits his hotel room in the morning, several bags in hand. Some Students may consider such a question presumptuous, but it’s good to run through these little mental checklists.

Lesson #1 (for Students and Assistants): “Do you have everything?” may be a little too broad a question. A series of questions identifying particular individual items of necessary field equipment might be better. In this case, for example, a question along the lines of “Do you have the sweep net handles?” might have saved much subsequent humiliation and hilarity.

Lesson #2 (for Professors): Pack the gear the night before AND get enough sleep!

We jumped in The Vehicle and headed south for a long day of collecting in the dry prairies of southeastern Alberta. We had our sights set on a few promising collecting spots and it was a sunny day. After an hour or so of driving we arrived at the first site and The Professor disgorged the contents of the several bags as The Students waited to begin doing science. “Where are the net handles?” asked both Students, almost simultaneously. “Well,” replied The Professor “obviously they’re in the $#%#$ hotel in my &#@% red duffel bag.”

Lesson #3 (for Students and Assistants): Do not be afraid to laugh at a Professor, especially when they deserve it.

Lesson #4 (for Professors and Aspiring Professors): You can’t afford to take yourself too seriously. Things happen and people will laugh at you. Pretend you’ve just told a wickedly funny joke. I find that helps.

So, not relishing a long drive back to the hotel in the prairie heat, The Professor was forced to improvise, which he did in a rather unspectacular way, and the Short-Handled Shortgrass-Prairie Sweep Net (SHSPSN) was born.

The short-handled shortgrass-prairie sweep-net, ready for deployment. (Photo by T. Wheeler)

Some readers will recognize the SHSPSN as reminiscent of a short-handled folding insect net commonly referred to as a “National Park Special”, a net that folds up compactly and is easily concealed in a pocket for . . . well . . . ummm . . . inclement weather and increased mobility and the like. In our case (we were not in a National Park or other similarly protected area), the short handle worked quite well to keep us low and out of the high wind blowing across the site. Of course, the actual process of sweeping required a slightly modified stance compared to regular sweeping.

Anna demonstrating excellent SHSPSN technique. Her back will be fine. (Photo by T. Wheeler)

In the end, we collected (very successfully!) at four good sites that day with our lightweight, compact SHSPSN’s. Fortunately, we encountered no other Entomologists (especially Lepidopterists, with their penchant for freakishly long-handled nets) who could have taken advantage of our predicament and heaped ridicule upon us, especially The Professor.

And the next morning, when The Professor emerged from his room, well-rested and laden with several bags, The Students greeted him with a hearty “Do you have the net handles?” and it didn’t sound sarcastic AT ALL.

Lesson #5 (for Students and Assistants): Sooner or later, every Professor is going to do something dumb. Take joy in such magical moments. They are the times that make The Professor appear slightly less than superhuman. It helps to have a camera handy for the more spectacular times. Such photos make great content for retirement celebrations or department Christmas parties.

Lesson #6 (for Professors): The great thing about tenure is that you can actually get away with a lot of really dumb stuff. Just don’t lose any Students in the field – there’s a lot of paperwork involved. I find keeping the numbers low and giving each of them a distinct name helps. Take attendance a lot. Especially at airports.

And if anyone would like plans for making their very own SHSPSN, please contact The Professor.

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The original post can be found on Dr. Wheeler’s blog, here: http://lymanmuseum.wordpress.com/2012/07/23/stupidity-is-the-mother-of-invention/

We’d love to hear about other people’s (mis-)adventures in the field! Please feel free to send your stories and pictures to EntSocCanada@gmail.com

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About Crystal Ernst

Hakai Institute postdoctoral scholar at Simon Fraser University (B.C.)

2 comments on “Stupidity is the mother of invention

  1. Wow! It’s kind of satisfying to know that I’ve have at least part of what it takes to be an professional entomologist…

  2. […] Stupidity is the Mother of Invention, by Terry Wheeler […]

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