Field of Science

Five Things for Brian Switek

Brian Switek from his blog Laelaps* has sent me five questions to answer as part of a circulating blog-connecting thingy. If you want to be connected to it, I'll explain in a moment, but first the questions.

*Brian has named his blog Laelaps in reference to the dinosaur genus by that name, now known as Dryptosaurus due to the name being preoccupied by a mite. He has not named it after the actual genus Laelaps, which are bloodsucking parasites of rodents (and occassionally humans). Pictures of the dinosaur "Laelaps" are pretty abundant online, so for a change of pace I've shown a picture of the mite Laelaps (picture comes from CSIRO).

1) What got you interested in evolution/biology?

It's a little hard to recall exactly - I've had at least a vague interest in animals for as long as I remember - my mother informs me my first word as a baby was "duck" (and I've never even considered the possibility that, growing up as I did on a farm in New Zealand, she may have misheard me). The main reason for my interest, I think, was probably the names. I've always had a fascination for how words fit together, and it was probably the names in my dinosaur books that first grabbed my attention. Who can fail to be impressed by the sound of Parasaurolophus? And by the time I discovered Opisthocoelicaudia, there was no saving me.

2) Now that you’ve told me about your oldest book, what’s your favorite book?

Hmmm... not sure. One book that I've found that there seems to be no limit to how many times I can read it is Catch-22. I, too, would like to know how to buy eggs for seven cents apiece in Crete and sell them at a profit for five cents in Malta. Other books I own that I value quite highly are The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Galapagos and Slaughterhouse-5 by Kurt Vonnegut, and Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami.

3) Given your studies, do you have a favorite arachnid?

It almost goes without saying that I have a soft spot for the harvestman Pantopsalis phocator, the first species I ever named myself (Taylor, 2004) [spot the blatant self-promotion]. The only dampener to my enthusiasm is that, to be perfectly honest, I have never yet laid eyes on a live specimen of that or any other Pantopsalis, only corpses in vials. I have found other members of the same family, but in my enthusiasm at finally recovering specimens I gave them no time to escape and chucked them straight into ethanol. One of the large harvestmen would still be on top of my list of things I would like to encouter in the wild. There are few arachnids that I wouldn't like to at least give the time of day to (well, I might be convinced to steer clear of scabies mites).

4) If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and what would you do there?

Everywhere and everything? There is no shortage of places I would like to go. I spent a year of my life in Japan in high school, and I would quite like to go back there with Jack so I can show him around. We're hoping to go to Thailand next year, which I've always wanted to do. I suppose I've always wanted to go to the Siberian taiga - there's something about the idea of standing in a forest and thinking that that particular patch of forest stretches halfway around the freakin' planet.... If that doesn't make you feel absolutely minuscule, I don't know what would.

On the other hand, my enthusiasm for travelling to the Great Pyramids has been dampened slightly since I tracked them down on Google Earth and discovered that the city goes right up to them. The photos may look like they're sitting in the middle of open desert, but if the person taking the photo had turned two degrees further to his left, he would have gotten a face full of someone's laundry.

5) Do you have any pet peeves when it comes to having chosen science as a profession (i.e. non-science folk not understanding why you would want to study what you do, hoops you have to jump through for research, anything at all) ?

I suppose the thought that really causes me worry at nights is the whole uncertainty of it all career-wise. I honestly have little idea what's going to happen once I've finished my PhD. Australia's currently having a bit of a boom in science, and I'm just praying that continues (or that somewhere else is having a boom).

In terms of peeves, some of the security and safety restrictions in recent years have reached the point of ridiculousness. I recently found that I probably wouldn't be able to borrow vital type specimens from Germany because the restrictions on shipping alcohol have become such that the museum is afraid that they don't have enough of a guarantee that the specimens will arrive and be returned safely. Postal services have decided they do not want to shoulder the explosive risk posed by two mL of 70% ethanol.

Now that I've answered Brian's questions, here are the rules if you want to join in, copied verbatim from Brian's page:

1. Leave me a comment saying anything random, like [the food you hate most in all the world]. Something random. Whatever you like.
2. I respond by asking you five personal questions so I can get to know you better.
3. You will update your [blog] with the answers to the questions.
4. You will include this explanation and offer to ask someone else in the post.
5. When others comment asking to be asked, you will ask them five questions.

Have fun.


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  3. Thanks for the responses, and especially about the genus that had priority over the dinosaur (I had never actually seen a Laelaps-genus mite until now).


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