The joy of not knowing

One of the great pleasures of working in an area like the Biodiversity of Small Flies, is that “what we know” is a vastly smaller box than “what we don’t know”. I think some people find a lack of knowledge frustrating. I find it thrilling. When I was a kid I wanted, at various times, to be an explorer. To seven-year-old me, that meant jungles and cryptic maps and beige clothing with lots of pockets. To considerably-older me that means discovering new things that nobody knew before. And I guess that means that I did eventually become an explorer.

I have spent a big chunk of my Thanksgiving Day on the microscope in the lab looking at flies. Small flies, Australian flies. Arctic flies. South African flies. Flies with little question marks written on little pieces of paper attached to their pins. Flies that I come back to time and time again and still cannot put an identity on. It has been a delightful way to spend a little bit of a quiet holiday Monday.

This machine kills boredom

I was talking to one of my students this week, she’s been working in the lab for some time and has taken responsibility for a small family of flies that is diverse in our arctic samples. She’s very good at identifying these flies and has an excellent eye for the characters that distinguish the species. She asked me a question this week about how to proceed on a particular taxonomic problem. As the conversation went on, there was that little epiphany that I get a kick out of every time it happens — she, despite being an undergraduate student, knows more about these flies than anybody in North America. She’s looked at more of these things, in more detail, than anybody here since the 1970s. She can make these taxonomic decisions for herself because she’s “the expert”. That’s exciting. And that’s being an explorer.

I talk to people sometimes who have run a mystery fly through a key and gotten An Answer. And they may even look at a published species list and assume that this mystery fly must be This Species because it’s the only one in Canada according to the literature. And they are sometimes disappointed when I tell them they may not have The Correct Answer. The problems are that a) many of the published keys are out of date; b) many of the species that live here have not yet made it into the literature; and c) many of our species, even here in North America, don’t even have names yet. That, to me, isn’t frustrating (most of the time); it’s exciting. It’s a challenge.

And those students here in the lab who are The Experts (whether they realize it or not) and similar students and researchers in other labs out there, and dedicated amateurs at their own microscopes and cameras working away in their basements or studies — we have a lot of work to do and a lot of exploring and discovery ahead of us, and it’s going to be a long time before those “keys to species” are really “keys to ALL the species”.

Rare days like this, when it’s quiet in the lab and the phone isn’t ringing, and there’s no paperwork to deal with, are the days that I can’t believe I get paid to have this much fun.


About terry wheeler

professor, museum director, entomologist, ecologist, naturalist
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