On the Importance of Improvisation: examples from New Zealand, Antarctica & North Korea
This week’s topic is rather personal and I hope readers will not feel that I want to show off. I use examples I’m most familiar with and they happen to involve me (sorry). Scientists frequently face unexpected situations; situations in which equipment for an experiment fails or isn’t available, situations that offer sudden opportunities that appear “out of the blue”, but that one hasn’t anticipated and isn’t prepared for, etc. And that is when quick thinking, improvisation, is needed.
In New Zealand, I kept (with an official license, of course) some tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), ancient survivors of the dinosaur age, to investigate tail regeneration processes with Dr L. Alibardi. Since not much was known about the visual capacity of these reptiles, together with my student Katrina The, I ventured to investigate how these animals would recognize creamy white and darkbrown beetles as prey when presented to the tuatara on white and black backgrounds under different light intensities. But what to do if your photometer would not work for the dimmer lights and a sophisticated and expensive measuring device was not available? Time I’d spent as a member of a camera club during my teenage years came in handy for I remembered the relationship between the F-stop and aperture. For example, a 2-sec exposure at an F 2.8 admits the same amount of light as a 4-sec exposure at F 5.6. Considering a 2-sec exposure at F5,6 would have halved the amount of light, a 2-sec exposure at F11 would have reduced it to 1/4, at F22 to 1/8, etc. Using the human eye to match identical shades of grey in a series of photos allowed us to calculate the amount of light for each setting, having initially been able to measure one of the brighter lights with the photometer. Of course, film, paper grade, developing and fixation times had to be identical for the entire series of measurements. But it worked and the results were published in the journal “Tuatara” with co-author K.L.The: Tuatara 31, 1-8 (1991).
Another example: a barrier of sea ice off Scott Base (Antarctica) had once drifted close to where normally toilet and other wastes flowed unhindered into the sea in a spot from where my experimental aquarium would automatically be supplied with fresh seawater. When this flow was interrupted and toilet wastes could not disperse, something awful happened. A disgustingly smelly mix of seawater and toilet wastes was pumped into my experimental aquarium, clouded the water in it and unsurprisingly made the animals in the aquarium sick, very, very sick and slowly killing sea spiders, shrimps, starfish, etc. I turned this accident into a case study of the effects of human waste pollution on Antarctic life forms and recorded how quickly each species succumbed to the contamination. I collected samples of the contaminated and uncontaminated Antarctic seawater and related Coli and other bacterial counts to the risk they posed to the inhabitants of my aquarium, i.e. Antarctic critters. It was published in the Zbl. f. Hyg. (Intern. J. Hyg. Envir. Med.) 192: 554-558 (1992).
However, I think the best example of what you can do by improvising comes from North Korea, where I spent a whole semester at a time when Kim Jong-Un became that country’s leader. On one occasion when we few Westerners had a chance to go on a sight-seeing trip to the beautiful Kumgang Mountains, I grabbed a handful of leaf litter (it was May and some peaks were still covered in snow), stuffed it into my pocket and later placed this material onto a kitchen sieve after being back in my room at Pyongyang University. The sieve was put on top of a pot that contained a little water and I arranged a desk lamp in such a way that it warmed and illuminated the material in the sieve from above. The next morning lots of tiny arthropods had fallen into the pot. I needed to preserve them but was unable to get any ethanol or formalin. Desperate I then used a bit of disinfectant liquid from the bathroom to preserve my “catch” and later take it back to Finland, where the material was observed under the electron microscope – to yield a beautiful little publication with fantastic photographs, viz., Mikrokosmos 103 (1): 20-24 (2014).
© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2019.
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