Extra Enjoyable Than Enjoyable: A Story of Stephen Fry, Honey Bees, Greek Myths – and Science

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A nest of the Asian dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) on the IISc Bangalore campus. That is an uncommon species that dances on a horizontal reasonably than a vertical dance ground. Picture: Thresiamma Varghese.

This text is the introductory version of a brand new column by Prof Raghavendra Gadagkar, by which he units the theme. On this column itself, Prof Gadagkar will discover attention-grabbing analysis papers or books and, whereas putting them in context, make them accessible to a large readership.

Sir Noël Peirce Coward, an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer, stated, “Work is more fun than fun”. I believe the identical is true, or ought to be true, of science as nicely. However that’s not the widespread notion of the general public, nor of many scientists, I’m sorry to say. Now, why ought to this be so? One motive I believe is that we outline science and scientists too narrowly, and the scientific technique much more narrowly. And we take a really restricted view of who can, and may, do science, when and for what objective. If solely we took a extra expansive view of science and scientists, I believe science will certainly be extra enjoyable than enjoyable. To try this, scientists must discover far and extensive. We have to take inspiration from the huge shops of data and knowledge from exterior the slim confines of science.

This isn’t really easy, however I strive. I’m, for instance, an avid listener of the New York Instances E-book Assessment Podcast. Not way back Stephen Fry got here on it and blew my thoughts away. He made me go and rewatch his [Oscar] Wilde and hearken to a number of of his inimitable narrations of audiobooks. Two issues struck me particularly. First, he praised Stephen King’s On Writing (2000) and his recommendation on spare writing, to strip away all adverbs… however then he stated, “I have tried to do that with my writing, but no, it’s no good… this is the writer [I am] and if people think it’s overwritten… over florid, then so be it, they will have to put the book down and turn to someone [else]”.

No marvel he begins the second quantity of his autobiography saying: “All the true artists I know are uninterested in the opinion of the world and wholly unconcerned with self-explanation. Self-revelation, yes, and often, but never self-explanation. Artists are strong, bloody-minded, difficult and dangerous.”

One day I was switching channels on my tv and I got here throughout Raj Kapoor being interviewed by Simi Garewal. She requested Raj Kapoor to call his most favorite amongst his many movies. He hesitated, stated it was very tough, however lastly named the movie Mera Naam Joker (1970). “But that film was a total box office flop,” she protested. Raj Kapoor stated with a smile that each one his movies had been great, they had been like his youngsters and he beloved all of them but when he was compelled to choose a favorite, he would decide the one which didn’t accomplish that nicely on the earth.

The English author, actor and comic Stephen Fry, 2011. Picture: Maurice ([email protected])/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I lately watched the sensible Argentinian movie The Distinguished Citizen (2016) by which the protagonist says in his speech, when accepting the Nobel Prize in literature:

“I am convinced that this type of unanimous recognition is indirectly and unmistakably related to the decline of an artist. This prize proves … that my work agrees with the tastes and needs of judges, specialists, academics and kings. Obviously, I am the most comfortable artist for you. And that comfort … has very little to do with the spirit that every artistic work should have. Artists are supposed to question, to shock. That’s why I feel regret about my final canonisation as an artist. However, the most persistent feeling, mere pride, hypocritically drives me to thank you for deciding the end of my creative adventure.”

It’s this paradoxical mixture of self-confidence and modesty, which actually quantities to ‘zero hypocrisy’, that we scientists must domesticate.

The second motive why Stephen Fry impressed me was as a result of he spoke about his retelling of the Greek myths. I used to be instantly led to his first quantity on the topic, Mythos (2017). I research the social lifetime of ants, bees and wasps and any point out of those phrases, particularly exterior the realm of science, makes me sit up. In Mythos, Stephen Fry tells the marvellous story of how the honey bee turned social and the way she bought her sting. On the event of his wedding ceremony with Hera, “Zeus issued a challenge: whoever could devise the best and most original wedding dish could ask any favour of him… The winner was the seemingly modest submission of a shy little creature named Melissa [whose] name for it was honey”. And the reward? “Zeus said, ‘from this moment forward the gathering of your honey will be made easier by my decree that you shall not labour alone. You will be queen of a whole colony, a whole swarm of productive subjects. Furthermore, I shall grant you a fatal and painful sting.’ … ‘But,’ Zeus continued, ‘while it will bring a sharp pain to the one you sting, it is to you and your kind that it will bring death.”

Fry continues: “Meliss is still the Greek word for the honeybee, … science calls the order of insects to which the honeybee belongs Hymenoptera, which is Greek for ‘wedding wings’.” I discover it outstanding what number of names for animals and vegetation, and heavenly our bodies are derived from Greek mythology.

Fashionable science has realized a lot concerning the honey bee. We all know an awesome deal about how bees make honey, gathering nectar from numerous flowers, with scouts recruiting naïve bees utilizing a dance language. We’ve got uncovered many secrets and techniques about how bees navigate to seek out their meals and return residence. We’ve got understood how they use decentralised self-organisation to carry out duties nicely past the attain of any particular person bee, or human. We’ve got additionally gained appreciable data concerning the composition and medicinal properties of honey. We all know that the bee’s sting is armed with barbs pointing backwards, making it unimaginable to withdraw, as soon as deployed. Each act of stinging is certainly an act of suicide. We’ve got created an entire business in making an attempt to grasp how evolution by pure choice might probably have formed such seemingly maladaptive behaviour.

IISc scientists having enjoyable digging up a queen-less ant colony of the genus Diacamma, close to Triambakapura, Karnataka. Inset: how they may tradition the ants within the lab and mark them with colored paints for particular person identification. In these ants, the employees have stopped making queens and handle each home and royal duties by themselves – an attention-grabbing type of revolt. Picture: Thresiamma Varghese

However why ought to we take note of Greek myths, or any myths? I imagine that we must always marvel as a lot at what the Greeks and different ancients knew and guessed about honey bees, or anything, and what they bought lifeless incorrect, as we do at our personal discoveries; the honey bee queen was a king of their creativeness, for instance. Solely then would we create a whole science of data manufacturing and it could actually be much more fun. However we should even be warned that it’s straightforward to go astray.

As literal interpretations of myths and crassly invoking them to magnify the glory of our previous have turn into the order of the day, allow us to see what Stephen Fry needed to say about Greek myths:

“Much as a pearl is formed around grit, so a legend is taken to have been built up around a grain of truth… Myths … are imaginative, symbolic constructs… No one believes that Hephaestus ever truly existed. He stands as a representation of the arts of metalwork, manufacture and craftsmanship… Symbolical rather than historical in origin as myths and mythical figures might be, … Most of those who told and retold the myths would have been aware, I think, at some level of their consciousness, that they were telling fictional tales.”

However why did they inform them? What operate did the tales serve, and the way is that completely different for the tales we inform right this moment? How do tales turn into related to reality or falsehood? All is honest recreation for a grand view of science, for Wissenschaft because the Germans prefer to say.

Raghavendra Gadagkar is a Division of Science and Know-how (DST) 12 months of Science Chair Professor on the Centre for Ecological Sciences on the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.


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