How I Fell Madly In Love With Science
For The Love Of My Microscopic Monster Garden
I was a very strange child, but that's what makes this story fun to tell. I learned to read a bit earlier than average; by the time I was in primary school I was already reading novels. Since most of my books came from my parents' home bookshelves, most of them were subjects either my mom or my dad enjoyed. That meant I read a lot of books about science, nature, math, and philosophy plus science fiction. My mom was into romance novels but they never interested me.
Since we lived in a small town and my parent's budget was small, I mostly had access to older books, usually purchased from library sales and secondhand shops. Well, we got Popular Science, Nova, and Organic Gardening but I'm talking about books at the moment.
Anyway, round about the age of seven, maybe age eight I found an old encyclopedia that mentioned Johann August Ephraim Goeze and saw something that blew my mind! That particular gentleman was a German zoologist who lived in the 1700s. That wasn't what blew my mind; it was tardigrades!
Yep, I’m talking about water bears, those wee little organisms that live in stagnant water all over the world and can survive freezing, dehydration and even the vacuum of space. I didn’t know that until I read everything I could find about them but that wasn’t what drew me in. There were these line drawings of water bears on that Johann August Ephraim Goeze entry and they were amazing.
Now I’d looked through big brother’s microscope a bunch of times but mostly it was commercially prepared slides or blobby-looking things like yeast or bacteria, things that did not look like microscopic animals. Well, some of the things looked like animals but not like cool animals. Those water bears looked liked perfectly formed monsters I could imagine increasing in size until they grew into beagle-sized creatures crawling out from the dust under my sister’s bed. They had eight legs and walked around like, well, all the walking around animals I’d known all my life.
So I went wild for water bears, also called moss piglets. I mean, how cute a name is that, moss piglet? It’s like Winnie the Pooh fused with Piglet (eight legs, remember), monsterized, and shrunk down to extremely microscopic size.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find the exact line drawings that made me fall in love with tardigrades but the image above might give you some idea of how cool they looked. The ones I saw were more from the side and more, I don't know, monstery -looking.
Make Your Own Microscopic Monster Garden
- Hunting for 'bears' in the backyard
If you want to hunt for water bears and make a microscopic monster garden of your own, I highly recommend reading the linked page.
The Best Gift Ever And The Hunt For Itty-Bitty Bears
My research at the library lead me to discover all sorts of other fascinating microscopic creatures which only made me want to use brother’s microscope all the time.
Shortly after that my parents bought me my own microscope from the Sears and Roebuck Wish Book. I don’t know if I pestered them about it, if I asked my brother to use his too much, or if my parents just paid attention to my excited babbling about tiny creatures so small I couldn’t see them stomping around in drops of water. I did tend to go on and on when something caught my fancy. I still do.
Water bears are everywhere so I didn’t need to go out hunting in the woods, fields, or streams although I’d been known to do so looking for crayfish, scuds, Daphnia pulex, dragonflies, preying mantises, small snakes, mice, frogs, and Monarch butterfly eggs and caterpillars. Tardigrades also required almost no care at all and if I messed up and they dried out, they wouldn’t die. Not only that, I could collect a huge zoo of them and house them in jars that once held jelly or baby food with tiny moss terrarium settings inside them.
Since I now had a microscope, I read up on Antonie Philips van Leeuwenhoek, a Dutch businessman and scientist known for his improvements to microscope technology and his intense fascination with the tiniest creatures of the world around him. It’s super cool that Leeuwenhoek went around scraping up samples of dust, smudges, goo, and specks from gutters, roofs, and the crotches of trees and such. My mom was a bit unnerved by it when I began to copy him, however. I was a very literal child so I took his methods to be just what one ought to do when hunting micro-monsters.
My worst injury was a tumble from the roof of the chicken shed into the ickiest corner of the goose pen. After I stopped crying and got washed off, I felt much better, seeing as my samples were OK. My mom suggested I sample the ick and goose manure all right off from my shoes. I now realize maybe she was getting me to clean my shoes that way (I did, although not very well) but I also discovered a bonanza of interesting freaky moving, reproducing creatures I hadn’t seen before. Momma had a lot of great ideas.
That one ill-advised trip to the roof with sandwich bags, cotton swabs, and toothpicks in my pockets managed to cover most of the dangerous places I had in mind to collect. It had a gutter, shingles, and a vent.
What is the point of this story? Well, it expresses how a single encyclopedia entry with a tardigrade in it captured my imagination and fertilized my love of science.
Am I A Scientist?
No? But Why Would Science Matter To Anyone Who Isn't?
Nope. I’m not a scientist and I've never held a job in the sciences, unless you count aquaculturing corals and marine detrivores. You may then ask why a love of sciences has any meaning or significance in my life at all. For one thing, it heightened my interest in not only science but in science fiction, the genre of "what ifs." It also solidified my desire to be a writer, though that didn't happen until after I failed to achieve my dream of becoming a limnologist astrophysicist biochemist.
That interest in science and my knowledge of exactly what threw it into high gear is what gave me the enthusiasm I have for writing. I never forgot the water bear illustrations. Something as seemingly insignificant as a line drawing was enough to influence me, to give me a yearning to know about the world around me.
I decided that since the science career had passed me by, I could still try to provide a vaguely related service to humanity. I could try to get people interested in science, to maybe encourage people who may not yet love science enough to become scientists. I don’t have the science background or credentials to write science articles or coffee table books, if only because a person without a science degree will never be listened to, no matter how careful her research. So I'm working with the talents I do have in the way that I do know to create science-flavored content of another sort.
I’m trying to interest people in science, ethics, and a future of scientific progress and discovery through the medium of science fiction. I can express my deep, passionate love for science and perhaps ever-so-slightly increase my readers’ curiosity about the universe close and far, gigantic and minuscule. I think that exciting people about knowledge of our cosmos is good for humanity. Knowledgeable people are great treasures. I’d love to help water the seeds of their curiosity and passion.
People without any clear knowledge about anything scientific in nature are also very vulnerable to scams, false hopes, and harmful beliefs about the world around them. They easily fall prey to quack medicine, backwards thinking, and assorted financial schemes.
I’m also trying to popularize the idea that people can solve the ethical dilemmas that sometimes come with scientific and technological advances if they actually work at it. I don’t like that so many people see science inextricably intertwined with arrogance, hubris, and immorality so I’m trying to do my own tiny, microscopic part.
The Cosmos Connection
I must admit I hadn't thought about tardigrades in any more than a passing fashion in over thirty years until recently.
A marvelous television show starring Carl Sagan called Cosmos came out in 1980 and it's experiencing a reboot with Neil deGrasse Tyson stepping into the ringmaster's role on the new version. Anyway, I adored Carl Sagan with silly fangirl intensity and I think Neil deGrasse Tyson is just, well, I adore him with silly fangirl intensity. So I just had to watch the reboot of Cosmos!
Well, tardigrades popped up in an episode of Cosmos and something a little like magic happened. Those images of water bears stomping about with their microscopic whiskery walrus "faces" brought those fond memories of childhood microscopy rushing to the surface.
I must say, I was a little worried that Neil had some pretty big shoes to fill and that the new version of Cosmos might come off a bit cheesy. Well it hasn't. I love it and Tyson is putting his own personality into it and not trying to imitate Carl Sagan's poetic, passionate, awed exuberance. His calm but intense and joyful delivery hits the mark just right. The first episode brought tears to my eyes when Neil made his gentle tribute to Carl.
Tyson does a stand-up job on the new Cosmos, continuing the legacy of Carl Sagan as a superb science educator with the ability to bring excitement and wonder to the science-starved masses.
What do you think? Is it good for people to explore the world and universe around them in a hands-on kind of way or should that be strictly for scientists to do? Is science something everyone should know at least a little about?
Is Science Important To Everyone?
Is it important to get children interested in science even if they don't become scientists?
© 2014 Kylyssa Shay