On innovation, barnacles and Darwin

29 01 2008

Two weeks ago, while visiting the St Joseph Market in Barcelona, I found this thing that promptly caught my attention:

I thought: live “percebes”? WTH is a percebe? And why is this thing so expensive? Then I took a closer look:

Naturally, I googled it some time later, and found the following:

The percebe is a delicious, edible gooseneck barnacle. Seafood lovers proclaim the succulent lusciousness of its slippery, slurpable innards make percebes earth’s best-tasting seafood.

It didn’t sound very appealing to me, and I did not know what a barnacle was anyway. You know, when English is not your first language, barnacle is not a word that’s likely to show up in a casual conversation or in your ESL classes. Of course, I then googled barnacle and found that it was simply what in Brazilian Portuguese is known as craca. My immediate reaction was: What???!!! Some people eat cracas and say that’s the best-tasting seafood on the planet? It’s like my mother saying the best part of the chicken is the neck. (I never actually tried it, but I still don’t believe her).

All this googleness finally paid off, as it led me to find by accident that barnacles played a pivotal role in Darwin’s breakthrough evolutionary theory, as described in the book Darwin and the Barnacle (by the way, Google Book Search rocks!). According to Wikipedia, Darwin was the first to fully study and classify barnacles. No surprise there. I used to tease a friend of mine for studying the behaviour of sea urchins (well, they basically don’t do much of what regular folks call behaviour), but barnacles are even worse, as most of them spend their lives cemented to a rock and barely move. If I were to choose a species to describe, barnacles would probably be very low in my list.

What is really interesting in this story was that it took Darwin more than 20 years between formulating his theory and publishing it. He was a 50-year-old man when he finally published The Origin of Species. Contrary to Thomas Edison, who seemed to come up with new things every 5 minutes (come on, 1,093 patents in his name?), Darwin had one major innovative idea, and it took him almost a lifetime to develop it. But when he finally published it, it changed the whole history of life sciences.

Innovation comes in different sizes, packages and frequencies. I can only imagine a guy like Darwin working for a big corporation today and writing in his annual performance review: I’m almost there; I just need 12 more years to finalize this idea of mine. The other thing that caught my attention is Darwin’s independent thinking, and his openness to change his mind when faced with facts invalidating his beliefs:

I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free, so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject) as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

He wrote that late in his life, and it’s refreshing to see that even after all his accomplishments, he was still keeping an open stance and an inquiring mind. How’s that for a role model?

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Of moths and ferns: the Internet as a window to the past

27 01 2008

I’m home sick for 3 days now, and have been doing nothing but sleeping, coughing, surfing the net and thinking. Maybe thinking too much, as you can see below.

The Internet is typically regarded as a window to the future, a glimpse of things yet to come, showing what can be possible in the future. Recently though, there seems to be more and more evidence that it works in both directions. Things that were long forgotten come back to your attention, the Internet equivalent of finding the Death Sea Scrolls. Ok, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But when you browse YouTube and see Brazilian ads from the 70’s, find old soccer collectible cards, and get LinkedIn invites from folks you haven’t seen since the 8th grade, you can’t help but wonder if your whole life will be digitalized one day.

A few weeks ago, I googled my own name and found evidence of my previous life as a biologist: a paper I had co-written back in the early 90’s about the interactions between an epiphytic Brazilian fern and a moth:

Microgramma Paper

At the time, I used to think that my research was pointless and boring, but now I miss those days. Research work is tough, under-appreciated and sometimes lonely, but once you start getting results, it feels good to know you are contributing to the overall body of knowledge of humanity. One of my mentors used to say that science is all about creating little bricks that one day will be used to build walls and buildings. Cheesy but true. It’s also likely that some bricks will never be used, but you won’t know that up front. The fabulous pea plant experiments by Mendel were not recognized until way after this death.

All that led me to think about how our lives are shaped by decisions made every day, some small, some large. What if I had stayed in University as a researcher? Would I be bored now? Would I be famous (in the Academia world at least)? Both my sister and my brother-in-law are biologists and they seem to be very happy with the path they chose. In an ideal world, I’d like to be able to use my background as a researcher and a biologist in my IT endeavours. That would be really cool. Or maybe it’s time to cut on this NeoCitron tea.

Update: fixed the image link.