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Fwd: BasicsPaths of Discovery, Lighted by a Bug Man's Insights. The New York Times April 5, 2011

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  • Peter Bernhardt
    ... From: Neal Smith Date: Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 1:06 PM Subject: BasicsPaths of Discovery, Lighted by a Bug Man s Insights. The New York Times
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 5, 2011

    ---------- Forwarded message ----------
    From: Neal Smith <smithn@...>
    Date: Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 1:06 PM
    Subject: BasicsPaths of Discovery, Lighted by a Bug Man's Insights. The New York Times April 5, 2011
    To: Neal Smith <smithn@...>

     As you might have expected, articles keep coming on Thomas Eisner. The journals have yet to be heard from. I put several Eisner Classics as PDF's
     The Mongoose and the millipedes ,and
     the Ultra popular :Biochemistry at 1000C: Explosive Secretory Discharge of Bombardier Beetles (Brachinus)




     "“I may not believe in God,” he once said, “but I don’t ring doorbells saying I’m a Seventh-Day Atheist,” and when asked his opinion of assisted suicide he said he hadn’t decided yet because he was “still working on assisted homicide.”.....



    Contribution No. 24 in the series Defense Mechanisms of Arthropods. This appeared after every one of his papers with Meinwald. When it surged above 481... Well


    BasicsPaths of Discovery, Lighted by a Bug Man’s Insights


    Thomas Eisner

    NATURE VISION Dr. Thomas Eisner, who died last month, is best known for his in-depth studies of insects and other arthropods, like the whip scorpion. More Photos »


    About three months ago, Thomas Eisner of Cornell University, a towering figure in the fields of biology, ecology and evolution, and a promoter of the class Insecta and related arthropod throngs so thermodynamically persuasive you kept expecting a pair of antennae to sprout from his forehead, sent my 14-year-old daughter, Katherine, a wonderful, miserable gift.


    http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2011/04/04/science/20110405-eisner-slide-SP6F/20110405-eisner-slide-SP6F-thumbWide.jpgSlide Show

    A Man Who Loved Insects


    ·       Thomas Eisner, Who Cracked Chemistry of Bugs, Dies at 81 (March 31, 2011)
    ·       More Basics Columns

    Inside were Dr. Eisner’s old burlap field bag, with his name written on the flap, collecting jars, precision tweezers, toothpicks, dissecting tools; and several of his prized entomology books, including the first one he ever owned, a butterfly guide that his parents gave him for his 12th birthday, back in 1942.

    Katherine was thrilled by the acknowledgement that Dr. Eisner considered her a protégée, somebody who spent more time than Yogi Berra crouched in the dirt, hunting for bugs, and who was graced with the Eisnerian power of what May Berenbaum, a professor of entomology at the University of Illinois, called “nature vision,” which is like Superman’s X-ray vision, but for the details of nature that most people miss. Yes, what a wonderful gift.

    Except his personal field bag? His first insect book? People who divest themselves of their closest possessions are people who are ready to die. And though we knew he’d been suffering from Parkinson’s for more than a decade, neither we nor his battalions of friends, colleagues and former students around the world, nor the scientific community as a whole, were ready to see him go. Return to sender! What a miserable gift.

    Dr. Eisner died from complications of his disease on March 25, at the age of 81. He had a notoriously mordant sense of humor: “I may not believe in God,” he once said, “but I don’t ring doorbells saying I’m a Seventh-Day Atheist,” and when asked his opinion of assisted suicide he said he hadn’t decided yet because he was “still working on assisted homicide.” So I like to think that, in some invitingly spider-webbed corner of his mind he died in Gary Larson-Grand Guignol style: on his back, with all appendages curled up in the air.

    Author of more than 500 scientific papers and nine books, recipient of many high-gloss professional honors like the National Medal of Science and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and a favorite subject among nature documentarians, Dr. Eisner is best known for his in-depth studies of how insects and other small arthropods defend themselves against the ambient medley of alimentary canals.

    He and his colleagues famously worked out the multistage weaponry of the bombardier beetle, which sequesters internal reservoirs of hydrogen peroxide and hydroquinone, and will mix the ingredients together with the proper enzymes as needed in a reaction chamber, to generate a boiling blast of defensive spray that can be aimed at an attacker through a swiveling nozzle in its anus.

    To Dr. Eisner’s exasperated amusement, the beetle’s spectacular equipment became fodder for the creationists, who claimed that it couldn’t possibly have evolved in stepwise fashion without blowing up the proto-bombardier en route.

    A Darwinist down to his very ribosomes, Dr. Eisner refuted the need for any divine beetle builder by citing cousins to the bombardier that were, in fact, the equivalent of intermediate forms, with comparatively less explosive armaments at their disposal.

    Dr. Eisner’s interests extended beyond insect defense, to include the entire chemical spaghetti-scape of nature. He often emphasized that, while humans may be partial to audiovisual information, a vast majority of species get their news chemically, using chemical signals to attack, attract, instruct, suggest, play the big Kahuna or disguise a real lacuna.

    He was a pioneer in the field of chemical ecology, which Dr. Berenbaum describes as “the study of how chemicals, natural products, influence the distribution and abundance of organisms in the environment and affect their interactions.”

    Often collaborating with Jerrold Meinwald, a professor of chemistry at Cornell, and Maria Eisner, his wife of 58 years, Dr. Eisner identified in moths and butterflies the first known examples of male pheromones, compounds that males release to entice females to mate with them.

    The researchers showed how a male would seek out plants generally considered distasteful, extract from the leaves or stalk a measure of defensive alkaloids, and then use a metabolite of those toxins during courtship, teasing the female with little alkaloid-infused brushes extruded from his abdomen. Should the female accept the offer, the male gives up the rest, and she transfers the compound to her eggs, the better to protect her offspring from predation. “It’s a very sophisticated and beautiful system,” said Dr. Meinwald, “and very appealing to work on from a chemical point of view.”

    Eisner researchers have studied puddling moths with a mania for salt, kamikaze ants, femme fatale fireflies, the zigzag architecture of spider webs, and lacewing larvae that feast freely on woolly aphids normally protected by aggressive ants, outwitting the ant shepherds by covering themselves in tufts of fluff plucked from the aphids’ backs — a real-life case of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

    Trying to choose a favorite Eisner paper is like trying to choose dessert at a Parisian patisserie. “One of my favorites was a paper he somehow got into Science, about mongooses that crack open millipedes by flinging them backwards, through their legs,” and against a rock, said Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University, a friend of Dr. Eisner’s for more than 50 years. “We were all jealous of the talent he had for getting his papers into Science. I think he bribed them.”

    Ian Baldwin, a professor of molecular ecology at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Germany, who studied with Dr. Eisner  in the 1980s, said of his mentor: “He articulated the value of natural history discovery in a time of natural history myopia. We train biologists today who can’t identify more than four species, who only know how to do digital biology, but the world of analog biology is the world we live in. Tom was a visionary for nonmodel systems. He created narratives around everything he did.”

    In today’s “shiny polished science world, he was proof that there is no experience that can substitute for being out in nature,” said Dr. Berenbaum. “It’s classy, not low-rent, to stay grounded in biological reality.”

    Dr. Eisner’s personal story also had narrative thrust. His family fled the Nazis in Germany, migrating through France and Spain before settling in Uruguay, from which Dr. Eisner headed northward as a teenager — an odyssey that left him fluent in German, French, Spanish and English.

    He studied at Harvard, roomed with Edward O. Wilson, believed that scientists had an ethical obligation to be conservationists, and when he first played Joan Baez records for his friend Dr. Ehrlich, he almost persuaded him that the voice was his wife’s.

    His lectures at Cornell were standing room only. He disliked flying and rarely went anywhere he couldn’t reach by car, train or, if need be, boat. He was a superb photographer and classical pianist, and he said he had trouble trusting scientists who weren’t musicians.

    His old friend Roger Payne, the whale researcher and a cellist, understands the sentiment. “Unless you look at the world through a different set of glasses than you normally do,” he said, “you haven’t seen it from any but one view.” Dr. Eisner’s nature vision was the ultimate pansensory superpower: visual, aural, tactile, chemical, and almost too big to hold.


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