Friday, December 16, 2011

A Statement of Respect

This morning, my colleague from graduate school, Art Zangerl, died after a long battle with cancer. He personified what it means to be a dedicated scientist. He had a zeal for using science to understand not just his own area of study (coevolution of insects and herbivores) but the whole human experience of the world. I remember him doing research while we were still graduate students; he would nearly run from one room to another, carrying electrophoresis gels. This was a new technology back then, and Art studied the PGI locus to understand population variability in weeds. He was never afraid to embrace new technology, while not discarding the old. I remember him sitting at a calculator that was the size of a small table, a Wang, which used a cassette tape to store its calculation. This was long after calculators were hand-held. He also had a passion for studying things (such as invasive weeds) that had an important effect on the human economy. He worked with May Berenbaum, who may be the most famous entomologist in the world. Among other things, they studied photophytodermatitis (or is it phytophotodermatitis?) caused by wild parsnips. Everyone respected, admired, and loved Art.

In the photo posted above, taken about 1981, Art (behind the equipment) and Mark Boudreau (who is now a professor of sustainable agriculture) were using an infra-red gas analyzer to measure photosynthesis. You can see that it was a home-made apparatus, and Art was a major contributor to its construction.

Art’s wife posted his final message online right after his passing. One of the things that he regretted seeing in our society today was the large number of people who attack science general and evolution in particular in the name of religion. He wrote, “Evolution is like a magic key. Once you understand it, really understand it, so much becomes clear.” He said that evolution helps us understand the darker side of human nature, but also what he called the social side, such as altruism. Although evolution has made us a species capable of hatred, we are also a species that can fight against hatred and oppression. Art particularly admired the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I hope that I can leave behind as good a legacy of honest intellectual inquiry and genuine human warmth as Art Zangerl.

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