STUFF I’VE BEEN READING

A MONTHLY COLUMN

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS READ:

  • None.

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Field Notes from a Catastrophe—Elizabeth Kolbert
  • The Case of Mr. Crump—Ludwig Lewishon

You have probably noticed that we don’t think much of scientists, here at Believer Towers. The Polysyllabic Spree, the eighty-seven white-robed and intimidatingly effete young men and women who edit this magazine, are convinced that the real work in our society is done by poets, novelists, animators, experimental filmmakers, drone-metal engineers, and the rest of the riff-raff who typically populate the pages of this magazine. I, however, am not so sure, which is why, after a great deal of agonized internal debate, I have decided to introduce a Scientist of the Month Award. As will become clear, this month’s winner, Matthias Wittlinger of the University of Ulm, in Germany, is a worthy one, but I am very worried about several, if not all, of the months to come. I don’t really know much about science, and my fear is that we’ll end up giving the prize to the same old faces, month after month after month. A word in Marie Curie’s ear: I hope you have plenty of room on your mantelpiece. Without giving anything away, you’re going to need it.

According to the July 1 edition of the Economist, Matthias Wittlinger decided to investigate a long-held but never proven suspicion that what enables an ant to find his (or her) way home to the nest is an inbuilt pedometer—in other words, they count their steps. He tested this hypothesis in an ingenious way. First, he made the ants walk through a ten-meter tunnel to get food; he then made them walk back to their nests through a different ten-meter tunnel. But the fun really started once they’d got the hang of this. Wittlinger trimmed the legs of one group of ants, in order to shorten the stride pattern; another group was put on stilts made out of pig bristle, so that their steps became much bigger. The results were satisfying. The ants with little legs stopped about four meters short of the nest; the ants on stilts, meanwhile, overshot by fifteen feet. Anyone who thinks that someone other than Wittlinger is a more deserving recipient of the inaugural Stuff I’ve Been Reading Scientist of the Month Award is, to put it bluntly, an idiot. Science doesn’t get any better than this.

I’m delighted for Matthias, of course, but I am also feeling a little rueful. For many years now, I’ve been trimming and lengthening ants’ legs, mostly because the concentration and discipline involved has allowed me to forgo all sexual activity. (I have been using pieces of old guitar string for the stilts, and guitar string is funnier than pig bristle, because the ants kind of bounce along.) I wasn’t, however, doing it in a particularly purposeful way—I had no idea that I could have been written about in the Economist, or that I could win prestigious awards. And anyway, I was making an elementary error: I was trimming and lengthening the legs of the same ants—and this, I see now, was completely and utterly pointless: three hours of microsurgery on each ant and they all ended up the same height anyway.

Cynics don’t read the Believer, which is fortunate, because a cynic might say that the introduction of the Scientist of the Month award is a desperate attempt to draw attention away from the stark, sad entry under “Books Read” at the top of this page. And a clever cynic might wonder whether the absence of read books, and therefore the appearance of the award, have anything to do with the arrival of the World Cup, a football [sic] tournament that every four years consumes the inhabitants of every country in the world bar the U.S. The truth is that the World Cup allowed me to introduce the award. I’d been meaning to do it for years, but space had always prevented me from doing so. Now that I have no books to write about, I can fulfill what can be described, without exaggeration, as a lifelong dream.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby is the author, most recently, of a novel titled A Long Way Down. His second collection of columns from this magazine, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, is available this month from Believer Books.


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