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Personal Introduction

This series of essays is intended to give some interdisciplinary thoughts, opinions, and perhaps even insights, loosely centred around the biology of the “saltatorial songsters” — grasshoppers, crickets and allied forms.

The author with a bush-cricket. International Bioacoustics Congress 2017 (Haridwar, India).

In what is likely to be the first of many deviations (noted by italics) it is noted that the Saltatoria (Latin: jumping) is a now somewhat archaic name for the group of insects now called the Orthoptera (Latin: straight wing) consisting of the grasshoppers, crickets and bush crickets as well as some less numerous forms. Just how many species can jump, and how many can sing, may be topics for future essays, but imagine a jumping, singing insect and you have a useful — if well known — stereotype.

Topics likely to make frequent appearances are acoustic biology, evolution, and the history of Orthoptera research. Musings on the process of science are anticipated, particularly on how scientific outputs are produced, compiled, interrogated, analysed and shared. The utility (and limits) of how technology can aid the scientific process will be a frequent topic for discussion, just as how technology has sometimes influenced our interpretation of the natural world.

So why should you read my thoughts on these somewhat disparate topics? To answer the second part first, to see that they are not in fact disparate. Why me? I have been sitting in the gaps between disciplines professionally for about fifteen years. First as a physics graduate in a role more typical of a biologist at a natural history museum, followed by a spell as a data person, software developer and eventually something approximating an electronic engineer at the same institution. The discovery of a nearly lost (temporarily misplaced) insect sound collection led to some work on bioacoustics — circling back to physics — and eventually to a role reversal where I took a job at a university to became a biologist in an electronic engineering department. Along the way I have described species new to science, worked for the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature, and published some papers.

This interdisciplinary behaviour may extend an additional ten years further back at least if the contents of my childhood desk are examined in detail: a quill pen and computer, a dead butterfly and a model of a jump jet. My parents were a little confused as to what I might metamorphose into (although I did always like stick insects and I am now delighted to have a species of stick insect named after me).

Planning an autonomous Scalextric project for an A Level student activity

It is said that artificial intelligence and machine learning will create exciting new job opportunities. I got through the door early by getting involved in a project on the history of locust biology and control, physically based in a museum, while being employed in a university engineering department. Two institutions, three departments, one researcher. The future is coming; the paperwork is already here.

While these may seem to be a unusual career path — more Brownian than trodden— there is nevertheless some structure to it. In a recent project I was developing devices to automatically identify grasshoppers in the field using acoustics. This required software and hardware engineering, machine learning and databases of existing audio recordings, as well as a good working knowledge of the biology of the organisms I wanted to detect. In such a project the lines between physics, biology and engineering are not always clearly defined. Learning new techniques can complement rather than replace existing skills and methods.

Finding ways to communicate across subject barriers is an important skill for the interdisciplinarian (although in the more technical fields the translation is sometimes just that of changing mathematical notation). Often progress can be made simply by becoming literate in the disparate jargons of two adjacent fields (often a large part of my role in projects is as a primitive babel fish).

Specialization, although a necessary feature of our civilization, needs to be supplemented by integration of thinking across disciplines. One obstacle to integration that keeps obtruding itself is the line separating those who are comfortable with the use of mathematics from those who are not. I was fortunate enough to be exposed to quantitative thinking from an early age.

Murray Gell-Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar)

Along the way I have been involved in a variety of science outreach events including the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, teaching the basics of electronic sensor design on a tall ship and even getting involved in the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures (plus some more traditional university teaching).

Like many scientists work happens in all manner of places — offices, museum collections, conferences, in the field , pubs,…— but sometimes you just need to borrow a friend’s bathtub to test a prototype rockpool roving submarine (thanks Paddy & Rikey). Despite having a perfectly good phone to take notes with I am capable of surrounding myself with paper piles of scribbled ideas, system sketches, and so on in almost any place within a matter of hours.

At most I require only a pencil, some paper, and a wastebasket. Often even those are not essential. Give me a good night’s sleep, freedom from distractions, and time unburdened by worries and obligations, and I can work. Whether I’m standing in the shower, hovering between wakefulness and sleep on a late-night flight, or walking along a wilderness trail, my work can accompany me anywhere I go.

Murray Gell-Mann (The Quark and the Jaguar)

Working effectively across disciplines requires reading broadly and having a sound working knowledge of the key ideas from a range of subjects, and digesting the same concept from a variety of different approaches. Second-hand bookshops are like catnip.

Books, glorious books.

I find it helpful to also understand how differing approaches to the same problem came to be. It can be important not just understand how people have made advances, but why they used* the methods they did when they did.

*I did consider the word ‘chose’ rather than ‘used’ in the previous sentence, but sometimes people are forced into a method by the limits of their experience, means or era.

That’s all for the introduction, some discussion of ideas to follow!



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Ed Baker

Ed Baker

Bioacoustics, biology, technology, biodiversity informatics