This post is cool because it features molten metals. Truly!
I worked for a while at Florida State University in Tallahassee, Florida. I was working with one of my favourite myrmecologists, Walter Tschinkel. I have a huge academic crush on Dr. Tschinkel, among others, but he’s also a really interesting person and he has the most melodic whistle I’ve ever heard. That man should whistle in a symphony, like an instrument. (Cue the French horns, now the whistler!)
He’s also an artist. His illustrations of plants are gorgeous and line the halls of the old biology building at FSU, and he also does woodwork. His house is filled with fascinating trinkets from all over the world.
You shouldn’t be surprised to see how common it is for scientists to also be artists; science is just another form of art, in a way. I’ll try to convince you of it today.
Dr. Tschinkel is not famous for his wonderful illustrations, nor his whistling (sadly), but for his work on the architecture of ant and termite mounds and his unique methods of representing this architecture in 3 dimensions.
I’ll show some pictures of when I was working with him to illustrate the process:
After finding a nest that we would like to cast, we set up our equipment. There are three different types of material we would use for casts: dental plaster (if we want to recover the ants), zinc (for small nests and foraging tunnels), or aluminium (for long term, large, or nice looking structures).
If using a metal, we have to melt it first. Zinc can be melted using a titanium crucible above a petroleum heater (like a camping stove), but aluminium has a higher melting point. In order to melt it, we must stuff a metal garbage can full or charcoal, pump air through it until they are white hot, and melt the aluminium (scraps of scuba tanks) in a titanium crucible.
After removing the impurities that separate from the aluminium when it is molten, we pour it into the nest hole.
Which is kind of cool because you can see where the foraging tunnels are (that run close to the surface of the ground) by where the grass catches on fire.
Then, after it has cooled (which happens pretty rapidly), we must dig it out. I can tell you that it is a lot of hard work to dig a hole 4 m (~14 ft) down. It is hard to throw shovelfuls of soil above your head.
But the hard work is definitely worth it. After we get the nest out, we solder any broken pieces and examine the architecture.
Ant nests are pretty complicated, but they also have species specific patterns that are recognizable. That’s Pheidole morrissii above, here’s Wikipedia’s photo of Dr. Tschinkel standing next to a Pogonomyrmex badius nest.
And here’s a fire ant nest.
And Dr. Tschinkel’s ant nests are even featured in museum exhibits. While I worked with him, we were preparing a nest for a museum in France.
So have I convinced you that science is a form of art yet?
I’ll keep trying.