I just started reading a mindbendingly good book by Robert Moor. Called On Trails, it shares an anecdote about Richard Feynman and an ant infestation in his home. As I read it, I was intrigued by the way Feynman could seemingly override the default reaction that most of us would have had, given the same circumstance. Instead of reaching for a can of ant repellant, Feynman reached for sugar and colored pencils.
A clever and patient observer can watch a trail sleeken in real time. The physicist Richard Feynman, for instance, witnessed this phenomenon while studying the ants that infested his home in Pasadena. One afternoon, he took note of a line of ants walking around the rim of his bathtub. Though myrmecology was far from his area of expertise, he was curious to find out why ant trails inevitably “look so straight and nice.” First, he placed a lump of sugar on the far side of the bathtub and waited for hours until an ant found it. Then, as the an carted a piece of the sugar back to its nest, Feynman picked up a colored pencil and traced the ant’s return path along the bathtub. The restulting trail was “quite wiggly,” full of errors.
Another ant emerged, followed the first ant’s trail, and located the sugar. As it plodded back to the nest, Feynman marked its trail with a different color pencil. But in its haste to return with its bounty, the second ant repeatedly lost the first ant’s trail, cutting off many of the unnecessary curves: The second line was noticeably straighter than the first. The third line, Feynman noted, was even straighter than the second. He ultimately followed as many as ten ants with his pencils, and, as he’d expected, the last few trails he traced formed a neat line along the bathtub’s edge. “It’s something like sketching,” he observed. “You draw a lousy line at first; then you go over it a few times and it makes a nice line after a while.” (21)
Moor uses this passage to end a subchapter in dramatic fashion, hearkening back to an insight from Darwin. “And, as Darwin showed, in the great universal act of streamlining, even the errors are essential.”
Think about Feynman. Think about Darwin. Then think about that mastery of this guy Robert Moor, who used an anecdote about a guy breaking from everyday tradition in order to make a point about the evolutionary necessity of such behavior. I can’t wait to see where this book goes next. Nowhere I’d predict, I’m guessing.