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Galaxies and Dung Beetles

The Wonder of Learning

We know how important breakfast is for the body, but in the last year or so, I’ve tried to make time for a mental morning meal. Sometimes it’s a chapter from a great book or article I’m reading. Lately, I’ve enjoyed watching a daily TED talk (www.ted.com) by an expert, educator, journalist, artist or thought leader .


When I started making this part of my daily regimen, I naturally looked for subjects that were within my own wheelhouse, e.g, communication, perception management, humor, or learning. Lately, I’ve learned the most inspiring and enriching talks often come from topics far from my own realm of experience. Just this week I learned about how traffic congestion can be relieved with a simple principle that “nudges” human behavior rather than dictating it, how the scourge of malaria and mosquito-borne illnesses that cause millions to die and hundreds of millions to suffer every year is being effectively addressed by an elegant solution that is cheap, reproducible, and non-toxic (no, I’m not going to tell you what it is. It’s my little nudge to make you curious enough to go find out). Strangest of all of this week’s learning episodes was the moment I found myself experiencing a moment of genuine awe while watching an entomologist discourse about dung beetles.


The dung beetle owes its entire existence to what other animals leave behind as waste. It is their food source (I know, eww!), their building material, and, in some species (there are over 6000 kinds worldwide), it is where they spend their entire lives burrowed deep in a prairie pie and perhaps counting their blessings that they’ve found such a large, warm place to live and that they have no sense of smell.


The African dung beetle is not so lucky. He has to locate dung and then transport it by rolling it backward often for long distances across scorched African earth. Scientists have long wondered how they find their way from the “drop site” to their homes. After much study and experimentation, the answer is nothing short of amazing. These beetles navigate by climbing atop the little ball they’ve shaped, doing a sort of dance during which they get their bearings by reading celestial cues: the sun by day and, at night, by polarized bands of light invisible to human sight and finally, by the Milky Way. That was the part that got to me. This humble admittedly mildly disgusting little beetle is so easy to dismiss as a comical life form as it bumbles and trundles a ball of poo backwards across Africa. But there is so much more going on than that. This little insect takes its cargo to its burrow, navigating by a faint band of stars millions of light years removed in space and time. When the light left some of those stars, there were no insects, no people, no life at all on Earth. Yet now, these little bugs look up and find their way to survival by doing what few people could accomplish with years of study and sophisticated technologies to assist them. Such a connection between the visible boundaries of creation and this little bug dancing and backing across the veldt with his fragrant cargo, should make us fall silent for a moment in wonder at the interconnectedness of all that is and in contemplation of what responsibilities such a concept confers upon us.


So, I’ll refrain from the obvious jokes and take a moment to bask in the awe not only at what can be learned from the most surprising and simplest of subjects, but at the wonder of learning itself—from wherever it may derive—and the way that experience charges, challenges and changes us.


It’s a great way to start your day.

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