What I Learned on the Trail

I stumbled onto a fresh pile of deer droppings: shiny black, oblong. Two beetles were probing about in the mound, looking for who knows what. The larger of the two was furiously spreading the pile of droppings out, toppling the high balanced pellets and rolling them a few inches to the perimeter. The tiny one seemed to be at a loss as to what her role was. She was dancing from one side to the other doing little to help her companion. It seemed he was sorting through the collection, trying to find the best dropping to suit his mysterious and sordid purposes.

Suddenly she was off. The little beetle was rapidly pushing one of the pellets off the pile and along the ground. It was a quick decision, without deliberation, as if a moment of clarity had burst upon her, “ah yes, this one.” She showed astounding strength, rolling the massive boulder along the hilly terrain strewn with building-sized detritus. In five minutes she had covered a distance of two meters. Her work was deliberate, purposeful. A straight line to somewhere. At about two meters from the pile she worked her way leftward toward the thicker woods. At its border she attempted several paths, failing at each to move the precious mass across this stick or under that wad of grass blades.

Finally she left her booty and appeared to search in widening circles. She disappeared underground, and again I was struck by her tremendous strength. The leaves and twigs, like slabs of concrete reinforced with organic rebar, pulsed and shifted above her wherever she chose to walk. Like a hard-shelled mole she made her way through unmarked tunnels, or perhaps she made them as I watched the ground rock and rise. She suddenly surfaced, five inches from where she had submerged. Immediately she busied herself to bring the deer dropping to her new underground lair. It took her some time, trying this angle, then that, to get the now dust-dulled pellet underground. Then they were gone. Only the occasional rise and fall of the leafy ground cover showed her presence.

I returned to the mound of sticky bright droppings to find six more beetles shuffling and bumping into one another, searching tirelessly for the perfect pellet.

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About mbdeaton

I study neutrino oscillations in neutron star mergers as a postdoc at North Carolina State University. Previously I was a graduate student at Washington State University, using the Spectral Einstein Code (SpEC) to simulate hydrodynamics in strong gravity. I like the following questions: What happens when black holes and neutron stars collide? What is the role of radiation (neutrinos!) in an event like that? What makes Fred and Doerte such fine teachers? What's physics for? What good can a scientist offer his local community, as a scientist?

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