June 2, 2009
Last Friday at the National Museum of Natural History, a crowd of scientists and other credentialed folk gathered for a preview of the new exhibition, “Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants” The guest of honor was the eminent scholar and a towering figure in the world of science, biologist Edward O. Wilson. The occasion was not just the opening of the exhibition, but the unveiling of a portrait of Wilson rendered by the renowned artist Nelson Shanks. The portrait shows Wilson in his Harvard University office amongst his study tools—microscope, magnifying glass, books and a large, wooden ant model.
Much to the delight of his audience, Wilson recalled the first time he had visited the Natural History museum as a 9-year-old boy. At the time, he recalls, he imagined what it would be like for his picture to be among a gallery of scientist’s portraits he saw there that day. “Now 70 years later,” he told the crowd, “I’ve come full circle.” His portrait, on view for the first time, will hang amongst a gallery of his favorite subject—ants, until October.
Wilson was born June 10, 1929 in Birmingham, Alabama. Fishing as a child, the fin of spiky fish scratched his right eye. The accident permanently impaired his long-distant vision and depth perception. This forced him to examine objects up close. He quickly found he had a great interest for insects. After earning degrees in biology from the University of Alabama, Wilson continued on to Harvard where he earned his PhD in 1955.
By the late 1950s he was declared by many to be the world ‘s authority on ants. Along with William H. Bossert, also of Harvard, Wilson worked to decode the chemical communication between animals—including ants. Wilson’s theory of an insect pheromone language allowed him, and the many that followed, to examine the social behaviors and hierarchies of ants and other creatures. His studies carried him around the world to places like Cuba, Mexico, Australia, New Guinea, Fiji and Sri Lanka.
“Ed’s portrait,” said Nelson Shanks, who has executed works of such renowned individuals as Bill Clinton, Princess Diana, Pope John Paul II and Luciano Pavarotti, “tells a story of a profound intellect. At the end of the day, I hope to learn Ed’s lessons and share his concerns for it.”
Later, after lunch, Wilson did share a life lesson. When asked what to do about ants in the kitchen. “Watch where you step,” he said. “I think they prefer the cookies called ‘Little Sandies’ and some honey.”
Get a magnifying glass, he added, get down on the floor and watch them, “and you will enjoy a little society.”
– co-written by Jordan Steffen
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