Little of what goes on at a university is the stuff of breaking news. The general formula for what gets reported about a university is pretty much the same as for politics and world affairs: money gained and lost, a result here, a conclusion there, a gaffe, a little scandal now and then. But the really interesting stuff, the stuff that matters, seldom gets much attention.
Yet on any given day here on campus, a reknowned herpetologist might, as Ken Kardong did earlier this fall, summarize his life’s work to a good-sized and feisty crowd of faculty and students. He demonstrated how over evolutionary time, rattlesnakes and other vipers defied “Cuvier’s Dilemma” by switching from non-venomous to venomous. Unfortunately, you weren’t there-because you couldn’t, most likely, be in Pullman on a Monday afternoon.
We plan to remedy this in a virtual manner with a feature of our new Web site, called Discovery.
Discovery will be an at-least-weekly blog (for those who like such neologisms), a weekly commentary on and expression of the process of discovery across Washington State University. Discovery will emphasize the discussion, investigation, dead ends, and serendipity that are all part of the process of discovery.
Shortly after the rattlesnake presentation, Peter Landolt ’76 M.S., ’78 Ph.D. Entomology, who is now a research entomologist with the USDA in Yakima, told a small crowd here on campus what he’s learned about yellow jackets. Maybe knowing that they lead a highly social life, like honeybees, won’t make your early September picnic any more pleasant. But I do feel smarter knowing that skunks are the main predator of yellow jackets, that the wasps rely on an intricate blend of volatile chemicals to communicate, and that the more aggressive species are the ones that build their nests underground, not the beautiful layered paper nests that suddenly appear under eaves and in your garage.
A few days later, Tim Murray, head of plant pathology, told a roomful of pathology and crops and soils students and faculty about his work and travel with Rome-based Bioversity International to promote conservation and the use of crop genetic diversity to control pests and disease in Morocco, Ecuador, China, and Uganda.
Many of these presentations and discussions are captured on video and are available, if you can find them. But I’m the first to admit that an hour, the general length of such events on a college campus, is a long time to sit and stare at a computer screen, no matter how intellectually stimulating the recorded event. So it will be our task to summarize and analyze, to share the gist of the continuous intellectual discussion that is a university campus.
Discovery may be sparked by a news article, such as the piece in the Seattle PI some time ago, about research showing that many current crops are lower in nutritional value than they once were, an unintentional consequence of breeding for unrelated traits. Discovery would summarize that finding, then point to similar work done by WSU scientists John Fellman, Preston Andrews, Kevin Murphy, and others, directing readers to relevant publications.
And certainly the sciences are not the only place where discovery proceeds. Discovery may present a fly-on-the-wall account of a seminar by scholar Will Hamlin on his research on the first English translation of Montaigne’s Essais and the revelations of the marginalia in existing copies. Or it may focus simply on the discussion between Hamlin and seminar attendees about literary “appropriation” in the 16th century and how the idea of intellectual property was a Romantic invention.
Obviously, we can’t report on everything that happens on campus. We have enough trouble keeping up with the “news.” But we can do a better job of demonstrating the creative and intellectual excitement of discovery at Washington State University, of giving you meaningful glimpses into the process that, little by little, helps us understand our world and how better to live in it.
Discovery will be posted on Washington State Magazine Online each week, announced campus-wide, and offered as an RSS feed. We hope to begin Discovery by the first of the year, and you can request that we keep you informed.