As an ecologist of the 21st century, I often think about the early ecologists from the period between 1900 and 1920 (Clements, Forbes, Warming, Spalding, Grinnell, etc.) and wonder what it was like for them to do their science. Being a scientist today usually means being a technophile. Amazing advances are made through technology, from new and larger genomes to running mind-bogglingly complex computer simulations with a scale and scope that would have been simply incomprehensible a generation ago. We also have a vast foundation of ideas, theories, hypotheses and observations that drive our current quest for knowledge.
Ecologists of 1900 did not have access to our level of technology, they did not have this huge foundation of knowledge informing their science. In fact the totality of human knowledge of the ecological world, from Aristotle to Darwin to Haeckel to Warming, could fit on a single bookcase. And for this I envy them. Every observation was something new and exciting. Hypotheses created to explain observations were novel and creative. I may be romantic, but the idea of a wide open frontier of ideas seems so exciting to me.
Being an ecologist today means competing in a crowded market of ideas. Much of our creative work involves revising and fine-tuning existing hypotheses or finding new technological and computation methods to better test existing hypotheses. Sometimes it feels like the scientist who yells the loudest in this crowded market will be heard. And so I wonder, would it be worth giving up the technological advances to simply stick your head in a hole and describe a brave new world.
P.S. I love both the photos of Frederic Clements shown here. The first is of him near Santa Barbara, CA were he would spend his winter months researching plant communities. The second is of him (head in hole) and his wife Edith, also an ecologist, apparently studying below ground interactions among plants.