09 March 2008

The pleasure of finding a snail shell


Many years ago I watched a program on PBS about the physicist Richard Feynman*. I liked Feynman's ideas so much that I ordered a copy of the transcript, which I still have. This is what Feynman said about the Nobel prize he had won:
I don't see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that his [someone's] work is noble enough to receive a prize. I've already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation of other people using it. Those are the real things, the honours are unreal to me.
Earlier this afternoon, my son and I went on a walk in the woods near our house. I had my eyes open for trees with holes in their trunks, for those are the places I've often found snails. Presumably, the tree holes provide both food, perhaps in the form of fungi growing on rotting wood, and shelter from the weather. Near the end of our walk we were at an area where I had not been before. A tree that had a large cavity at its base attracted my attention. I went over and took a look at it. Sure enough, there was an old, bleached Anguispira fergusoni shell just outside the cavity.


I have hundreds of shells of A. fergusoni, most in better condition than this one, from these woods. But finding this one on a cold winter day gave me a special pleasure, because I had never encountered that species at that particular location before. It extends the range of A. fergusoni that is known to me by only about 150 m or so. Three hundred years ago, when an unbroken forest covered this region of North America, this would have been an insignificant find, but today when even the "protected" wildlife habitats are under constant threat of destruction, it is somewhat reassuring to know that if what is over there is destroyed by some new road or a sewer project, a few snails may still survive over here.

Soon after we returned home, I thought of Feynman's ideas. Although I couldn't recall his exact words, the general idea of the pleasure of discovering something had etched itself in my mind.

*It was the Nova episode #1002 titled The pleasure of finding things out that aired on PBS on 25 January 1983. I was still in graduate school at that time.


Island Rambles Blog said...

Interesting blog, I have a garden full of snails. I think they are really beautiful and never mind that others scorn by snail eaten garden.

Dave Coulter said...

What a cool post. Feynman was right about the thrill of discovery. I would add something like: "the more we see the more we know, and the more we know the more we see!" Your knowledge of that snail must have added greatly to the pleasure of your find.

Wanderin' Weeta said...

Great post! And about one of my favourite quotes, too. I had to blog about it, linking to you, of course; the post is here.