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A Strange Discovery in the Peruvian Amazon Reminds Us That Mystery Makes Science Fun

 

A peculiar weblike fence and tower, photographed by Troy Alexander in the Peruvian Amazon.

A peculiar weblike fence and tower, less than 2 cm across, photographed by Troy Alexander in the Peruvian Amazon.

In late August, Georgia Tech grad student Troy Alexander posted these pictures on Reddit of peculiar web-like structures he found while doing research in southeastern Peru. The first one he spotted on the underside of a tarp at the¬†Tambopata Research Center, originally thinking it was an unfinished moth’s cocoon. After finding several more of these little silken Isengards, he went online to see if any entomologists could explain them. Within a few days, his discovery had gone viral, being reported by io9, Wired, New Scientist, and elsewhere. Thus far, no one has been able to identify with any certainty the creature that made them. Is it an unknown species of moth or spider?

Sooner or later, science is likely to find a clearer answer. In the meantime, it’s worth taking the time to revel in this interval of sheer weirdness between scientific discovery and definite scientific explanation. Isaac Asimov once asserted that “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'” Much of what makes science so engaging is its tendency to embrace the unexpected. But for those of us science nerds who geek out on things beyond mere non-fiction (most of us, I’ll warrant), our minds might find additional pleasures in a story like this one.

For instance, I’m willing to bet that many of you, dear readers, will understand why I would make a Tolkien reference within the first paragraph of an article about a potential new species of bug. In fact, I have to confess that my very first thought upon seeing Mr. Alexander’s photographs was: “Wow, they found a bug that makes radio dishes!” This reaction was, perhaps, influenced by my love for an obscure sci-fi thriller, 1974’s Phase IV, the only film directed by noted graphic designer Saul Bass. In the movie, a mysterious cosmic force suddenly imbues a desert ant colony with a super-intelligent hive mind, manifested in skyscraper-like towers and sophisticated behavior. The ants eventually do battle with a group of scientists sent to investigate, and as one might expect from any good 70’s sci-fi thriller, the scientists don’t really ever get the upper hand.

Perhaps not too long from now, we’ll have a better explanation for where these little silk castles come from, and these sorts of geeky reactions will subside. I don’t mean to diminish the excitement and pleasure that real scientific knowledge brings us. But isn’t it just a little bit of fun not to know for a while and let your mind run wild? After all, at the moment we don’t know for sure that they aren’t radio dishes, do we?


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