Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Department of Worms

Back before the magnificent Internet, we had two methods of finding out something we didn't know: we either went to a public library to look things up, or we telephoned people who might have the right answer. I believe the TV show Ca$h Cab defines these methods as the "Street Shout-Out" and the "Phone a Friend" options.

Springtime in the Eastern US is traditionally a rainy season, so many science questions about rain and biology arise during this time of year. A question my son brought up on a rainy spring morning highlighted an overlooked science topic: why, he asked, were there so many soggy, dead earthworms on our asphalt driveway, but none on our lawn?

At the time, we lived in Northern Virginia, not too far from one of the greatest repositories of science knowledge in the pre-Internet world: The Smithsonian's Natural History Museum. Experts from every branch of science were a mere phone call away.

I called the Natural History Museum and asked to speak to someone about earthworms. "One moment," said the Smithsonian operator. She transferred the call.

"Invertebrates," said a new voice on the line.

"I'd like to ask a question about earthworms..." I began.

"Just a second, let me transfer you," he replied. Another couple of clicks later, and a new voice answered the phone.

"Worms," said a tired-sounding fellow at the Smithsonian.

"I was going to ask a question about earthworms," I said, "but I have to ask: how did you wind up with a career where you get to answer the phone with the word 'Worms?' "

"I studied," he replied.

The head of the Department of Worms then explained all about why there were dead earthworms on my driveway. He said that worms mostly live underground and breathe through their skin. When it rained, the worms would work their way to the surface and get on top of the grass to avoid drowning. Worms that wound up on the asphalt couldn't climb up on any grass, and, even though it doesn't look like that much water, most driveways have a layer of water on them during rain storms that's about one worm's depth. And that's all the water you need to drown a worm.

I do enjoy the ease of Google-ing information nowadays, but I miss the chance to talk about careers -- and worms -- with researchers on the telephone.

1 comment:

  1. And in related news: Encyclopedia Britannica announced today that they're discontinuing their print edition.