You’ve probably seen those lists of the so-called “wonders of the world.” Many are works of architecture: the Great Wall, the pyramids, the colosseum, Taj Mahal. But these lists are, in a sense, always incomplete. Our world holds other architectural wonders, after all—albeit ones that are hidden from human eyes, made from different materials, and a bit scaled down. I’m talking, of course, about the wonders of the underworld. I’m talking about ant nests.
My guest today is Dr. Walter Tschinkel. Walter is an Emeritus Professor of Biological Science at Florida State University, where he’s led a distinguished career as a myrmecologist—a scientist who studies ants. He’s the author of the recent book Ant Architecture: The Wonder, Beauty, and Science of Underground Nests. For decades now, Walter has been delving into ant colonies using a variety of creative, homegrown techniques. Foremost among these is his method of “nest casting”—the process of making durable, three-dimensional casts of ant nests.
In this conversation, Walter and I do a bit of “Ants 101.” We discuss the notion of ant colonies as superorganisms. We talk about how Walter developed his nest-casting technique (not to mention other ingenious methods). We discuss where the blueprint for an ant nest resides, and whether ants might appreciate the beauty of their own nests. We also talk about the scientific process—about the joys of low-tech problem solving, about the importance of negative results, and about the pleasure of pursuing a good scientific mystery.
One last thing I’ll mention: a podcast really can’t do justice to these ant nests. So be sure check out the show notes below—and also Walter’s gorgeously illustrated book—to see these architectural wonders for yourselves.
Alright, folks, on to my conversation with Dr. Walter Tschinkel. Enjoy!