Lisa Margonelli: 2019 National Book Festival

Lisa Margonelli: 2019 National Book Festival


>>Lisa Margonelli:
Thank you very much. It’s a huge pleasure to be here
at The Library of Congress. I can’t tell you how
many libraries I used. I use them all the
time when I’m writing. And a tremendous pleasure
to be at this book festival. Thanks to all the staff
for making this all happen. It’s quite a production. I am here to tell you a little
bit about what I learned about termites and how I became
obsessed enough about termites with termites to spend ten years
following them to write a book. I think what most people know
about termites is that — in relationship to libraries
— is that they eat books. They eat lots of books, in fact. It’s a big concern
for libraries. But I’m going to just
tell you a little bit about how I came
to write this book. And how I came to fall
in love with termites. This is a kind of an
unimpressive dry, deserty place that I went to in 2008. It was the summer of 2008. I was invited by a bunch
of scientists to come on what they called
a termite safari. Now, why would a person
drop all their work and go on a termite safari? Well, 2008 I was
actually a fairly — at the end of my
rope, basically. I had worked in the early 2000s, I had spent about five years
writing a book about oil. And then I had become kind
of an oil expert, sort of. Or, I had to write
about oil all the time. I had to think about
oil constantly. Oil was always on my mind. And oil was always
kind of a problem, and one that was very
difficult for us to solve. And so sometime in there I ran
into this group of scientists who were working at the
Joint Genome Institute in Walnut Creek, California,
to find genes in the guts of termites that were
capable of dissolving wood. Now, termites are one of the
few creatures on the earth, besides shipworms
and some others, who can actually eat wood and
digest it and turn it into fuel. So, the idea behind this
Department of Energy project was that we would go
to the termites, find out what genes the termites
used for dissolving wood and kind of upload that into
our own captive microorganisms and produce biofuels. So, this was one way of
solving the oil problem. So, I went out on the
termite safari in the hopes of seeing how you chase termites
and how you find the genes to reinvent the economy. And what I actually
found was the termites. And so, one of the
things that happened — I guess through this
time I realized that termites a little
guide to really big ideas. They tell us lots
about the environment. They tell us lots
about the possibilities of applying nature
to technology. And they also give us all sorts
of new ideas about how we look at ourselves and how
we look at the world. And I think one of the things
that really came home to me was that termites showed me
how the world worked. They showed me a different way. You know, when you spend a lot
of time thinking about oil, you feel like the world
works mostly on people. It works on substances
and the economy. It works on money. It works on also, of course, environmental destruction
and climate change. These sorts of things. But termites work
something that was kind of humming along
beneath the surface. But the other thing
that termites brought me to understand was how
we know what we know. And I think that’s a
really interesting topic that in science books we often
look at science as finding out what the truth is. But, there are truths
that we all believe. But we don’t know
how we know them. And following termites kind
of brought me into that world. And I have t say that when
I landed in this weird, desolate country looking
for termites, you know, you run around through the
desert trying to find termites. I wasn’t that impressed by
what the landscape looked like. I just thought it was kind
of weird and forbidding. And I wanted to find
the termites. I came to see that
land really differently through this ten-year process. So, now I just want to tell you
a little bit about termites. So, termites — until 2007, we thought termites were
their own kind of bug. Well, we didn’t really
think that. Since the 1920s we’ve had some
different ideas about termites. But it was only in 2007 that they officially
stopped being their own bug and became a social cockroach. A highly evolved cockroach. So, I’m going to
give you a little bit of the story behind how the
cockroaches became termites. So some time about 150 million
years ago the cockroaches were solitary bugs. And they were running around
underneath the dinosaurs. And eating fruit. And when they had some eggs
they would sort of shoot them out their backsides at
a high rate of speed. And then they’d run
away from the eggs. And the eggs would just
develop themselves. So, what happened was there
was a lot of wood around. And they started eating — we don’t know exactly what
the order of the things was. But they ate some
microbes who were capable of digesting that wood. Which made the termites
capable of digesting that wood. But the problem is is that if
you’re a cockroach you molt your intestines. So, somehow they all
started hanging out and not running away
from each other. But hanging out together. And eating what we
politely call wood shake from each other’s butts. They were eating the microbial
solution from each other. So they started pooling
their digestion. And this started changing
who these cockroaches were. And they started changing
and shifting into termites. So they pooled their digestion. And then they began to live kind of all together as
a super organism. That’s a very unscientific term. But they become —
there were soldiers, and there were workers. And there’s a queen. And there’s a king, usually. And they divided the
responsibilities for the success of the whole colony
amongst themselves. So, the queen began to do
all of the reproduction. And the soldiers who have — soldier termites
are really fabulous. There’s many different heads,
head designs, that they have. Some are a wedge. And they just jam their wedgy
head into holes in the mound. And nobody can come through. And some of them have
mandibles that snap like this. And some have asymmetrical
mandibles that snap like that. And they just — they
just launch themselves out at the outside
world that’s attacking and snap them with
their mandibles. And some, like in this
picture, have a little sort of a nozzle on their head. And they shoot chemicals
called terpenes out their head to stop invaders. So there’s all of these
different fabulous termite soldier designs. And then the workers do the
food and they do the child care. And they kind of run around. One of the things that’s
interesting about termites is that they are a neoteny. The queen develops
into an adult. And the king develops
into adult. But all the other ones are kids. They are kids forever. Stuck there all together. And sometimes they live
for 20 years or so. We don’t know exactly
how long they live. But as they live
together, they also — began to live together —
they also gave up things. Like they lost their eyes. And the workers and the
solders lost their wings. Only the reproductive
queens and kings have wings. This relationship that they
have with their microbes and with each other, because
they’re all symbiotic. The termites have a complex
relationship with each other. And then the microbes
also have a relationship with the termite
and with each other. It creates this kind of
layers of complexity. And when I was first
talking with the scientists, one of them said, “Well,
you think the termite’s in charge of the microbes. But actually, maybe the microbes
are in charge of the termite.” And this is really
interesting because — we were drinking coffee. And he said, “I mean, how do we
know that we’re drinking coffee because we want it and not
because of the microbes that are in our guts have told us
‘drink coffee or eat salt’ or something like that?” And as I continued to
pursue this question with other microbiologists
they said things like, “Well, free will just a
rounding error.” Anyway — [laughs]. So, within about six months of this I was making
termite puppets. I still didn’t think that
I was capture by termites. Bu I was making termite puppets and amusing my friends
with them. And I just kind of kept going. So, this is — the other
thing that kind of sucked me in was the scientists
themselves. This is the Joint
Genome Institute, a couple of different
people in it. There’s Phil Hugenholtz, who
was a principle investigator. There’s Anna Egelbeckstrin
[assumed spelling] who was a tech in the lab. I mean, you have to have
a master’s to have tech in that lab, to be tech there. And Shaomei Hu, who
was a post-doc student. And these teams worked together
in a very symbiotic way. I mean, Phil was — in
some sciences there’s a strong hierarchy. But here, there wasn’t. Anna could yell and Phil. She could boss him around. They would have wild
fights in the car and I would have
tell them to stop. And they also, when they
worked together, sometimes — when you take genetic
information, it’s actually just a database. And so they would sit in
dark rooms, like nine people in a dark room with
three or four databases, running the databases
back and forth. And sometimes talking almost
like they were one person. But they were four people
running the databases and two people would be
talking and narrating. And it was like — it was
like I had been invited into this secret sort of world that you couldn’t see unless
you had a post-graduate degree. You really had to be deep
into this world to see it. And they just very genuinely
and sweetly let me in. And it was lovely. But I also got to see how
oddly symbiotic they were. The way that we got
the termites up — I just need you to know this — we got them up by sucking
them up with aspirators. And these aspirators are
made — they’re home-made. They’re made with some
tubing and a test tube and little tiny auto
filter — air filter. And you go [vocalizes] and
the termite comes up and turns at the air filter and heads
down into the test tube so that you can get them and
you don’t have a mouthful of cow paddy or something
like that. That’s how we would
suck them up. And then they would bring
them off for analysis. We’d freeze them
later that night. This is what’s inside
termite guts. So, up until the 2000s or
so this was the only way to see what was in
a termite gut. You could look at it
with a microscope. So, the little tiny things
that are rods are bacteria. And most of the stuff in the
termite’s gut is bacteria. The big thing is a protist
called Trichonympha. And Trichonympha looks
like a very big bacteria. But actually a protist
is not a bacteria. And it’s not an animal. And it’s not a vegetable. It is actually a very
complicated symbiotic animal. But it has hairs on
it that you can see. They’re not actually hairs. They help it move. But they’re actually
spirochetes. So they move because they have
symbiotic spirochetes attached to them. It’s as if I had squid legs. It is that weird. But they actually have four
or five genomes in one. They’re all living together. And symbiosis so weird,
it’s extremely strange. They lose their own
characteristics. They swap things. They swap genes amongst
each other. It’s truly fabulous. It also brings up the
question of who’s in charge. Which just comes up again
and again and again. So let me just get this
straight before we go on to the next thing. Termites are a society. And then inside them they
have a society of microbes. And then inside those microbes,
some of them are a society of five things cooperating
as one. And we haven’t even gotten to how the termites
themselves cooperate. The other thing that
I learned hanging out with the scientists is
just how amazing their sort of data display is. This is a phylogenetic tree. It takes a while to
learn how to read them. But once you read them,
you realize that they are like Shakespearean stories. They’re very elaborate. They have all kinds of
amazing information in them. This one shows that not
all termites are the same. So, one kind of termite grabbed
its microorganisms way back long time ago, maybe in
the dinosaur time. And they’ve all been
evolving together. And the other type of termite
on this sort of vertical axis, actually just had some that
have been evolving forever. And then has some that
they have been just running around and grabbing. Like maybe they ate
something in elephant poo and they got that in there. So, they’ve got a mix of current
things that live outside, and their own sort of
bespoke proprietary microbes. So, by this time
was pretty hooked. And also, a weird
thing happened. I was living in Berkeley,
California, and it turned out that termites
were eating my house. Not my house. I was just renting. But they were eating
the wall behind my bed. And I wasn’t actually
that upset. In fact, I was kind
of delighted. And I was like “Ooh! I want to see them.” I wanted to see them when
they pulled the wall off. And so, that was when I realized
I had kind of changed sides. [ Laughter ] So, I continued doing
more travelling further. This, I went to Namibia where these huge
Macrotermes mounds are. And this is a researcher
named Jeffrey Scott Turner, who’s a fabulous writer. This gets into the question
of how we know what we know. He began studying these termite
mounds about 30 years ago. The lore was that these
mounds worked like chimneys. That they exhausted hot air
out the top like a chimney. And so he was — he wasn’t
going to study termite mounds. It was just a random
thing he was doing because he was doing some
work in southern Africa. And he put some propane
in a mound. And he realized it didn’t
rise like a chimney. It didn’t act anything
like a chimney. It sloshed around. Sometimes it was a
little chimney like — it was one thing
and another thing. And so he basically got hooked. And there he was for
three more decades. And what he realized was that
in some ways the mound works like a lung. It brings gasses in. it sticks up like a
vane into the winds. And it captures those winds
and uses them to sort of pump or puff the used gasses
inside the mound out. But the question then becomes,
“How do the termites know how to build this crazy thing?” One of the things he did
was he would pour plaster of Paris inside these mounds. And so you end up with kind
of the inverse of the mound. You end up seeing all of these
tunnels that the termites build within the mound and how
they stack up the dirt. They’re really ghostly,
weird-looking things. Kind of fabulous. They also show that the
mound functions a little bit like a brain. Scott believes that
they work a little bit like a cognitive system. That the termites
are all in there. They know exactly how
their world should be. And if an aardvark comes
crashing through the side and opens up a hole, they
immediately have sort of systems of understanding
that that’s happened. They understand when
fresh air is coming in that there’s a problem. And then some of the
termites run deep into the mound and
set off alarms. They make this rattling
noise or clicking noise, that sends all the other
termites running towards that hole in the mound. They smell the fresh air
and they run towards it. And they have balls of
dirt in their mouths. And they drop them
at the border. And also the soldiers
run out there and just blindly launch
themselves off the hole. It’s pretty amazing. So, what are we looking at? Well, inside, the termites
have this weird aesthetic. They don’t see, so
they’re feeling along with their little antennae. And when they feel something
sticking out, they bite it off. And so they end up
with something that looks tremendously like — I think it’s the Pan
Am terminal at JFK. That old — the one that’s
in “Catch Me if You Can.” I mean, they end up with these
smooth weird organic shapes. How do they do this? How do they build? Well, one of the theories is that they use something
called stigmergy, which is that one termite has
a ball of mud in its mouth. And it pops that mud down. And then the mud has
some kind of smell on it like saliva or something. So then the next
termite smells that smell and pops its ball
on top of that. And you can see these balls kind
of stacking up in the picture. And then that smell
gets stronger the more and more termites are
stacking up the balls. That smell. And it attracts more
and more termites. So it becomes sort of
like Twitter, basically. But for mud balls. And then they have some sense
of the way this should all work. But this all kind of
remains a big mystery. So one of the things — well, I’ll get back to the
mystery in just a second. This is what the
queen looks like. And the queen is — so the queen
originally was about this tall. And then she swells up
to the size of a finger after she crawls into the — after she crawls below
ground with the king. They’re kind of amazing. They exude pheromones. They control the
growth and the behavior of the other termites
around them. She is enormous. And she will produce an
egg every three seconds, sometimes for 20 years. We don’t know. Maybe for 50 years. It seems interminable. And the other little
termites will come — the worker termites come in. And they clean the
eggs away from her. And they lick her. And they feed her food. And when you look
at her, she has fats under her skin that
are swirling. It’s really like kind of a — people freak out when they
look at it, basically. But I think it kind of
also raises a question of, you know, who’s in charge? We think the queen’s in charge
because we’ve given it her name, the queen, which is based
on colonial concepts. But, what’s right underneath
the queen is the fungus. And these Macrotermes have
this fungus that they build that digests wood
and grass for them. They actually go out. They gather grass. They make it into little balls. And they stack that up
in this elaborate cone like you see in the
fungus there. And it even has —
they have tiny feet on the bottom of the fungus. And what they do is that
fungus dissolves the grasses. And they go running towards it. And it dissolves the grasses. So, they run around on it. And they find the fungus where
it’s sort of fruiting there. And where the dissolved
sugars are. And they suck them off. And then the termites
actually switch those around between each other. So this was — Scott fed
some dye to the termites to watch how they switch things. But termites are constantly
sort of having a party. They’re constantly switching
fluids between each other. They’re rubbing each
other with their antennae. And they’re — yeah,
they’re rubbing each other with their antennae. They’re begging for
drops of poo. They’re totally nuts. But what are they
actually doing? So, Scott actually talked
to a group from Harvard, from the Wyss Institute. This is Radhika Nagpal’s group. And they are building
these amazing robots that are modeled
somewhat on termites. This is just a little
bit of them building. The robots are coordinating
between — they don’t coordinate —
they’re not coordinated by a higher coordinator. They only coordinate
themselves by signals on the ground and
from each other. So, I’m going to see if I
can make that play again. Oh, no. There we go. Anyway, they look
like toddlers playing, but not quite paying
attention to each other. And they’re quite
extraordinary as robots. So, what happened was
the roboticists wanted to actually track
what the termites did. But the roboticists
kind of had an idea that termites were like robots. And actually, everybody
has an idea that termites are like robots. This is an idea that kind
of goes back to Descartes, the idea that animals are
robots, soulless automata. And so, they started taking
video of the termites. And the idea, if a
termite is like a robot, then every termite is
doing the same job. And they’re all kind of
involved in the same project. And they’re all really working
towards the safety of the — the security of the whole group. And many people had actually
posited that this was the case. But what happened when they
actually built a tracker for the termites. This is quite a sophisticated
tracker. But they actually were able to track each individual
termite for the first time. And they discovered they’re not
doing the same thing at all. They are actually — most
of them are screwing around. They’re just running around. So, in one dish, five
are doing the work. And 20 are just running around. In another dish 19
were running around, two were doing the
work leading others, and four were helping
the others — four were helping the
two who were leading. So, they were individuals. They’re not all on task. Some of them are
charismatic [Laughs]. This is some crazy stuff. This is, “how do we
know what we know?” you know? This is — you know, termites are a really
good example of how little we understand about what we think
we understand. And the other thing
that they’ve realized is that maybe termites
are not building because they’re stacking balls. Maybe they build
because they dig holes. So it’s almost like they
turned that whole theory of stigmergy upside down. Although that’s still being
fought out in the papers and still being discovered. Ultimately there’s just
a tremendous amount to find out about termites. I think — something
to think about, about this what we don’t
know about termites and what they keep revealing
about themselves to us and what they keep
revealing to different groups of scientists is that there’s
just a tremendous amount about the world that
we don’t know. And we’re entering a time of
building technology that’s based on things like termites. So, we’re looking to build
sort of symbiotic consortiums with organisms to make synthetic
biofuels and to make hamburger. To make everything. We’re trying to figure out how to capture these symbiotic
consortiums, knowledge, and use it to our own —
put it to our own use. And we’re also trying
to build things like self-coordinating
drones and robots. And we don’t really
understand how these deeply, deeply complex systems work. I mean, we have sort of
metaphors about robots. That the termites are robots. And then it turns out the
termites are individuals. As we go into this sort of
new technology, we almost need to go back and build
ourselves a new Descartes to help us find the language for communicating how
these things work. I want to show you
the last thing. Because termites kind of — I think I ended up
writing the book partly because termites
rescued me a little bit. I was quite depressed in 2008. And I came to learn
things from the termites that made me feel better
about the world, I guess. So, one of the things is
that termite mounds are sort of a center of fertility
in the landscape. So, when you fly over
an area that has a lot of termite mounds, you see
this sort of pebbled texture. This is actually kind of some
heat or some Lidar photography that shows those
mounds very clearly. But, what you’ll see is that
the mounds in southern Africa or the mounds in
Australia have a lot of vegetation on top of them. The termites reorganize
the soil. And they mix it up with their
feces and nitrogen and all sorts of other stuff to make
it very fertile there. So you have these puffs of vegetation growing
off the top of the mound. And that’s been known
for some time. There have been some studies
done in southern Africa and in western Africa — in Kenya, also, showing that where you have termite
mounds you have more spiders. You have more geckos. You have more birds. You have more elephants,
that’s in Kenya. And you have more giraffes. Because the giraffes are eating
the tasty leaves at the top. And the question is,
you know, was that part of some bigger system? Or was that just sort
of a fluke of, you know, termite mounds make
things nice and that’s it? So two — an ecologist
named Rob Pringle, and a mathematician named Corina
Tarnita [assumed spelling] joined forces. And Rob had been studying
termite mounds for a long time. And Corina had been studying
mathematical patterns in nature for a long time. And there’s a question of
when you look at the patterns on the ground, were you looking
at something more sophisticated than the polka dots
of the mounds? Or were you looking
at something else? So one day Rob and Corina went
out to a termite mound field. And Corina stood in
the back of the truck. And she said, “I think
I see another pattern.” So, what you’re looking
at here on this slide at the top is mathematical
models. And the first slide is
of the polka dot pattern of the mounds and
the vegetation. And the second slide across
the top is a close up of one of those mounds and the
kind of intense vegetation. And then the third
picture is how they modeled that there might be kind of spotty weird patterned
vegetation not at the mounds, but
in the middle. If you look down at the
next row of pictures, those are those same
things in real life. And what she was able to
see, standing in the back of this pickup truck, having
kind of an intuitive blast that she was seeing
two types of patterns. One is the polka dot. One is these weird
spotty patterns. And they were actually
able to then model that on computers,
as one does now. And then they were able to
match it up with photographs. And they found a couple of
sort of astonishing things. One thing is that termites seem
to be affecting huge amounts of land around the world,
especially the driest parts. And separately, they’re also in the wet rain forest
parts as well. But in these very, very dry
places they are exerting patterns over huge areas. There’s a place in Brazil where the termites have
patterned the landscape, a landscape the size of England. And then you have that
all across Africa. You have it all across
Australia. You have it in many
places in Asia. We probably have it in the US. And the other thing
that they realized is that these landscapes are much,
much more resilient to drought. So, it’s much easier — if
this landscape, with this kind of patterning and the
termite mounds gets a drought, instead of collapsing into kind
of infertility, there’s many, many, many steps with
the termite mounds. They seem to keep the
land kind of fertile in really tough times. And I found that actually to
be kind of inspiring, I guess. I mean, that was like
a bit of good news is that the termites are toiling. But it also kind of sent me
back to that very first time that I was searching for
termites on the termite safari. Because what had
I been looking at? I mean, when you look at
this landscape you kind of see a pattern there. And it’s the spotty pattern. And you know, it’s possible
that the termites are kind of running the world
right beneath our feet and we don’t even see it. And for me, I think that was
one of the big inspirations for writing this book was to
understand how that worked and to kind of put
it into perspective. So, I think we have
time for questions — about 10 or 12 minutes. Yes?>>First off, let me just
say one of the great things about the book festival
is coming into the presentation you
didn’t know about in advance. So this was great. So –>>Lisa Margonelli: So, I’ve
converted you to termites?>>It could be. So, you described
the termite mounds. Is that same sort of structure
going on in the termites that were eating your
wall in your bedroom? I mean, is there a queen
and the different layers? Or is it a completely
different social structure?>>Lisa Margonelli:
Well, they all — they tend to all have queens. Some of them have really weird
— some of them have only queens and no kings because they
reproduce parthenogenetically. And some — there’s
apparently one where there’s two
kings and no queen. I don’t know how that works. That’s a paper I haven’t read. But the termites in my
walls did not have a fungus. They were just — they just
had the microbes in their guts. There’s many different
ways of being a termite. There’s about 3,000
different kinds. And some have the protists,
the big hairy things. And some have just a simple
complement of bacteria. And then some of them have
that whole fungus business. So it’s all different. And some make the mounds. Sometimes when you take
the mound-building termites from one place to another, they learn to build a
different kind of mound. And that’s very weird. They can build little
mounds that look like an ice cream scoop. And they build tall mounds
that look like cathedrals. And it’s really weird. They are something else.>>Hello. I’m thinking
you’re giving us hope that when destroy the earth,
termites will be there to start vegetation going again.>>Lisa Margonelli: If you
call that hope, I’m with you. [ Laughter ] Yes?>>So, I guess it may be a
little bit strange question, but I just thought
when you said — I guess I didn’t know about
this process of animal that can digest like
stuff like — because it’s basically
digesting cellulose. I guess they can eat trees. Did anybody think about
maybe the future of humanity when we run of everything else,
maybe we can get those microbes to like, you know, have
in our digestive system. And then we can like,
you know –>>Lisa Margonelli:
We can eat wood.>>Yeah! Is it something
that anybody considers? Like, maybe even eat some
more terrible things. Because there are
apparently microbes than can digest anything. So, as long as we
can adapt them.>>Lisa Margonelli: Yes. Okay, so this is a
complicated question. So, do humans want to
digest wood themselves? Well, actually, I
leave that to you to decide whether you
want to digest the wood. Yes, in terms of survival. You know, wood doesn’t
have a whole lot in it. So the termites also
have to fix the nitrogen. And they have a lot of sort of microbial tricks
in their stomach. But there are people who have
fed termites terrible things like bituminous coal. And then over many generations
the termites’ microbes learn how to break that down. So actually, termite
microbes have been used in environmental
remediation projects that are fairly sophisticated. So, there’s — evolution
is enormous. And there are many
things that we can do. I’m not ready to eat
wood, yet, personally.>>So, what is the effect of
the pesticides that we use to prevent termites from
coming into our house? What do they do to
termite colonies?>>Lisa Margonelli: You know,
there are about 3,000 kinds of named termites in the world. And there are probably
another 2,000 or 3,000 that we don’t have names for. And of those, all of those, 27
of them are the pest termites. So, there has been a
tremendous amount of effort put into killing those
pest termites. What’s interesting is that the
pest termites really spread because of humans. They spread during war
time when munitions in wooden boxes are being
shipped around the world. Or railroad ties. They really have been
a human-spread thing. And they also are
encouraged by human sort of environmental upheaval. Those — generally
it’s extremely hard to kill a termite. They don’t get sick
because they spend a lot of time grooming each other. And if somebody’s sick they
seem to kind of wall them off. Some academics think that
termites vaccinate each other, which is kind of mind blowing. But, so generally they try
to do something that will — generally the poisons involved
no longer involve heavy duty spraying. And we don’t us the
really strong kinds of pesticides in the US anymore. Generally it’s baits
that they then carry that material back to the nest. And it hopefully shuts
off the queen’s fertility. Or does something
along those lines. However, one thing that we do
know is that there are lots of beneficial kinds of termites. And that those termites do seem to be affected by
human development. By upheaval. Possibly by some
of the other sorts of pesticides that we spray. And so in some places where they’ve actually studied
what termites are there, they found that the beneficial
termites seem to be lesser as people live or
farm more intensively. Yes.>>Two questions. Are there certain types of wood that termites don’t
find palatable? And the soil type. Are there special soil types that termites tend not
to want to live in?>>Lisa Margonelli:
Are you looking to build a utopian community?>>I’ve heard — it’s
mentioned that purple heart and maybe green heart are
sort of resistant to termites.>>Lisa Margonelli: Right. Yeah, I think there
are different ways of treating the wood with
pressure and other things to make it unpalatable
to termites. They don’t eat some
aromatic woods like cedar. And the soil types — termites
are really good with soil. I can’t tell you. You should talk to an
exterminator, I think. They’re more likely to know. But the other thing
about termites is that over the past 20 years or
so, half of the papers written about termites have been
about how to kill them. Are there any other questions? Yes.>>Yeah, very interesting talk. I’m wondering why you want them
to have individual behavior versus being automaton? I mean, is it bad if they just
have a simple set of scripts? And some of them, like in that
petri dish or whatever it was, simply were in a different
part of that subroutine. You know, the folks that make
robots can make a very simple set of instructions and
they vary individual or seemingly different behaviors
because of their environment and what they bump into. Humans are probably — can
be arguably about the same. But is there some reason
beyond that why you want to promote the individualism
of termites and it somehow gets the
science further along?>>Lisa Margonelli: That’s a
really interesting question. And I’m not sure I have
time to unpack it all here. But, I think the words about
individuality actually came from the roboticists themselves. Because they actually knew that
their robots were individuals. Because every robot has a
different set of chief sensors. And each robot has sort
of a different knowledge and different way of
reacting to the environment. And so, what shocked the
roboticist, Kirsten Peterson, who actually did the work —
she said, “I should have known. I spend all my time building
these robots where each, you know, the red one has
a different personality than the blue one. And I should have known
that they were individuals.” So there’s that. The other issue that came up
is that they have memories. So, they were not
— sarcastic — they were not just always
reacting at the moment. They actually had memories. And we don’t know if some
termites have bigger memories than other termites. And this business of
some seeming to model or lead the others was
also kind of extraordinary. So that was basically
their language. Now, you raised the
interesting question of whether humans are
actually some sort of robot. I think is what you were saying. Like we might all
just be running sort of slightly different
scripts and reacting. Well, this is a big question. And I guess it actually just — you know, this idea that
termites are kind of a guide, a very tiny guide to like huge
ideas is — that is proved. Are there any more questions? Well, thank you very much. [ Applause ] Thank you very much.

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