There is a bold divide between the scientific world and the world of popular media. While the two are worlds apart, like star-crossed lovers, they need each other to function. Scientific research is usually meant to better humanity and create understanding, from which even the least scientific person can benefit. When the public is unaware of recent research, it can lead to extremist ideologies, seen in groups such as anti-vaxers.
Writers often elect to take the responsibility of translating technical jargon into readable entertainment for those that don’t have time to take out of their day to peruse Pub Med or pay egregious prices for access to databases. Some writers use this authority in an unwieldy way, basing their articles off of bogus statistics or misrepresenting a study for the sake of a catchy headline. Fortunately, some writers have the talent to make us learn without giving off that nauseating feeling of cramming for a high-school chemistry exam.
Douglas Emlen is the latter writer, able to turn the everyday web surfer into an entomologist. In The Astonishing Weaponry of Dung Beetles, Emlen humanizes beetle interactions second only to Eliza Thornberry from The Wild Thornberrys (sorry, talking to animals is slightly more exciting than personifying them). Even though Emlen is talking about insects, the images he chooses of their armory and attacks conjures up Sparta rather than a couple of bugs milling about.
To answer why we should care about specific species of beetles, Emlen describes their horns in a way that is more tangible than abstract. The Onthophagus raffrayi has a horn that stems from its head that is twice the size of its body. This is more frightening of an image than a couple of American Revolutionaries with bayonets, the history that all of us are more than familiar with seeing. If Emlen had reported that the horns were an inch long, I might have yawned and went back to my American Revolution picture book, but now I understand the type of equipment the beetles are working with.
This is not to say Emlen spares all scientific meaning in his article, he informs us of the impossibly long species names of the Onthophagus raffrayi, Onthophagus nigriventris and S. Pius. The reader encounters concepts such as evolution and the reason behind the mutations of specific beetles, as well. The questions are not unanswered and we have a chance to learn about why armament of beetles is effective and why it isn’t. Using terms such as “genetic trigger” are successful because they touch on the theory of genetics without delving into epigenetics or even reiterating Mendel’s infamous yellow and green peapods. Emlen remains self-aware throughout the piece. After discussing complex concepts about beetles and how they mate, he immediately changes the topic to human beings. Most people care more about learning about other people than beetles, so the article switches immediately to famous arms races throughout history.
It is remarkably easy to learn a few facts about beetles when the beetles seem more like warriors than lowly bugs.