SCIENCE NOTES 2002 ¦ University of California, Santa Cruz Science Communication Program

THERE IS A TRAIL I FOLLOW, most mornings, that swings away from the road and curls uphill toward a snub-nosed peak. The view from the trail isn’t one that will appear in National Geographic photo spreads. On one side, the ledges of the county dump form a grassy staircase; on the other, a gravel mine creates a grey bullet hole in the hillside. But at most points, these two scars are hidden from the trail by rollicking oak trees that drip moss from their branches. Redwoods, too, create a darkened theater in which the autumn leaves of poison oak appear as red flares, where the oranges of paintbrush and sticky monkey flower wink in the spring.

Excursions into nature can develop a scientist’s thoughts as well as inspire an artist’s creativity.

The walk I take usually fails in its main purpose, which is to sap the energy of a Labrador retriever without exhausting his human companion. The adolescent canine seems to be coaxed into dreamland by nothing less than an all-out sprint. But the walk lightens my mind anyway, giving it time and space to flicker through last night’s dreams and today’s shopping list.

I duck under spiderwebs that cross the trail and look for their makers. Salamanders with slick neon backs speckle the trail after a rain. I stoop over a pile of dried coyote scat, indulging the amateur naturalist within me with a guess at the howler’s previous meal. The morning walk has become my mind’s playtime, a chance for it to linger in the wild. But a stroll through the trees can be more than a quick vacation for mind and body. For serious scientists, with unanswered questions tugging at the edges of what they know, drifting away from the laboratory may generate uncommon solutions to complex problems.

By leaving the confines of the laboratories for the expanse of nature, scientists can let their new surroundings inspire a novel perspective. Far away from bubbling beakers and scribbled equations, the sights and sounds of nature — shimmering leaves, cascading bird song, the buzz of cicadas — may lull the mind into a drowsy state in which imagination begins to open. And this simplicity creates an alchemy of sorts, changing questions into ideas, a transformation even more useful than spinning lead into gold.

Poets and writers have often drawn inspiration from this natural creative chemistry. Thoreau, who walked daily, believed the frontier of the American wilderness changed the way people’s minds worked. "In the very aspect of those primitive and rugged trees there was, methinks, a tanning principle which hardened and consolidated the fibres of men’s thoughts."

In his essay "Walking," Thoreau recounted a story about the poet William Wordsworth: "When a traveler asked Wordsworth’s servant to show him her master’s study, she answered, `Here is his library, but his study is out of doors.’"

Excursions into nature can develop a scientist’s thoughts as well as inspire an artist’s creativity. Although the world of science may produce its visible efforts in basement workstations and high-rise buildings, the source of its discoveries may not always be so concrete. The contrast between the natural world and the technological age may draw the searching mind to new visions. Nature’s elegant design, in snowflakes and spider webs, has already found the answers. Although people may search for a synthetic solution, a new way of thinking may rest beneath a single leaf.

These types of discoveries do not usually come to my casual breed of observer. Heraclitus, a philosopher of ancient Greece, extolled the secrecy of nature that comes with its inventions. "Nature loves to hide," he said. "Unless you expect the unexpected you will never find it, for it is hard to discover and harder to obtain."

My search for that which is hidden sometimes comes at the end of the walk, when I run my fingers through the dog’s fur to check for foxtails and other stowaways. If these stay in his fur too long, they can burrow into the skin and get infected. Many of the plants along the trail use these stubborn burrs to transport seeds to new ground.

Looking at these thorny hitchhikers in a new way led George de Mestral to a creation that symbolizes, for many, life in the 1980s: Velcro. On a hike through the woods, these burrs seemed to jump out at him, plastering his socks and pants with a prickly blanket. He stopped to pry them loose, wondering what made them so tough to shake. De Mestral realized the hooked arms of the burrs could lock into the weave of his clothes. By mimicking the burrs’ design, he created his own hook-and-loop fastener that started to appear on tennis shoes, clothing, and even in the space shuttle.

Returning to nature for inspiration has resulted in discoveries that have blended in to my daily life. During my walks, I often mull over the words I want to set on paper, but I usually take for granted the basic writing tools needed to begin my work. Even the reams of paper that stack up beneath my desk have been shaped by thinkers whose ideas were inspired by nature.

One 18th century French scientist took a stroll in the woods that lead to such a discovery. Réne-Antoine Ferchault de Réaumur, a bug lover at heart, went out one day to observe his favorite small creatures. On the walk, he noticed an empty wasps’ nest. Having no barbed occupants to fear, he couldn’t resist peering into the abandoned home. The scientist’s chance inspection inspired an idea that may well have contributed as much as Gutenberg’s printing press to the spread of the printed word.

Réaumur, a renowned scholar in physics, mathematics, and chemical engineering, struggled with a perennial challenge in the scientific community: publishing his work. Scientists today share this concern, but Réaumur’s problem was even more severe. There simply wasn’t enough paper on which to print scientific discourse, journals, or anything else.

Centuries before Réaumur, Chinese, Egyptian, and Mayan people had all worked out methods to make paper from what they found around them. With the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century, Europeans became seriously interested in papermaking. They started to make paper from rags, a carryover from the Chinese method.

As the years went on, the lowly rag became a hot commodity as more and more people began to see that paper could be used for tasks from sending letters to making buildings. There weren’t enough old clothes and blankets for the shredding to keep up with the demand for paper. People started to rip up their books, writing letters to friends and family around the stories already printed on the page.

Réaumur and his contemporaries were frustrated. How could they show other scientists their work when there wasn’t anything to print it on? In the midst of his more-technical research in steel production, he held on to his fascination with insects. As Réaumur looked closely at the nest on his walk, he may have been surprised by its light, thin walls. Without any noticeable bedsheets to build their home from, the wasps were making paper.

The woods surrounding the nest held the key. Réaumur realized wasps made their lantern-like nest out of the twigs and branches that littered the forest floor. The scientist, who had studied bird digestive systems for years, suspected that the wasps’ stomachs held the paper factory. After several months of exploring the insects’ wood-chewing habits, he reported his findings to the French Royal Academy in 1719. "The American wasps make a very fine paper," Réaumur wrote. "They extract the fiber of common wood and teach us that one can make paper from fibers of plants without the use of rags or linens, and seem to invite us to try whether we cannot make fine and good paper from the use of certain woods."

Although Réaumur had found a better way to make paper, none of his works appeared on the woody sheets in his lifetime. His ideas resurfaced one hundred years later in Germany, where several inventors created working versions of a wood-grinding paper machine after reading Réaumur’s work. In 1868, the first wood-based newspaper hit the stands in New York. Now paper holds precious secrets and throwaway visions; it is saved, shredded, framed, and recycled.

The wasp’s original work has found its way into my house. Sheets of paper filled with illustrations of red-tufted woodpeckers, photographs of the white foam of a crashing wave, a sketch of a fir tree topped with snow: these pictures fill my bookshelves and plaster the refrigerator door, the bare walls. The simple beauty of nature’s design has come inside with me, in these small replicas of the life around me.

The beauty of nature may satisfy those who search for solutions. A French mathematician, Jules Henri Poincaré, suggested that nature serves its own purpose, apart from the successes and failures of science. "The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living."

And if the answers still flicker out of reach, a quiet walk in the woods may put the mind at ease. For what idea could not grow where seeds sprout, where pollen sails, where wasps chew slowly, building a nest.