New York Times spider story shows and tells
The best stories ride up and down the rollercoaster of abstraction, showing for attention, then telling for meaning, then repeating the process again and again.
This New York Times piece does exactly that, adding color to a complex scientific piece with:
- Narrative line
Unexpected Complexity in a Spider’s Tiny Brain
Here is something to keep arachnophobes up at night.
The inside of a spider is under pressure, like the air in a balloon, because spiders move by pushing fluid through valves. They are hydraulic.
This works well for the spiders, but less so for those who want to study what goes on in the brain of a jumping spider, an aristocrat of arachnids that, according to Ronald R. Hoy, a professor of neurobiology and behavior at Cornell University, is one of the smartest of all invertebrates.
If you insert an electrode into the spider’s brain, what’s inside might squirt out, and while that is not the kind of thing that most people want to think about, it is something that the researchers at Cornell had to consider.
Dr. Hoy and his colleagues wanted to study jumping spiders because they are very different from most of their kind. They do not wait in a sticky web for lunch to fall into a trap.
They search out prey, stalk it and pounce. “They’ve essentially become cats,” Dr. Hoy said.
And they do all this with a brain the size of a poppy seed and a visual system that is completely different from that of a mammal: two big eyes dedicated to high-resolution vision and six smaller eyes that pick up motion.
Dr. Hoy gathered four graduate students in various disciplines to solve the problem of recording activity in a jumping spider’s brain when it spots something interesting — a feat nobody had accomplished before.
In the end, they not only managed to record from the brain, but discovered that one neuron seemed to be integrating the information from the spider’s two independent sets of eyes, a computation that might be expected to involve a network of brain cells.
Gil Menda, the first author of the paper that was published online in Current Biology last month, collaborated with Paul S. Shamble, Eyal I. Nitzany, James R. Golden and Dr. Hoy, all co-authors, in designing and carrying out the experiment.
The team used a 3-D printer to make a solid frame to hold the spider, then threaded an ultrathin metal wire into the tiny brain. The apparatus and technique allowed them to make a hole small enough to heal quickly, keeping the brain intact and inside the spider.
Then they showed the spider images of prey and other spiders that attracted its interest. They used computer analysis to sort out the electrical activity in the brain picked up by the wire.
Dr. Hoy said the research opened new avenues of study into the brains of spiders and suggested an efficiency of brain computation that would no doubt interest roboticists and artificial intelligence specialists. But more immediately, he said, working with the four young scientists on an interdisciplinary project was enormous fun.
“These are four amazing people.” he said.
“They could have done it without me,” he joked, “but somebody has to sign the checks.”
Cut Through the Clutter.
Plus, the article’s short words (4.6 characters on average!) and paragraphs make this complex scientific story an easy — as well as a breezy — read.
How does your story compare? Are you telling complicated stories in boring ways? Or are you finding ways to bring even your most complex stories to life?