"Butterflies?!" exclaimed my grandmother in 1953. "Very pretty, but what are they for?"
The answer appeared in 1990, when myself and the now Professor Camille Parmesan stopped on the spur of the moment at the "Chapel of the Bells" quickie wedding shack in Tahoe. Part-way through his speech the reverend said "in the light of….." and stopped abruptly, evidently forgetting whether we had asked him not to mention God (we hadn't). Collecting his wits, he continued…. "the interconnectedness of all things," causing Camille to collapse in happy laughter.
We are ecologists, what could be more appropriate? Plus, we had an answer to gran's question. Of course, butterflies are for discovering the interconnectedness of all things! Not all at once, or we'd be out of work, but at a reasonable pace, in the spirit of which our paper describes research on evolution of diet in Edith's checkerspot butterfly that Larry Gilbert and I began in 1968 as students of Paul Ehrlich at Stanford, and that Camille joined in 1982.
How did a Yorkshire boy get to Stanford? Forced to walk to school in shorts irrespective of the weather, I half-froze in the winter mornings. Around the end of March I would pass the first butterfly of spring, always a tortoiseshell (not much butterfly diversity in northern England!) sitting on a rock and shivering just like me, a beautiful harbinger of the coming partial relief from cold and damp.
My empathy with the shivering tortoisesehells fired an interest in butterflies from the age of nine; an interest renewed by undergraduate lectures on population genetics from E B Ford, who, between bouts of staggering condescension ("as we all learned in our nursery schools, the chi-square-test is used…") explained how butterflies could be useful research tools.
Animated by Ford despite the condescension, I read a paper about sperm precedence in Edith's checkerspot, by Patricia Labine from Stanford. I wrote to the Stanford Biology chair, Don Kennedy, to ask about the possibility of doing a PhD on the larval ecology of this species. I suggested how understanding Stanford's published findings about the adult insects might benefit from study of early stages. Don passed my letter to Paul, who sent this message:
"Welcome to Stanford! We will waive the GRE requirement, pay a fellowship to support you, and smooth every obstacle in your path. We look forward to your arrival."
My immediate thought was "how much nicer Americans are than the stuffy British!" followed by "Stanford must be no good at all, if you can get admitted by writing a one-page letter." I asked my tutor, who had never heard of Stanford. Neither had the next three people I asked, until I came to the aforementioned Larry Gilbert, a Texan butterfly enthusiast spending a one-year Fulbright fellowship in Ford's lab prior to starting a PhD at Stanford with Ehrlich himself. What a happy coincidence!
Larry assured me that, despite being unheard of in Oxford in 1966, Stanford was OK. I accepted Paul's offer, later to discover that he had been trying for years, without success, to persuade students and postdocs to work on the larval ecology of Edith's checkerspot. When he got my letter he came charging into the coffee room sounding less nice than in his message to me:
"There's a nutcase in Oxford wants to do that project! Boy, am I going to tie him to that!"