Richard Prum, Professor of Ornithology, is in love with the world. Before he “got into feathers,” he studied the role of beauty in evolution. He found that in manakins (a family of tropical birds), males produce sound to impress their mates by rubbing certain feathers together — a practice never before observed in vertebrates. “There is a richness of experience that demands our attention,” Prum says of the natural world.
Prum’s current research is on the molecular basis of feather color — he is collaborating with colleagues in Chemical Engineering and Biochemistry to study the tiny particles in feathers that produce the interference pattern we perceive as color.
“There is this idea that an explicit expression is somehow deadening to an experience,” Prum remarks. He recalls watching a lunar eclipse in Cambridge and the two factions that formed that night on the roof, one reveling in an explanation for the phenomenon and the other protesting that a description removed the wonder. Prum asserts, “There’s beauty in those descriptions.”
The way to engage laypeople in a science like ornithology is to show that the implications are relevant to their fields, says Prum. The physics of air bubbles in feathers, the genetics of tracing bird phylogenies, and the evolution of bird populations are all sections of ornithology that provide fascinating insights into engineering, molecular biology and ecology. Music majors like Haight can find that connection in birdsong.
Prum jokes that scientists seem “very dry up here in our white lab coats,” but he is enthusiastic about his research. It is worth noting, he says, that the source of scientific success is fascination and a desire to explore.
“All of our best science is about passion.”