Wednesday 19th of June 2013
|Persistence of the Ant||| Print ||
"Go to the ant, lazy one, consider her ways and be wise - having no commander, overseer or ruler, she prepares her sustenance in the summer and gathers it at the harvest" Proverbs of Solomon, 6:6.
The ant has long been a symbol of hard work and diligence. In Aesop's fable, the hard working, no time for play, ant spends its summer harvesting and thus ensures its survival through the long, harsh winter - while its cavalier neighbor, the happy go lucky grasshopper spends the summer singing and partying - refusing to heed the industrious ant, it ends up starving in the winter.
And so it was, on one very overcast, but bone dry day, my six year old daughter and I chanced upon a frantic troop of ants, resembling a somewhat menacing long black strap stretched out for many meters along the dusty sidewalk. They were diligently carrying loads of food an amazingly great distance (for them) into a crack in the pavement. Fascinated, we stopped to watch (respectfully stepping off the curb into the road so as not to crush them).
I have always been a great admirer of ants - especially their fanatical devotion and dogged steadfastness. For a few minutes we watched them haul various sizes of grains, crumbs, leaves, and other matter, much of it many times bigger than themselves, single file, for many meters down the sidewalk.
Noticing my daughter's fascination, I couldn't resist offering some timely moral observations:
"See, Sahara, how the ants work, carrying such heavy loads? They don't even stop to rest."
She was dutifully impressed, but more concerned with the drama that was happening right beneath our noses, than with my philosophical moralizing.
"Look, Dad, see that one, he's carrying something so big and he's trying to take it up the 'wall!' "
She pointed out an ant that had gotten hold of a piece of wild grain larger than itself (I think it was a kind of wild rye) and was desperately trying to haul it from the road where we stood, straight up the curb - which for it was something like a sheer wall, several stories high. To do that, it apparently had decided to go backwards, holding the grain in its mouth and backing straight up the curb.
Alas for the ant, its load of grain was slightly different than those carried by other ants - a slender, long "stick" stuck out of the fuzzy grain and created a slight imbalance. The ant struggled up the side of the curb but it got no further than about halfway before the "stick" caused it to lose its balance, and it fell, tumbling into the road.
"Hah, look at that idiot - he''ll never get that thing up the wall," I said.
My daughter laughed, "stupid thing!"
We continued to watch, wondering what he would do next.
The ant started up the curb again. Well, I thought, it's only an ant, after all. It just repeats itself again and again - until it finally tires out and goes for something else.
I was right - it got halfway up, then tumbled down again still clutching the unmanageable stalk.
"Hey you, stupid, listen here, it can't be done!" I shouted and my daughter laughed again and shouted "Stupid ant!"
Normally, after watching a single ant fall again and again for over 10 minutes, normal people would say, ok, point proven, the hell with it, lets look at something else now. But for some perverse reason, I wanted to see this thing out to the bitter end - how long would it take the stubborn ant to wise up and go for a more reasonable load?
The ant was not about to make this easy for us - it persisted in keeping the unwieldy stalk of grain clutched in its mandible, never once letting go. Instead, it scurried in the opposite direction, still along the curb, and then tried mounting it from another point. From my aerial view, high above the ant, I couldn't see the sense in this, as the curb was just as steep two feet away to the south, as it was to the north. But I had to admire the fact that the ant was trying something new - for an ant - it was varying its behavior, it was trying a slightly new point.
I was reminded of the famous mathematician, G. Polya, whose classic little book How to Solve It is a must read for anyone who solves problems for a living - mathematicians, programmers, technical writers - and, let's face it - the majority of the human race. (A free, obviously pirated, copy can be viewed at this link on scribd.)
"Success in solving he problem depends on choosing the right aspect, on attacking the fortress from its accessible side. In order to find out which aspect is the right one, which side is accessible, we try various sides and aspects, we vary the problem," is his timeless advice. And the ant was, indeed, doing just that. Of course, from the human perspective, its "varying" was pretty "dumb" - but that might just be because it was so small and couldn't really "see" what the curb consisted of - how long it was, how steep, and that it was the same at all points. It wasn't that different than our own behavior when confronted with a tough problem for which we have very impartial information - we don't see the whole picture because we don't have all the facts.
Fifteen minutes had now passed. We were still watching. The ant was still climbing - and falling...over and over again.
Pity overcame my daughter. "Let's help it up the wall, Daddy. Poor thing, we can lift it up to the sidewalk."
"Oh no" I said, "No way, let it solve its problem all by itself."
I confess, I felt like a heartless, dyed in the wool, laissez-faire conservative; that is, I felt like a real bastard; but I had watched too long to just end the experiment with an artificial deux ex machina. Having spent this much time on it I wanted to know what the devil the ant would actually DO in the end.
My daughter acquiesced, somewhat reluctantly. "Ok, Daddy," she said, but she continued to study the poor unlucky ant with a worried look on her face.
It was now 20 minutes since we had started our observations. The ant was still trying different points on the curb - and it was still falling. I assumed that by this time the ant would be worse for the wear and that, exhausted, it would fall even more readily.
I was wrong. Its performance actually improved. Instead of getting up only half way, it began to nearly make it to the top before falling. Why this was so, I wasn't sure, but I now began to observe that the ant had slightly changed its climbing technique - instead of backing straight up the curb, it now walked up along a diagonal line, wisely giving itself more traction, and varying the center of gravity of its load.
More time went by - it must now have fallen more than 15 times - but it was getting closer to success, having nearly reached the top several times. Weirdly, the ant's continued persistence began to have an affect on us too. We found ourselves starting to cheer each time it neared the top. We had long stopped calling it stupid - instead, we were like fans at a football game, "come on, go, go, go...you can do it!!" - we cheered and we yelled. The ant continued to fall.
25 minutes - the ant was nearing the top once again - we held our breath - "please..."
Then, the impossible happened - with slow steps, it backed its rear over the edge - slowly, slowly, the stalk was hoisted - back, back - the stalk was ever so carefully backed away from the edge. Setting its load down on the sidewalk, the ant quickly circumnavigated so that it now faced forward, toward the sidewalk crack, its home and ultimate destination. Triumphantly, it carried the stalk.
I'm not sure what happened to it after that - other ants began swarming over the prized stalk, the ant was lost in the crowd - but we observed the load of grain get slowly pulled into the hole and disappear beneath the sidewalk.
After a few moments of respectful silence, I said, "you see, Sahara, persistence, that's all that really matters, just simple, non-stop persistence; do you know what that means? It means to never, never give up - no matter how many times you fall, just remember, always get up again and keep trying."
"Remember that next time you do your arithmetic homework," I added.
Good advice for the ant - pretty good advice for us humans too.