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Field Notes
Ackerman
Photograph by Caroline Sheen
Jennifer Ackerman

What was your best experience in the field on this assignment?

Meeting Jack, the six-year-old chimp featured in this story, was a high point in my writing career. For years I've heard about how similar we are to chimps, how much DNA we share, how close we are in anatomy and physiology. But nothing brought home the deep-down kinship like sitting face-to-face with the sensitive, intelligent, and funny Jack. A quick study in every way, a teaser and cajoler and only occasionally a mild troublemaker, Jack seemed every bit as sentient and thoughtful as most humans his age. There are differences, of course: Jack has a smaller head, bigger ears, and hardly any forehead. His legs are short, his feet have thumbs, and he uses his hands for walking. He doesn't pray or sing nursery rhymes or tattle on his peers, at least not in a way that I can understand. But I found it startling and deeply moving to see the mind behind those eyes—childlike, perhaps, but clearly akin to my own.

What challenges did you face when covering this story?

The human imagination, so highly evolved that we can envision just about anything we choose, can be a double-edged sword. Some things it's better to leave unimagined, but we can't help ourselves.

Picturing the particulars of Steven Churchill's research is a good example. A biological anthropologist at Duke University, Churchill devised an unusual technique to study why the human nose is shaped the way it is. (His research is also a prime example of the lengths to which scientists will go in their pursuit of pure knowledge.) To understand air flow in the nose and the role it may have played in the evolution of the protruding schnoz, Churchill procured ten cadavers—six males and four females—held their heads upside down, blocked their throats with clay, and poured molten metal inside their noses. He worked the metal around until the nasal passageway was full, then he cut that section out and macerated it to remove all the tissue. From this metal positive of the nasal air space, he created an accurate acrylic model of the nasal passageway and studied the airflow through it. Fascinating work, but ever since I heard about it, the particulars of this post-mortem surgery have crystallized in my mind in stark visual detail, though I would just as soon they remained a blur or got lost in the fog of memory.

Did you have any quirky moments in the field?

At a great little restaurant in Auburn, California, Herman Pontzer resisted only slightly the invitation to demonstrate his secret skill. He blushed a little and refused at first, then nodded silently and exited the restaurant, leaving us with these instructions: In a minute or two, we should all direct our attention to the plate glass window facing the street.

Pontzer is a doctoral candidate in biological anthropology at Harvard. He's pretty serious about his work. For his dissertation research, he invented a new biomechanical model that links the length of an animal's limbs with the amount of energy it uses to move. To test his model, he runs various animals—including humans, goats, dogs, and a peculiar flightless bird known as an emu—on treadmills.

There was a hush after Pontzer left, and we all turned our chairs toward the window. A few seconds later and there he came, strut-running past the glass, back bent, neck extended, hands fluttering behind him: an emu streaker.