A Parmecium, a Fish, and a Rat



IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov. 2002




What do you do if you’re an engineer in an endangered business like telecom today?  I offer for your thoughtful consideration three “creature circle” stories from my personal experience that could serve as metaphors for choices when it looks like your career is doomed.


When I was a youth I liked to visit the local planetarium.  I was particularly fascinated with the micro-zoo, where the microscopic life in a drop of pond water was projected onto a large screen.  In one such show the guide followed a paramecium as it swam through the drop.  The paramecium had a shape like a minute rice krispie, and acted like a bumper car, swimming blindly straight until it bumped into something.  After all, when you only have one cell to work with, you have a pretty simplistic life.


Diabolically, the guide placed a square of tissue paper over the drop of water containing the swimming paramecium.  In the microscope image we could see that the paramecium was trapped within a square of the fiber.  The paramecium, however, only knew that it had bumped into something.  Following its programmed behavior, the paramecium backed up, turned 45 degrees, and went forward – only to bump into the fiber again.  I felt intensely sorry for the little fellow as it iterated this behavior seven more times to return to its initial direction.  Game over, little fellow.  Whereupon the paramecium destroyed himself, blowing up into little pieces.


If we acted like the paramecium, and nothing that our company did seemed to work, we would simply give up and dismantle our company.  However, people in companies don’t act that way.  We fight with our last breath to preserve our business model, even when it appears that there is no new direction in which to turn.  Perhaps an alien viewing us in some galactic micro-zoo would be puzzled at our behavior.


I had the experience of spending a few hours with a marine biologist on McMurdo Sound.  With great pride he led me to a circular tank containing a pre-historic fish that he had found in the cold dark waters there in Antarctica.  The large fish barely fit in the tank, lying nose-to-tail like a perfect diagonal.  It looked like the dumbest creature I had ever seen.  “What does it eat?” I mistakenly asked.  To answer my question the biologist reached into another tank, took out a little fish, and threw it into the tank with the large fish.  From my privileged view in the third dimension I could see that the small fish could keep away indefinitely from the large fish just by staying by its tail.  Instead, the small fish panicked, and tried vainly to jump out of the tank.  Slowly the big fish rotated, and inevitably the little fish was eaten.


If we acted like the small fish, and we could see the end coming, we would jump out into an entirely new business.  The small fish reminds us, however, that this is hard to do, and sometimes has tragic results.


The last story took place long ago in a research workshop on a gloomy, fog-bound island.  There was a session on error correcting codes at which a friend gave a talk that was destined to become legendary for those of us in attendance.  He said that the field of coding had lost its relevance and had become inbred.  Theorists had been writing papers only for each other, he claimed, and had lost all sense of the outside world.  To illustrate what this behavior could produce he showed his now-famous “rat slide.”  This slide purported to show an experiment in which psychologists had isolated about a dozen rats in a small pen for some considerable time.  The rats had formed a circle, and were doing unmentionable things to each other.


After seeing the rat slide, the audience was mute.  “Is that what we’re doing?” researchers asked themselves.  Amidst this gloom the next speaker took the podium.  He was widely considered to be a mathematical genius, and with great gusto he began to throw equations onto the screen.  I only speak for myself, but probably no one understood them.  Understanding, however, was irrelevant as the audience rapidly came to life.  “Yes!” people thought.  “We like math, and we don’t care what the world thinks!”


Ultimately a lot of us follow this last example.  We don’t give up like the paramecium, and we don’t try to jump into another world like the little fish.  We love doing engineering, and believe that in the end our equations and problem-solving abilities will conquer even the worst of business conditions.  So we close our eyes to the real world and follow our passion.  Since many of my friends are doing just that, I hope it works.