Monday, January 17, 2011

Reflected Glory: Axe Cop

So, you may be familiar with the opening of Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra, where he describes the three metamorphoses: spirit becomes camel, camel becomes lion (and slays dragon), and lion becomes child. I think that Nietzsche's metaphor works really nicely in a lot of circumstances. I most strongly associate it with biology graduate training, but I think that similar reasoning probably applies in a lot of other fields.

In the early stages of education, through high school and college, and into the beginning of graduate school, the student is like the camel, who has to develop a strong back by learning to carry all of the received knowledge. Then, starting typically in grad school, you learn that all of the things that are in the textbooks you've been using are not strictly true. This is like the transformation into the lion, who has to slay the dragon covered with scales, where each scale has golden letters that read "Thou Shalt!" It is only after passing through these two stages that the third transformation occurs (maybe while you're a postdoc?), where the lion becomes the child. The child is innocence and creativity, and it is this child who advances knowledge by possessing skills and knowledge, but no longer being beholden to them.

Now, one of the problems with the system is that not everyone makes it all the way through the transformations. Many scientists never fully shed the camel phase. They are quite skilled at the type of incremental research that NIH and NSF love to fund, and are often successful, but are excessively (IMHO) tied to the dogma and assumptions that define their discipline.

Other people get stuck in the lion phase. These are the compulsive paradigm shifters. They are Don Quixotes who spend their lives slaying imaginary windmill-dragons. In evolutionary biology this is the phenomenon responsible for the perennial "Darwin was WRONG!!" headlines.

That last step is really the hardest one. It requires us to recapture the innocence and creativity of childhood, but to wield it tempered with skill and knowledge. Unfortunately, the implementation of most science education is such that the camel and lion stages are coupled with a soul-crushing strangulation of the childlike curiosity that we are all born with.

So, what does this all have to do with Axe Cop? Axe Cop is a web comic (and now a book) written by a pair of brothers, Ethan and Malachai Nicolle. The twist? Ethan is 29 years old, and Malachai is 5. Ethan has clearly absorbed the illustrating and storytelling skills of the comic-book camel, and has slain the comic-book dragon. The comic itself is just bursting with a child-like creativity that is easy to recognize but difficult to produce. How do they do it? I suspect that Ethan was able to retain and/or recapture his creativity and innocence better than most, but the biggest thing is probably the co-authorship with Malachai, who has not yet entered the camel phase.

There is undoubtedly a lesson here about how to do great science, although I can't quite figure out the mechanics. One possibility is this.

So, in the spirit of understanding Nietzsche, and biology graduate school, and education reform, and dragons, and ninjas, unicorns, avocados, vampires, dinosaurs, and robots, go read Axe Cop.

Also, it's AWESOME!

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