I used to study English Literature. I did that for a decade and a half, at two universities, and eventually wrote a doctoral thesis on “Postwar American Poetry.” In all the years I spent researching poetry, nobody ever asked me why I would want to study something like that. It’s not that everybody loves poetry. Most people, in my experience, really cherish the time they don’t spend reading poetry. But some people do like it well enough, and we all know that people of that kind are out there, somewhere.
Protists are different. Apparently, if you happen to be interested in those, you have some explaining to do. In fact, it’s the first thing most people ask, when I tell them how I’ve been spending my days: Why are you interested in that?
It always deflates me a bit, which is fine, I would not want to be too puffy. But would they ask me that if I were studying…tigers?
I’m pretty sure that guy never has to explain why he loves what he does. He catches live tigers in the wild and cuddles their babies! That’s a solid 40 megafonzies on the Cool-O-meter. But when I mention that I’m interested — very, very interested — in “protists,” I can tell that some people do not necessarily think it is a good thing.
Part of the problem is the word “protist” itself. From a public-relations point of view, it is a mess. First, it sounds too much like a certain other English word. When the subject of protists comes up (as it always does, if I can work it into the conversation) people often mishear me, and think that I like to study and observe “protests.” Which is not so implausible…I’m sure there are “protest watchers” out there, as there are “storm chasers” and “chicken hypnotizers.” But even when I spell the word out, people over a certain age (my generation, that is) don’t recognize it anyway. We grew up calling these bugs either “algae” (the placid green ones that remind us of plants) or “protozoa” (the colourless ones that boogie around and try to eat each other, like miniature animals).
These days, the word “protozoa” is being phased out, in professional circles. The reason for this is perfectly sound. It means “first animals,” and protists are not animals of any kind. The mushrooms in your fridge are more closely related to you (and your dog, and your dog’s fleas), than any of the protists in your koi pond. But although both words were coined in the 19th century, the word “protozoa” is the one that caught on and stuck. In marketing terms, it has good “brand awareness.” So, here we have a field, protozoology, that was already on the margins of the public mind, which now goes by a “new” and unfamiliar name.
And finally, once we’ve established what it is we are talking about, some people still fail to see–amazing as it sounds!–why a person might care about such a thing. Even biologists, who should know better, tend to think of protists as a weird little sideshow in the circus of life, where the big tent is reserved for elephants, horses and (needless to say) tigers.
I’ll talk about that in my next post, I think.
First, though, since I’ve been belabouring the word “protist,” what exactly do we mean by it? This blog is about protistology, so there will be ample time to explore that in depth, but a quick working definition might be useful. If I may adapt the excellent and succinct definition offered by Psi Wavefunction, a protist is any organism that is not a bacterium, not a fungus, not a plant, and not an animal. Which means that protistology is, effectively, the study of organisms that nobody else cares about.