Monday, November 1, 2010

A test of reason

 KNC hiker with anthill in foreground

The following is a problem I am thinking of donating to the science department at TRU, just to let the students put some of their new found problem solving skills to the test - and a chance to win a free lunch, which is always appreciated when you are a starving student (although these days there are not quite as many starving students as there were in my day - and even in my day we always seemed to have money for a burger and a beer, although sometimes we would skip the burger and just have two beers)

Here is the problem. You are hiking along and come across an ant nest. The large pile of woody debris and the black and red insects scurrying about tells you it is some type of Formica (quite possibly Formica obscuriventris) but that is not what intrigues you at this moment. Your hiking companion, one of those liberal arts types and most probably a Poli-sci major, says “there must be a million ants in there!”

You know there are not a million ants in there – but just how many are there? You realize at this point that if you can devise a way to calculate the size of this colony (plus or minus say 10%) your biology prof would have to reconsider that substandard mid-term mark she gave you.

Here is the challenge: devise a methodology for estimating the population of ants in the anthill. The methodologies should have the following characteristics:
  1. Time efficient (so tagging individual ants is out of the question)
  2. Cost effective (side scanning xrays are also a non-starter)
  3. Minimally intrusive (Spraying the hill with raid and counting the bodies won’t get very high marks either – although one may have to sacrifice a few ant mounds to verify your original assumptions)
  4. Accurate – a methodology is no good if you can’t rely on the results to reflect the real world.

I don’t know what the prize will be yet but I am thinking either a hot new 4x4, a lunch at Hero’s, or maybe a copy of “The Camp Fire Leader’s Book”. The monetary value is not quite as important as being crowned the methodology champ of biological science.

But now I must get back to counting the control . . .

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Please feel free to leave a comment. Ever since old Rebel rolled on me and I've been strapped to this old hospital bed I've enjoyed whatever posts come my way.