Friday, July 03, 2009

Word of the Day: Necrophoresis

I remember that one of the most moving parts of Neil Gaiman's Sandman sequence was the storytelling part (collected as Worlds' End) which comes before the climax of the series and the death of Dream. In that collection is a story about the many ways in which bodies are prepared for dissolution after death. Oddly enough, the word that doesn't appear in that story is 'necrophoresis'.

'Necrophoresis' means 'the removal of corpses', from Greek nekron, 'corpse' and pherein, 'to carry or bear (away)'. It is explicitly used to describe the removal of dead ants from a colony by those still alive, a mysterious phenomenon because somehow ants know another ant is dead even before it starts producing death-related chemical compounds.

The mystery has been solved (there was a paper published by UC Riverside researchers in May earlier this year on it). Apparently, ants emit a couple of chemicals that proclaim, "I'm not dead yet!" These chemicals are called dolichodial (a dialdehyde whose name comes from the Greek word for 'long foot-race') and iridomyrmecin (from the Greek words for 'rainbow' and 'ant').

As long as the ant is alive, it keeps producing these, "Hey I'm still alive!" chemicals. Once it stops, its friends sense this lack-of-life state and carry the carcass out; the chemicals dissipate with a half-life of less than 10 minutes.

Somehow, this process reminded me of academia. Academics publish papers to proclaim their continuing academic life. Once they stop publishing, or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves, they are considered academically dead.

The process also occurs in schools. Some schools are very bad at necrophoresis; the deadwood lingers on, afflicting students with a marked lack of inspiration and the sensation that being taught is a horrible thing. I think that once a teacher stops inspiring students (in a positive way, of course), that teacher should be carried out and dumped. Occasionally, however, just as in some ant colonies, the wrong signals are sent and perfectly functional ants teachers are dumped.

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