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A Few Questions for Vojtech Novotny

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In Notebooks from New Guinea, author Vojtech Novotny colorfully illuminates life in the rainforest. Novotny provides an engaging look into the natural history, people, and cultures of one of the last wild frontiers in the world, as he studies and researches the local biodiversity. The Q & A below kicks off our week-long series on Novotny and the adventures he has faced as a Czech scientist living and working in Papua New Guinea so be sure to check back throughout the week.

OUP: How focused is your research on New Guinea’s environment in comparison to your focus on the people of New Guinea?

Vojtech Novotny: Although a few of my colleagues prefer the solitary pursuit of biological knowledge in the seclusion of their study, a majority of contemporary research is rather a socially intense undertaking. Our research explores the extraordinary diversity of rainforest trees in New Guinea pollinated, attacked, and protected by an array of often intriguing insects, many of them still unknown to science. This research can also be seen as an interesting social experiment, where remote rainforest villages are unexpectedly visited by an improbable ensemble of Papua New Guineans and expatriates, speaking as many as ten different mother tongues and with education ranging from six years of primary school to a PhD degrees, all of them inexplicably interested in apparently worthless plants and insects in the villagers’ backyard. It is no coincidence that many researchers who originally focused only in New Guinea biodiversity, have gradually broadened their interest also to social and cultural themes. It is such an obvious thing to do here on this, biologically as well as culturally fascinating, island.

OUP: Has working in a remote lab with fewer amenities than other scientists have access to, affected your quality of work?

Novotny: Nowadays it is easier to obtain access to a high-tech laboratory than to an undisturbed ecosystem available for ecological studies and experiments. Our New Guinea laboratory is in the best possible position for our research. It is surrounded by the island’s vast rainforests, while the research gadgets of the latest fashion can be always accessed through overseas collaboration. A bigger problem is the lack of intellectually exciting milieu, since your colleague working on some unrelated, yet a stimulating problem is rarely able to pop into your lab since the nearest such colleague is hundreds of kilometers away. No Skype conversation can fully replace those informal discussions during tea breaks over coffee, or in the evenings over vast amounts of beer.

OUP: How has your Czech heritage influenced your research, your writing, and your overall experience in New Guinea?

Novotny: Coming from a small, strange tribe with a language and culture nothing like those of your neighbors is an advantage in New Guinea, as it helps to blend in the crowd of similarly afflicted citizens. Moving to live in Papua New Guinea is perhaps easier from a small country, such as the Czech Republic, where you can expect that the random impacts shaping your life trajectory will sooner or later propel you beyond your country’s borders anyway. Why then not to take life in your own hands, pack you bags and leave for New Guinea immediately? Leaving a big country is a bigger decision than leaving a small one. I am curious myself whether my thinking about New Guinea is influenced by the fact that it is being done in the Czech language, but this question is probably best left for the English speaking readers to answer.

OUP: As a speaker of the English language, why do you choose to use a translator for your written works?

Novotny: My English is good enough to report on bare facts of life, as I do in my research papers on rainforest ecology. Writing essays is different, as their form is as important as substance. Somewhat ironically, my translator David Short can reproduce my Czech writing style in English better than myself. Inexplicably, speaking perfect Czech is a rare skill among native English speakers. A lot of interesting writing in Czech, as well as in other small languages, thus never makes it to the English speaking audience without being seriously damaged in the process.

OUP: What role have the indigenous people of New Guinea had on your research?

Novotny: Our research is being done in a large part by Papua New Guineans. While some research teams gain competitive advantage in their field of research by owning for instance a particularly large DNA sequencing machine, or having a particularly bright theoretician in their midst, our secret weapon is a team of 18 indigenous research technicians, able to stage research expeditions in the most remote corners of Papua New Guinea’s rainforests. Our research is thus shaped by the strengths and weaknesses of our New Guinea staff. We have been promoting indigenous researcher teams for ecological studies in tropical forests for many years, but with a limited success. This is probably because while a brand new DNA sequencer can be easily bought off the shelf in your local supermarket, and a bright theoretician obtained from the nearest university, assembling a research team from rainforest dwellers is not an entirely straightforward exercise.

OUP: What other books should we read on this topic?

Novotny: Alfred Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago remains, almost 150 years since its publication, one of the best accounts on biological field work. Peter Matthiessen’s Under the Mountain Wall is an excellent record of traditional life in New Guinea, while Paige West’s Conservation Is Our Government Now and Bob Connolly’s Making ‘Black Harvest’ has updates on this lifestyle coping with modern influences. Saem Majnep’s and Ralph Bulmer’s Animals the Ancestors Hunted is a unique first-hand account of local animal lore written by a New Guinea villager. Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel was partly inspired by New Guinea. And, as a final non-sequitur, James Watson’s The Double Helix is still perhaps the best description of how science is being done, whether in USA or New Guinea.

OUP: What do you read for fun?

Novotny: My eclectic tastes include travel writing by Bruce Chatwin and Ryszard Kapuscinski, fiction by Salman Rushdie, Haruki Murakami, Umberto Eco, Douglas Adams as well as by my compatriots Bohumil Hrabal and Franz Kafka, and, last but not least, Max Cannon’s Red Meat Cartoons. Most recently, I have enjoyed Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong.

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  2. […] his research takes place and get a sense of the content of his book, Notebooks from New Guinea. In this post, Novotny participated in a Q&A about what it was like to be a Czech scientist living in New […]

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