If you are looking for a break from the Mueller report this weekend, and you have had your fill of endless analysis of the dung pile creatures of Washington, gnawing through the foundations of our democracy, I can recommend a good book. It’s about termites.

Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology,” by Maine journalist Lisa Margonelli, is not just about termites. It’s really about the people who study termites, the theories they test, their victories and disappointments and the surprising new paths of research that emerge.

Ultimately, it’s a book about how we know what what little we really know, and how we try to find out more.

And it does have an awful lot about termites, which are more interesting than you may have thought.

Margonelli came to termites in the early 2000s, after spending years studying and writing about oil.

Termites were hot, leading to a flood of research dollars, driven by the idea that the eyeless little bugs contained the next big breakthrough in biofuels in their gut.

Termites are famous for destroying houses, but that’s a bum rap for most of them. But they do have the ability to digest wood because millions of years ago, their ancestors ate microbes that can live inside of them and break down whatever the termite’s mouth sends down the chute. They manage to keep the microbes at work by eating each other’s poop.

Chemists wondered whether they could create a bio-reactor that did what the termites do (without the poop eating), and turn grass or wood waste into a chemical that would power your car.

Meanwhile, Margonelli found out about roboticists who were studying termites to understand how swarms work. An individual termite doesn’t know much. It can’t see, it can’t reproduce and it can’t survive on its own.

But a group of termites can build amazing, cathedral-likes structures out of mud. How do they know what to do, and could you build a swarm of dumb robots that could work together to, say, build shelters on Mars in advance of the astronauts’ arrival?

As you probably know if you filled up your car yesterday with gasoline instead of termite juice, the big breakthroughs have not yet occurred.

One of my favorite observations in the book comes from a scientist who has found out that what goes on in a termite’s gut is more complicated than originally believed. Building a giant bioreactor to turn grass into gasoline would require building a giant termite.

(The other comes from the robot team that studied swarm videos and discovered that SPOILER ALERT – not all termites are industrious. Some of them just run around acting busy.)

The part of the book that I keep thinking about is not about termites or scientists at all.

Margonelli describes leaving an interview in Boston and heading home to Maine on a foggy afternoon. She turned on her iPhone navigation app and it sent her to Old Route 1, where she spent hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

She flipped through radio stations to pass the time, and heard the same annoying song, “What’s Up?” by 4 Non Blondes, three times on different stations.

“Perhaps everyone around me had also turned on their phones and we’d all been routed to the same place. We were the individual agents and we had built ourselves into a solid wall of cars while the classic rock algorithms of Boston had averaged to the ultimate anthem … Our algorithm was optimized for each of us, and so it worked for none of us.”

This notion comes back to me again and again. A private car waiting for a single person to take him or her anywhere they might want to go is a no-brainer on an individual level, but multiply that perfectly rational choice by a few million, and you have an environmental disaster.

As a state, we all know that our economy is going to shrink if we can’t attract more families with kids who will take the place of aging baby boomers in the workforce.

But that’s not the algorithm driving your decision-making if you are managing a municipal budget.

It’s possible for something to be good for everyone collectively but bad for them as individuals. It’s also possible for something to be good for you personally and bad for the world that you live in. Together, those problems are the hardest to solve with the tools we have been given – democracy and politics.

You won’t find the answer in the Mueller report. It might be in a termite mound, but we’ll have to keep looking.

Greg Kesich is the editorial page editor. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: gregkesich


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