Badass Scientist of the Week: Dr. Eric Pianka
Eric Pianka (1939–) is a biologist, herpetologist and evolutionary ecologist, specializing in lizards from all over the world. He became interested in lizards at an early age, while living along the California-Oregon border near an army base, but when he was 13, he and his brothers found an intact bazooka shell—which Pianka accidentally dropped. The blast basically exploded his leg. Most of it was reconstructed, but his left leg was left shortened and partially paralysed, which later resulted in spinal problems. Field biologists have physically and mentally challenging jobs, travelling to remote locations and dealing with dangerous animals, but Pianka wasn’t fazed by his disability. After graduating from high school, he travelled around the southern United States collecting snakes and butterflies, then graduated from Carleton College with a BA in biology, attended the University of Washington studying lizard ecology and diversity, then completed a postdoctoral degree at Princeton University. He spent a year and a half doing fieldwork in the deserts of Western Australia, where he discovered six new lizard species. When he returned to work at the University of Texas, he took up wrestling bisons as a hobby, going out onto the U.S. prairies to herd them and even being gored once. Pianka continues with fieldwork to this day—aged 73—and all up, he’s spent nearly 10 years of his life in some of the most terrible and inhospitable deserts in the world: the Great Basin, Mojave, and Sonora Deserts in North America, the Kalahari in Africa, the Great Victoria Desert in Western Australia… Pianka also cares deeply about the plight of the Earth. In an acceptance speech for the 2006 Distinguished Texas Scientist Award, he became so passionate about the survival of Earth that he suggested that the best solution was to develop an airborne version of the Ebola virus to kill 90% of humans, thus saving the planet. He later stated that he wasn’t advocating mass murder, but he stuck by his guns that the Earth would indeed be better off. Needless to say, this was controversial—and completely badass.