I don’t quite remember now, how I discovered John Lawton. I think it was in my first year as a PhD student, when I got to read more indiscriminate and interesting stuff that I ever have. It was in one of these wanderings that I found myself with ‘John Lawton’s view from the Park’, a regular feature in the journal Oikos, of the 90s. I was hooked immediately, zipping from article to article with surprising rapidity. I have read Lawton’s columns on warm, sleepy afternoons when only something truly engaging could keep me awake in the post-lunch haze. I would be often stunned with his ability to comment upon myriad things, starting from the population dynamics of Loch Ness monster, to ecology of the afterlife. As a kid, I remember my Dad buying us books called ‘Mathematics can be fun’ and ‘Physics for entertainment’. If someone ever conceptualizes an ‘Ecology for fun’, this is the sort of writing that should go into it.
Lawton’s writing was often direct and attacking, something politely short of being polemic, which would effectively drill home the point. Coming from a reductionist background, I’ve sometimes had doubts about ecology being a rigorous science. The absence of universal laws like in Physics and Chemistry, the lack of strong predictions from ecological processes, the profusion of exceptions to any rule and the absence of a strong, organized theoretical foundation have often made me wonder if all is in vain. But coming back to Lawton’s articles have almost always soothed my anxieties. When he talks about patterns in ecology (along with his commentary on ‘Are there general laws in ecology?’) or tells the story of a pigeon riding the London Underground, I realize there’s so much good work to be done in this field, fuelled with as much or more curiosity about the natural world.
Like any other doctoral student, I’ve had my own share of troubles coming up with the ‘right question’, which someone has likened to falling in love. I think both classes of people don’t hesitate lapping up any advice that can lead them to ‘the one’. I’ve often come back to Lawton’s (often hilarious) ‘(Modest) advice to graduate students’ after several dejections, and have taken back something useful from it every time.
This is my personal tribute to John H. Lawton. I hope reading this makes people read him, and more importantly, discuss him more.