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After years of following baseball and occasionally dipping into the sciences, I have arrived at these conclusions: Great mathematicians are like fastball pitchers. They're at their peak in their 20s, and after that they're finished. Great chemists are like curveball or screwball pitchers. They make their contributions in their 30s. But great biologists are like knuckle-ball pitchers. They can go on for years because they don't burn out. In fact, biologists get better with age.
I don't know why this is, but the truth of it came home to me forcefully not long ago when I had the good fortune to meet one of my longtime heroes, Dr. William E. Ricker, who at 76 is the Phil Niekro of fisheries biology. Ricker is the author of nearly 200 papers, articles and books about fish, aquatic insects and kindred subjects, and for a dozen years, from 1950 to '62, he served as the editor of the Journal of the Fisheries Research Board of Canada (now the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Science), which he made into the best publication of its kind in the world.
A tall, bespectacled man who sports a 1957 Johnny Unitas crew cut, Ricker is gracious and polite in that old-fashioned way that characterizes many Canadians, except when they're playing hockey. His office at the Pacific Biological Station in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, B.C., where he served as chief scientist until his "retirement" in 1973, is awash with books and papers. No clean-desk man, Ricker works on two or three problems simultaneously until the answer to one, or all of them, suddenly pops into his head.
"Everybody doesn't work the same way I do," he says. "I've never consciously divided the day into sections. When there's a deadline I concentrate on the subject, whatever it is. I often wake up in the middle of the night and I stay awake for an hour or so, and some good ideas come to me at that time. When they do, I hop out of bed and write them down for fear they won't last. New or unusual ideas or relationships come spontaneously when you're not actively thinking about them."
The late Dr. George W. Bennett, who was the head of the aquatic biology section at the Illinois Natural History Survey and the leading authority on largemouth bass, once remarked, "Bill Ricker looks like a big country boy, but he's a genius." Dr. James Atz, a former curator of ichthyology at the American Museum of Natural History, says, "If Ricker worked in molecular biology or some other field in which Nobel prizes are given, he would have won at least one."
Ricker is the godfather of modern fisheries science, a different kettle of fish from fisheries biology, also a Ricker specialty. Fisheries science deals with the dynamics of fish populations, and Ricker figured out much of the mathematical methodology now used in this arcane field. The celebrated Ricker curve isn't a pitch but a graph representing the number of progeny added to a fish population by any given number of parent spawners. (The graph is based on the equation R=?Pe[-?P]; where R=number of progeny, ?=ratio of R to P when the stock is almost zero, P=size of parental stock, e=2.718..., and ?=a parameter with dimensions of 1/P.) Ricker's 382-page Computation and Interpretation of Biological Statistics of Fish Populations, which is crammed with far more complex equations than that for the Ricker curve, is commonly known as "the Green Book" because of the color of the binding. It's The Baseball Encyclopedia of its field.
Also long intrigued by the fecundity of the Pacific salmons, Ricker proposed, in a paper published back in the 1950s, that they be stocked in waters to the east, such as the Great Lakes. A decade later, after sea lampreys had wiped out the lake trout in the Great Lakes and alewives had taken over, other scientists picked up on his suggestion, and chinook and coho salmon now flourish in the lakes, providing the basis of a multimillion-dollar sports fishery.
The Green Book is very heavy stuff, but Ricker's involvement with mathematics is only the means to any number of ends. Ricker's use of mathematics to check his insights helps make him unique. As another admirer, Dr. R. Ian Fletcher, former professor of fisheries and biomathematics at the University of Washington, puts it, "Darwin never wrote an equation in his life, but Ricker is like a Darwin who did."
Except for 11 years he served as a professor at Indiana University—he took over Alfred Kinsey's course in ornithology when Kinsey, who started out as an entomologist specializing in gall wasps, decided to devote himself to the study of human sexuality—Ricker has lived and worked in Canada. Yet in 1969, when the American Fisheries Society, a U.S. organization with international members, bestowed its first Award of Excellence medal, it bypassed several outstanding biologists in this country to give the award to Ricker for his "superb and original contributions" to the methodology of statistically sound sampling and interpretation of fish populations; the relationship between parent fish stocks and the numbers of surviving progeny; his new concepts about growth, mortality and predator influence on salmon; and his theory of lake circulation.
For all the accolades, Ricker's views don't always prevail. As he told the society a year later (he was unable to attend the award ceremony in '69 because he was in the U.S.S.R.), "Practically everyone who has ever gone fishing considers himself an expert in fish management and doesn't hesitate to say so. Also, the man who uses any particular type of fishing gear invariably regards all other types as pernicious and destructive; but he can insist, with a straight face, that his kind of fishing couldn't possibly do the stock any harm.