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The alumni — When Michael Stoltze started on the biology study programme in 1976, he was told by his tutors that only the working class struggle was important, and that knowledge didn't matter. So he helped start a kind of academic counterrevolution at the University of Copenhagen.
I have worked with butterflies since I was a child, and I still do so today, now I am 67. When I started on the biology study programme at the University of Copenhagen in 1976, it was like entering through the gates of paradise for me, with all the academic challenges that awaited us. The university was so privileged at the time, as it was where I could just digest all this knowledge, and I even got [the generous Danish student grant, ed.] SU.
Michael Stoltze is a biologist, an author, and a photographer. Master’s thesis at the University of Copenhagen in 1985 in African insects and PhD at the University of Copenhagen in 1994 on Danish butterflies.
All of the first-year student tutors came from extreme left-wing parties in Denmark like the Left Socialists and KAP, and we were told on the first day that everything at the university was in reality about the working class struggle. It was not important that you learned anything. And any grades over [the passing grade, ed.] six were a waste of time, they reckoned. I didn’t agree. I loved the atmosphere at the departments, and everything that I was introduced to in terms of exercises and field courses, study programme events, and lectures. I was also thrilled that I got the chance to meet researchers and lecturers.
In the fourth semester, I helped start an academic rebellion. I had been looking forward to learning everything about animal physiology and to going into depth on the science part of things. I found instead that political convictions took up a disproportionate amount of space. Four or five of us students therefore teamed up to make an apolitical counter-reaction. We made an academic geek club, the Fjerdesemesterklubben or ‘fourth semester club’, because we reckoned that the university was there for us to learn something, and that it was up to you as an individual how you should behave politically. Now I am happy that I got to experience this peculiar epoch of the 70s at university, and I am proud that I helped start this ‘fourth semester’ club, because knowledge should be paramount at universities.
I see myself today as a mixture between a public storyteller and an entertainer. After the University of Copenhagen, I did a PhD on butterflies that subsequently resulted in two books: A large-scale atlas project in 1994 and a major dissertation on day butterflies in 1996. I had no plans to subsequently get employed as a scientist at the University of Copenhagen – and I was not. Instead, I have always followed my intuition and my interest in communicating. I share my knowledge about butterflies with a wide circle of different people and I find that people are happy when I come and talk about weird and strange things from the world of butterflies and other insects.
I'm constantly being contacted for outreach, book projects and lectures, so I am happy as Larry right now.
Butterflies can’t reflect over their own existence, and they cannot invent mobile phones like we do. But butterflies can do a lot of things. When you look deeper into what they are, you think: How on Earth can all this develop, and how can they make these adaptations? When I think about this, it gives me a huge respect for everything that has arisen through the course of evolution – or even the creation, as we authors like to call it – no matter whether you are religious or not. Because in order to understand nature, we need to understand how powerful the force of life is, and how amazing nature’s abilities are.
Butterflies are like walking sensory devices. At a distance of several kilometres, they can smell each other, and communication between the sexes is also very advanced. Their wing patterns can be used to scare off, for mating games, and as camouflage, and this is part of the explanation that they have become so numerous. It is also a large part of the reason why I have been fascinated by them to the extent that they have made me think more deeply about the meaning of life. When you work with nature, you inevitably come to think a lot about life and death. And you also get to think about death as something that inherently belongs to life, so you don’t fear it so much.
Both my parents were artists, and all artists are deeply interested in nature. That’s why it was not strange that I came to work with biology, because it is closely linked to a lot of other areas. My personal motto is that nature is the foundation of culture, and that it has everything to do with mythology, religion, art, music, and architecture. This point of view has emerged in the public debate in recent years. And it has actually surprised me that it has become so prevalent. But it has, of course, to do with the fact that today we have both a climate crisis and a crisis of nature on our hands. My message is that we need to think more about nature and what it means. Because we cannot do without it, and this applies to both the physical sense and in our existential considerations about the meaning of life.
I feel that I have the spirit of the times on my side, because interest in my field of study is very high today. My passion for butterflies and other insects has led to employment in both the Danish Environmental Research Institute, the Danish Nature Protection Agency and the Danish Society for Nature Conservation on two occasions, as a writer on the Danish newspaper Politiken, and for the last 14 years as a writer for the newspaper Kristeligt Dagblad, where I have published 300 articles. Together with my Norwegian girlfriend, who is a historian, I write books about Denmark’s national parks and about the whole new wave of attempts to restore nature. I’m constantly being contacted for outreach, book projects, and lectures, so I am happy as Larry right now.