I got some great news recently that I’ve been itching to share. I can tell you now – because just the other day signed, I signed the contract. I’m writing another book!
In writing my first book (The Scientist’s Guide to Writing), I discovered that I really enjoy writing things less technical than scientific papers (hence the birth of Scientist Sees Squirrel). I also discovered that I enjoy longer-form writing, in which I can explore interesting connections, tell weird-and-wonderful stories, and indulge my nerdly curiosity about science, nature, history, society, and their intersections. Obviously, then, I should jump back in; and so I am.
So, what am I writing? This time, a “trade” book – for the general public. The working title (and it’s likely to change) is “The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”. It’s a book about Latin names – and in particular, eponymous Latin names (that is, those based on the name of a person – for example, Spurlingia darwini, for William Spurling and for Charles Darwin). People tend to think of Latin names as dull, unmemorable, long, and unpronounceable (and to be sure, some are). But eponymous names are a treasure trove of interesting stories: stories that weave connections between the scientists who name species, the species they name, and the people they honour (or occasionally, dishonour) in the naming.
The potential for eponymous names to tell stories is something we owe to Linnaeus. Before Linnaeus, the naming of a plant or animal species was simply an exercise in description. A name was a Latin phrase (sometimes quite a long one) that described the species and separated it from similar ones; but it did no more than that. Linnaeus’s binomial system was different in several important ways. Most widely celebrated is that it’s simple, and lends itself to easy organization of Earth’s biodiversity: each species has a single-word name, coupled with a single-word genus name for its group of relatives – Acer rubrum, for example, with rubrum designating one of 130 or so living species of maples in the genus Acer). But a less widely appreciated novelty in Linnaeus’s system is the separation of naming from description. Linnaean names – and all Latin names since Linnaeus – are indexing devices. They may be descriptive (as in Acer rubrum, red maple), but they don’t have to be (as in Acer davidii, Père David’s maple). The change to non-descriptive names might seem trivial, but it made something possible that had never been possible before: in naming species, scientists could express themselves. The Latin name of a species, now, could reflect the namer as well as the named. Names – and eponymous names in particular – became a window on scientists’ personalities.
What shows through that window? That scientists aren’t the cool, dull, and unemotional creatures that many might expect. They use Latin naming in ways that reveal all of humanity’s virtues, weaknesses, and foibles. Scientists, in the act of naming, show themselves as sometimes sober, sometimes playful, and sometimes eccentric; sometimes gracious and sometimes spiteful; and every bit as passionate about history, arts, and culture as they are about the pattern of scales on the belly of a snake. In other words, names give glimpses of science as a fully human activity.
Eponymous Latin names connect the scientists who name species, the species they name, and the people they name them for. The stories behind those connections can be surprising, fascinating, poignant, and occasionally, infuriating. In my new book I’ll share some of these stories with you, and I’m very much looking forward to it.
Now the bad news: you can’t read the book just yet. I’m slated to complete the manuscript in January 2019, and the book will be available (from Yale University Press) in the spring of 2020. But never fear – you can dig back just a couple of weeks to read an excerpt of one chapter right here. And I’ll post other sneak previews, from time to time, here on Scientist Sees Squirrel. Ooh – maybe I should include a squirrel?
© Stephen Heard March 13, 2018