Monthly Archives: February 2019

What is science’s “Kokomo”?

Image: The Beach Boys (2012 reunion), © Louise Palanker via flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

It came on the radio again the other day: “Kokomo”*.  It’s a fundamentally and phenomenally stupid song, and yet it’s so perfectly executed that you can’t help singing along a little, even knowing that you’ll hate yourself for it later.  Even knowing that you’re hating yourself right now while you’re still singing, but you still can’t stop.  That such a stupid, stupid song can still grab you and not let go, and can still blight the airwaves 30 years after its release, is a testament to the song writing craftsmanship of its authors**  and to the performance craftsmanship of the Beach Boys.  It’s just astonishing how good “Kokomo” can be, while simultaneously being so very, very bad***.

So what is science’s Kokomo?  What scientific idea is fundamentally stupid, yet persists (or persisted for a very long time) anyway because it’s been argued with craftsmanship and polish enough to persuade? Continue reading

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Power in the ending

Image: The ending of a long story (Lord of the Rings; Tolkien 1955, George Allen & Unwin, London).

If you’re like me (as a writer, I mean) you probably spend a lot of time thinking about the first sentences of things.  It’s true in fiction, and just as true in scientific writing, that the 1st sentence of a passage, a section, a paper, or a book has a big job to do.  A good opening sentence sets a mood, asks a question, grabs a reader and positions them for the journey to come.

It took me a long time to realize that the last sentence of anything is equally important. Continue reading

Some (more) great reads from the history of natural history

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in the Amazon jungle, via wikimedia.org. Painting by Eduard Ender, circa 1850; from the collection of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Some are well known, some are obscure; some are old; some are new. (Some were borrowed, although at least this time around, none were blue.)  Here are a few more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (Yoon 2009, Norton).  This book, Yoon tells us, started out as a history and explanation of taxonomy – the science of naming and describing species.  It grew into something else, something a little bit strange, and something a bit difficult to put one’s finger on.  Continue reading

I’ve submitted the manuscript for my new book!

Image: the David Bowie spider, Heteropoda davidbowie.  KS Seshadri, CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org

Last week I hit a big milestone.  I hit submit not just on another journal paper, but on something much more fun: my new book.  I’m both relieved and excited!

The book’s working title is “The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”*Continue reading