I’ve mentioned this before: I’m terrible at titles. That’s why there’s been a long series of title changes for my forthcoming book. (Look for it in March 2020, from Yale University Press. You can actually pre-order it now, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you as the publication date approaches.) The book tells some of the fascinating stories behind eponymous scientific names (that is, species and genera that are named after people). If that piques your interest, you can read a bit more about the book here.
I took at least four stabs at a title before settling on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels. Continue reading
Images: Charles Darwin, age 33 (with his son William Erasmus Darwin), public domain; Leucospermum bolusii, photo by Andrew Massyn, released to public domain.
When I was a grad student, it was de rigeur to proclaim that every good idea was already in The Origin of Species, and to express amazement that Charles Darwin could have been so right about so many things. It’s probably the astonishingly rightness of the Origin – along with the rest of Darwin’s writing – that makes his huge error stand out so conspicuously. That huge error, of course, was the idea of blending inheritance. It didn’t work in theory, it wasn’t (even then) consistent with available data, and Darwin should have known both of those things. (His correspondence suggests that he probably did.)
I recently ran across* another Darwinian mistake. Continue reading
Images: The red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta; © Kristian Peters, CC BY-SA 3.0. Portrait, “Vanessa”, 1868, by John Everett Millais, collection of Sudley House, Liverpool; public domain.
Last week I shipped off the final revision of my forthcoming book, The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.* You know how you just finish a piece of writing, and immediately stumble across something you wish you’d put in? Well, the very next day, I happened to be skimming an old set of short book reviews, looking for – well, I’m not going to tell you what, because I’m keeping the idea for my next book under wraps for now. But serendipity struck, as it does; my eye slid by, then arrested on, a one-paragraph review of Maitland Emmet’s book The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning (1991).** And from that one paragraph I learned how the butterfly genus Vanessa got its name. It’s a fascinating story – and it explains not just the butterfly Vanessa, but every other Vanessa in the world. Continue reading
Image: an Enigma encoding/decoding machine (Greg Goebel, CC 0 via Wikimedia.org). Which, I admit, is only tangentially related to this piece, but it’s pretty cool.
I’ve celebrated many a Latin name on Scientist Sees Squirrel, sometimes for something as simple as the way it sounds, but more often for a story it tells. But this time, I’m celebrating the loss of a Latin name. Not because I didn’t like the lost name; I did. But its loss – or, more precisely, its replacement by a new name – has a lot to tell us about the process of naming and the progress of science. Continue reading
Image: Awaous banana, from a tributary of the Sibun River, Belize; photos © Eric Meng, with permission
I’m sure you’ll agree: this (above) is an utterly enchanting fish, strange and beautiful at the same time. It’s the river goby, a widespread fish of New World subtropical and tropical streams from Florida and Texas south to Peru. I ran across it* two weeks ago, while teaching my tropical ecology field course in Belize. It’s not just its gorgeous patterning; and it isn’t just its startling size (there are about 2,000 species of gobies in the world; few exceed 10 cm in length**, or about half the size of the colossus in the photo). It’s also, at least for me, its name: Awaous banana.
Awaous banana? What kind of psychedelic fever might lead someone to name a fish Awaous banana?
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 will be called “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”*. Continue reading
Image: The sorting-hat spider, Eriovixia gryffindori, from Ahmed et al. 2016 Indian J. Arachnology 5:24-27; photo Sumukha J.N., used by permission.
I’ve nearly finished drafting the manuscript of my new book, which will tell some of the stories behind eponymous Latin names (those based on the names of people, like Berberis darwini for Charles Darwin). These names tell so many fascinating stories that I’ve been having a whale of a time with the writing. I hope you’ll soon have nearly as much fun reading it.
The chapter I’m working on at the moment (as I write) is called Harry Potter and the Name of the Species, and it’s about Latin names drawn from fictional characters. Consider, for instance, some names from The Lord of the Rings: Continue reading