Many of Earth’s species bear scientific names based on the names of people – for instance, Charles Darwin’s barnacle (Regioscalpellum darwini) and David Bowie’s spider (Heteropoda davidbowie). My new book explores some of the things we can learn from such “eponymous” scientific names. These names let us see something of the quirks and personalities of the scientists who engage in the creative act of naming. They also open a window on who scientists think might deserve the honour (well, usually it’s an honour) of having a species named after them. There are a lot of things you can see through that window. One of them has to do with diversity.
I don’t mean biodiversity, although it’s true enough that the Earth’s incredible biodiversity is what provides the window of naming in the first place. Instead, I mean diversity of people. Who are the people who have species named after them? Perhaps not surprisingly, answering that question reveals a scientific community with a longstanding diversity problem. Continue reading
In northeastern Germany, about 75 km north of Berlin, a little lake sits nestled in the woods. In the lake’s depths swims a little fish – a dwarf cisco, Coregonus fontanae. In the fish’s name, there’s a story tucked away.
Coregonus fontanae is one of a pair of cisco species in Lake Stechlin. Around the world, ciscoes (like many other fish) have evolved pairs of ecologically distinct species sharing lakes – in this case, the shallow-water Coregonus albula and its descendent species, the deeper-water C. fontanae. C. albula is widespread across northern Europe, but C. fontanae occurs only in the 4 km2 or so of Lake Stechlin. It looks a lot like its ancestor, except for its dwarfism, and it was formally described and named only in 2003.
Michael Schulz and Jörg Freyhof, who discovered and named the new cisco species, had a choice. Continue reading
Perhaps you’ve noticed that I’m a little bit obsessed with eponymous scientific names. When I notice one, I often find myself trying to guess its origin. Sometimes I’m right, or at least close. Falco eleonorae was definitely not one of those times.
Falco eleonorae, or Eleonora’s Falcon, is a mid-sized falcon that breeds mostly in the Mediterranean and overwinters mostly in Madagascar. It’s a handsome bird whose name poses a question: who was Eleonora? Continue reading
It’s today! It’s real! It’s here! My new book, I mean.
If that sounds like I’m a bit excited, it’s because I am. I’ve been working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider for about four years, and finally I can share it with all of you. Continue reading
No, not that one. This one.
More specifically: the Nautilus (the on-line science magazine, not the submarine) has an excerpt from my almost-but-not-quite-yet-available book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. It’s on their blog, and you can find it here.
The Nautilus’s editors had their pick of anything from the book, and they chose an excerpt from Chapter 6: David Bowie’s Spider, Beyoncé’s Fly, and Frank Zappa’s Jellyfish. And that’s how my byline came to sit right above a large photo of Beyoncé in full concert regalia. Continue reading
t’s been a while since I’ve added to my Wonderful Latin Names series – posts celebrating Latin names that strike me as interestingi, or beautiful, or just fun to say. I guess that’s mostly because I’d been writing a whole book on the topic of Latin names – eponymous ones, in particular. That project is in the hands of the printers now, but of course I wasn’t able to pack every Latin name I like into the book. So now I can celebrate some of the others. Today: the leaf mining fly Liriomyza ivorculteri.
I love leaf mining flies. Continue reading
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