Image: A grin without a cat. Cheshire Cat, from Alice in Wonderland, illustration by John Tenniel, public domain.
“Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,” thought Alice “but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)
As you’ve probably read here on Scientist Sees Squirrel, I’m writing a new book. It’s about the Latin names of plants and animals (and I promise, it’s a lot more interesting than it sounds). And in thinking and writing about naming, I’ve come to realize that the way we do biological nomenclature leads to the production of some truly bizarre entities: names without things. Let me explain.
Things without names are a perfectly normal category – even if individual instances of the category tend to be short-lived, because we humans really, really like to name things*. Continue reading
Images: Canada jay, by Gavin Schaefer CC BY 2.0 via wikimedia.org. Or maybe it’s a grey jay. Or a whiskey jack. Cougar, by Eric Kilby CC BY-SA 2.0 via wikimedia.org. Or maybe it’s a puma. Or a painter. Or a mountain lion. Or a catamount. Or a screamer. Or…you get the idea.
It caught my eye, and the media’s, last month: an announcement that the American Ornithological Society would be changing the “official” name of the North American corvid Perisoreus canadensis from “Gray Jay” to “Canada Jay”. The grey/Canada jay* is a wonderful bird – handsome, intelligent, and inquisitive – and “grey jay” sells it short, so I’m completely down with using “Canada jay”. But: the notion that there’s any such thing as an “official” common name, or that the AOU gets to say what it is, is deeply weird. Continue reading
Image: Unicorn fresco by Domenichino (1581-1641), in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, via wikimedia.org
Sometimes, thinking about science, I make odd connections. Often, they seem odd when I first make them, but then I learn something important from them and wonder why I’d never made them before. A good example cropped up the other day, when I realized that a peculiar feature of the scientific naming of organisms connects, via some simple statistics, to the difficulty of cancer screening, to reproducibility, and to the burden of proof for surprising claims. Curious? Here goes. Continue reading
Image: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via pixabay.com.
Warning: trivial and nerdy.
Just now I’ve learned that there used to be a football team – part of the Women’s Football Association, in the USA – called the Birmingham Steel Magnolias. This delights me for nerdy reasons (as you’d probably expect): in particular, because it extends by one step a cascade of naming that I’d meant to write about. So here goes. Continue reading
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! Continue reading
This is an excerpt from a longer essay exploring the darker side of eponymous Latin naming, which will appear as a chapter in a book I’m currently writing. Stay tuned for more about that project, which should any day now be formally under contract.
When Carl Linnaeus invented modern “binomial” Latin names, he freed scientific naming from the necessity of carrying a full description of every named species. This made it possible, for the first time, for a scientist naming a new species to honour someone admirable or notable. We can all point to species named that way: Berberis darwini, for example, or Spurlingia, or any of several species named for Maria Sibylla Merian. But any tool that can build can also tear down; and just as Latin names can honour, they can dishonour. Linnaeus was the first to use naming to celebrate scientists who had gone before him – but as it turns out, he was also the first to succumb to temptation, and use Latin naming to insult someone with whom he had quarreled. He wouldn’t, as we’ll see, be the last. Continue reading
Image: Gnorimoscheme gallaesolidaginis (Lepidoptera: Gelechiidae), © Tom Murray CC BY-ND-NC 1.0
Warning: judgy and subjective.
If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ll know I have a strange and nerdy fascination with Latin names of plants and animals. People often think (my undergraduates always think) Latin names are long, obscure, boring, and unpronounceable. But they’re wrong. Latin names can be wonderful – and I have a series of posts saying so. They can be delightful to say. They can celebrate scientific heroes or pop-culture ones. They can keep alive the memory of people otherwise forgotten. Sometimes they can do all those things at once. I think of Latin names as loose threads that, when pulled on, often reveal unexpected and fascinating stories.
But. Continue reading