Tag Archives: scientific names

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

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Let’s all relax about Latin names from pop culture

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

I talked about Latin names and naming on the Natural Reality podcast

If you’ve been following Scientist Sees Squirrel for a while, you’ve probably noticed that I have a little bit of a thing for the etymologies of Latin (or “scientific”) names of organisms.  It’s perhaps a bit of a niche interest… but it shouldn’t be; there are fascinating stories behind the names we’ve coined.  So much so, in fact, that I’m writing a book on the topic – in particular, about eponymous Latin names (those named after people).

I’ll have more to say about my new book soon; but today, I just wanted to alert you to a recent episode of Liam Taylor’s Natural Reality podcast.  On my episode, Liam and I talked about Latin names – about why they’re interesting (to me, and I hope I can convince you, to you too); about how on earth I got interested in the stories behind Latin names; and about some of my favourite names.

Liam’s best question, I think, was this: what makes (for me) a “good” Latin name?  My answer was that a good Latin name is one that tells a story.  The podcast episode is full of those stories.  If you’d like to hear a few of them, you can listen to it, or download it, here.

© Stephen Heard  January 10, 2019

Latin names that amuse my inner 9-year-old: Onopordum acanthium

Image: Scotch thistle, Onopordum acanthium via wikimedia.org, © Net-breuer CC BY-SA 3.0.

I have a paper cut-out Nativity scene that comes out every year around Christmas (it’s a childhood tradition that’s stuck with me despite my lack of religious conviction to give it meaning).  There’s a donkey near the manger, of course, and seeing it reminded me I’ve been meaning to mention the wonderful (?) etyomology of the Scotch thistle’s Latin name.  Scotch thistle is native to Europe and western Asia, although it’s become invasive in many dryish places around the world.  And it has a Latin name with a certain je-ne-sais-quoi.

Quite a while back, I wrote about the black-billed thrush, saddled with the quite unfortunate name Turdus ignobilisIt doesn’t quite mean “the ignoble turd”, but my inner 9-year-old would like it if it did.  But Scotch thistle – ah, my inner 9-year-old can go to town. Continue reading

How bizarre: Names without things

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

Attempts to standardize the common names of species are deeply weird

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

From ego naming to cancer screening: type I error and rare events

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