Regular readers will know of the pleasure that I get from the names of moths, something I share with many others. We are suckers for the likes of the Dusky Sallow and the Maiden's Blush or those memorable half-brothers the Bright-line Brown-eye and the Brown-line Bright-eye.
Although they are harder and less accessible, I also enjoy the Linnaean or scientific name given to every insect (as to all other animals and plants) in a hugely important branch of science called Taxonomy. This is the creation of a combination of railway guide, 'phone directory and wiki-app which sorts everything into vast foundations on which scientists can build their work.
Order, sense and accuracy are essential for its success but it also has to be flexible and to admit novelties because of the enormous variety of life in the world and the way in which it both changes and is increased by the discovery of new species. This has led to an impressive combination of rules and an open-ness which encourages amaateurs, those vital asistants to the professionals, to play an enthusiastic part in the process.
This in turn has led to much fun and games of the kind which non-specialists such as myself enjoy, such as the naming of a series of insects with homophonic names such as Polychistme ('Polly kissed me') and Kitichystme ('Kitty kissed me') by 19th century gents who enjoyed a literary joke. But it has also opend the door to rogues and the deluded whose wildly imaginative and inaccurate contributions are the subject of a wonderful article in the American magazine Nautilus,
by Ansel Payne, a writer and naturalist in Tuscaloosa, Alabama - a great American placename in itself.
|Poor Mr Walker. His colleagues mourned a 'gentle soul', but were withering about his work|
I hope that my link will get you to the piece; irresistably entitled 'Why taxonomists write the meanest obituaries
', but in case not, it includes such withering put downs in RIP articles as: "More than twenty years too late for his scientific reputation, and after having done an amount of injury to entomology almost inconceivable in its immensity, Francis Walker has passed from among us.” And: "Peter Cameron is dead, as was announced by most of the halfpenny papers on December 4th. What can we say of his life? Nothing; for it concerns us in no way. What shall we say of his work? Much, for it is entirely ours, and will go down to posterity as probably the most prolific and chaotic output of any individual for many years past.” Some of Mr Cameron's spurious wasps are shown in my top pic.
I discovered Nautilus, whose website is wittily called nautil.us, in the great hall of Broughton Castle
, above, one of the most enjoyable of all the UK's stately homes to visit because of the friendly presence of members of the Fiennes family who have lived there since 1377, nearly four centuries before Linnaeus. Martin Fiennes, his wife and their children now look after the house although Martin's delightful father Nat, the 21st Viscount Saye and Sele, is usually about on open days, in his 90s now but wonderfully twinkly.
In his time, the magzines in the hall tended to be Country Life
and the like, but his son noticed how often interesting stories from Nautilus
came up on his iPhone, via one of those apps which pick pieces from publications on subjects of interest to the 'phone's owner. A longer blog than usual - sorry - but if it introduces you to Ansel Payne's piece and Nautilus
more generally, I think you will be glad of that.