Monday, September 17, 2012

The best writing in science papers part 1: Vladimir Nabokov in Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)

I have been wanting to start a new series here on my blog about examples of great writing in scientific publications.  There is a lot out there on great science writing.  But that is not what I am writing about here.  I mean actual scientific research papers where the writing itself is exceptional.  And todays example, which may be a bit unfair, comes from the one and only Vladimir Nabokov.  For not only was he a great writer of literature, he was also a lepidopterist.  He was for some time the curator of leps at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

I note - I first discovered this when I got a work-study job shelving books at a library at Harvard only to discover that that library had on display a collection of Nabokov's butterflies.  I got little shelving done when nobody else was around).

Anyway, I had read some of his short stories and book in high school but was not aware of his butterfly obsessions.  What amazed me most was they had some of his butterfly research papers on display too and they were simply amazing to read.  The writing in them is just awesome.

So thus we get to todays's example of great writing in science papers: Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera).  Thankfully, somehow, Hindawi publishers have come into possessing of the rights to the back issues of the journal Psyche where this was published and it is freely available as a PDF.  The paper is not perfect mind you - some parts are written more eloquently than others.  But there are sparks in there of what I think are wonderful (for a science research papers).  Some of my favorite parts are quoted below:
The results proved so unexpected and interesting that it seems worth while to publish the present paper despite its rather superficial and incomplete nature.

In a way the initial blunder was Swinhoe’s who while correctly giving a subfamilial ending to the group which Tutt’s intuition and Chapman’s science had recognized ("tribe" Plebeidi which exactly corresponds to the Plebefine of Sternpffer) as different from other "tribes" (i.e., subfamilies) within the Lyccenidce, failed to live up to the generic diagnoses which he simply copied from Chapman’s notes in Tutt and tried to combine genitalic data he had not verified or did not under- stand with the obsolete "naked v. hairy eyes" system (which at Butler’s hands had resulted in probably the most ludicrous assembly of species ever concocted, see for example Butler 1900, Entom. 33: 124), so that in the case of several Indian forms which Chapman had not diagnosed, Swinhoe placed intra-
generically allied species in different subfamilies and species belonging to different Tuttian "tribes" in the same subfamily. [[ YES - THIS IS ONE SENTENCE]]
The arrangement proposed in the present paper needs to be prefaced by a few words on taxonomic units. The strictly biological meaning forcibly attached by some modern zoologists to the specific concept has crippled the latter by removing the morphological moment to a secondary or still more negligible position, while employing terms, e.g., "potential interbreeding," that might make sense only if an initial morphological approach were presupposed. 
I am sure there are other Nabokov papers with other choice sections ... will be looking for those later.  If anyone has suggestions for other great writing in science papers, please post comments ..


  1. I really like the papers that come out of Martin Nowak's group, and the folks who've trained with him like David Rand and Erez Lieberman. Lieberman's paper where he looks at evolutionary rates of verbs is just beautifully written.

    1. Also see this which is about a RAP about RIPPING by Dave Rand

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  3. I always thought some of the early writing in ecology was beautiful. Joseph Grinnell writing on the "The Niche Relationship of the California Thrasher" in The Auk is almost conversational:

    Much in the way the way of berries and seeds may be also be recovered from the ground in what is evidently the Thrasher's own specialized method of food-getting. Even granting this specialization, I do not see why the chaparral, alone, should afford the exclusive forage-ground; for the same mode of food-getting ought to be just as useful on the forest floor, or even the meadow. The further fact, of widely omnivorous diet, leads one to conclude that it is not any peculiarity of food-source, or way of getting at it, that alone limits the Thrasher associationally. We must look further.

    There's also something else, let me look...

  4. Dobzhansky, best known for his contribution to the modern synthesis in evolution, had a paper on why there are more species at low latitudes, Evolution in the Tropics (American Scientist, 1950):

    Tropical rainforest impresses even a casual observer by the enormity of the mass of protoplasm arising from its soil. The foliage of the trees makes a green canopy high above the ground. Lianas, epiphytes, relatively scarce undergrowth of low trees and shrubs, and, finally, many fungi and algae form several layers of vegetational cover. Of course, tropical lands are not all overgrown with impenetrable forests and not all teeming with strange-looking beasts. One of the most perfect deserts in the world lies between the equator and the Tropic of Capricorn, in Peru and northern Chile. Large areas of the Amazon and Orinoco watersheds, both south and north of the equator, are savannas, some of them curiously akin to southern Arizona and Sonora in type of landscape. But regardless of the mass of living matter per unit area, tropical life is impressive in its endless variety and exuberance.

  5. I remember the paper by Watson and Crick to be full of excitement and mistery, I read it a few years ago and still think of the conclusion as a vibrant statement.

  6. I rather like the opening to George Miller's classic psychology paper "The magical number 7, plus or minus 2":

    "My problem is that I have been persecuted by an integer. For seven years this number has followed me around, has intruded in my most private data, and has assaulted me from the pages of our most public journals. This number assumes a variety of disguises, being sometimes a little larger and sometimes a little smaller than usual, but never changing so much as to be unrecognizable. The persistence with which this number plagues me is far more than a random accident. There is, to quote a famous senator, a design behind it, some pattern governing its appearances. Either there really is something unusual about the number or else I am suffering from delusions of persecution.

    I shall begin my case history by telling you about some experiments that tested how accurately people can assign numbers to the magnitudes of various aspects of a stimulus..."


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