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Scientific Stamp Collecting

I am reading and enjoying a fascinating memoir at the moment. If you’d like to read it, look for “A Curious Boy: The Making of a Scientist” by Richard Fortey. The author is a contemporary of mine, just a couple of years older, and was a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. I find many of his early-life experiences quite similar to mine and the description of the school he went to is uncannily close the one I was educated at. It was indeed a different world.

Anyway – he is a world expert on Trilobites but he is also a bit of a biological polymath who enjoys getting outside on fungus forays and watch birds and identifying orchids and the like. When we grew up the countryside was a much richer place than it is today for so many reasons. The loss of biodiversity that has occurred in the past 50 years was all avoidable. In one chapter, after recently visiting a place on the Berkshire/Warwickshire border near his old home which was then a wonderland of wildflowers and insects and birds he finds it sterile and reduced to tangled brambles and fields of barley with not a flower in sight. Saddening.

He writes the following :

“I have known scientists who regard enthusiasm for the identification of organisms as a kind of stamp collecting. This is not intended to be flattering. They ask: what is the need to know all those damned names? The real business is with sequencing the genome, identifying chemical pathways in organelles, crunching vast sets of data in supercomputers, and other research at the cutting edge. Nineteenth-century vicars did the naming stuff. I have wondered whether some of these critics might regard the extinction of species as rather a good thing, since it would reduce the complexity of natural systems available for analysis. The issue is more than the well-rehearsed division between ‘whole organism biologists’ and ‘scientific reductionists’. I have been on walks with dedicated professional botanists who cannot identify the commonest wildflowers; identification has never been part of their culture. It would be harder for them to experience the empathy with the natural world that I have described earlier in this book. Perhaps they have never felt the harmony that comes with a throng of different flowers buzzing with dozens of insects, a sense of countless natural livings earned in countless ways. Life is polyglottal, symphonic, inventive, and inevitably diverse. Complexity and richness are the hallmarks of life itself.”

I find this so depressing. There are degree courses in botany (and similar fields) in the UK and elsewhere, but their courses are heavily focussed on cellular biology and biochemistry. Worthy subjects all, and as a biologist who put food on the table by working at the cellular level, chained to a microscope most days I cannot decry the importance of that expertise … but a rounded biologist should also be able to know about life in the “field” and to have done some work at a minimum just going out and identifying species. I don’t suggest for an instant that all biologists become taxonomists in their field of expertise, but they ought really to have a passing feeling for such matters. It is so much more than mere “biological stamp collecting”.

Very sad – I am glad I grew up when I did. My current interests in retirement are far from the microscope and focussed on, yes, the stamp collecting of local species – hence my 1000 Species project (link below). Real biology in other words, the stuff I enjoyed as a youth which led me into the career I made my own. It’s good to be able to get back in retirement to the real stuff out of the laboratory – even though I am not a nineteenth-century vicar.


Fortey also says … and this speaks to my soul:

“I instinctively knew that naming was the first part of understanding. According to the Book of Genesis Adam named all the animals before Eve was created: evidently, the ancient scribes appreciated that taxonomy provides the key to grasping the world. Without such a foundation, humans wander blindly in an unstructured wilderness.”

Thursday, March 25, 2021|Categories: 1000 Species, flowers, plants, science|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments
1503, 2021

Wilting Violets

Monday, March 15, 2021|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments

The world is becoming scared of its own shadow and populated by wilting violets ... Earlier today while our on the snowshoes we happened upon a rabbit's foot, some scattered fur and a little blood. Probably a coyote's dinner. I took a photo and posted it to our local nature group Facebook page as an educational opportunity [...]

1403, 2021

Minimal-Knead Sourdough Focaccia

Sunday, March 14, 2021|Categories: bread, bread, Food, recipe|Tags: , |0 Comments

This is an adaptation of a recipe culled from a baking blog (thanks Emily for the link) the URL of which I omitted to save. I have been playing around with various methods of making focaccia and I think this one comes the closest to my personal ideal of what the bread should look and taste like. Not [...]

403, 2021

A Year of Neighbourhood Nature

Thursday, March 4, 2021|Categories: 1000 Species, Baie-D'Urfe, birds, wildlife|Tags: , , , , |0 Comments

How time does fly — just over a year ago I was inspired by a fine naturalist from England (thanks Tom) who had set himself the challenge of identifying 1000 UK species — birds, grasses, spiders, whatever. I had a couple of exchanges with him was assured that the concept was not trademarked, and so I thought to [...]

2502, 2021

Bright Winter with Tracks

Thursday, February 25, 2021|Categories: Landscape, Montreal, winter|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Almost the end of February and a light snowfall overnight coated everything with a covering of snow and ice. The sun came out, the temperature was not many degrees below zero. In three or four weeks most of the snow will be gone (though more could arrive) and there will be a couple of weeks of mud [...]

1902, 2021

A little squirrely joy for a winter’s day …

Friday, February 19, 2021|Categories: music squirrels|Tags: , |0 Comments

Clearing out the basement, well, truthfully, a corner of the basement a few days ago I uncovered a three hole pipe which, for those readers who are not into folk music, is the blown half of a pipe and tabor - the original "one man band". Once upon a time I learned to play a single tune on [...]

902, 2021

Focusing on Sheep

Tuesday, February 9, 2021|Categories: computing, photography|Tags: |0 Comments

Getting right to the point ... the focal point I like to do macrophotography - getting really close in on small features such as flowers and insects. But it has always had a significant limitation - depth of field. Not all of your subject is guaranteed to be in focus. I use a 100mm macro lens on a [...]

3101, 2021

Half Way There with Pancakes

Sunday, January 31, 2021|Categories: winter|Tags: , , , |0 Comments

Candlemas - Imbolc - Lupercalia February 2 this year is the festival of Candlemas/Imbolc/Lupercalia and marks the half way point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Solstice - without a doubt this is a date to celebrate. Any reason for a drink and a good meal is worth making note of. Appropriately, the traditional symbol of this [...]

2901, 2021

Photographs – Your Thoughts Please

Friday, January 29, 2021|Categories: Art, photography|Tags: |7 Comments

I wonder if I might solicit your comments please on some pairs of photographs ... well, actually on the software that edited them. This week, after a sadly lengthy wait while the slow boat arrived from China, I finally took delivery of a spiffy new computer (Apple MacBook with the new super-powerful M1 chip if you are interested) and [...]

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