nightbird: Mucha illustration, young peasant holding scythe and grain (abstract functions)
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posted by [personal profile] nightbird at 11:59am on 11/08/2009 under
Reviving the Lost Art of Naming the World by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, from her forthcoming book Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science

I love science. I'm not good with math, so as a profession in itself, it's not entirely open to me without far more work than I'm willing to put in, but I love to read about it and talk about it and think about its implications. Science writing is a field I actually toyed with for a bit in high school and early college, before I realized that I was happiest with my dead novelists and deader playwrights and very dead Greek epic poets. My English professor dad has moved more and more toward reading science writing for pleasure since his partial retirement from teaching: less linguistics and more neuroscience, letting literary analysis take a back seat to evolutionary biology and human migration theories.

I asked him why he didn't read novels anymore, and I think he said, for the most part, that he was burned out on them. Science writing at its best is a beautiful thing, with truth about the physical world and the way humans live in it (or don't) framed in clear, elegant language. One of my desert island books is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, who recognizes that there shouldn't be separation, in the big picture, between discoveries and the process of discovery and understanding. (Connie Willis is a science fiction author who makes great use of this conceit.) History of science books are also marvelous, not just for the hilarious things people used to believe with great earnestness (always a somewhat humbling read, at the back of your head), but wonderful catalogs of human genius in parsing the world around them.

This book, Naming Nature, looks like it's going to hit a lot of my bulletproof kinks: storytelling about people in the sciences, as well as learning how people not in the Western scientific establishment organize the world. One amazing thing I learned from Arctic Dreams was how Native people in the Arctic regions draw maps, how locations are emphasized not because of physical landmarks but events or stories: this is where I shot a walrus, this is where a bear caught one of my dogs. I'm not doing justice to the system, but the passages in the book describing this system are really incredible.

Beyond exploring taxonomies other than the one I grew up with, there seems to be something to be learned for storytellers too from Naming Nature, which is another reason I'm hoping to track it down:
Just find an organism, any organism, small, large, gaudy, subtle — anywhere, and they are everywhere — and get a sense of it, its shape, color, size, feel, smell, sound. Give a nod to Professor Franclemont and meditate, luxuriate in its beetle-ness, its daffodility. Then find a name for it. Learn science’s name, one of countless folk names, or make up your own. To do so is to change everything, including yourself. Because once you start noticing organisms, once you have a name for particular beasts, birds and flowers, you can’t help seeing life and the order in it, just where it has always been, all around you.
There are 2 comments on this entry. (Reply.)
idreamofcairo: (moses moses moses)
posted by [personal profile] idreamofcairo at 02:54am on 12/08/2009
That book sounds really interesting. I will have to check it out sometime.

I find the history (or, more accurately, evolution) of subjects (science, literature, whathaveyou) really fascinating, which may explain why I'm a history major. The things that were taken as truth one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, which are now "disproven" or ignored are always interesting to me. And what is even more fascinating is how some things change from being conventional wisdom to "flights of fancy" and back to conventional wisdom (such as the Earth being round - I believe the ancient Greeks were the first to determine that it was, in fact, round).
nightbird: Mucha illustration, young peasant holding scythe and grain (little boxes)
posted by [personal profile] nightbird at 04:35am on 12/08/2009
One of the books I've been reading on an on-again, off-again basis for the past couple of months is A Natural History of Time, which is all about just that. (With some infuriating "I am a super-insulated French scholar who disparages anything that didn't happen in Europe!" for flavor, but it is what it is, and the rest of it is pretty fascinating. There's a whole section on the reproductive habits of rocks.) But yes, if you can find it at a library, it's a good read on just that!

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