Friday, 5 November 2010

They don't publish papers like this anymore...

Modern scientific writing is very detached and impersonal, a style which encourages objectivity but makes it somewhat difficult to read. This wasn't always the case. I came across a paper by Thomas Vernon Wollaston published in the periodical Annals and Magazine of Natural History, one of the top scientific journals of the time. The title is enough to make you want to take a second look: "On certain musical Curculionidae...."

His introduction goes:
Whilst residing in the remote and almost inaccessible village of Taganana (towards Point Anaga), in the north of Teneriffe ... my attention was called to a peculiarity in a beautiful species of Acalles ... which I do not remember to have seen recorded concerning any other Coleopterous insect whatsoever.

Without any further ado, he launches into the methods section:
It was on the 22nd of May that my Portuguese servant ... brought me home eleven specimens of a large Acalles which he had captured within the dried and hollow stems of a plant growing on the rocky slopes towards the sea ... he was about, in this instance, to throw away these rotten stems as worthless, when he was arrested by a loud grating, or almost chirping, noise, as of many creatures in concert ... On shaking the hollow stem, so as to arouse its inmates, and putting his ear alongside it, the whole plant appeared musical, as though enchanted ....

The methods continue:
So pleased was I with the accomplishments of these anomalous musicians, when brought to me, that I felt quite a reluctance (even though an entomologist) to put them to death. I therefore made a compromise with my feelings, and killed only eight of them.

The results of this investigation are that:
... in the case of the Acalles, the pygidium, although roughened, is not very sensibly so; whilst the small portion of the inner surface of the elytra against which (at each successive pulsation) it is brought to play is far less strictly file-like than was the triangular mesothoracic space of Deucalion [a genus of longhorn beetles that also make a noise] ... yet this is certainly the contrivance by means of which this little Curculionidous musician is enabled to perform its anal "song".

I don't think that Nature would appreciate a piece written in this style...

Wollaston TV. 1860. On certain musical Curculionidae; with descriptions of two new Plinthi. Annals and Magazine of Natural History Series 3, 6:14-19

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