Semper Fidelis - Semper Discentes

Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Letters to a Young Scientist

In Books on April 18, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I am a great admirer of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, one of the leading biologists in the world.  He’s a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner (nonfiction), honorary curator in entomology and University Research Professor Emeritus at Harvard, and one of the world’s leading authorities on ants.

Just glancing over at my bookshelf, I can see copies of his The Diversity of Life, Naturalist, In Search of Nature, Biophilia, and Journey to the Ants and the massive The Ants (both with Bert Hölldobler).  I’ve just finished reading his newest book, Letters to a Young Scientist (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013), and I think it’s his best yet.

I suppose that “young” is a relative term.  To the octogenarian Dr. Wilson, my three-score-and-one years may qualify me.  As a new enthusiast to the world of entomology, particularly dragonflies, damselflies, and beetles, I quickly realized that I have too few years left in my life to learn much about such a wide variety of insects.  I recently wondered if I should try to “specialize” in some aspect of study, and Wilson’s book offers great advice and guidance to any “scientist”, of whatever age.

As I read, I highlighted passages that seemed to resonate with me, and quickly found that some pages contained more yellow markings than white background.  The following are short excerpts that I took to heart:

“…put passion ahead of training.  Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science…Obey that passion as long as it lasts [but] be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears.”

“Ideas in science emerge most readily when some part of the world is studied for its own sake.”

“If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan on raising it, but meanwhile know that you can do outstanding work with what you have…For every scientist…of whatever competence in mathematics, there exists a discipline in science for which that level of mathematical competence is enough to achieve excellence.”

“Look for a chance to break away, to find a subject you can make your own…where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another…There are thousands of subjects…where it is possible in a short time to attain the status of an authority.”

(I especially like the following):  “…in most fields most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment…the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree:  bright enough to see what can be done, but not so bright as to become bored doing it.”

“Go where the least action is occurring.”

“To make discoveries in science, both small and important, you must be an expert on the topics addressed.  To be an expert innovator requires commitment.”

I’ve just had my first scientific paper accepted for publication, and it’s a great thrill; however, as I mention in the report, it really contains nothing new, just previously-available data presented in a much more convenient and accessible format.  Wilson says:

“Original discoveries…are what count the most.  Let me put that more strongly:  they are all that counts.”

“You will make mistakes.  Try not to make big ones.  Whatever the case, admit them and move on.”

Excellent advice from a great man.  I’m seriously considering the “subject I can make my own.”  I recommend the book most highly.


Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1994). Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Hölldobler, B., & Wilson, E. O. (1990). The Ants. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (2013). Letters to a Young Scientist. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Wilson, E. O. (1996). In Search of Nature. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1994). Naturalist. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1992). The Diversity of Life. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East (and West)

In Books on April 9, 2013 at 1:48 pm

When I first became interested in dragonflies and damselflies in 2009, one of the very first books I bought was Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West.  As I was living in Missouri, the book BARELY covered the species I was accustomed to seeing, and I was delighted when his Eastern guide came out a couple of years later.  Now that we’re moving to Wyoming, I expect to be using the Western book more and more.

IF I COULD OWN ONLY ONE ODONATE BOOK, IT WOULD BE ONE OF THESE GUIDES.  Here’s the review I wrote for Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East,when I received it in 2012.  Go out and buy one of these volumes.  You will not be sorry.

I’ve been waiting for nearly a year for the release of Dr. Dennis Paulson’s Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East, a companion volume to his 2009 edition on species of the western United States.  I’ve never met Dennis “in person”, but he has become a valued Internet Friend, always ready to lend assistance to my floundering efforts and to answer my often banal questions.  He’s retired from the University of Puget Sound, somewhere WAY up in the State of Washington, and is one of the top “Dragonfly Guys” in the country.

I got a notice from Amazon last week, letting me know that my copy had been shipped; however, delivery services are rather slow here in the Missouri Ozarks.  I kept myself busy “tracking” the package on their website, and was delighted to learn, early this afternoon, that the book had finally arrived at our local postoffice.

Since our rural mailcarrier loads up his truck early each morning, finally delivering my mail around 4 PM, I knew that it would be late tomorrow before I got to open my parcel.  Therefore, I leaped into the Jeep, the Best Dog in the World, my faithful Boston terrier, Dobby, at my side, and sped into Mansfield to the post office.  Cathy, the postmistress (is that politically correct?  Whatever.) saw me coming, and knew why I was there.  “Got your book right here”, she said, retrieving it from the Postal Bowels (might be a better simile, but I’m in a hurry).  Tina, the postal clerk, is usually the one who takes care of my Entomological Postal Business; however, she was nowhere in sight.

“Do you know what this is?”, I asked.  “I’ll bet Tina could guess”.  Cathy thought for a moment.  “It’s gotta be a book, and I know it’s something odd.  Frogs?”

“NO!!!!” I shouted gleefully, ripping off the packaging right there on the counter, “Bugs!!!”  She looked at the cover and smiled.  “Dragonflies and damselflies.  That’s cool.”  “If I may say so myself,” I replied, “I probably know MORE about dragonflies and damselflies that ANYONE ELSE in ALL of Douglas County, Missouri.”  “Does anybody else know anything about them?”  “Probably not.”

“So, are the female dragonflies called ‘damselflies’?”  I started to laugh, then realized, “That’s a pretty good question.”  I then gave her the brief speech on the difference, before racing home to loll in the tub with the book.

You really NEED this book!

I own a well-thumbed copy of Dennis’s western book, and was curious as to whether he’d just taken the information from the older book, updated it a bit with maps of the eastern U.S., then foisted it on an unsuspecting public.  I’ve used the western book a lot.  Although it technically doesn’t cover anything east of Kansas and Oklahoma, there’s a lot of overlap, and the information has been most useful.

After an hour’s perusal, I’ve decided this is NOT a rehash of the western book, but a completely reworked edition, with substantially more information, and much more (to my eyes) user-friendly. 

I’ve been chasing, collecting, TRYING to identify, and documenting odonates for about three years now.  In the case of damselflies, I’ve finally gotten to the point where I am semi-reliable in identifying the broadwings and pond damsels quickly down to genus (haven’t had much contact with spreadwings–the other category–yet), although my efforts to determine species are usually painful to watch.  This new book points out differences in a very helpful way, as typified by the following entry from the section on the Dusky dancer (Argia translata):

Western guide (2009):  “No other dancer, or pond damsel for that matter, has blue on abdomen tip exactly as male of this species.”  Helpful, I suppose, but how close is “exactly”?

Eastern guide (2011):  “No other dancer…has abdomen almost entirely dark in male.  Limited blue on abdomen tip not shared by any other species.”  This is what I need to know, and this edition covers ALL of Missouri, as well as Arkansas and Louisiana, two other states where I often find myself swinging a net!!!

The book, like its predecessor, is beautifully written and illustrated, and I’m already going through it, marking it up with a highlighter, so that the important field marks will jump out at me.

Dennis has done a splendid job with Dragonflies and Damselflies of the East.  Sort of a Robert E. Lee‘s Birthday present to myself.

It would be just great if I could talk him into coming down from Washington state and spending a week with us down here in the holler.  Bet I could learn some stuff.  I’d even drive him around and keep him fed and well-hydrated.