Thursday, August 7, 2014

August 7 2014 Reading

We had two readings today. Don read an amusing excerpt from Bill Bryson's book, A Short History of Nearly Everything:

Sometime in the 18th century......

The volume of life on Earth was seemingly infinite, as Jonathan Swift noted in some famous lines:

So, naturalists observe, a flea
Hath smaller fleas that on him prey;
And these have smaller still to bite 'em;
And so proceed ad infinitum.

All this new information needed to be filed, ordered and compared with what was known.  The world was desperate for a workable system of classification.  Fortunately there was a man in Sweden who stood ready to provide it.

His name was Carl Linne (later changed, with permission, to the more aristocratic von Linne), but he is remembered  now by the Latinized form Carolus Linnaeus.  He was born in 1707 in the village of Rashult in southern Sweden, the son of a poor but ambitious Lutheran curate, and was such a sluggish student that his exasperated father apprenticed him (or, by some accounts, nearly apprenticed him) to a cobbler.  Appalled at the prospect of spending a lifetime banging tacks into leather, young Linne begged for another chance, which was granted, and he never thereafter wavered from academic distinction.  He studied medicine in Sweden and Holland, though his passion became the natural world.  In the early 1730s, still in his twenties, he began to produce catalogues of the world's plant and animal species, using a system of his own devising, and gradually his fame grew.

Rarely has a man been more comfortable with his own greatness.  He spent much of his leisure time penning long and flattering portraits of himself, declaring that there had never “been a greater botanist or zoologist,” and that his system of classification was “the greatest achievement in the realm of science.”  Modestly, he suggested that his gravestone should bear the inscription Princeps Botanicorum, “Prince of Botanists.”  It was never wise to question his generous self-assessments.  Those who did so were apt to find they had weeds named after them.

[Don's summary of additional material:]

Thanks to old Carl and his Linnaean system of classification, our friend Hugh's life is, today, made much easier.  Ground cherry was once named Physalis amno ramosissime ramis angulosis glabris foliis dentoserratris.  Linnaeus changed it to the much more succinct Physalis angulata, a name it retains even today.  Before the Linnaean system, a botanist could not be sure if Rosa sylvestris alba cum rubore, folio glabro was the same plant as what others called Rosa sylvestris indora seu canina.  Linnaeus solved the puzzlement by decreeing them both as simply Rosa canina.

Emily read a quotation from John Burroughs and one short poem, both from the book Hummingbird Nest: A Journal of Poems by Kristine O'Connell George, 2004, Harcourt.:

The woods hold not such another gem
as the nest of the hummingbird.
The finding of one is an event.
John Burroughs, naturalist


A spark, a glint,
   a glimpse
   of pixie tidbit.
Bright flits, brisk zips,
   a green-gray blur,
   wings, zings, and whirr --

I just heard
   a humming of bird.

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