lepidoptera trivia roundup

A roundup of trivial things, obliquely, tangentially, and tenuously linked to butterflies…

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1. Let’s talk about Maria Sibylla Merian, born in 1647 in Frankfurt. I’m wary of the biographer’s fallacy, tying someone’s adult interests to childhood events, because (to paraphrase Patton Oswalt), you hear about Paul McCartney seeing a bass guitar in a shop window when he was six, not about the guy who liked drawing bears as a kid and ended up mauled by one. Fallacy or no, it’s nearly unavoidable in Merian’s case: her father ran a publishing house and engraving shop; and after he died her mother (about whom little is known) remarried the painter Jacob Marrel, whose pupil trained Maria.


She was enamored of insects, silkworms and caterpillars, and from her early teens collected specimens and painted them. At 18, she married one of her stepfather’s proteges. The pair had two daughters—both of whom became painters. She often worked as a private drawing tutor to the fabulously wealthy, which allowed her to investigate their gardens, where she continued to collect and document caterpillars. At 32, she published her first book, Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung, or, The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars.

Things get confusing for a little bit here. In the early 1680s, Merian, along with her mother and two kids, joined the Labadist community in Germany, a sort of Protestant commune. The community split at some point, and by now separated from her husband, Merian and the children moved to the new commune in the Netherlands in 1691. Merian was painting nearly full-time now, and selling her works to the upper crust, who graciously allowed her access to their assorted cabinets of curiosity.

In 1699, she was awarded a grant to travel to then-Dutch colony of Suriname to collect and record its assorted flora and fauna, a grant she supplemented by selling more than 250 of her own paintings. The grant was odd for two reasons: one, she was a woman, and two, unlike a few decades down the road, it was uncommon for purely scientific expeditions to be funded. She spent two years in Suriname before being forced home by malaria, and later published a book of specimens. She died in 1717, several years after a stroke, and very probably poverty-stricken.

Merian was unique. Her drawings and collections captured insects not dead and in isolation, not as so many wasps pinned to blank white canvases in museum halls, but as living specimens in all stages of life interacting with the world around them. This at a time when entomology, which can barely be said to have existed, commonly held that maggots were generated by rotten meat. “Ecology” wasn’t even a thing for another 100+ years after her death; Linnaeus’s anal-retentive taxonomies were decades away. She was operating in an epistemological wild west. And if you don’t care about any of that, the drawings are awesome judged solely on aesthetic merits (see more here—look at this ridiculous one of a caiman!). More info here and here.


2. The butterfly effect is a metaphorical representation of the idea that in complex systems, small changes can have big effects—that a butterfly flapping its wings in Australia can end up changing the weather in New York. Of course you would know all this if you listened carefully to “chaotician” Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, but I’d understand if you were distracted by his pure animal sexuality:

a strange attractor
a strange attractor

The first person to describe the butterfly effect as such was Edward Lorenz, a meteorologist, in 1969. He’d noticed that truncating an input value of .506127 to .506 in his weather simulations ended up dramatically changing the outcome. That .000127 is the butterfly.  However, the general principle dates back decades or even centuries in both mathematics (see Poincare) and literature (Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder), and among the many intellectuals who touched on it was Norbert Wiener, who I would like to describe, with good humor, as a weirdo polymath.

Wiener was born in 1894 in Missouri. His father was a polyglot, teacher, and voracious reader with very particular ideas about how to educate his child—mostly by being a disciplinarian and/or relentless taskmaster. Did it work? Well, Norbert was a literal child prodigy who got a PhD in math and logic by the time he was 19. On the other hand, he was socially inept, prone to lecture with a finger in his nose, buttonhole colleagues for long, rambling, uncomfortable disquisitions with a conversational style that was a “curious mixture of pomposity and wantonness,” and according to some tall tales, was so absentminded that he once forgot his family moved, once forgot where he parked, then waited for all the other cars to leave the lot only to realize he’d taken the train, and once didn’t recognize his own daughter. His “looking like an early 20th century German intellectual” game was on point, though:

"we call this 'the device'"
“we call this ‘the device'”

His writings and intellectual pursuits were broad and diverse. He just missed out on lasting fame due to aborted collaborations with Claude Shannon (information theory), McCulloch and Pitts (first neural network models), and von Neumann (computers), but ended up founding cybernetics anyways. A lot of his work was meta-scientific: he wrote extensively on the problems of scientific expertise growing ever more narrow and the simultaneous problem of how to organize our rapidly accumulating knowledge, the future of human-computer interaction, the problems of job automation and where it leads, and the ethics of science—in a 1947 essay in The Atlantic Monthly, he discussed his refusal to accept grants or research funding from the defense sector (apparently a come-to-jesus moment after having developed automated aiming and tracking programs during the war).

Here are some quotes attributed to him, ordered from least to most metaphysically profound, and most to least funny:

  • “The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat.”
  • “There are no answers, only cross references.”
  • “What most experimenters take for granted before they begin their experiments is infinitely more interesting than any results to which their experiments lead.”

Side note: I don’t want to lionize Wiener’s, uh, “eccentricities”, but I just adored this (surely apocryphal) story: In a class lecture, Wiener wrote a complicated equation on the board, showed no intermediate steps, then wrote the solution: “=6”. Asked by a student if he could do the problem another way, Wiener left the room for 20 minutes, came back, erased his previous solution, wrote “=6” in its place, and said “Yes.” If that was out of drollery rather than social awkwardness, it’s one of the greatest math jokes ever. More on Wiener here and here.

Side Side Note: Either this or this are the greatest math joke ever.

Side Side Side Note: The hot wiener is a Rhode Island delicacy.

3. The metamorphosis is a classic illusion in which a magician’s assistant is locked in a trunk, the magician stands astride or atop the trunk, and after an all-too-brief masking behind smoke or a curtain, the pair are revealed to have switched spots. The trick dates to at least 1865, when it was invented by 26-year-old John Nevil Maskelyne, one of the progenitors of modern magic.

John Nevil Maskelyne
John Nevil Maskelyne

Maskelyne had developed an interest in magic several years earlier, after watching a spirit cabinet in action. One of the common parlor tricks employed by seers and psychics of the mid-1800s, the spirit cabinet was, well, a cabinet into which spirits could be summoned, and “communicate” by making noises and mysterious galonking sounds and metallic squinks…just as one would expect from ethereal forms trapped in a makeshift chifferobe. Sussing out the con, Maskelyne built a spirit cabinet for himself, to demonstrate the fraud. Not long after, he began performing magic tricks, eventually setting up a 30-year residence at the famed Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, later called “England’s Home of Mystery”.

Maskelyne was noted for either creating or refining the showmanship of modern magic acts and for developing many new illusions. He also wrote a famous book—Sharps and Flats—exposing the secrets of card sharps and con artists. Like Houdini, he worked to debunk fraudulent spiritualists. Along with his son, Nevil (also a famed magician and briefly a rival of Marconi’s in the field of wireless telegraphy), he created some of the first filmic illusions. His grandson, Jasper, was also a magician who worked with British intelligence during WWII. Jasper’s memoirs describe grand elaborate illusions on the order of disappearing entire armies or fleets, but his actual success in the matter is unclear. Oh, also: Maskelyne’s other claim to fame is his invention of the pay toilet. No joke! It’s a trick of its own, really: a simple coin conjures from thin air a socially acceptable urine receptacle. Maskelyne died in 1917.

Advertising the famed act
Advertising the famed act

Side note: Maskelyne was a founding member of the Magic Circle, a sort of magician’s union-cum-secret society. They offered a reward to anyone who could demonstrate the famed “Indian rope trick,” which supposedly dated back to Marco Polo. The trick involves throwing a rope into the air, whence it becomes rigid despite having no fixed attachment; more elaborate versions have an assistant climb the rope and then descend, or, in the most absurd example, the assistant climbs the rope, disappears, and the angered magician chases them wielding a sword. The magician disappears, and the assistant’s body parts begin raining from the sky. The magician reappears, descends, places the assorted parts into a basket and lo—the assistant jumps out of the basket.

It turns out the trick is most likely apocryphal in all its forms, its legendary and mythic status nothing but a purely distilled example of the era’s fascination with exotic “Eastern” religion and mysticism (see e.g., the poster for one staged version). The Magic Circle never paid out its reward, and a detailed investigation of the history of the rope trick was printed in Nature, ostensibly one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, in 1996. You can read an expanded version of it here while I go watch The Prestige.


4. When you toil in the trivia mines, you unearth a lot of great lists. The best of this week was a “list of movements that dispute the legitimacy of a reigning monarch,” which has been added to my personal list of “things I didn’t think required a list.” One such movement is sedevacantism, which holds that by having endorsed changes made by the Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s—among them holding mass in vernacular rather than Latin—the pope became a heretic, thereby vacating the Holy See. Ergo, no pope since 1962 has been legitimate, and the throne remains empty. By some estimates, sedevacantists number into the hundreds of thousands. There’s also a splinter faction, the conclavists, who have gone one further by electing their own pope. It’s currently Pope Michael I; he lives in Kansas.

There’s also a list of shortest monarchal reigns (there is no list, so far as I can tell, for shortest monarchs). The “record” is held by King Louis XIX, who lasted only about 20 minutes. Evidently he didn’t want the throne, but had to wait until ascending before he could abdicate to his nephew. It took 20 minutes for the paperwork to clear. Then there is Khalid bin Barghash of Zanzibar, who seized power in 1896 possibly through some manner of skulduggery. His reign lasted just two days, and he was killed by the colonizing British in the shortest war in history: the 38-minute Anglo-Zanzibar war.


3 thoughts on “lepidoptera trivia roundup

  1. So much awesomeness in one post!

    Pope Michael (301 Facebook likes!) seems like a fun guy. It’s rare to encounter a guy who employs the capitalized third person when he speaks of himself: “We are working on the plan for moving the Church forward. If you are interested in being informed, send Us a message with your email address, and We will keep you informed of the plan.” Classy!

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