lepidoptera trivia roundup

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

•     •     •

1. There’s a tendency to look back at someone’s life and find a link from their adult interests to some defining childhood event. Of course this is really just an exercise in confirmation bias; we hear about Paul McCartney’s fascination with a bass guitar in a shop window, but not about the dozens of kids who had the same feeling but did not later co-write “Ebony and Ivory,” and we don’t hear about the guy who really liked gummy bears and was later mauled by a grizzly (to paraphrase Patton Oswalt). But fallacy or not, such connections are unavoidable in the case of Maria Sibylla Merian, born 1647 in Frankfurt. Famed for painting and scientific endeavors, she was the child of a publishing house president and engraver, and stepchild of the painter Jacob Marrel.


Enamored of insects, silkworms, and caterpillars, from her early teens Merian had collected specimens and painted them. After marrying and having children (both of whom became painters), Merian worked as a private drawing tutor to the wealthy, primarily as a means of access to their gardens and estates, in which she could continue her entomological explorations. At 32, she published her first book: Der Raupen wunderbarer Verwandlung, or, The Wondrous Transformation of Caterpillars.

Here her biography gets confused. Sometime in the early 1680s, Merian and her family joined the Labadist community in Germany, a sort of splinter group of Protestants. Shortly thereafter the community split, she divorced her husband, and moved to a new Dutch community in 1691. At this point she began painting full-time, selling her works to upper-crust patrons and benefactors, occasionally in exchange for nothing but access to their cabinets of curiosity.

In 1699, she was awarded a grant, to collect and record the flora and fauna of Suriname. The grant was odd for at least two reasons: (a) she was a woman, and (b) at the time, it was extremely uncommon for purely scientific expeditions to be funded. Merian spent two years in Suriname, collecting and drawing, before a bout of malaria forced her home. She died in 1717, several years after a stroke, and very probably poverty-stricken.

Merian’s contributions to biology were paradigm-shifting. Rather than displaying dead insects pinned to blank white canvases in dusty museum drawers, her drawings and collections captured insects as living specimens in all stages of life and interacting with the world around them. She did this at a time when entomology barely existed as a field of study and it was still commonly held that maggots were the product of raw meat. Ecology, with its focus on relationships between organisms rather than in isolation, wasn’t invented until a century after her death. Even Linnaeus’s anal-retentive descriptive taxonomies were decades away. In other words, she did all this while operating in an epistemological and scientific wild west. But if you don’t care about any of that, the drawings are awesome judged solely on aesthetic merits: see more here—and be sure to check out 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. Hopefully you already know this, having been explained by “chaotician” Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, but it would be understandable if you were distracted by his raw 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 dramatically changed the outcome. That .000127 is the butterfly. But the general principle—small changes having chaotic and unpredictable effects—dates back decades or even centuries in both mathematics (see Poincare) and literature (Bradbury’s A Sound of Thunder).

Among the many intellectuals who described butterfly-effect tangential concepts was Norbert Wiener, who I would describe, with good humor, as a weirdo polymath. Wiener was born in 1894 in Missouri, the son of a polyglot and hyper-intellectual father with extremely particular ideas about how to educate his child, most of which revolved around being a 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. All that, and his “looking like an early 20th century German intellectual” game was extremely on point:

"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 and dealing with issues unresolved and still relevant even today: 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 developing 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 “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 actual 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. A common parlor trick of seers and psychics in the mid-1800s, the spirit cabinet was a cabinet into which spirits could be summoned, and “communicate” by making noises and mysterious galonking sounds and metallic squinks…precisely as one would expect from ethereal forms trapped in a makeshift chifferobe. Sussing out the con—the seers were making the noises themselves—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,” a name previously reserved for an enigmatic hidden loo in a third-floor alcove at the Palace of Westminster.

Maskelyne created many new illusions, but was perhaps more famous for refining the showmanship and style of “modern” magic acts. 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 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 of the movemetns 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, though 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!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s