I am always struck when reading the old entomological and ecological literature by how much the style of our writing has changed over the last 100 years or so, and not necessarily for the better ;-) I am not advocating a return to the writing style of the Victorian 3-volume novel but do think that we might try to be a bit less dry when reporting our science in mainstream journals. With the establishment of on-line publishing perhaps there will be less emphasis on word limits from Editors and publishers, but then on the other hand, we are all busy people and the number of papers published seems to be increasing at an exponential rate.
Here for your edification is a title from the mid-Victorian period; penned by John Curtis an English entomologist
Curtis, J. (1845) Observations on the natural history and economy of various insects etc., affecting the corn-crops, including the parasitic enemies of the wheat midge, the thrips, wheat louse, wheat bug and also the little worm called Vibrio. Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society, 6, 493-518.
John Curtis 1791-1862 (Photograph from Wikipedia)
There are also some great sentences in this paper that give you an insight into the character of the man and the conditions under which he worked, which we do not get in modern papers.
“I had hoped, during the past summer, to make some progress in the further development of the economy of the Wheat-midge; but although the little orange larvae were abundant in some wheat-fields in August in this neighbourhood, owing to the wet and cold season I presume, I did not discover a single midge on the wing, and the larvae appear to have all died as usual”
Later on writing about aphids; I couldn’t possibly not mention aphids ;-)
“The corn-crops do not escape the visitations of this extensive tribe: indeed, what crop does?”
And from that great entomologist A R Wallace writing in 1865 on species distribution, Wallace, A.R. (1855) On the law which has regulated the introduction of new species. Journal of Natural History, 16, 184-196.
“Fully to enter into such a subject would occupy much space, and it is only in consequence of some views having been lately promulgated, he believes in a wrong direction, that he now ventures to present his ideas to the public, with only such obvious illustrations of the arguments and results as occur to him in a place far removed from all means of reference and exact information”
Obviously a man of great probity and conviction.
We all know of Darwin’s story, (Darwin, 1929), about having to put a beetle into his mouth having gone collecting beetles without suitable containers but how many of us know about this side of his character, also from the same source,
“A novel, according to my taste, does not come into the first class unless it contains some person whom one can thoroughly love, and if a pretty woman all the better”
It is a great little book and well worth reading.
Darwin, F. (1929) Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Watts & Co., London
Norman McIndoo, the inventor of the insect olfactometer writes in his 1926 paper, McIndoo, N.E. (1926) An insect olfactometer. Journal of Economic Entomology, 19, 545-571
“To the writer a potato plant has a characteristic smell, although not as strong as those from some other plants. When enclosed in the plant chamber, its odors are perhaps emanated along with the water vapour, which judged from the condensed portion, was considerable.”
And here in a relatively modern paper, from that intrepid entomologist Philip Darlington, P.J. (1970) Carabidae on tropical islands, especially the West Indies. Biotropica, 2, 7-15
“Mr Hlvac’s (1969) paper should be consulted for further details and discussion. But a very great deal still remains to be done on Scarites in Puerto Rico. Here obviously is another opportunity for exciting ecologic work, to be done under exceptional circumstances of comfort and convenience”
Non-entomologists will no doubt be familiar with Darlington from his classic species-area work on Caribbean herpetofauna.
So dear readers, which are your favourite memorable sentences and titles from the scientific literature? Please let me know.