Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Vladimir Nabokov and The Blues

Biological Evolution
Art and Environment
Environmental & Science Education
by Edward Hessler
There is no science without fancy, and no art without facts.--Vladimir Nabokov
By Giuseppe Pino (Mondadori Publishers)
[Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons

Combining Art and Science

I think it is fair to say that Vladimir Nabokov began collecting butterflies before he began writing. However, most of us know more about him as a writer--"Lolita," "Pale Fire"--than about his lifelong passion for butterflies. And even fewer of us know about his scientific work.
You might know that upon first immigrating to the United States he worked at the American Museum of Natural History and then at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology where he made meticulous drawings of the fine anatomy of butterfly wings and their genitalia. Both of these features have been used in identifying butterfly species (is this butterfly the same as another or different?). Because genitalia evolve more slowly than the patterns of butterfly wings they are more useful characters for discerning evolutionary relationships.

Image from

Nabokov's Beloved "Blues"

We now have access to the importance and significance of Nabokov's taxonomic work. Fine Lines: Vladimir Nabokov's Scientific Art (Yale University Press 2016), a book edited by Stephen H. Blackwell and Kurt Johnson is a collection of ten critical essays by well known scientists and literary scholars and 154 black-and-white and color illustrations. The bulk of the illustrations are of his beloved "blues." Images of some of the blues are found here. Soulful.
Alas, the captions to the drawings are quite another thing. Poet and novelist, Brad Leithauser reviewed Fine Lines for the Washington Post. Leithauser includes one of them: "The structures are obviously far more robust than in many Old and New World Blues, with the broad and club-ended male valve at center left, enclosed by a narrow genital ring attached upward to a lobate uncus and a very narrow and curvate falx/humerulus."

The Karner Blue Butterfly

By Hollingsworth, J & K [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons
One of several species he named is the Karner blue. The name is from where it was first found, Karner, New York. This determination was not without controversy and was only resolved years later with the advent of DNA analytics. Nabokov was correct.
Vladimir Lukhtanov, a scientist at the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences and an entomologist at Saint Petersburg State University wrote a comment on the book for the journal Nature which includes comments on science and art. Nabokov accomplished both: science and aesthetics.

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