294 pages, 61 b/w photos and b/w illustrations
Tyrannosaurus rex; Homo sapiens; Heteropoda davidbowie: behind each act of scientific naming is a story. In this entertaining and illuminating book, Michael Ohl considers scientific naming as a joyful and creative act. There are about 1.8 million discovered and named plant and animal species, and millions more still to be discovered. Naming is the necessary next step after discovery; it is through the naming of species that we perceive and understand nature. Ohl explains the process, with examples, anecdotes, and a wildly varied cast of characters. There are rules for scientific naming; the vernacular isn't adequate. These rules – in standard binomial nomenclature, the generic name followed by specific name – go back to Linnaeus; but they are open to idiosyncrasy and individual expression. A lizard is designated Barbaturex morrisoni (in honor of the Doors' Jim Morrison, the Lizard King); a member of the horsefly family Scaptia beyonceae. Ohl, a specialist in "winged things that sting", confesses that among the many wasp species he has named is Ampulex dementor, after the dementors in the Harry Potter novels. Scientific names have also been deployed by scientists to insult other scientists, to make political statements, and as expressions of romantic love: "I shall name this beetle after my beloved wife".
The Art of Naming takes us on a surprising and fascinating journey, in the footsteps of the discoverers of species and the authors of names, into the nooks and crannies and drawers and cabinets of museums, and through the natural world of named and not-yet-named species.
"If you've ever wondered what's in a name – and haven't we all? – then The Art of Naming is the book for you. Smart, funny, packed with tales of scientific feuds, enraged politicians, outsized adventure, and egos, Michael Ohl reminds us that in the wonder of name lies the wonder of life on Earth itself."
– Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize winner; author of The Poisoner's Handbook
"Michael Ohl's brilliant book shows that although systematic biologists are sometimes said to be crazy, it's the other way around; taxonomy is a psychoactive science that prevents madness."
– Fredrik Sjöberg, author of The Fly Trap
"In The Art of Naming, Michael Ohl takes the reader behind the scenes with biodiversity explorers to reveal the fascinating and surprisingly human practice of naming species. An engaging storyteller, Ohl draws upon authoritative knowledge and unexpected historical tales to bring to life, with clarity and wit, this little-known corner of science. As millions of species face the threat of extinction, there is no better time to celebrate the diverse kinds of life on Earth and the sources of the names by which we know them."
– Quentin Wheeler, President of ESF, New York's global environmental college; author of What on Earth?
"Michael Ohl brings to life the scientific process of naming animals, and the fascinating people who name them, through a superb combination of storytelling and rigorous factual presentation. The Art of Naming is delightful."
– Justin Schmidt, Southwestern Biological Institute & Department of Entomology, University of Arizona; author of The Sting of the Wild
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Michael Ohl is a biologist at the Natural History Museum of Berlin and an Associate Professor at Humboldt University in Berlin.