The best writing in science papers part 1: Vladimir Nabokov in Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera)

I have been wanting to start a new series here on my blog about examples of great writing in scientific publications.  There is a lot out there on great science writing.  But that is not what I am writing about here.  I mean actual scientific research papers where the writing itself is exceptional.  And todays example, which may be a bit unfair, comes from the one and only Vladimir Nabokov.  For not only was he a great writer of literature, he was also a lepidopterist.  He was for some time the curator of leps at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.

I note – I first discovered this when I got a work-study job shelving books at a library at Harvard only to discover that that library had on display a collection of Nabokov’s butterflies.  I got little shelving done when nobody else was around).

Anyway, I had read some of his short stories and book in high school but was not aware of his butterfly obsessions.  What amazed me most was they had some of his butterfly research papers on display too and they were simply amazing to read.  The writing in them is just awesome.

So thus we get to todays’s example of great writing in science papers: Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae (Lycaenidae, Lepidoptera).  Thankfully, somehow, Hindawi publishers have come into possessing of the rights to the back issues of the journal Psyche where this was published and it is freely available as a PDF.  The paper is not perfect mind you – some parts are written more eloquently than others.  But there are sparks in there of what I think are wonderful (for a science research papers).  Some of my favorite parts are quoted below:

The results proved so unexpected and interesting that it seems worth while to publish the present paper despite its rather superficial and incomplete nature.

In a way the initial blunder was Swinhoe’s who while correctly giving a subfamilial ending to the group which Tutt’s intuition and Chapman’s science had recognized (“tribe” Plebeidi which exactly corresponds to the Plebefine of Sternpffer) as different from other “tribes” (i.e., subfamilies) within the Lyccenidce, failed to live up to the generic diagnoses which he simply copied from Chapman’s notes in Tutt and tried to combine genitalic data he had not verified or did not under- stand with the obsolete “naked v. hairy eyes” system (which at Butler’s hands had resulted in probably the most ludicrous assembly of species ever concocted, see for example Butler 1900, Entom. 33: 124), so that in the case of several Indian forms which Chapman had not diagnosed, Swinhoe placed intra-
generically allied species in different subfamilies and species belonging to different Tuttian “tribes” in the same subfamily. [[ YES – THIS IS ONE SENTENCE]]

The arrangement proposed in the present paper needs to be prefaced by a few words on taxonomic units. The strictly biological meaning forcibly attached by some modern zoologists to the specific concept has crippled the latter by removing the morphological moment to a secondary or still more negligible position, while employing terms, e.g., “potential interbreeding,” that might make sense only if an initial morphological approach were presupposed. 

I am sure there are other Nabokov papers with other choice sections … will be looking for those later.  If anyone has suggestions for other great writing in science papers, please post comments ..