Skip to main content

The Fly Trap - Fredrik Sjöberg *****

I have to beg the popular science reader's indulgence a little with this title as there's not a huge amount of science in it - but it is the most delightful book I've read so far this year. What science there is sits very firmly in Rutherford's category of 'stamp collecting', but there are still interesting insights into the drive behind natural history and the urge to catalogue. 

Fredrik Sjöberg refers to the 'stamp collecting' aspect as buttonology, a term he takes from Strindberg, one of many literary references. Generally speaking, I hate popular science books where the author has the illusion that he is writing 'literature' and churns out a choppy mess of allusions and metaphor. But that's not at all what is happening here. Unlike those authors with pretensions of artiness, here there is nothing pretentious.

Let's get the science bit in first. Sjöberg is an entomologist; specifically he spends his days collecting and classifying hoverflies. I so wish he allowed himself to tell us a bit more about the creatures themselves. There are plenty of passing references to various Latin names and habitats and more - but like most people, I suspect, I had just thought of hoverflies as those rather poor small copies of wasps that hover about in a most un-wasplike manner. I hadn't realised there were species that imitated everything from bumblebees to hornets - and some were almost indistinguishable from the real thing without an expert eye. I genuinely wanted to read more on hoverflies and their lives.

What Sjöberg does do, though, is to give a kind of defence of the stamp collecting aspect of natural history (while gently poking fun at the collecting urge), showing how it goes beyond simple ticks of the box to the link between different species and habitat, or changes in the environment. However there is much more to the book than the science, as is made clear by the opening where we meet a youthful Sjöberg in a job as a props person in a theatre, left in charge of the live sheep required for a particular play.

In his many idle hours - because apart from simply thinking while waiting around for flies, Sjöberg seems to spend a fair amount of his time doing anything other than working - rather like an author in that respect - Sjöberg has the chance to consider literary parallels to his situation, and to fill in details on his other passion, the life and work of the Swedish entomologist René Malaise. Apparently Malaise is a byword in the business for defining the definitive large, tent-like fly trap, but Sjöberg takes up nearly half of the book on Malaise's adventures in Kamchatka, his theories on Atlantis, his life in general and his art collection. The artworks (and Sjöberg's attempt to buy one) finish the book, for me rather weakly as it's the least interesting part of the story.

Seen as a whole, the book has two main recurrent themes, collecting and islands, because Sjöberg does all his collecting, year after year, on one small Swedish island, where he has by now identified 202 hoverfly species. And for me, this is where is writing is best, evoking excellent wild country memoirs like Neil Ansell's Deer Island. But throughout the book Sjöberg maintains interest in a way it's hard to imagine the thoughts of a Swedish hoverfly collector doing. I was sad when I got to the end - fairly quickly, both because I wanted to keep reading and because the book is shorter than it looks, as the text is unusually widely spaced. In part, the accolade for keeping my interest has to go to the translator Thomas Teal, but it's Sjöberg's light but penetrating observations, gentle humour and butterfly mind (see what I did there?) that keep the reader enthralled.


Paperback (US is hardback) 

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…