Monday, February 14, 2011

Nabokov, a Heroic Tale

I enjoy Vladimir Nabokov as an author but I didn't realize that he was a much maligned scientist who was pushed into obscurity by others who didn't recognize the quality of his work. Since I'm a big supporter of the underdog, I found Nabokov's tale of vindication after 40 years thrilling. You can get the whole story from an article by Carl Zimmer in the NY Times. Here's a taste:
Vladimir Nabokov may be known to most people as the author of classic novels like “Lolita” and “Pale Fire.” But even as he was writing those books, Nabokov had a parallel existence as a self-taught expert on butterflies.

He was the curator of lepidoptera at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, and he collected the insects across the United States. He published detailed descriptions of hundreds of species. And in a speculative moment in 1945, he came up with a sweeping hypothesis for the evolution of the butterflies he studied, a group known as the Polyommatus blues. He envisioned them coming to the New World from Asia over millions of years in a series of waves.

Few professional lepidopterists took these ideas seriously during Nabokov’s lifetime. But in the years since his death in 1977, his scientific reputation has grown. And over the past 10 years, a team of scientists has been applying gene-sequencing technology to his hypothesis about how Polyommatus blues evolved. Last week in The Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, they reported that Nabokov was absolutely right.
Go read the Zimmer article to get the full thrill of the "little guy" who got pushed aside being resurrected and his genius now acknowledged. It is refreshing to know that a reputation can be rehabilitated after so many years, to know that the truth can win out in the end. I love science because it is a wonderful example of human collaboration in the service of something much bigger than the individual.

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