Saturday, May 28, 2011

What's In A Name

I put this up-- not because I wish to point out what a great scientist Feynman was (which, of course, he was)-- but because he says something in this interview that I think (*gasp*) he got wrong.  Not entirely wrong--just, I think he never thought about it further, beyond it's being something he learned from his father, whom he admired tremendously.

Feynman was an amazing scientist-- a scientist in the real sense of the word.  A person who wanted to *know*, know about everything.  He was interested in...everything in the world, really.  If you've never read Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman, I encourage you to pick it up--it's a series of great stories about an insatiable curiosity and a guy who loved a good joke, among other things.

One of my favorite bits from Surely You Must Be Joking... was the story he tells about the time he decided to switch fields for a summer--from physics to biology.

I began to read the paper.  It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on.  This and that muscle were named, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat.  So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.  
     "A map of the cat, sir?" she asked, horrified. "You mean a zoological chart!""  From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a "map of the cat."
 When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.  The other students in the  class interrupt me:  "We know all that!"
 "Oh," I say, "you do?  Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast  after you've had four years of biology."  They had wasted all their time memorizing stuf like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.             (Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman, pp. 58-9)

If you've already watched the video up above, maybe you noticed the part around the 4:00 mark, where he talks about other kids knowing the name of a bird ("that's a brown-throated warbler!") and how they ribbed him a little for not knowing.  He went home and asked his dad why he hadn't taught him that--and his father tells him that knowing the name of something isn't really knowledge.   That stayed with him, apparently.  The attitude that it doesn't matter whether you know the 'right' name of something is what makes the Map of the Cat story funny.  And, in many ways, he's right.  His dad was right.

Except in one way.  One kind of name really does convey important information-- a taxonomic binomial.  The two-part naming system invented by Linneaus.  If you know that name, you know what else the organism is related to.  You have an idea, albeit a rough one, of where that organism fits into the Big Bushy Tree of Life.  And that's not a piece of knowledge to toss away.

Other than that-- Feynman's a hoot:-)


  1. I have a big crush on Linnaeus. But SHHHH! Don't tell anyone! >_>

  2. Josephine-- awww...a crush on Linnaeus:-)) I like that that statue of him as a University student at Lund... such a sweet, serious expression. (Promise I won't breathe a *word* of it to anybody! ;-))

  3. Well, I sort of agree with you but with a caveat. If you just know the binomial, and nothing else, the only thing it tells you is that it's related to other things in the same genus.

    Suppose I tell you this:

    "I just saw a Salpingotus michaelis."

    What more do you know than if I used the common name? You still have to look it up!

  4. Jerry-- yah, I thought about that later (while playing with teh kitteh). It works, though, the more things you know the binomial for. I suppose I was mainly thinking of seeing that awesome spider fossil-- and remembering the shock of recognition upon seeing Nephila underneath. Ooh! Hey! I *know* that...and without beginning to read the article knew that the spider in the fossil would be an orb weaver, probably dimorphic, etc., and would have known those things even without seeing the photo. To be fair, the same thing would work with common names--but those are so all over the place, sometimes a bunch of names for the same organism (or, as with 'cornflower', misapplied to a different organism with superficial resemblance). So, I guess the taxonomics just rein in the wildness and do a better job of what names are supposed to do.

  5. Jerry-- you and your Baluchistan Pygmy Jerboas...;-) Kawaiiii!