The Flowering of a Naturalist
Long before Darwin set sail on the Beagle, Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) traveled to Surinam to study the life cycles of moths and butterflies. The first European naturalist to make an overseas voyage with the sole purpose of scientific observation and the first to investigate the rain-forest canopy, she insisted on documenting insects and other creatures within their ecological contexts. Since her death, her work has largely been dismissed and ignored, but it influenced such thinkers as Erasmus Darwin and Carolus Linnaeus.
Kim Todd's engaging biography, Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis (Harcourt, $27), recognizes Merian's contributions and puts her career in perspective. Relying on Merian's study book and letters, historical documents, and skillful speculation that only occasionally tests our sense of the plausible, Todd recreates her life and explores her significant impact on both entomology and ecology.
Especially fascinating is Todd's account of Merian's early work: She began by painting unflawed flowers, but soon the insects that populated those blooms crept into the paintings, eating holes in petals, hanging their pupae from stems. As Todd notes, it is impossible not to see a sly sense of humor in the (almost) perfect pink rose shown here—and a conscious shift from traditional depiction to a more accurate view. Yet Merian's engravings and prints do not sacrifice art for science; rather, they use art to illuminate the species portrayed. As Merian wrote of flowers and insects, "They make one alive through the other."—Anna Lena Phillips
Connect With Us:
Happy Birthday to Alvin! August 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of Alvin, the submersible that has been so influential in ocean research, including the discovery of hydrothermal vents. In 2014, a retrofitted Alvin also took its first test cruise.
Heather Olins, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, studies microbial ecology at deep sea hydrothermal vents with the help of Alvin, and shares her personal tribute to the submersible on these landmark occasions.
To view all multimedia content, click "Latest Multimedia"!
A free daily summary of the latest news in scientific research. Each story is summarized concisely and linked directly to the original source for further reading.
An early peek at each new issue, with descriptions of feature articles, columns, Science Observers and more. Every other issue contains links to everything in the latest issue's table of contents.News of book reviews published in American Scientist and around the web, as well as other noteworthy happenings in the world of science books.
To sign up for automatic emails of the American Scientist Update and Scientists' Nightstand issues, create an online profile, then sign up in the My AmSci area.