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) 

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Five Photons - James Geach ****

It is generally acknowledged that Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time is one of the most common books to be bought but not read beyond the first few pages. If you are the kind of popular science reader who found Hawking hard going, you can stop now - Five Photons is not for you. If, on the other hand, you found A Brief History of Time a piece of cake and wished you could get into more depth without resorting to heavy mathematics or a tedious textbook style, Five Photons could be just up your street.

Astrophysicist James Geach starts of fairly gently with a chapter on the nature of light that mostly sets aside quantum physics, leading up to the observation that light is our vehicle for for stripping back the history of the universe to its earliest times (or, at least, the point where the universe became transparent). From here on, the five photons of the title take us on different journeys, from the oldest surviving light of the cosmic microwave background radiation to that fr…

Mercury - William Sheehan ****

Driving to work one morning several years ago, I spotted a tiny white dot close to the rising sun. ‘That’s Venus,’ I said to myself. Almost immediately I saw another, much brighter dot a few degrees away. ‘No, that’s Venus – the first one must be, um ... Mercury.’ Even with a lifelong interest in astronomy, I always manage to forget Mercury.

With eight planets in the Solar System, one of them has to be the least interesting – and Mercury got the short straw. That’s a relative statement, though, and a diligent author could still dig up enough fascinating facts about that tiny dot by the Sun to fill a short book. William Sheehan has done a brilliant job of doing just that.

One of the reasons Mercury is so easy to forget is that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of it from Earth. Even after the invention of the telescope, which turned planets like Mars and Jupiter into explorable worlds, Mercury remained a mystery – and the subject of some pretty wild speculations. In 1686, for exa…