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:  Hardback: 
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…