Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Zoological Nomenclature

Last week, I had to go to the Radcliffe Science Library (RSL) to consult a book about the Italian Renaissance, which had temporarily been rehoused in the RSL basement. Wandering around the RSL reminded me a wonderful journal I once came across on its shelves, The Bulletin of Zoological Nomenclature. In this publication, history, antiquarianism and the natural sciences meet. In the Bulletin, zoologists deliberate, rule on and clarify the correct Latin names for the world’s species, with reference to old documents. Over the centuries, naturalists have sometimes christened the same creature many times over by different names, in error or in ignorance of each other’s work. What is apparently the same genus of termite, for example, might be called by one name in 1813, and by quite another in a paper published in a different country in 1856. The Bulletin thus consists in large part of historical research, as modern zoologists pick through the writings, plates and papers of their eighteenth-, nineteenth- and twentieth-century forebears, tracing the history of human study of the animal kingdom.

Do fish need historians?
18C Engraving of an Atlantic Salmon by M. E. Bloch
Historical research and contemporary science seem to meet in all sorts of unlikely places. The British Antarctic Survey literally drills into the past by extracting ‘ice cores’, and maps the ice’s gas content against human history, correlating changes in the gas composition with the start of the industrial revolution in ‘the early 1800s’. To make the arguments they make, they need to have an accurate grasp of human chronology. A recent BBC programme on the new Marine Census featured a New England professor who uses the logbooks of mid-19th century American fishing vessels to calculate (the apparently Biblically vast) fish stocks in the western Atlantic 150 years ago, and juxtapose them with the depleted populations in the same waters today. This kind of hybrid scientific-historical research requires archival and palaeographic (decoding old handwriting) skills, and sensitivity to the functions (and thus likely accuracy) of a 19th century maritime log book. In as similar vein, Oxford University climate scientists last week announced a new project to work through the logbooks kept by Royal Navy Battleships during World War I, which contain plenty of human observations on the weather c.1914. (If you want to have a go at this research, see www.oldweather.org/). Climate change itself is of course a historical concept through and through – the environment changing over time, through the actions of human beings – and so this kind of marriage of historical and scientific research is set to be a growing trend.

Much is made of the fundamental, allegedly unbridgeable divide between scholarship in the sciences and humanities. But concepts like time and the past obviously sit in the consciousness of all these disciplines. All scholars need to have some grasp of the history of their subject, to give their own research a meaningful context. So apparently radically different intellectual pursuits (like history and science) can turn out to have surprisingly porous boundaries, shared problems and rich interfaces.

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