Sunday, September 25, 2005

A gentler kind of science

In his many fascinating books, the 19th-century French entomologist J. Henri Fabre made ordinary bugs of the household and garden seem as exciting as the beasts of the African veldt. He told stories of their nestings and matings, their languages and societies, and their roles as predators and prey, all based on his own careful observations.

In spite of his popular success, Fabre was never made welcome within the scientific community. His folksy, literary prose style was resented by his fellow entomologists. They were further put off by his resistance to dissection and laboratory experiments. Stymied in his career, Fabre never advanced beyond an assistant professorship at a tiny salary.

He believed that the methods of science must be consistent with our motives for knowing. His method was to enter as intimately as possible into the lives of the creatures he studied. His laboratory was the field. "I make my observations under the blue sky," he wrote, "to the song of the cicada." See this week's Musing.