The Frontal Cortex

Nabokov Was Right

Nabokov always said that the only thing he enjoyed more than writing novels and solving chess puzzles was studying butterflies. As he notes in Strong Opinions:

Frankly, I never thought of letters as a career. Writing has always been for me a blend of dejection and high spirits, a torture and a pastime — but I never expected it to be a source of income. On the other hand, I have often dreamt of a long and exciting career as an obscure curator of lepidoptera in a great museum.

Even after Lolita made Nabokov (in)famous and rich, he continued to put his scientific knowledge to work, and layered his fiction with intricate references to various butterfly and moth species. But now it turns out that one of Nabokov’s speculative butterfly hypotheses – he theorized that the North American butterfly genus Lycaeides (aka “the blues”) was capable of existing in a hybrid form, as a genetic mixture of Lycaeides melissa and Lycaeides idas – is actually true:

A group of scientists from Texas State University, the University of California at Davis, the University of Nevada at Reno and the University of Tennessee have proposed that an “unnamed” population of Alpine Lycaeides in the Sierra Nevada is a hybrid species formed through an ancient mixing of Lycaeides melissa and Lycaeides idas.

These blues have colonized the treeless alpine region, at a higher altitude than the habitats of their parents, said Zachariah Gompert, a graduate student in biology at Texas State and principal author of the group’s paper, published in the Nov. 30 online edition of Science. Lycaeides melissa is found in the Great Basin on the east side of the Sierras; Lycaeides idas frequents wet meadows that reach halfway up the west slope.

Here’s my favorite Nabokov quote on science:

“I cannot separate the aesthetic pleasure of seeing a butterfly and the scientific pleasure of knowing what it is.”

That deep entanglement of truth and beauty, that search for beauty in the details of truth, was the enduring theme of Nabokov’s many intellectual pursuits. For him, the entire world was just an elaborate puzzle waiting to be figured out. And like all good scientists, Nabokov knew that the way to solve puzzles was to focus on the little things, to begin at the beginning and inductively work your way up. What Nabokov said about reading is also true of science:

One should notice and fondle details. There is nothing wrong about the moonshine of generalization when it comes after the sunny trifles of the book have been lovingly collected. If one begins with a readymade generalization, one begins at the wrong end and travels away from the book before one has started to understand it. Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so that the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with the worlds we already know. When this new world has been closely studied, then and only then let us examine its links with other worlds, other branches of knowledge.


  1. #1 Michael P.
    December 19, 2006

    Nice post. Did Nabokov ever say why he liked chess puzzles so much? I also like chess puzzles. I’m just curious.

  2. #2 Tim Baker
    February 19, 2009

    Where did the “fondle details” quotation above come from?
    Strong Opinions?

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