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.


More like this

Gratifyingly, my post on Nabokov and Gould has generated interesting feedback, including this post by Jonah Lehrer, who expands on Nabokov's own opinion of how his science informed his art. (Let's just say he and Gould didn't see eye-to-eye.) The post includes some wonderful Nabokov quotes about…
A recent flurry of papers (reviewed here) have presented evidence for homoploid hybrid speciation in insects -- one in Rhagoletis (a fruit fly) and two in butterflies (one in Heliconius and one in Lycaeides). The Rhagoletis paper showed that a hybrid species formed from two other species -- one…
Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss, poems that take a thousand years to die but ape the immortality of this red label on a little butterfly. - excerpt from Vladimir Nabokov's "On Discovering a Butterfly" It's not very well known that novelist Vladimir Nabokov, author of…
Source. "L" and alliterations thereof, turns out to have immense importance in literature and science. Science and art can co-exist. Surprised? Let me explain. The creator of the infamous character "Lolita," Vladimir Nabokov, turns out to have been not only one of the most influential writers…

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

By Michael P. (not verified) on 19 Dec 2006 #permalink

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

By Tim Baker (not verified) on 19 Feb 2009 #permalink