To know a Fly (Vincent G. Dethier)

Vincent Dethier, To Know a Fly (Holden-Day, Inc., 1962)
in paperback by McGraw-Hill in February 1989;
in hardcover by Literary Licensing, LLC in July 2012.

Category: Natural Biology

In English:
PDF (60 pages)

-read the original review article-
What kind of book is cross-listed under the subject headings of "entomology" and "humor"? Vincent Dethier was an eminent researcher who held appointments at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and the University of Massachusetts, but in  To Know a Fly he seems more like a man who never quite grew out of his childlike fascination about bugs: trapping them, poking at their bodies, ripping off their wings.
This would probably come as a compliment to Dethier, who declares in his exploration of the biological bases of fly behavior that "most children eventually outgrow this behavior. Those who do not either come to a bad end or become biologists." He believed that "anyone with a genuine love of nature, an insatiable curiosity about life, a soaring imagination, devilish ingenuity, the patience of Job, and the ability to read has the basic ingredients and most of the necessary accoutrements to become a first-class biologist."
To Know a Fly is written for the backyard biologist. Dethier downplays the technical jargon of the research conducted in his lab and breaks much of it down to afterschool kitchen experiments and "fine parlor trick[s] for even the most blasé gathering." The book, an unbelievably quick read, is suffused throughout with one-liners and laugh-out-loud anecdotes. Witness his account of the lab's attempt to discover the fly's mechanism for satiation:
"It is not possible to feed the fly with a stomach tube, but fortunately for us as well as for the fly, there is an opening at both ends. We decided to give the fly a super enema. The presence of some sharp S-curves in the hindmost regions of the gut complicates matters, but with luck, perseverance, and an unlimited supply of flies we successfully violated enough flies to demonstrate to our satisfaction that rectal feeding of a hungry fly failed to satiate him."
To Know a Fly, however, is not just for insect enthusiasts. The 119-page book — generously sprinkled with witty cartoons featuring anthropomorphic flies and excerpts from Alice in Wonderland and other literature starring creepy crawlies — may have "exposed in all his foibles ... the central figure, the fly," but Dethier reveals in the last chapter the "second dramatis persona," the scientist. The book closes with a meditation, written in Dethier's rambling, conversational style, on the true nature of pure science: "To know the fly is to share a bit in the sublimity of Knowledge. That is the challenge and the joy of science."


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