Monday, 23 January 2012

To Begin...

“…a cat that walks by himself,
tenaciously unhousebroken and very unsafe for children…”

“What would Goethe say to the view from this window,
the wintry, ill-lit street,
he with his recurring pleasures, fruits, and flowers?”

Why? Why do this? The fact that there are puzzles and connections, and connections between puzzles, and puzzles between connections, some starting in silence – from a whisper to a scream (“the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation”) – others deafeningly silent.

Left: Cover of Antole Broyard 1993 [reprint 1997]. Kafka was the rage: a Greenwich Village memoir. Vintage Books.

Right: Thomas Radcliffe Comber (1837—1902) [Portrait from Journal of Botany 40: 386—88, 1902 [portrait is on p. 387]

Inspiration: Thomas Radcliffe Comber (1837—1902). I’ve come across his work a few times now in connection with my studies on diatoms, the unicellular photosynthetic organisms I’ve devoted quite a bit of my life to. I was asked a question about three names of diatom species that Thomas Comber was supposed to have been responsible for, to have created, bought into being: Neidium dubitatum, Neidium iridis var. rhodana and Nitzschia moissacensis. The electronic online Catalogue of Diatom Names at the California Academy of Sciences, presumably following the earlier printed version by Sam VanLandingham, cites as the source of these three names the publication ‘Comber 1901’. Comber published two items in 1901: a contribution to the Catalogue of African Plants Collected by Dr. Friedrich Welwitsch in 1853-1861; and a contribution to the Fauna, flora & geology of the Clyde area; both are,more or less, lists of diatom species, just the names and a few details. Neither of these publications includes any of the three names above. The names have all but vanished. A puzzle.

At the same time I was looking into Comber’s lost names, I was reading Anatole Broyard’s Kafka was the Rage, his memoir of 1940s Greenwich Village, New York City. It has been said that Coleman Silk, the ‘hero’ of Philip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, was based upon Broyard. This is not so. Broyard’s Kafka was the Rage is entertaining for a number of reasons but there was this story, a tale of the opening of a bottle of wine. The bottle resisted opening and, after several attempts, with a final hefty yank of the corkscrew:

“I pulled very gradually, gently at first, then more strongly. Nothing happened. The cork didn’t budge. I couldn’t imagine why not—it wasn’t as if this was an ancient bottle of wine that had been sealed by time itself. To get a better purchase, I put the bottle on the floor between my feet.

What came next still seems incredible to me. Sometimes I think it didn’t actually happen, that my memory is playing tricks. But it did happen: Before my eyes, I saw the corkscrew slowly emerge from the cork. It didn’t break off; the cork didn’t crumble. The screw simply straightened out, so that I was holding in my hand something that resembled an ice pick.”

Can this be true? Could it really have happened? A different kind of puzzle – maybe one too odd and ancient to investigate?
Is there any connection between Anatole Broyard and Thomas Comber, 1940s Greenwich Village and the study of diatoms? Do you see the connection(s)? You will. In time. But for now, the connection is simple: Me.

What will follow in subsequent posts is a series of vignettes, a series of essays centred around a particular diatom, with connections and puzzles, some simple, others not, some puzzles solved, others not, some puzzles to which I really should know the solution, others no one can hope to…or maybe…

I can’t explain Broyard’s corkscrew but I can help with Comber’s names:

A quick look at an earlier printed catalogue of diatom names, the one published by Frederick William Mills during the 1930s, An index to the genera and species of the Diatomaceae and their synonyms, provides the solution. Mills included the three lost Comber names – Neidium dubitatum, Neidium iridis var. rhodana and Nitzschia moissacensis but attributed them to someone called ‘Combere’. There is no such person. ‘Combere’ was subsequently interpreted as an error for Thomas Comber, when in fact it was an error for an entirely different person: Joseph Comère (1854—1932), a pharmacist and phycologist who occasionally dabbled in diatom studies. Hunting around I eventually found this article by Comère: ‘Documents pour l’étude des diatomées d’eau douce’, published in a commemorative issue of Nuova Notarisia, celebrating their 40 years of publishing (1886—1925). Here is where the names can be found:

Neidium dubitatum (Héribaud) Comère and Neidium iridis var. rhodana (Brun) Comère on page 69; Nitzschia moissacensis (Heribaud) Comère on page 87.

A fictitious person – ‘Combere’ – becomes a real person – Comber, but the wrong real person; who becomes the right real person: Comère. All with the switch of a b for an e. Comber – the real person – will return shortly.

There will be (there are) items of relevance for the future scattered around (“the power of persuasion is no match for anticipation”)…Easter eggs as silica valves: “Only Connect” (E. M. Forster, 1910). More clues that (than) you need…

The solution to the three lost names was easy to solve…the rest, what follows, well…let’s see…

Items You May Like to Read

On Thomas Comber:

[Obituary] 1902 Journal of Botany 40: 386—88 [the portrait is on p. 387 reproduced above]
[Obituary] 1902 Proceedings of the Linnean Society 114 [1901–2]: 30—31
[Obituary] Transactions of the Liverpool Botanical Society 1909: 65–66

On Anatole Broyard:

Broyard, A. 1993 [reprint 1997]. Kafka was the rage: a Greenwich Village memoir. Vintage Books.
‘Anatole Broyard, 70, Book Critic and Editor at The Times, Is Dead’, The New York Times, Friday, October 12th, 1990

On Comber’s ‘Lost’ Names:

Comère, J. 1925. Documents pour l’étude des diatomées d’eau douce. Nuova Notarisia (fasc. commemor.) (1886—1925): 51—102.
Mills, F.W. 1933—35. An index to the genera and species of the Diatomaceae and their synonyms. London, Wheldon & Wesley.
VanLandingham, S.L. 1969—1979. Catalogue of the Fossil and Recent Genera and Species of Diatoms and their Synonyms. 8 volumes. J. Cramer. 
Catalogue of Diatom Names, California Academy of Sciences, On-line Version updated 19 Sept 2011. Compiled by Elisabeth Fourtanier & J. Patrick Kociolek.

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