There’s a charming blogsite called Scientist Sees Squirrel where Steven Heard writes about his research, others’ research, writing for science, history of science (his new book is Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider) that I used to read a lot until NewBook dragged me deep into Ky Vatta, the family, and Slotter Key, the planet. I love the subtitle of his blog (“Seldom original. Often wrong. Occasionally interesting”) and his modesty (he’s USUALLY interesting!!)
I was going to title this post “The Writer’s Mind” until I thought of Heard’s blog and thus was reminded that the phenomenon my topic aimed at was not exclusive to writers. A certain kind of scientist has it. And other scholars here and there. Intense and extensive curiosity (as opposed to narrowly focused curiosity, not easily distracted), variably distractible but once roused MUST learn more. Today, in the list of “you might want to look at this” topics my browser threw at me, was “What a Newfound Kingdom Means for the Tree of Life.” SQUIRREL to someone with an interest in biology and the start was promising…a biologist hiking in Nova Scotia…Woof! Puppy Sees Squirrel!! And I read it. And ran into an even better target for a chase. Hemimastigote. What kind of a whatsis is that? Eukaryotic, OK. Has flagellae, OK. Hemi…that’s “half” of course. But…mastigote? I asked my husband if he knew what a hemimastigote was. No…why not look up definition of same on Google. I had, references to the same Quanta article. What I wanted, I realized, was the *derivation* of the name. I looked up mast, and found the definitions I already knew, and a slight bit of derivation from Old English/German that led to “nuts landing on the ground” the “good mast year” that means the hogs and the deer will fatten up nicely. “Gote” though…didn’t look Latin or Greek and proved to be an old (little o) English word for a ditch or drain. Puppy tail wagged but I stayed on the first scent. What did that have to do with a soil protozoan in Nova Scotia?
Google was my friend in the wilderness after all once I got it focused on the derivation of mastigote rather than definition-leading-to-taxonomy…the root I needed wasn’t mast but mastig…and it was Greek (yes I have a Greek lexicon, but my enthusiasm for finding it and pawing through it tonight was nil.) Mastig means whip (as does flagella in Latin) and these critters have flagellae…and some have fewer flagellae, or maybe short ones, hence “hemimastigote.” In the meantime, my husband, pursuing a slightly different line of inquiry, turned up a connection-maybe between mastigotes and mitochondria. (Can I just say here that one–but only one–of the reasons I am so fond of the man is that he also has curiosities far outside his formal qualifications and goes down rabbit holes with equal glee…)
Writers in particular are roused to the chase by new words, odd words, interesting words that we hadn’t run across before. Gote is going to require a session with the Compact OED; I want to use that word someday, somewhere. It deserves to be brought forward. Hemimastigote, on the other hand, has the right rhythm for an insult: “You unspeakable hemimastigote!” and the retort: “Yes, but my kingdom was founded a billion years ago, you nouveau–” Words, meanings, sounds, rhythms…all basic materials in a writer’s mental workshop. The jewels set in rows, the pebbles in the mosaic, every one of them has meaning, history, and a shape, a feel, that fits or doesn’t fit where it is placed. Not all writers are storytellers, but all writers use words.