July 2, 2008


Snake-Bitten, Twice Shy: Jamie James's 'The Snake Charmer': a review of: The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge (ERIC ORMSBY, July 2, 2008, NY Sun)

The ancient art of snake handling is a tricky business. First you have to catch the thing; for this, a quick eye and an even quicker hand are essential. Once caught and held by the back of its head, the snake will often whip its whole length around your arm. There's an unsettling intimacy to its fierce grip. To uncoil the critter and maneuver it into the safety of a collecting bag demands a certain practiced finesse. But all that's the easy part. The real skill of snake handling comes into play when you extract the thrashing captive, especially if it's a venomous species. But even non-venomous specimens can administer nasty bites. And few things in nature are angrier or more aggressive than a snake let out of a bag.

In "The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge" (Hyperion, 260 pages, $24.95), journalist Jamie James tells the bizarre and compelling story of Joe Slowinski, curator of herpetology at the California Academy of Sciences. Slowinski was a classic study in extremes, simultaneously reckless and meticulous. A disciplined scientist, credited with the discovery of several new species and widely respected for his published papers, he was also something of a maverick, much given to macho antics, especially in the field. Fascinated by snakes from boyhood on — one of his favorite childhood pastimes was searching for rattlesnakes under rocks — Slowinski drew on this almost obsessive fascination to produce painstaking research. His scientific brilliance grew out of a lifelong passion, which he himself could not fully account for — and in the end it cost him his life. His research on snakes led him, step by step, into some of the central concerns in evolutionary biology; he was especially concerned with developing rigorous equations by which patterns of diversity within species might be explained. This research, first published in "The American Naturalist" three years before he earned his doctorate, is still widely cited in the literature.

Mr. James tells this odd story with great flair. His book is an affectionate — though not uncritical — biography of Slowinski that also offers a vivid glimpse into the practice of all science today. Unlike such 19th-century experts as Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh, who were concerned mainly with problems of taxonomy (and of whose bitter and lifelong rivalry Mr. James gives a dramatic account), Slowinski had to master a wide range of disciplines, from calculus to statistics. And there were turf wars to wage with rival colleagues. As Mr. James shows, not all venomous creatures are to be found in the remote jungles where Slowinski conducted his final research; the spitting cobra of Mandelay, which he discovered and first described for science in 2000, had its human counterpart in certain jealous competitors who more than once blocked him from grants and institutional support. Like other unconventional researchers, Slowinski suffered almost as much from professional backstabbing as from snakebites.

Were you out on a three hour cruise with only Mr. James's Music of the Spheres, you'd be in no hurry for rescue from the island.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 2, 2008 6:35 PM

That story brings back all sorts of memories. Snakes are a big survival school favorite because they are so easy to catch and kill. That's just how I remember it: you grab the thing behind the head and it twists itself around your arms while it tries to get at you with ALL THOSE TEETH. Meanwhile, you beat its head on or with a rock until its in proper condition to be eaten. Ur-r-r-ah!

Posted by: Lou Gots at July 3, 2008 2:38 PM
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