Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

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9780156032995: Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis

Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment. Four hundred years ago, a fifty-year-old Dutch woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.

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From the Back Cover:

"Fascinating reading about a little-known, independent woman."--Science
 
Today, an entomologist in a laboratory can gaze at a butterfly pupa with a microscope so powerful that the swirling cells on the pupa’s skin look like a galaxy. She can activate a single gene or knock it out. What she can’t do is discover how the insect behaves in its natural habitat—which means she doesn’t know what steps to take to preserve it from extinction, nor how any particular gene may interact with the environment.
Three hundred years ago, a fifty-two year-old German woman set sail on a solo scientific expedition to study insect metamorphosis. She could not have imagined the routine magic that scientists perform today—but her absolute insistence on studying insects in their natural habitats was so far ahead of its time that it is only now coming back into favor. Chrysalis restores Maria Sibylla Merian to her rightful place in the history of science, taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the Surinam tropics to modern laboratories where Merian’s insights fuel new approaches to both ecology and genetics.
 
"What makes Chrysalis such a pleasure is that our awe is guided by Merian's discoveries. Her life was dedicated to understanding and depicting the science of transformation, yet she never lost her enchantment with what few of us could deny is also miraculous."--Orion
 
"This lovely and thoughtful book sets Maria Merian's work in its natural context, restoring its true meaning and the reputation she deserves."--Andrea Barrett, author of The Voyage of the Narwhal 
 
Kim Todd's previous book, Tinkering with Eden, received the PEN/Jerard Fund Award and the Sigurd F. Olsen Nature Writing Award. Her essays and articles have appeared in Sierra, Orion, Backpacker, and Grist, among other places. She lives in Missoula, Montana.

From the Inside Flap:

An artist turned naturalist known today mostly for her exquisite insect and butterfly prints, Maria Sibylla Merian was born just thirteen years after Galileo was prosecuted for proclaiming the earth orbited the sun. But in 1699, more than a century before Darwin or Humboldt, she sailed from Amsterdam to South America on an expedition to study metamorphosis. It was an unheard-of journey for any naturalist at that time, much less a woman, and she undertook it at the age of 52 -- with only her daughter for company.

For two years, she stalked the tropical wilderness, looking for the caterpillars that were her passion, sketching her discoveries on scraps of parchment. Her careful observations of iridescent blue morpho butterflies and giant flying cockroaches made her one of the first to describe metamorphosis -- at a time when theories of spontaneous generation still held sway (old snow gave birth to flies; raindrops yielded frogs) -- and laid the groundwork for modern-day biological science, particularly ecology. But her accomplishments were mostly dismissed and then forgotten in the nineteenth century, when scientists feared that they would be discredited if they built on the work of "amateurs."

Now Kim Todd has restored Merian to her rightful place in the beautifully written and illustrated Chrysalis. Taking us from golden-age Amsterdam to the sweltering rain forests of Surinam to the modern laboratories where Merian's insights fuel a new branch of biology, Kim Todd brings to life an amazing seventeenth-century woman whose boldness and vision would still be exceptional today.

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