“To Know a Fly” by Vincent Dethier

To Know a Fly
written by Vincent G. Dethier
illustrated by Bill Clark and Vincent Dethier
Forward by N. Tinbergen
(1962)

This is a side-splittingly funny nonfiction book about the study of flies.

Take a moment to consider that, and now give me the benefit of the doubt for a few paragraphs to prove how this seemingly impossibility is not only possible but true.

Consider being in a laboratory setting. There are serious educated men (this being the 1960s, they were all men except for the cleaning lady), mysterious lab equipment, official white lab coats, a sterile environment, and, of course, the lab animals…who are all flies. Now consider those serious educated men attempting to coral those flies (not easy), keep that environment sterile (virtually impossible), and perform little experiments with them (a bit of a hit-or-miss proposition). This is the story told by Vincent Gaston Dethier, a leading American entomologist, i.e. a scientist who studies bugs. He writes in the same manner that I image he spoke at dinner parties, about the amusing and amazing things that had happened that day, intended for an audience made up of whoever his neighbors happened to be.

If you are deeply interested and educated on scientific topics, then this is a great look into a bit of historical science.

If you find Science (with a capital “S”) a bit overwhelming to think of, this is a great way to de-mystify the process. Scientists are real people attempting to do real things which are often quite silly when you look at the day-to-day activities.

If you enjoyed pulling the wings off of flies as a kid, as a teenager, as an adult, whatever, it’s also a great book. Among other things, it includes directions for how you too can perform some of these experiments using equipment that you have laying around. (Candle wax is really great, apparently, for attaching a leash to a fly.)

Despite the fact that I was the kind of kid who told such people to “stop that, it’s mean,” I still think it’s a hilarious book. There were a few parts that involved fly surgery when I felt pretty bad for the poor flies. On the other hand, even PETA can’t get too worked up about cruelty to insects.

It would not have occurred to me to pick this book up if it hadn’t been assigned to me in one of my classes, Understanding Research. Despite the burden of being an assigned book, it was both a quick read and quite hilarious. I am glad to have read it and definitely recommend it to others.

2 comments on ““To Know a Fly” by Vincent Dethier

  1. Anna says:

    This reminded me a little bit of a story I read on using flies in a marketing campaign – same sort of quasi-sympathy for flies: http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2009-10/29/tiny-banner-ads-attached-to-flies-generate-buzz

  2. Rebecca says:

    Ooh, that is an awesome marketing technique. I imagine Dethier would have approved. And I’d say it’s quite possible that he did, in fact, provide the inspiration and know-how to achieve it.

    But there is also the twinge of sympathy: poor little flies!

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