Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist

October 29, 2009

The big question framing the research of Czech entomologist Vojtech Novotny is that of why there are so many species of insects in tropical rainforests. His investigations, for the past decade, have focused on the tropical forests of Papua New Guinea, a land of incredible diversity and contrasts. Notebooks from New Guinea is presented as a series of short chapters of sociopolitical musings, anecdotes, adventures and misadventures in Papua New Guinea, and details some of the unique challenges facing researchers who have chosen to work there. For example, what is an entomologist to do when healthy scientific competition between institutions runs the risk of turning into an intertribal war?

The book, translated by David Short, is not only about the astonishing biological diversity of this island but also about its cultural diversity, much of which remained hidden from Western eyes until the middle of the 20th century. Some of the more culturally orientated chapters in the book consider why there are more than 1,000 languages spoken here (around one sixth of the world's total), examine the importance of the number 17 in the counting system of one particular tribal group, and show how a series of Chinese whispers propagated along the jungle trails led to considerable trepidation among many of the populace at the coming of the new millennium.

Furthermore, the reader learns something of the Czech Republic as Novotny draws parallels between the societal changes that have been occurring in his own tribe's society, that of the Czechs emerging from communism, and Papua New Guinean tribal society's recent engagement with consumerism.

Novotny's work is conducted on a large scale; for example, a recent paper in Nature studied herbivorous insect specificity to host tree species over eight widely spaced, and poorly accessible, sites across the malarial lowlands of Papua New Guinea. To expedite his work, his team recruited and trained a number of locally based parataxonomists in the appropriate methodologies to collect the large amounts of data needed for such rigorous studies. Indeed, Novotny, along with his colleagues, is a strong advocate of this style of working which, although it may have less precision than other methods, is certainly able to amass the huge quantities of data, and lead to subsequent high-profile publications, which could not be obtained by any other reasonable means.

Notebooks also provides historical briefings on Papua New Guinea and especially on the role that Christian missionaries have had in shaping the country's recent cultural history: these have not always been peaceful meetings. Sadly, some of the prejudiced Western views of the country as "backward" still exist as evidenced by the fact that Nature refused to allow the Papua New Guinean co-authors on a recent paper to acknowledge the forest spirits for letting them work in their forests.

This book is entertaining, informative and absorbing - especially for those, such as myself, who are lucky enough to be able to work in the Tropics and who have all experienced unique research challenges of our own. Indeed, in many ways this book may be more appreciated by other academics than the general populace as Novotny does assume a certain level of knowledge of the workings of the ivory towers.

Novotny also provides numerous insights and tips into conducting science in this region (although many of these "tips" may be enough to put many people off their forthcoming trip!); such considerations rarely need to cross the minds of more laboratory-based scientists. However, the book is certainly not all about science, as the complexity of human interactions in this fascinating society provides the focus for many of the most illuminating chapters.

Notebooks from New Guinea: Field Notes of a Tropical Biologist

By Vojtech Novotny. Oxford University Press. 2pp, £16.99. ISBN 9780199561650. Published 14 May 2009

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