it does not matter how the form is brought about.” It seems bizarre now, but Foster was only interested in using the shape of sponges’ spicules as a tool for recognizing species and assigning them to different groups. He seems to have seen any investigation of how the shape of a spicule came about, or why, as irrelevant and possibly dangerous. “Does your result wholly destroy the diagnostic value of the spicules?” he wrote. Thompson published nothing else in this line until a paper in the scientific journal Nature in 1908, which revisited his thoughts on the shapes of eggs. In Dundee he discussed what he called his heresies with assistants but was unwilling to publish, saying “everyone will say they have read it all before.” Maybe he also feared further ostracism.

Aristotle’s Disciple

Yet as he entered his sixth decade, Thompson’s career took flight. In 1910, eight years after his father’s death, he finally completed the translation of Historium Animalium that the two had begun decades earlier. It remains the standard version of the work and will always be so, as there is unlikely to be another naturalist who knows as much Greek nor a classicist as expert in zoology. Thompson thought Aristotle the greatest of all biologists: “No man has ever looked upon our science with a more far-seeing and comprehending eye,” he told the British Association a year later. In 1911, Cambridge awarded him a doctorate, in letters rather than science, for the Aristotle translation and another work published 15 years earlier, The Glossary of Greek Birds, a gazetteer of matters ornithological in Greek literature that Thompson called “the apple of my eye.”

D’Arcy Thompson’s later achievements make me wonder whether his earlier outsider status was largely self-imposed and that at some point he simply decided to stop shunning the brethren and embrace them. In his fifties he also began to pursue his thoughts on physics, mathematics, and biology in earnest. The aforementioned 1911 talk at the British Association’s meeting in Portsmouth was delivered from his position as president of the association’s zoological section. After the encomium to Aristotle, Thompson went on to outline his view of “the greater problems of biology.”



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