Saturday, February 07, 2009


Though I do not share his enthusiasm for shad, and though I am finding the magazine's new site registration policy (and the limits it puts on linking) somewhat irksome from a blog-related standpoint, I liked John McPhee's piece about magazine fact-checking in the latest issue of the New Yorker:
In a freight train a mile and a half long, there is a vital tube of air that runs the full length and controls the brakes. In "Coal Train" (2005), I felt a need for analogy and guessed at one:
The releasing of the air brakes began at the two ends, and moved toward the middle. The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of an American eel.
Before long, the checking department was up to its chin in ichthyologists, and I was informed by Josh Hersh that the air sac of an American eel is proportionally a good deal shorter than the air sac in most ordinary fish.

"Who says so?"

"Willy Bemis."


Willy Bemis is to the anatomy of fishes what Eldridge Moores is to tectonics. Willy was the central figure in a book of mine that had been published three years before, parts of which appeared in The New Yorker. He had since left the University of Massachusetts to become director of Shoals Marine Laboratory, the offshore classrooms of Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire. I called him in Ithaca to ask what could be done. Ever accommodating, Willy at first tried to rationalize the eel. Maybe its air sac was up to the job after all. Maybe the analogy would work. I said the eel would never make it through the checking department, or, for that matter, past me. We were close to closing, and right offhand Willy was unable to think of a species with a long enough sac. What to do? What else? He called Harvard. The train's very long integral air tube was like the air sac of a rope fish.
Also: Rogue eel on the loose! (Via Nico.)

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