Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

Statue of Carl Linnaeus (Carl Johan Dyfverman, 1890, bronze)

The University where I went to school had many remarkable statues, but the most spectacular was an immense heroic bronze statue of Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, biologist, and zoologist who invented the binomial nomenclature we still use to scientifically name and classify living organisms. Including its base, the statue was 20 feet tall and Linnaeus was splendidly dressed in both a Roman toga and an 18th century frock coat (which would probably excessive in most places but not in his native Sweden nor in Chicago).

 

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every picture of him!

Linnaeus is kind of grinning in every likeness of him!

The statue of Linnaeus is remarkable not just for its size but for the wry look of scarcely contained mirth on the great natural philosopher’s countenance. I had always interpreted this expression as an artistic flourish, but last week, when I was writing about the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), I found reason to wonder whether the look was actually appropriate.

Balaenoptera musculus

Balaenoptera musculus

As I explained in that post, the blue whale is a creature of extraordinary size—an otherworldly giant which dwarfs every other animal ever known. Linnaeus knew this when he gave the whale its binomial scientific name “Balaenoptera musculus” and indeed the name is most appropriate. “Balaenoptera” is from Latin and means “fin whale” an appropriate name for the great rorquals. “Musculus” is also Latin and it means “muscle” an appropriate designation for the most powerful creature on earth. Yet “musculus” is a homonym in Latin: it also can be translated as “little mouse”. Linnaeus was a gifted scholar in both Greek and Latin. He surely knew the ironic double meaning. It must have been a stroke of humor which made him name the largest animal ever after a tiny mouse.