GUY RAZ, host:
Long before Vladimir Nabokov published his sensation, "Lolita," most of his colleagues knew him as an avid collector and researcher of butterflies.
And shortly after he emigrated to America in 1940, he landed a job at Harvard as the curator of Lepidoptera at the university's Museum of Comparative Zoology. But on the side and quietly, he'd write, prose, of course, but also poetry, including this one about, what else, butterflies.
Mr. VLADIMIR NABOKOV (Author, "Lolita"): I found it, and I named it, being versed in taxonomic Latin, thus became godfather to an insect and its first describer, and I want no other fame.
RAZ: That's a recording from 1952 of Nabokov reading his poem, "A Discovery." Nabokov once said that he might have spent his life hunting butterflies instead of writing books had it not been for the Russian Revolution. And he was particularly interested in a group of South American butterflies known as the Polyommatus blues.
And in 1945, he published his theories about where they might have come from originally.
Professor NAOMI PIERCE (Biology, Harvard University): He believed that they came from ancestors in Southeast Asia that had crossed the Bering Strait, entered down through North America, across the Isthmus of Panama and then radiated or speciated on the tops of the Andes in South America.
RAZ: That's Naomi Pierce. She's a professor of biology at Harvard who's been using modern technology to put Nabokov's theory to the test. She says that his research paper on the Polyommatus blues should have made a splash in the scientific community.
Prof. PIERCE: But as far as I can see, it sort of died without a trace. It's not a huge community, and there wasn't a lot of notes taken of this. But in later revisions of the group and systematic treatments of the group, his ideas were pretty much put to one side.
RAZ: At the time, he was teaching Russian and also comparative literature, I believe, at Wellesley. Did his colleagues, other entomologists, know this about him, that he was actually hoping to be a writer, or did they think that he was kind of a - this kind of crank, or was he taken seriously?
Prof. PIERCE: No, there was a terrific interview with Charles Remington, who was a famous entomologist at Yale, who knew Nabokov at the time and said he was absolutely amazed when "Lolita" was published because he had no idea that this fellow, who he knew as a lepidopterist, had these other ideas. He said he thought he was quite a dignified gentleman, so he was so surprised when he read "Lolita."
RAZ: Why was his theory so radical at the time?
Prof. PIERCE: It was radical because he proposed five new genre(ph) of butterflies. This is a very significant new slice of biodiversity, if you want to put it that way, and also because he had a very specific hypothesis for how it happened.
He said they came across the Bering Strait, but then all the North America relatives went extinct, and then there were four more invasions across the Bering Strait.
And he cites them in turn. He describes a biologist in a Wellsian time machine, coming up through the Cenozoic, and he says: First, they'll see this group and then the next group. And he's very precise about both the classification of those groups and the timing. And this is very unusual even in literature at the time to be so specific, to provide such a complex hypothesis.
RAZ: He didn't have sophisticated DNA testing equipment back then. So how did he come up with the theory? I mean, what did he do?
Prof. PIERCE: All of this was based on his knowledge of the finer features of the genitalia of the males of these butterflies.
RAZ: Professor Pierce, at the time, these theories were not taken too seriously by his contemporaries. You actually decided to test them out, and remarkably, you found that it's all right, that he was entirely correct. So were you surprised at what you found?
Prof. PIERCE: I was astonished. What really surprised me was when I went back, and I read the paragraph again talking about the traveler in the Wellsian time machine and I saw the distinct ordering that he gave for the groups that our time traveler would see as they come up through the Cenozoic era, that's when I was blown away, because he made these five predictions, and he was spot-on correct about all of them.
That's Naomi Pierce. She's a professor of biology and the curator of Lepidoptera at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology.
Naomi Pierce, thank you.
Prof. PIERCE: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.