Thomas Eisner

In today’s NYT, an obit (by Kenneth Chang) for Cornell professor of chemistry Thomas Eisner, who with his colleague Jerrold Meinwald founded the field of chemical ecology, together exploring how insects use complex chemistry “to repel predators, attract mates and protect their young” — in particular, how they use chemical signals to communicate (not what you usually think of when you think of animal communication).

Violence, sex, and drugs in the insect world, as Meinwald put it in talks he gave over the years — notably at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences when I was visiting there in 1990-91. Amazing stuff.

The two of them, separately and together, published a raft of technical papers over 50 years, and Eisner also wrote fascinating and lively books for a general audience (For Love of Insects and Secret Weapons) and was, as Chang puts it, “an ardent conservationist”. I met Eisner briefly when he visited Meinwald at CASBS: like Meinwald (who has been conscientiously serving as secretary of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2004), an enormously charming man.

Eisner was a serious pianist (though Parkinson’s sapped his ability to play in recent years), Meinwald a serious flautist, so they shared musical interests on top of their scientific collaborations. An admirable as well as productive friendship.

Read the death notice, if only for the story of how the bombardier beetle makes a form of boiling hot rocket fuel as a defense mechanism.


One Response to “Thomas Eisner”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    And now a wonderful appreciation of Eisner by Natalie Angier in yesterday’s NYT Science Times, here.

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