Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

Image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”.* Public Domain.

Spoiler alert: “Outlander” plot spoilers.  Except they aren’t really, which as you’ll see is the whole point of the post.

I occasionally offer advice here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  I’m here today to give you some meta-advice: be wary of my advice (but not too wary). Here’s why.

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel-historical-romance-adventure novel Outlander.** Several times through the book, one of the two protagonists has a close brush with death.  Each time, the skillful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat, but whether it’s Claire Beauchamp or Jamie Fraser, the imperiled one is rescued or recovers.  In the most extreme incident, Jamie has received last rites and his skin shows the greenish pallor of the deathbed, and I found myself wanting to read late into the night so I’d know whether he survives.  But then I realized: of course he does.  There are eight more books in the series!

More generally, protagonists in fiction almost always have close calls (with death or with other unpleasant, if less final, outcomes) – and they almost always survive them.***  After all, the storyline in which the protagonist doesn’t survive their close call is an unsatisfying one,  unlikely to be written, or to be published if it is.  You can think of this as the Anthropic Principle of Fiction, if you like, but I found myself thinking of it instead as a form of survivorship bias.  We only hear the stories of survivors, simply because those make the best stories.

And that brings me to advice. Continue reading

Never mind the pedantry, they’re all “bugs”

I’m teaching Entomology this semester, and having a blast as usual.  Our 80 minute lecture slots are way too long, though, so one thing I do is interrupt the flow about half-way through for “Bug Of The Day”.  That’s just a slide or sometimes two about some cool bug, often with a real specimen to pass around (and with a stretch-and-water break for everyone right after).  It’s my favourite part of each class, because it’s pretty easy to come up bugs that make me (and I hope make my students) say “Wow!”.  I’ve featured bugs that are big, bugs that bite, bugs that are beautiful, bugs that have historic significance, bugs with interesting Latin names*, bugs that are just plain weird… I can’t possibly exaggerate how much fun this is. Continue reading

Charles Darwin and photography

I read a fascinating paper about Darwin the other day – and perhaps you’ll be surprised to learn it was by a Shakespearian.  My colleague and friend Randall Martin has just published “Evolutionary Naturalism and Embodied Ecology in Shakespearian Performance (with a Scene from King John)” (Shakespeare Survey 71 [2018]: 147-63). I know, Darwin doesn’t appear in the title, but he does appear in the paper’s first sentence, and he plays a huge role in Martin’s argument (that evolved emotions shared by humans and animals and communicated in facial and body gestures make theatre possible, that Shakespeare exploited this observed knowledge masterfully, and that Darwin used Shakespearian examples to illustrate his own observations).

Martin’s paper covers a lot of ground, but as an evolutionary ecologist I was captivated by the material about Darwin’s use of photographic “data” in his book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (published in 1872, the year after The Descent of Man; full text here).  I knew that the development of photography happened during Charles Darwin’s lifetime – after all, there are several famous photographs of Darwin. Continue reading

I answered 46 questions this week

Well, OK, I answered a lot more questions this week, but what I mean is that I’m the week’s featured interview on 46 Questions.  46 Questions is a great idea.  Every week they feature a scientist giving quick, short answers to 46 questions – questions that emphasize the scientist as a person with hobbies and personality and guilty pleasures, rather than the science they do.  I think that’s important.  There’s a stereotype out there that scientists are something apart – often, emotionless and personality-deficient automatons in lab coats behind a laboratory bench.  That’s dangerous: it makes it easy for the general public to reject science, because it’s separate and other, not part of our shared society.  Far better for folks to understand that scientists are people just like everyone else; that there might be a scientist in line behind you at the grocery store, in the next pew at church, or on the opposing team in the curling bonspiel.  Scientists have all the same virtues, vices, and personality quirks as everyone else (and that’s a major theme of my new book, by the way).

46 Questions has done a nice job of highlighting the humanity of scientists, and also the many axes of diversity among scientists that we can and should celebrate.  I’m happy to be part of it.

You can read my 46 answers here – but even better, browse around a bit.  There are all kinds of interesting people there!

© Stephen Heard  November 14, 2019

Image: 46 Questions logo

The scientific wisdom of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache

Image: Books 5 – 9 in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, featuring Armand Gamache.

“I don’t know. I was wrong. I’m sorry”.  Lacoste recited them slowly, lifting a finger to count them off.

“I need help”, the Chief said, completing the statements.  The ones he’d taught young Agent Lacoste many years ago.  The ones he recited to all his new agents.

The Long Way Home, Louise Penny

 

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec, knows a lot about homicide detection.  Gamache is the protagonist of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series of crime novels.  Over 15 novels so far, Penny has portrayed the usual assortment of crimes and their solutions, but also (unusually for the genre) Gamache’s approach to managing and mentoring the earlier-career detectives assigned to his unit.  His management philosophy can be summed up as willingness to utter, whenever appropriate, the Four Statements:

    • I don’t know.
    • I was wrong.
    • I’m sorry.
    • I need help.

These work very well for Gamache in the novels.  I’ve found they work pretty well in science, too. Continue reading

My worst writing atrocity

Image: “It was a dark and stormy night…”, from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Paul Clifford (1830).  Check out similarly wretched prose at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest.

I’ve been prepping recently for two different writing workshops: one on my home campus, and another half-way across the continent at the University of Wyoming.  A funny thing happens when you write a book about scientific writing: people infer from that authorship that you know things about writing, and even that you’re good at it.  I’ve come to accept the first half of that, although not the second.

I’m certainly a better writer than I once was.  (Writing The Scientist’s Guide to Writing helped me improve quite a bit; I can only hope that reading it has a similarly salubrious effect.)  There’s nothing unusual about my improvement: all of us learn to write better as we practice the craft.  And that means we get to look back and cringe at the offenses we’ve committed in the past. Continue reading

The empty bottles in my office

Images: The bottles in question (© S Heard CC BY 4.0); and the video screen that sparked the question (© Alex Smith).

 Warning: might be considered navel-gazing.

If you’ve ever seen my office, you’ll know that it’s a disaster zone.  Piles of books, unruly sheaves of paper, empty binders and full ones, cases and boxes of pinned insects, and sometimes my lunch – all strewn wildly across every horizontal surface. I’ve long since stopped pretending this is a temporary condition (except, of course, for the lunch).  I do still find myself apologizing for it – most recently two weeks ago when I skyped into a class at the University of Guelph to talk with the students about scientific writing.  Turns out they didn’t even notice the heaping mounds of detritus (or at least, they were polite enough to pretend they didn’t); but they were curious about the long row of empty champagne bottles above my bookshelves, just at the top edge of the video frame.  So I explained. Continue reading