Why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org

If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks.  (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.)  But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to.  Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies?  Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26?  And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is.  Continue reading


“Scientist Sees Squirrel” is nominated for a People’s Choice Award!

Image: Squirrel (of course), Sorbyphoto CC0.

I’m happy to be able to tell you that Scientist Sees Squirrel is a 2018 nominee for “Canada’s Favourite Science Blog” – a People’s Choice Award.  This is an annual award, jointly sponsored by the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada and the blogging network Science Borealis.  It’s lovely to get this kind of recognition, along with some other excellent nominees.

If you’re a regular visitor here, and if you like what I have for you to read, then perhaps you’ll want to head over to the nominees’ page and vote for Scientist Sees Squirrel.  (Voting will be open until September 29.)  Or, even better, you could head over to that same page and check out some of the other nominees.  You may find some new reading, and if you feel like voting for one of those other blogs, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (After all, that’s what I plan to do just did.)

If you’re new to Scientist Sees Squirrel – perhaps you’re checking out all the nominees – then, welcome!  Have a look around.  You’ll find all sorts of things here; in fact, Scientist Sees Squirrel is named in celebration of – or, equally, as an admission of – my wandering attention span.  A lot of it reflects my interests as a university academic, in the fields of ecology and evolution, but that ends up spinning out in a lot of ways.  You can go to the home page and scroll down to see my most recent posts, or you can dig into the archives.  You might find, for example:

There’s a lot more here, of course, so explore a bit.  If you like what you find, you can be alerted to future posts by following the blog (link at upper right), or by following me on Twitter or Facebook (a friend request will automatically make you a follower).  And when you’re done with Scientist Sees Squirrel, please head to the voting page, from where you’ll be able to visit the other nominees too.  Thanks for dropping by!

© Stephen Heard  September 16, 2018


Tree trunks, game theory, and the invisible hand

Image: Me, collecting foliage from balsam fir trees in Quebec.  Photo courtesy Cameron Rugo.

Last month I spent a week in the field, as part of a team collecting soils and foliage for a project assessing carbon sequestration in spruce budworm-defoliated forests*. The soil was always easy to reach, conveniently located right at ground level (funny how that works, isn’t it?) – but the foliage, not so much. As is true in forests the world around, the bulk of the foliage is way, way up in the air. That pole I’m wielding in the photo above? It’s a “pole pruner”, and it has a cutting head at the end of a series of interlocking pole segments – seven segments in the photo, which means I’m balancing a wobbly, bendy pole and manoeuvering it through snags and branches to snip samples about 12 metres (40 feet) from the ground. This is hard, and as I was doing it I found myself thinking that the whole thing would be simpler if the trees could just get their act together and grow at bush height.

Now, that’s pretty stupid thing to think, I admit; but it’s also an interesting thing to think. Continue reading

My latest paper is a garden

Image: Addressing visitors at the official opening of the New Brunswick Literature Garden; photo courtesy of Holly Abbandonato.

As a scientist, I’m really a writer, in the important sense that my research doesn’t matter until it’s published.  As a result, I’ve come to celebrate completion of a project not when I collect the last sample, enter the last bit of data, or conduct the last analysis.  Instead, I celebrate completion when the paper is published and available for the world to see*.

But my most recent paper isn’t a paper; it’s a garden.  And just a couple of weeks ago we had its official opening, and I’m counting that as “my” garden’s publication date.  I’ve just published my garden!

About that garden: Continue reading

“Latin” names that aren’t Latin

Image: Razorbill (Alca torda), photo S. Heard.

(This is a lightly edited version of a post that originally ran in March 2015. But you probably didn’t see it then.)

If you’ve been hanging around here for a while, you’ll know that I have something of an obsession with Latin names.  Or, I should say, “Latin” names.  As my pedantic friend Alex has pointed out to me repeatedly and correctly, what I’ve been calling “Latin names” all my life (for instance, here, here, and here) are not always Latin at all. As Alex points out, “scientific names” is a more accurate term (although I still use “Latin name” here on Scientist Sees Squirrel; here’s why).

While a large fraction of Latin names have Latin derivations, there are examples of names based on words from many, many languages (although  their form is generally Latinized.)  Greek is, unsurprisingly, the next most common; but there are many less obvious ones. So I thought it would be fun to dig up some good examples, and I present them here in the form of a quiz. Continue reading

Do I work for the Class that pays me? (guest post)

Image: Kya Sands/Bloubosrand by Johnny Miller used with permission.

This is a guest post by Artem Kaznatcheev, a researcher in the Department of Computer Science at Oxford University and the Department of Translational Hematology and Oncology at the Cleveland Clinic.  Artem also blogs as part of the Theory, Evolution, and Games Group.  I’m pleased to have this post, which pushes back in a very interesting direction against one of my posts from last year.  Read on!

At the end of last year, Stephen Heard wrote that he doesn’t work for the people that pay him. He wrote in his usual positive tone and focus. A positivity that has me coming back to this blog regularly. In particular, he pointed out that his work as an ecologist has a positive impact all over the world. Thus he is not working for the taxpayers of New Brunswick, but for people all over the world. He generalized this to all of scientific progress:

There’s an implicit global contract, I think, that having science progress is good for us, and that having universities helps science progress. Also part of this implicit contract is the idea that this is best done by everyone funding universities and setting scientists loose – rather than by New Brunswick funding a university with scientists who work only on New Brunswick problems, and likewise for other jurisdictions. The phenomenal progress of modern science, and its international connectedness, suggest that this implicit contract has worked very, very well.

He concluded with a reflection on the dangers of taking this global focus away from universities. And that he is unapologetic about not working for the people that pay him. Stephen was positive about the good that science does for the everyone, not just those that pay him.

But in this case, he found this positive tone by focusing on geographic divisions and geopolitical boundaries. He suggested that science often transcends these. I think this is probably correct, but — given my curmudgeon nature — I don’t think it is the most relevant division. Continue reading

Tweeting Science to Policymakers

At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, 5 friends and I put on a workshop on the use of Twitter in science.  Today: linking to slides and commentary from Dawn Bazely’s piece of the #CSEETweetShop.  How can you use Twitter to communicate science to policymakers?

Dawn has a long history and considerable success reaching out to policymakers and influencing science policy.  Her contribution to #CSEETweetShop explored the contribution of Twitter (and related media) to policy engagement.  And, because we need practical steps even to get started, she explained how to spot policymakers in the wild. They, she told us, are the people wearing suits!

 You can find Dawn’s slides and commentary on her own blog; please visit and read over there!  This page is really just a placeholder so that all six pieces can eventually be tied together on Scientist Sees Squirrel.

Thanks, Dawn!

Previously, in this series: