Love, and its complexity, in a butterfly’s name

Images: The red admiral butterfly, Vanessa atalanta; © Kristian Peters, CC BY-SA 3.0. Portrait, “Vanessa”, 1868, by John Everett Millais, collection of Sudley House, Liverpool; public domain.

Last week I shipped off the final revision of my forthcoming book, The Strangest Tribute: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels.*  You know how you just finish a piece of writing, and immediately stumble across something you wish you’d put in?  Well, the very next day, I happened to be skimming an old set of short book reviews, looking for – well, I’m not going to tell you what, because I’m keeping the idea for my next book under wraps for now.  But serendipity struck, as it does; my eye slid by, then arrested on, a one-paragraph review of Maitland Emmet’s book The Scientific Names of the British Lepidoptera: Their History and Meaning (1991).**  And from that one paragraph I learned how the butterfly genus Vanessa got its name.  It’s a fascinating story – and it explains not just the butterfly Vanessa, but every other Vanessa in the world. Continue reading

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Reclaiming voice in scientific writing

Image: Western meadowlark singing, © Jim Kennedy via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

I’ve argued recently that our scientific literature is tedious to read in part because it lacks voice – those hints of individuality in vocabulary, style, and structure that show personality and mark one writer’s work as distinct from another’s.  I’ve also thought a bit about where our voicelessness comes from  Today, the obvious next question in the series: if we wanted to see scientific writing with more voice*, how could we make that happen? Continue reading

Of course you can do significance testing on simulation data!

Warning: wonkish. Also long (but there’s a handy jump).

Over the course of a career, you become accustomed to reviewers raising strange objections to your work.  As sample size builds, though, a few strange objections come up repeatedly – and that’s interesting.  Today: the bizarre notion that one shouldn’t do significance testing with simulation data. Continue reading

All the best searches find squirrels

Image: European red squirrel, © Yvonne Findlay, used by permission.

Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present once more a few of the more interesting search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found.  These are all real, I swear!

 

turdus

“Yeah?  Well, I’m rubber, and you’re glue, bounces off me and sticks to you”.  Oh, wait – actually, that’s just the Latin name for a genus of thrushes, including that most unfortunately named of all birds, Turdus ignobilis debilisThe 12-year-old inside me is somehow disappointed (although he can console himself with this post about donkey farts). Continue reading

Where did our (scientific writing) voices go?

Image: European starling by hedera.baltica via flickr.com; CC BY-SA 2.0

A few weeks ago, I argued that unlike fiction writing, scientific writing largely lacks “voice”.  By “voice”, I mean recognizable attributes of text, such as rhythm, vocabulary, style, and other  that makes a particular author’s text unique and that suggest the author’s attitude or personality.  Novelists often sound very different; with rather few exceptions, I think scientific writers all sound the same.

This lack of voice may be one reason among many that our literature has, and deserves, a reputation for being tedious and unrewarding to read (there is of course some brilliant writing in the scientific literature, but these glints are rare).  It wasn’t always this way. Continue reading

The unluckiest naturalist ever

Image: Ambrose Palisot de Beauvois (public domain).

Writing my forthcoming book has taken me down a lot of rabbitholes.  Many of them have involved the history of science, and especially, the history of natural history.  I’ve learned about naturalists who were heroic and naturalists who were despicable; naturalists who were centuries ahead of their times and naturalists stubbornly stuck in the past; naturalists who had every privilege and naturalists who struggled even to feed themselves, let alone to do science.  But no naturalist I’ve encountered was as extraordinarily unlucky as Ambroise Marie François Joseph Palisot, Baron de Beauvois. Continue reading

(Limited) use-cases for “utilize”

Warning: if you had your fill of ‘use’ vs. ‘utilize’ last week, I won’t blame you for clicking away. Here, this post is kind of fun and I promise it’s not about semantics.

Last week I let myself rant a little bit about one of my writing pet peeves, the overuse of utilize when use will do.  Going just slightly over the top, I wrote that “my claim is that in every writing situation, use is a better choice”. So, is “never use utilize” a categorical rule of writing?  Or is there a case, in particular circumstances, for using utilize in scientific writing?

Here, briefly, are four pro-utilize arguments.  Thanks to readers who pushed back (many of them quite politely).

1. Rhyme. OK, this is admittedly a bit trivial, but I was tickled a couple of tongue-in-cheek suggestions that utilize is better than use when you need something to rhyme. After all, Continue reading