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

Teaching writing through the curriculum

Image: Writing, CC 0

I teach a scientific writing course, and I think I’m doing it wrong.

I don’t mean that I’m teaching my course wrong.  It might not be the course you’d teach, but I’m happy enough with it, and my students seem to be too.  What I mean, I guess, is that we’re doing it wrong, as a department.  That’s because I’m teaching my course to grad students and 4th year (Honours-by-thesis) undergrads – and it’s pretty easy to argue that that’s way too late.

I’ve come to understand that writing is one of the most important things we teach our undergraduates.*  And while I teach scientific writing, I think writing is also one of the most transferable things we teach. Continue reading

Science, social media, and my fear of corporate puppetry

Image: Marionette, © Thomas Quine CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com

When we do science, we presumably want that science to have both impact and reach.  By “impact”, I mean more than citation counts: I mean that what we’ve done adds to human knowledge and changes how we think about, and interact with, our world.  By “reach”, I mean that the impact happens broadly: not just with the six other people in the world who do research on the same questions and systems I do, but with scientists more broadly, with journalists, with policymakers, and with the general public.

Do I want my science (and my science commentary here at Scientist Sees Squirrel) to have impact and reach?  Of course I do.  It would be rather peculiar to publish science, and write a blog, and hope that nobody ever heard about it or was influenced by it.  So yes, I want my science, and my commentary, to have impact and reach.  But I’m also afraid of that impact and reach.  And while that seems very strange, even to me, I think it’s not uncommon and it distorts our scientific message.  Let me explain. Continue reading

Quotation marks in scientific writing: seemingly simple, yet terribly troublesome

This is a joint post by Scott Ramsay and Steve.  The topic was Scott’s idea, and Scott (mostly) wrote the part about scare quotes.  The boring stuff at the beginning is (mostly) Steve’s.

Photo: scare quotes by Scazon via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0.

Quotation marks seem, on the face of it, the simplest of the punctuation marks.  Commas are rampantly misused; semicolons drive us to distraction; hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes are cryptic to all but the cognoscenti.  But quotation marks?  Nothing to it, right?  Ah, not so fast…

The rarity of direct quotation

The most obvious function of quotation marks is (and hence their name) to mark a direct quotation.  Issues of typography aside*, it’s pretty hard to get that wrong.  Except in one way: should you use a direct quotation?  Continue reading