Monthly Archives: March 2015

Is there science in scientific writing?

Image credit: “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Chan

As scientists, we spend a remarkably large fraction of our time writing. An obvious question immediately arises: do we apply science to our scientific writing? That is, can we (and do we) apply our scientific ways of thinking to make our scientific writing better? The question, as I say, is obvious; but the answer is not.

There are actually three different things I might mean by “is there science in scientific writing”, corresponding to three different meanings of phrase “scientific writing”. Continue reading


“Latin” names that aren’t Latin

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

My friend Alex is nearly as pedantic as I am. Now and again on Twitter one of us will revel in correcting the other (in a friendly yet taunting manner) on some point of grammar or usage. Recently he got me good: what I’ve been calling “Latin names” all my life (for instance, here, here, and here) are not always “Latin” at all. I knew this perfectly well, of course, but nonetheless have been a bit sloppy. Alex points out here that “scientific names” is a more accurate term [edit: for a while, I used “scientific name” on Scientist Sees Squirrel; but I’ve changed my mind and reverted to “Latin name”]. I should have made this clearer, earlier.

But on to the issue that made me eat crow. While a large fraction of Latin names have Latin derivations, there are examples of names based on words from many, many languages. Greek is of course the next most common (the crow I ate, Corvus brachyrhynchos, has a Latin genus name but a Greek specific epithet). But there are many less obvious ones; for instance, I recently blogged about the Arabic derivation of Abudefduf. So I thought it would be fun to dig up some good examples, and to increase the fun, here they are in the form of a quiz. Continue reading

I have the best job on the entire planet

An opinion column in the Toronto Star got me riled up the other day. It wasn’t the topic of the piece (TA and sessional labour strife at an Ontario university). It was that the columnist seemed to completely misunderstand, and thus misrepresent, the nature of the job I do as a tenured academic. This is, depressingly, utterly routine in the lay media: university professors are “a coddled elite…among the best-paid on the planet… teaching fewer courses than ever, and sloughing off research duties” (Ha!), and we “enjoy paid summer breaks from May through August” (double Ha!). Continue reading

So you’re “not interested” in being Department Chair?

Have you ever overheard (or been part of) this conversation? For some reason the issue of being Departmental Chair comes up – maybe the Chair position will soon be vacant at your institution, or maybe it just was, or maybe you’re just chatting about career trajectories in academia. Sooner or later Dr. X asks Dr. Y “What about you – will you serve as Chair next/later/some day?” And – stop me if you’ve heard this one – Dr. Y says “Oh, I’m not interested in being Chair”.

But Dr. Y’s “I’m not interested” is a huge non-sequitur. Continue reading

Wonderful Latin Names, Part III: Two creatures named “merianae

(Image credits: Left, Opsiphanes cassina merianae, ©Andrey Zheludev, used with permission. Right, Erinnys lassauxii (=merianae), Shawn Hanrahan via Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 2.5.)

I chose the first two entries in my Wonderful Latin Names series for the sound of their names. Today’s entry celebrates names that are wonderful for a different reason: for the amazing story of the woman for which each species is named. Continue reading