Monthly Archives: July 2015

The joys of other people’s field work

Photos: Pulling in a gill net in Vatnshlíðarvatn; and a male arctic charr in spawning colour (S. Heard).

I’ve just come back from gill-netting arctic charr in Vatnshlíðarvatn, a small, shallow lake just west of Varmahlíð in northern Iceland. The charr in this lake are a pair of morphs (a diet specialist and a diet generalist), and the aim was to collect fish of each morph for stable isotope and genetic analysis. It was a sunny July morning (about 7 ºC, which isn’t bad for Iceland), the fish were beautiful, and I enjoyed the work thoroughly.

Those of you who know me are, by now, smelling a rat: I don’t work on fish. Continue reading


“Two cultures” and the talk that terrified me

I’ve mentioned in two recent posts that I don’t get nervous any more when I get up to give a talk. This is partly just age and experience, but more importantly, it’s because I figured out something unsurprising but important: that when I give a talk about my work, I know more about the subject than anybody else in the room.

I did admit, though, to a recent exception: a talk I was terrified to give. I think it’s the exception that proves my know-more-than-anybody-else rule*, and it taught me something I didn’t know about potential relationships between academics in the sciences and the humanities. It happened because I did the (to me) unthinkable: I gave the departmental seminar in my university’s Department of English. Continue reading

Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge

Image credit: Lava entering the ocean in Hawaii; US Geological Survey

When I was a grad student, and even a young professor, giving talks scared me: standing at the front of a room with my first slide on the screen made me very, very nervous. The result, of course, was that my talks weren’t very good (and I gave them too fast). I’m quite sure my nerves didn’t make me unusual, but I’ve learned since that actually, I had no reason to worry. You don’t either, and I’ll explain why. Continue reading

Sea monsters, waterbugs, and the fear of what lies beyond

Photos: Map of Iceland, circa 1590, Abraham Ortelius (public domain). Museum sign and merman, S. Heard. Giant waterbug, Lethocerus americanus, © Tom Murray CC BY-ND-NC 1.0 via

sea monster museum

I’ve just come from the Skrímslasetrið Bíldudal, the Icelandic Sea Monster Museum, in the town of Bíldudalur in the Western Fjords of Iceland. It’s a wonderful little museum commemorating centuries of monster sightings in the Arnarfjörður, the fjord that cuts like reaching fingers into the land here. The tour of the museum starts at a copy of Abraham Ortelius’s early-modern (1590) map of Iceland (above), which is copiously decorated with sea monsters. Some are obviously the product of observers grappling with strange new creatures, and getting them half-right and half-wrong (like the spouting boar-whale at bottom left of centre, or the monkfish behind it). Others seem like pure fancy, like the mer-horse above and left of the whale. All, however, look fierce and threatening. Continue reading

Where the Earth shows its bones

(Thoughts on time and change, from Iceland)

Photo: Lava flow, near Selatangar, Reykjanes Peninsula, Iceland (all photos in this post © Stephen Heard or Kristie Heard)

Iceland is a beautiful country, a changing country, a very young country, and an old one.

sm eldfelll IMGP6095Photo: Tuff cliffs from Eldfell cone, Heimaey, Westman Islands, Iceland

Iceland, of course, is a newborn in geological terms, sprouting from the MidAtlantic Ridge and still growing. The Earth’s bones show everywhere: sometimes cloaked only in a thin layer of moss, as on the lava flow above; sometimes a little more fully dressed; and sometimes, completely exposed. The other day, I climbed Eldfell*, the volcanic cone from the 1973 eruption on Heimaey, in the Westman Islands. I was looking across at grass-capped cliffs of tuff just 5,000 years old; but the ground beneath my feet was bare cinder, and younger than I am. Continue reading

How I started blogging (reposted interview with Paige Brown Jarreau)

Over at From the Lab Bench, Paige Brown Jarreau has been running a series of interviews with new science bloggers, asking them how they got involved and what they’ve learned from the experience. I was #10 in her series, which continues here (includes links to all previous posts).

Paige kindly gave me permission to repost our conversation. I’ve taken the opportunity to make a couple of very minor edits, but otherwise, this is verbatim from her original post (so if you read it there, save your time). This post marks 6 months of Scientist Sees Squirrel!

Warning: self-indulgent, meta, and rather long.

Paige: What motivated you to start blogging about science? Why did you start a blog, vs. using only other newer forms of social media like Twitter?

Steve: I suspect my friends and colleagues would tell you that I’ve always had plenty of opinions and have been quite willing to share them over beer and in hallway chat.  It hadn’t ever occurred to me to write these things down.  About three years ago, though, I started working on a scientific-writing guidebook (in press; more about it here), and I discovered two things.  First, I really enjoy writing in a nontechnical style.  And second, I enjoy writing less technical material – about peculiar facts or interesting connections in what we know about nature, or about things like history of science, career advice, and why we do things the way we do. Continue reading