Monthly Archives: February 2016

What’s in a (Latin) name?

Photos: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via; bust of Pierre Magnol CC BY-SA 3.0 by Albertvillanovadelmoral via

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

Our Garden has hundreds of plant species – many planted, and many more growing wild. That’s just the tip of the botanical iceberg, though – there are about 400,000 plant species on Earth. Keeping track of these is a big challenge, and of course the first step is to give them all names. Continue reading


Why do conferences have themes?

Images: Twitter conversation with Tamara Kelly, @TLJKelly, reproduced with her permission; meeting logos, fair use for critical commentary.

 Warning: I’ve got my curmudgeon hat on today.

I just registered for the 2016 International Congress of Entomology, which brought to mind a recent Twitter conversation (pictured above). Tamara Kelly was wondering why this teaching-and-learning conference had a theme, and suggested that “You’d never see a scientific conference with a ‘fit the research you’ve been stressing over for 2 years into this artificial theme’”. Well, it must be Somebody’s Law that as soon as you say “never” on the internet, someone calls you on it, and I’m afraid I was That Guy. 2016 ICE is themed “Entomology Without Borders”. In fact, almost every conference I go to has a theme, and I’ve never understood why. Continue reading

The globalization and provincialization of universities

Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Here’s Part 1. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In this series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but there’s no substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

The globalization and provincialization of universities

My first post in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for. Today, some thoughts inspired by Skúlason’s thoughts about what a university is.

Skúlason suggests that a university is best understood as

a conversation, a place where people who are trying to understand the world and their own existence within the context of a common pursuit for knowledge and learning come together to converse and exchange ideas (p. 13).

While “a conversation” might sound a bit new-agey, in fact this is an important observation that goes back to the revolution in European science in the 1600s. Continue reading

The best Acknowledgements section ever

Some people ignore the Acknowledgements sections of papers, but they’re one of my favourite bits. Not because they have much to do with telling the paper’s story – they don’t – but because they can reward a reader with the kind of writing style, personality, and humour that’s otherwise in short supply in our scientific writing. My favourite Acknowledgements section of all time, though, isn’t one that’s particularly funny or beautiful. Instead, it’s one that makes a very profound point about the value of criticism. Here it is, in its entirety: Continue reading

Do biology students need calculus?

Image: Integration by parts. Remember?

Nearly every university science student takes 1st-year calculus. The content is fairly standard: functions, limits, derivatives, max/min problems, working up to integration and often capped off by the powerful but counterintuitive trick of integration by parts*. I think 1st-year calculus is widely seen (both by the Math departments that teach it, and the other science programs whose students take it, as the sine qua non of mathematical training for all scientists.

Is it? Continue reading

Wonderful Latin Names, Part 6: Syzygium aromaticum

Photos: S. aromaticum flowers by Hafiz Issadeen CC BY-ND 2.0 via; S. aromaticum leaves by Forest & Kim Starr CC BY 3.0 via

A couple of weeks ago I described the evolutionary history in each jar of my mango chutney. My chutney has 19 botanical ingredients, and I looked up the Latin name of each one to locate it on the angiosperm phylogeny. I was delighted, in doing so, to discover that cloves are Syzygium aromaticum*.

The species name aromaticum is certainly appropriate to cloves, which have one of the loveliest aromas to grace my kitchen. We can thank Linnaeus for aromanticum, but that’s not what makes the clove tree the 6th installment in my series on Wonderful Latin Names. Instead, it’s the genus name Syzygium that made my day. That’s because it shares roots with one of my very favourite English words, syzygy. Who wouldn’t love a word that flies off the tongue like a feather-fletched arrow leaving a bow? A word with three vowels, all of them y’s? A word with meanings in poetry, biology, and astronomy? Continue reading

Three things a university might be for

Thoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 1

This is the first in a series of posts inspired by reading a little book full of very big ideas: Páll Skúlason’s A Critique of Universities (University of Iceland Press, 2015). Skúlason was a philosopher who served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and for 8 years as Rector, of the University of Iceland. A Critique of Universities (his last English-language book*) collects some essays and thoughts on the nature, aims, and organization of universities. The book is thought-provoking and extraordinarily lucid. In the series I’ll share a few points from the book, with my own thoughts, but these in no way substitute for reading the book yourself (links below the post).

Three things a university might be for

Universities are odd places. Despite the fact that an increasing large fraction of the public has spent at least some time attending one, I’d guess that very few people could enunciate concisely what they’re for – and among those who could enunciate something, there would be little agreement. Perhaps more surprisingly, I’d have the same problem. Continue reading