Monthly Archives: April 2016

Caribou Run: poems about caribou and us, by Richard Kelly Kemick

Yes, this is a book review. Of a book of poetry.  And nobody made me write it. High-school me is gobsmacked.

Careers take us interesting places, and a couple of years ago mine took me to a creative-writing MA defence in my university’s English department.  I was the external examiner for Richard Kelly Kemick, whose thesis was a book of poetry.  I’ll tell my fish-out-of-scientific-water story in another post.  Today I want to tell you about Kemick’s poems – which you can read, because his book Caribou Run has just been published* (links below). Continue reading

I’m on the People Behind the Science podcast

I’m this week’s guest on the People Behind the Science podcast!

If you aren’t a listener, you might want to try it out.  In People Behind the Science, Marie McNeely interviews a new scientist each week, focusing on who they are both in science and away from science.  She gets her guests to talk about their paths to science, about their successes and failures in science, and about books, travel, and other personal interests.

I very much like the idea of People Behind the Science.  It recognizes – indeed, celebrates – something very important: that scientists are just people.  We’re people with quirks and foibles, human virtues and human failings, interesting backstories, and all the rest.  Society often pictures scientists as somehow apart – cool and dispassionate logicians in lab coats, to be found in a fancy lab or a remote rain forest.  Really, of course, we’re just like anybody else, and we can be found in the grocery store and at concerts and with our kids at the park. I think society would integrate science better if it recognized that it’s done by people just like anyone else.  That is, I wish society knew better that there are people behind the science.

Of course, if you’re a scientist like me, you know all that.  But if you agree with me that People Behind the Science is a good idea, perhaps you could spread the word.  (You don’t have to listen to the one about me.)

© Stephen Heard ( April 25, 2016


Writing a book: what a long strange trip it’s been

Image: Sidewalk art by Jeremy Brooks, via CC BY-NC 2.0; lyrics from Truckin’, Garcia/Weir/Lesh/Hunter.

Warning: really long post.  TL;DR: Publishing a book is really different, and I learned a lot by doing it.

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverPerhaps you’ve noticed that I’ve just published a book, The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  (I’ve tried to make it hard for you not to notice.)  And lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.

What do I mean by that? Well, if I were an academic in the arts or humanities, there’d be nothing unusual about having published a book.  But in the sciences we don’t write a lot of books.  Like most scientists, I knew next to nothing about writing or publishing a book before I started working on mine.  If you’re curious about how it works and what it’s like, read on. Who knows, maybe you’ll write a book too, someday. (Caution: since I have a sample size of one – for now – I can’t guarantee that my story is representative.)

Books take a long time

It took almost five years* from the first tentative plan to a published book I could hold in my hand.  I knew it would take a long time, of course, but I didn’t see five years coming.  Inasmuch as I planned it out at all (and I’ll admit that making and sticking to a plan is not my academic strong suit), I thought perhaps six months to write a prospectus and get the book under contract, a year to write the rest of it, and another to get it published. (Ha!)

In hindsight, of course, I’m not sure how I thought I could write a 90,000-word book in a year.  Continue reading

Statistics and significant digits

(My writing pet peeves – Part 1)

Image: completely fake “data”, but a real 1-way ANOVA; S. Heard.

I read a lot of manuscripts – student papers, theses, journal submissions, and the like.  You can’t do that without developing a list of pet peeves about writing, and yes, I’ve got a little list*.

Sitting atop my pet-peeve list these days: test statistics, P-values, and the like reported to ridiculous levels of precision – or, rather, pseudo-precision.  I’ve done it in the figure above: F1,42 = 4.716253, P = 0.0355761.  I see numbers like these all the time – but, really? Continue reading

Ternary plots and the Grand Unified Theory of Potato Chips

Images: Soil ternary plot, Mike Norton via, CC BY-SA 3.0.  Chip ternary plots, S. Heard.

I’ve always been mystified by ternary plots – you know, those cool looking triangular ones.  I shouldn’t be; they aren’t really that complicated. But while Cartesian plots (in two dimensions or three) speak to me easily and clearly, ternary plots remain stubbornly silent.

I’ve survived this cognitive failing for nearly 30 years by deploying a strategy based entirely on avoidance.  Ternary plots just aren’t used that much, in my field, except with a couple of specific kinds of data that are conveniently treated as mixes of three components – soil composition (sand, silt, and clay; above) being perhaps the most common. But my avoidance strategy came crashing down around me last semester, when I taught part of second-year Ecology as a sabbatical fill-in.  There is was, right there in the 4th week’s lecture outline: soils.  Field capacity, available water capacity, wilting point, soil horizons, and – oh, the humanity – that conventional ternary plot of sand, silt, and clay.  I had to teach it – and I didn’t understand it.

Something had to give, of course, and I knew it had to be me. Continue reading

“The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” is out!

It’s out!

Heard_Scientist'sGuide coverIt’s been almost five years since I started work on what became The Scientist’s Guide to Writing. I’m absolutely thrilled to announce that as of today (April 12), the book is officially published!  The Scientist’s Guide is now available from your local or internet bookseller (links below) or, of course, from your local library.  (It may be worth checking a couple of booksellers, as shipping times for physical copies seem to vary quite a bit.  Kindle and Kobo e-versions are available worldwide.)

All scientists are writers – we have to be, or our work will be lost.  But many of us don’t find writing easy.  I wrote The Scientist’s Guide to tell you some of things I wish someone had told me when I was beginning to practice the craft.  Actually (and somewhat to my surprise), in writing it I learned new things that are helping me even this late in my career.  I think the book can help any writer; as of today, you can grab a copy and see whether I’m right.

Meanwhile, if you need me, I’ll be off doing my happy dance.

Canada Canada: The Scientist’s Guide via, or via

United_States USA: The Scientist’s Guide via

150px-Globe.svg Everywhere else: see links here.


© Stephen Heard ( April 12, 2016

The university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

Graphic: Organizational chart for a manufacturing corporation, 1896 (from J. Slater Lewis, Commercial Organization of Factories) via

critique of universitiesThoughts on “A Critique of Universities” – Part 3

This is the third 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). 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 university as an organization: collegial or hierarchical?

My first posts in this series dealt with Páll Skúlason’s thoughts (and my own) about what a university is for, and about what a university is.  Today, some thoughts about that that means for how a university is organized – and for our cherished notion of collegial governance.

Until I became accidentally entangled in university administration, I was remarkably uninterested in the university as an organization. I had an office and a lab and some classrooms in which I went about my business of research and teaching, and if I noticed the organizational infrastructure supporting this, it was mostly to grouse about how idiotic it all was. Continue reading