Monthly Archives: May 2016

Worth a read: The Naming of the Shrew

naming of the shrewJohn Wright’s The Naming of the Shrew (Bloomsbury, 2014) is subtitled A Curious History of Latin Names.  As you may know, I’ve been  curious about Latin (or “scientific” names myself. Stumbling across The Naming of the Shrew, therefore, had me pretty excited*.  It turned out to be not quite what I thought, but none the less enjoyable for that.

Wright is a British natural historian with a particular interest in mushrooms (which he doesn’t hesitate to let show).  His Curious History is a curious little book. Continue reading

The warship Vasa

The warship Vasa and argument from authority

Photos: The Vasa on display in the Vasamuseet, Stockholm, by JavierKohen via, CC BY-SA 3.0. Cross-section of Vasa, model in Vasamuseet, photo S. Heard.

I’m writing this post in Stockholm, where I’ve come to be the “opponent” (= external examiner) for a PhD defence. I tacked on a few extra days to see some of the Swedish sights, and none was a bigger treat than the Vasamuseet (Vasa Museum).

The Vasa was a Swedish warship launched on August 10, 1628.  She also sank on August 10, 1628, which was tragic for the 30 people who died in the sinking and a pretty major embarrassment for everyone else in Sweden (then).

Why did the Vasa sink? Continue reading

Why so few novels about scientists?

Image: “Scientists” sensu Wikipedia, by Urcomunicacion CC BY 3.0.

Like most scientists, I live a life rich in other scientists.  That’s true because I work among them, but I also live in a university town with a couple of major government research labs.  That means there are often scientists at the movie theatre, scientists at the grocery store, and scientists at the next table when I go out for dinner.  There are nearly always scientists at the bookstore and at the local library, too.  But there’s one place there aren’t scientists (or at least, not very many): in the pages of the books shelved there. I find that peculiar. Continue reading

Searching for squirrels again

Image: flying squirrel, Offended-by-light via CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present a few of the more interesting search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found.  These are all real, I swear – and they’re only the tip of the iceberg.  About 95% of searches are encrypted, so I don’t see them.  Imagine what gems are buried in the encrypted searches!

If you like this sort of thing, here’s the first installment.


why the people’s quirel? scientific reason Continue reading

Whither the two cultures?

Image: Scholars at an Abbasid library, part of the Baghdad “House of Wisdom”;  by Yahyá ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti, 1237

This is a guest post by Viqar Husain, a theoretical physicist with research interests in quantum gravity – and scholarly interests that range much more widely.

Little of substance has been written about the literary and scientific “two cultures” since C.P. Snow’s historic essay lamenting the academic divide.  2009 marked its 50th anniversary, with limited commentary.

This is perhaps not surprising. A look at the louder discourse over the last two decades suggests unification is not near. If anything, the gulf perceived by Snow has widened to a chasm. Two prominent snapshots highlight this trend. Continue reading

Writing the Methods section as narrative

Image: Once Upon a Time, CC-0 via

We often tell ourselves that a good Methods section allows someone else to replicate our experiments.  I’ve argued, among other places in The Scientist’s Guide to Writing, that we needn’t and shouldn’t expect this function of most Methods sections.  Rather, a good Methods section gives readers what they need to ascribe authority to you as a scientist, and to understand the Results you’ll present.

I get frequent pushback against this idea, usually in connection with prominent hand-wringing over the so-called “replication crisis”. But a couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about writing at Saint Mary’s University (the one in Halifax, Nova Scotia) and I got a different and very convincing kind of pushback.  Continue reading

Spring, light, and strategy on the forest floor

Image: Trout lily, Erythronium americanum, dw_ross via, CC-BY-2.0

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.

Spring is upon us, and it’s a great time for a walk in the woods that are part of our Botanic Garden.  In a deciduous forest, spring finds the forest floor sprinkled with green and with flashes of colour from blooming “spring ephemerals”.  The trout lily pictured above is an example, as are wood anemone, trillium, bloodroot, and a bunch of my other favourites.  But if you walk the same trail in July, you’d be hard pressed to know some of these spring bloomers were ever there – not only is their flowering finished, but their green leaves and stems have withered and gone.  Why? Continue reading

Author Q&A for “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing”

This is a crosspost of an author Q&A conducted for, and previously posted on, the Princeton University Press Blog. If you read it there, don’t waste any more time here…

The Princeton University Press (PUP) says: Scientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed [edit: nice of me, eh?] to answer a few questions about his book.

PUP: What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing? Continue reading

How to handle an idiotic review

Image: Cover of The Idiot, by John Kendick Bangs (Harper and Bros. 1895). Yes, I know there’s a much more famous The Idiot.

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you submit a manuscript for publication and get back a peer review that makes you spit with fury.  “What an idiot!” you snarl, “how could a reviewer ever think that?”

Our peer review system works extremely well, overall*.  But reviewers are human, just like the rest of us – so a few of them just aren’t that good at it, and a few behave badly, and even the very best have bad days.  So you will get that idiotic review. What then? Continue reading