Monthly Archives: September 2018

No, vineyards are not beautiful (a conservation conundrum)

Image: “Beautiful vineyard” by Sasmit68 via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0

Last week I raised the apparently-dumb but actually rather interesting question of why humans consider flowers to be beautiful.  Today, another question about beauty, this time with (I’m afraid) really unfortunate consequences.  Have you ever heard someone talk about how beautiful a vineyard is?  Have you ever been that someone?  An awful lot of us would answer “yes” to both questions – and that’s a real problem for conservation.

It isn’t just vineyards, of course, and I’ll get to my broader point, but first I should back up my claim that humans think vineyards are beautiful – and that we shouldn’t.  Continue reading

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University professors should understand university administration

Some time ago, I went on a little rant here, in a post I called “University administrators should understand universities”.  In it I complained a bit about university administrators who don’t seem to understand what a university’s mission is or how we go about accomplishing it.  I stand by that criticism (while noting that it doesn’t, of course, apply to every administrator).  But I’m here now to stick up for administrators in another way.  I’m really tired of hearing people complain that universities have too many administrators.  Yes, I heard all those folks clicking away in outrage.  For the few of you who are left, let me explain.

Twice just in the last week, I’ve seen university professors roll out the tired old attack on administrators.  Continue reading

Why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org

If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks.  (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.)  But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to.  Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies?  Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26?  And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?

“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is.  Continue reading

“Scientist Sees Squirrel” is nominated for a People’s Choice Award!

Image: Squirrel (of course), Sorbyphoto CC0.

I’m happy to be able to tell you that Scientist Sees Squirrel is a 2018 nominee for “Canada’s Favourite Science Blog” – a People’s Choice Award.  This is an annual award, jointly sponsored by the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada and the blogging network Science Borealis.  It’s lovely to get this kind of recognition, along with some other excellent nominees.

If you’re a regular visitor here, and if you like what I have for you to read, then perhaps you’ll want to head over to the nominees’ page and vote for Scientist Sees Squirrel.  (Voting will be open until September 29.)  Or, even better, you could head over to that same page and check out some of the other nominees.  You may find some new reading, and if you feel like voting for one of those other blogs, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. (After all, that’s what I plan to do just did.)

If you’re new to Scientist Sees Squirrel – perhaps you’re checking out all the nominees – then, welcome!  Have a look around.  You’ll find all sorts of things here; in fact, Scientist Sees Squirrel is named in celebration of – or, equally, as an admission of – my wandering attention span.  A lot of it reflects my interests as a university academic, in the fields of ecology and evolution, but that ends up spinning out in a lot of ways.  You can go to the home page and scroll down to see my most recent posts, or you can dig into the archives.  You might find, for example:

There’s a lot more here, of course, so explore a bit.  If you like what you find, you can be alerted to future posts by following the blog (link at upper right), or by following me on Twitter or Facebook (a friend request will automatically make you a follower).  And when you’re done with Scientist Sees Squirrel, please head to the voting page, from where you’ll be able to visit the other nominees too.  Thanks for dropping by!

© Stephen Heard  September 16, 2018

 

Tree trunks, game theory, and the invisible hand

Image: Me, collecting foliage from balsam fir trees in Quebec.  Photo courtesy Cameron Rugo.

Last month I spent a week in the field, as part of a team collecting soils and foliage for a project assessing carbon sequestration in spruce budworm-defoliated forests*. The soil was always easy to reach, conveniently located right at ground level (funny how that works, isn’t it?) – but the foliage, not so much. As is true in forests the world around, the bulk of the foliage is way, way up in the air. That pole I’m wielding in the photo above? It’s a “pole pruner”, and it has a cutting head at the end of a series of interlocking pole segments – seven segments in the photo, which means I’m balancing a wobbly, bendy pole and manoeuvering it through snags and branches to snip samples about 12 metres (40 feet) from the ground. This is hard, and as I was doing it I found myself thinking that the whole thing would be simpler if the trees could just get their act together and grow at bush height.

Now, that’s pretty stupid thing to think, I admit; but it’s also an interesting thing to think. Continue reading

My latest paper is a garden

Image: Addressing visitors at the official opening of the New Brunswick Literature Garden; photo courtesy of Holly Abbandonato.

As a scientist, I’m really a writer, in the important sense that my research doesn’t matter until it’s published.  As a result, I’ve come to celebrate completion of a project not when I collect the last sample, enter the last bit of data, or conduct the last analysis.  Instead, I celebrate completion when the paper is published and available for the world to see*.

But my most recent paper isn’t a paper; it’s a garden.  And just a couple of weeks ago we had its official opening, and I’m counting that as “my” garden’s publication date.  I’ve just published my garden!

About that garden: Continue reading