Yearly Archives: 2020

Art and science in “This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart”

Read any good books lately? I have.

CP Snow famously argued, in the 1950s, that science and the arts/humanities were “two cultures”, with a gulf between them that was far too seldom bridged. While there’s been pushback against Snow’s portrayal,* it’s surely true that there’s more separation between the two than there ought to be (just as an example, I’ve commented here on the relative dearth of scientists as characters in novels). After all, if points of contact between science and the arts were commonplace, people (including me) wouldn’t be so fascinated with them when they do occur. Continue reading

How to make an author happy: Pandemic holiday edition

The Covid-19 pandemic has (you’ve probably noticed) changed everything. Some changes have been seismic; others have been more subtle. Along the more subtle end (and admittedly, along the less important end) of the continuum has been the impact on book publishing. In particular, the pandemic may have boosted reading, but books published this year have had a really hard time finding their way to readers. Launches and readings were cancelled; media attention was elsewhere; libraries were closed; publishers’ warehouses struggled to ship. I don’t know that this affected the John Grishams or the Stephenie Meyers all that much; and Barack Obama’s memoir has set sales records.* But for books from university and other small presses, books from new authors, and books that aren’t thrillers, vampire romances, or biographies of the famous, it’s been rough.

Do you care about this? Continue reading

A year of books (7): Is this the strangest assortment yet?

It’s time for another instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  If you needed any further evidence that my reading habits are all over the map, this one should do it. Here’s why I’m doing this. Continue reading

Some writing books I like

Tomorrow, I’m giving a Member Webinar for the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, called How to Write a Better Thesis Faster: Learning the Craft of Writing. (Want to attend? You can join today and get the link tomorrow. Look, I’ll be honest: I’m not worth the price of membership. But you should join anyway – it’s a fabulous society with a great annual meeting and members who are brilliant, engaged, and kind.*

My talk** is a rather whirlwind compendium of advice for early-career folk wanting to learn to write more easily. One piece of advice – one I wish someone had given me early in my own career – is that it’s worth reading books on writing. Books plural. There are quite a few good ones (and yes, it’s true, also quite a few bad ones). Continue reading

The other crisis of 2020

This is a guest post from Emma Despland.  You might remember her from “Covid-19, Mystery Novels, and How Science Works“.

Remember back in January 2020, when the bushfires in Australia seemed the biggest catastrophe of the year, harbingers of the ever-advancing climate crisis? Now, in October, my friend in California says that, where she lives, the forest fires are a bigger concern than Covid-19 and even than the upcoming presidential election. People check their phones for fire alerts and smoke dispersal modeling to know if it’s safe to go outside. Most of the time they stay indoors with windows closed to avoid the smoke and no air-conditioning because of the power outages.

These fires are not only major disasters destroying people’s homes and threatening lives, they represent phenomena totally new within human memory. Continue reading

Klaas’s cuckoo and the joys of old literature

A couple of weeks ago, Klaas’s cuckoo and I were featured on the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog. You should go read that post – especially the part about Klaas’s cuckoo and the origins of its name.  But here’s a little context.

It’s fashionable in some circles to bemoan the fact that many scientists* rarely cite literature older than a decade or two. There are, of course, many reasons older papers go uncited. Continue reading

Ego and the eponymous element

People are often surprised to hear that it’s perfectly legitimate to discover a new species and name it after yourself.  Legitimate, that is, but not (we pretty much all agree) in good taste. And yet, every now and then, a biologist names a newly-discovered species after him- or herself.*  Sometimes, the self-naming happens by accident (oops, Erhard Rohloff)**; sometimes it happen by subterfuge (nice one, Linnaeus); and sometimes it happens with a fanfare of self-adulation (really, Major Robert Tytler?). It’s not common, but among the millions of species names on record, some careful digging turns up a few unambiguous cases.

But it isn’t just species that get given eponymous names. Comets, mountains, cities… and elements.  Einsteinium, bohrium, curium… but Albert Einstein didn’t name einsteinium, Niels Bohr didn’t name bohrium, and Marie Curie didn’t name curium.  Has anyone ever named an element after themelves?  Well, I’ve recently stumbled across (here) the curious case of gallium. Continue reading

Look, Ma, I found a squirrel!

Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present once more a few of the more interesting search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found. I swear, I don’t make these up – I’m pretty sure I couldn’t. 

rejected assistant professor

Well, we’ve all been, many times, although it sounds a bit depressing when put so baldly. This finds my post Universities That Did Not Hire Me. Perhaps I can consider it a career success to have failed often enough to be the #5 Google search result for “rejected assistant professor”. Yes, let’s think about it that way.

i hate my department chair Continue reading

A new (and unfortunate) record: the longest Latin name

Everyone likes a world record, right? Meet the newly described myxobacterium Myxococcus llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogochensis. That’s right: 73 letters (68 if you count by Welsh orthography, treating ‘ch’ and ‘ll’ as digraphs).  The previous (probable*) record holder, the soldier fly Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides, is only 42 letters, so I think we have a winner by somewhat more than a nose. (The record for shortest name, by the way, is held by Yi qi among others. Because genus and species names must have at least 2 letters each, this record can never be broken.)

So, authorship team**, achievement unlocked.

Is this a good Latin name or a terrible, horrible, very bad, no good Latin name? Continue reading

A year of books (6): Reading as refuge

Time now for the sixth installment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this.

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor, 2010). Wow, this book is terrific. I guess I’d call it magical-realism-meets-urban-fantasy, set in (approximately) Sudan in an undefined but near future.  It follows a young sorceress, Onyesonwu, who comes into her power while seeking revenge for her mother’s rape and resolution to a genocidal conflict (content warning, the scenes of rape and genocide can be difficult to read). Onyesonwu is a terrific character, both impressive and relatedly human, and the story is fascinating both for its plot and its setting.  This is one of those books that takes you somewhere absolutely new, and gives you a bit of a shaking along the way. Continue reading