Monthly Archives: April 2020

Join me for a reading from “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”!

The book launch and reading for my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider, had to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  (Yes, I completely agree that that’s one of the least important of the pandemic’s consequences.)  I was disappointed, because the book is full of stories that are lots of fun to tell.  But I’m doing a reading after all – and because it’s online, you can join it from anywhere.

Interested?  You can join my reading live, or if you prefer, after it happens. I’ll be livestreaming (via Facebook Live) on Sunday, May 3rd at 6 p.m Eastern time (GMT-4); and the video will be available indefinitely, afterward.  You can find it on my own Facebook page, here; or you can find it (with a little more searching) as part of the #CanadaPerforms program of Canada’s National Arts Centre, here.  Or, if you don’t have Facebook, here it is on Vimeo.

By the way: #CanadaPerforms is a national program, to bring you performances and readings from musicians, authors, and more whose  events were disrupted by the pandemic. It’s a fabulous program (and thanks to the NAC and sponsors Facebook Canada, Sirius XM Radio, RBC, Slaight Music, and the Bennett Family Foundation). If you haven’t dipped into #CanadaPerforms, have a look around.  There are hundreds of performances and readings to enjoy.

© Stephen Heard  April 30, 2020


Six easy ways to make an author happy

I’ve written and published two books now – The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider – and wow, have I learned a lot.  I’ve learned about scientific writing and about Latin names, yes; but I’ve also learned a lot about the process of writing and publishing books.  It’s a lot of fun – but it’s also a lot of work that doesn’t make you rich (well, unless you’re Dan Brown or Stephen King or Barbara Cartland).

I was naively surprised to learn that writing a book and having it published is really just the beginning.  A book needs to find its way to its readers, and it’s not easy to get the word out. Continue reading

Watch my talk about “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”!

Last week, I gave a talk “at” University College Dublin, as part of their Earth Institute’s series for Earth Week 2020.  I talked about my new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider (of course), and you can watch the talk here.

It’s about 31 minutes, and I apologize for a sound glitch at about the 8 minute mark.  The audio drops out for about 20 seconds – consider it your chance to get up to refresh your coffee, your beer, or your whatever.

And while you’re here – I have another, upcoming event: Sunday, May 3rd at 6 p.m. Eastern time, I’ll be doing a Facebook Live reading/talk as part of the #CanadaPerforms series from Canada’s National Arts Centre.  You’ll be able to watch that one, live or after the fact, either on my Facebook page or on the NAC’s Facebook page.

© Stephen Heard  April 27, 2020

From one big midterm to weekly quizzes: what I expected, and what actually happened

You can sometimes teach an old dog new tricks.  Last semester, I made a significant change in my teaching, in one of my courses*: I dumped the traditional high-stakes midterm exam in favour of small weekly quizzes.  I know, it’s not a breathtakingly original idea.  I was persuaded to try it not because I’m a brilliant pedagogical experimentalist (I’m not), but because I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Terry McGlynn’s new book, The Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching. You can read Terry’s book too, as soon as it’s released this summer; in the meanwhile, you can read a little bit about it here.

If The Chicago Guide has one theme, I’d say it’s using respect for your students to make navigating your courses easier them and also for you.  Who wouldn’t want to do that? The book makes lots of suggestions I’m likely to adopt; but one I jumped on right away was that move from a big high-stakes midterm to small weekly quizzes. It’s not that I’d never thought of that, or seen it done – it’s that Terry does a wonderful job of selling the idea.  The Chicago Guide convinced me that the weekly quiz could have lots of advantages, both for my students and for me.  (It slices! It dices!).

It didn’t quite work out the way I expected. Continue reading

Life Lessons From a Pandemic

Emma Despland is a friend and colleague who’s blogging here as an ecologist – but also as a citizen and and a parent.  Her thinking about our current pandemic melds these perspectives, and that in itself is an interesting and important thing to me.  That’s because scientists are, of course, just people like everyone else, who call their friends and bike with their kids when they’re not running an analysis or thinking about the Earth’s systems. And the scientist perspective and the citizen perspective and the parent perspective aren’t mutually exclusive.  Read on:


Covid-19 has imposed dramatic lifestyle changes on many of us, most of which I think we see as short term inconveniences that we hope will soon pass. However, this imposed slowing of the pace of life creates space for reflection.  Despite the obvious tragedy and fear, not all the new experiences we are living are bad.  Some, perhaps, have something to teach us about the world we’d like to live in when all this is over.  Continue reading

Sharing the unwritten lore: “Being a Scientist”, by Michael Schmidt

How do people learn to be scientists?  We’re very good at teaching our students how to titrate a solution, take a derivative, label a dissected earthworm, or calculate the p-value from a one-way ANOVA.  One might get the impression that learning these skills is an important part of training to be a scientist.  Well, arguably they’re not unimportant; but they’re more skills used by scientists that they are skills that make us scientists.  In Being a Scientist: Tools for Science Students, Michael Schmidt tackles the much more interesting question of that latter set.

Being a Scientist covers the softer skills that let scientists do what they do: philosophy, creativity, reading and writing, and so on. Continue reading

Lessons from a little fish

In northeastern Germany, about 75 km north of Berlin, a little lake sits nestled in the woods.  In the lake’s depths swims a little fish – a dwarf cisco, Coregonus fontanae.  In the fish’s name, there’s a story tucked away.

Coregonus fontanae is one of a pair of cisco species in Lake Stechlin. Around the world, ciscoes (like many other fish) have evolved pairs of ecologically distinct species sharing lakes – in this case, the shallow-water Coregonus albula and its descendent species, the deeper-water C. fontanaeC. albula is widespread across northern Europe, but C. fontanae occurs only in the 4 km2 or so of Lake Stechlin. It looks a lot like its ancestor, except for its dwarfism, and it was formally described and named only in 2003.

Michael Schulz and Jörg Freyhof, who discovered and named the new cisco species, had a choice. Continue reading