Monthly Archives: November 2022

Ignotus aenigmaticus: an accidental, and amusing, Latin name

“A year ago, May 1902, I had a peculiar entomological experience.” That, believe it or not, is the opening sentence of a scientific paper –Annie Trumbull Slosson’s 1903 paper in the Canadian Entomologist, “A Coleopterous Conundrum”. This short paper had some unanticipated consequences. It’s an amusing story, and also a bit of a cautionary tale. Continue reading

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Can you change a species’ common name?

Content warning: Discusses common names based on ethnic and other slurs and on the names of people with potentially upsetting histories.

Other warning: considerably longer than usual. But, I think, also considerably more interesting than usual.

Is the common name of a species (cougar, daisy, blue mussel, Swainson’s thrush) an unalterable part of our language, or can we change one? (We might want to, sometimes – most obviously, when a name is offensive.) The answer is more complicated than you might think. Today, a little background to explain those complications, and then some analysis of three cases where organizations have attempted to drive changes in common names.

We share the Earth with millions of other species, and they’re both fascinating (all of them!) and directly important to us (many of them). Continue reading

It’s not lazy to do the easy writing first

I’ve used jigsaw puzzles as a metaphor for writing before, and today I’m returning to that surprisingly fertile ground. If you’re not into jigsaws, don’t worry: as an alternative framing, I can offer Things My Mother Told Me That Were Not True. (Also ground I’ve ploughed before.)

When I was growing up, my family put a lot of stock in what’s sometimes described as a Protestant work ethic. My mother in particular was pretty strong on this one point: if you have an easy job and a hard job ahead of you, don’t be lazy: do the hard job first. To return to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor: start with the sky, not with the deck chairs. Well, there are surely tasks for which that advice makes sense, but I’m here to tell you that neither jigsaw puzzles nor writing are (usually) among them.

When I write a new paper (or anything else), I ease myself in. Continue reading

Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test (book review)

I’ve just finished reading Marlene Zuk’s newest book, Dancing Cockatoos and the Dead Man Test: How Behavior Evolves and Why it Matters. Now, before we do anything else, can we stop for a moment and admire that title? Is there a human being on Earth who wouldn’t want to know more?

Dancing Cockatoos is a book about the evolutionary ecology of animal behaviour. Continue reading

Exciting news: I’m (co-)writing another book!

I’ve been itching to share this news, and now I can: I’m writing another book! Actually, even better: I’m co-writing this one, with Bethann Garramon Merkle. It’s been hard to keep this quiet for so long, but we’ve just signed a contract (with the University of Chicago Press), so now it’s official. Hooray!

What’s it about, you ask? Well, our working title is Helping Students Write in the Sciences: Strategies for Efficient and Effective Mentoring of Developing Writers. Writing is a huge part of the job of a scientist, and it’s hard – but teaching and mentoring writing is too, and it’s harder. Continue reading

University support staff should understand universities

Warning: I’m grumpy today.

Every so often I reread one of my old blog posts (usually, it’s one I’ve forgotten that I wrote). Almost all the time, I find myself nodding in agreement – which, I suppose, won’t surprise you.* But this morning I reread University administrators should understand universities, and realized I had it wrong.

Well, not actually that wrong. I’d argued that higher-level university administrators (not Deans and Chairs, I mean, but Directors of Information Technology Services and their ilk) ought to have some idea what a university actually does, and how those of us who actually do it go about the doing of it. I’m still quite convinced that’s right! But then, about 2/3 of the way in, I found this howler: Continue reading