Author Archives: ScientistSeesSquirrel

About ScientistSeesSquirrel

I'm an evolutionary ecologist and entomologist at the University of New Brunswick. I think about a lot of random things... some of them appear here.

My writing pet peeves: “As previously mentioned…”

If you’re like me, there are probably things you notice in writing that set your teeth on edge. Today, I’m going to vent a little bit about “as previously mentioned”.

“As previously mentioned” is an example of “metadiscourse” – writing that’s about the writing. We use metadiscourse to help readers find their way through what we’ve written – “signposting” is a less formal term. I’m actually a big fan of metadiscourse, because when used well it helps writing be crystal-clear. Continue reading

Raisin buns, leaf packs, acronyms, and thinking

I made some raisin buns the other day, and I swear there’s a connection to science coming.

The recipe called for, among other things, 2 eggs, 3½ cups of flour, ½ cup of brown sugar, and 2¼ tsp of yeast. Two and a quarter teaspoons – that’s quite precise, isn’t it? One can imagine a test kitchen industriously experimenting, through dozens and dozens of batches, to nail down just the right quantity of yeast for this recipe. 2 tsp isn’t quite enough; 2½ is definitely too much. But if you bake a lot, you might smell a (metaphorical) rat. Continue reading

Nerdy thrills: “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle” is in my local public library

Warning: navel-gazing AND trivial, all in one tidy package

I spent a fish-out-of-water hour last Friday, hanging an art exhibit. Nothing in my career made me suspect I’d ever do that – and given my complete lack of artistic ability*, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s not my art. Instead, I was hanging an exhibit of the illustrations from my book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider. They’re gorgeous, thanks to the expert work of science illustrator Emily Damstra, and if aren’t in Fredericton to see the exhibit, then you can come close via this post and the online exhibit it links to.

I did feel like a fish out of water Continue reading

Arithmetic, intuition, and very large errors

Here in Canada we’ve just had a federal election. As politics often does, it put on display two kinds of people: those whose thinking has led them to have strong opinions, and those whose strong opinions have led them to stop thinking. I saw a stunningly good example of the latter group, and the amusing story carries a message that applies much more broadly. So here goes. Continue reading

Your paper is not a Wikipedia article

Scientists don’t agree on all that much, but we agree that it simply isn’t possible to “keep up with the literature”. Our scientific literature is such a torrential firehose that there’s just no way. And if we’re aware of that as readers, you’d think that as writers we’d be taking special pains to be concise. Well, maybe you’d think that. Or maybe you’d think instead that we’d just like everyone else to be concise.

That last sentence was a little tiny rant, I know. Continue reading

Taxonomy as activism

Once upon a time, the Latin names of species were always descriptive (and always in Latin, for that matter, which they needn’t be now.). That system didn’t work very well*, and in the mid-18th century Linnaeus invented our modern system of binomial nomenclature. It’s surprising how many folks don’t realize that, arguably, the most important feature of this system was that it allowed names to be constructed in ways other than description: a species name could now refer to geography (Betula alleghaniensis) or habitat (Abudefduf saxatilis), recognize a person (Heteropoda davidbowie), or could even be a joke (Ytu brutus).**

Linnaeus also gave us the ability to use species names as activism. I’m not suggesting that he had this in mind, and I don’t know that he ever did it himself – the examples I know all come from the last 30 years or so. So most likely it’s an unintended consequence; but it’s a fascinating one. Continue reading

Farewell (sort of) to Dynamic Ecology

Yesterday, the wonderful bloggers at Dynamic Ecology announced that they were hanging up their collective hat. Well, mostly; Dynamic Ecology will no longer have regular posts, but all its content will remain available and new posts may appear from time to time. (I hope!)

I want to take a moment to acknowledge just how good Dynamic Ecology was, and for how long. In part, that’s about content. There are so many posts on Dynamic Ecology that one could (one should!) keep going back to. Continue reading

Weird things scientists believe: that paying reviewers won’t cost us

Warning: a little ranty.

I’m fascinated by the weird things some scientists believe, in the face of what seems to me common sense and obvious constraints. There are many examples (like the common disdain for “nearly significant”), but the one I’ve chosen to offend people with today is a surprisingly common belief: that we could have journals pay their peer reviewers out of their profit margins without additional cost to authors. I see this claim frequently, most often on Twitter (although I’m not going to link to any particular exemplar, because the claim is too common to make it sensible to dunk on any one individual).

To get one thing out of the way immediately: I’m talking here about the notion that a journal could pay its reviewers. Continue reading

Music Mondays: By Endurance We Conquer

Once more, it’s Music Monday!

Today: the somewhat weird relationship between exploration, daredevilry, and science.

This is By Endurance We Conquer, the opening track from Science From an Easy Chair (the 2015 album from Have Gun, Will Travel).

The album tells the story of the 1914-17 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, Continue reading

Leadership lessons from the vaccination-mandate fiasco

My university, like dozens of others, has egg on its face this month. It’s unnecessary egg; and the egg (of course) isn’t the worst problem. All this has to do with the Covid-19 vaccination mandate we recently announced for our faculty, staff, and students – far too late, and after an embarrassing amount of foot-dragging and denial. It was an abject lesson in how to lead a university poorly. What’s interesting is that just about every university in Canada has experienced the same leadership failure (and as I write this, some are still experiencing it). That much concerted poor leadership suggests that there are general lessons to be learned. Continue reading