Category Archives: books

A year of books – and why

This year, I’ve decided to log, and share with anyone who’s interested, the books I read.  I’ll tweet them using the hashtag #AYearOfBooks, and periodically collect them here.  Now, I’ll forgive you if you don’t care (in which case, you’ve probably already clicked away).  Actually, I expect most folks won’t care.  But for those who are still here: why?

A goodly few of my colleagues on Twitter track paper reading, often with the rather ambitious #365papers hashtag. Continue reading

Close calls in fiction, and the value of advice

Image: “A Close Call for Six Citizens of Calais”.* Public Domain.

Spoiler alert: “Outlander” plot spoilers.  Except they aren’t really, which as you’ll see is the whole point of the post.

I occasionally offer advice here on Scientist Sees Squirrel.  I’m here today to give you some meta-advice: be wary of my advice (but not too wary). Here’s why.

I recently read (and greatly enjoyed) Diana Gabaldon’s time-travel-historical-romance-adventure novel Outlander.** Several times through the book, one of the two protagonists has a close brush with death.  Each time, the skillful storytelling had me on the edge of my seat, but whether it’s Claire Beauchamp or Jamie Fraser, the imperiled one is rescued or recovers.  In the most extreme incident, Jamie has received last rites and his skin shows the greenish pallor of the deathbed, and I found myself wanting to read late into the night so I’d know whether he survives.  But then I realized: of course he does.  There are eight more books in the series!

More generally, protagonists in fiction almost always have close calls (with death or with other unpleasant, if less final, outcomes) – and they almost always survive them.***  After all, the storyline in which the protagonist doesn’t survive their close call is an unsatisfying one,  unlikely to be written, or to be published if it is.  You can think of this as the Anthropic Principle of Fiction, if you like, but I found myself thinking of it instead as a form of survivorship bias.  We only hear the stories of survivors, simply because those make the best stories.

And that brings me to advice. Continue reading

The scientific wisdom of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache

Image: Books 5 – 9 in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series, featuring Armand Gamache.

“I don’t know. I was wrong. I’m sorry”.  Lacoste recited them slowly, lifting a finger to count them off.

“I need help”, the Chief said, completing the statements.  The ones he’d taught young Agent Lacoste many years ago.  The ones he recited to all his new agents.

The Long Way Home, Louise Penny

 

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, of the Sûreté du Québec, knows a lot about homicide detection.  Gamache is the protagonist of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series of crime novels.  Over 15 novels so far, Penny has portrayed the usual assortment of crimes and their solutions, but also (unusually for the genre) Gamache’s approach to managing and mentoring the earlier-career detectives assigned to his unit.  His management philosophy can be summed up as willingness to utter, whenever appropriate, the Four Statements:

    • I don’t know.
    • I was wrong.
    • I’m sorry.
    • I need help.

These work very well for Gamache in the novels.  I’ve found they work pretty well in science, too. Continue reading

Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: a new title for my new book

I’ve mentioned this before: I’m terrible at titles.  That’s why there’s been a long series of title changes for my forthcoming book.  (Look for it in March 2020, from Yale University Press.  You can actually pre-order it now, but don’t worry, I’ll remind you as the publication date approaches.)  The book tells some of the fascinating stories behind eponymous scientific names (that is, species and genera that are named after people).  If that piques your interest, you can read a bit more about the book here.

I took at least four stabs at a title before settling on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels. Continue reading

Some (more) great reads from the history of natural history

Image: Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland in the Amazon jungle, via wikimedia.org. Painting by Eduard Ender, circa 1850; from the collection of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

Research for my new book has me reading a lot of books about the history of natural history. Some are well known, some are obscure; some are old; some are new. (Some were borrowed, although at least this time around, none were blue.)  Here are a few more minireviews (in no particular order), in case the pile of books you’ve been meaning to read isn’t big enough.

Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (Yoon 2009, Norton).  This book, Yoon tells us, started out as a history and explanation of taxonomy – the science of naming and describing species.  It grew into something else, something a little bit strange, and something a bit difficult to put one’s finger on.  Continue reading

I’ve submitted the manuscript for my new book!

Image: the David Bowie spider, Heteropoda davidbowie.  KS Seshadri, CC BY-SA 4.0 via wikimedia.org

Last week I hit a big milestone.  I hit submit not just on another journal paper, but on something much more fun: my new book.  I’m both relieved and excited!

The book will be called “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider: How Scientific Names Celebrate Adventurers, Heroes, and Even a Few Scoundrels”*Continue reading

Turns out “The Scientist’s Guide to Writing” was not actually my first book!

Image: Max atop the tallest tree.  Detail from The Tallest Tree in the World.  Read on.

Warning: utterly trivial.

If you’ve been hanging around Scientist Sees Squirrel, you’ve no doubt noticed that I’ve written a book – The Scientist’s Guide to Writing.  I’ve been telling people it was my first book (and that I’m now working on a second one), and I even wrote a humongously long post about how I had no prior experience with book-writing.

But then I made a discovery.  Continue reading