Category Archives: books

A Year of Books (2): duds and diamonds

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

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk (David Sedaris, 2010). Wow, this is a peculiar little book.  It’s a set of 16 very short stories, each one a parable featuring some human quirk (usually, a detestable one) bestowed on a heavily anthropomorphized animal that gets an extremely unpleasant comeuppance.  (I did say it was peculiar).  It took me the first third of the book to decide that this was more than just sophomoric, but once I did I was amused – albeit in a sort of stiffly disapproving way.  I’m not sure if the parables got progressively more clever, or if I just adapted to see more cleverness in them.  By the last, I was chortling.  That last parable, by the way, features a greased-up gerbil sent by an owl to evict leeches from the rectum of a hippopotamus. (I did say it was peculiar.) Continue reading

My new book, “Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider”, is out today!

It’s today!  It’s real!  It’s here!  My new book, I mean.

If that sounds like I’m a bit excited, it’s because I am.  I’ve been working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider for about four years, and finally I can share it with all of you.  Continue reading

A year of books: a beginning

This year, I promised to log, and share with anyone who’s interested, the non-academic books I read. Wondering why I’d do such a thing?  Click here for an explanation.

I’ve been tweeting these books as I finish them using the hashtag #AYearOfBooks, but tweets are constrained to be very short and are inconveniently impermanent.  So, I’ll collect them here, with slightly less “mini” minireviews, as occasional blog posts.  This is the beginning: seven books in January and early February.*  Continue reading

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