Category Archives: science outreach

There’s fungus among us

Photos:  Top, yellow fly agaric, Amanita muscaria, Bernie Kohl via wikimedia.org, released to public domain; middle, chicken-of-the-woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, Gargoyle888 via wikimedia.org, CC BY 3.0; bottom, parasitic Cordyceps on fly, Moisés Silva Lima via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

 

Autumn has arrived, and that brings fresh pleasures to a walk in our Garden: fall-blooming asters and goldenrods, the first tinges of fall colour in the trees, and (less obviously) fungi.  While you can see mushrooms and their fungal relatives almost any time of year, the fall is their peak season. If you train your eye just a little, you can see an amazing diversity of forms, and beauty to rival anything the plant kingdom has to offer. Continue reading

What is UpGoer Five for? Poll results, and thoughts on polls

In my last post, I asked what UpGoer Five (along with its constrained-vocabulary ilk) is for.  Survey says:  UpGoer Five is a toy.

At least, that’s what my readership poll (data above) says.  The sample size is small, and it’s an utterly unscientific poll (more about that later).  But 63% of respondents believe UpGoer Five is a kind of stunt writing, something we might do for fun, but having no connection to actual science communication/outreach (“SciComm”).  Continue reading

Does anyone else find “Up Goer Five” a bit condescending?

Image: just a portion of the original “Up Goer Five” cartoon, diagramming a Saturn V rocket.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been enjoying the “Up Goer Five” phenomenon.  If you don’t know about it (unlikely!), it started as an xkcd cartoon in which Randall Munroe labelled a diagram of a Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words in the English language.  Munroe followed it up with a book along the same lines, Thing Explainer, and the idea really took off, with scientists in all disciplines trying their hands at it.  It came up most recently for me because the 2016 meeting of the Ecological Society of America had an Up Goer Five session.  I wasn’t able to get to any of it, but I got a taste via Twitter and via titles and abstracts posted online and around the convention centre.

Up Goer Five is fun – tons of it.  But I have the unsettling feeling that I’m missing something, because I don’t quite understand what Up Goer Five is for.  Or at least, I can see three things that people may think it’s for, but they seem at odds with each other, and I’m not convinced that any of the three does more good than harm. Continue reading

SciComm, and who should do it

Image: From Science Borealis’ project “100 Voices for Canadian Science Communication”; © The Vexed Muddler, reproduced with permission.  That’s me as a Cobblestone Tiger Beetle, Cicendela marginipennis – a beautiful beetle, vulnerable because of its locally rare and very scattered distribution in riverbank cobble habitats from Alabama to New Brunswick.

 

Some months ago, the Canadian blogging aggregator Science Borealis solicited thoughts about what lay science communication, or SciComm, is and why it’s important.  I sent in the thoughts above and promptly forgot about it.  Last week I was startled, pleased, and just the tiniest bit uneasy to see my quote making the rounds on Twitter and Facebook (wonderfully illustrated by The Vexed Muddler).

Why uneasy?  Continue reading

The garden of insects

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden.  I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.


I went for a walk in the Garden last week, and it was lovely to see the colours on display – nature in all shapes and sizes, with another species offering a different look everywhere I turned.  I’m not talking about the flowers – although those were nice too.  I’m talking about our Garden of Insects.

The Garden of Insects isn’t a signed attraction.  Continue reading

Spring, light, and strategy on the forest floor

Image: Trout lily, Erythronium americanum, dw_ross via flickr.com, CC-BY-2.0

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.


Spring is upon us, and it’s a great time for a walk in the woods that are part of our Botanic Garden.  In a deciduous forest, spring finds the forest floor sprinkled with green and with flashes of colour from blooming “spring ephemerals”.  The trout lily pictured above is an example, as are wood anemone, trillium, bloodroot, and a bunch of my other favourites.  But if you walk the same trail in July, you’d be hard pressed to know some of these spring bloomers were ever there – not only is their flowering finished, but their green leaves and stems have withered and gone.  Why? Continue reading

What’s in a (Latin) name?

Photos: Magnolia blossoms CC0 via pixabay.com; bust of Pierre Magnol CC BY-SA 3.0 by Albertvillanovadelmoral via wikimedia.org

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I write for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

Our Garden has hundreds of plant species – many planted, and many more growing wild. That’s just the tip of the botanical iceberg, though – there are about 400,000 plant species on Earth. Keeping track of these is a big challenge, and of course the first step is to give them all names. Continue reading

How plants prepare for winter

Image: Winter spruce, CC-0 via Pixabay.com

Note: This is a science outreach piece belonging to a series I wrote for the newsletter of the Fredericton Botanic Garden. I’d be happy to see it modified for use elsewhere and so am posting the text here under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license . If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.


Winter is here, and you’ve probably been getting yourself, and your home and garden, ready. Our Garden is making its own preparations. Our plants can’t head inside, or put on parkas and tuques, so they have to be ready to be cold. And there’s a lot more to that than meets the eye.

There are actually two problems that plants need to solve in winter. Continue reading

Science fiction, stone plants, and the certainty of improbable things

Image: Lithops stone plant, UNB greenhouse, © Stephen Heard

I love used-book sales. A little while ago I went to one at a local church, where I was amused to find all the science fiction on the children’s table*. I didn’t ask why they’d sorted it there, but I can guess, because I’ve always read a lot of science fiction and I’ve gotten used to it being routinely dismissed as beneath the dignity of serious readers. The knock is frequently that it’s just not believable: methane-breathing aliens, intelligent gas clouds, galactic civilizations, and planet-sized toroidal starships are all so improbable that they’re for childish play, not adult attention.

But I’m a biologist, and that means I know a bit about improbability. Let me tell you, as improbability goes, science fiction has nothing on nature. Continue reading

Is biology beautiful?

Photo: Glasswing butterfly, probably Greta oto, on Asclepias curassavica; Eddy Van 3000 at flickr.com CC BY-SA 2.0

We could quit now, with our eyes on that glasswing butterfly: of course biology can be beautiful. Birds of paradise, lynx, ladyslipper orchids, Spanish moss*, orcas; can there be any doubt? But that’s not really what I mean. Is biology as a science beautiful, the way math is beautiful, and physics is beautiful? Continue reading