Category Archives: Uncategorized

On rounding numbers, assumptions, and having one’s mind blown

Last week I had my mind blown. As I am something of a nerd, I had my mind blown by rounding numbers – or more specifically, by the fact that not everyone does it like I do. I know – that’s odd on several levels; but if you stick with me, I think there’s an important and generalizable message.

It started with a tweet*. Continue reading

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Don’t fear falling at the edge of knowledge

I was talking with one of my grad students last week, and they confessed to being nervous about their upcoming thesis defence. That’s natural enough; most students are nervous about their defences.* And a lot of scientists, at all stages, are nervous about giving talks. Early in my career, I certainly was. My nervousness wasn’t helpful: my talks (which already weren’t great) got worse as I memorized and then rushed them. And actually, I had no reason to worry. You don’t either, and I’ll explain why.

There are, I believe, two main reasons why people get nervous giving talks.  At least, there were two main reasons for my own nervousness. Continue reading

On text-mining using Google search tools

Content warning: includes examples, motivated by the difficulty of changing species’ common names, that mention ethnic slurs.

Other Warning: longer than usual, and somewhat technical. You’ll be most interested in this post if you’ve ever thought about using web searches to explore changes through time in linguistic usage, interest in fields or topics, and so on. 

Over the last decade or so, my research interests have been sliding a little from science (evolutionary ecology and entomology) towards science studies. (Science studies, for those who don’t know the term, is more or less the study of how science is done and communicated.) This began, I’d say, when I was working on The Scientist’s Guide to Writing and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific writing; and it really took off when I was working on Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider and thinking about the cultural norms we’ve developed around scientific naming. Beyond those two books, you’ve seen my dalliance with science studies in two preprints (this one about humour in titles of scientific papers, and this one about how the etymology of scientific names may influence scientific attention paid to species). Hey, I did warn you in my very first post here on Scientist Sees Squirrel that I reinvent myself often – as a consequence of having a sadly limited academic attention span.

In a post a couple of weeks ago, I built further on my interest in science studies and naming, asking whether and how we can change the common names of species. My analysis leant heavily on some web search utilities, which I used to track the usage of different English names for species through time. Because I know I’m not the only person to consider using web searches as a research tool, I thought it would be useful to lay out some of the things I’ve learned about these. Continue reading

Going to the archive, and why

I don’t have a new post for you this week, but I’m going to link to an important old one and explain why.

The other day, I had what felt like the mother of all anxiety attacks. Continue reading

Some career news: a(nother) metamorphosis begins

Warning: navel gazing.

I’ve not been noted, over my career, for laser-focused stick-to-it-iveness. Instead, I’ve reinvented myself a few times, changing my research focus – among other things – repeatedly. But I’m about to launch my biggest reinvention yet. I’m retiring – albeit gradually and not right away. Continue reading

Do fonts matter?

I sometimes get very upset with folks who hold strong opinions without data underneath them. I will, however, admit that when it comes to font choice, I am one of those people. In particular, I have strong opinions about how bizarre it is when people choose sans-serif fonts for writing documents.* Every time one of my students sends me a thesis chapter in Calibri, I grimace, grumble, and change the font – but I also find myself wondering why this choice has become so common when it’s just clearly wrong (tongue partly in cheek there, but only partly). I was pleased, therefore, to find a completely fascinating recent paper on people’s preference for, and performance reading, different fonts. Continue reading

Never trust anyone who doesn’t change their mind

One of the enormous ironies of the Covid-19 pandemic is that what should be an unquestioned triumph for science seem to have actually reduced trust in science for many. In less than a year science provided the tools to end a global pandemic, including an understanding of transmission, sophisticated models of epidemiology, and multiple safe and highly effective vaccines. You’d think that would bring folks for once and for all into the science-is-great-and-I’m-thankful camp – but no. Continue reading

A year of books (6): Reading as refuge

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

Who Fears Death (Nnedi Okorafor, 2010). Wow, this book is terrific. I guess I’d call it magical-realism-meets-urban-fantasy, set in (approximately) Sudan in an undefined but near future.  It follows a young sorceress, Onyesonwu, who comes into her power while seeking revenge for her mother’s rape and resolution to a genocidal conflict (content warning, the scenes of rape and genocide can be difficult to read). Onyesonwu is a terrific character, both impressive and relatedly human, and the story is fascinating both for its plot and its setting.  This is one of those books that takes you somewhere absolutely new, and gives you a bit of a shaking along the way. Continue reading

A year of books (5): where did the summer go?

Time now for the fifth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. This strange pandemic summer went by in a blur.  Thank goodness for the books along the way. 

Rotherweird (Andrew Caldecott, 2017). What a marvellously indescribable book – urban fantasy, I suppose.  It’s the story of a strange town, in but not part of England, populated by eccentrics both evil and good (it takes a while to figure out which are which).  There’s a portal to another world, a mysterious threat to that world and to the town, and a generous helping of other oddnesses (for instance, a scientist who pole-vaults across the town’s rooftops at night). There’s a strong flavour of Ghormenghast, somehow leavened with a little AnkhMorpork, and… well, I did say indescribable, right?  But hugely enjoyable, and the two sequels are absolutely on my reading list. Continue reading

Squirrels in the time of Covid19

My metaphorical squirrels, that is.

It’s a strange time in the world, and the particular ways in which it’s strange are changing moment to moment.  In only about four days, my university has gone from business-as-usual to all-courses-online to essential-services-only.  Just like everyone else around the world, we’re all scrambling to adjust, and we’ll continue to do so for as long as it takes.

When times are strange, I think it’s important that some normal things carry on.  I intend Scientist Sees Squirrel to be one of them.  I won’t have much to say here about coronavirus or public health.  Those are important topics, but they aren’t topics on which I have special expertise.  Instead, I’ll continue to blog as I’ve always done: a weird and largely unpredictable (to me) mix of thoughts on such things as ecology, writing, publishing, and – fair warning, since my new book comes out tomorrow – eponymous scientific names and the wonderful stories they have to tell.

So you’ll find me here as usual.  I may not have anything particularly important to say (not much new there!), but if you need a diversion, I’m here for that.

© Stephen Heard  March 16, 2020