Category Archives: Uncategorized

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

 

On the rush to judgment, and modern dance

The last two months have seen a couple of scandals fairly close to my own field.  Over the same span, I’ve been asked five or six times what I think of the behaviour of Person X, who has apparently Done Something Bad, or who has apparently Failed to Do Something Good.  There’s nothing unusual about my experience here: anyone in any field (in science or beyond) will see equivalent scandals and be asked the same questions.  And as a species, we love to judge – often, to judge hastily.*  (We’ve invented social media, it seems, in part as a tool to make shallow and hasty judgment very shallow, very hasty, and very, very efficient.)

Each time I read a condemnation of Person X for Doing Thing Y, or for Not Doing Thing Z, I remember a modern dance performance I saw two dozen years ago. Continue reading

This blog is free, and I don’t have a Patreon, but…

I love writing Scientist Sees Squirrel, and I love that you’re reading it.  I also love that you don’t have to pay for it (well, except for being forced to endure whatever creepy semi-targeted ad WordPress drops onto the page). But every now and again, someone asks me if I have a Patreon, or a Ko-fi, or whatever the newest online crowdfunding/tipping app might be. I don’t.

I don’t have a Patreon, and I don’t want one. Continue reading

Pizza dough, knowledge, and the problem of authority

I make pizza dough often, and I discovered recently that my pizza has lessons to teach about epistemology, reproducibility, and our practices in scientific writing.  That seems like a big load for some pizza dough to carry, so let me explain. Continue reading

Why I threw in the towel on “data is”

Warning: mostly trivial.

I have several friends who are ready to die on the hill that’s the plurality of “data”.  Writing “the data suggests” or “the data is strong”, for these folks, isn’t just wrong: it’s a crime against the sanctity of the English language, and a grievous insult to right-thinking scholars everywhere.  And for some reason (probably because they know I wrote a book about writing), these particular friends turn to me for backup.  But here’s the thing: once, I was on their side; but I’ve thrown in the towel. Continue reading

The misplaced responsibility of the outside-work-hours email

Warning: I’m a bit cranky today.

Late last month, I dashed off a quick email to someone I work with – and was a bit chastened to get an autoreply “I’m out of the office for Thanksgiving”.  It was just another Thursday afternoon for me, but I’d forgotten that it was Thanksgiving in the U.S. (Thanksgiving comes six weeks earlier here in Canada; by the end of November, there isn’t much left in the fields to harvest and be thankful for.)  It’s not hard to find people arguing passionately that one should never email people outside work hours.  The argument is that it shows disrespect for work-life balance, suggesting either that the sender doesn’t manage their own work-life balance, or that they expect the recipient not to manage theirs.

I think the argument is wrong.  Not because work-life balance isn’t important – it is!  But proscriptions on when you send emails are neither a necessary nor a possible way to encourage it. Continue reading

I answered 46 questions this week

Well, OK, I answered a lot more questions this week, but what I mean is that I’m the week’s featured interview on 46 Questions.  46 Questions is a great idea.  Every week they feature a scientist giving quick, short answers to 46 questions – questions that emphasize the scientist as a person with hobbies and personality and guilty pleasures, rather than the science they do.  I think that’s important.  There’s a stereotype out there that scientists are something apart – often, emotionless and personality-deficient automatons in lab coats behind a laboratory bench.  That’s dangerous: it makes it easy for the general public to reject science, because it’s separate and other, not part of our shared society.  Far better for folks to understand that scientists are people just like everyone else; that there might be a scientist in line behind you at the grocery store, in the next pew at church, or on the opposing team in the curling bonspiel.  Scientists have all the same virtues, vices, and personality quirks as everyone else (and that’s a major theme of my new book, by the way).

46 Questions has done a nice job of highlighting the humanity of scientists, and also the many axes of diversity among scientists that we can and should celebrate.  I’m happy to be part of it.

You can read my 46 answers here – but even better, browse around a bit.  There are all kinds of interesting people there!

© Stephen Heard  November 14, 2019

Image: 46 Questions logo

Three billion lost birds, and what else don’t I know?

Image: Blackpoll warbler (one of the declining species), © Simon Barrette CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org

You saw the headline (and maybe you read the study): three billion lost birds.  Three billion fewer birds in North America than there were in 1970.  It’s eye-catching, isn’t it?  There are (as is usually true) some reasons to interpret the result with nuance, but that isn’t my point today – Brian McGill has covered that with admirable thoroughness over on Dynamic Ecology. Instead, I’ll dig briefly into what the study told me about my own ignorance. Three billion is the change.  How many birds remain – and could I have answered that question before seeing the study? Continue reading