Moving courses online isn’t easy – or cheap

Yesterday evening (as I write*) I spent 40 minutes filming three minutes of video.  It was a clip explaining how to collect aquatic insects, for my newly-online-with-lab-at-home Entomology course. That “40 minutes” is just camera-rolling time.  It doesn’t count planning what to film, travel to location, or editing the video later for posting (I only stepped on a slippery rock and swore on camera once; but it was a good reminder that I should probably learn how to bleep the audio track). Continue reading

What, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

Book blurbs are weird. Every book – no matter how awful – manages to find blurbers who will sing its praises.  So what, if anything, can you conclude from a book’s blurbs?

I was driven to think about his by the blurbs for my own new book, Charles Darwin’s Barnacle and David Bowie’s Spider.  As they came in, and I read people waxing poetic about just how awesome the book is, I was thrilled, and embarrassed, and skeptical, and also felt just a little bit dirty.  Had the blurbers actually read my book? Did they really mean those things they said? Would anyone believe them? What if someone did, and bought the book, and didn’t like it? Continue reading

Diversifying scientific names, and diversifying science

Many of Earth’s species bear scientific names based on the names of people – for instance, Charles Darwin’s barnacle (Regioscalpellum darwini) and David Bowie’s spider (Heteropoda davidbowie).  My new book explores some of the things we can learn from such “eponymous” scientific names.  These names let us see something of the quirks and personalities of the scientists who engage in the creative act of naming.  They also open a window on who scientists think might deserve the honour (well, usually it’s an honour) of having a species named after them.  There are a lot of things you can see through that window.  One of them has to do with diversity.

I don’t mean biodiversity, although it’s true enough that the Earth’s incredible biodiversity is what provides the window of naming in the first place.  Instead, I mean diversity of people.  Who are the people who have species named after them?  Perhaps not surprisingly, answering that question reveals a scientific community with a longstanding diversity problem. Continue reading

The blog post that dooms the universe

Warning: silly.

Got your attention, did I?

You know what got mine?  Noticing, a while ago, the apparently inexorable growth of interest in what I thought was a fairly dull* post, Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”, first published here in June 2016.  That post got a bunch of views when I first posted it, which isn’t unexpected.  Then it was largely ignored for a year or so, which isn’t unexpected either.  Then something odd happened: exponential growth.

That’s what’s shown in the graph above: month-by-month readership statistics for Friends Don’t Let Friends Use “cf.”.  It’s a lovely curve, isn’t it?  Let’s ignore the first year (which is dominated by novelty; every post gets a spike when first published).  Let’s make a semilog plot of the remainder, because that seems right for a curve like that.  And let’s fit a line to that semilog plot, because we’re scientists and we like to do that kind of thing. Continue reading

Are spiders insects? And what good are polls?

Last week, I wrote about a US court decision that established that legally, spiders are insects (at least in the jurisdiction of the court in question).  The case turned on the “ordinary meaning” of the word insect, or roughly, what a reasonable person could think a non-specialist means by it.  I was surprised to learn that many dictionaries allow for definitions of insect that include spiders.  Could this be true, I wondered?  So I took a poll.

Let’s start with the results, and then later we’ll ask if we should have done that. Continue reading

A year of books (4): Snow into summer

Time now for the fourth instalment of #AYearInBooks, in which I track the non-academic reading I do.  Here’s why I’m doing this. I’ve got eight books (or series) for you this time.  When I started the first, there was snow on the ground; I finished the last on a hot summer day.  And yet – a curiosity of Fredericton’s climate – it’s was only six weeks!


The Fionavar Tapestry (Guy Gavriel Kay, 1984-86).  This is actually a trilogy: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road.   I’ve been re-reading old favourites a lot lately and these are very near the top of my list.  They’re epic fantasy, à la Tolkien (Kay helped edit some of Tolkien’s posthumously published material) – but with much more humanity, more adult relationships, more lyrical writing, and many more surprises (revealed connections, along the lines of what made N.K. Jemesin’s Broken Earthso astonishing).  Now, “better than Tolkien” would be fighting words for many fantasy buffs (a fight best undertaken with an elven sword, of course), but if anything qualifies, to me Fionavar is it. Continue reading

Court: “Spiders are insects.” Biologists: “Say what?”

Last month, the United States Court of Appeal for the 11th district rejected an appeal on the grounds that spiders are insects.  Now, I’m not a lawyer or a judge, but I am a biologist, and I have thoughts.  But before we get to those, a quick poll: Continue reading

Mathematics (and the rest of science) for human flourishing

I read a lot of books, both technical and not.  Some I struggle through; some I enjoy in a forgettable sort of way; and some grab me and promise to stay with me.  I recently finished Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing, and to cut to the chase, you should read this book too.  What’s that? You’re not a mathematician?  Well, neither am I.

Actually, this book is only sort of about mathematics.  First, as Su says in his opening paragraph, Continue reading

A trivial writing error with a powerful writing lesson

There are writing errors everywhere you look*.  Some are trivial – routine typos that confuse nobody – while others change or conceal meaning and sometimes risk lives or cost the transgressor millions of dollars.  Today I’m going to explore an error that’s rampant in scientific writing.  It’s one that in each instance matters not at all, but that in the aggregate offers a powerful writing lesson.

Here it is.  What’s wrong with this sentence?

“The impact of the abiotic environment, via factors such as nutrient supplies, temperature, moisture, and other soil properties, on growth and reproductive strategies of herbaceous plants have been well documented”

Other than the fact that it’s turgid, I mean.  Continue reading

Black Lives Matter

Black lives matter.

That shouldn’t have to be said, but it does. Systemic racism is an ongoing problem, everywhere.  While anything we say or do is less than we should, and later than we should have, that’s no reason for inaction.

I had another post queued for today, but it will keep.  Please take the time you would have spent reading it, and instead listen to some other voices.  There are many; here’s one place to start.

Society needs everyone.  Science needs everyone.

© Stephen Heard June 3 2020, but released CC0.