Plants in ecological webs

Images: spider web © Kenneth Allen, CC BY-SA 2.0; ants tending aphids © Judy Gallagher 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-NC 4.0 license. If you use it, though, I’d appreciate hearing where and how.

A visit to any Botanic Garden surely means attention paid to plants – that’s what “Botanic” means, after all.  When you visit our Fredericton Botanic Garden, for example, your attention will probably first be drawn to our flowerbeds and forests; to the primulas in the Hal Hinds Garden and the daylilies in our newly expanded Daylily Bed; to the reeds by our ponds and the ferns along our Woodland Fern Trail.  All these beautiful plants are worth your time – but we hope you’ll look beyond them, too.  That’s because each of our plants is also part of a larger ecological web. Continue reading

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Entrepreneurship in Victorian botany: did you know that was a thing?

Image: Richard Spruce late in life. Frontispiece to Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes (1908), public domain.

Last week, I did a little ranting about what I consider the fetishization of entrepreneurship in our society.  In the Replies, a couple of readers pushed back, pointing out ways in which entrepreneurship serves economic and societal purposes.  I’m glad to have the pushback (especially because so far, nobody has gotten incoherently angry about the post).  I’m even going to add a little pushback myself*.  Did you know that entrepreneurship underwrote one of the most amazing botanical expeditions in history? Continue reading

The fetishization of entrepreneurship

Image: Cash, images_of_money CC BY 2.0

Warning: curmudgeonly.

Last week I went up to our campus conference centre to see my 11-year old son’s display at the school district’s “Invention Convention”.  I found a room full of students showing off their clever inventions, most of them bubbling with energy.  They had on display, not just their inventions, but searches for prior art, pricing strategies, marketing plans – the works.  It was the second such event I’d been to in a month, actually; at the school’s open house, there was a Grade Eight Marketplace where the students were actually selling the gadgets they’d designed and made.  The latter event, I’ve learned, won a National Entrepreneurial Award.  All this was clearly supposed to impress me and make me proud, and in a way it did.  But it also saddened me.

It’s not that I object to kids learning about entrepreneurship.  Continue reading

Making people angry

Image: Rage, Deiby Chico via flickr.com CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I’ve been posting here at Scientist Sees Squirrel for three years and change, and in that time I’ve learned a few things.  I’ve learned that some posts are wildly popular, while others sink like very quiet stones.  I’ve learned that writing a post is a good way to find out what I think about something, and that leaving the comments open is a great way to find out what I’m missing in my thinking.  And I’ve learned that some topics make people very, very angry. Continue reading

Posts for conference season

Image: Empty session room, CC0 via MaxPixel.net

See that room in the photo above?  Soon I’ll be sitting in it, and you probably will too (most of the conferences I attend, at least, happen in the summer).  I just booked some travel, and that got me thinking conference season. Continue reading

Who’s in charge of the English language?

Image: Oxford English Dictionary, Mrpolyonymous CC BY 2.0 via flickr.com.  But no, the Oxford Dictionary is not in charge.

Who’s in charge of the English language?  Nobody, of course.  You might think that would make our writing easier; but actually, it makes it considerably harder.

Here’s something you see all the time: someone either asks a question about the rules of English, or insists that somebody else is breaking them.

  • “Can I start a sentence with an abbreviated genus name?”
  • “When do I use which and when do I use that?”
  • Decimate really means to kill only one in ten.”
  • “Everyone knows you can’t split an infinitive.”

If English were a set of rules, with some body in charge of enforcing them, then all questions like those first two would have simple, short, unambiguous answers, and all opinions like the latter two would be objectively either right or wrong.  But English isn’t a set of rules.  Continue reading

From ego naming to cancer screening: type I error and rare events

Image: Unicorn fresco by Domenichino (1581-1641), in the Palazzo Farnese, Rome, via wikimedia.org

Sometimes, thinking about science, I make odd connections.  Often, they seem odd when I first make them, but then I learn something important from them and wonder why I’d never made them before.  A good example cropped up the other day, when I realized that a peculiar feature of the scientific naming of organisms connects, via some simple statistics, to the difficulty of cancer screening, to reproducibility, and to the burden of proof for surprising claims.  Curious?  Here goes. Continue reading