Image: The Writer in the Window, by Mark Heybo via flickr.com, CC BY 2.0
Scientific writing has a reputation for being dull (among other things). By and large, it deserves that reputation (although there are admittedly exceptions). I’ve become very interested in why our writing is dull. I don’t have a definitive answer, but in today’s post I’ll begin to explore one possibility: that pressure for conformity has prevented most scientific writing from having voice.
What is “voice” in writing? Continue reading
Image: “Beautiful vineyard” by Sasmit68 via wikimedia.org, CC BY-SA 4.0
Last week I raised the apparently-dumb but actually rather interesting question of why humans consider flowers to be beautiful. Today, another question about beauty, this time with (I’m afraid) really unfortunate consequences. Have you ever heard someone talk about how beautiful a vineyard is? Have you ever been that someone? An awful lot of us would answer “yes” to both questions – and that’s a real problem for conservation.
It isn’t just vineyards, of course, and I’ll get to my broader point, but first I should back up my claim that humans think vineyards are beautiful – and that we shouldn’t. Continue reading
Image: Flowers, by Alvegaspar CC BY-SA 3.0 via wikimedia.org
If you watch science documentaries like Nova or The Nature of Things, you might get the feeling that what’s most exciting about science is all the questions scientists have answers to – all the things we’ve learned about how our universe ticks. (It’s built right into the title of The Nature of Things.) But what I love most about science, and especially biology, is how easy it is to ask a question that we don’t have the answer to. Why are there so many species of beetles*, but so few of snakeflies? Why does life use a basic set of 20 amino acids, not 18 or 26? And one that has me completely stumped: why on Earth are flowers beautiful?
“Why are flowers beautiful” might sound like a trivial question, but I don’t think it is. Continue reading
Last week I allowed myself to vent a little about one of my writing pet peeves: the all-too-common but always incorrect construction “an unrelated genus”. As a card-carrying nerd, I also allowed myself to segue from that into the beautiful and profound closing sentence of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin 1859)
I suggested that this might be the most famous single sentence in our literature, and that raises two obvious but interesting questions. First, is it? And second, what are its competitors? Continue reading
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a sentence I was tempted to be proud of. It’s part of the Introduction to a paper* about how the impact of insect herbivores on their host plants might evolve over time. We’d pointed out that insects frequently acquire new host plants and plants frequently acquire new herbivores, and to build on that, I wrote:
That herbivore-host associations are frequently reassorted means that some herbivore-host pairs are evolutionarily well acquainted, while others are strangers recently met.
And then I had second thoughts. Continue reading
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
Photo: Lupines below Öræfajökull, Iceland (S. Heard)
In Iceland, in July, the landscape in many places is carpeted in blue. The fields of lupines (Lupinus nootkatensis) are almost impossibly beautiful*, and lupines are adored by tourists and by many Icelanders, too. But they’re not an Icelandic plant; they’re introduced and invasive. Thereby hangs a tale, and a conundrum for conservation biology.
I normally despise invasive species, as most ecologists do, but I have a lot of trouble hating lupines. Again and again I find myself smiling at a field of blue, and then catching myself with a start as I remember that they aren’t supposed to be here. I’ve had this reaction in Iceland, in New Zealand, and in my home of eastern Canada (and here’s a nice piece from Amy Parachnowitsch admitting to the same reaction in Sweden).
These beautiful lupines make obvious a serious problem in our efforts at nature conservation. It’s not a problem with conservation biology (which is the science of how to effect conservation, once we’ve decided to). It’s a problem of motivating conservation, and I think a deep philosophical one. That problem: why should we conserve natural ecosystems in the first place? Continue reading