Tag Archives: humour

Ignotus aenigmaticus: an accidental, and amusing, Latin name

“A year ago, May 1902, I had a peculiar entomological experience.” That, believe it or not, is the opening sentence of a scientific paper –Annie Trumbull Slosson’s 1903 paper in the Canadian Entomologist, “A Coleopterous Conundrum”. This short paper had some unanticipated consequences. It’s an amusing story, and also a bit of a cautionary tale. Continue reading


Should peer reviewers comment on writing style?

There seems to be a pretty widespread agreement that peer review should (even if it can’t always) identify flawed reasoning, improper statistical tests, and other serious issues with the inferences a manuscript makes. But should reviewers also make suggestions about writing style? About use of the active voice vs. the passive; about the use of contractions and other informality; about metaphors or even (gasp) humour? A lot of authors seem to think they shouldn’t, arguing that writing style is a personal decision that should be left up to a writer. Actually, I have some sympathy for that argument – the role of reviewers in crushing individual style is one reason that our literature lacks much individual voice, and pushback against beauty and humour is one reason it’s (mostly) so tedious. But in matters of style, should reviewers mind their own business? Continue reading

The Easter eggs in my entomology course

No, not that kind of Easter egg.

Our fall semester is in the home stretch now, much to my relief – and I’m sure that of my students, too.  My teaching this fall was entirely online. While those with strong but uninformed opinions were furiously tweeting about slipper-wearing profs dialing it in from their easy chairs, I was working hard – unsustainably hard – to produce online courses that work.

Was I successful? I don’t know. But I used every technique I could think of to make my online entomology course navigable, transparent, and engaging. Continue reading

All the best searches find squirrels

Image: European red squirrel, © Yvonne Findlay, used by permission.

Inspired by similar exercises from Small Pond Science and The Lab and Field, I present once more a few of the more interesting search terms by which Scientist Sees Squirrel has been found.  These are all real, I swear!



“Yeah?  Well, I’m rubber, and you’re glue, bounces off me and sticks to you”.  Oh, wait – actually, that’s just the Latin name for a genus of thrushes, including that most unfortunately named of all birds, Turdus ignobilis debilisThe 12-year-old inside me is somehow disappointed (although he can console himself with this post about donkey farts). Continue reading

The funny papers on my CV

Most of my CV is pretty conventional.  It recites my job and educational history, lists my papers and talks, my students and the courses I’ve taught… and I can hear you yawning from here.  But my favourite part is comes at the end of my publication list, which has four sections.  The first is “Book” (some day it will be “Books”, but so far there’s just The Scientist’s Guide to Writing), then there’s “Refereed papers”, then “Non-refereed works”, and then finally the good part: “And with tongue in cheek”.  My tongue-in-cheek section lists two papers, and each is a joke. Continue reading

Do scientists want beauty? Or, why I wrote my weirdest paper ever

Last summer I published the weirdest paper of my career. It’s called “On whimsy, jokes, and beauty: can scientific writing be enjoyed?”, and it asks whether humour and beauty are possible, and advisable, in scientific writing. (If this sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because I mentioned it here). I want to explain how I came to write and publish the paper. This is not entirely self-indulgent: I think story reveals some interesting things about us as scientists and about our publishing system. Bear with me and I’ll get to that.

I became interested in humour and beauty in scientific writing while working on my guidebook for scientific writers (Princeton University Press, Spring 2016; details here). Here’s how that happened.

One major theme of my book is that the scientific writer’s most important goal is to produce writing that’s crystal-clear and thus effortless to read. In fact, nearly every linguistic and structural convention we use in our writing – from punctuation to our IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion) structure – exists only because it helps us achieve that goal. This is hardly a novel message: a long line of writers on rhetoric have argued for clarity, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, who put it this way: “The greatest possible merit of style is…to make the words absolutely disappear into the thought”.

But after writing 28 chapters hammering away at clear writing, I found myself wondering if I was missing something. Does this obsession with function leave us with text that’s clear but artless and dull? Or is it possible for scientific writers to offer their readers some pleasure along with functional text? And might this be a good idea? Continue reading