Category Archives: Curiosities of Nature

On Beauty in Technical Science Writing

Via Chris Woolston at Nature, I ran across last week’s discussion about the role of beauty in technical scientific prose. Writing over at The Tree of Life, Stephen Heard offers several examples of beauty in scientific writing, and he calls on the community to encourage beauty in scientific writing:

[E]xamples of beautiful scientific writing do seem to be unusual; and those that exist aren’t well known. I don’t think it has to be this way. W could choose to change our culture, a little at a time, to deliver (and to value) pleasure along with function in our scientific writing.

I’ll second the idea that we should encourage beauty in scientific writing, but with a big caveat: we absolutely shouldn’t try to do this by making our technical writing more belletristic. We don’t need to drop in hokey metaphors or cloying phrases — that’s what would happen if you encouraged most scientists to write beautifully. Continue reading

Some gene conceptions and misconceptions

Any geneticist who has discussed genes with friends and family knows that there are a lot of misconceptions floating around out there. This is understandable – genetics involves some tricky concepts, and sometimes we use confusing linguistic shortcuts to talk about genes without using jargon. Sometimes scientists get confused as well (although that’s a topic for another day).

One of the big misconceptions is that there are genes ‘for’ specific traits — you’ll often hear that we have a gene ‘for’ X, X being some phenotypic trait. (If X is not a trait, but some sort of molecular player, than the language is correct, e.g. we do in fact have a gene — actually multiple genes — for the enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase.) This language is often rightly condemned as being misleading, because there is no one-to-one correspondence between genes and traits: traits are the product of multiple genes, while any given gene will contribute to multiple traits.

But you only need to tweak the ‘gene for X‘ language slightly to get at a correct and important concept in genetics: variation in a single gene is often responsible for important differences in X (in a particular population). This is usually what we mean when we say there is a ‘gene for X‘, but this clarification is rarely noted when people knock the phrase. Continue reading

Why reproducibility initiatives are misguided

In my latest Pacific Standard column, I take a look at the recent hand-wringing over the reproducibility of published science. A lot of people are worried that poorly done, non-reproducible science is ending up in the peer-reviewed literature.

Many of these worries are misguided. Yes, as researchers, editors, and reviewers we should do a better job of filtering out bad statistical practices and poor experimental designs; we should also make sure that data, methods, and code are thoroughly described and freely shared. To the extent that sloppy science is causing a pervasive reproducibility problem, then we absolutely need to fix it.

But I’m worried that the recent reproducibility initiatives are going beyond merely sloppy science, and instead are imposing a standard on research that is not particularly useful and completely ahistorical. When you see a hot new result published in Nature, should you expect other experts in the field to be able reproduce it exactly? Continue reading

What I Don’t Know About Flyingfish

Steve N. G. Howell’s The Amazing World of Flyingfish plays with the concept that eveyone “knows” about flyingfish as a way to highlight the huge gaps in our knowledge about these iconic fish. Those areas of ignorance can have dramatic and direct impacts on conservation and sustainable fishing issues.

At its heart, The Amazing World of Flyingfish is a book of pictures – beautiful and hard-won pictures (photographing flyingfish in flight is apparently, but not surprisingly, challenging). The images are not just aesthetically pleasing. They serve Howell’s major theme, contrasting the known with the unknown.

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

Photo Credit: Steve N. G. Howell (All Rights Reserved; Used with Permission of Publisher)

On one hand, flyingfish are common and well-known. On the other hand, we do not necessarily know that much about their life history, development, or how many species their really are. Howell uses this contrast between the known and unknown to discuss different aproaches to research. The benefits of briefly viewing live animals behaving in their natural environment are compared to detailed laboratory analyses of preserved specimens in a way that shows the value of both approaches. The problems posed by limited knowledge of species identity for conservation and sustainable fishing are discussed with a thoughtful approach to the value of common usage versus scientific naming.

And, if those issues do not interest you, the book is filled with over 90 gorgeous photos of flyingfish in action, revealing aspects of these animals that were entirely new to me.

The dynamic of known versus unknown played out when my six-year-old joined me in looking over this book. The beauty of the images and the name “flyingfish” immediately captured our attention. Then we got curious.

As I am not an expert in flyingfish, fish, nor any set of multicellular organisms, that meant we were rapidly going to bump into the familiar territory of “things to which Daddy does not know the answer”.  This is fun territory, because we get to go on the journey from “not knowing” to “knowing” together.

We asked the question, “Do they really fly?” We learned that you cannot answer such questions with a simple “yes/no”. We first had to decide what we meant by “fly”. We were learning about the process of asking and answering questions.

When Howell discusses the difficulty of pairing juvenille specimens with adults in terms of species identity, we talked about physiological changes in appearance during development and the expectation that her own body would change as she grew.

One image, however, did not draw us in. The altered image of a human-sized, trophy-style flyingfish confused and distracted. Instead of discussing the fascinating biology of flyingfish, I had to explain that the huge fish was not real, the ethics (or lack thereof) of trophy fishing, and Photoshop. The worst effect was that it planted a seed of doubt about the veracity of the book’s other photos in my child’s mind.

Nothing, for us, could compate to the realization that some flyingfish have butterfly-like patterns on their transluscent wings/fins*. Howell connects this delightful discovery to the larger problem of species identification, which is vital to conservation efforts. Apparently, the patterns do not survive the preservation of specimens, leading to a divergence in what one sees in the wild and what is analyzed in the laboratory. For Howell, the species identification problem cascades into many unknowns regarding flyingfish life history, population sizes, distribution, and seasonal variation.

For us, the conversation started by those beautiful wing patterns touched on the importance of different people with different interests and experiences communicating with each other. We even talked about what we can do to build knowledge when no one know the information we need. In other words, we can draw a direct, curiosity driven line between that image of yellow and black spotted flyingfish wings/fins* that you can see above and reinforcement of the scientific method. Not bad for a book with only 45-pages in it.

*I was informed by my precocious offspring that I am not allowed to call them “fings”.

DISCLOSURE: Josh Witten was provided with a review copy of The Amazing World of Flyingfish by Princeton University Press. Princeton University Press had no input or influence over the decision to review this book or the content of this review.

You say “Hippopotamuses”, I say “Hippipotamus”

Apparently, a herd of hippos derived from animals kept by deceased drug cartel lord Pablo Escobar have been running amok in Colombia for something like two decades1. Unfortunately, I could not find any references to extinct South American members of the Hippopotamidae family. So, this cannot be considered an accidental experiment2 in rewilding.

The multiple articles that have sprung up (no reputable news organization could ignore this story) have heightened the focus on a key question of grammar. What is the plural of hippopotamus. In terms of authority, we have disagreement, with the Oxford University Press voting for hippopotamuses, “The Smartest Man in the World” comedian Greg Proops arguing on behalf of  hippopotami, and would-be Internet language scholars suggesting hippopotamoi from the Greek.

What should the plural of hippopotamus be? Continue reading