27 August 2002

Don't call me "Sir"!

This is a short essay that I wrote for my introductory biology students. A lot of them call me “Sir.” I'm trying to get them to stop.


I really dislike being called, “Sir.” I have a few reasons for that: a couple of minor ones, and one major, serious one.

First, “Sir” is for knights. Heck, I’ve never even met the Queen! (Though, as a Canadian, I am her loyal subject.) Never bent down on one knee, had the taps on the shoulders with the sword, none of that. So don’t call me “Sir”: I haven't earned it.

Second, imagine if almost everyone around you started calling you, “Your Honour” or some other honorific title. It’s not a bad thing, but it's rather unexpected. I’ve worked in universities around the world for years, and was on a first-name basis with everyone. I come here, and suddenly I got hundreds of people calling me, “Sir.” It just feels weird.

Third: Joking aside, there’s a serious reason not to call me “Sir,” and it has to do with science. I’ll bet a lot of you had it drilled into you that you have to “respect your teachers.” If you’re going to understand science in a “deep down in your bones” kind of way, you're going to have to let go of that.

Science tells me, you, everyone to take a flying leap.

Science doesn’t care if you’re famous. Science doesn’t care if you have a degree. Science doesn’t care if you wear a necktie. Science cares about ideas and the evidence supporting them.

To paraphrase an anonymous quote, “Science stones rebels. Science also stones conformists. Only the ideas that survive the constant barrage of rocks deserve attention. (Science often gets upset with its critics, not because it’s being criticized, but because those critics so often throw marshmallows.)”

And that quote points out that criticism is vital to doing science. When I write a research paper or research grant proposal, it goes out for review. That means other practising scientists have a chance to examine what I wrote, look for bad ideas or bad experimental design, and generally take it apart at the seams. That sort of criticism corrects mistakes and weeds out bad ideas (nobody’s perfect, after all), so that science can improve, and create theories that predict, control, and explain better than our current ones.

If you’re going to be involved in science – which you are by taking this class – you've got to be able to ask critical questions. You’ve got to feel that you can pick up a rock, chuck it at an idea, and see how it holds up.

I honestly do not believe you can tap into that scientific mindset while you’re calling someone, “Sir,” all the time.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for politeness. But a lot of people go way past “respect” to “deference,” “kow-tow,” and “don’t argue.” Look at the military; “Sir” is used to reinforce a chain of command where the lower ranked officers follow orders quickly and without question.

Science is partly about constantly questioning and challenging authority. Too much respect is bad for science.

So don't call me, “Sir.” It’ll make you a better scientist.


Still at page 652 on The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

25 August 2002

Last day of freedom!

Yes, that's an overly melodramatic way of saying, "Classes start tomorrow."

Being an academic is a two part job: you're researcher and instructor both. This is the time of year when the instruction tends to take precedence over research, but I'll be working hard to ensure that research doesn't grind to a halt.

Made yet another trip out to the Coastal Studies Lab yesterday, both to learn a bit more about ascidian development, and to show the lab (and the bee-yoo-tiful South Padre Island beach) to one of our new hires in the department, Chris Little.

Also on my agenda these days is that I am putting together a proposal for a symposium that might run at next year's Animal Behavior Society meeting. This proposal has to go to the meeting's Program Committee, then the Executive Committee in mid-September. Fortunately, the bulk of work for me consists of finding good speakers with interesting things to say.

I'm sure many other interesting things are happening to me, but I'm ignoring them for now.

Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 652.


Additional: This article on "cam girls" gives me pause about this project, and wonder about my own motivations, to some degree. Did I run this journal as a method of public outreach about science and research -- or I am just a narcissist? Needless to say, I hope I'm the former.

21 August 2002

Watching the odomoter

Pages read of Stephen Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 595. I've reached the beginning of Part II of the book! Unfortunately, Part II is longer than Part I, so I'm only 44% of the way through the book.

19 August 2002

The "I wish I'd done that study" Department

The girls really do get prettier by closing time. And so do the boys, according to this study.

Don't be sad...

This article in The Scientist (free registration required) has a quote from someone saying that assistant professors (like me) are expected to write 3 papers a year.

Lucky for me, within this month I have a new technical article coming out in Marine and Freshwater Behaviour and Physiology (you can read a summary here) and a book chapter in Crustacean Experimental Systems in Neurobiology, published by Springer Verlag. (You can find a description of the book by searching Springer's on-line catalogue for the title or the main editor: Wiese.) I will follow Meat Loaf's advice and not be sad, 'cause "Two out of three ain't bad."

I spent a good chunk of Friday and the weekend at the Coastal Studies Lab, learning more about tunicates from Virgina Scofield. She took a couple of animals and extracted eggs and sperm and fertilized them on Saturday morning. By the afternoon, they had divided several times and were starting to make their guts tails. When I came back Sunday morning, we had a bunch of tiny, but complete, little swimming tadpoles with complete nervous systems and behaviour, looking for places to settle. When I say tiny, I mean it; the swimming tadpole larva is about the same size as the unfertilised egg.

Also picked up a few more sand crabs.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 480.

15 August 2002

We now return to your regularly scheduled journal...

Bad news: Vacation is over.

Good news: It was very fun, thanks.

Bad news: I didn't get quite as much work done along the way as I hoped. I had forgotten how difficult it can be to read in a moving car.

Good news: Most of my crabs are alive and well even after another 10 days of benign neglect. They've been surviving reasonably well for six weeks with no intervention on my part, which is highly encouraging. Animals that require large amounts of care are not on the agenda right now.

Bad news: U.S. Customs rejected our application to import some equipment from the U.K. duty-free. Disappointing, but not a surprise.

Good news: My colleague Virginia Scofield will be making a trip to the Coastal Studies Lab tomorrow, so I will probably be going out to meet her. I hope I finally see some active ascidian larvae!

Good news: My on-line material for my General Biology class has passed muster from one of the folks in our Center for Distance Learning. There are still improvements to be made, but they're relatively minor.

So overall, there's more good news than bad. And that alone is good news!

04 August 2002

Science takes no vacations!

But scientists sure take vacations.

Probably no updates until 15 August due to vacation. I won't be completely inactive; I'm taking along a copy of a neurobiology textbook with me to read, so I can start preparing for the new neurobiology class I'm slated to teach in January.

02 August 2002

Nothing to do with science

Poor Carlton.


Pages read of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory: 352 (part way through Chapter Five).

01 August 2002

Hallway fauna

Was just walking into my lab to play around with a DVD (tranferred from video I shot in Australia), I saw something running along the wall. Being a biologist, of course, I bent down to have a look at it, thinking it was probably an insect of some sort.

To my surprise, it was a gorgeous little gecko!

I popped into my lab, grabbed a beaker, and coaxed it in. A little tricky, since these guys can walk over anything, up to and including smooth, dry glass, and it was pretty quick for its size. It almost looked like a little demented wind-up toy when it ran.

It was only about 5 cm long from nose to the tip of its tail. I was disappointed I don't have any microscopes or even magnifying glasses sitting in my lab to have a closer look. I could see its famous feet: close enough to see the pads, but not close enough to make out the hairs that allow this animal to bond to surfaces using sub-atomic forces (see Reference 57 in this list if you're interested). The skin on its underside (easily seen, since it was in a glass beaker) was so thin you could make out some of the shadings from its internal organs and blood system.

After admiring this beastie for a few minutes, and wondering how the devil he got on the second floor of the Science building and managed to survive (can't be much food up here!), I took him outside and set him on his merry way, running off through the grass.

A small benefit of living in a tropical climate: you just don't find cool little critters like that north of the 49th parallel very often. (Not that it makes up for the oppressive heat, mind you.)