Starter for 10: Mike Dickison

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (monthly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This month’s interview is with Dr Mike Dickison, who wears many awesome hats: comparative fossil biologist, teacher of and advocate for effective science visualisation and presentation, ukulele player, and lately, earthquake blogger. I met Mike by sending him fangirl email about Pictures of Numbers, his science-visualisation project, and discovered that not only did we know people in common (as you do in New Zealand evolutionary circles) but we were both moved to tears at bad Powerpoint. If you do nothing else today, watch Mike’s Big Bird presentation – your life will be immeasurably improved.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?

Teacher. One of the principal benefits of the PhD has been the ability to put “Dr” Mike on airline boarding passes. Though nobody checks, so I could just as well choose “Reverend” or “Admiral”.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: “…and what do you work on?”

My doctoral research was on the scaling of bones and eggs of giant flightless birds, including why the kiwi has such a disproportionately large egg. Currently I’m interested in working with other scientists on improving data presentation—not complicated issues of visualisation, which get all the attention, but simple visual thinking, which can be challenging for academics used to solving all problems with words.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

Working as a technician in the National Museum of New Zealand, I saw the ornithologist Phil Millener identify bones of pigeons and ducks to species with a quick glance, which seemed almost a supernatural power. I was always fascinated by the art of reconstruction and extrapolation from fossil material. I also believed strongly in the importance of science communication, and worked in exhibition development before leaving to, eventually, teach graphic design and typography. But then I realised that might also involve teaching Microsoft Word for the rest of my life, so I applied for grad school at Duke, which let me hang out for years with some very smart people, and measure bones in museums (my kind of field work). Now I’m back in NZ, and curiously part of my job involves teaching dissertation formatting with, yes, Microsoft Word.

4. Your website (one of them …) is giantflightlessbirds.com. Tell me about your favourite giant flightless bird.

The adzebill (Aptornis) isn’t well-known, but was really peculiar. Extinct, like all the best flightless birds. Something like a giant rail, it had huge cervical vertabrae for muscle attachment, and tendons in its tarsus so well-developed they were enclosed in a bony tube. A digging, chiselling ground predator. [FJ: Looks like it would feed a family for a week] Moa get all the attention, but New Zealand was, and to some extent is, still full of crazy flightless birds.

5. For a month, you get to do a job-swap. What would you do?

Actor in a decent theatre company production of Shakespeare or Stoppard. [FJ: *heart* Stoppard] I nearly answered “making croissants in an artisan bakery” but that would probably ruin croissants for me for life.

6. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Keeping it just to my own field, there are too many allometric studies of simple scaling trends without a good analysis of what these trends mean and how they might have developed. It’s easy to just plot a measurement against body mass, but that doesn’t say much. Also, while alpha taxonomy is important, and there are huge numbers of undescribed bones sitting in boxes in museums, we need to be looking at overall patterns now—we have enough data. There are plenty of sensible questions, like why do some groups of birds go flightless and not others? Why do some disperse across the Pacific better than others? Why are there no flightless bats? Why didn’t elephant birds get as big as elephants? What kind of bird is Big Bird—wait, I did that one. I think there should be more papers published with questions as titles, but I’m old-fashioned. [FJ: Only if they ANSWER the question though. Hate false advertising.]

7. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

a) It seems an obvious choice, but Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is the one book I would recommend to a humanities-educated person who wanted to know what was up with science. Bryson makes everything approachable and gets almost nothing wrong. I would love to teach an entire year of General Science with this as the text.

b) Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I’m not a fan of Hitchens’s recent political decisions, but while reading this I was constantly copying down wise and brilliant lines. [FJ: never knew there was an “Art of Mentoring” series]

c) Auden’s The More Loving One, a poem all scientists can respond to.

8. So, you’re a ukulele player (and author of Kiwi Ukulele) What are you playing at the moment? Any Lady Gaga? Do Radiohead translate?

Almost half my repertoire at the moment is the Mountain Goats, and the rest mostly indie rock. I don’t like Hawaiiian music. There’s a nice ukulele cover of Poker Face on YouTube. No Surprises is my favourite Radiohead song on uke, but Street Spirit and Fake Plastic Trees work well too. The ukulele is the litmus test of a good tune.

9. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, would you consider it worthwhile to write a book [on your field]?

These days I would never write JUST a book about anything. My future book projects will work best as e-books linked to websites, possibly with some video, pretentious as that sounds. (How long, by the way, before we lose the hyphen in e-books, the way we have with email?) [FJ: my prediction is that it’ll take longer for phonetic reasons: ebook looks like it rhymes with eh-duke]

10. Finally, what’s your absolute number one science-presentation peeve? Mine are those horrible excel colours on bar charts.

The Scientist’s Rainbow: using every colour in the visual spectrum to convey a simple one-dimensional gradient. Which promptly disappears as soon as one prints, because, oops, we don’t all have colour printers on our desks yet.

Science-folk: do check out Mike’s Pictures of Numbers for tips/advice/makeovers of charts, graphs and visual information.

Starter for 10: Rod Page

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

I’m very excited that this week’s interview is with Professor Rod Page, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Glasgow – although see the answer to the second question for what he really does. I met Rod when I was doing my masters on language evolution, and his immensely useful software methods and textbooks made my phylogenetics learning curve much less steep than it could have been! Basically, if it combines computing and evolution, Rod has already thought about it, mashed it up, made it available on iPhylo and Twittered about it before you had your breakfast.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?

Professor.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I’m interested in joining the dots. It drives me nuts that we have all this information about the phylogeny, geographic distribution, and taxonomy of organisms and we can’t quite seem to bring it all together in one place. Think of it as Google for systematics.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I ended up in biology because it felt that you could still discover things without requiring lots of money or equipment. For instance, my first paper described a new species of pea crab that I found in Auckland harbour. Then I discovered the joys of programming, which is addictive because you regularly feel like master of the universe … at least for a few seconds. But perhaps the thing which grabbed me most as a graduate student was biogeography. New Zealand in the late 80’s was a hot bed of panbiogeography, with Leon Croizat’s work being rediscovered, and it was an exciting time. The wheels rather came off panbiogeography, but being in New Zealand felt like being in the centre of things.

4. And why are you trying to forget about lice? You say so on your old webpage …

Lice have been good to me, but empirical work is hard! All the tracking down collectors, storing specimens, keeping track of data, difficulties sequencing decent genes, struggling to align what sequences we did get, making sense of ropey trees at the end. Methodology is much more fun, especially for somebody like me who is easily distracted by shiny baubles.

5. Do you have a favourite quirky academic paper? Mine is the one about the homosexual necrophiliac duck.

I don’t have a paper, but the “Chicken chicken chicken” talk is a favourite. I show this to undergraduates in tutorials about how to give talks.

6. Professor-level-question: what three things are strikingly different in your field now from when you first started out?

Dub dub dub (WWW). It’s changed everything. That and large scale sequencing. Put another way, biology has become overwhelmingly digital. Some parts of biology have been quicker to adjust to this than than others. [FJ: *sigh* the revolution is still to come in anthropology and linguistics]

7. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

Design book covers.

8. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?

Isadore Nabi [FJ: I think I will start calling myself an “Intrepid Investigator” too]

9. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Rather than pick something specific, I worry that there’s a poor correlation between amount of money thrown at a subject and the amount of progress made. Results don’t scale linearly with money. I’m underwhelmed by “big science” approaches in biodiversity.

10. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

Book: “Envisioning Information” by Edward Tufte ISBN 978-0961392116 – Perhaps not strictly “pop-science”, but just an awesome book, both visually and intellectually. [FJ: EVERYONE should read Tufte]

Philosophy: “The Gentle Art of Philosophical Polemics” by Joseph Agassi ISBN 978-0912050638 – Fierce criticism as a mark of respect, makes me feel good about saying “well this sucks” all the time. [FJ: This arrived in my pigeonhole today, looking forward to it!]

Poem: Robert Burns Tam o’ Shanter “Nursing her wrath to keep it warm” – glorious line.

Although Rod’s disciplinary interests are firmly within biology, much of what he blogs about at iPhylo has crossover appeal – at the moment he’s reviewing iPad apps for reading scientific articles.

Starter for 10: Disa Sauter

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This week’s interview is with Dr Disa Sauter, who works three doors down from me at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Disa and I both did PhDs at UCL in London, but it took us moving to the Netherlands to bump into one another!

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
I’m actually a little stumped by this every time – you’d think I’d have decided on a word to summarize what I do by now! So I alternate between researcher, scientist, and psychologist.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”

I work on emotions and the ways that we communicate to others how we feel using facial expressions and vocalisations. I’m especially interested in whether emotions and expressions are the same or different depending on people’s cultural backgrounds. [FJ: Disa has done field work with the Himba people in Namibia, and is currently working with a Mayan group in Mexico]

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?
I was always interested in the human mind, but torn between philosophy of mind and psychology. Having done my final year school project in philosophy, I decided to focus on psychology instead… Doing a PhD on emotions with Sophie Scott at UCL made me want to continue in research for as long as I can.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In a study published earlier this year, me and my colleagues showed that some sounds that we make to express emotions, like growls and sobs, are shared by people with dramatically different cultural backgrounds, suggesting that they are part of the common human heritage. But while quite a few negative emotions were signalled in the same way across the groups, the sounds used to express many positive emotions were different – the exception to this was laughter, which had the same meaning across cultures.
5. I hear you’re Swedish. In the interests of cultural understanding, tell me something about Swedish language or culture that  doesn’t really have an English equivalent.
‘Lagom’ is a Swedish word and concept that doesn’t have a good equivalent in other languages. The best translation I think would be ‘just right’, like for example neither too much nor too little – but it can be applied in pretty much any domain, size, temperature, satiation etc. Unlike ‘perfekt’ (perfect), ‘lagom’ is not particularly celebratory, it’s more a matter-of-fact statement, which is what makes it so Swedish. [FJ: this brilliant word has its own wikipedia entry, it’s so useful]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?

I’d be an apprentice in the kitchen of a fancy vegetarian restaurant. [FJ: Mmmm, good choice with the transferable skills!]
7. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?
The neural correlates of poorly understood and badly operationalized psychological phenomena.
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Bad Science by Ben Goldacre
c) The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
Dexter Morgan. [FJ: I am hiding the sharp objects in the canteen]
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
I submitted a paper and started revising another.
Disa’s publications and research interests are listed at her website, including a recent review of positive emotions and how they’re a bit more complex than just “happy”. The media covered her cross-cultural emotion work earlier this year, you can see some of the write-ups here and here.

Starter for 10: Simon Greenhill

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 will be a semi-regular (fortnightly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.
I’m starting off with my friend and colleague Dr Simon Greenhill, from the University of Auckland.
1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?
Scientist.
2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: ” … and what do you work on?”
I study how languages and cultures evolve using computational methods drawn from evolutionary biology.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

I guess I’d always been interested in languages – I took French, German and Latin at school (the first two reasonably successfully, the latter rather abysmally). At university I intended to get a degree in computer science, but quickly decided I didn’t want to be spending my life doing tech support. At that time I’d discovered how awesome evolutionary biology was and I moved over to biology/psychology and thoroughly enjoyed myself. I ended up taking a course on Evolution, Behavior and Cognition (where a certain young Ms. Jordan was my lab instructor) [FJ notes: Simon is the original skeptic and raised my game!] and I loved every minute of it. I eventually harassed Russell Gray enough so that he had to take me on as a student. It’s all been downhill since there.
4. Journalists reckon that scientists “discover” things. Tell me the coolest thing you’ve “discovered” in your career so far.
In 2009 Russell Gray, Alexei Drummond and I published a paper where we tested different models of Pacific settlement. We showed that the Pacific was settled relatively recently – beginning around 5,200 years ago from Taiwan. The cool thing we discovered there was that we could really nuance our understanding of prehistory by identifying patterns of expansion pulses and settlement pauses, and estimating the timing of these events.
5. What’s the geekiest thing you know how to do?
I cured my addiction to sudoku by writing a program to solve the damn things. [FJ: !!!! ]
6. For a month, you get to do a job-swap outside of academia. What would you do?
Software development.
7. What’s your favourite dinosaur?
You can’t beat Tyrannosaurus rex, although I do have a soft-spot for Opabinia regalis (non-dino, I know).
8. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.
a) Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. It’s not perfect, but epic in scale and full of interesting, and very testable ideas.
b) David Hull’s “Science as a Process: An Evolutionary Account of the Social and Conceptual Development of Science“. This is an excellent account of how modern systematic biology developed in the 1970s-1980s. Hull describes the major players in the field, how their influences rise and fall over time, and the infighting and squabbling that occurred (the debate between phylogeneticists and cladists is infamously vicious). All in all,  the book is a wonderful example of philosophy/history of science. [FJ: This is indeed a marvellous book, full of scientists being totally human]
c) Preludes by T.S. Eliott, but Evolution by Langdon Smith is probably more appropriate for this blog.
9. Who’s your favourite fictional scientist?
10. What science-y thing did you do yesterday?
My two main achievements yesterday were reviewing a paper, and implementing an XML generator for certain BEAST analyses.
You can find out more about Simon’s research and projects at his (rather beautifully designed) website, which has links to the outstanding Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database. One of his very cool on-the-side projects is HENRY, The Human Evolution News RelaY.