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?
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, ┬áthe 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.

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