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 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?


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.

a thoughtful piece about thoughtful work

There are any number of articles available on the internerd about How To Give A Good Academic Talk, or Ten Tips To Get Your Paper Published. Etcetera. Current Biology has a piece by Mark Ptashne: On speaking, writing and inspiration. It’s not a how-to guide, but a really nice exposition about the elusiveness (both as a listener and a speaker) of the simple, clear species of academic presentation.

Current Biology is a gem this month, with interesting articles on imitation in dogs, female-led infanticide in chimps, and a new look at sexual selection in barn swallows. Like, actual organisms and behaviour in more than one article!

printsetters clock + cultural bats

Wired has a nice little article on the molecular clock model being used by antiquarians to date prints/books etc. The original paper is here, describing how the properties of copperplate and woodblock degeneration (and the corresponding print quality features) can be used in a clock model to help date manuscrips. Nifty.

Also, via Afarensis (who has a cool picture), Current Biology reports that fring-lipped bats may be using social transmission mechanisms in order to learn a novel foraging behaviour (recognising frog calls as prey cues). Bats = always awesome.  

paper: phylogenetic classification and the universal tree

Doolittle, W.F. (1999) Phylogenetic classification and the universal tree. Science, 284, 2124-2128. [link]

Interesting review discussing recent findings which question a strict tree model for the universal tree of life. Lateral gene transfer is non-trivial, especial in archaeal and bacterial genomes. Doesn't dismiss the usefulness of molecular phylogenetics as a tool, but questions it as an end-goal (producing classifications).

If there were believable genealogies of all genes… one could then ask which genes have travelled together for how long in which genomes, without an obligation to marshal these data in the defense of one or another grander phylogenetic scheme for organisms.

Nifty figures, also.

paper: echolocation in bats

Once upon a time I considered becoming an evolutionary bat biologist1. Bats are cool. They’re close to primates on the mammal phylogeny, they have interesting social systems, and some of them have astoundingly sophisticated echolocation systems.

Gareth Jones and Emma Teeling have a paper in TREE: The evolution of echolocation in bats, discussing the phylogenetic history of this trait. It may be quite flexible in the face of ecological constraints and challenges, as there seems to be convergent evolution when different types of calls are mapped onto the molecular phylogenies.

1. Now I just read comics.