An interview with Frank Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language

This week we had the opportunity to ask Frank Cioffi questions about his new book, One Day in the Life of the English Language, which was recently featured in Inside Higher Ed. Cioffi offers insights on the “ethics” of usage, why grammar is “not just a set of rules”, and why students often readily grasp proper usage in exercises, but struggle with their own prose.

What was the inspiration for this book?Cioffi jacket

FC: Here is what I wrote in my five-year diary on 12/28/08: “millions of sentences are uttered and written. . . Most float off into a void, never to be heard of or recalled again. Most are ‘ungrammatical,’ no doubt unable to pass the scrutiny of a gimlet-eyed grammarian. But these sentences, and those of the previous days, and those of the next ones, make up our lives. They help to form the dense linguistic net of which we are all a part. And this book seeks to both represent that net and to show how you as a writer might well make a small, a human scale, a molecule-level, improvement of it.”

In what way or ways does your handbook differentiate itself from the thousand or so English handbooks already out on the market?

FC: I guess I am trying to persuade readers that Standard Written English (SWE) matters; it’s not just something to be memorized, like how to factor polynomials or the quadratic equation, but has a real impact on how we live and function as human beings. For example, using SWE usually improves one’s capacity for communicating to a wide and varied audience. More people will understand you if you use SWE than if you use, say, a dialect or an argot.

In addition, when you don’t use SWE you run the risk of stigmatizing yourself, of giving your audience the excuse to ignore what you say (“He can’t be saying anything of any importance—he’s clearly uneducated and dumb”). Now that’s not the right response, I know, and I emphasize in my book that we should not stigmatize people because their English is unpolished or somewhat far from the “standard,” but it still happens, so people need to learn SWE in order not to be stigmatized.

For many decades now I’ve been teaching English at the college level, and I have seen a lot of handbooks. None of them, I felt, had a sufficiently human voice. Most books say, “Here it is: learn it.” I say, “Here it is, and here is why it’s important to learn it.” Fred Crews’s Random House Handbook was something of an exception, but it’s now out of print. It is also not a compact book, which mine attempts to be.

Tell us a bit more about the “voice” of a handbook.

FC: Grammar books have multiple voices: the author who is lecturing, the author who is commenting on samples of English, and the sample sentences, often also by the author. I thought there was something wrong with all of these as they exist in current texts. In particular, I wanted the sentences to come from a real world, not the one of “Dick and Jane” books.

Here is the paradox I saw: students could do worksheets or exercises very readily, but their own prose didn’t reflect the lessons of those exercises. For example, my students did a worksheet on comma splices, but comma splices still marred their writing. We did a worksheet on apostrophes, but apostrophes were still a major problem in the formal papers. Why is that?

It seemed to me that maybe in our handbooks, workbooks, and even lectures, we tended to simplify example sentences too much. We tended to make them spare and simple so as to illustrate a grammatical point. But that point is easy to understand with simple sentences. As complexity grows, the capacity for error enlarges.

At the same time, students might think, “Only a total dummy would make a mistake like this sample sentence!” or maybe “That’s not me!”Or they might think, “This book is totally condescending.”

So I wanted sample sentences that were complex.

But the problem here was that making up sentences in the sample sentence genre suddenly grew difficult, since their lack of content becomes much more apparent as they grow in elaborateness. This made me wonder about the “world” depicted in the example sentences. It’s a made-up world. a world of nonevents, a world where nothing scary or awful or threatening or sexy happens. It’s the same world that the Educational Testing Service depicts in the “fairness guidelines” that they give to test preparers, which in some ways makes sense. We don’t want to distract students from the grammatical issue at hand.

Yet the world of these sample sentences has the interesting effect of making grammar somehow disembodied, disconnected from a real world. Its sentences emerge from a world where nothing is really happening, and where nothing really matters. What message does that send to our students or to our readers?

That’s when I decided to go for real-world sentences.

These come from the “one day,” then, of your title?

FC: Yes. I didn’t want to make these the culled variety we see in Strunk and White, or Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s book The Reader over Your Shoulder. No. I just wanted them to be from a single day, since that would show how we all make mistakes, how language is really tricky even for professionals to get just right.

So I combed magazines and newspapers published on December 29, 2008, and I tried to find examples of good sentences, elegant sentences, let’s say, as well as of sentences whose grammar struck me as “dubious,” as one of my colleagues likes to say. I came up with almost 300 of these sentences, so the book is at once a grammar handbook and a curious snapshot of history, on a day that is not particularly historical. And oddly enough, even though it’s more than six years later now, a lot of the sentences still resonate with current events.

What about the “rules” of Standard Written English: don’t you feel these need to be hammered home?

FC: As far as “learning grammar” goes, I didn’t want to provide just a set of rules, though of course I do emphasize what’s SWE and what is not. I instead argue that students and readers need to internalize the pattern and form of English sentences, really need to get inside them in a profound way, need to become, in a way, linguists themselves, in order to express themselves more fully.

In addition, I wanted to be honest. The rules of English are not apodictic: they are constantly being debated by professors; they are under constant pressure. Think of the problems with pronoun reference. Think of the “acceptable” comma splice. There are borderlands of acceptability in English that are becoming increasingly large.

And too we need to recognize that not all English needs to be SWE. We need to allow our students their own language in many situations, just as editors allowed that in the papers and magazines I looked at. One of the things we want to keep in mind is that so much of the success of one’s English has to do with accurately gauging what’s appropriate to a given situation, with assessing the audience for one’s words.

Your book also emphasizes the “ethics” of usage. Can you elaborate on this?

FC: I also suggest that grammaticality or accuracy is something that has an ethical component, since lives, careers, futures—our future—can hinge on the accuracy of English. At the same time, SWE often allows people to better express their ideas to a wider audience—people can get heard “when it matters,” if they properly gauge their audience and if they are able to be agile enough with their language to move from one register to the next, and to assume SWE when it’s needed and abandon it when it might be counterproductive, when it might sound stilted or stuffy or supercilious to use it.

What surprised you about writing and publishing this book?

FC: I was surprised by how hard it was to get published. It came close to being accepted by a couple of textbook houses, but it didn’t make the grade. One time, after three very positive outside reviews, I thought the book was as good as accepted. I was to meet with the editor soon and we were to work out the details. But then at the last minute the editor canceled our meeting and said the book could not be published by her press.

“Why not?” I wondered. Then it occurred to me that if I am writing a book that challenges the value of standard handbooks, then a publisher that has 100 such handbooks on its list isn’t likely to publish mine! This also clued me in to why it is that all the handbooks out there are so similar.

It’s as if there is a weird monopoly of ideas—we can’t rock the boat too much with new ideas or approaches, since we’re making a ton of money off of the old ones!

When I was teaching in Poland a few years ago, it was communist days, and I was complaining about censorship. One of my colleagues, though, challenged me on this: “You have censorship in America, too, you know, and it’s as repressive of new ideas as ours is, maybe more: books that aren’t deemed salesworthy are simply not published. That silences all sorts of voices.” So a book might be itself salesworthy, but might drag down the sales of the other books published by a press, so that book won’t see print, at least not by them.

So do you think your book might change the way that college writing is taught?

FC: My book attempts to get writing instructors to grapple on an ongoing basis with the complexities of English usage and grammar, and to work with students as they try to plumb these issues together. It’s not a quick fix. It’s a course of instruction in what, for many students, is a new language altogether. If we really want to change the quality of the work our students produce, we need to reimagine how the college composition course is structured, staffed, and funded.

How did you come up with the title of the book, which is a play on Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich?

FC: I was going to call it “One Day’s Sentences in America,” but I wasn’t all that happy with that title. One day, though, my wife, Kathleen Cioffi, said, “Hey, why not call the book ‘One Day in the Life of the English Language’?” Bingo.

What are you reading right now?

FC: Right now I am reading a collection of short stories by Alberto Moravia. He is a marvelous and, I think, neglected Italian writer. His stories examine the minutiae of daily life; they explore the psychological menace and poignancy of the ordinary. In some ways they are stories about a lack of communication between people and the effects of that.

What are your next writing projects?

FC: I have several going on right now. Probably I have too many. I have three completed book manuscripts: one is about teaching entitled Beyond Zombie Pedagogy. I’ve also written a biography of my late uncle, the philosopher Frank Cioffi. And I kept a detailed diary of my life in communist Poland. The diary is maybe 700,000 words, though—I kept it for three years—so I need to cut it down and turn it into a narrative/analysis of life in Poland in the waning days of communism. Still waiting for publishers and contracts for these three books—!

I also have a volume of poetry that I’ve culled from the hundreds of poems I’ve written over the last three decades.

Really? Poetry? Perhaps you could give us a short poem?


Ok, here is a villanelle, “Noisome T. Rex”:


Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.

Smooth feelings blunt as a plastic doll’s sex,

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Moving ‘midst throngs swarm-clogging the pavement,

lumb’ring dumb-monstrous as noisome T. Rex,

fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Pointless to think of her lips or prevent

recall of their blood-damp cling pre/post-X.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Don’t look directly—no, keep that gaze bent,

as eyes switchblade your so vulner’ble neck .

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Its fluid-flow blocked, mind needing a stent

or swift amputation—painless, unvex’d—

scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.


Violate space through some vocal event.

Stall devolution, and fight your thrawn hex.

Scrub brain raw of all, all that you repent.

Fuse frayed synapses, hurt to reinvent.


Be sure to read the introduction here.

Celebrate National Grammar Day with Frank Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language

Grammar: It’s the difference between knowing your stuff and knowing you’re stuff. Some even say it saves lives (see below). If you haven’t noticed, today is National Grammar Day (March 4), so here at Princeton University Press we are celebrating good grammar, proper punctuation, and clear communication with Frank L. Cioffi’s anti-textbook handbook, One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook.

Cioffi’s chatty and charming reference doesn’t just lay out the “rules,” but also makes a convincing case for why good grammar and usage matter. Cioffi argues that Standard Written English (also known as “formal English”) is vital for success in professions where exactness and clarity carry great importance, and he also proposes that correct English can foster a more honest, ethical, and functional culture of communication.

The book draws on some three hundred real-world sentences printed in eleven newspapers and six weekly magazines and published on a single, typical day (December 29, 2008). Cioffi emphasizes that English usage is continually evolving and he debunks some of the most popular grammar “rules.” Is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? It is. Can you start a sentence with a conjunction? You can. Is it “correct” to use split infinitives. Sure.

What do you think? Does “formal” English still matter in the post-Twitter world?


Check out the introduction and let us know.

We’ve also been tweeting out #NationalGrammarDay #protips from the book today.

Happy National Grammar Day!

Photo via Brett Jordan / Flickr

Quick Questions for Charles D. Bailyn, author of What Does a Black Hole Look Like?

Charles BailynCharles D. Bailyn is the A. Bartlett Giamatti professor Astronomy and Physics at Yale University. He is currently serving as Dean of Faculty at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. He was awarded the 2009 Bruno Rossi Prize from the American Astronomical Society for his work on measuring the masses of black holes, and the recipient of several other, equally prestigious awards.

Dr. Bailyn received his B.Sc. in Astronomy and Physics from Yale (1981) and completed his Ph.D. in Astronomy at Harvard (1987). His research interests are concentrated in High Energy Astrophysics and Galactic Astronomy, with a focus on observations of binary star systems containing black holes. His latest book, What Does a Black Hole Look Like? addresses lingering questions about the nature of Dark Matter and black holes, and is accessible to a variety of audiences.

Now, on to the questions!

PUP: What inspired you to get into your field?

Charles D. Bailyn: Like a lot of little kids in the late 1960s, I was fascinated by space travel, and I wanted to be an astronaut. But then someone told me about space sickness – I’m prone to motion sickness, and that sounded pretty awful to me. So “astronaut” morphed into “astrophysicist” – I liked the idea of exploring the universe through math and physics. In college I thought I would work on relativity theory, but I didn’t quite have the mathematical prowess for that, and around that time I found out that the X-ray astronomers were actually observing black holes and related objects. So as a graduate student and post-doc I gradually moved from being a theorist to being an observer. I’ve analyzed data from many of NASA’s orbiting observatories, so I ended up being involved with the space program after all.

What would you have been if not an astronomer?

I’ve always loved music, particularly vocal music, and I’ve spent a lot of time in and around various kinds of amateur singing groups. I could easily see myself as a choral conductor.

What is the biggest misunderstanding that people have about astronomy?

Well, I’m always a bit amused and dismayed when I tell someone that I’m an astronomer, and they ask “what’s your sign?” – as if astronomy and astrology are the same thing. I used to tell people very seriously that I’m an Orion – this is puzzling, since most people know it’s a constellation but not part of the zodiac. At one point I had an elaborate fake explanation worked out about how this could be.

Why did you write this book? Who do you see as its audience?

There seem to be two kinds of books on black holes and relativity – books addressing a popular audience that use no math at all, and textbooks that focus on developing the relevant physical theory. This book was designed to sit in the middle. It assumes a basic knowledge of college physics, but instead of deriving the theory, its primary concerns are the observations and their interpretation. I’m basically talking to myself as a sophomore or junior in college.

“The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.”

How did you come up with the title?

The Frontiers in Physics (Princeton) series like to have questions in the title, and this one is particularly provocative. Black holes by definition cannot be seen directly, so asking what they “look like” is a bit of an oxymoron. But a lot of modern astrophysics is like that – we have powerful empirical evidence for all sorts of things we can’t see, from planets around distant stars to the Dark Matter and Dark Energy that make up most of the stuff in the Universe. The unseen parts of the Universe are the most intriguing, at least to me.

What are you working on now?

I’m turning the online version of my introductory astronomy course into a book – kind of a retro move, turning online content into book format! It will be for a non-scientific rather than a scientific audience. But mostly I’m doing administrative work these days – I’m currently in Singapore serving as the inaugural Dean of Faculty for Yale-NUS College, the region’s first fully residential liberal arts college. The importance of science in a liberal arts curriculum is a passion of mine – after all, astronomy was one of the original liberal arts – and I’m glad to have a chance to bring this kind of education to a new audience, even though it takes me away from my scientific work for a while.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve been following the reading list for our second semester literature core class, starting from Don Quixote and Journey to the West, the first early modern novels in the European and Chinese traditions respectively, ending with Salman Rushdie, who is all about the interaction of East and West. It’s fun being a student again!


Charles D. Bailyn is the author of:

Buy the Book image What Does a Black Hole Look Like? by Charles D. Bailyn
Hardcover | August 2014 | $35.00 / £24.95 | ISBN: 9780691148823
224 pp. | 5 x 8 | 21 line illus.| eBook | ISBN: 9781400850563 | Reviews

Video Lectures – A Mathematics Course for Political and Social Research

Author David A. Siegel recently released a series of video lectures to accompany the textbook A Mathematics Course for Political and Social Research, co-authored with Will H. Moore. This video course is available for free via YouTube.

First watch this introduction:

Then delve into the various lecture playlists, starting with Lecture 1, which covers preliminaries and algebra review:

In case you are looking for a video on a specific topic, these are the subjects covered in the book. The lectures follow the same order.


bookjacket A Mathematics Course for Political and Social ResearchWill H. Moore & David A. Siegel

Running Randomized Evaluations

Glennerster_RunningRandomized “The popularity of randomized evaluations among researchers and policymakers is growing and holds great promise for a world where decision making will be based increasingly on rigorous evidence and creative thinking. However, conducting a randomized evaluation can be daunting. There are many steps, and decisions made early on can have unforeseen implications for the life of the project. This book, based on more than a decade of personal experience by a foremost practitioner and a wealth of knowledge gathered over the years by researchers at J-PAL, provides both comfort and guidance to anyone seeking to engage in this process.”–Esther Duflo, codirector of J-PAL and coauthor of Poor Economics

Running Randomized Evaluations: A Practical Guide
Rachel Glennerster & Kudzai Takavarasha

This book provides a comprehensive yet accessible guide to running randomized impact evaluations of social programs. Drawing on the experience of researchers at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which has run hundreds of such evaluations in dozens of countries throughout the world, it offers practical insights on how to use this powerful technique, especially in resource-poor environments.

This step-by-step guide explains why and when randomized evaluations are useful, in what situations they should be used, and how to prioritize different evaluation opportunities. It shows how to design and analyze studies that answer important questions while respecting the constraints of those working on and benefiting from the program being evaluated. The book gives concrete tips on issues such as improving the quality of a study despite tight budget constraints, and demonstrates how the results of randomized impact evaluations can inform policy.

Suggested courses:

  • Program evaluation courses taught in Master in Public Administration/ International Development, Master of Business Administration, and Master of Public Administration programs.
  • Masters of Public Policy courses focusing on economics and impact evaluation.


Table of Contents

Chapter 1 pdf-icon
Request an examination copy.


Peter Dougherty reflects on the latest crop of textbooks from Princeton University Press

Dear Readers,

As summer moves (perhaps too swiftly) from July to August, and soon enough to September, we are celebrating our new array of excellent advanced textbooks, titles crucial to research and teaching in the academy. A scholar once characterized an outstanding text as a book that brings “point, verve, and a sense of general acceptance” to the field which it defines—a worthy objective, among others, of a scholarly publisher such as Princeton University Press.  (Please don’t ask me to identify the source; I came across this quote about 30 years ago).

Textbooks of a scholarly stripe have long held a proud place on Princeton’s list, dating back many decades, and have complemented our monographs and more general interest titles in serving up robust accounts of the fields in which we publish.  This year is no exception, featuring as it does the impressive cluster of advanced texts we’ve published since last fall.  In fact, this is arguably the best set of new texts we have published in years.  And this bumper crop of texts is unusual in that spans most of the fields in which we publish, not just one or two.  As we approach some of the big annual academic meetings, and with fall semester only a month away, it’s worth our reviewing some of these outstanding offerings.

Most notable in this year’s crop are the new science texts.  The earliest of our new science texts appeared last August in the form of Wally Broecker and Charles Langmuir’s new edition of the classic work, How to Build a Habitable Planet.  Habitable Planet was quickly followed by Biophysics: Searching for Principles by William Bialek, and an innovative new book on the physics of sound and music, Why You Hear What You Hear by Harvard’s Eric Heller.  Our science offerings concluded this past spring with Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell by Anthony Zee, author of the modern classic Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell, now in its second edition, and Climate Dynamics, an exciting new book by Texas-based scholar Kerry Cook.  Rounding out the spring flock of science texts are the second edition of Steven Vogel’s Comparative Biomechanics, and Whitney Cranshaw and Richard Redak’s exciting Bugs Rule! An Introduction to the World of Insects.  Collectively, these texts are helping to turn a new page in PUP’s science publishing.

While launching the new science texts, we added handsomely to our world-leading list of economics texts with new offerings by two of our most successful and celebrated textbook authors: Stanford’s David Kreps, whose 1990 book, A Course in Microeconomic Theory, marked the rise of the modern PUP economics list, is back with his new text, Microeconomic Foundations I: Choice and Competitive Markets, while MIT’s Robert Gibbons, author of the widely admired 1992 book, Game Theory for Applied Economists, joined Stanford’s John Roberts in editing the path-breaking Handbook of Organizational Economics. In addition, we published Berkeley economist Steven Tadelis’s long-awaited Game Theory: An Introduction, and an important edited volume by Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir, Behavioral Foundations of Public Policy.  Shafir’s volume touched a nerve at The New York Times when columnist David Brooks used it as the basis for a January 2013 column. These books and more will be on display later this month at the European economics meetings in Sweden.

The list of 2012-13 textbooks extends from science and economics into various other regions of the social sciences.  We began the academic year with Phillip Bonacich and Philip Liu’s Introduction to Mathematical Sociology, and finished the year on an equally quantitative note with Moore and Siegel’s new book, A Mathematical Course for Political and Social Research, two titles we will feature prominently at this month’s meetings of the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association. In anthropology we added two new teaching titles in Ethnography and Virtual Worlds by Tom Boellstorff and his colleagues, and Nikolas Rose and Joelle Abi-Rachid’s Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind.

Returning to the earliest months of the past academic year, it’s worth recalling that we published the fourth edition of the famed Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics in a low-priced paperback edition, thereby making it course adoption-ready in seminars on poetics and advanced classes on poetry.

For more on these and other textbooks, please check out Princeton Pretexts where we will be posting additional information about these titles over the coming weeks or our dedicated textbooks web site.


Peter Dougherty
Director of Princeton University Press

Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell

Zee_EinsteinGravityNutshell Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell is a remarkably complete and thorough textbook on general relativity, written in a refreshing and engaging style. Zee leads us through all the major intellectual steps that make what is surely one of the most profound and beautiful theories of all time. The book is enjoyable and informative in equal measure. Quite an achievement.”–Pedro Ferreira, University of Oxford

Einstein Gravity in a Nutshell
A. Zee

  • Provides an accessible introduction to Einstein’s general theory of relativity
  • Guides readers from Newtonian mechanics to the frontiers of modern research
  • Emphasizes symmetry and the Einstein-Hilbert action
  • Covers topics not found in standard textbooks on Einstein gravity
  • Includes interesting historical asides
  • Features numerous exercises and detailed appendices
  • Ideal for students, physicists, and scientifically minded lay readers
  • Solutions manual (available only to teachers)


Table of Contents

Sample this textbook: Introduction [PDF]

Additional information about the In the Nutshell series

Request an examination copy.



FACT: “[C]hocolate chip cookies (CCCs) have eight times the energy as the same weight of TNT. How can that be true? Why can’t we blow up a building with CCCs instead of TNT? Almost everyone who hasn’t studied the subject assumes (incorrectly) that TNT releases a great deal more energy than cookies. That includes most physics majors….Even though chocolate chip cookies contain more energy than a similar weight of TNT, the energy is normally released more slowly, through a series of chemical processes that we call metabolism.”

Physics and Technology for Future Presidents:
An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know

by Richard A. Muller

We invite you to read the preface online:

“Modern science and technology have the power to shape the world we live in, for good or for evil. Muller, himself a brilliant, creative scientist, has distilled the most important scientific principles that define our choices, and has presented them clearly and objectively. To make wise decisions, not only future presidents, but future business and community leaders, and thoughtful citizens generally, need the information in this book.”–Frank Wilczek, Nobel Prize–winning physicist



New Biology Catalog

We invite you to download and browse our 2012-2013 Biology catalog:

Be on the lookout for these new and forthcoming titles (just to name a few):

Nature’s Compass: The Mystery of Animal Navigation
by James L. Gould & Carol Grant Gould

Cells to Civilizations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life
by Enrico Coen

Darwinian Agriculture: How Understanding Evolution Can Improve Agriculture
by R. Ford Denison

Solid Biomechanics
by Roland Ennos

How and Why Species Multiply: The Radiation of Darwin’s Finches
by Peter R. Grant & B. Rosemary Grant

Atmosphere, Clouds, and Climate
by David Randall

The World’s Rarest Birds
by Erik Hirschfeld, Andy Swash & Robert Still

and more. There are too many great titles to list here. You’re just going to have to check it out online:

If you are attending the First Joint Congress on Evolutionary Biology in Ottawa, stop by and visit us at booth #105!

Q&A with Sönke Johnsen

Quinn Fusting, PUP’s editorial assistant in the life sciences, has conducted a Q&A with Sönke Johnsen, the author of The Optics of Life: A Biologist’s Guide to Light in Nature.

Q: When, how, and why did you become interested in light?

A: I grew up in a house where we made just about everything, including science toys. My dad was a physicist, and we would spend weekends building pinhole shoebox cameras, arc lamps from dismantled batteries, and once even a solar hot dog cooker made out of a sledding saucer covered in aluminum foil. He would also bring home surplus items from his lab, like head-sized Fresnel lenses and chunks of sapphire lasers. He also set up a black-and-white darkroom in the attic where I spent much of my childhood and adolescence. My mother was creative as well and introduced me to painting, drawing, tie-dying and such. There were no computers yet, and our TV only got two channels (three if my little brother stood in just the right spot), so I had plenty of time to fiddle around.

As for why…well, light is beautiful. What’s more wonderful than the light filtered through new leaves on a windy, Spring day? Or the green bioluminescence trailing your limbs as you swim on a moonless night?  The stars alone are worth having eyes for. I can’t imagine not studying light. 

Q: What drove you to write an optics guide for biologists?

A: I’m not entirely sure. I do enjoy writing, but this was a lot of work, so there must have been a reason. When I pitched the project to my editor, I told her that it would fill a niche, but I’ve never been one to lose sleep over unfilled holes. I also told her that optics was important to biology. It is, but so what? Steve Vogel told me once that writing books is wonderful because it transforms you from a competitor into an enabler. I do hope this book helps people use optics in their research, but honestly I still feel competitive. Maybe I just want people to stop me in the hall and say, “Nice book!” I’d be lying if I said this didn’t matter. I’m shallow, and flattery goes a long way with me.

There’s more though. While not religious, I am often overcome by this world — it’s like being given a prize over and over. The most remarkable part to me is that we are able to appreciate and at least partially understand it. Being a biologist, I can mumble about scientific curiosity being an epiphenomenon of natural selection for cooperative hunting, foraging, individual recognition, and so on, but that doesn’t make it any less incredible. As the physicist Isidor Rabi said when the muon was discovered, “Who ordered that?” However we acquired this ability to appreciate and understand the world, it would be rude to waste it. So I wrote this book to share this feeling, this amazement at what is all around us.

Q: What would you say is the most important thing for biologists to know about optics?

A: That it’s easier to learn than you think. The long history of the field and its connection with human vision has left us with a horrible mess of units and concepts. Only in optics do people still publish papers using units like stilbs, nits, candelas, trolands, and my personal favorite, foot-lamberts. However, the reality of optics itself is simple and elegant. With the right introduction, you can sidestep the mess and get right to the fun parts.

However, light is also harder to work with than many people appreciate. The main reason for this is that we don’t measure light in our daily lives. Since childhood, we develop an intuitive sense of weights, lengths, area, temperature, and so on. For example, we can guess someone’s height to within 5% and weight to within 10%-20%. However, even after a decade of measuring light, I can’t tell you how bright my office is on this overcast morning to within even an order of magnitude. This is like saying that I can’t decide whether I am six or sixty feet tall. So you need to be careful. It’s worth it though. The biological world is a funhouse of optical tricks and traits just waiting to be discovered. Just today, I read that jumping spiders use image defocus to judge distance and that bowerbirds play with visual perspective to impress their mates. How cool is that? 

Q: What is light anyway?

A: I have no idea. I have thought about light since I was five years old and am no closer to understanding its fundamental nature. I am in good company though. Even Richard Feynman, one of the creators of the theory of how light and matter interact and widely acknowledged as one of the best explainers of physics, said that light cannot be understood. We have equations that let us predict what light will do to a precision of more than twenty significant figures, but no one has come up with a description of light that makes sense. It is unlikely that anyone ever will. Read enough about the subject, and your head will start to itch.

However, while the non-intuitive nature of light can be unsatisfying, it doesn’t affect our ability to use it. In other words, as long as you do your measurements and math correctly, you can think of light as little purple buffaloes and it won’t matter. After all, we don’t really understand the fundamental nature of anything, but manage just fine.

Mammals Monday!

This week’s featured mammal from the Mammals of North America app is the Eastern Chipmunk. As the weather gets colder, you might see chipmunks collecting food to store for the winter in their extensive underground burrows — these burrows can be up to 3.5 metres long, and often have multiple entrances.

Fun fact: a chipmunk is a kind of squirrel!

Previous Mammals Monday posts:

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A Short Primer on Notation in Engineering Dynamics: A Comprehensive Introduction

The authors of the new textbook Engineering Dynamics: A Comprehensive Introduction have written a short Primer to the notation used in their book. The notation differs from that used in the traditional suite of introductory texts (Meriam, Bedford & Fowler, Hibbeler, Beer & Johnson), but this more sophisticated notation is necessary because, as Kasdin explains, this textbook is more comprehensive than anything else currently available. Much of the material that requires this notation, such as multiple frames or three-dimensional rigid body rotation, are not covered in other textbooks.

Kasdin notes that the goal of the primer is threefold: “to show that the notation serves a specific purpose and has pedagogical value, to show that it is not as extensive and different as people think (i.e., it can be categorized into a small number of elements), and that we did not invent it, but rather followed common practice, adopting it from many sources, and merely tried to make it more consistent, systematic, and clear.”

He also emphasizes that there are other more complete and advanced books that have adopted some variation of the notation used in Engineering Dynamics, so there are precedents already in place for their decision to utilize this notation.

You can download the primer here.