Q&A with Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks

silent sparks jacketThere is something undeniably captivating and alluring about fireflies. In Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, author Sara Lewis talks about the lives and surprising secrets of these creatures that light up the night skies. You’ll learn, for instance, that fireflies’ lives can be rather brief and gruesome. Lewis has spent over thirty years studying fireflies and has participated in a popular TED talk about the insects. This Q&A offers insights into why Lewis became so attracted to the idea of researching fireflies and what readers can expect to be surprised by in Silent Sparks.

What inspired you to write a book about fireflies?

SL: Ah, this book had quite a long gestation period! I’ve been doing research on fireflies for about 30 years. Whenever people hear about my job, “ Oh, I love fireflies!” is their nearly universal response. And so many people are curious, quite eager to learn more. But there really hasn’t been much accessible information out there. Even though we’ve learned a tremendous amount about fireflies over the past few decades, all these new discoveries lay hidden away in the technical literature. Scientists write primarily for other scientists, so these papers are chock full of technical jargon. Also, they can be difficult to access because they’re located behind paywalls. Knowing how many people would enjoy celebrating the science and the wonder of fireflies – that’s really what inspired me.

Who is the audience for this book, and what do you hope people will get from it?

SL: As I write in the preface: “If you love fireflies, then I wrote this book for you.” My goal is to escort people behind the scenes to explore the science behind the spectacle. How do these creatures make light? And what’s with all that flashing – are they talking to one another? What do baby fireflies look like? Are fireflies really disappearing?

One thing I hope people will take away from Silent Sparks is the immense beauty that emerges when you look at fireflies in the light of evolution. And they’ll get to glimpse the scientific process that helps us collectively accumulate knowledge. Of the few hundred scientists who’ve dedicated their days and nights to uncovering fireflies’ secrets, I’m lucky to count many of them among my mentors and friends. The book introduces quite a few of these firefly scientists – for me, their stories help the science come alive.

What’s most the surprising thing your book reveals about fireflies?

SL: Most people think there’s just one type of firefly, so the Most Surprising Revelation Award would likely go to the fact that there are over 2000 different firefly species sprinkled across the globe. And they’ve evolved remarkably different courtship styles. In North America, our most familiar fireflies are lightning bugs, which use quick, bright flashes to find mates. Northern Europe has mainly glow-worm fireflies: plump and wingless, these females climb up onto perches at night and glow for hours to attract their flying males. The western US has mainly dark fireflies. These fly during daytime and they don’t light up – instead males use their fancy antennae to sniff out perfumes given off by their females.

Any other surprises?

SL: Yes, lots! Without revealing too much, I think most people will be surprised by fireflies’ gory and gluttonous childhood, for instance.

Do you have a favorite firefly?

SL: I was hoping you wouldn’t ask that! It’s so hard to pick just one, because fireflies have so many different lifestyles and I find each one fascinating. I guess my current favorite would have to be the blue ghost firefly, Phausis reticulata. I fell under the spell of these mysterious fireflies a few years back when I first encountered them in the southern Appalachians. Flying ankle-high above the forest floor, blue ghost males give off eerie, long-lasting glows as they search for females. Meanwhile, the blue ghost females are tiny and wingless, and they’re very hard to find. They’re nestled down in the leaf litter, their transparent bodies studded with glowspots that shine like gemstones.

Another reason I like them is that they hold so many secrets just waiting to be uncovered – we still know very little these blue ghost fireflies.

silent sparks firefly

In blue ghost fireflies, the males can fly but the wingless females cannot. (photo by Raphael De Cock)

What got you started studying fireflies?

SL: I got hooked on life’s diversity early on, but it wasn’t until I completed my PhD that I started paying close attention to fireflies. One evening I was sitting out in my backyard in North Carolina, and suddenly these silent sparks rose up all around me. It was a magical moment – anyone who’s seen them knows exactly what I mean! And when I started reading about them, I realized these creatures would make perfect subjects to better understand sexual selection. This evolutionary process is responsible for the many bizarre and unusual features that help males improve their reproductive prospects: the peacock’s tail, the rhinoceros beetle’s horns, the bowerbird’s displays, the wood thrushes’ song and, as it turns out, the firefly’s flashes.

What did you learn while writing this book?

In terms of my personal growth, I learned to love writing again. For this book project, I really wanted to make the science accessible. Yet scientific writing uses a highly precise, concise shorthand; jargon works really well when scientists are communicating with one another, but this language can be difficult for others to understand. It took a few months, but finally I remembered how much fun it is to write in plain English! Adjectives, punctuation…the possibilities were thrilling!

silent sparks firefly

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

As I researched the book, I also learned a lot about the many interconnections between humans and fireflies. Around the world, fireflies elicit a nearly mystical reverence. But nowhere on Earth are fireflies more intricately woven into the cultural fabric than in Japan. As I describe in Silent Sparks, the Japanese people have enjoyed a profound love affair with fireflies for more than a thousand years. But I hadn’t realized how narrowly these beloved insects escaped being extinguished from the Japanese countryside during the twentieth century. Now, through research and widespread restoration efforts, Japanese fireflies have made a remarkable come-back to become a symbol of national pride and environmentalism.

Sara Lewis, who has been captivated by fireflies for nearly three decades, is a professor in the Department of Biology at Tufts University. Her work has been featured in numerous publications, including the New York Times, Scientific American, and USA Today. Lewis lives with her husband in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

Tonio Andrade: Animals as Weaponry

By Tonio Andrade

01 Firebird

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)

Firebird

Before guided missiles, humans had few ways to attack their enemies remotely, so they tried using animals. The Chinese were enthusiastic practitioners of this art. The firebird was a simple, if imprecise example. This image is from a Chinese military manual from the 1000s, and its accompanying text includes instructions: “Take a peach pit and cut it in half. Hollow out the middle and fill it with mugwort tinder. Then cut two holes and put it back together. Before this, capture from within the enemy’s territory some wild pheasants. Tie the peach pits to their necks, and then prick their tails with a needle and set them free. They will flee back into the grass, at which point the peach pits will let loose their fire.”

Fire Sparrows

(Source: Zeng Gongliang 曾公亮, Wu jing zong yao 武经总要, in Zhong guo bing shu ji cheng 中国兵书集成, Beijing: People’s Liberation Army Press, 1988, juan 11, huo gong [p. 512].)

Fire Sparrows

Pheasants might have been suitable to attack a foe in the field, but what if the enemy held a city? In this case one could use urban birds, deploying hundreds of them at a time to lay waste to enemy buildings. This image, from the same eleventh-century military manual, depicts fire sparrows, and the accompanying text explains how to prepare them: “Hollow out apricot pits and fill them with mugwort tinder. Then capture from the enemy’s town and warehouses several hundred sparrows. Tie the apricot pits to their legs and then add a bit of fire [to the tinder]. At dusk, when the flocks fly into the city to rest for the night, they will settle in large groups in the houses and buildings, and at this moment the fire will flame up.”

03 Fire Ox Image

(Source: Wu jing zong yao, juan 11, “huo gong”.)

Fire Ox

If birds proved too subtle, one could also use fire-oxen, such as the one depicted here. In this case, the fire is used less as an incendiary than as a motivator. One fit one’s ox with spears and then affixed straw soaked in oil to his or her tail. After it’s set alight, the ox would charge madly toward the enemy.

Thundering bomb fire-ox

(Source: Jiao Yu 焦玉 [attributed], Wu bei huo long jing 武備火龍經, 4 juans, Xianfeng ding yi year [1857], juan 2 [copy held in Nanyang Technological University Library, Singapore].)

Exploding Fire Ox

As the Chinese perfected gunpowder mixtures, they added bombs to these living weapons, as in this image, where we see a classical fire-ox, motivated to run by the burning reeds, with a bomb on its back. The bomb was timed to explode when the poor beast reached the enemy.

05 Rocket Cat Image

(Source: Franz Helm, Feuer Buech, durch Eurem gelertten Kriegs verstenndigen mit grossem Vleis…, Germany, c. 1584, copy held at University of Pennsylvania Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Ms. Codex 109, viewable online at http://dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/medren/detail.html?id=MEDREN_1580451.)

Firecat and Firebird

Europeans also used animals to deliver incendiaries. Here is an image of a cat and a bird, each with a sack of burning material attached to them. The idea was to kidnap a domestic cat from the enemy’s city, attach a sack of incendiary material to it, and then shoo it home. The idea was that it would then run and hide in a hay loft or barn, which would then, if things went as planned, catch on fire.

Gunpowder Age andradeTonio Andrade is professor of history at Emory University and the author of The Gunpowder Age, as well as Lost Colony: The Untold Story of China’s First Great Victory over the West (Princeton) and How Taiwan Became Chinese.

Judith Herrin awarded 2016 Heineken Prize for History

Judith Herrin portraitPrinceton University Press congratulates Professor Judith Herrin (emerita, Kings College London) on receiving the 2016 Dr A. H. Heineken Prize for History. The prize is awarded in recognition of Prof. Herrin’s lifetime contribution to the field, in particular her work on the medieval cultures of the Mediterranean, and the Byzantine Empire. The statement from the prize jury notes that “[Herrin’s] work paved the way for a non-theological view of the influence of Christendom on Medieval society. Thanks to Herrin, the place of the Byzantine Empire in history is now assessed at its true value and thanks to her tenacity, the many varied contributions made by women to Byzantine society are now appreciated.”

We are proud to have an enduring working relationship with Prof. Herrin that began with the 1987 publication of The Formation of Christendom, a classic in the history of Dark Ages Europe. The three decades since have seen major works on the Byzantine Empire: Women in Purple (2002) and Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (2008). Most recently, we published two volumes of collected essays, Margins and Metropolis, and Unrivalled Influence. We look forward to many more years of working together.

Previous recipients of the $200,000 prize include Jonathan Israel, Joel Mokyr, Jacques Le Goff and Peter Brown.

Ten weeks, ten states, and a symphony of birdsong

listening to a continent sing kroodsma jacketTake a journey across ten weeks and ten states,  from one coast of America to another, as Donald Kroodsma and his son bike 5,000 miles and record birdsong along the way. In Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Kroodsma  provides a written account of this inspirational adventure that is one part personal memoir, one part guided history, one part invitation to pursue your own dreams. The book is beautifully illustrated, incorporating images of the vast terrain and animals the pair encountered on their trip. QR codes link to audio of birdsong throughout.

Click through to enlarge some of the book’s images here.

Nicholas Dagen Bloom: The Perilous Politics of Housing Poor People

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By Nicholas Dagen Bloom

The rolling disaster of America’s urban poverty housing programs is evident in the packed homeless shelters, tent encampments, high rent burdens, lead poisoning, frequent evictions, and public housing disinvestment featured widely in American newspapers, books, and television shows. The differences in housing conditions that once separated big American cities (such as New York from Los Angeles) are much less important than they were a decade or two past.

To shore up their urban base, the Democratic presidential candidates even made quick visits to public housing developments in New York City, an acknowledgement of a new urban housing crisis in both the quantity and quality of housing. The candidates showed genuine concern, looked earnestly at the damage caused by decades of federal disinvestment, and reminded voters of their generous housing platforms.

Both candidates know that it won’t be easy. Liberals with national ambitions and power who support housing programs have wrestled with the issue of housing poor people for decades. They want to help, but they understand that most Americans distrust direct federal housing programs for the poor. And housing the poor, on its own merits, comes with many liabilities.

President Franklin Roosevelt, under intense pressure from his New York base, may have created the first permanent public housing multifamily program in the United States (the Housing Act of 1937) for the third of the population that was “ill housed”, but he also believed most “families should have individual homes . . . however modest.” His public housing program, attacked by conservatives as “creeping socialism,” thus remained comparatively small and stingy. Roosevelt’s Federal Housing Administration proved, in time, nationally popular as it made single-family homes more affordable, operated in an indirect manner on the housing market (mortgage insurance), left private builders and owners almost entirely to their own devices (redlining), and focused almost exclusively on the lower/middle class rather than the urban poor. The success of the FHA in helping build suburbia in the 1940s and 1950s undermined the mass support for public housing because most of the middle-class got their dream homes.

Roosevelt’s successor, President Harry Truman, made public housing a national priority in the context of a temporary postwar housing shortage, winning the Housing Act of 1949 that called for 800,000 public housing units. Yet the Korean War emergency, which slashed public housing subsides dramatically, stretched those targets out over a decade. As the postwar housing shortage eased in the 1950s, as private builders created miles of affordably priced suburban single-family homes, it was primarily in big cities where residual support for public housing remained, often for purposes related more to commercial redevelopment than humanitarianism.

Even many dedicated liberals wavered in their faith as the public housing towers rose in the 1950s and 1960s. Liberal Republican Governor Nelson Rockefeller (R-NY), in an address to the NAACP in 1962, admitted that subsidized housing “has been building up social and economic problems even more serious that the problems it was expected to solve” including racial and social segregation. And while Rockefeller himself remained committed to big government housing programs, building more housing than any New York Governor then or since, subsidized housing figured very little in his national appeal. Most of his state housing programs, even for the poor, also relied on public/private partnerships.

By the 1960s, the “projects” had taken on their full range of negative connotations even though in cities like New York they provided a necessary form of permanent low-cost housing for the urban poor and working class (and still do today). Most American politicians of both political parties ran from programs like public housing, substituting a complicated mix of subsidies for private interests in the low-income housing field.

Many of these new public/private programs proved, in many respects, quite successful. Richard Nixon ended new public housing in 1973 and introduced vouchers (Section 8) in private housing to de-concentrate poverty concentration. Ronald Reagan slashed direct housing programs but signed off on the new Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) which gave tax breaks to corporations who invested in new affordable housing serving income levels generally higher than public housing. The 1990s and Bill Clinton will best be remembered for the Hope VI program which paid for the knocking down and redeveloping public housing as privately run, mixed-income communities.

Even the meltdown of the private housing market during subprime financial crisis in 2007 did not lead to a new era of direct government housing despite the fact the poor, or those just above the poverty line, were far more likely to be victims of predatory schemes and evictions. Presidents Bush and Obama secured trillions to stabilize the big private or semi-private players in housing market (the FHA, Freddie Mac, Citibank, Bank of America, etc.) so that the private market could continue as the primary housing provider for all American households.

Americans on the whole today thus remain well served by the private housing market, but the poor, and those living in expensive cities in particular, face a bleak housing future in the privatized affordable housing system.

Hillary Clinton, now the presumptive Democratic nominee and the only liberal likely running this fall, has endorsed a mix of portable Section 8 vouchers, additional tax credits for affordable housing, home ownership subsidies, and renovation of urban housing. These notable initiatives share in a well-worn path of minimizing direct federal involvement. And tested programs like these are likely to improve the lives of many poor people, particularly those lucky enough to use these programs to find housing in higher-income neighborhoods. But American politicians, even liberals, have yet to face the hard truth that to do right by the poor may take a lot more than more subsidies of private interests.

There is a large and growing population in and around cities that needs permanent, basic housing as a prerequisite to getting their lives in order. Existing large-scale low-cost government run housing for the poor such as public housing (or supportive housing with social services on site) is complicated to manage, a public relations quagmire, and often very expensive to build right and preserve. Yet we are already paying embarrassing amount to house the homeless and poor in “temporary” institutional settings such jails, hospitals, and shelters. Preserving what public housing is left (such as the 178,000 units of public housing in New York) and building more decent, very low-cost housing remains a standing invitation for federal officials—should they accept the responsibility.

BloomLasnerNicholas Dagen Bloom is associate professor of social science and director of the Urban Administration program at New York Institute of Technology. His books include Public Housing That Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century. His most recent book is from Princeton University Press is Affordable Housing in New York: The People, Places, and Policies That Transformed a City.

8 Perfect Gift Books for Mother’s Day

Still stumped about gifts this Mother’s Day? Princeton University Press offers a great variety of choices for nature lovers, biography buffs, and more. Here are just a few unique ideas.

Cranshaw Jacket

Is your mother a garden lover? Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs by Whitney Cranshaw is the ultimate book for common insects and mites that can be found in yards or gardens. Whether she’s interested in finding out what has been damaging plants, or simply wants a comprehensive identification guide, this book is a must-have.

bees

The Bees in Your Backyard: A Guide to North America’s Bees by Joseph Wilson and Olivia Messinger Carril offers tips for identification and debunks an array of myths about bees. With other 900 full-color photos, as well as tips on how to attract bees to your backyard, there’s no doubt this is a wonderful choice for someone who loves natural history, gardening, and insects.

silent sparks jacket

What could be more magical than fireflies?  Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis is a fitting choice for lovers of beauty, mystery, and the biology behind the scenes. Silent Sparks details why and how fireflies make their light, providing a tour of the different species that span the globe.

offshore sea life howell OffShore Sea ID Guide

No matter which coast your mother loves to visit, there are perfect guides available to help her identify sea life. Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: East Coast are both full of beautiful photos to assist in the identification of whales, dolphins, sea lions, sharks, and more. The guide is ideal for beginners and experts alike.

Living on Paper

For the mother who loves to settle down with a good biography, Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch is the perfect gift. The book is unique in that it is composed from over 760 of Murdoch’s personal letters, offering unprecedented insight into her life and personality.

Kroodsma

For mothers who love nature, memoirs, or birdsong, Listening to a Continent Sing: Birdsong by Bicycle from the Atlantic to the Pacific is a wonderful option. Author Donald Kroodsma intimately details his journey with his son across the country while they document birdsong.

the fourth pig mitchison jacket

Remind your mother of fairy tales read together, now with a twist. This collection of short stories and poems reimagines well-known tales like “The Little Mermaid” and “The Three Little Pigs”. This updated edition of The Fourth Pig by Naomi Mitchison is an intriguing bridge between childhood favorites and the darker versions adults save for themselves.

Happy Mother’s Day!

 

Firefly Fact Friday

In honor of the publication of Silent Sparks by Sara Lewis, we are going to suspend Bird Fact Friday for the next few weeks and replace it with Firefly Fact Friday. Silent Sparks is filled with a wealth of fascinating information on fireflies, and we’re excited to share it with you!

From page 17 of Silent Sparks:

Fireflies begin life as larvae, living underground and dedicated to eating and growth. They can subdue and consume prey several times their size, including earthworms and snails. Fireflies only live as adults for a few weeks, compared with the one to three years that make up their juvenile stage.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies 
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

Karl Marx—Into the Inferno

The Open Society and Its Enemies jacket imageOn the 198th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, his ideas retain a vital place in the intellectual landscape. The global financial collapse has refocused attention on his theory that capitalism must inevitably be shaken by recurrent and increasingly violent crises. His analysis of the destructive nature of capitalism rings true in an era when the explosive economic growth of human society threatens irrevocable changes in the climate of the entire planet. Marxian concepts such as the exploitation of labor and alienation seem shockingly prescient when we consider the impoverished working conditions in a modern fulfillment centre, where the employee’s every action is monitored, measured and mechanized to the utmost. Of the great nineteenth century thinkers, only Charles Darwin equals Marx in the scope and scale of his influence.

Princeton University Press has published several books dealing with Marx and his work. Perhaps the best known is The Open Society and Its Enemies by Karl Popper. Popper sharply criticized Marx’s theories on historical development, seeing in them the roots of the totalitarian ideologies that dominated Europe in the years leading to the Second World War. Conversely, in Karl Marx’s Theory of History G. A. Cohen sought to defend and reconstruct historical materialism in one of the seminal works of analytical Marxism. Isaiah Berlin’s intellectual biography Karl Marx measures the full range of Marx’s work in characteristically polished prose and remains an excellent introduction.

Forthcoming at the end of this year, Marx’s Inferno by William Clare Roberts undertakes an entirely new reading of Marx’s magnum opus Capital. Roberts argues that Marx modeled Capital on Dante’s Inferno, playing the role of a Virgil guiding the worker through the social Hell engendered by insatiable capitalism. Rather than focusing exclusively on Capital as a work of political economy, Roberts returns us to the debates within nineteenth century socialism from which Capital emerged, while demonstrating their relevance to political life today. There can be no greater tribute to a thinker than that his ideas continue to generate such new readings and new thinking long after his death. Herzlichen Glückwunsch zum Geburtstag, Herr Marx.

A journey through birdsong

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma details a cross-country cycling trip he took with his son, David, in order to, literally, listen to the continent sing. Throughout, he describes in lyrical prose all of the birds he heard as they pedaled west along the TransAmerica Route—established in 1976 for the “Bikecentennial” of our country—and all of the adventures that he and his son experienced along the way. They began their journey in Yorktown, Virginia on May 4. Read on for a behind-the scenes glimpse of the symphony that is the Virginian countryside in mid-spring. Be sure to use the QR codes, found in the book, to hear the birds for yourself!

On May 4, day 1 of the journey, Kroodsma describes listening to the world wake up around him from inside the tent, his son sleeping beside him (“Best not to get up before the sun,” he says.).

A robin begins to sing, 5:34 a.m. according to my watch, about half an hour before sunrise. His low, sweet carols drop from above one by one, cheerily, cheer-up, cheerio, cheerily, and I am soon silently singing with him, three to five carols over a few seconds, then a brief pause. I feel his tempo, counting the number of carols in the next package and pausing, counting and pausing, his initial measured pace calming. I try to stretch each quarter-second carol into a second or more, slowing his performance, relishing the varying patterns in pitch and rhythm, listening and watching as miniature musical scores float through my mind.

American Robin
Day 2 brings a trip to Malvern Hill, sight of a bloody Civil War battle nearly 150 years before. In memory of that battle, the intrepid duo is subdued as they listen to the sweet call of a field sparrow.

Emerging from the insanity of this scene is the requiem now offered by a field sparrow nearby. His gentle whistles accelerate, sliding down the scale, each whistle a little shorter and lower than the one before, a two-second lament for all who suffered here. Every few seconds he repeats his mournful song, over and over, never-ending. In the distance I hear two others, each with a unique cadence, each offering his own comment on the scene that his ancestors some hundred generations ago would have witnessed here.

Field Sparrows
On the road between Afton and Lexington, Virginia, day 6, an early morning ride is accompanied by the Eastern towhee.

Still, silence … until a single, tentative chewink of an eastern towhee pierces the quiet. With my right hand, I fumble beneath the sleeve over my left wrist to punch the light button on my watch, leaning over the left handlebar to catch a glimpse 5:25 a.m., 45 minutes before sunrise. The call is contagious, as chewinks now erupt from seemingly every roadside bush. In less than a minute I hear a feeble song, then a louder one, and soon the bushes sing, drink-your-teeeeeee, two strongly enunciated introductory notes followed by a rapid series of repeated notes. The birds ease into it, at first repeating one song several times, much as they do later in the morning, but then the warm-up is over and no holds are barred.

Eastern towhee
For the next two months, father and son cycled across the United States listening to hundreds of birds, meeting new people, and enjoying the great outdoors together. Read Listening to a Continent Sing and let Kroodsma take you along for the ride. And if you’re interested in the story behind the cover design, check out the PUP Design tumblr!

Kroodsma

Stephen Heard: Write like a scientist

the scientist's guide to writing heardScientific writing should be as clear and impactful as other styles, but the process of producing such writing has its own unique challenges. Stephen Heard, scientist, graduate advisor, and editor speaks from personal experience in his book The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career. Heard’s focus on the writing process emphasizes the pursuit of clarity, and his tips on submissions, coauthorship, citations, and peer reviews are crucial for those starting to seek publication. Recently, Heard agreed to answer a few questions about his book.

What made you decide to write a book about scientific writing?

SH: I think the first spark was when I realized I give the same writing advice to all my students, over and over, and caught myself thinking it would be easier to just write it all down once. That was foolish, of course: writing the book wasn’t easy at all! But before long, my rationale shifted. The book became less about stuff I wanted to tell everyone else, and more about stuff I wished somebody had told me. A lot of us get into science without much writing experience, and without thinking much about how important a role scientific writing plays – and when we start doing it, we discover that doing it well isn’t easy. It took me many years to become a reasonably competent scientific writer, and the book includes a lot of the things I discovered along the way. I was surprised to discover that writing the book made me a better writer. I think reading it can help too.

Surely there a bunch of other scientific-writing books out there? What do you do differently?

SH: Yes – and some of them are quite good! But I wanted to write something different. I’m not sure my book says anything that no one else knows about outlining or paragraph structure or citation formatting (for example). But I thought there was a lot of value in a book that pays attention to the writer as much as the writing: to the way writers behave as they write, and to ways in which some deliberate and scientific attention to our behavior might help us write faster and better. I’ve also discovered that knowing a bit about the history and culture of scientific writing can help us understand the way we write (and why). Just as one example: knowing something about the history of the Methods section, and how it’s changed over the last 350 years as scientists have struggled with the question of how scientific studies gain authority, can help us decide how to write our own Methods sections. I also tackle the question of whether there’s a place in scientific writing for beauty or for humor – something that gets discussed so rarely that it seems almost like a taboo.

Finally, I wanted to write a book that was really engaging: to show that thinking about writing (as we all need to) needn’t be dry and pedantic. So readers might be surprised, in a book about scientific writing, to find mentions of Voltaire’s lover, SpongeBob SquarePants, and the etymology of the word fart. But I hope they’ll also find that there are lessons in all those things – and more – for scientists who want to write better and more quickly.

You also go into a lot of depth about the review and publication process. Why are these things important to cover alongside the writing process?

SH: Well, maybe that isn’t “writing”, strictly speaking – but it’s an essential part of getting one’s scientific writing in the hands of readers. All of us want our scientific writing to be read, and to be cited, and to help move our fields forward. So it’s not enough to write a good manuscript; we have to be able to shepherd it through the process of submission, review, revision, and eventual acceptance. Early in my own career I found this process especially mysterious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about it – by publishing quite a few papers myself, but also by reviewing hundreds of manuscripts and acting as an Associate Editor for hundreds more. So I have a pretty good overview of the publishing process, from both the writer’s and the journal’s perspective. There’s no particular reason that process has to be mysterious, and I thought it would be helpful to draw back the curtain.

Is scientific writing really that different from other kinds of writing?

SH: Both yes and no! Of course, there are technical issues that matter in scientific writing, like ways of handling text dense with numbers, or ways we handle citations. There are also more cultural ways in which scientific writing is its own thing. One of them is that we’ve developed a writing form that efficiently conveys material to other people who are familiar with that form. Our conventional division of papers into Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion is a piece of that. Our writing (and our publication process) have evolved in many other ways that aren’t quite the same as you’d find in the humanities, or in writing about science for the public. That’s why there are books about scientific writing, not just about writing. But on another level, good scientific writing is like most other good writing: clear, concise, engaging whenever possible, and did I mention clear? Nothing is more important than clarity! As a result of this similarity, people who learn good scientific writing are well positioned for any career that involves writing – which is to say, pretty much any career.

Do you think of yourself as a good writer?

SH: No! And to loop back to the first question, that’s a big part of why I wrote the book. There are a very few natural writers out there – geniuses – for whom good writing just seems to come naturally. But these are rare. I’m like nearly everyone else: writing is hard work for me. It’s a craft I’ve learned over the years by practicing, by thinking deliberately about how I do it, and by reading advice from books that have gone before mine. It’s still hard work, but that’s OK: I’m willing to put in the effort for my writing product to seem pretty good, even if my writing process is laborious. If I’d understood earlier in my career that most writers are just like me, I would have been less crushed by the discovery that my papers didn’t just write themselves! Every scientific writer can do what I’ve done: practice the craft and improve at it. I hope my book can help.

Stephen B. Heard is professor of biology at the University of New Brunswick in Canada and associate editor of the journal American Naturalist. His most recent book is The Scientist’s Guide to Writing: How to Write More Easily and Effectively Throughout Your Scientific Career.