Marilyn Roossinck: 101 viruses

Viruses are seldom considered beautiful, though visually, many are in fact stunning. While the sheer mention of them usually brings on vigilant hand-washing, some are actually beneficial to their hosts, and many are crucial to the health of our planet. Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes by Marilyn Roosinck offers an unprecedented look at 101 incredible microbes that infect all branches of life on Earth—from humans and other animals to insects, plants, fungi, and bacteria. Recently, Roosinck answered some questions about her gorgeously illustrated new book.

How did you come to study viruses?

MR: I started college at the Community College of Denver as an adult student (I was 22 years old), with a plan to go take two years of courses and then transfer to nursing school. I took a Microbiology course and when we studied bacterial viruses, I was totally smitten by how amazing viruses were, these very small and simple entities that could change everything! I ripped up my application to nursing school and instead transferred to the University of Colorado to pursue a degree in Biology. There were two biology departments at that time: Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; and Environmental, Populational and Organismal Biology, so I did a double major and got a degree in both programs. As an undergraduate I did an independent study in a lab working on SV40, a model for many studies on mammalian viruses. I applied to the University of Colorado School of Medicine for graduate school, and I received my Ph.D. from that institution in 1986, doing a thesis on Hepatitis B virus.

Why 101 viruses?

MR: The original plan was to include 100 viruses, a nice round number and enough to allow a broad range of viruses, including those infecting all the major host groups, from bacteria to humans. Near press time the Zika virus outbreak in Brazil was attracting a lot of attention in the press, so we felt it was important to include Zika. We did not really want to remove one of the viruses that were already in the book, because these were chosen carefully, and each entry seemed important for the complete picture, so, borrowing from Hollywood, we decided 101 would also have a nice ring.

How did you choose the viruses described in the book?

MR: Making up the list of viruses to include in the book took a lot of thought. I wanted to cover every type of virus and every type of host. I also wanted to include some viruses that people would be very aware of, like influenza and Ebola. There are more human viruses in the book than those that infect any other host, because they are more thoroughly studied, and most of them are familiar to people. I also wanted to include viruses that were pathogens and those that were not. It may come as a surprise to many people that some viruses benefit their hosts, and several of these are included in the book too. I also got some help from colleagues. After making up the initial list I sent it out to a large number of virologists for comment, and I took these ideas into consideration too. Of course many people were sure that the virus they were studying was the most important virus and should be included, but I tried to ignore this as a basis for inclusion.

Do you have a favorite virus?

MR: It is hard to pick a favorite, there are so many viruses that have a fascinating natural history, or that can dramatically affect their hosts. One of my students in a Virus Ecology course that I teach at Penn State summed it up pretty well. I was introducing the topic of the how poliovirus became a serious problem in the 20th century due to changes in water treatment, and I said, “this is one of my favorite virus stories”. The student replied, “you say that about everything”.

What viruses do you work with in your own lab?

MR: I have spent about 30 years working on Cucumber mosaic virus, a serious crop pathogen that has the broadest host range of any known virus: it can infect 1200 different plant species! This means it has been very successful from an evolutionary point of view, so it is an excellent model for studying virus evolution. For the past decade I also have been studying viruses that infect fungi. My interest in these viruses began when we discovered a fungal virus in Yellowstone National Park that was beneficial to its host, allowing it to survive very high temperatures found in the geothermal areas of the park. This sparked an interest in viruses that help their hosts adapt to extreme environments, and we do a lot of work now on beneficial viruses in plants and fungi. We also are interested in the diversity of viruses, and we have done some studies looking for viruses in wild plants: there are a lot, and most of them are novel.

virus roossinck jacketMarilyn J. Roossinck is professor of virus ecology in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology at Pennsylvania State University. She lives in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. Roossinck is the author of Virus: An Illustrated Guide to 101 Incredible Microbes.

Ethics in the Real World: An interview with philosopher Peter Singer

Peter Singer

Peter Singer, renowned philosopher and author of such influential books as Animal Liberation, Rethinking Life and Death, and The Life You Can Save, has taken the time to answer questions about his new collection of essays, Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things that Matter. Applying moral philosophy to recent current events, Singer’s essays address thorny issues such as whether chimpanzees are people, whether smoking should be outlawed, and whether consensual sex between adult siblings should be decriminalized. Read on for Singer’s own thoughts on altruism, the influence of his work and its controversial nature.

You’ve written essays on climate change, extreme poverty, animal rights, abortion, and the ethics of high-priced art, to name just a few. Is there a certain topic that has attracted the most attention?

PS: From that list, the two issues on which my views have been most widely discussed are our treatment of animals, and what we ought to be doing about extreme poverty. These are also the issues on which my writings have had the biggest impact. In the case of animals, they have contributed to new laws that have improved the lives of billions of animals, and in the case of extreme poverty, my work has spurred the development of the effective altruism movement, which has caused hundreds of millions of dollars to flow to the non-profit organizations that are most effective in helping people in extreme poverty.

You address a wide range of ethical questions with arguments that challenge people’s deeply held beliefs. In your experience, do people change their beliefs based on others’ arguments?

PS: There is no doubt that some of them do. Almost every time I give a public lecture, people come up to me afterwards and tell me how reading my work led them to become vegan, or start donating a share of their income to organizations that are aiding people in need. I know someone who donated a kidney to a stranger as a result of a discussion of one of my articles in his class

Who is the audience for your new book, Ethics in the Real World?

PS: Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. This book is for everyone who is willing to reflect on how he or she lives, and everyone who wants to be stimulated to think about how we ought to live.

You’ve been called both the most influential and the most controversial philosopher of our time. Why do you think your work stirs controversy?

PS: It can be controversial to question accepted moral views. To discuss whether it is more seriously wrong to kill a member of our own species than to kill an animal, you need to ask “What is wrong with killing?” Even if you conclude, as I do, that in most circumstances killing a human being is worse than killing an animal, some people object to raising the question at all. They don’t want their ethical views disturbed. And we all know what happened to Socrates.

What would you have been if not a philosopher?

PS: Probably a lawyer. I was planning to continue with law, because I enjoy a good argument, but I got a scholarship to do graduate work in philosophy, and found that in philosophy I could argue for what I really believe is right and true, and not just for what is in the interests of my client.

Peter Singer is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne. He first became well known internationally in 1975 with the publication of Animal Liberation. His other books include How Are We to Live?, The Ethics of What We Eat (with Jim Mason), and The Most Good You Can Do. He divides his time between Princeton and Melbourne.

Singer

 

The Law is a White Dog author Colin Dayan debunks the rationality of law

What do abused dogs, prisoners tortured in Guantánamo and supermax facilities, and slaves killed by the state have in common? They have all been deprived of their personhood by the law. In The Law is a White Dog, Colin Dayan shows how the law can be used to dehumanize and marginalize, even as it upholds civil order. Dayan puts the topic in historical context, showing how these issues are still prevalent today. In an interview with WFHB Indiana, the author speaks to recent instances of police brutality. Listen for a fresh take on a a timely issue.
Dayan

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

Why read the Hebrew Bible? An interview with John Barton

barton the hebrew bible jacketUnderstanding the Hebrew Bible is crucial to understanding Western literature, human nature, covenant, creation narratives, ethics, ritual and purity. In The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion, an invaluable reference book for students and teachers, John Barton outlines the endless reasons, beyond the religious, for studying The Hebrew Bible. Recently, Barton shared why this is the perfect starting place for anyone seeking a user-friendly introduction to the Old Testament.

Why should anyone be interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Many Jews or Christians have encountered it as all or part of their Bible, and are intrigued by it—it is, after all, a very long and complex work to have as one’s Scriptures. But the Hebrew Bible is part of Western culture, especially through its many translations—first into Greek and Latin, and then in more modern times into all European languages and, eventually, almost all the languages in the world. Western literature can’t be understood without knowing it, and it has stimulated and inspired huge numbers of people over many centuries, and infuriated others. No one can afford to ignore it.

How did you get interested in the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Like many biblical scholars, I came to the Bible from a religious interest. I was planning to be ordained in the Church of England, and that meant studying theology; and at that time (in the 1960s) theology courses all involved the Hebrew Bible. But of all the subjects I studied, it was this that caught my interest most strongly, because of its mixture of literary, theological, historical, archaeological, and geographical themes, and its relation to other ancient literature from the classical and ancient Near Eastern world. A rabbi in ancient times said ‘Everything is in it’, and I have found that chimes with my own experience.

What is the difference between the Hebrew Bible and the Old Testament?

JB: In terms of content there is no difference—the books are the same, though Jews and Christians arrange them in a different way. Christians call them the Old Testament, since for them there is also a New Testament, and the Old Testament books preceded that. Jews generally call them simply ‘the Bible’, but sometimes the ‘Tanakh’, which is an acronym based on the initial letters of the three sections of the Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings (Torah, Nebiim, Ketuvim in Hebrew). Nowadays there is a suspicion that the Christian term ‘Old Testament’ could encourage anti-Semitism by implying that these books are ‘old’ in a derogatory sense, so the term ‘Hebrew Bible’ has been developed as a more neutral description that everyone can use.

How can I start reading the Hebrew Bible?

JB: Preferably not by beginning with Genesis and simply pressing on, since parts of the text are more accessible than others. I would distinguish prose from verse: in prose, I would read the books of Samuel, which contain much of the best prose narrative, followed by Genesis; and, in verse, the Psalms, Job, and Lamentations, which are both stylistically excellent and religiously profound.

Isn’t the Hebrew Bible a barbaric and brutal work?

JB: Parts of it describe brutalities—Joshua is probably the book most readers find chilling. But this is because it is the literature of a nation, not of a religious community, and it describes the history of that nation without glossing over its brutal aspects. The God who is encountered in the text is also sometimes presented as brutal and violent. On the other hand, the Hebrew Bible also presents a monotheistic idea of God, for the first time in world history; and it has a developed and humane social morality in which the underprivileged are meant to be cared for, and rulers are encouraged to rule justly and generously. The brutal episodes are a problem if we think that we are bound to approve of everything in the Bible, but if not, then we can see them as reflection on the whole of life, good and bad alike.

How can a work from such a remote culture still have anything to say to us today?

JB: Great texts speak across the centuries: think of Greek tragedy, Dante’s Comedy, Shakespeare. A lot of effort, and some background knowledge, are needed to get into an ancient text, and this book is meant to provide some of that knowledge. But most, at least, of the books of the Hebrew Bible repay the effort by having important things to say about human life, whether we agree with them or not. In the process we encounter an ancient culture that was in many ways highly distinctive in its world, and where people had thoughts, especially about God, that no one had had before.

How were the books of the Hebrew Bible selected?

JB: They weren’t. No one ever ruled on what was to be in the Bible until long after it was all settled anyway. We don’t know whether the books we have represent the majority of those that existed in ancient Israel, but they are the only ones that have survived (with a few exceptions, such as the books sometimes called the Apocrypha). The Hebrew Bible consists of all the literature we know of from Israel up till the second century BCE. There are many later books (various books of Enoch, the book of Jubilees), but they were never part of the Hebrew Bible.

How do we know that the Hebrew Bible really goes back to such ancient times—might it not have been totally corrupted over such a long time?

JB: We have no complete manuscript of the whole Hebrew Bible before the eleventh century CE (the ‘Leningrad Codex’). But among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written between the second century BCE and the first century CE, there are substantial parts of almost all the biblical books. These differ from the Leningrad Codex in many points of detail, but they are quite obviously the same books, and hardly diverge in any major ways. This confirms that the Bible was transmitted carefully by scribes, at least from the second century BCE onwards. There is every reason to think that such care goes back even before that.

John Barton is the Oriel and Laing Professor Emeritus of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford. His many books include Reading the Old Testament; Oracles of God: Perceptions of Ancient Prophecy in Israel after the Exile; and The Nature of Biblical Criticism. His most recent book is The Hebrew Bible: A Critical Companion.

Katharine Dow on the complex ethics of assisted reproduction

making the good life jacket dowAlthough many don’t know the full scope of current reproductive technologies, opinions and judgments on the ethics involved abound. Katharine Dow explains the intrigue and controversy in Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction. Touching on fears about environmental degradation and the rise of the biotechnology industry, the book offers a new approach to researching and writing about nature, ethics, and reproduction technologies, from IVF to surrogacy. Dow recently agreed to answer a few questions on understanding the impact these technologies have had on our culture.

How did you first become interested in assisted reproductive technologies?

KD: It’s funny because when I first started looking at these issues, during my doctoral studies, a lot of people in my cohort were studying things that they had some personal connection to, and I had no personal experience of IVF, surrogacy or egg or sperm donation. Though, as I discuss in the book, I do have experience of having some rather complicated family relationships like my father’s adoption and discovery of long-lost sisters! I first became interested in assisted reproduction when I was an undergraduate and I had a few lectures on it. I found the thorny philosophical and ethical issues that they raise completely fascinating and so when I came to think about what I would like to research myself, my thoughts turned to assisted reproduction.

Initially, I was particularly interested in surrogacy and I think the reason for that was firstly that it is so obviously to do with gender, which is a perennial interest of mine, and secondly, that it touches on so many taboos and I suppose I’ve always been fascinated with those kinds of things that set off people’s ethical antennae, because then you know you’ve really hit a cultural nerve. I think these sort of taboo subjects can be a great way of digging deeper into how people think. But, as you can tell from the book, I’ve also come to realise that reproduction is often treated as being marginal, yet it is absolutely fundamental to how we think, whether or not we have children – it’s so closely linked with ideas about life, the future, ethical values and even complex concepts like nature, and that’s really one of the overarching points I want to make with the book.

Making a Good Life is unusual in that it looks at what people who are not using assisted reproductive technologies themselves think about these technologies. What do you think that brings to our understanding of assisted reproduction?

KD: Well, first of all, I should make it clear that I think there is enormous value to all the clinic-based ethnographies of assisted reproductive technologies out there, which were instigated early on by feminist theorists wanting to better understand what it was like for people – mostly women – to undergo IVF and so on. That is so important.

Having said that, I am also very aware that most people aren’t personally involved in assisted reproduction, but they are frequently exposed to it through media coverage and public debates and so I felt like a really important part of the puzzle was missing – which is what people think about assisted reproduction and how they respond to it as an ethical ‘problem’. As I say in the book, it’s not that I think patients aren’t objective enough or anything like that, but it’s about recognising that reproduction has very important effects and implications for life more generally and that asking people to really discuss in detail what they think the ethics of assisted reproduction are is a way of getting at some deeper cultural assumptions, which might well be different if you’re not personally invested in the technologies.

So, from an empirical point of view, it’s about filling in a gap in our understanding of these technologies, which are actually crucial to the time we’re living in, in terms of how IVF has provided the platform for a whole biotech industry and what that has done to forms of labour and medical treatments, how they’ve opened up parenthood to gay, lesbian and single parents and so on. But also, it’s questioning the received wisdom about how we social scientists learn about medical technologies. So, I was also interested in playing with the ethnographic method and trying something different.

A sense of place seems to be an important aspect of your book. Can you describe what it was like to do ethnographic research in Spey Bay, this small village in northeast Scotland?

KD: Oh, I often think about Spey Bay, even though it’s quite a few years since I left now. What immediately comes to mind when I think of the place is the look and feel of it – the crunch of pebbles underfoot, the feel of the wind in your face. I think of shared laughter, the scent of woodsmoke and the scrunching sound that Gore-Tex jackets make while you walk. It’s certainly quite different from London, which is where I lived before fieldwork and where I live now.

I started fieldwork as a shy 23-year-old and constantly worried that I wasn’t doing it right. I thought I would hate fieldwork, because it would mean having to be obtrusive and not worrying about whether I looked like a fool if I asked the wrong questions. And of course there were moments like that, but I found an incredibly warm and open group of people there who never seemed to mind me asking them questions or challenged my right to live amongst them. Of course the close – and genuine – friendships I cultivated with people in Spey Bay meant that it was quite difficult to write about them afterwards and I wonder whether they will object to how I’ve represented them, but thanks to them, I really enjoyed fieldwork in the end.

Do you think we are in an age of heightened attention to ethics?

KD: Yes and no. I think we are currently in the midst of a really exciting repoliticisation of public life. I particularly see it amongst students and especially in relation to questions of gender, race and sexuality. In the book, I am writing about people who explicitly think about ethics every day, especially in relation to the environment and I think the ethical living movement has been a really important way of mainstreaming environmental concerns. I accept the criticisms about it not doing enough to challenge capitalism, which is what is really required if we are to prevent catastrophic climate change (as well as ameliorating the myriad inequalities that capitalism is responsible for). But, I also think that there is an ideological move at stake in assuming that a movement or campaign that presents itself as primarily ethical has nothing to do with politics. So I am wary of the idea that an ethical turn is necessarily a turn away from politics. Also, while I’m all for overturning the central assumptions of neoliberal capitalism, I think climate change is tricky because, pragmatically, it requires a global effort and so radicals do have to bring more conservative and moderate people on board and framing the argument in terms of ethics can be a really powerful way of doing that.

So, what’s next for you after completing Making a Good Life?

KD: I’ve been at the University of Cambridge for a couple of years now, where I work in a fantastic research group of people who all work on reproduction and assisted reproductive technologies. In terms of my current research, I’ve been taking some of the themes from Making a Good Life in two different directions. Firstly, I am in the middle of a research project on how the British media represented IVF, particularly focusing on the 1970s and ’80s. It’s been really rewarding to broaden my experience by doing research from more of a cultural studies angle and to do historical and archival research. The public debates about assisted reproduction were a very important backdrop to Making a Good Life, so it’s great to get the chance to look at them in more depth. Secondly, I am working on a new collaborative project with my colleague Janelle Lamoreaux, which looks further at connections between reproduction and the environment. Related to that, I’m currently developing a new multi-sited ethnographic project that looks at informal seed saving and seed swapping in the UK, which I’m really excited about pursuing over the next few years.

Katharine Dow is a research associate in the Reproductive Sociology Research Group at the University of Cambridge. She has written Making a Good Life: An Ethnography of Nature, Ethics, and Reproduction.

Calling all bee hunters: Thomas Seeley on Following the Wild Bees

following the wild bees seeleyLooking for a new outdoor experience? Are you interested in honeybees but hesitant to invest in full-fledged beekeeping? Perhaps you should consider bee hunting. Once a popular pastime, it’s fair to say the practice has fallen into obscurity, but Thomas Seeley’s new book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting seeks to change all that. According to Seeley, (who has been enjoying the thrill of the chase for 40 years without a single sting), bee hunting is an exhilarating experience that can be practiced in the forest or the big city, by people of all ages. Read on for the inside scoop on the craft and science of bee hunting.

What exactly is bee hunting?

TS: Bee hunting is a fascinating outdoor sport in which you locate a wild colony of honey bees living in a hollow tree, old building, or abandoned bee hive. It is a form of treasure hunting. What makes it so intriguing? It involves closely observing a small group of foraging bees and using simple but clever techniques to trail them to their home. You start by catching honey bees from flowers, providing them with sugar syrup in a small square of beeswax comb, and labeling them with dots of paint. Once you have a bunch of bees “hooked” on your free lunch and labeled for individual identification, you determine the direction to their home from the compass bearings of their homeward flights. You also estimate the distance to their home by seeing how many minutes individual bees need to fly home, unload their valuable cargoes, and zip back to your feeder. Next, you move your sugar-syrup feeder and the bees in a series of steps down their flight line home, each time updating the information about direction and distance. Once you know you are close to the bees’ home address, you examine every tree or structure in the area, and eventually you spy your bees diving into their nest’s entrance opening. Success!!! Sometimes the bees’ dwelling place is close to where you started and the hunt takes only an hour or so, but other times it is farther away (a half mile or more) and then the hunt is longer and more challenging. Either way, you will have great fun with these wonderful little creatures as you work with them to discover their secret residence.

What is the appeal of bee hunting?

TS: The allure of bee hunting lies in the “chase”, not in a “kill”. But this is new. For thousands of years, humans living in hunter-gatherer groups hunted wild colonies of honey bees and robbed them of brood and honey for food, as some hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa and Asia still do. Bee/honey hunting was also practiced in Europe and North America for centuries. However, I urge my readers to not pursue bee hunting to get honey because this involves stealing from the bees and usually destroying their nest. I explain that the attraction of bee hunting these days is that it is a lovely way to observe honey bees close up as they feed on your sugar syrup bait and perform flights to and from your feeder comb. The bee hunter learns so much about how these marvelous little creatures behave while gathering food: how they orient to your feeder, land there, imbibe your food, tolerate being bumped by nest mates, groom themselves before taking off, and finally launch into flight and steer a course home. Furthermore, while watching how these little wonders work harmoniously at the feeder and recruit their nest mates to the site, you are struck by how these bees cooperate closely to acquire food for their colony. So for many who go bee hunting, the greatest reward will be that it causes them to stop, watch, and ponder the marvelous six-legged beauties that help keep our planet flowering and fruitful. For others, the greatest appeal of bee hunting will be that it is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I should also mention that finding the one tree among the thousands in a forest that is the bees’ home is a huge thrill! I always feel soaring feelings of success, even triumph, when I discover the home of a wild colony of honey bees.

Do you need a forest or other wild place to go bee hunting?

TS: No. You don’t need a forest. You can even do it in a city. For example, this summer, I will lead a bee hunt in Central Park to begin to map out the wild colonies living in the heart of New York City. Central Park covers 843 acres, and much of it is wooded, so I am sure that there are bees living in it. Some years ago I had fun conducting an urban bee hunt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Yard. One April, I noticed bees collecting pollen from crocuses in front of Memorial Church, and I wondered where these bees were living. I was keen to determine their “home address.” Using my bee hunting skills, I found that these bees were from a colony living right in Harvard Yard, in the west wall of Emerson Hall. So you can see, you can have fun bee hunting essentially anywhere: city, suburb, or wild area. Wherever you can find honey bees on flowers, you can have fun following these bees to their home.

Is bee hunting a sport that’s equally enjoyable for everyone, even kids?

TS: Yes, definitely! Throughout my book, and in this interview, I refer to the bee hunter as “he,” but this is done merely for simplicity. Every “he” and “him” also encompasses a “she” and “her.” Older children fascinated by nature will definitely enjoy this open-air activity, especially if they have an iPhone that they can use to plot their location, record the bees’ flight directions as they fly home, and track their progress as they zero in on the bees’ home.

Is there any danger of being stung while bee hunting?

TS: Bees will be buzzing around the bee hunter while he is keeping track of their comings and goings from his feeder, but I can honestly state that there is little or no chance of being stung while bee hunting. The reason is that bees are entirely friendly to the human who is providing them with delicious food. They will fight off a yellow jacket wasp if she discovers the feeder and starts to help herself to the goodies. But the bees have no reason to sting the bee hunter, and I’ve never been stung in my nearly 40 years of bee hunting. It may seem incredible, but unless you accidentally put a bare arm down on a bee resting on a knee, or you thoughtlessly slap at a bee flying near your face, you don’t need to worry about being stung while bee hunting.

Why did you write this book?

TS: The popularity of honey bees has skyrocketed recently, but not everyone can become a beekeeper, so I figured it would be good to show honey bee enthusiasts another way—beside beekeeping—to have fun with these delightful little creatures. A beekeeper manages colonies of honey bees that are living in hives he (or she) has provided, so beekeeping requires having a fair amount of equipment and space for the hives. A bee hunter, however, searches for colonies of honey bees that are living in tree cavities and other living quarters that they have found for themselves, so there is no need for complicated equipment. In my book, I describe the simple and inexpensive tools used in bee hunting, and I point out that “The complete toolkit of a bee hunter fits easily into a knapsack in the field and a shoebox back at home.”

My second reason for writing this book is to inform people that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is still an essentially wild animal. Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hive and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. And even though humans have been keeping honey bees in hives for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, because humans do not control the matings of queen bees and drone bees, the bees residing in beekeeepers’ hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. The honey bees living in the wild are no longer super important to us as honey makers, but they do remain valuable for their pollination services. After all, it is not just the bees flying from beekeepers’ hives that pollinate our apple orchards, tomato fields, cranberry bogs, and other croplands. Honey bees from wild colonies—together with bumble bees, solitary bees, and diverse non-bee pollinators—also contribute hugely to the business of agriculture.

My third reason is to attract young people to study the behavior, social life, and ecology of honey bees. To do so, I end each chapter in the book with a “Biology Box” section in which I explain briefly what biologists have learned about the behavioral skills of honey bees that the bee hunter observes when he induces them to lead him to their home. For example, he sees bees guide their hive mates to his little feeder, which can be a mile or more from their home. How on earth does this happen? I hope these Biology Boxes will give my readers an intoxicating taste of what biologists have revealed about how honey bees do all the amazing things that they do!

Are there any websites that have more information on bee hunting, such as videos that demonstrate the hunting techniques?

TS: Yes, indeed. Check out beehunting.com. There you will find three beautiful videos that show the methods of collecting bees, marking bees, and following bees. These videos are excellent accompaniments to the written descriptions found in the book.

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York and his most recent book is Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.

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.

One Day in the Life of the English Language

In an age of text messages, tweets, and all manner of shorthand, do correct grammar and usage matter anymore? According to Frank L. Cioffi, author of One Day in the Life of the English Language, they do indeed matter, but what today’s writing students need is an “anti-handbook”. In just such a book, Cioffi examines everything from the most serious newspaper articles to celebrity gossip magazines. Drawing his examples over the course of a single day, he illustrates the importance of applying grammatical principles to “real world” writing.

In this newly released video, learn more about Cioffi’s One Day in the Life of the English Language, including his stance on the changes in language owed to technology.

One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook by Frank L. Cioffi from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

One Day in the Life jacketFrank L. Cioffi is professor of English at Baruch College, City University of New York, and has taught writing at Princeton and Indiana universities and at Bard and Scripps colleges. He is also the author of The Imaginative Argument: A Practical Manifesto for Writers (Princeton), among other books.

What do sharks have to do with democracy? Christopher Achen & Larry Bartels explain

democracy for realists achen jacketAre modern ideas of American democracy fundamentally misguided? Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels examines the faults of current democratic logic that have led the majority of people to make misinformed opinions about politics.  As Achen and Bartels note, “politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.” In this spirit, the authors have taken time to explain their reasons for writing this book, what conventional ideas about democracy they oppose, the presidential primaries, and even shark attacks.

Why did the two of you write this book?

CA & LB: Working at different universities in the late 1990s, we discovered that we had come to quite similar intuitions about how American democracy works. Those intuitions were very different from what most people think, including most of our political scientist friends. We decided to write a book together. But turning those preliminary, unconventional thoughts into a serious argument backed by detailed evidence took more than a decade.

What are the conventional American ideas about democracy that you oppose?

CA & LB: Fundamentally, we Americans have abandoned the ideas of the Founders as expressed in the Federalist Papers, and we have substituted notions derived ultimately from the French Enlightenment. We think of ourselves as thoughtful, informed, rational, fundamentally decent people. We imagine that the problems of government are due to bad politicians and corrupt institutions. Thus most of us believe that, to the extent possible, government should be turned over to all of us as citizens, with as little role for governmental institutions and elected officials as possible. We think of that as “democracy,” and we believe that the more democracy, the better.

The problem is that a mountain of social science evidence has accumulated about our human capacities to run the government solely from the voting booth. That evidence shows that people are just people, with all the limited horizons, prejudices, and mistakes that characterize all of us as human beings. The judgments of the voters are an important part of democracy, but they cannot be the only part. Just as the various branches of government require balancing by the others, so also the judgments of voters need to be balanced by other societal and governmental institutions, including parties and elected officials. To think otherwise is to delude and flatter ourselves with an inflated view of our capacities, as the Founders understood.

We heard that there is something about shark attacks in this book. What do sharks have to do with democracy?

CA & LB: Many thoughtful scholars believe that a democratic election is primarily a referendum on the performance of the incumbents. If the people in office have performed well, the voters re-elect them. If not, the voters throw the bums out. That sounds good until one realizes that the voters have to know whether the incumbents really are bums. If things have gone badly lately, is that the government’s fault? Can the voters sort out credit and blame?

This is where the sharks enter our book. In the summer of 1916, New Jersey was plagued by a series of shark attacks along its Atlantic shore. Four people died. Just as in the “Jaws” movies, which were based on the New Jersey events, people stayed away from the beach in droves, and the Jersey Shore economy was devastated. Woodrow Wilson was running for re-election that summer. He and his administration did everything they could to solve the problem, but then as now, no one could control sharks. The attacks were no one’s fault, but the voters bit back anyway. In the Shore towns, Wilson’s vote in November dropped precipitously.

The irrational voting due to the sharks is not a special case. We also show that the voters blame the incumbents when it rains too much or too little. We estimate, for example, that Al Gore lost seven states in 2000 because they were too dry or too wet—more than enough to cost him the presidency. In these cases and in many other ways, the voters are often overwhelmed by the challenges of casting a well-informed, sensible vote.

In light of those ideas, how are you thinking about the presidential primaries this year?

CA & LB: We finished our book well before this year’s primaries began. We feel that every primary season illustrates the problems and the political forces that we have identified, although this year may furnish particularly clear examples. Our central argument is that people primarily vote their social, religious, and political identities, not their ideas or their policy preferences. The identities create the preferences, not the other way around. Voters typically know a candidate only from television and the Internet, and they look for a politician who reinforces and validates their own group loyalties. Particularly when economic times are hard, those identities can become quite antagonistic.

As a result, neophytes, demagogues, and extremists often do well in primaries. The people in politics who know them personally, and who know how unsuitable they are to be president, are cut out of the process, or have only a limited role, perhaps as convention super-delegates. The result is many foolish, even dangerous choices. We Americans think that this way of hurting ourselves is “more democratic.” But again, the authors of the U.S. constitution knew better.

That certainly doesn’t sound very cheery. Why should we read this book?

CA & LB: Politics is often not very cheery. But facing our problems honestly is the first step toward doing something about them.

As one important example, the way we pick presidents now is worrisome. It’s been worrisome, even scary, for several decades now, and yet we have drifted along pretending that all is well. It’s like skipping inoculations and then finding yourself, too late, in an epidemic. The usual ways of thinking about democracy have brought us to this point, and most of the reform proposals we have seen miss the fundamental issues and will make little or no difference. In our view, we need to rethink in a much deeper way. That is what this book is about.

Christopher H. Achen is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences and professor of politics at Princeton University. His books include The European Union Decides. Larry M. Bartels holds the May Werthan Shayne Chair of Public Policy and Social Science at Vanderbilt University. His books include Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton). Their most recent book together is Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

James Axtell on writing a “genealogy” of the modern American research university

wisdom's workshop axtellPope Gregory IX described universities of the middle ages as “wisdom’s special workshop”, but today’s American universities bear only a passing resemblance to the European institutions that founded their most basic principles. In In his newest book, Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern UniversityJames Axtell writes an 800-year evolution of the modern research university, outlining the trials and successes that occurred while these universities were taking root in America. He recently took time to explain why this examination of higher education is so necessary.

You’re probably best known as the author of eight books on colonial Indian-white relations or “ethnohistory.” How and why did you make the transition to the history of higher education?

JA: I didn’t shift to higher education but back to it. I began my scholarly career in the history of education with a study of one-time Oxford don John Locke’s educational writings, followed by a book on education at all levels in colonial New England, including Harvard and Yale. Then, partly as a result of the “Red Power” protests of the late ‘60s, I was drawn to the ethnohistory of Indian-white relations in colonial North America. After 20-plus years probing the ins and outs of those relations, I was drawn back to the history of higher education. After finishing most of a book of essays on The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education (1998), I spent a dozen years researching and writing Princeton’s history from Woodrow Wilson’s transformative presidency (1902-10) to 2005. Retirement from William & Mary in 2008 took me to Princeton for a semester of teaching and the organization of a conference on “The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson,” which resulted in an edited book in 2012. When Peter Dougherty, the director of Princeton University Press, suggested the genealogy of the modern American research university as a much-needed book, I immediately saw it as a perfect fit for my longtime experience and love of universities.

Do you see that shift in interests as a sharp break?

JA: Not as much as it must seem to others, because I chose to write the history of Princeton as the first ethnohistory of a collegiate university. From my study of Indians and colonists I brought a focus on cultures and en- and ac-culturation as the best way to understand the transition of an educational institution from a relatively small, hidebound college to a world-class research university. So I devoted substantial chapters to the century-long development of the faculty, admissions, curriculum, student life and extracurriculum, library, art museum, graduate school, and university press–all the participants in and agencies of education.

Wisdom’s Workshop similarly focuses on the educational process (teachers, students, courses, and books), but with slightly more attention to institutional foundings, leadership, and architecture. It also covers a much longer time-span in tracing a clear and specific genetic lineage from medieval foundings and Tudor-early-Stuart Oxbridge, to 9 colonial American colleges, innumerable academies and c. 250 colleges before postbellum university developments and, in the 20th c., what Clark Kerr called “multiversities.”

Are the sources for university history much different from those for colonial ethnohistory? Are the questions?

JA: While some of the questions were framed similarly, the sources were of course quite different. I didn’t use archaeology, linguistics, or oral memory as much, but I did pay close attention to material culture, student jargons and dress, and faculty, administrator, and student memoirs. As centers of manuscript and then print culture, colleges and universities were founded on and sustained by the intellectual activities and written products of learned classes, who have left myriad clues to their pasts in libraries and archives around the world. The 19th-century invention and spread of photography has given university history an important additional source, which I have used in numerous illustrations in the Princeton and present histories.

You have written an 800-year “genealogy” of the modern American research university. What surprised you about what you found?

JA: A whole lot of things, some major, some interestingly “factoidal.” First, three persistent myths. I found no evidence to support the notion that Harvard was modeled after Emmanuel College, Cambridge. The second myth was that antebellum student mayhem was caused largely by a static college curriculum and a dull “recitation” system of teaching: the curriculum was prescribed but not static, and recitations were used almost exclusively in introductory courses to ground students in the basics. The third myth posited that American higher education was transformed after the Civil War by the wholesale importation of German academic features by returning American graduate students and scholars: instead, borrowings were carefully selected and adapted to American needs and conditions.

I was happily surprised to find that some medieval matriculants could not write; hazing of freshmen (“yellow-beaks” or “goats”) began in the Middle Ages; student spies (lupi or “wolves”) reported classmates who didn’t speak Latin outside of class as required; undergraduates were prohibited from using medieval libraries because they were places and “occasions for [presumably coeducational] sin;” four Tudor university chancellors were beheaded by King Henry VIII for not toeing the party line; 17th-c. Oxbridge students were forbidden (rather than recruited) to play football; parchment pages declared “heretical” were used as toilet paper, book bindings, and soap wraps; 17th-c. Harvard graduated an average of only 8 B.A.s a year; Yale College moved location five times in its first 18 years; campus was coined by Princeton’s president in the 1770s and spread quickly; antebellum academies enrolled far more students (including women) than did colleges and offered curricula that often earned advanced college placement; in copying older eastern college architecture, newer western colleges often built dorms with long hallways, perfect for student conspiracies (or rebellious “sprees”) and cannon-ball bowling games; the libraries of student literary societies were often larger (and more up-to-date) than college libraries; the only 19th-c. German university degree was the Ph.D. and only a quarter of students bothered to take it: the majority studied for state professional exams; 19th-c. German (and postbellum American) Ph.D. dissertations were article- rather than book-length; American college rankings began as early as 1910; Harvard wisely rebuffed a philanthropist’s offer to build a Harvard dorm in the “Turkish style;” diplomas (as opposed to degrees) were not given regularly until the late 19th c.; older veterans admitted to American colleges on the G.I. Bill after WW II (many with wives and children) performed so well that younger students cursed them as DARs (“Damned Average Raisers”); research conducted on government contracts at U.S. universities during the war contributed mightily to Allied victories, as did the influx of Jewish scientists and scholars exiled from Axis countries (the “Rad Labs” at Harvard and MIT and the atomic HQ at Los Alamos, NM were key); the loss of a Class of 1907 son on the Titanic led eventually to the building of the world’s largest university library system at Harvard (despite which, a New York Times article in 2014 declared Harvard “The Stanford of the East”).

The modern American university comes in for a lot of criticism. How do the consistently high global rankings of America’s research universities jibe with those criticisms?

JA: The global rankings are based primarily on research productivity, patents, and commercialization, faculty “star” power (especially Nobel Prizes), and other quantitative measures such as library holdings, endowments, and operating budgets. Most of the criticism is aimed at undergraduate education and the very diverse public and private American (non-)system below the 50 or 100 elite research universities. The two measures are not inconsistent or incompatible. In trying to serve more than 20 million students, America’s institutions of higher education perform very well for many, less well or poorly for many more, often because of inadequate secondary preparation, economic inequalities, or family circumstances. There is plenty of room for improvement in the “system” as a whole, but Wisdom’s Workshop, focused on America’s best universities, seeks to explain why they continue to earn a majority of the top global rankings.

The university is a medieval European creation. Has it maintained its essential identity and focus through eight centuries of social and intellectual change? If so, how?

JA: According to former University of California chancellor Clark Kerr in 1982, it had done so. “The eternal themes of teaching, scholarship, and service, in one combination or another, continue.” “Universities still turn out essentially the same products–members of the more ancient professions…and scholarship.” “The faculties are substantially in control….” “Looked at from within, universities have changed enormously in the emphases on their several functions and in their guiding spirits, but looked at from without and comparatively, they are among the least changed of institutions,” not unlike the Roman Catholic Church, several monarchies, and a few parliaments, all of which they outnumber by large margins.

Thirty-four years later, much the same could be said. For wherever they are founded or maintained, they serve society in familiar ways. Their participants may be more diverse, their purviews broader, their resources more extensive, their tools more sophisticated, their administrations larger and more involved in their operations. But they are today still recognizable for what they do, how they look, and who and what they produce because they are conservative as well as progressive institutions at the very crossroads of modern society.

You obviously enjoy writing: what do you like the most? Did or do you have any models?

JA: As a teenage sports reporter for two local papers and school publications, I was fond of adjectives and adverbs. Now, besides utter clarity and factual accuracy, I seek the richest nouns and verbs, internal rhythms, and unconscious (but once recognized, stet-ed) wordplay. I never consciously patterned my writing after that of any models, though I’ve admired and still do admire many historians and writers (Tony Grafton, Jim Turner, John Elliott, David Quinn, George Kennan, Edmund Morgan, Bill Bowen, John Fleming, Peter Brown, Erwin Panofsky, Natalie Davis, Rolena Adorno, John McPhee, and Inga Clendinnen to name just a few) Instead, I relish and applaud their lifelong professionalism, productivity, and stylistic brio.

James Axtell is the Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William and Mary. His many books include The Pleasures of Academe, The Educational Legacy of Woodrow Wilson, and The Making of Princeton University (Princeton). Axtell was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. His most recent book is Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University.

Armistead and Sullivan on the unique joy of (better) birding

Better Birding jacketThe more one knows about birding, the more enjoyable it becomes, say Better Birding authors George L. Armistead of the American Birding Association and Brian L. Sullivan of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  Armistead and Sullivan simplify identification strategies, and provide techniques and tips to make the birding experience as comprehensive—and enamoring—as possible.

For many, birding can grow into an emotional and even spiritual endeavor. Birding is also like a puzzle, according to Armistead and Sullivan, because it takes consideration and knowledge of several working elements that ultimately link to one another. In this interview, Armistead and Sullivan explore the joy, fulfillment, and practices involved in better birding.

How is that someone ends up becoming a birder? How is it that you both ended up as bird-watchers, or “birders”, if you prefer?

GA: I come by it honestly. My father is a lifelong birder, and though he never met either of his grandfathers, both of them had a keen interest in nature and birds. Seems hard-wired in our family. I think most birders have a natural inclination to being outside, and are curious people with a thirst to know more. Often it seems through a hunger to discover more about the world around you, you stumble across someone else that mentors you, catapulting you forward in your quest to learn, and it’s a positive feedback loop. It’s kind of addictive. The more you know, the more you want to know. It’s fun, thrilling, yet relaxing too.

BS: I had a passion for birds as a child, and my parents really nurtured that by taking me to places such as Hawk Mountain and Cape May, where I fell in love with hawk migration. Being outside at these places really opened my eyes to the world around me. Once I realized what was possible, I was hooked. The idea of all these birds moving across the landscape twice a year fascinated me, and all I wanted to do was get outside and see what had arrived each day. For a kid, it was like living in a perpetual Christmas morning. I still feel that way every time I go birding.

What exactly is Better Birding? How is this book meant to help readers get more out of their time spent looking at birds? And why is that important?

GA & BS: More than anything, birding is supposed to be fun. Why it’s important to anyone in particular is personal, as there are so many different ways to enjoy observing birds. We’d refer readers to the section in the introduction titled “Why Birding is Cool” to try and understand what birders get out of the experience. We’ve taken a good hard look at the practices and the techniques involved in active birding in this book, and we’ve tried to distill those processes into digestible bits wrapped around the fun aspects of learning how to identify certain groups of birds. While that may sound “serious”, what we really hope to do is provide folks a deeper understanding of what they are seeing when they are in the field, and hopefully provide avenues for exploration. Most of us start out trying to snag sightings of life birds (birds we’ve never seen before), and as we discuss listing as a deeply ingrained part of birding. But after a while most of us find a desire cropping up to understand not just what birds looks like, but also how they evolved, how they are related, and why they do what they do. And the cool thing is that as you learn these things, suddenly bird identification becomes a lot easier.

In Better Birding you discuss a “wide angle approach” to birding. Explain to us what you mean by that?

GA & BS: Routinely, new birders are presented with a single bird that intrigues or puzzles them. What usually happens next is that they focus in on what the bird looks like. Naturally, they zoom in as far as possible to try and see as much of the bird as they can, in excruciating detail, and so often we are drawn to color and plumage. And this approach makes sense—it underpins the oldest approaches to bird identification going back to the original Peterson Guide. But often if we zoom out just a little bit we see a lot more. We see the bird’s surroundings, and the habitat it has chosen. We see how it moves and feeds. We see that its lurking in the shadows, or prominently perched in the sun, or always in the air, and this is useful information. If we can see and understand what a bird is doing, that can often be more instructive than how it appears. Zooming out further, we look at the date and the season, which are also really helpful things to consider when trying to determine the likelihood of a particular species’ occurrence in a place. A bird’s appearance is the starting point, but many times it’s other factors that solidify an identification. Mostly due to space constraints, typical field guides don’t provide this context.

Do either of you have a favorite bird?

GA: Yes, this is the question that all birders are asked. Some folks have a ready answer, but I’ve never been able to settle upon one. It’s like picking a favorite song, or a favorite beer; there are so many great ones to choose from! Like Brian, I’m very fond of seabirds. They are so dynamic in the air, with sharp, streamlined shapes. I remember being stranded at a dock in Mexico once for several hours and I was never bored watching the Magnificent Frigatebirds kiting around. Birds like Black-capped Petrel, Fork-tailed Storm-Petrel, Northern Fulmar and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross are extremely gratifying to watch. Seabirds aside, one of the most beautiful moments I have ever witnessed was watching a male Spruce Grouse courting a female outside of Churchill, Manitoba. It was simply incredible, deeply moving, and affected me in an almost spiritual way. And this from the bird often known as the “fool hen”; arguably the dumbest bird in North America.

BS: For me it’s always been raptors, with seabirds a close second. My fascination with both groups stems from a love of bird migration. Watching raptors move south down a windswept ridge in fall for me is a ‘religious experience’—it’s what I do to get recharged, to become filled with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the natural world that can somehow get lost with too many days spent behind a computer. It’s a primal connection that I can’t quite describe. In terms of particular species, I’ve come to appreciate most the Red-tailed Hawk. Although widespread and common, it has a bewildering array of plumages, a fascinating range of geographic variation, and an unbending wildness about it. I like that anyone can go out and see one on any given day just about anywhere around North America, and if they so choose, they can ask themselves more questions about it. What age is it? What subspecies is it? What color morph is it? Asking oneself questions like this is a perfect example of the process of thinking about birds at a higher level—and Red-tailed Hawk is a perfect subject for it.

What qualities make for a good birder?

BS: I think in a nutshell, the single best thing that a good birder learns is the process of extracting what they are actually seeing from what they’d like to see. The power of suggestion is high in birding, and emotions can run deep around the idea of seeing new birds. The best birders not only rapidly assess what they are seeing and put it into a broader context (the tools you’ll learn in this book), but they also take an extra moment to step back, extract themselves from the emotional side of the moment, and then objectively evaluate what they are actually seeing (the process we hope you learn from this book!). Taking this extra step often reveals that what was originally suspected of being a rare bird, is actually just a common bird in an unusual pose, behavior, or plumage.

GA: Patience, dedication and the ability to embrace uncertainty. One of the fun things about birding is that it is a puzzle. Identification is gratifying in that we get to look at something confusing or uncertain, makes sense of it, and give it a name. The more you are able to do this, the more fun it becomes. People do get overzealous about it at times, and knowing how and when to say, “I’m not sure”, is important. Good birders know when to let stuff go. They understand the limits imposed on them by their surroundings (such as light, visibility, wind, etc.) and also understand the limits of their field skills. Really, it’s all about awareness which is why good birders tend to be pretty interesting people. They are alert and attuned to what’s going.

George L. Armistead is events coordinator at the American Birding Association and a research associate in the Ornithology Department at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University. He has led birding tours on all seven continents. Brian L. Sullivan is eBird program codirector and photographic editor for Birds of North America Online at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He is the author of numerous papers on bird identification and the coauthor of The Crossley ID Guide: Raptors and Offshore Sea Life ID Guide: West Coast (both Princeton).