Good popular books about ecology?


A friend asked the other day about recommendations for good popular books about ecology. Initially, I kind of drew a blank. Which surprised me.

I think there are plenty of great popular books about evolution – the first one that comes to mind is Beak of the Finch(I realize it’s more than 20 years old, but gosh, it holds up well.) And in the field of animal behavior you have a whole bunch, too – one that first came to my mind is Ravens in Winter (again, not the newest book, I realize).

But for ecology? Hmmm. The first one that I thought of is a bit obvious, A Sand County AlmanacThis has aged well, but doesn’t quite describe the contemporary field of ecology. I was also thinking of Rob Dunn’s The Wild Life of Our Bodies – and even more so, the forthcoming Never Out of Season will totally fit this bill.

I can think of many great natural history books. I was hoping to find a book that is principally about ecology and the people that do ecology.

I asked about this on twitter, and the community provided a great conversation, some bits of which are below. I realized, well, yes, there are plenty of books about contemporary ecology.

I’d like to use the comments for y’all to contribute your thoughts about good general books about ecology – please add your thoughts!

So, what do you think? If you were teaching about ecology to non-majors, for example, what nonfiction book would you want to read?


Recommended reads #95


In the United States, a woman died a few months ago of a bacterial infection. This microbe was resistant to all antibiotics available in the US that we were capable of throwing at it.

A paper came out this week, looking at predictors of publication rates among 280 graduate students accepted and enrolled into a biomedical grad program. And — shocker, I know — grades and standardized test scores didn’t matter. The best predictor was the content of the letters of recommendation. You want to know which undergraduates have the greatest research potential? Listen to their undergraduate mentors. Here’s a drugmonkey post about this paper.

When I talk about climate change, I don’t talk about science. I’m (probably) not your dad or your boss or your professor so I can’t assign this to you or tell you to read it, but I do think this is a must-read.

State lawmakers in Missouri and Iowa are looking to get rid of tenure.

Peer review is not broken.

With enough evidence, skepticism [may] thaw. (But denial, not so much.)

Even more evidence about the unfair biases that manifest in student evaluations of teaching. This experimental design is rather elegant.

What scares [him] about teaching students with ideologies not adequately grounded in fact.

Why AntWeb images are not free.

You will want to read this melancholy story about the sparrow with four sexes.

A burrowing owl shows up in MacArthur Park. Which is a tiny little patch of nature in the middle of a heavily urbanized area. So cool.

Think you have fire ants but aren’t sure? Now there’s a 10-minute test for this, much like a pregnancy test. (Fortunately, you don’t have to try to coax the ant to pee on a stick, you just squish it.)

Lindy West explains why she left twitter.

The governor of New York announced a plan to provide free tuition to state colleges and universities for low(ish) income students (those whose families earn less than $125,000 per year). Some folks were trying to claim that this wasn’t a good thing for those students, but fortunately, Sara Goldrick-Rab is there to set those folks straight. Of course it’s a good thing.

The Rusty-Patched Bumblebee gets listed as endangered. We still do have an Endangered Species Act in effect, and we still have an Environmental Protection Agency, for at least another week.

The contemporary American university, in seven emails.

Using Slack in the classroom.

The site of George Lucas’s massive Museum of the Narrative Art has been announced, in the exposition park of Los Angeles, adjacent to the Natural History Museum of LA County (where I’m sabbaticaling). Exposition Park is becoming even more of a destination.

Scientific American blog network published a guest post from a guy who did research on the physiology of shrimp that got a lot of bad press from anti-science Republicans as “Shrimp on a treadmill.” Most notable about this guest post was that the editors initially ran the piece with a horribly sexist and wholly creepy line about how the author leers at students of his peers while they are doing fieldwork. They promptly edited the piece, but it never should have gone to press. (And if you’re a marine biologist, you probably want to watch out for this guy.)

A sexually harassing faculty member returned to teaching at UCLA, and was greeted by huge protests outside his classroom, loud enough that the classes were cancelled.

How Stanford is failing to protect its own students from assaults on campus.

I imagine nearly all biologists know the historical story of PCR. If you don’t, then here you go. If you do, then I think this is a particularly well-crafted version of the story.

The National Review (a conservative publication) writes, “I guess we’re not going to make a fuss about that.

This is why you don’t kiss the ring.

Did inadequate healthcare destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?

Here’s a nice profile of John Prine in Rolling Stone.

A message for my doomed colleagues in the American media.

An excerpt from They Thought They Were Free.

Why this monkey had sex with a deer. (spoiler: he was horny).

Planet Earth II did not help the natural world

How nostalgia for white Christian America drove so many people to vote for Trump. (Just in case you are still harboring the notion that this was about economic policy and free trade.)

Folks have been saying that Rex Tillerson has completely severed financial ties with his oil company if/when he becomes Secretary of State. But, that’s not true. The day he quits, he could go back as CEO.

Here’s a science-friendly Republican who we should get to know: John Culberson.

What it’s like being a sane person on the House Science Committee.

New information comes out about how Nixon was even worse than we thought: he secretly undermined peace talks so that he could win the election in 1968.

Here’s another person to watch: my new senator, Kamala Harris. Who is awesome.

Putin’s real long game.

Have a great weekend, folks. (By the way, if you happen to be around South Island, I’ll be heading your way and sticking around for a few weeks. I’ll be flipping over lots of rocks, but I promise to put them back.)

Knowing something really well doesn’t mean you can teach it well


Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*. Continue reading

There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist


I want to talk about the Who and the How of public engagement.

We should be bringing science to the table with people who aren’t in the market for science. A lot of outreach is preaching to the converted, and that is a valuable form of service. But we also have the ability — and perhaps an obligation — to make science a part of everyday life for a society that just doesn’t think about science on a regular basis. Continue reading


Recommended reads #93


An argument for the funding of basic research makes it into the Wall Street Journal.

One way to teach critical thinking is to take a historical issue (in history, science, whatever) and look at the debates surrounding the issue by the people of the time, and then asking, “Who was right?” (I found this via Tavish Bell’s twitter account, where I see consistently interesting stuff about higher ed.)

The abduction of tortoise #1721 Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity


When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right. Continue reading


Recommended reads #92


Caring isn’t coddling: “While I’m not without gallows humor and can enjoy an ‘it’s in the syllabus’ joke as much as the next person, I also feel deeply that the best teaching arises in faculty-student relationships that are mutually respectful and that mutually honor the worth each side is bringing to the table.”

A shark that was (maybe) choking on a massive chunk of moose was (maybe) saved by a couple guys. Continue reading

Teaching in a time of professor watchlists


Teaching basic science is difficult when some folks deny the validity of science. Facts are facts, but there are powerful interests working to convince us that facts aren’t factual. Meanwhile, our incoming government is collaborating with a group that operates a watch list to track the activities of liberal professors. Earlier this year, a leading advisor to the new administration proposed reviving the House Un-American Activities Committee. I imagine that some faculty would be high up on the list of targets.

So, what should we change about what happens in our classrooms? Continue reading

On the shrinkage of polar ice caps


When I was a senior in college, I was in a seminar dedicated to a new book, written by a US senator who had just been elected Vice President. The book was Earth in the Balance. It explained the science of carbon pollution, the greenhouse effect, and global climate change. To me, it was a revelation. I was aware of the greenhouse effect, but I didn’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem and the massive global effort it would require, until Gore explained it. Continue reading

Negotiate authorship before collecting data


Authorship disputes are not uncommon. Even when there are no actual disputes over who did what on a project, there may be lots of authorship resentments. That’s because a lot of folks — by no mere coincidence, junior scientists more often — end up not getting as much credit as they think they deserve when a paper comes out. Continue reading

Diversity creates stability and resilience


Many inspirational people in my life are already charging ahead to meet our shared challenges.  If you’re looking for a pick-me-up, let me point you to some early wisdom that’s emerged immediately on the morning after the election: Josh Drew explained how  he’s approaching teaching the day after the election. Meg Duffy explains how she says “Yes” to make a difference. It’s taken me an additional day to reach that kind of positivity.

This election changed what it means to be a scientist in the United States. Continue reading

Negative results, weird results, and other secrets


Science is a community endeavor. Much of our knowledge is unwritten, and subsists in the hive mind of our collective social unit. Some of the cooler and bolder — and perhaps more important — ideas are the ones that might not make it to print. My fellow ecologists don’t publish most of what we know, as Mike Kaspari recently reminded us with a quote from Dan Janzen.

We rarely share our piles of negative results, or the little curiosities for which we can’t find the time. Getting a peer-reviewed paper out the door is a non-trivial amount of work, and just mentioning it in a conversation is easier. But, hey, I have a blog where I can mention this stuff.

So let me tell you about two things that I find rather weird, but haven’t put more resources into figuring out. Continue reading


Recommended reads #89


A couple truly spectacular reads have already made the rounds in social media in the last week, but in case you haven’t caught them, be sure to do so:

First, the Washington Post published a long-form piece about Derek Black, former media star of white nationalists who grew to repudiate his views. How did this happen? The free exchange of ideas and mutual respect found in higher education. If you’re looking for a defense of a liberal arts education (which can be found in potentially any university), then this might be as great as it gets.

Second, the Arizona Republic editorial staff received many death threats because they endorsed a particular presidential candidate. (Okay, a let’s all take moment to breathe, to absorb this fact.) The response from the publisher is powerful and important.

How you might change as a professor as you get older. Continue reading

Towards better titles for academic papers: a hermeneutic approach from a blogging perspective


I think a lot of academic article titles are pretty bad. What do I mean by bad? The title doesn’t really tell you what the paper is actually is about. It could be buried in jargon, or overselling an idea, or focuses on details that most of the intended audience won’t care about.

Does the title of a paper affect how it gets read and cited? Probably. In what way? That’s not so simple, based on my short browse of some scientometric findings. Continue reading