Great moments in random knowledge

I’m currently reading a philosophy of science dissertation. At one point, the dissertation mentions an old behavioral ecology paper, Milinski 1987. Which is weirdly pleasing to me–because I happen to know a lot about that paper! Back when I was an undergrad in 1993, I took an animal behavior course. I had to write a term paper on a then-current controversy in animal behavior. I wrote about Milinski 1987 and follow-up experiments by others.

In the comments, share your own stories of random knowledge or specialist expertise that no one would expect you to have. 🙂

Blast from the past: the most controversial ideas in ecology

Has it really been two years already since we did our poll on the most controversial ideas in ecology? If you missed that post, or don’t remember it, you should totally click through. The results of that poll were fascinating. To this day, I’m still mulling over the fact that, the more expertise ecologists have on any given idea, the less they agree about it!

Best tv and movie portrayals of academia?

On Twitter, history professor Tim Burke mused recently that tv and movie portrayals of academia tend to fall into a small number of boxes. So that many aspects of academia, and many sorts of academics, are either never portrayed on screen, or else are portrayed in a way that rings very false to anyone with any experience of academia.

I agree. (Although I might not be in a position to judge, given how little tv I watch, and how few movies I’ve seen over the last decade!)

Hence my question for you: what are the best tv and movie portrayals of academia? Doesn’t necessarily have to be tv or movies about academia. Could just be, say, dramas or romantic comedies or whatever with characters who just so happen to be in academia. It just has to ring true in its handling of academia and the people in it. Bonus points for anything that’s not a biopic of a famous academic.

Here’s an opening bid: Real Genius. Ok, the plot is daft and the characters are exaggerated. But it’s a comedy, the sort for which “daft plot” and “exaggerated characters” go with the territory. The important thing is that Real Genius exaggerates real stuff. Many of the pranks in the film are based on real pranks played by Cal Tech undergrads. And the characters ring true as well, I think. As director Martha Coolidge said of Real Genius, “The audience has a kind of sixth sense, they know when they’re being lied to. I was taken by the story from the start; I’m fascinated by science. But I knew that to make the comedy work – and the characters worth caring about – we had to do our homework.”

Second opening bid: Lucky Jim (1957) and Lucky Jim (2003). I’ve never seen either. But the book on which they’re based is maybe the most famous academic comedy-satire ever. The book rang true to me when I read it. So I’d think and hope the film versions would ring true as well.

Any other bids?

Tenure-track asst. professor position in Applied Data Science at the University of Calgary. Please apply!

The Faculty of Science at the University of Calgary is advertising for a tenure-track asst. professor position in applied data science. Here’s the ad; I’m summarized key details below along with a bit of background information and context that’s not in the ad.

This is a very broad search. The search committee is going to have one member from each of the departments in the Faculty of Science, and the successful candidate could be appointed in any of those departments. My department (Biological Sciences) certainly would welcome someone working with big data in ecology and evolution, so if that describes you, you should definitely apply!

Non-Canadians are welcome and encouraged to apply. We are legally obliged to give preference to Canadian citizens and permanent residents, but that doesn’t mean that we never hire non-Canadians. My department just hired Kelsey Lucas, who’s from the US, and over the years we’ve hired a number of other profs who weren’t Canadian citizens or permanent residents at the time they were hired. Every application will receive full consideration. Do not assume that it’d be a waste of time to apply unless you’re a Canadian, because that’s not true!

The University of Calgary is one of Canada’s leading research universities. We have about 30,000ish undergrads and 8,000ish graduate students. The Dept. of Biological Sciences is the biggest department on campus, we have 50ish faculty and 160ish graduate students. Between our department and other units on campus, we have a bunch of outstanding evolutionary biologists working with genomic data (Sean Rogers, Sam Yeaman, James Wasmuth, others). Outside Biological Sciences, we just started a professional graduate program in Data Science, in which the successful applicant will be expected to teach. There’s lots of other stuff going on here in areas adjacent to this position. If you self-identify as a data scientist, I think you’ll find the University of Calgary an exciting place to work.

Calgary is a vibrant city of about 1.3 million people, located just 45 minutes drive from the Canadian Rockies, with all the opportunities for recreation that implies. Here is what the bit of the Canadian Rockies that’s closest to the university looks like. Come on, tell me you don’t want to live here!

Application deadline is June 15.

Want to read some Terry Pratchett, or get some for a kid, but don’t know where to start? I’m here to help!

The comments on my previous post suggest to me that there is unmet demand among this blog’s readership for my opinions on the late, great Terry Pratchett‘s work. Which is fine by me, because (i) I love Terry Pratchett’s stuff and grab any excuse to talk about it with both hands, and (ii) I just got my first Covid-19 vaccination so I’m feeling happy and self-indulgent. Terry Pratchett’s work is funny, smart, and wise, you should totally check him out.

But if you aren’t sure where to start, because boy howdy was Pratchett ever prolific, well, I’m here to help! I’ve read almost everything Terry Pratchett wrote*, and read some of them several times. I’ve also read several of them to my 10 year old son. So for one day only, this blog’s motto is changing from “Multa Novit Vulpes” to “De Chelonian Mobile“.

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What are the best humorous portrayals of evolution?

I’ve been rereading a lot of Terry Pratchett over the past year-plus. He’s my favorite author, and I’ve found rereading the Discworld books very comforting.

Pratchett often makes very funny jokes about evolution. He wrote an entire humorous fantasy novella, Darwin’s Watch, centered on evolution.* But there are plenty of other evolutionary jokes scattered throughout the rest of his work. I love this mock natural historical note about the Ambiguous Pazuma, from Pyramids. It’s a hilarious mashup of biology jokes and physics jokes:

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Have any ecologists or evolutionary biologists ever switched from one sort of research to a totally different sort?

Nobel Laureate economist Robert Mundell recently passed away. I know nothing about Mundell, but I was interested to read that his intellectual legacy is complicated, apparently because he switched from doing one sort of economics to a completely different sort. It’s not merely that Mundell changed his mind about important economic matters. It’s that he changed his whole approach as well.

We’ve discussed scientists who’ve changed their minds about important scientific matters. But I don’t think we’ve ever discussed scientists changing their whole research approach. Are there any examples of this from ecology and evolutionary biology? The equivalent of me switching to, say, dinosaur paleontology or condor conservation or something?

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Poll results: which ecological concepts are the equivalent of phlogiston?

In a recent post, I discussed scientific concepts that don’t actually exist, phlogiston being the classic example. I talked about the various reasons why X might not exist (or might as well not exist), besides, um, simply not existing: X might be many different things rather than one thing, it might be a thing that exists but can’t be measured, it might be too vaguely defined to exist, etc. And then I polled y’all on various ecological concepts, asking whether or not they exist, and if they don’t, why not.

Here are the results!

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