Jabberwocky Ecology

Some days…

Some days I really wonder whether the bureaucratic infrastructure at institutions of higher education has any idea whatsoever that their job is to support the research and teaching missions of the university.

The top idea in your mind [Things you should read]

Successfully doing creative science is hard. The further along you get in a research career the more things are competing for your time and energy and the more distracted you are from your primary goals. This distraction becomes increasingly problematic when it distracts your subconscious as well as your conscious mind. A short post by Paul Graham does an excellent job of describing why this is the case and how you can manage access to that creative part of your brain. In particular he recommends minimizing the amount of time spent chasing money and being involved in disputes. These are both things that we end up doing a lot of in academia and in my experience Graham is right about their ability to consume the productive thought processes we rely on. I also love this quote from Newton:

I see I have made myself a slave to Philosophy, but if I get free of Mr Linus’s business I will resolutely bid adew to it eternally, excepting what I do for my private satisfaction or leave to come out after me. For I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new or become a slave to defend it.

Go check out the full post.

(via James Horey)

Towards a unification of unified theories of biodiversity [Things you should read]

Our inaugural Things you should read post is about Brian McGill’s new paper on unifying unified theories of macroecological patterns.

One of the major challenges to understanding ecology is that there are so many different ways to characterize the structure of ecological systems. This means that we spread our intellectual efforts across a large number of different questions making progress in any given area relatively slow. In recent years the field has begun to recognize that many of these patterns are related to one another meaning that understanding ecological structure may be simpler than we thought. This has resulted in the publication of a number of theories that appear to successfully predict multiple ecological patterns. McGill’s contribution is to recognize that all of these theories are successful because they produce three simple things:

  1. Spatial aggregation of individuals within species
  2. A broad scale distribution of abundances with many rare species and few common species
  3. And independent occurrence of individuals of different species

Instead of claiming that this simply makes ecology null and uninteresting McGill recognizes that it just simplifies our challenge and makes a general understanding of many ecological patterns something that might be tractable. The challenge for (macro)ecologists is now to understand the three patterns above along with patterns of species richness and total community abundance. Go read.

Things you should read

We’ve been thinking a lot recently about the idea that the social web can/should play an increasing role in filtering the large quantity of published information to allow the best and most important work to float to the top (see e.g., posts by The Scholarly Kitchen and Academhack). In its simplest form the idea is that folks like us will mention publications that we think are good/important and then people who think we’re worth listening to will be more likely to read those papers and then pass on recommendations of their own. In concept this should allow for good papers to be found by the scientific community regardless of where they are published. Ecology is far from having reached the level of social media integration required to fully realize this possibility, but there are examples of other fields where this sort of thing has actually occurred.

We think this is a cool idea, but currently it is a relatively ineffective way to find interesting papers; primarily because there simply aren’t enough folks in ecology discussing what they’ve read. EEB and Flow does a great job of this and a few other blogs by practicing scientists make occasional contributions in this regard (e.g., I’m a chordata, urochordata), but there certainly isn’t a critical mass yet. Part of the reason for this is that putting together full posts on articles one has read can take quite a bit of time, and time isn’t something most of us have a lot of lying around. Here at JE we have half a dozen Research Blogging style posts that we keep planning on writing, but finding a couple of hours to reread the paper and a couple of related works and put together a full post just doesn’t seem to happen.

So, today Jabberwocky Ecology announces a new kind of post – Things you should read. The idea behind these posts is to reduce the activation energy for posting about papers that we like. As such, these might be as short as the title of the paper and a link. Most of the time we’ll try to contextualize things a bit with a few sentences or a paragraph to help you figure out if the linked material is relevant to you, but these won’t be full blown summaries because these are things you should read, not things you should read about.

Burning books is a good thing?!?

Dave Parry over at academHacK (and more frequently at @academicdave) is generally pretty far out on the intellectual edge, but that means he often has some pretty interesting things to say. His most recent installment, Burn the Boats/Books, includes a bunch of interesting ideas about moving beyond the traditional limits of book and journal publishing in order to embrace the benefits (and realities) of the modern web.

Let me be clear, I am not saying that the book is dead, in one regard it is already dead, in another it continues to haunt us and will never die. And we should be glad for this haunting there are many features of the book from which we benefit. What I am saying though is the centrality of the book is gone, and academia would do well to recognize this, to move into new directions, new grounds, where many already are. We should not continue to constrain our thinking by this librocentricism which no longer structures or limits the way that knowledge is produced, archived, or disseminated.

The post is pretty long, but it’s well worth the read.

I think we make things that we like and… [Quote]

I think we make things that we like and that we think our friends would like, and we cross our fingers and hope that enough other people like it that we can earn a living. Rather than trying to guess, ‘What is it that the American public wants right now and let’s see if we can give it to them.’

Aaron Sorkin

Explaining life as a graduate student

As a graduate student, explaining what your day to day life is like to your non-academic friends can sometimes be a little difficult. In this enjoyable piece from The Science Creative Quarterly Daven Tai takes a unique approach to this challenge:

Working to get your PhD is like training to become a Jedi Knight,” I started. “You follow a Master; you live a life of sacrifice; you must develop rational thought and patience…

If you’re looking for five minutes of academically oriented fun go check out the whole article.