Words, words, words

I’m a writer and a scientist. For both these jobs, I think a lot about words. Nothing brings me more joy than finding just the right word to describe what I find in nature. Further, nothing gives me more anxiety than seeing how sloppily we throw around terms and phrases in science. I worry that so many of the connections between our individual bodies of work are lost in translation when all the different camps use their own specialized phrases to describe what is essentially the same concept. To this end, a poem:

Whene'er I read papers,
I can't help but feel
that most of our buzzwords
just spin the same wheel.
The models we make
hinge on what we can measure
and measurements hinge
on the time at our leisure.
More, whether a factor
holds import or no
depends on how deep
our hypotheses go.
And since we seek patterns
with broad application,
one critical goal
is precise appellation.
But lo, I'm a lumper
and my viewpoint is firm
that each subject in nature
needs not its own term.
For the more we partition
the way we confer,
the more power we lose
to connect and concur.
If we aim to speak clear,
Our conference to unfetter:
In lieu of new words,
Use the ones we have better.
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Phidippus audax

The little black jumping spider tickles its way up my forearm. I turn my head to get a better look as it climbs over the knob of my elbow. It stops, sticks its two front legs up in the air, and stares at me. At least I think it does. With all those glittery eyes it’s hard to tell where it’s looking.

Is the spider reacting to me? Legs up could merely be its resting position. It could be stretching out tight muscles after a long crawl or preparing for an acrobatic jump from my arm to a nearby tree. Or it could be trying to steady its balance.

I cock my head to the side. It rocks back on its abdomen but maintains the posture. I slowly extend my finger toward its face. It scuttles backwards a couple steps, then raises its legs again. Three times in a row, my movements triggered a response. It seems to know I’m here.

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Tide Pooling

We gather for the American Society of Naturalists meetings at Asilomar State Beach to argue about life. We share our most specialized natural history discoveries and our broadest theories about the nature of evolution. We debate the scale and strength of adaptation, sketch out complex feedback loops connecting ecological and evolutionary processes, and weigh the behavioral and life history strategies which organisms use to deal with fluctuating environmental pressures. Are there observable, unambiguous patterns of convergence and divergence, stasis and change, or is most of what we see the product of historical contingency?

And when the day’s presentations are done, I go tide pooling.

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