How much is enough? On climbing the reprint pile

September 8, 2007

paper-stack.jpgClass the other night was led by a top comparative physiologist. As it wound down (due to low glucose levels, or perhaps a high titer of corticosteroids…maybe both?) I asked her “How do you find time to read?”.

She frowned, and said “I don’t find enough. And it’s frustrating.”

Over the next few minutes she nuanced this a bit, acknowledging that 1) we all have different roles to play in our lives, and only so much time, and 2) by definition, scientists are infinitely curious, the literature is vast, and so frustration is not a bug, as our techie friends would say, but a feature. Our impatience with the literature signals why we are scientists.

I scribbled down that little nugget, thinking about what I’d write today, generating a pleasing little dribble of epinephrine in the process. Just then, another member of the class spoke up. “How much is enough?” she said. “My major advisor says read ten papers a day! Ten papers! Every day!”

My adrenals belched out another aliquot, I scribbled again. “How much reading is enough?”. Read the rest of this entry »


QOTD: Robert Kaplan

January 29, 2007

Robert Kaplan, writer for the Atlantic‘In the academy, specialization has become both a necessity and a curse. Too much narrow expertise is the inverse of wisdom.  But the explosion of facts that need to be categorized demands a growing number of parochial subdivisions within any given field. We must fight against the tendency to become, as the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset feared we all would, “learned ignoramuses”.”

Discuss amongst yourselves.

From An Historian for our Time by Robert D. Kaplan in The Atlantic

Five ways to read broadly (and why you should)

January 12, 2007

Not my office.

We already know that among the uberskills of Academia, being a scholar ranks near the top. We need to be broadly read so we can make connections, talk to our colleagues, and teach. Furthermore, one of the fundamental ways to make a creative leap is to connect the tool of one discipline with the practice of another (more on this down the road). Finally, there is nothing quite so quaint as a first year grad student who is convinced that all he needs to do is master his little corner of the universe. Wait until his Orals.

That said, it gets harder and harder for new grad students to scale the impressive mountain of manuscripts due to the increasing number of journals, and ease of electronic access. It used to be (codger-alert!, insert whiney voice here) that the number of reprints you could read was limited to the hours you had to thumb through Biological abstracts (paper version) and the number of quarters you had in your pocket for xeroxing. Now the limit is set by the number of times you can hit return.

But read you must–its probably the most important time investment you can make in your first two years, and the ability to teach yourself is a key skill to develop. So, here’s what you do: Read the rest of this entry »

Books and the reason we do science

January 1, 2007

Chris at Mixing Memory has a nice post today soliciting favorite opening paragraphs. It sent me scrambling to my library for this gem from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez:

The design of a book is the pattern of a reality controlled and shaped by the mind of the writer. This is completely understood about poetry or fiction, but it is too seldom realized about books of fact. And yet the impulse which drives a man to poetry will send another man into the tide pools and force him to try to report what he finds there. Why is an expedition to Tibet undertaken, o a sea bottom dredged? Why do men, sitting at the microscope, examine the calcareous plates of a sea-cucumber, and, finding a new arrangement and number, feel an exaltation and give the new species a name, and write about it possessively? It would be good to know the impulse truly, not to be confused by the ‘services to science’ platitudes or the other little mazes in which we entice our minds so that they will not know what we are doing.

Truth is, we go into the sciences each for our own reasons. One of the best writers on this subject is John Janovy Jr whose books capture the excitement of field biology and the challenges and joys of teaching it. You may know of Janovy from his On becoming a biologist. My favorite of his ten books is still Keith County Journal which is as excellent an introduction to Janovy’s writing as you are likely to find. I read it as a senior in high school, and Janovy (and Steinbeck, and Sagan, and Dillard, and Abbey, and Eisley) are a big reason I’m a scientist.

Janovy also provides an extensive and esoteric reading list as well as an unpublished manuscript that is bound tor turn a few heads, “Outwitting College Professors: a practical guide to secrets of the system.” (PDF) which deserves wide readership. So spread this meme around!

And leave some recommended authors of your own in the comments, those books that are must reading for the days when all the experiments flop and working at Sonic seems a distinct prospect.