Posts Tagged ‘Scientific animation’

I’ve heard so many times the saying that curiosity killed the cat. In French we say that quality is a naughty defect (generally to kids, in order to discourage it). That’s utter-bullshit, pardon my English. Curiosity saved men. It’s because we’re curious that we founds ways to compensate our tiny constitution, our ridiculous speed, our feeble health and so on. And it’s because we’re curious that we invented a special job: researcher. People devoted for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the society, and/or their own.

In return, the very minimum that these researchers can do, it tell the results of their investigations. Otherwise, that’s a bit unfair, no? It’s called staying in the Ivory Tower, the tower where intellectual selfishly do their work, while staying disconnected from the society. We get paid by the society to find stuff, and we don’t tell what we find? Apart from fueling the lunatic nature of conspiracy theorists, who think every researcher in the world participate covertly to global machinations, this is just failing to do the full spectrum of our very responsibility as researchers. Every researcher should do popularization work, be it public conferences, press interviews, books or documentaries or just press release and let the journalists communicate for them. That’s the fair thing to do, and that’s also a very good exercise to be able to explain complicated concepts, and ultimately also to get more people interested in our discipline.

With that in mind, I’ve been popularizing quite a lot, since my very early carrier. I’ve written a piece about my thesis research during my first year of PhD, against the advice not to do so of my supervisor, who thought – like almost everybody else at the time – that popularization was the realm of bad scientists: those who where not sufficiently strong in research to stay with their peers went to shine with the public, pretending to be smarter than their colleagues knew them to be. Now I’ve written more, from articles to books, initiated several documentaries, participated in several others, given conferences in front of many different audiences, including about every age of school children, and interviews to radio, tv channels and written press. And apart from one or two exceptions, every single one has been a great experience.

In some countries, like my own, the public tends to think that researchers are at best immature parasite society who work on useless questions just because they can. In others, like the USA, they tend to have a better reputation, sometimes up to selfless saviors of the society. Regardless of the general view of our profession, communicating with the public is profitable for the public, is profitable for us and is profitable for our profession.

Of course, when  I say communicate to the public, don’t go telling them all everything. We want to keep all our global conspiracies safely concealed, otherwise our secret plot to take over all the governments of Earth might be delayed…


When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments




Just a short note to inform you of the results of the BNP Paribas public vote: we won!
for those of you who followed the unbearable suspens of this sage, here are the figures:
FATES = 329
SOCLIM = 597
APT = 3361

So thank to you (yes, you), our research group is awarded an additional 50.000€ for communication purposes. We will use this money in two major ways. We will first buy the design and construction of an interactive web site to explain our results to the public, and allow them (yes, you again) to check that we are not just playing angrybirds all day long, ask questions and request all the analyses they want. We will also use this money to hire a communication officer that will be in charge of this web site, of dealing with emails from the public (i.e. replying to insulting ones and forwarding me the nice ones), of writting media memos and of many other things that we scientists are too clumsy to do ourselves.
Anyways, this is an opportunity to once more thank you all for your votes!
From the hysteria in France and the US to the delirium in Indonesia and Brazil and the frenzy in Australia and China, we now know we can count on hordes of devoted followers, ready to the craziest things for us, even sometimes read this blog.



The Fundation BNP Parisbas selected 5 scientific programmes on climate change and will give 50 000 € (that’s US$ 62,000) to one selected by the public, for a communication project on their scientific programme. This is why we need you to vote for our project: InvaCost.

InvaCost will look at the impact on invasive insects, when climate change allows them to invade regions that are now too cold for them, but that will warm up in the coming decades. These include the red imported fire ant, the predatory Asian wasp, the disease carrying tiger-mosquito, and many others that are among the worst invaders worldwide. InvaCost is described a bit in an earlier post, here.

Our communication project is really different from anything that has been done before, and very probably different from the four other projects. In addition to building an interactive website to communicate with the public, show and explain our results and answer your questions, we will inaugurate a new type of citizen science, or participatory science: the public will be able to select some of the 20 invasive species we will study in InvaCost, from a large list we will compile. You will also be able to ask us to do specific analyses, for example “will Argentine ants be able to invade the UK?” or “where will the Formosan termite invasion expand in the USA” or “Is the malaria mosquito likely to reach my city and when?”. We will then collect the data, build and run the mathematical models, analyse the outputs and show and explain the results.

In a word, you will chose the subject and the questions, and we will do science for you. The money will be used to design and run the web site and to hire staff to interact with the public and make specific analyses during the four years of InvaCost. The communication project is described here.

So if you want to see that happen, it’s quite simple, vote for our project, by going here. And forward the message around, we will likely need tens of thousands of votes to be selected. Thanks in advance, we look forward to working with you!


Ah my friends, astrophysics. Even if it lacks the complexity of ecology, it is still a cool science. Kinda. In fact, the cosmos has several similarities with Nature (and with my ex), in particular, they are impressively beautiful and implacably deadly.

Did you know that there are hundreds of billion stars in our galaxy alone? And that there are hundreds of billion galaxies in the observable universe? Vertiginous. That reminds me of Fermi’s “where is everybody?”. Anyway, the point of this post was to point out to a very nice collection of photos put online by NASA, here.

So next times you science policy deciders vote for big budgets for physicists, look what they do at work. They take pretty picture. We can do that too!


One very important aspect of a good lab it its internal scientific activity. Students and staff benefit much from a dynamic scientific environment. Regular meetings where science is presented and discussed is something that will develop your communications skills, your ability to synthesize, to get a critical view of approaches and topics and simply will increase your scientific culture. It can be of various forms, Lab Meetings, where the last progresses or projects of group members are reviewed and discussed, Journal Clubs, where some papers in the literature are presented and criticized, Conference Reports, where one lucky bastard summarises to the others the amazing talks he/she went to at that last congress in Hawaii (because only the teacher’s pet got to be sent there), or any other form of scientific interaction in groups (acid battles in the chem lab don’t count).

In our lab, we don’t do Conference Reports, because we usually travel in herds – I’m too shy to get to conferences alone – but we do the other types. We have the Ant Club, where we present some interesting papers in Myrmecology (in general on invasive species or community ecology). We have Team Meetings, where we discuss the projects of Master students, the past work of newly arrived postdocs or the latest findings of other group members (plus loads of administrative crap). And we have the Sémibière, which is the subject of this post. Yeah, I know, my introductions are awfully long. That’s just to show you what you should not do.

The Sémibière is a regular meeting held especially for the benefit of students (although we all enjoy it). We had realised that students were especially shy went it comes to expressing opinions in front of the others, mostly because they were convinced that their opinion was crap – or that they didn’t even have one. They were also rather un-motivated by technical papers, like on modelling or stats or such. So we decided to do a different format. First, we remove the “naire” part of the word “séminaire” (French for seminar) and replaced it by “bière” (beer in French). The journal club is held with beers and nibbles, because we know that will attract students as surely as vinegar attracts flies (does it really?). Simple but efficient. When the weather is good, we do it outside – we have an awesome campus and I installed picnic tables for this very purpose.

The other change was to treat only papers of two specific types. The first one is funny papers. Papers that have a real set of scientific features that make their discussion beneficial – approach, structure, methods, presentation, etc – but on a funny topic. We discussed the population dynamics of the Loch Ness monster, the demonstration of Murphy’s Law (when you drop your toast, it always lands on the buttered face), a Capture-Mark-Recapture model of tea spoons disappearing from lab coffee rooms, the Ring Effect (males are supposedly more attractive if they have a wedding ring – a type of honest signal showing that they have been picked up, so are probably higher quality mates), etc.

The second type of papers we discuss in the Sémibière is controversial papers. For example, should we re-wild North America, by introducing the long extinct elephants, lions and giant turtles, or this that an ecological blasphemy? The best-ever-genius-idea or the most dangerous stupidity? We don’t provide the answer, because probably there isn’t a single/simple one, but we present the arguments and confront our various points of view. Controversy helps anyone to have an opinion, or to say why they can’t decide. There, I’ll make a specific post category for these controversy themes, so I can present some difficult scientific controversies and prevent you to sleep forever over these unresolvable existential issues. Mouahahaha!

Sémibière Outside - 13