Starter for 10: Mike Dickison

What with the interdisciplinary thing, I know some delightful and interesting people in quite disparate fields. Starter for 10 is a semi-regular (monthly) series of peer interviews, with questions both serious and trivial for your edification.

This month’s interview is with Dr Mike Dickison, who wears many awesome hats: comparative fossil biologist, teacher of and advocate for effective science visualisation and presentation, ukulele player, and lately, earthquake blogger. I met Mike by sending him fangirl email about Pictures of Numbers, his science-visualisation project, and discovered that not only did we know people in common (as you do in New Zealand evolutionary circles) but we were both moved to tears at bad Powerpoint. If you do nothing else today, watch Mike’s Big Bird presentation – your life will be immeasurably improved.

1. In the little space for “occupation” on immigration cards at airports, what do you write?

Teacher. One of the principal benefits of the PhD has been the ability to put “Dr” Mike on airline boarding passes. Though nobody checks, so I could just as well choose “Reverend” or “Admiral”.

2. Give me your conference tea-break pitch: “…and what do you work on?”

My doctoral research was on the scaling of bones and eggs of giant flightless birds, including why the kiwi has such a disproportionately large egg. Currently I’m interested in working with other scientists on improving data presentation—not complicated issues of visualisation, which get all the attention, but simple visual thinking, which can be challenging for academics used to solving all problems with words.

3. What’s your origin story – how did you end up in your field? Was there a defining moment, or person, or something else that steered you?

Working as a technician in the National Museum of New Zealand, I saw the ornithologist Phil Millener identify bones of pigeons and ducks to species with a quick glance, which seemed almost a supernatural power. I was always fascinated by the art of reconstruction and extrapolation from fossil material. I also believed strongly in the importance of science communication, and worked in exhibition development before leaving to, eventually, teach graphic design and typography. But then I realised that might also involve teaching Microsoft Word for the rest of my life, so I applied for grad school at Duke, which let me hang out for years with some very smart people, and measure bones in museums (my kind of field work). Now I’m back in NZ, and curiously part of my job involves teaching dissertation formatting with, yes, Microsoft Word.

4. Your website (one of them …) is giantflightlessbirds.com. Tell me about your favourite giant flightless bird.

The adzebill (Aptornis) isn’t well-known, but was really peculiar. Extinct, like all the best flightless birds. Something like a giant rail, it had huge cervical vertabrae for muscle attachment, and tendons in its tarsus so well-developed they were enclosed in a bony tube. A digging, chiselling ground predator. [FJ: Looks like it would feed a family for a week] Moa get all the attention, but New Zealand was, and to some extent is, still full of crazy flightless birds.

5. For a month, you get to do a job-swap. What would you do?

Actor in a decent theatre company production of Shakespeare or Stoppard. [FJ: *heart* Stoppard] I nearly answered “making croissants in an artisan bakery” but that would probably ruin croissants for me for life.

6. Too much time, money and intellect has been wasted researching what?

Keeping it just to my own field, there are too many allometric studies of simple scaling trends without a good analysis of what these trends mean and how they might have developed. It’s easy to just plot a measurement against body mass, but that doesn’t say much. Also, while alpha taxonomy is important, and there are huge numbers of undescribed bones sitting in boxes in museums, we need to be looking at overall patterns now—we have enough data. There are plenty of sensible questions, like why do some groups of birds go flightless and not others? Why do some disperse across the Pacific better than others? Why are there no flightless bats? Why didn’t elephant birds get as big as elephants? What kind of bird is Big Bird—wait, I did that one. I think there should be more papers published with questions as titles, but I’m old-fashioned. [FJ: Only if they ANSWER the question though. Hate false advertising.]

7. Recommend for me (a) a good pop-science book (b) a good history/philosophy/politics book and (c) a poem.

a) It seems an obvious choice, but Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is the one book I would recommend to a humanities-educated person who wanted to know what was up with science. Bryson makes everything approachable and gets almost nothing wrong. I would love to teach an entire year of General Science with this as the text.

b) Christopher Hitchens’s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I’m not a fan of Hitchens’s recent political decisions, but while reading this I was constantly copying down wise and brilliant lines. [FJ: never knew there was an “Art of Mentoring” series]

c) Auden’s The More Loving One, a poem all scientists can respond to.

8. So, you’re a ukulele player (and author of Kiwi Ukulele) What are you playing at the moment? Any Lady Gaga? Do Radiohead translate?

Almost half my repertoire at the moment is the Mountain Goats, and the rest mostly indie rock. I don’t like Hawaiiian music. There’s a nice ukulele cover of Poker Face on YouTube. No Surprises is my favourite Radiohead song on uke, but Street Spirit and Fake Plastic Trees work well too. The ukulele is the litmus test of a good tune.

9. In the age of Google and Wikipedia, would you consider it worthwhile to write a book [on your field]?

These days I would never write JUST a book about anything. My future book projects will work best as e-books linked to websites, possibly with some video, pretentious as that sounds. (How long, by the way, before we lose the hyphen in e-books, the way we have with email?) [FJ: my prediction is that it’ll take longer for phonetic reasons: ebook looks like it rhymes with eh-duke]

10. Finally, what’s your absolute number one science-presentation peeve? Mine are those horrible excel colours on bar charts.

The Scientist’s Rainbow: using every colour in the visual spectrum to convey a simple one-dimensional gradient. Which promptly disappears as soon as one prints, because, oops, we don’t all have colour printers on our desks yet.

Science-folk: do check out Mike’s Pictures of Numbers for tips/advice/makeovers of charts, graphs and visual information.

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