Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Science, publishing, and James E. Heath

I started this blog ten years ago with a quote from my father-in-law, James E. Heath: "If it's not published, it's not science." That seemed a good entry into issues of publishing in archaeology, a way to promote my own scientific perspective on archaeology. Dad Heath died this week, so I want to look at aspects of his career and life that have been influential in my own development as a scholar and scientist.
James E. Heath

My wife Cindy can be very traditional about things. When I asked her to marry me, her answer was a tentative yes. I had to ask her father for his blessing. I was nervous of course, Not only was he an imposing figure and her father, but he was also Head of the Physiology Department at the University of Illinois and I was a mere graduate student. I honestly don't recall the details of our little chat, but I guess it worked out well, since Cindy and I are still married after more than 30 years. But I do remember that shortly after our talk, he said to me, "It would have been simpler if I had just asked to see your CV."

One of the lessons I learned from Jim Heath was the importance of rigor and quality of research and publication. He edited a journal for many years (Journal of Thermobiology, I think it was), he got million-dollar grants, and he was a serious and productive scientist (temperature regulation was his field, if you haven't guessed). One of the reasons I get so fed up with much archaeology today is that his values of rigor and quality are too often lacking among my colleagues. Why do journals publish such crap? How do people get grants to do such poorly conceived research? How can an article win a prize when it has NO DATA? I get exercised about these things in part because of Jim Heath's influence on my attitude toward research and science.

He was my academic mentor. I would ask him about issues and quandaries, and I valued his advice. I was once asked to evaluate a colleague (at another university) for promotion to Full Professor. I did not have much respect for this person's work; in fact I had used one of his/her articles in a seminar as a negative example--how NOT to write an article. I was a newly-promoted Professor, so I asked some of my senior colleagues at SUNY-Albany what to do. They all said to duck the task - say I was too busy and avoid writing a critical letter. I asked Dad about this, and he said that I should accept the invitation. They wanted my professional opinion, and I should give them what they asked for.  It was my professional responsibility. But what was I going to say? This person has few grants, few publications, and their work is of low quality? Tact is not a quality I am known for (some of you are probably laughing here, thinking, "That's an understatement!"). I worried about writing a strongly negative letter. He gave me some help with ways of phrasing my remarks that didn't sound so harsh, but made the point clearly. I have recalled his advice usefully at various points in my career.

It was also fun to have a father-in-law who had carried out a famous experiment, known as the "beer-can experiment." Evidently claims had been made that reptiles actually do regulate their temperature (contrary to accepted knowledge) based on some experimental results of measuring their temperature throughout the day in the sun. Dad's paper (Heath 1964) describes an experiment in which he measured the temperature of a beer can in the sun, that found the same results as the reptile studies. So if those results mean that reptiles can thermoregulate, then so can beer cans! What a great experiment. And who says that beer does not contribute to science.

Jim Heath studied temperature regulation in all kinds of animals, from insects to polar bears. I remember stories about taking the rectal temperature of hibernating bears. Evidently there were some bears in the Midwest who hibernated in known locations in barns, and the farmers let crazy physiologists come study them. I think hibernation is a big deal for research on temperature regulation. So how do you take the rectal temperature of a hibernating bear? The obvious answer is that you have a graduate student do the task! I recall a story about a graduate student being lowered into the depths of a barn  on a rope, armed with a thermometer for the bear.

Moving from bears to insects, my in-laws spent a lot of time studying cicadas in the U.S. Southwest. My mother-in-law, Maxine Heath, is an entomologist whose specialty is the systematics of North American cicacas (Sanborm and Heath 2012). So the two of them would do a cicada run each year, studying and collecting in a series of locations across the southwest. One question they have worked on is the temperature at which cicadas became active. I've been out with them once or twice, and Cindy has helped out numerous times. And they managed to take all the grandchildren out on a research trip. Here is how the fieldwork goes. They drive around the desert, listening for singing cicadas. When they find some, they note the conditions (species of tree, ambient temperature, sun or shade, etc.) and then collect one or two specimens. These are put in the ice chest, with the beer and sandwiches, to cool them off. The cicadas get cold and inactive (I think torpor is the technical term). At the end of the day, back in a motel room, you take the cold and sluggish bugs out of the cooler and start throwing them up in the air above the bed. At first they just fall back onto the bed. But when they have warmed up enough, they start to fly instead of just falling down. You grab them and take their temperature, which tells you at what temperature they become active. Whenever anyone suggests that archaeological fieldwork is strange, I think of this biological fieldwork. I just hope they keep the curtains closed while the bug-throwing is going on.

While I appreciate these and other stories from my father-in-laws's research career, what I most value is the professional advice he gave me, and the lessons I learned just from talking with him and hearing him talk about science, about publishing, and professional life. I would like to think that some of the ranting and raving I have done in this blog--in the name of quality and rigor in archaeology--derive from what I learned at family gatherings. I still think Jim Heath's statement to me years ago -- "If it't not published, it's not science" -- is valid and relevant to what we do as archaeologists. RIP.

Heath, James E.
1964 Reptile Thermoregulation: Evaluation of Field Studies. Science 145: 748-785.

Sanborn, Alan F., and Maxine S. Heath
2012 The Cicadas (Hemiptera: Cicadoidea: Cicadae) of North America North of 
                    Mexico.   Entomological Society of America, Lanham, MD.


Michael E. Smith said...

How many people can say that they have written something, and every entry in their bibliography is by one of their in-laws!

Pretzel Bender said...

Very cool, I didn't know about the beer can experiment, that's amazing. I will use that as an example in my research methods class. I did know about the bugs (cicadas were an early fascination).