Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Image: wemidji (Jacques Marcoux).

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est (And thus knowledge itself is power)
– Sir Francis Bacon.

This is only the second issue of Scientia Pro Publica, but I am so pleased with its progress so far. Not only are friends and colleagues contributing their essays to this blog carnival, but there is an impressive influx of “new blood”, too. Together, all of us are helping to promote the value of communicating science, nature and medicine to the public. Keep up the good work, everyone!


Biology and Evolution

One of the joys of birding (if we’re honest with ourselves) is seeing a new species, and especially one that we didn’t know existed but is so strikingly colored or patterned that we know right away that it’s not going to be too hard to put a name to it once we either open up a field-guide or go on the internet. In this photoessay, Charlie Moores tells about his sighting of the Red-cowled Cardinal in Sao Paulo, Brazil. He also includes a brief overview of this species’ taxonomy and a series of eye-popping images where he compares this species to the Red-crested Cardinal, Paroaria coronata, an introduced exotic species in Hawaii.

My ScienceBlogs colleague, Greg Laden, is after my own heart by writing about birds. In this essay, he sits between a large lake and a small pond and wonders where have all the ducklings gone? He discusses the many factors that remove this seasonal abundance of ducklings from the world at a young age; various predators, disease, weather, hypothermia.

What value do Natural History Museums have for modern DNA research? My story, Dead Birds do Tell Tales, provides some insight from my own research into the evolution and biogeography of the lories, which are parrots native to the Islands of the South Pacific Ocean.

If a 33.5 foot Sperm Whale, Physeter macrocephalus, stranded on your beach, what would you do with it? Leave it to rot? Drag it out to sea? Blow it up? According to Andrew, co-author of Southern Fried Science, Keith Rittmaster of the North Carolina Maritime Museum had a different strategy. The dead whale was buried and then, more than two years later, its bones exhumed. Dozens of volunteers were recruited from the community to aid in the preparation and rearticulation the bones, which occurred in a custom-made pole barn specially constructed by the entire community in just seven days on land donated by a private citizen. Inspiring, if you ask me.

An article by Brendan Borrell that celebrates Monsanto’s newest GM tomato was published in Scientific American not too long ago. This piece seemed to claim that all heirloom tomatoes are disease-prone, weak, wimpy, and generally pretty useless. The author of the Agricultural Biodiversity Blog, Jeremy takes on Brendan, Monsanto and their tomatoes by pointing out that genetic diversity is important in agriculture. “Setting up a false dichotomy between smart breeding and dumb breeding helps nobody,” Jeremy writes. “But people do need help, and they won’t be getting it from breeders intent on uniformity.”

What do petunias, human disease and stem cell research have in common? They all share RNAs with antisense (inverse) complementarity to another “target” gene — RNAi. These RNAi’s result in the “silencing” of their target gene, either by speeding degradation of its complementary mRNA or by binding to it and blocking production of the encoded protein. As Linda, the author of Oz Blog No. 159 writes; “Sometimes it requires the right background knowledge, technology, experiment and the right person and in the right place to find the accident that changes everything.”

Brain and Behavior

Is it true that “dating is just another form of prostitution and evolution proves that he that pays gets play? For some reason the barriers were down. Talking about chimpanzee sexuality allowed journalists to let loose and express views they would rarely utter otherwise,” writes Eric, the extraordinarily talented author of The Primate Diaries. “Evidently people got the message, if the comments on Slashdot are any indication. A rare case of maturity could be found at The Great Beyond which wrote that, ‘News that female chimps mate more frequently with male chimps that share their meat with them has prompted a slew of at best corny, at worst downright sexist, even lewd, headlines.’ The main problem was that, while everyone else was busy giggling over these chauvinist fantasies, they missed the real meat of the story.”

Do you know people who are becoming borderline obsessed with organic foods beyond simply trying to lose weight or eat better? Apparently, there are people who are afraid of any food item that comes near them or their family and friends, to the point that this anxiety is interfering with their work and social lives. Mary, the author of The OpenHelix argues that this organic food craze is just the beginning, that the same thing will happen with personal genomics. She even names this condition ‘geneorexia nervosa.’ “The internet is going to be the front line in this genomics tsunami,” Mary warns. “Doctors don’t have the time or the information depth right now to handle it. People will turn to the internet — for good and for bad — [for information about] their genes. There’s going to be frustration. There’s going to be misinterpretation. There will be bad decisions.”

With neurobiologists gaining greater understanding into how the human mind works and with computer power doubling every 12-24 months, it seems inevitable that humans will design artificially intelligent beings (AIs). In an interesting thought experiment, Phil for Humanity explores the possibilities for humans and our future with AIs — will people end up becoming pets?

Environment and Conservation

Smoking is a nasty habit, generating 4.3 trillion butts annually — most of which end up on the sidewalks, streets, waterways, ground. According to Kelsey, author of Mauka to Makai, “One source reports that Americans drop 250 billion butts on the ground each year. In the UK, where they weigh their butts, smokers ditch 200 tons of butt litter annually.” These butts are more than just disgusting and filthy, they take years to degrade and worse, they contain a huge variety of toxic chemicals, such lead, cadmium and arsenic. What can we do with all these butts? Kelsy makes three suggestions in this interesting and amusing essay.

In an ideal world populated by reasonable people, no species should go extinct. However, we do not live in an ideal world and people are often unreasonable, so conservation biologists, politicians and the public often end up arguing about how should conservation priorities be made? It’s all about money, isn’t it? Tim, at A Conservation Blog reviews the pros and cons for this question — a discussion that I think is so critically important that it must be revisited often.

Medicine and Health

Those of you who follow my writings about racehorses and other high-performance horses will be interested to learn that human medicine is benefiting from equine medicine. Several companies that I’ve been following have redirecting their stem-cell research from horses to people. This research, which was originally developed to help injured horses, is now being used to help people recover from Achilles tendon injuries. This move from clinical veterinary to human medicine is unusual since we normally see the translation happening the other way around.

Ian Chant, a freelance writer and author of Glaring Health Code Violations, writes this lament about “brand new and exciting medicine for any and every ailment, from cancer to kleptomania! If you’ve got it, chances are we’ve got medicine for it.” It’s actually an overview containing numerous internal links.

Physics and Astronomy

The Special Theory of Relativity is a concept that requires a great deal of careful introspection to understand. But that doesn’t stop college student, philosopher and author of Bridging the Gap, Travis, from tackling this in his essay about the history of this concept and its importance to science. I could be wrong, but I think this is one of his first science essays published in the blogosphere, so be sure to visit his blog and leave some encouraging comments and useful feedback for him.

This is an existential little piece of creative writing that you might enjoy about Dark Energy by Jeff Cook, author of Only I’ve … , which he describes as “just an analogy about the universe“.

Scientists and Their Science

Losing a scientific mentor is like losing a parent. This amusing and touching essay celebrates Sir John Maddox (1925-2009), who was a mentor and friend to Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature and author of I, Editor.

Sarah at Surprising Science asks if we can name the top ten living female scientists and the top ten living female mathematicians? She makes her list of the top ten living female scientists — I am embarrassed to admit that I recognized the names of only two of them! — and then concludes that “not only are women still rare at the top of the science world, but they are even more uncommon in the public eye. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t smart women doing great science — you just have to look a bit harder for them.”

Ad Lagendijk’s interesting essay at the Survival Blog for Scientists discusses territorial disputes in science. As an example of what happens to those who lose an unnecessary scientific territorial dispute, I wholeheartedly recommend that everyone in science read this essay and take his advice to heart. Ad does make one observation that I think is erroneous: “How to survive? I think there is only one correct answer: by doing better science than your colleagues.” In my experience, that comment vastly underestimates the very real role of luck in people’s professional and personal lives.

Scientists and Society

Scientists often do a lot of teaching. Because most fields of science are advancing with lightning speed, science professors must continually work on improving their instructional repertoire by developing new ways to communicate with a classroom filled with a mix of very bright young people with very different abilities, experience, and interest the topic at hand. How do they do it? The author of Science — Sealed, Delivered offers a fascinating suggestion; reading and adapting suggestions in Reuben Fine’s book, The Ideas Behind the Chess Openings. “Fine is not seeking to teach openings so much as the ideas behind them,” writes the author. “In chess, as in the application of science, too often do people mistake the ‘moves’ as the lesson.”

Open Notebook Science is the practice of making the entire record of a research project publicly available online, along with all raw and processed data, and any associated material, as the data is generated. The author of Next Generation Science recently conducted an interview with Jean-Claude Bradley, an Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at Drexel University. Dr. Bradley is a leader in the Open Science movement, particularly of its branch, Open Notebook Science.

As a scientist, I have often been offended by people who claim that our training blinds us to beauty — that beauty can only be recognized and appreciated “spiritually”. Apparently, I am not the only one who is miffed by this public perception of the dichotomy between the cold, hard logic of science and the romantic sensibilities of the arts. Eric recently began writing The Primate Diaries at Nature Network, and began by discussing this very conumdrum in his beautifully written essay, Introducing a Primate. He says this topic has always been an area of keen interest for him, because the idea is so blatantly untrue.

My ScienceBlogs colleague and friend, Mike, discusses his reasons for supporting the very controversial resolution, HR 669: The Nonnative Wildlife Invasion Prevention Act. Further, after reading the analyses and opinions of those who are against it (including me, a very vocal opponent), he’s still sticking with his guns.

Last but not least, my friend and the next host of this carnival, Bob O’Hara at Deep Thoughts and Silliness, has written an analysis of HR 669, a resolution that is creeping its way through the US Congress. He asks an important question; might HR669 have some unintended effects on US science?

This ends the second issue of Scientia Pro Publica. I hope I’ve managed to give it a good start in life, but it is a fledgling now, and thus, must test its wings. The next edition is flying overseas to a completely different time zone, where it will be hosted on the first Monday in May (4 May) by Bob O’Hara, author of Deep Thoughts and Silliness. To send submissions to the next issue of Scientia Pro Publica, either use this automated submission form or send it directly to ScientiaBlogCarnival at gmail. Be sure to include the URL or “permalink”, the essay title and please, please, please include a brief summary of what you’ve written.

There are several of you who are interested to host this carnival, but I need more, more, MORE! I am working on the schedule, but like a dork, I forgot it at home when I left this morning, so you’ll have to wait a little longer to find out what’s happening. Please accept my apologies for causing you needless suspense. If you are interested in hosting Scientia Pro Publica at your blog, please do send email to me, or leave a comment here and I will contact you shortly about scheduling a date for when you can host. I also welcome your creative efforts for Scientia Pro Publica: logos and artwork for advertising and publicity purposes, and even a 500-pixel wide Scientia Pro Publica banner and other images (perhaps one for each category?) that hosts might wish to use to promote and decorate their editions.

Comments

  1. #1 Southern Fried Scientist
    April 20, 2009

    another awesome carnival! Great Work!

  2. #2 Jeremy
    April 21, 2009

    Thanks for the link, and even greater thanks for taking the initiative to get this going. Kudos.

    Will we ever know what exactly happened to drive Tangled Bank to extinction?

  3. #3 cromercrox
    April 21, 2009

    Nice work, Grrl. And not just because I’m in it. If you need me to host a carnival at The End Of The Pier Show – who ya gonna call?

  4. #4 Bob O'H
    April 21, 2009

    I’ll apologise in advance for the next issue not being as good as this one.

    There looks like some really good stuff, but I have to go and stare at bits of Cambridge. Was any of Harry Potter filmed here? (The Great Hall is in Oxford, alas.)

  5. #5 "GrrlScientist"
    April 21, 2009

    i can only speculate as to its demise, but i think Tangled Bank went extinct because the owner was overworked and overwhelmed, and thought that he could resume the carnival “next week” i am hoping to build a strong basis of support so this carnival will have plenty of volunteers who are ready to step in and take over either on a temporary or permanent basis — and who feel they can tell me this — in the unlikely event that the same situation happens in my life.

    a quick google check on HP shows that none of the films were filmed in cambridge .. i’ll take a closer look later today (tomorrow, cambridge time?)

  6. #6 Kelsey
    April 21, 2009

    Wow. Lots of fascinating stuff. Great work! Thanks for including me.

  7. #7 ScienceSealedDelivered
    April 21, 2009

    Thanks mcuh for the link and all the work! I just spent my lunch reading all these others — what great company to be in!

    I’m headed to Cambridge for a talk next week. Anyone know of particularly good/notable pubs?

  8. #8 Bob O'H
    April 21, 2009

    The Eagle is famous for something. And I was in a pub that had something to do with Pink Floyd. There was a notice on the wall about it, but I only saw it on the way out, so the details are a bit fuzzy.

  9. #9 Mike
    April 22, 2009

    What a power-packed edition!