Monthly Archives: March 2011

Two new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog – carbon capture, and psychology of heroism

Today is the #Longform day at the Scientific American Guest Blog with two long, detailed, highly informative posts that will make you think and rethink things…

First, Can we capture all of the world’s carbon emissions? by Ramez Naam.

Then, Walking the Line Between Good and Evil: The Common Thread of Heroes and Villains by Andrea Kuszewski.

Read, comment, share…

Four new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

Wow! This was a very busy day on the Scientific American Guest Blog with four posts! Check them all out:

Barberry, Bambi and bugs: The link between Japanese barberry and Lyme disease by Beth Jones.

Earthquake triggering, and why we don’t know where the next big one will strike by Christie Rowe.

Museum Brings Citizens and Scientists Together Through Blogging Project: Experimonth by Beck Tench.

Too Hard for Science?: Asking scientists about questions they would love the answers to that might be impossible to investigate by Charles Q. Choi.

As always: read, comment, share.

Two new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

There are two new posts on the Scientific American Guest Blog today. Check them out:

Can we declare victory in the participation of women in science? Not yet. by Marie-Claire Shanahan.

And.

Amber Waves of…ah…ah…achoo! What you need to know about allergies by Kiyomi Deards.

Read, enjoy, post comments, and share with your friends.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Jessica McCann

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Jessica McCann from the Department of Molecular Genetics and Microbiology at Duke.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My husband and I moved to NC from Hawaii, where I was studying a bacterial symbiosis between the luminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri and its squid host. I ended up there after I met my mentor during an undergrad semester at Woods Hole Marine Lab. When the squid-Vibrio lab moved to Wisconsin, we decided to move to NC instead, for two huge reasons: to be close to my husband’s family, and for me to continue graduate school in one of richest (not talkin’ cash) science environments in the country.

So now we live in Chapel Hill, NC, just a couple miles west of Carrboro and we will probably never move. But I was born in Maine, and grew up right on the border between Maine and NH in a little town called Portsmouth. I still spend lots of time up there and really miss it. I do not, however, have a Maine accent. Somehow my sisters and I avoided it, even though both of my parents have it “wicked bad.” When I hear that New England accent on This Old House, though, it feels like someone wrapped warm blanket around me, it reminds me so much of home.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I LOVED my squid-vibrio project in Hawaii, and it got me interested in animal-bacterial relationships. The squid specifically harvests V. fischeri from the million-plus bacteria per milliliter of seawater it sees to make use of the light made by V. fischeri. I like thinking about how we and other animals recognize “good” bacteria from “bad”, and know which ones to harvest and which to repel/destroy.

For my PhD thesis, I studied a very “bad” bacterium, Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and how it pushes proteins out of itself and into you. One of the highlights of my graduate career, though, was when I was writing for Endeavors, a magazine that describes the research and creative activity at UNC. I had some patient, fabulous and hilarious editors and wrote four articles about UNC science faculty there. It was a wonderful experience, and what spurred me into trying to find a “non-traditional” sci career path that includes science writing – which led me to Scio11 (well, first it led me to Scio10, but I had no chance of getting in last year).

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Now I study Haemophilus influenzae, a bacterium that walks the line between good and bad. Most children have H. influenzae living in their nasal passages/upper respiratory system with no related symptoms. But in some circumstances, usually after a viral infection, H. influenzae causes ear infections, the most common reason for antibiotic prescriptions in the US – as any parent knows, I’m sure. In adults, H. influenzae infections cause severe pneumonia in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

The thing about H. influenzae, though, is that it doesn’t make any recognizable “virulence factors,” (like the cholera bacteria with it’s toxin for example). It really just gets your immune system to kick up serious inflammation, and its the inflammation that causes all the symptoms we associate with ear infections and pneumonia. I am specifically studying how H. influenzae attaches itself to host cells, both in health and disease. I hope that we might one day block this attachment, and keep noses free from H. influenzae colonization in the first place.

I am also really getting into the ethical questions that arise when scientists set up global biomedical research collaborations. I won’t say too much about it here, as I’m trying to decide on whether to start a blog – there are sooooo many good ones out there already. If I do start one, though, it would be about global science ethics.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I use Twitter to keep up on interesting papers and the evaluation of those papers in the blogosphere. I read science blogs like mad. I am a fan of the open access science publishing movement, and am starting a campaign to get more of my senior colleagues to post comments on research online – it would be amazing to read critical discussions of papers RIGHT BELOW THE PAPER, in the comments section. Yet these comments are still pretty rare, at least in my field.

I also love open access data. Being able to mine someone else’s spreadsheets of how human genes change their expression patterns to respond to bacterial infection, for example, really informs my work and how I decide to proceed with experiments. I am still a n00b when it comes to Mendeley and other online science tools, but can see these becoming more and more critical to how science gets done.

One more thing. I turned to scientist-moms on the internet for advice and support after I had my gorgeous daughter. I seriously don’t think I could have made it through those first months back at work after maternity leave, where 60-80 hour work weeks are expected, without knowing about all the successful, lovely sci moms who had come before. I was one of those women in science who, during grad school, never encountered any bias or hardship due to my being female. I had a great female PI who seemed to have it all – family, great grant success, respect in the community, and was a wonderful mentor to boot. I was like, “it used to be harder for women, but it’s better now!”

But then I started my post doc and had a daughter. Everything changed (I wanted to write “Everything came crashing down,” but that’s a little dramatic, no?). While our little family is humming along now, I still feel like some aspect of work-love-motherhood life is always suffering. Not sure what to do to fix it, though, except maybe pay post-docs more so we can hire people to clean every once and a while. Don’t think the culture will change anytime soon.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

I am the LEAST organized person I know, so there are no coherent wholes in my life. Just lots of incoherent holes. Heh heh. But I do love Twitter, I love how quickly it moves, and how science discussions get updated over the course of minutes and hours instead of the weeks and months it takes by more traditional routes.

But one of the things I hate about twitter is how quickly it moves. I have about a 20-30 minutes to spend with social media most days in the lab, and there is no way I can click through more than one or two links. When I try to go back and find them at the end of the day, it is impossible and they are lost to me forever (maybe there is an app for storing tweets for later that I don’t know about?).

But blogging and social media aren’t really a part of my work (not yet, anyway). Things are still pretty old-fashioned around here, and we stick to bench work most of the time. The science blogs I read now usually describe work outside of my field – the good ones that condense the latest, coolest research. In my own field, I stick to the primary lit and sometimes seek out opinions on anything controversial from the few experts I know that are online.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

We have had a subscription to Wired forever, so I have been a fan of Steve Silberman for some time. But I got into science blogs first through Carl Zimmer’s books. My husband got me “Evolution: the Triumph of an Idea” and “Parasite Rex” for one particularly geeky birthday, and then his blog was my gateway drug to science blogs in general. One of my favorite things about the conference was learning about all of the great writers and creativity I can now use to feed my addiction: Scicurious, Glendon Mellow’s artwork and tweets, and all the articles on Deep Sea News are a few of the many new additions to my daily routine. The best thing: I was so intimated to know that the people behind all this great work were going to be at Scio11 and I might actually talk to one of them. EVERYONE WAS SO VERY NICE, not to mention smart and witty. It was awesome.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I loved the workshop on writing effectively with Ed Yong and Carl Zimmer (“Death to Obfuscation). For a scientist with a very dry writing style and tendency towards passive voice, that workshop was the most helpful. I also loved Robert Krulwhich’s keynote, it was so inspirational. I didn’t get to attend the full Scio10 meeting but was a guest of Burroughs Wellcome for the Monti opening night of story telling, and think that would be an awesome thing to see again next year. I didn’t think the book readings went over all that well, it was too loud and social to really hear the person reading on stage, and that must have been tough for the readers. I do think the readings are a great idea, though, and maybe could be organized around a seated audience?

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

One of the things that I was ambivalent about (but mostly against) before Scio11 was opening up the peer review process. My reasoning was that peer review makes a finished paper better and, like making sausage, not a process you want to be in on. The panel on open science really made me think twice. Then a few recent papers published in top tier journals had me wondering about the questions the reviewers might have asked and the speed at which this work got published – and wishing I could see the initial reviews. And, for students especially, seeing the nuts and bolts of the review process might help us design better experiments and better research from the get-go. I still believe that reviewers should be anonymous, however. Science is a very, very small world. You might review an author’s work one day and need reagents from that author the next. Not sure this will ever actually come about, though. A generation or two might have to pass before open peer review gets implemented.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again soon, and at ScienceOnline2012 in January.

Three great new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

The Scientific American Guest Blog was very busy today, with three exciting new posts.

First, early in the morning, Serotonin and sexual preference: Is it really that simple? by SciCurious.

Then, in the early afternoon, Digitizing Jane Goodall’s legacy at Duke by Jason Goldman.

Finally, late in the afternoon, Why we live in dangerous places by Tim De Chant.

As always: read, enjoy, comment and share with friends…

Open Laboratory 2011 – submissions so far

The submission form for the 2011 edition of Open Lab is now open. Any blog post written since December 1, 2010 is eligible for submission.

We accept essays, stories, poetry, cartoons/comics, original art.

Once you are done submitting your own posts, you can start looking at the others’, including on aggregators like ScienceSeeker.org, Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org.

As I always do, I will keep posting the full list of submitted entries once a week until the deadline – see the listing under the fold.

You can buy the last four annual collections here. You can read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here.

Help us spread the word by displaying these badges (designed by Doctor Zen:

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American Scientist’s Pizza Lunch – NC FIRST Robotics competition

At American Scientist‘s next Pizza Lunch, it’s time to turn our attention from accomplished scientists to budding scientists. At noon, Tuesday, March 29 come hear Marie E. Hopper, regional director of NC FIRST Robotics, talk about a different kind of science lesson. FIRST Robotics stages competitions among high school students. Kids who sign up design and build remotely operated robots that can succeed in specially designed “games”. Each year, the rules of the games change. Students don’t see the rules until six weeks before the starting buzzer.

Thanks to a grant from the N.C. Biotechnology Center, American Scientist Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this message to anyone who might want to attend. RSVPs are required (for the slice count) to cclabby@amsci.org

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here: http://www.sigmaxi.org/about/center/directions.shtml

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Jennifer Rohn

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Jenny Rohn, editor of LabLit, blogger at Mind The Gap and the editor of The Open Laboratory 2008.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock.

Thanks for having me! I’m in exalted company.

Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I’m Jenny, and I am a little hard to describe. Primarily, I’m a scientist. For the day job, I’m doing post-doctoral cell biology research at University College London, studying the genetics behind cell shape and movement. But I also do lots of other things on the side. I write novels about scientists (‘lab lit’), I blog about the scientific life at Mind The Gap, and I write articles, columns and essays for various newspapers and publications. I also moonlight as a freelance science journalist, mostly short news pieces. I do a bit of broadcast work and public engagement – BBC radio, podcasts, working with kids, sitting on panels, that sort of thing. And my baby is LabLit.com, a webzine about science, culture and literature that’s been going since 2005. I was born and raised in America, but I left in 1997 for my first post-doctoral stint and never looked back. Just recently I became a British citizen, so now I have dual nationality.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

My career started out perfectly normally, and then it all went horribly wrong. I did all the usual geeky things you need to become a successful scientist: wore thick glasses, sat in the front row and got straight A’s in school; went to a good university (Oberlin College); and a good graduate school for my PhD (University of Washington, Seattle). I was totally on a conveyor belt. I worked the requisite 80-hour weeks all through grad school and ended up with something like 8 first-author papers on feline leukemia virus. I was the cat virus woman! My first post-doc, in the lab of Gerard Evan in London, seemed to be carrying on in that tradition – it was a famous lab working on apoptosis (cell death) just when it was getting hot, and I’d inherited a project that had recently earned a Nature paper. Things were rolling along – and then Gerard decided to move his lab to UCSF. Disaster! I’d only just moved to England and was loving it; I didn’t want to go back.

My partner at the time ended up landing a post-doc in the Netherlands, and I felt I had to follow. So I answered a job ad for a senior scientist at a tiny start-up biotech company in Leiden that seemed made for me: they needed a virologist to work on cancer and cell death: it was the combination of all my experience in one job. It was really brilliant while it lasted. I ended up leading a team of eight people and doing a lot of fascinating translational research in collaboration with Schering, a big German pharma; I was finding drug targets, writing patents, and doing all the cool biotech stuff, but at the same time the labs were incubated in Leiden University, so I was participating in academic life too. It was stimulating and fulfilling — and then the company went bankrupt, pulled under by shareholder bickering. And I found myself out of a job and on the dole in Amsterdam.

I’d already started writing novels after moving to the Netherlands, but suddenly I had a lot more time on my hands. I finished a second one and started in on a third. I found a London agent, but she was having problems selling the first book because of its scientific themes. They eventually sold and are now published, but only many year later. If anyone out there is interested in a couple of entertaining tales about scientists in action, do check out Experimental Heart and The Honest Look, both from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press!

That whole strange spring and summer, I tried to find a job and I wrote like crazy; I almost felt I was going mad sometimes. Being unemployed after being so career-kamakaze for so long was utterly bewildering and disorienting. I started to question everything about myself – my self-esteem plummeted. There were no jobs. Finally, I took the decision to leave research and took a position as a lowly assistant editor at BioMed Central, the open access publisher. This was pre-PLoS, and hardly anyone had even heard of open access. I visited hundreds of labs around the world, trying to convince famous scientists to submit their precious papers to this completely obscure and unknown journal. Needless to say, charm was not enough. I moved on to a chemistry society after that, managing its five peer-reviewed journals, but I missed research more and more and eventually cooked up a way to return. Now I’m nearing the end of a career re-entry fellowship from the Wellcome Trust and wondering if I’ll be able to stay in science when the money runs out.

I also started dabbling in politics last year, founding Science Is Vital, a grassroots organization formed to persuade the British government not to implement the drastic cuts to the science budget that it was threatening to. We had only six weeks to make a difference, but we ended up with 33,000 signatures on a petition, 2,000 demonstrators at a rally in Central London, 110 Members of Parliament signing our early day motion, hundreds of pieces of news coverage, and a packed lobby day in parliament. It was an amazing feeling to see so many scientists waking up from their usual apathy, and a number of credible sources credited our campaign as making a real difference to the eventual outcome (a cash freeze for science). Science Is Vital decided to stay organized and we plan to fight against any threats in the future.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

At the moment, I’m obsessing about how to land a job next year and stay in scientific research. With the current economic climate, and a rather unconventional CV due to my career break, it’s not going to be easy to find something. I’m in my 40’s so I’d prefer not to do yet another post-doc. But four years, the length of my career re-entry fellowship, was not quite enough time to get up and running and develop a mature line of research beefy enough to found a lab on. I have good ideas, data and collaborations, and I think I’ll manage to swing something. But it is a very anxious time for me. The common sense part of my head urges me to leave research for something more stable and predicable — I even get occasional job offers outside of science. But at the moment, I’m not ready to give up the dream, so I’m not going to blink until the final hour.

I know I’m not the only post-doc facing these barriers, so in recent months I’ve become interested in the idea of lobbying for an improvement in the career structure for scientists. I’ve talked about it recently in an op-ed in Nature and am in discussion with various groups and stakeholders about what we might do about it in the UK. One of the joys of living in such a small country is that you have greater access to the sorts of people and processes you need to make a difference.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

I’d like to see more scientists telling their stories online – not, actually, details about the facts and figures of what they are studying in the lab, but more about their lives in science, the processes of science, what goes on in their day-to-day work. The fly-on-the-lab-wall account. I think if more people understood what our job really entailed, and what the scientific method is, and that it’s practiced by actual human beings, there’d be more understanding and acceptance of science as a whole. This doesn’t have to be blogging – it could be tweeting stuff from the lab, or making lab video diaries and sticking them up on YouTube. Not everyone can write, but I think everyone has a story to tell. Stories are powerful mediators of change. It’s the same reason why I think we need more scientists in novels and films and other sorts of fiction: it’s a wonderful stealth communication medium.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

My blog isn’t there to facilitate or transmit my research results, as I’ve said. It’s there to illuminate my scientific life. But since I’m a writer and a novelist, my blog and Twitter have become very important for self-promotion. (I feel as if Facebook might be on the way out, at least with my network. All the important conversations now seem to happen on Twitter, or in the comment threads of blogs.) And I’ve made lots of useful contacts that way. I can’t imagine a world without Twitter, now. And Twitter was absolutely instrumental for the success of Science Is Vital – we never could have got 33,000 signatures, or a few thousand scientists at a demo, in 4 weeks without it. Malcolm Gladwell thinks Twitter couldn’t start a revolution, but I think we proved him wrong.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites?

I was a real late-comer – I didn’t start blogging until 2007. My life is so out of control and busy that I tend only to read blogposts that are highlighted on Twitter and catch my attention – so a wide variety but not much regular loyalty. I love my new home on Occam’s Typewriter and my fellow bloggers there – it’s a relaxed and friendly environment, so do check us out. I avoid blogs where the authors or commentors are nasty or rude – I have enough stress in my life without voluntarily courting more. I like it if people disagree, but if they can’t do it with respect and courtesy, I’m not interested. I’m particular not interested in people who are nasty or rude behind a pseudonym – I understand why some bloggers need to be anonymous, and totally respect that, but for that subset who are going to be offensive, I see the pseudonym as just being cowardly. It’s really easy to be be nasty when you’ve not attached your name or reputation to that view. And does being nasty really achieve anything? Does it persuade more people to your side of the argument?

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you?

I met so many amazing people – including you, at last! At the end of the day, it’s all about the people.

Thank you so much for the interview. It was great to finally meet you in person after all these years! I hope to see you again soon, and at ScienceOnline2012 in January.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with David Wescott

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Dave Wescott (@wescott1)

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I’ve worked at a big PR firm for over 8 years. I grew up in Boston and I now live in Durham NC. If you’re talking about my philosophy about science communication, I’m more in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s camp than, say, Richard Dawkins’ camp, though I can see the value in both approaches. Politically I’m decidedly left-of-center. My background isn’t in science – it’s in politics, health care management, and strategic communications.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

The noteworthy moments in my career focus on the convergence of communities and ideas. When I worked for a public hospital’s pediatrics department in Boston, I organized a group of health care providers to lobby state legislators for better child nutrition provisions in the state welfare law. When I worked for Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) I focused on things like the intersection of intellectual property and global health, or business incubation and higher education, or energy and economic justice. Now that I work in public relations, I bring mom bloggers on tours of vaccine facilities and connect environmental bloggers with large energy companies. I’ve also done a lot of work in crisis communications – I once led a conference call discussing a plane crash while standing a few hundred feet from a burning train wreck.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

My true passion is my family. Boston Red Sox baseball is a big deal, too. Beyond that, I want to forge stronger ties between science bloggers and mom bloggers. Online moms have extraordinary power – far more than most people realize. Companies listen to them. Policy makers listen to them. Moms make the overwhelming majority of decisions in life – what to buy, who to vote for, when to get health care, and so on. They do most of the work. They do most of the child-rearing. If moms are making decisions based on the right information and with the right context – the kind of context you can get from science bloggers – the world will be a much better place.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

Media convergence. I love watching science writers who have influence in multiple channels – print, broadcast, and online. To me, effective communication is about being where the people are. I’m also interested in developing new ideas of outreach to people who may not have an active interest in science but may develop one if they get the right information under the right circumstances. Darlene Cavalier has been very kind to me in this regard – she lets me write a “best of the science blogosphere” post at Science Cheerleader, where the readership tends to be kids and moms.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Blogging is central to my job. I’m a VP in social media for my company and helped establish the practice. As for social networking tools I find Twitter to be very effective. My favorite tool, however, is Delicious – I find enormous power in its simplicity. Organizing and sharing links is an essential task when your job involves interacting with multiple online communities. I’m really upset that Yahoo! may be abandoning Delicious soon.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I’ve known about science blogs for a long time, but I really got into them after drinking with Jonathan Gitlin at Ars Technica. That dude is brilliant with a capital SMART. I met Jonathan and his wife Elle (also brilliant) at a Drinking Liberally event in Lexington, Kentucky a few years ago and I’ve followed his stuff ever since. He told me about ScienceOnline, and now I’m hooked. I read a ton now but I’m partial to Deborah Blum, Jason Goldman, Chris Mooney & Sheril Kirshenbaum, and Maryn McKenna. I have a young son, so David Orr’s Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs is a must. (More dinosaur pics, please!)

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I loved the panel on parenting and science blogging – the panelists were outstanding. I did notice that very few people in the room read parenting blogs, however. I’d love to see a panel about outreach to other online communities. The next logical step for science bloggers and science blogging networks is to expand the audience – that will require stepping out of a comfort zone for many.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

The one quote that still resonates with me from #scio11 came from Steve Silberman at the panel on “keepers of the bullshit filter.” He said you can’t call bullshit on someone if you’re anonymous. I know this is a sensitive topic for many in the science blogsophere, and some of my favorite science bloggers don’t use their names. But as a PR guy with a political background it’s so important. It goes to the heart of credibility. It drives me nuts when I see so many political ads out there funded by people who don’t want you to know who they are. If I tried to hide my identity or my interests while speaking for a client I’d be slaughtered for it, and rightfully so. If you want to influence people with your writing, I think it’s important to be transparent and to own your words.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again soon, and at ScienceOnline2012 in January.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Jason Priem

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Jason Priem

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

Geographically, I’m a Floridian living in the frozen climes of North Carolina. Philosophically, I see my work in improving scholarly communication as the tip of a much bigger iceberg. The biggest current limit on the world-improving potential of science is the inefficiency of our antiquated communication infrastructure. If we can move the scholarly communication system into the current century, we can make science, and thereby the world, a lot better.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I like always doing new things, so I’ve moved around a lot; I was an artist, then a history and english teacher, then a web designer, and now I’m a 2nd-year PhD student in information science. I’ve worked mostly on what a lot of us are calling altmetrics–new ways of measuring scholarly impact that capture more than traditional citation could. So for instance, we’re studying the impact that scientific articles by looking on Twitter, blogs, or in Mendeley or Zotero.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Well, I’m doing a number of studies related to altmetrics; right now I’m really excited about altmetrics11, a workshop we’re putting on this summer that will showcase some of the great emerging research into altmetrics. (Shameless plug: we’re still accepting submissions through March; see http://altmetrics.org/workshop2011/).

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

It’s tough to pick one. But right now I’m incredibly excited about the potential of the web to decouple the traditional functions of the scientific journal. Right now, journals distribute, certify, archive, and register scientific knowledge…but what if we separated those functions out, and let the market improve each one individually?

A service like ArXiv can provide free archiving and distribution. Why not just overlay peer review on top of that, as a service? I could add multiple peer-review “stamps” to the same article. I could even get a peer-review stamp for a blog post I write. As these decoupled services compete, the evolve and diversify; we get a nuanced, responsive, open way to share science.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

Like a lot of other folks, I find that the speed and ease of Twitter have tended to make my blog posts more thought-out but less frequent. I’m on FriendFeed occasionally because a lot of folks I follow are, but I never entirely cottoned to it…I love the minimalism of Twitter. I’ve also really enjoyed attending some recent conferences via Twitter; I felt more present as a virtual attendee at #beyondthepdf, for example, than I have at other conferences I’ve attended IRL. So social media is not just a net positive, but an essential part of my work.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

I really enjoyed the sense of community, the open-mindedness, and the energy at SciO. It was great being around so many people for whom “well, we’ve always done it that way” wasn’t an ok answer. I think one improvement I’d suggest would be to make even more use of synchronous technologies like EtherPad to involve participants in sessions in real time. Talking is great, but it’s serial; the online environment lets us add a background of parallel cognition that can really enhance a session.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

Well, our altmetrics session was amazing (for me, anyway); there were some really useful ideas and questions that have helped to inform my work since. It was also really great getting to talk with some of the industry folks who are really pushing scholarly communication forward, like Sara from PLoS, Jan and Jason from Mendeley, and Lou from Nature Blogs.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again in January.

Three new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog

Busy working, traveling, having fun with family in NYC, so I was remiss in letting you in time that we published three more cool posts on the Scientific American Guest Blog yesterday and today:

Stealth percussionists of the animal world by Nadia Drake.

Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and environment by Jason G. Goldman.

Poor risk communication in Japan is making the risk much worse by David Ropeik.

As always: read, comment, share… more to come tomorrow.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Holly Tucker

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

Today we chat with Holly Tucker.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I guess like many of us connected to Science Online, I wear many hats. It depends on what time of the day it is, and what I’m feeling most passionate about. As my day job, I’m on the faculty at Vanderbilt University where I hold appointments in the Center for Medicine, Health and Society and the Department of French & Italian. (How’s that for multiple hats already!) My research and writing focus on the early history of medicine.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

I started my academic life in French Studies, particularly seventeenth-century French history and culture—most appreciated by science types as the era of “scientific revolution.” I did my grad work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which has one of the top programs in the History of Science. This was before interdisciplinary studies were de rigueur (sorry, had to sneak some French in), so my dissertation focused on early literature. But I knew that I would include the History of Science, if not in my dissertation proper, then in my career trajectory. So I also took courses in the History of Science, which were among the highlights of my graduate work.

Once at Vanderbilt, I made a risky move. I chucked the dissertation and more or less reinvented myself—and this, on a tenure track. My first book was on the history of embryology and childbirth before epigenesis…in France. It all worked out apparently; I was tenured about six years ago.

Since then, I’ve been making a series of bold moves–at least for an academic. I decided that I wanted to stop writing for the same ten people–and research and write with an eye to a broader audience. Since then, and in addition to specialist articles in my field, I’ve written freelance for publications such as The New Scientist, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, and The Christian Science Monitor. My most recent book, Blood Work: A Tale of Medicine and Murder in the Scientific Revolution, is just out with W.W. Norton and getting great reviews (whew!). Now that you know some of the backstory, you can see why reviews like this one in The Economist mean a lot to me.

Actually, I wish more academics would make it part of their scholarly work to reach out effectively to a broader public. Which leads me to the next question…

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

As a humanist and more particularly someone who works in history, I’m indebted to the journalists and researchers who are committed to communicating science in ways that don’t require a hyper-specialized Ph.D. in a given field. I count on the best journalists and researchers–some of whom I have gotten to know thanks to Science Online–to guide me on which “breakthroughs” are really significant and which studies are all about smoke and mirrors. I also depend on them to translate the scientific research in ways that make it accessible without assuming their readers are simple minded.

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

“Serious academics” are not supposed to waste their time with such “plebeian” things as social media and blogging. Or so the conventional wisdom dictates (for now). But when I made the decision to explore the larger dimensions of my research, I learned quickly that it would be impossible to do so without integrating online work into the equation.

When I posted my first tweet two and a half years ago, I felt horribly vulnerable and awkward. The same when I started my history blog, Wonders & Marvels. In fact, I did not use my real name for a long time (hence @history_geek) and did everything I could to conceal my identity. I still use @history_geek because it captures my interests perfectly, but my name and affiliations can now be found in a simple mouse click.

As the years have gone by, I have come to see blogging and social media as one big, wonderful classroom. It’s a place where researchers can share the results of their work, along with behind-the-scenes tidbits. This puts a human face to what we do. And it’s exactly what we must do at a time when entire programs in the humanities are being shut down and when funding in the sciences is getting more and more scarce.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

The panel with Tom Levenson and Dr. Isis covered a lot of ground and made some points that I agree absolutely with. First, for those of us working in academe, online engagement will never be a substitute for heavy-hitting research, publication and grants. If you have a strong tenure case going in, your community engagement may be viewed as value-added—at best, it might be counted as part of your service or teaching dossier. At worst and especially if you do not have a strong tenure case, your community engagement will be construed as a distraction and perhaps even as the reason behind lack of success.

The second take-home point of the panel was one that I heard between the lines, actually. There was a justifiable fear among attendees that their senior colleagues don’t “get it.” And the majority of senior colleagues probably don’t (not yet). However, for those of us in the Science Online community who are working from a position of relative security, we have a responsibility to be as open and intentional about our online work as possible—so we can help create a safe space for this type of work for everyone. I’m going up for promotion from Associate to Full as we speak. I wasn’t going to mention my blog and other online work in my materials. Science Online changed that.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I really am wondering if Richard Grant, Jenny Rohn and I weren’t separated at birth. Their blog Lablit is now part of my required reading. It’s a website for anyone who writes about or is just intrigued by the fiction of science. What is there not to love?

And while it’s not a blog per se, I also learned about Skeptically Speaking at Scio11. Desiree Schell told me that she likes to imagine her show as the science nursery for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air. Now that I am a devoted listener, I understand why. And seriously, who can resist an entire show on Semen Science?

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

Change nothing, nada, rien. Ok, one thing: I think there should be a cool science t-shirt beauty pageant. If I were a judge at Scio11, I’d have to say Maryn McKenna gets the crown with the Staphylococcus aureus cartoon guys. The runner up: the guy who was wearing the human-walrus shirt during the history of science panel (remind me who you were!). But walrus man had an unfair advantage; I work on chimeras in history, after all.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again in January.

The Open Laboratory 2010 – now up for sale!

You kept submitting your posts all year long and watching, every Monday, to see which other posts were also entered.

Then we closed the submission form.

Then we made you wait a month of “electoral silence” while the judges went through three rounds of judging, until we finally announced which 50 essays, plus poems and cartoons, made it into print.

Then we announced the gorgeous new cover art.

New guest editor? Soon, be patient…

But now – what you have been waiting for so long – The Open Laboratory 2010, the collection of best writing on science blog for the year, is finally up for sale!

Buy one for yourself, one for your significant other, one for each family member, one for each pet (including all those on the internet who are dogs but we don’t know they are, and of course all the LOLcats), one each for as many neighbors, friends and colleagues you can think of, and a copy for the local library ;-)

Thank you Jason Goldman for a fantastic job ushering this project through all year round, to Andrea Kuszewski for the cover design, and to Blake Stacey for doing all the technical stuff with LaTeX and formatting and such. Thank you to all the judges who read hundreds of posts. And thank you to all of you for submitting your posts, spreading the word about the project and supporting it throughout the years.

ScienceOnline2011 – interview with Taylor Dobbs

Continuing with the tradition from last three years, I will occasionally post interviews with some of the participants of the ScienceOnline2011 conference that was held in the Research Triangle Park, NC back in January 2011. See all the interviews in this series here.

We are starting the series with Taylor Dobbs.

Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?

I am an undergrad journalism student at Northeastern University. I have very little science background, but I’m fascinated by the way technology can influence the dynamics of society. Cell phones, the internet, and – more recently – Twitter and smartphones – have dramatically changed the way society works. I’m interested in following how these types of changes progress and unfold in the future.

Tell us a little more about your career trajectory so far: interesting projects past and present?

My career trajectory is only up from here. I have literally never been paid for any journalism or science that I’ve done. The most recent interesting development: I’m trying to sell my first story. I’m hoping to be able to pay for a haircut soon, so the sooner the better. I’ve been mostly working on class assignments, but I’ve stumbled across an interesting story about health care fraud. Mostly, I’m covering the unfolding WikiLeaks story at my blog The World Exposed.

What is taking up the most of your time and passion these days? What are your goals?

Most of my time goes into school and The World Exposed. My passion is really in what I’m doing online with my blog and as web editor for my school’s newspaper. My goals: get paid. As much as I love journalism, I’m in this to make money and support myself. I’m hoping that the work I’m doing at The World Exposed and with the school paper will help build my resume to the point where someone will pay me to do this stuff.

What aspect of science communication and/or particular use of the Web in science interests you the most?

The web has the amazing power to make science interesting to everyday people. As someone who isn’t as passionate about science as many of those at Science Online, I admit (with some shame – I know this stuff is important) that I have a lot of trouble reading about science. With interactive models, infographics, videos, and conversational technologies (such as twitter and blog comments, to name some basic ones), the web has the power to make science much more accessible. A great example is Hans Rosling’s 5-minute video on the last 200 years of the socioeconomic history of the world. If someone asked me to read an essay about that, I would… not. But the video was interesting and amazingly cool to watch, and I learned along the way. That is the power of the web:

How does (if it does) blogging figure in your work? How about social networks, e.g., Twitter, FriendFeed, Facebook and others? How do you intergrate all of your online activity into a coherent whole? Do you find all this online activity to be a net positive (or even a necessity) in what you do?

If there was no net activity in what I do, I wouldn’t have been at Science Online. My primary focus right now is a blog, and twitter is a close second. The two go hand-in-hand. It started off with my just tweeting heavily about WikiLeaks. From there, I realized I could assemble some of the best things I’m reading online into a themed narrative on my blog. I still tweet about it, but I also blog. There’s no point in doing anything with your career online without going in head first. People love the internet because it’s a conversation, so that’s what I use it for. I ask questions, go back and forth with people about their thoughts, and it ultimately becomes a gain for all parties.

When and how did you first discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any cool science blogs by the participants at the Conference?

I discovered science blogs through my dad, who now blogs for Wired but had been in a few places before that. I visit his blog and Jonah Lehrer’s the most. There are no blogs I follow religiously, but if I see that people are all a-twitter about any given post, I give it a look.

What was the best aspect of ScienceOnline2011 for you? Any suggestions for next year?

The best aspect for me was being in a group of people with the experience and know-how of veterans in the journalism world but the enthusiasm of a startup. I loved being able to converse with people who said anything other than “You’re going into journalism? In this economy? I hear underwater basket-weaving majors are making more money these days. You’re screwed.” More than that, there was no feeling of competition. It was a collaborative effort to make everyone at the conference better at what they do, and I really think it worked.

Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, or to your science reading and writing?

Everyone at the conference was doing their own thing and doing it well. Nobody showed up in a private jet or a Lamborghini (that I know of), but nobody showed up unhappy either. What I took away is that you really can get by doing what you’re passionate about. I always here people say “Do what you love and worry about the money later,” but with the exception of pro athletes some other professions, I never saw proof until Science Online.

Thank you so much for the interview. I hope to see you again in January.

New issue of the Journal of Science Communication

New, Issue 01, march 2011 issue of the Journal of Science Communication is now out. See the Table of Contents – it is Open Access so you can read them all:

The new book
by Daniele Gouthier

The Internet and digital media are changing science books. They change the way readers approach books and change the way books present their contents. …

Theatre to motivate the study of physics
by Marina Carpineti, Michela Cavinato, Marco Giliberti, Nicola Ludwig, Laura Perini

A survey we carried out in upper secondary schools showed that the majority of the students consider physics as an important resource, yet as essentially …

In search of a new public for scientific exhibitions or festivals: the lead of casual visitors
by Fabienne Crettaz von Roten

This article examines the public at a science exhibition or festival and tries to determine whether casual visitors are a means of expanding the audience. …

The use of scientific knowledge in the decision making process of environmental public policies in Brazil
by Maria José Carneiro, Teresa da-Silva-Rosa

The way policy makers mobilize scientific knowledge in order to formulate environmental policies is important for understanding the developmental process of …

Nearly five centuries of science books
by Daniele Gouthier
In four steps – from Renaissance to the dawn of the 20th century – this issue explores some aspects of the history of book sciences, as research and …

Adrian Johns
Science books and networks in the Renaissance. An interview with Adrian Johns

Bruce V. Lewenstein
Scientific books in American culture. An interview with Bruce V. Lewenstein

Paola Govoni
Popularizing science in Italy: a historical perspective. An interview with Paola Govoni

Francesco Paolo de Ceglia
Farmers for the kingdom of Heaven. Agrarian catechisms in southern Italy in the late enlightenment and the limitations of technical publications

Open Laboratory 2011 – submissions so far

The submission form for the 2011 edition of Open Lab is now open. Any blog post written since December 1, 2010 is eligible for submission.

We accept essays, stories, poetry, cartoons/comics, original art.

Once you are done submitting your own posts, you can start looking at the others’, including on aggregators like ScienceSeeker.org, Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org.

As I always do, I will keep posting the full list of submitted entries once a week until the deadline – see the listing under the fold.

You can buy the last four annual collections here. You can read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here.

Help us spread the word by displaying these badges (designed by Doctor Zen:

Continue reading

New post on the SciAm Guest Blog – chimp culture

There is a new post on the Scientific American Guest Blog today: see Learning from Tinka: Able-bodied chimps cop a back-scratching technique from a handicapped friend. by Matt Soniak. Read, enjoy, comment, share…

This was a very busy week on SA blogs, and more posts are coming. But if you want to make a pitch for a story for the Guest Blog, let me know – just e-mail me or DM me on Twitter, etc. and we’ll go from there.

Testing Posterous and Tumblr

When I just started blogging, a traditional blogging platform was the only way to put something online. This was before Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and all the other new technologies and platforms.

Now, these different platforms are most effectively divided for different uses. There is no need to post one-liners, quotes, linkfests, or single videos on a blog when there are platforms better suited for this. The good ole’ blog can now remain the place for posting longer stuff, usually thoughtful essays.

I do longform “macro-blogging” here and a few other places (most recently on Scientific American’s Observations blog and Guest Blog).

I do “micro-blogging” on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook.

But I never did “meso-blogging“.

I keep hearing that those places are full of people who are not found elsewhere – a potential audience. And that some sciencey types are starting to use them and find them useful.

So I decided yesterday to give these wheels a little spin around the block – no guarantee I will use this much or for long, but I think I should take a look and figure out how it all works, who is there, etc.

So I started a Tumblr and a Posterous.

First, very impressionistic thoughts: Posterous is an extremely easy to use blogging platform, one to suggest to someone who is completely new to internet, web, computers, smartphones etc.

Tumblr is an updated, shiny, fancy version of LiveJournal – which is not a bad thing. Reblogging, following, making friends, etc, are a good way to blog.

Check them out and let me know what you think about those platforms, what do you advise me to do, etc.

#NYCScitweetup – meet us in New York City

We’ll be in NYC again all next week. The whole family is going so I will split my attention between work and fun, while the rest of the family will have all fun all the time.

We’ll also meet everyone who can come to #NYCScitweetup – you don’t need to be on Twitter despite the misleading name of the event – if you have an interest in science, science communication, science writing, science journalism, or you are just a fan, come by at 7pm at Ninth Ward.

More details (and you can add yourself as “Attending”) on the Facebook event page.

The exact day is not completely determined yet. If you think you can show up, put your name and all the free nights you have on this little form. The date that has most checks wins. So far, Wednesday is in the lead, but that can change….

I hope to see you there…

Update: poll is now closed – the meetup will be on Wednesday.

Announcing Science Online NYC!

Our franchise is spreading! We are pleased to announce the beginning of a monthly New York City ScienceOnline event – Science Online NYC:

We’re delighted to be able to share some details of a new monthly event for anyone based in New York who’s interested in how science is carried out and communicated online.

Nature.com, in collaboration with co-organisers Jeanne Garbarino at Rockefeller University, John Timmer at Ars Technica and Joe Bonner from Rockefeller and SWINY, will be hosting a monthly discussion series consisting of a panel debate followed by audience Q&A and post-debate networking. We’d love you to come along!

The first SoNYC event will take place on Wednesday 20th April from 7pm at Rockefeller University (Caspary 1A/B – location 5 on this map), later adjourning to the Faculty and Students Club on-campus bar. The topic for discussion is:

Courting Controversy: how to successfully engage an online audience with complex or controversial topics.

Climate change. Nuclear safety. Vaccination. These are topics where scientific and medical experts are nearly unanimous when it comes to the basics. But the public has remained uncertain and sometimes hostile to the scientific understanding, in part because of the efforts of vocal and well organized groups that argue against the consensus position. In other cases, like the recent events in Japan, expert opinions have been drowned out by rumors and a rush to provide coverage.

Join us to discuss how science communicators can help ensure that accurate information rises above the noise, and the challenges faced by experts who attempt to reach the public directly. Our panel includes researchers who have engaged the press and the public about climate change, vaccines, and the perception of risk.

Ken Bromberg is the director of the Vaccine Research Center at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, and has made frequent appearances in the media to discuss vaccine safety.

David Ropeik is a former journalist who now lectures and consults on risk perception. In recent entries at his blog, On Risk, he has tackled vaccines and nuclear safety.

Gavin Schmidt is a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, and a driving force behind the RealClimate blog. His public outreach efforts have included an appearance on the Letterman Show.

The aim is to make these meet-ups as interactive as possible; please bring your ideas, your experiences and your enthusiasm for a lively debate and chance to meet other like-minded NYC sci comm. folks. Once we’ve held the first event, we’ll be asking for your feedback and suggestions for the next one so that this becomes an regular, inclusive opportunity for the discussion of all things related to how science is carried out and communicated online.

You can find us online at the following places:
Twitter: @S_O_NYC, hashtag: #sonyc
Facebook: SoNYC page

Please let us know if you’re planning to come by signing up on Eventbrite as it helps to ensure we have the right sized room and enough for everyone to drink. Feel free to invite your colleagues and friends too. If you have any questions, do send Lou an email (l.woodley@nature.com).

Hope to see you in April!

Two new posts on the SciAm Guest Blog – social media, and invasive species

There are two new posts on the Scientific American Guest Blog:

First, Social media for science: The geologic perspective by Kea Giles.

Second, The Asian long-horned beetle: Hopefully not coming to a neighborhood near you by Beth Jones.

As always: read, comments, share…

Interview in Italian (but you can listen in English)

About a week ago I was interviewed for Jekyll, an Italian science journalism blog. The interview is now up – you can read it here if you can read Italian, and if not, all the audio files are in English, the recording of the phone interview itself, in its entirety. We cover a lot of ground on science blogging, media, etc. Listen/read when you have time.

New posts on SciAm blogs

We’ve been busy on Scientific American blogs since you last heard from me.

First, on the Guest Blog, there are three new posts.

Last night: Deja vu: What does the Gulf oil spill tell us about the Japanese nuclear crisis? by David Wogan.

Early this morning: Smaller, cheaper, faster: Does Moore’s law apply to solar cells? by Ramez Naam.

Just before noon: Art in the Service of Science: You get what you pay for by Kalliopi Monoyios.

Finally, our Expeditions blog has a new series of dispatches from the field – check out the first introductory post: Destination: Arctic! by Victoria Hill.

As always, read, enjoy, post comments, share the links with your friends…

ScienceOnline2011 videos are now all available online

One by one, Anton loaded the videos of the recorded ScienceOnline2011 sessions and now they are all up for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy – this is hours of good stuff!

And then start mentally preparing for ScienceOnline2012. Follow the #scio11 and #scio12 hashtags on Twitter, suggest ideas for Program sessions for the next year, and make sure you are on our mailing list so you don’t miss the registration.

Lots of new stuff on the Scientific American blogs…

As you probably noticed, there was a flurry of activity on SciAm blogs these past few days, mostly covering the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the related topic of nuclear power. For example, you could read, on Observations blog,
The spread of the tsunami from Japan across the Pacific by Phil Yam,
A “sixth sense” for earthquake prediction? Give me a break! by me, and Japan’s nuclear crisis and tsunami recovery via Twitter and other Web resources by Phil Yam. David Horgan on the Cross-Check blog had two posts – Japan earthquake demonstrates the limits—and power—of science and Averting a “Japan syndrome”: Reactor expert says Japan’s woes shouldn’t stop a nuclear renaissance. Jesse Bering looks at that from another angle: Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events. And the Guest Blog covered several different angles: Nature: Earthquake dispatches from the correspondent in Japan [Updated] uploaded by me, The essential lesson from the Japan earthquake for the U.S. by Richard Allen, Beware the fear of nuclear….FEAR! by David Ropeik, Failure of imagination can be deadly: Fukushima is a warning by Rita J. King, Japan earthquake: The explainer by Chris Rowan, and The worst nuclear plant accident in history: Live from Chernobyl by Charles Choi.

There will be more on this topic later, but we are also going back to our ‘regular coverage’. Mary Karmelek on the ‘Anecdotes from the Archive’ blog has two new posts, Let the sun shine in…all day long and Frog briefly gets a leg up on entertainment industry.

And on the Guest Blog, David Manly offers Mirror Images: Twins and identity.

More to come soon on the Guest Blog, as well as a new expedition reporting from the field to out Explorations blog. Stay tuned…

Open Laboratory 2011 – submissions so far

The submission form for the 2011 edition of Open Lab is now open. Any blog post written since December 1, 2010 is eligible for submission.

We accept essays, stories, poetry, cartoons/comics, original art.

Once you are done submitting your own posts, you can start looking at the others’, including on aggregators like ScienceSeeker.org, Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org.

As I always do, I will keep posting the full list of submitted entries once a week until the deadline – see the listing under the fold.

You can buy the last four annual collections here. You can read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here.

Help us spread the word by displaying these badges (designed by Doctor Zen:

Continue reading

Science and engineering of earthquakes and tsunamis at Scientific American

With the earthquake and tsunami hitting Japan earlier today, the crew at Scientific American got busy – putting together stories, old and new, about the underlying science and engineering.

Article from the upcoming issue of the magazine was posted early, due to its timeliness – Seconds Before the Big One: Progress in Earthquake Alarms

Our partners at Nature have a correspondent in Japan so we reposted the articles so far: Nature: Earthquake dispatches from the correspondent in Japan

We put together an In-Depth report, collecting in one place a lot of what SciAm has published on the topic over the years: A Guide to Earthquakes

In our ‘Ask the Experts’ sections: How Does an Earthquake Trigger Tsunamis Thousands of Kilometers Away? and How to Cool a Nuclear Reactor

John Horgan blogs about the history of earthquake prediction in Japan earthquake demonstrates the limits—and power—of science.

And I edited and reposted a piece cautioning about believing all the stories about animals “predicting” earthquakes – ‘Sixth sense’ for earthquake prediction? Give me a break!

You can also see some videos, e.g., Devastating quake hits Japan, Buildings crumble in Japan quake and Japan devastated after massive quake.

More will be posted as new information comes up…

Update:

A Visual Tour of the Massive Earthquake and Tsunami That Hit Japan [Slide Show]

All of today’s SciAm articles are now collected in one place: The Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

Update 2:

Beware the fear of Nuclear….FEAR! By David Ropeik

The essential lesson from the Japan earthquake for the U.S. By Richard Allen

Failure of Imagination Can Be Deadly: Fukushima is a Warning by Rita J King

Nuclear Experts Explain Worst-Case Scenario at Fukushima Power Plant By Steve Mirsky

Signs, signs, everywhere signs: Seeing God in tsunamis and everyday events By Jesse Bering

Japan earthquake: The Explainer By Chris Rowan

Fast Facts about the Japan Earthquake and Tsunami

A “sixth sense” for earthquake prediction? Give me a break!

This post is a slightly edited version of my December 29, 2004, post written in reaction to media reports about a “sixth sense” in animals, that supposedly allows them to avoid a tsunami by climbing to higher ground.

Every time there is a major earthquake or a tsunami, various media reports are full of phrases like sixth sense and extrasensory perception, which no self-respecting science journalist should ever use.

Sixth sense? Really? The days of Aristotle and his five senses are long gone. Even humans have more than five sensory modalities. Other animals (and even plants) have many more. The original five are vision, audition, olfaction, gustation and touch.

Photoreception is not just vision (perception of images) and is not a unitary modality. There are animals with capabilities, sometimes served by a separate organ or at least cell-type, for ultraviolet light reception, infrared perception (which is also heat perception as infrared light is warm), perception of polarized light, not to mention the non-visual and extraretinal photoreception involved in circadian entrainment, photoperiodism, phototaxis/photokinesis, pupillary reflex and control of mood. The “third eye” (frontal organ in amphibians, or parapineal in reptiles) cannot form an image but detects shadows and apparently also color.

Audition (detection of sound) in many animals also includes ultrasound (e.g., in bats, insects, dolphins and some fish) and infrasound (in whales, elephants, giraffes, rhinos, crocodiles etc., mostly large animals). And do not forget that the sense of balance and movement is also located in the inner ear and operates on similar principles of mechanoreception.

Olfaction (detection of smells) is not alone – how about perception of pheromones by the vomero-nasal organ (and processed in the secondary olfactory bulb), and what about the nervus terminalis? Some animals have very specific senses for particular chemicals, e.g., water (hygroreceptors) and CO2. Gustation is fine, but how about the separate trigeminal capsaicin-sensitive system (the one that lets you sense the hot in hot peppers)? Chemoreceptors of various kinds can be found everywhere, in every organism, including bacteria.

Touch (somatoreception) is such a vaguely defined sense. In our skin, it encompasses separate types of receptors for light touch (including itch), pressure, pain, hot and cold. The pain receptor is a chemoreceptor (sensing chemicals released from the neighboring damaged cells), while the others are different types of mechanoreceptors. Inside our bodies, different types of receptors monitor the state of the internal organs, including stretch receptors, tendon receptors etc. Deep inside our bodies, we have baroreceptors (pressure, as in blood pressure) and chemoreceptors that detect changes in blood levels of O2 or CO2 or calcium etc. Animals with exoskeletons, such as arthropods, also possess tensoriceptors that sense angles between various elements of the exoskeleton, particularly in the legs, allowing the animals to control its locomotion.

Pit-vipers, Melanophila beetles and a couple of other insects (including bed bugs) have infrared detectors. While snakes use this sense to track down prey, the insects like Melanophila beetles use it to detect distant forest fires, as they breed in the flames and deposit their eggs in the still-glowing wood, thus ensuring they are there “first.” While infra-red waves are officially “light,” it is their high energy that is used to detect it. In case of the beetles, the energy is transformed into heat. Heated receptor cells expand and get misshapen. Their shape-change moves a hair-cell, thus translating heat energy into mechanical energy, which is then translated into the electrical energy of the nerve cell.

Several aquatic animals, including sharks and eels, as well as the platypus, are capable of sensing changes in the electric field – electroreception.

More and more organisms, from bacteria, through arthropods, to fish, amphibians, birds and mammals, are found to be quite capable of sensing the direction, inclination and intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field. Study of magnetoreception has recently been a very exciting and fast-growing field of biology (pdf).

On a more philosophical note, some people have proposed that the circadian clock, among other functions, serves as a sensory receptor of the passage of time. If that is the case, this would be a unique instance of a sensory organ that does not detect any form of energy, but a completely different aspect of the physical world.

Finally, many animals, from insects to tree-frogs to elephants, are capable of detecting vibrations of the substrate (and use it to communicate with each other by shaking the branches or stamping the ground). It is probably this sense that allowed many animals to detect the incoming tsunami, although the sound of the tsunami (described by humans as hissing and crackling, or even as similar to a sound of a really big fire) may have been a clue, too.

I am assuming that birds could also see an unusually large wave coming from a distance, although they would need the warning the least, considering they could fly up at the moment’s notice. The “sixth sense” reports (in 2006) were from Indonesia and Sri Lanka – places worst hit by high waters. It would be interesting to know how the animals fared farther from the epicenter of the earthquake.

Which leads me to the well-known idea that animals can predict earthquakes. While pet-owners swear their little preciouses get antsy before earthquakes, studies to date see absolutely no evidence of this. Animals get antsy at various times for various reasons, and next day get as surprised as we are when the “Big One” hits.

When a strong earthquake hit California in the 1980s, a chronobiology laboratory looked back at the records of their mice and hamsters. Those were wheel-running activity records, continuously recorded by computers over many weeks, including the moment of the earthquake. No changes in the normal patterns of activity were detected. I believe that this finding was never published, but just relayed from advisor to student, generation after generation, and mentioned in courses as an anecdote.

On the other hand, one study – “Mouse circadian rhythm before the Kobe earthquake in 1995″ – described an increase, and another study – “Behavioral change related to Wenchuan devastating earthquake in mice” – a decrease in activity of some of the mice kept in isolation in the laboratories. With one study showing increase, one showing decrease, and one anecdotal account showing no change, the jury on this phenomenon is still out.

Mice (or the monitoring equipment) could have shown these patterns for causes unrelated to earthquakes. How much each of the three laboratories was isolated from outside cues (light, sound, substrate vibration, air pressure, radiation, etc.) is also not known but could have been quite variable – it is difficult to build a laboratory that is completely isolated from every possible environmental cue (and in circadian research light and temperature are key cues to isolate from, so many others are neglected).

The key difference here, of course, is between sensing the earthquake as it is happening somewhere far away (as the animals can certainly do), or the ability to sense small “foreshocks” that often precede the strong earthquakes, and the ability to predict earthquakes before they happen (which animals cannot do). So, I don’t think there is anything mysterious about the survival of animals in the tsunamis, and the sense they use is certainly not just “sixth”…perhaps 26th or 126th (based on whatever criterion one uses for counting them) depending on the species.

Energy in the Movies on Scientific American (and on the Guest Blog)

Last night we did something new at Scientific American – we live-streamed an event and had a blogger live-tweet and then blog about it.

First, we made an announcement on the Observations blog about the event – Energy in the Movies, in Austin TX, a fun presentation about the depiction of energy sources in the history of film by Dr. Michael Webber, followed by a panel.

Then, we embedded the video live-stream and live-tweeting on our homepage.

Finally this morning, our tweeter/blogger David Wogan wrote a post on the Guest Blog summarizing the event.

You can also find the discussion on Twitter if you search the #energymovies hashtag, or see the discussion on our Facebook page.

The recording of the video will also be available soon.

Let us know how you liked it.

New post on the SciAm Guest Blog – science of the perfect coffee brew

There is a cool new post on the Scientific American Guest Blog.

Science in the Neighborhood: how to make a really good coffee was written by Summer Ash, the in-house Astrophysicist for The Rachel Maddow Show….

Read, follow the recipe for good coffee, then comment and share with friends…

New post on the SciAm Guest Blog – how to increase your intelligence

There is a new post on the Scientific American Guest Blog today.

Andrea Kuszewski is back (remember her Chessboxing story?) with another fascinating post – You can increase your intelligence: 5 ways to maximize your cognitive potential. As always: read, comment, share with your friends.

Open Laboratory 2011 – submissions so far

The submission form for the 2011 edition of Open Lab is now open. Any blog post written since December 1, 2010 is eligible for submission.

We accept essays, stories, poetry, cartoons/comics, original art.

Once you are done submitting your own posts, you can start looking at the others’, including on aggregators like ScienceSeeker.org, Scienceblogging.org and Researchblogging.org.

As I always do, I will keep posting the full list of submitted entries once a week until the deadline – see the listing under the fold.

You can buy the last four annual collections here. You can read Prefaces and Introductions to older editions here.

Help us spread the word by displaying these badges (designed by Doctor Zen:

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On Peer Review Radio

If you missed it earlier this week (i.e., if you do not follow me on Twitter or Facebook), you can catch up now. Adrian Ebsary interviewed Marie-Claire Shanahan, Greg Gbur, Chris Gunter and me for the Peer Review Radio Episode 20: Go Sing it On the Mountain – Communicating Science Online, about science blogging, science writing, teaching, open science and more. Worth a listen (at least for the other three guests – great stuff!).

New post on the SciAm Guest Blog

There is a new post on the Scientific American Guest Blog this afternoon. In A Pill to Remember R. Douglas Fields explains the new findings about PKMzeta, the brain protein involved in memory.

Read, comment, share….

‘Pink Boots and the Machete’

‘Pink Boots and the Machete’, book by Mireya Mayor was published today.

I received an advance review copy from the publisher and wrote the review last night. I published it this morning on the Observations blog on Scientific American – check it out: Book review: ‘Pink Boots and the Machete’ by Mireya Mayor.

Simultaneously with the review, I also posted the interview with Mireya conducted by Darlene Cavalier on the Guest Blog – see it there: Cheerleader for science: A chat with Mireya Mayor, author of Pink Boots and the Machete.

Enjoy, comment, share… and read the book!

Book review: Pink Boots and the Machete by Mireya Mayor

As a little boy, I was always drawn to books about wilderness, exotic places, explorers and wild animals. I hungrily read accounts of real events, from Joy Adamson to Gerald Durrell, and works of fiction, from The Jungle Book to The White Fang, from Henryk Sienkiewicz’s In Desert and Wilderness to the entire Doctor Dolittle series.

And I never outgrew the genre, excitedly checking out new titles, but now with a somewhat raised bar – adventure is not enough, I also want good science in the story. Like, for example, last year’s hit Bonobo Handshake.

And this year, or to be more precise, exactly today, a new adventure book is coming out – Pink Boots and a Machete: My Journey From NFL Cheerleader to National Geographic Explorer by Mireya Mayor.

If the name is familiar to you as a science and nature enthusiast, it is probably because you saw her on TV. Mireya is the host of numerous wildlife shows on the National Geographic channel. You may have seen her in “Mystery Gorillas“, or the currently airing “Wild Nights with Mireya Mayor“. Or perhaps you watched her in the History Channel’s “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone” retracing, using only the technology available at the time of the original journey, the footsteps of Dr.Livingstone, I presume.

Raised by three strong women in the Cuban immigrant family in Miami, Mireya Mayor was both a “girly-girl” with interest in pretty clothes and make-up, and a “tom-boy”, climbing trees and hunting for lizards around the neighborhood. As breaking into a career in acting was difficult, and 9-5 cubicle jobs she had to take were deadening, she saw going back to college as her only way out.

One day, on a dare, she auditioned for a slot on the cheerleading squad with Miami Dolphins and, to her own surprise, she got picked out of thousands of candidates. Majoring in English and Philosophy, and busy with professional NFL cheerleading, she postponed the science requirement to the very end of her senior year, when the only class still available was physical anthropology.

That class changed her life. She got lucky to get sent by National Geographic to her first expedition, and she started graduate studies in anthropology soon after.

The book is her autobiography, describing how she grew up, in every sense of the word “grow up”, from a sheltered girl in Miami, through the world of professional cheerleading, to a career in science and finally the spotlight on television.

A Fulbright Scholar, a National Science Foundation Fellow, a two-time Emmy Award-nominee, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, a scientist with a respectable publication record, including the discovery of Microcebus mittermeieri which is likely the smallest primate species in the world, one can say she’s made it. But the journey was anything but easy – getting chased by elephants and gorillas, swimming with Great White sharks, climbing steep mountains, getting bitten by every imaginable tropical critter that bites, getting sick and medivac-ed back home in the nick of time, even surviving an airplane crash in the jungle. This was no smoothly oiled Hollywood stardom track – it took literally gallons of blood, sweat and tears to get there!

I may have read all those books and explored the wilderness vicariously, but Mireya lived them. I did not have the courage (or craziness – but are the two traits really distinguishable from each other?) Mireya has. She has a rare talent – to say ‘Yes’ when her entire terrified body is saying “No” to an offer of yet another spectacularly dangerous expedition.

It is quite difficult to write an autobiography when one is so accomplished. It is too easy to sound self-aggrandizing. On the other hand, efforts to write in a more self-deprecating manner, emphasizing the role of friends and luck in one’s success, usually sound fake.

Mireya Mayor did not fall into either trap. She just wrote it as it is. A genuine, authentic voice describing what happened, what she did, what others did, and how it all felt.

In other words, Mireya is a Natural Born BloggerTM (and coming from me, this is the highest praise she can get), writing with her genuine voice, with her real personality shining through each sentence. If she was scared, she says so. If she did something brave or smart, she says so. No need to embellish or downplay anything. Total honesty all the way.

It is a refreshing style. Even the paragraphs describing the setting of the story of the particular expedition are real, clear descriptions, helping one visualize the place, not places to practice endless flowery prose for the sake of showing off one’s writing ability. Each chapter reads like a long blog post (or a series of several shorter posts) and I am surprised that she does not write a blog herself. While wildly popular on Twitter and Facebook, I could only find one blog post she has ever written.

With such personal and authentic style of storytelling, it is very easy to get inside of her head and go on the journey with her, trekking around the world, avoiding hippos, piranhas, scorpions and leeches, drinking dirty water full of worms (and getting de-wormed after every return home), running out of food in the middle of nowhere where no communication with the civilized world is possible, climbing vertical walls of rock while being terrified of heights, and all of that with bleeding wounds and swollen ankles in 100 degrees Fahrenheit over days of incessant rain. It is exciting, enchanting, sometimes scary. It is sometimes exhausting just reading it, but you feel guilty for being so whiny while not actually having to physically endure it yourself!

Fortunately, Mireya sometimes gives us a break. And those chapters that are not “on the road” are probably most important parts of the book.

Chapter 12 may seem funny at first. In it, she compares what she used to pack for her first trips and what she packs today, joking about the unexpected usefulness of feminine items, carefully choosing what items are more useful than others for survival. But between the lines you can see how she matured over the years, and what it feels like to be the only woman on an expedition, often at time when desperate times demand desperate measures, like starting a fire with a tampon.

Many will suggest this book as essential reading for teenage girls, with or without interest in science, and for their mothers. But I think that it is even more important this book gets read by boys and men. The book as a whole, but especially the incredible and must-read Chapter 6, shows what it takes to succeed as a woman in the male world of science and in the even more male world of television.

Why did her professors, classmates and scientific colleagues make life so hard for her in the beginning? Why does every TV crew want to film her showering under a waterfall? Why, no matter how she dresses, producers will think she looks either too sexy or not sexy enough? Why does it matter how she looks like in the first place?

“You don’t look like a scientist” is often the first thing she hears when a new TV crew meets her. “Well, this is how a scientist looks like” is her response. Makes you think. Now read the book.

Related: Cheerleader for Science: a chat with Mireya Mayor, author of “Pink Boots and the Machete”

The Best of February

I posted 29 times in February (hmmm, only about one per day in this shortest of all months).

My most important post of February was Circadian clock without DNA–History and the power of metaphor, an attempt at producing an “Explainer” that provides historical, philosophical, sociological, theoretical, methodological, and even linguistic context for a couple of recent papers. You judge if I was successful.

The second most important post of the month was Web breaks echo-chambers, or, ‘Echo-chamber’ is just a derogatory term for ‘community’ – my remarks at #AAASmtg – lots of stuff packed in there, but do you agree or disagree with some or all of it?

I made sure that the Scientific American Guest Blog was busy all month as well, full of great posts on a diversity of topics – check them all out:

The perception gap: An explanation for why people maintain irrational fears By David Ropeik

The Sundance Diaries: The Interrupters and Project Nim By Tamara Krinsky

Personalizing cancer medicine By Karen Ventii

Paradoxical Polyuria–when it comes to kidneys, sometimes more is less By Pascale Lane

A plea for basic biology By Holly Bik

The Huffington Post and the ongoing fear that vaccines might cause autism By Seth Mnookin

Evolution isn’t easy, even in Galapagos By Karen James

“Doctor, what’s wrong with my child?” What Guido Fanconi taught us about chemotherapy By Genomic Repairman

Of lice and men: An itchy history By Emily Willingham

You are what you bleed: In Japan and other east Asian countries some believe blood type dictates personality By Rachel Nuwer

The Sundance Diaries: Focus on the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation By Tamara Krinsky

New wave of MRI-safe pacemakers set to ship to hospitals By Mary Knudson

Pleasure, reward…and rabbits! Why do animals behave as they do? By Michael Lisieski

Climate research in the geologic past By David Bressan

Ugly animals need love, too By David Manly

Life 2.0? First let’s figure out Life 1.0 By Alaina G. Levine

Ecological opportunity: The seed of evolutionary change in your backyard–and in your veins By Jeremy Yoder

Heart interrupted By Jeanne Garbarino

Review: How the Internet is being used to hijack medical science for fear and profit By Dr. Valerie Jones

The impossibility of responsible nuance in the vaccine discussion By Seth Mnookin

Winter stoneflies sure are supercool By Holly Menninger

Reflections on biology and motherhood: Where does Homo sapiens fit in? By Carin Bondar

You’ll believe anything you read online, won’t you? By Colin Schultz

How conducting trauma therapy changes the therapist By May Benatar