Category Archives: History of Science

The line between science and journalism is getting blurry….again


Human #1: “Hello, nice weather today, isn’t it?”

Human #2: “Ummm…actually not. It’s a gray, cold, windy, rainy kind of day!”

Many a joke depends on confusion about the meaning of language, as in the example above. But understanding the sources of such confusion is important in realms other than stand-up comedy, including in the attempts to convey facts about the world to one’s target audience.

In the example above, Human #1 is using Phatic language, sometimes referred to as ‘small talk‘ and usually exemplified, at least in the British Isles, with the talk about the highly unpredictable weather. (image: by striatic on Flickr)

Phatic language

Phatic discourse is just one of several functions of language. Its role is not to impart any factual information, but to establish a relationship between the people. It conveys things like emotional state, relative social status, alliance, intentions and limits to further conversation (i.e., where the speaker “draws the line”).

If a stranger rides into a small town, a carefully chosen yet meaningless phrase establishes a state of mind that goes something like this: “I come in peace, mean no harm, I hope you accept me in the same way”. The response of the local conveys how the town looks at strangers riding in, for example: “You are welcome…for a little while – we’ll feed you and put you up for the night, but then we hope you leave”. (image: Clint Eastwood in ‘Fistful of Dollars’ from Squidoo)

An important component of phatic discourse is non-verbal communication, as the tone, volume and pitch of the voice, facial expression and body posture modify the language itself and confirm the emotional and intentional state of the speaker.

It does not seem that linguistics has an official term for the opposite – the language that conveys only pure facts – but the term usually seen in such discussions (including the domain of politics and campaigning) is “Conceptual language” so this is what I will use here. Conceptual language is what Human #2 in the joke above was assuming and using – just the facts, ma’am.

Rise of the earliest science and journalism

For the sake of this article, I will use two simplified definitions of science and journalism.

Journalism is communication of ‘what’s new’. A journalist is anyone who can say “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

Science is communication of ‘how the world works’. A scientist is anyone who can say “I understand something about the world, you don’t, let me explain it to you”.

Neither definition necessitates that what they say is True, just what they know to the best of their ability and understanding.

Note that I wrote “science is communication”. Yes, science is the process of discovery of facts about the way the world works, but the communication of that discovery is the essential last step of the scientific process, and the discoverer is likely to be the person who understands the discovery the best and is thus likely to be the person with the greatest expertise and authority (and hopefully ability) to do the explaining.

For the greatest part of human history, none of those distinctions made any sense. Most of communication contained information about what is new, some information about the way the world works, and a phatic component. Knowing how the world works, knowing what is happening in that world right now, and knowing if you should trust the messenger, were all important for survival.

For the most part, the information was local, and the messengers were local. A sentry runs back into the village alerting that a neighboring tribe, painted with war-paints, is approaching. Is that person a member of your tribe, or a stranger, or the well-known Boy Who Cried Wolf? What do you know about the meaning of war-paint? What do you know about the neighboring tribe? Does all this information fit with your understanding of the world? Is information coming from this person to be taken seriously? How are village elders responding to the news? Is this piece of news something that can aid in your personal survival?

For the longest time, information was exchanged between people who knew each other to some degree – family, neighbors, friends, business-partners. Like in a fishing village, the news about the state of fishing stocks coming from the ships at sea is important information exchanged at the local tavern. But is that fish-catch information ‘journalism’ (what’s new) or ‘science’ (how the world works)? It’s a little bit of both. And you learn which sailors to trust by observing who is trusted by the locals you have already learned to trust. Trust is transitive.

Someone in the “in-group” is trusted more than a stranger – kids learned from parents, the community elders had the authority: the trust was earned through a combination of who you are, how old you are, and how trustworthy you tended to be in the past. New messengers are harder to pin down on all those criteria, so their information is taken with a degree of skepticism. The art of critical thinking (again, not necessarily meaning that you will always pick the Truth) is an ancient one, as it was essential for day-to-day survival. You trust your parents (or priests or teachers) almost uncritically, but you put up your BS filters when hearing a stranger.

Emergence of science and of journalism

The invention of the printing press precipitated the development of both journalism and science. But that took a very long time – almost two centuries (image: 1851, printing press that produced early issues of Scientific American). After Gutenberg printed the Bible, most of what people printed were political pamphlets, church fliers and what for that time and sensibilities went for porn.

London Gazette of 1666 is thought to be the first newspaper in the modern sense of the word. (image: from DavidCo) Until then, newspapers were mostly irregular printings by individuals, combining news, opinion, fiction and entertainment. After this, newspapers gradually became regular (daily, weekly, monthly) collections of writings by numerous people writing in the same issue.

The first English scientific journal was published a year before – the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London in 1665 (image: Royal Society of London).

Until then, science was communicated by letters – those letters were often read at the meetings of scientists. Those meetings got formalized into scientific societies and the letters read at such meetings started getting printed. The first scientific journals were collections of such letters, which explains why so many journals have the words “Letters”, “Annals” or “Proceedings” in their titles.

Also, before as well as for a quite a long time after the inception of first journals, much of science was communicated via books – a naturalist would spend many years collecting data and ideas before putting it all in long-form, leather-bound form. Those books were then discussed at meetings of other naturalists who would often respond by writing books of their own. Scientists at the time did not think that Darwin’s twenty-year wait to publish The Origin was notable (William Kimler, personal communication) – that was the normal timeline for research and publishing at the time, unusual only to us from a modern perspective of 5-year NIH grants and the ‘publish or perish’ culture.

As previously oral communication gradually moved to print over the centuries, both journalistic and scientific communication occured in formats – printed with ink on paper – very similar to blogging (that link leads to the post that served as a seed from which this article grew). If born today, many of the old writers, like Montaigne, would be Natural Born Bloggers (‘NBBs’ – term coined by protoblogger Dave Winer). A lot of ship captains’ logs were essentially tweets with geolocation tags.

People who wanted to inform other people printed fliers and pamphlets and books. Personal letters and diaries were meant to be public: they were as widely shared as was possible, they were publicly read, saved, then eventually collected and published in book-form (at least posthumously). Just like blogs, tweets and Facebook updates today….

The 18th century ‘Republic of Letters’ (see the amazing visualization of their correspondence) was a social network of intellectual leaders of Europe who exchanged and publicly read their deep philosophical thoughts, scientific ideas, poetry and prose.

Many people during those centuries wrote their letters in duplicate: one copy to send, one to keep for publishing Collected Letters later in life. Charles Darwin did that, for example (well, if I remember correctly, his wife made copies from his illegible originals into something that recipients could actually read), which is why we have such a complete understanding of his work and thought – it is all well preserved and the availability of such voluminouos correspondence gave rise to a small industry of Darwinian historical scholarship.

What is important to note is that, both in journalism and in science, communication could be done by anyone – there was no official seal of approval, or licence, to practice either of the two arts. At the same time, communication in print was limited to those who were literate and who could afford to have a book printed – people who, for the most part, were just the wealthy elites. Entry into that intellectual elite from a lower social class was possible but very difficult and required a lot of hard work and time (see, for example, a biography of Alfred Russell Wallace). Membership in the worlds of arts, science and letters was automatic for those belonging to the small group of literate aristocracy. They had no need to establish formalized gatekeeping as bloodlines, personal sponsorship and money did the gatekeeping job quite well on their own.

As communication has moved from local to global, due to print, trust had to be gained over time – by one’s age, stature in society, track record, and by recommendation – who the people you trust say you should trust. Trust is transitive.

Another thing to note is that each written dispatch contained both ‘what’s new’ and ‘how the world works’ as well as a degree of phatic discourse: “This is what happened. This is what I think it means. And this is who I am so you know why you should trust me.” It is often hard to tell, from today’s perspective, what was scientific communication and what was journalism.

Personal – and thus potentially phatic – communication was a norm in the early scientific publishing. For example, see “A Letter from Mr J. Breintal to Peter Collinfoxl, F. RXS. contairnng an Account of what he felt after being bit by a Rattle-fnake” in Philosophical Transactions, 1747. – a great account of it can be found at Neurotic Physiology. It is a story of a personal interaction with a rattlesnake and the discovery leading from it. It contained “I was there, you were not, let me tell you what happened” and “I understand something, you don’t, let me explain that to you” and “Let me tell you who I am so you can know you can trust me”.

Apparently, quite a lot of scientific literature of old involved exciting narratives of people getting bitten by snakes – see this one from 1852 as well.

The anomalous 20th century – effects of technology

The gradual changes in society – invention of printing, rise of science, rise of capitalism, industrial revolution, mass migration from rural to urban areas, improvements in transportation and communication technologies, to name just a few – led to a very different world in the 20th century.

Technology often leads societal changes. If you were ever on a horse, you understand why armies that used stirrups defeated the armies that rode horses without this nifty invention.

Earlier, the speed of spreading news was much slower (see image: Maps of rates of travel in the 19th century – click on the link to see bigger and more). By 1860 Telegraph reached to St. Louis. During its short run the Pony Express could go the rest of the way to San Francisco in 10 days. After that, telegraph followed the rails. First transcontinental line was in 1869. Except for semaphores (1794) information before the telegraph (1843) could only travel as fast as a rider or boat (Thanks to John McKay for this brief primer on the history of speed of communication in Northern America. I am assuming that Europe was slightly ahead and the rest of the world somewhat behind).

The 20th century saw invention or improvement of numerous technologies in transportation – cars, fast trains, airplanes, helicopters, space shuttles – and in communication – telephone, radio, and television. Information could now travel almost instantly.

But those new technologies came with a price – literally. While everyone could write letters and send them by stagecoach, very few people could afford to buy, run and serve printing presses, radio stations and television studios. These things needed capital, and increasingly became owned by rich people and corporations.

Each inch of print or minute of broadcast costs serious money. Thus, people were employed to become official filters of information, the gatekeepers – the editors who decided who will get access to that expensive real estate. As the editors liked some people’s work better than others, those people got employed to work in the nascent newsrooms. Journalism became professionalized. Later, universities started journalism programs and codified instruction for new journalists, professionalizing it even more.

Instead of people informing each other, now the few professionals informed everyone else. And the technology did not allow for everyone else to talk back in the same medium.

The broadcast media, a few large corporations employing professional writers informing millions – with no ability for the receivers of information to fact-check, talk back, ask questions, be a part of the conversation – is an exception in history, something that lasted for just a few decades of the 20th century.

The anomalous 20th century – industrialization

Industrial Revolution brought about massive migration of people into big cities. The new type of work required a new type of workforce, one that was literate and more educated. This led to the invention of public schools and foundation of public universities.

In the area of science, many more people became educated enough (and science still not complex and expensive yet) to start their own surveys, experiments and tinkering. The explosion of research led to an explosion of new journals. Those too became expensive to produce and started requiring professional filters – editors. Thus scientific publishing also became professionalized. Not every personal anecdote could make it past the editors any more. Not everyone could call oneself a scientist either – a formal path emerged, ending with a PhD at a university, that ensured that science was done and published by qualified persons only.

By the 1960s, we got a mass adoption of peer-review by scientific journals that was experimentally done by some journals a little earlier. Yes, it is that recent! See for example this letter to Physical Review in 1936:


Dear Sir,

We (Mr. Rosen and I) had sent you our manuscript for publication and had not authorized you to show it to specialists before it is printed. I see no reason to address the — in any case erroneous — comments of your anonymous expert. On the basis of this incident I prefer to publish the paper elsewhere.


Albert Einstein

Or this one:


John Maddox, former editor of Nature: The Watson and Crick paper was not peer-reviewed by Nature… the paper could not have been refereed: its correctness is self-evident. No referee working in the field … could have kept his mouth shut once he saw the structure…

Migration from small towns into big cities also meant that most people one would meet during the day were strangers. Meeting a stranger was not something extraordinary any more, so emergence and enforcement of proper proscribed conduct in cities replaced the need for one-to-one encounters and sizing up strangers using phatic language. Which is why even today phatic language is much more important and prevalent in rural areas where it aids personal survival than in urban centers where more general rules of behavior among strangers emerged (which may partially explain why phatic language is generally associated with conservative ideology and conceptual language with politicial liberalism, aka, the “reality-based community“).

People moving from small hometowns into big cities also led to breaking up of families and communities of trust. One needed to come up with new methods for figuring out who to trust. One obvious place to go was local media. They were stand-ins for village elders, parents, teachers and priests.

If there were many newspapers in town, one would try them all for a while and settle on one that best fit one’s prior worldview. Or one would just continue reading the paper one’s parents read.

But other people read other newspapers and brought their own worldviews into the conversation. This continuous presence of a plurality of views kept everyone’s BS filters in high gear – it was necessary to constantly question and filter all the incoming information in order to choose what to believe and what to dismiss.

The unease with the exposure to so many strangers with strange ideas also changed our notions of privacy. Suddenly we craved it. Our letters are now meant for one recepient only, with the understanding it will not be shared. Personal diaries now have lockets. After a century of such craving for privacy, we are again returning to a more historically traditional notions, by much more freely sharing our lives with strangers online.

The anomalous 20th century – cleansing of conceptual language in science and journalism

Until the 20th century we did not see the consolidation of media into large conglomerates, and of course, there were no mass radio or TV until mid-20th century. Not until later in the century did we see the monopolization of local media markets by a single newspaper (competitors going belly-up) which, then, had to serve everyone, so it had to invent the fake “objective” HeSaidSheSaid timid style of reporting in order not to lose customers of various ideological stripes and thus lose advertising revenue.

Professionalising of journalism, coupled with the growth of media giants serving very broad audiences, led to institutionalization of a type of writing that was very much limited to “what’s new”.

The “let me explain” component of journalism fell out of favor as there was always a faction of the audience that had a problem with the empirical facts – a faction that the company’s finances could not afford to lose. The personal – including phatic – was carefully eliminated as it was perceived as unobjective and inviting the criticism of bias. The way for a reporter to inject one’s opinion into the article was to find a person who thinks the same in order to get the target quote. A defensive (perhaps cowardly) move that became the norm. And, once the audience caught on, led to the loss of trust in traditional media.

Reduction of local media to a single newspaper, a couple of local radio stations and a handful of broadcast TV channels (that said esentially the same thing), left little choice for the audience. With only one source in town, there was no opportunity to filter among a variety of news sources. Thus, many people started unquestioningly accepting what 20th-century style broadcast media served them.

Just because articles were under the banners of big companies did not make them any more trustworthy by definition, but with no alternative it is still better to be poorly informed than not informed at all. Thus, in the 20th century we gradually lost the ability to read everything critically, awed by the big names like NYT and BBC and CBS and CNN. Those became the new parents, teachers, tribal elders and priests, the authority figures whose words are taken unquestioningly.

In science, explosion in funding not matched by explosion of job positions, led to overproduction of PhDs and a rise of hyper-competitive culture in academia. Writing books became unproductive. The only way to succeed is to keep getting grants and the only way to do that is to publish very frequently. Everything else had to fall by the wayside.

False measures of journal quality – like the infamous Impact Factor – were used to determine who gets a job and tenure and who falls out of the pipeline. The progress of science led inevitably to specialization and to the development of specialized jargon. Proliferation of expensive journals ensured that nobody but people in highest-level research institutions had access to the literature, so scientists started writing only for each other.

Scientific papers became dense, but also narrowed themselves to only “this is how the world works”. The “this is new” became left out as the audience already knew this, and it became obvious that a paper would not be published if it did not produce something new, almost by definition.

And the personal was so carefully excised for the purpose of seeming unbiased by human beings that it sometimes seems like the laboratory equipment did all the experiments of its own volition.

So, at the close of the 20th century, we had a situation in which journalism and science, for the first time in history, completely separated from each other. Journalism covered what’s new without providing the explanation and context for new readers just joining the topic. Science covered only explanation and only to one’s peers.

In order to bridge that gap, a whole new profession needed to arise. As scientists understood the last step of the scientific method – communication – to mean only ‘communication to colleagues’, and as regular press was too scared to put truth-values on any statements of fact, the solution was the invention of the science journalist – someone who can read what scientists write and explain that to the lay audience. With mixed success. Science is hard. It takes years to learn enough to be able to report it well. Only a few science journalists gathered that much expertise over the years of writing (and making mistakes on the way).

So, many science journalists fell back on reporting science as news, leaving the explanation out. Their editors helped in that by severely restricting the space – and good science coverage requires ample space.

A good science story should explain what is known by now (science), what the new study brings that is new (news) and why does that matter to you (phatic discourse). The lack of space usually led to omission of context (science), shortening of what is new (news) and thus leaving only the emotional story intact. Thus, the audience did not learn much, Certainly not enough to be able to evaluate next day’s and next week’s news.

This format also led to the choice of stories. It is easy to report in this way if the news is relevant to the audience anyway, e.g., concerning health (the “relevant” stories). It is also easy to report on misconduct of scientists (the “fishy” stories) – which is not strictly science reporting. But it was hard to report on science that is interesting for its own sake (the “cool” stories).

What did the audience get out of this? Scientists are always up to some mischief. And every week they change the story as to what is good or bad for my health. And it is not very fun, entertaining and exciting. No surprise that science as endeavour slowly started losing trust with the (American) population, and that it was easy for groups with financial, political or religious interests to push anti-science rhetoric on topics from hazards of smoking to stem-cell research to evolution to climate change.

At the end of the 20th century, thus, we had a situation in which journalism and science were completely separate endeavors, and the bridge between them – science journalism – was unfortunately operating under the rules of journalism and not science, messing up the popular trust in both.

Back to the Future

It is 2010. The Internet has been around for 30 years, the World Wide Web for 20. It took some time for the tools to develop and spread, but we are obviously undergoing a revolution in communication. I use the word “revolution” because it is so almost by definition – when the means of production change hands, this is a revolution.

The means of production, in this case the technology for easy, cheap and fast dissemination of information, are now potentially in the hands of everyone. When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that ‘citizen journalism.’ And some of those citizens possess much greater expertise on the topics they cover than the journalists that cover that same beat. This applies to science as well.

In other words, after the deviation that was the 20th century, we are going back to the way we have evolved as a species to communicate – one-to-one and few-to-few instead of one-to-many. Apart from technology (software instead of talking/handwriting/printing), speed (microseconds instead of days and weeks by stagecoach, railroad or Pony Express, see image above) and the number of people reached (potentially – but rarely – millions simultaneously instead of one person or small group at a time), blogging, social networking and other forms of online writing are nothing new – this is how people have always communicated. Like Montaigne. And the Republic of Letters in the 18th century. And Charles Darwin in the 19th century.

All we are doing now is returning to a more natural, straightforward and honest way of sharing information, just using much more efficient ways of doing it. (Images from Cody Brown)

And not even that – where technology is scarce, the analog blogging is live and well (image: Analog blogger, from AfriGadget).

What about trustworthiness of all that online stuff? Some is and some isn’t to be trusted. It’s up to you to figure out your own filters and criteria, and to look for additional sources, just like our grandparents did when they had a choice of dozens of newspapers published in each of their little towns.

With the gradual return of a more natural system of communication, we got to see additional opinions, the regular fact-checks on the media by experts on the topic, and realized that the mainstream media is not to be trusted.

With the return of a more natural system of communication, we will all have to re-learn how to read critically, find second opinions, evaluate sources. Nothing new is there either – that is what people have been doing for millennia – the 20th century is the exception. We will figure out who to trust by trusting the judgment of people we already trust. Trust is transitive.

Return of the phatic language

What does this all mean for the future of journalism, including science journalism?

The growing number of Web-savvy citizens have developed new methods of establishing trustworthiness of the sources. It is actually the old one, pre-20th century method – relying on individuals, not institutions. Instead of treating WaPo, Fox, MSNBC and NPR as the proxies for the father, teacher, preacher and the medicine man, we now once again evaulate individuals.

As nobody enters a news site via the front page and looks around, but we all get to individual articles via links and searches, we are relying on bylines under the titles, not on the logos up on top. Just like we were not born trusting NYTimes but learned to trust it because our parents and neighbors did (and then perhaps we read it for some time), we are also not born knowing which individuals to trust. We use the same method – we start with recommendations from people we already trust, then make our own decisions over time.

If you don’t link to your sources, including to scientific papers, you lose trust. If you quote out of context without providing that context, you lose trust. If you hide who you are and where you are coming from – that is cagey and breeds mistrust. Transparency is the new objectivity.

And transparency is necessarily personal, thus often phatic. It shows who you are as a person, your background, your intentions, your mood, your alliances, your social status.

There are many reasons sciencebloggers are more trusted than journalists covering science.

First, they have the scientific expertise that journalists lack – they really know what they are talking about on the topic of their expertise and the audience understands this.

Second, they link out to more, more diverse and more reliable sources.

Third, being digital natives, they are not familiar with the concept of word-limits. They start writing, they explain it as it needs to be explained and when they are done explaining they end the post. Whatever length it takes to give the subject what it’s due.

Finally, not being trained by j-schools, they never learned not to let their personality shine through their writing. So they gain trust by connecting to their readers – the phatic component of communication.

Much of our communication, both offline and online, is phatic. But that is necessary for building trust. Once the trust is there, the conceptual communication can work. If I follow people I trust on Twitter, I will trust that they trust the sources they link to so I am likely to click on them. Which is why more and more scientists use Twitter to exchage information (PDF). Trust is transitive.

Scientists, becoming journalists

Good science journalists are rare. Cuts in newsrooms, allocation of too little space for science stories, assigning science stories to non-science journalists – all of these factors have resulted in a loss of quantity and quality of science reporting in the mainstream media.

But being a good science journalist is not impossible. People who take the task seriously can become experts on the topic they cover (and get to a position where they can refuse to cover astronomy if their expertise is evolution) over time. They can become temporary experts if they are given sufficient time to study instead of a task of writing ten stories per day.

With the overproduction of PhDs, many scientists are choosing alternative careers, including many of them becoming science writers and journalists, or Press Information Officers. They thus come into the profession with the expertise already there.

There is not much difference between a research scientist who blogs and thus is an expert on the topic s/he blogs about, and a research scientist who leaves the lab in order to write as a full-time job. They both have scientific expertise and they both love to write or they wouldn’t be doing it.

Blog is software. A medium. One of many. No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. Despite never going to j-school and writing everything on blogs, I consider myself to be a science writer.

Many science journalists, usually younger though some of the old ones caught on quickly and became good at it (generation is mindset, not age), grok the new media ecosystem in which online collaboration between scientists and journalists is becoming a norm.

At the same time, many active scientists are now using the new tools (the means of production) to do their own communication. As is usually the case with novelty, different people get to it at different rates. The conflicts between 20th and 21st style thinking inevitably occur. The traditional scientists wish to communicate the old way – in journals, letters to the editor, at conferences. This is the way of gatekeeping they are used to.

But there have been a number of prominent cases of such clashes between old and new models of communication, including the infamous Roosevelts on toilets (the study had nothing to do with either US Presidents or toilets, but it is an instructive case – image by Dr.Isis), and several other smaller cases.

The latest one is the Arsenic Bacteria Saga in which the old-timers do not seem to undestand what a ‘blog’ means, and are seemingly completely unaware of the important distinction between ‘blogs’ and ‘scienceblogs’, the former being online spaces by just about anyone, the latter being blogs written by people who actually know their science and are vetted or peer-reviewed in some way e.g., at or or by virtue of being hand-picked and invited to join one of the science blogging networks (which are often run by traditional media outlets or scientific publishers or societies) or simply by gaining resepect of peers over time.

Case by case, old-time scientists are learning. Note how both in the case of Roosevelts on toilets and the Arsenic bacteria the initially stunned scientists quickly learned and appreciated the new way of communication.

In other words, scientists are slowly starting to get out of the cocoon. Instead of just communicating to their peers behind the closed doors, now they are trying to reach out to the lay audience as well.

As more and more papers are Open Access and can be read by all, they are becoming more readable (as I predicted some years ago). The traditional format of the paper is changing. So they are covering “let me explain” portion better, both in papers and on their own blogs.

They may still be a little clumsy about the “what’s new” part, over-relying on the traditional media to do it for them via press releases and press conferences (see Darwinius and arsenic bacteria for good examples) instead of doing it themselves or taking control of the message (though they do need to rely on MSM to some extent due to the distinction between push and pull strategies as the media brands are still serving for many people as proxies for trustworthy sources).

But most importantly, they are now again adding the phatic aspect to their communication, revealing a lot of their personality on social networks, on blogs, and even some of them venturing into doing it in scientific papers.

By combining all three aspects of good communication, scientists will once again regain the trust of their audience. And what they are starting to do looks more and more like (pre-20th century) journalism.

Journalists, becoming scientists

On the other side of the divide, there is a renewed interest in journalism expanding from just “this is new” to “let me explain how the world works”. There are now efforts to build a future of context, and to design explainers.

If you are not well informed on an issue (perhaps because you are too young to remember when it first began, or the issue just started being relevant to you), following a stream of ‘what is new’ articles will not enlighten you. There is not sufficient information there. There is a lot of tacit knowledge that the writer assumes the readers possess – but many don’t.

There has to be a way for news items to link to some kind of collection of background information – an ‘explainer’. Such an explainer would be a collection of verifiable facts about the topic. A collection of verifiable facts about the way the world works is….scientific information!

With more and more journalists realizing they need to be transparent about where they are coming from, injecting personality into their work in order to build trust, some of that phatic language is starting to seep in, completing the trio of elements of effective communication.

Data Journalism – isn’t this science?

Some of the best journalism of the past – yes, the abominable 20th century – was done when a reporter was given several months to work on a single story requiring sifting through boxes and boxes of documents. The reporter becomes the expert on the topic, starts noticing patterns and writes a story that brings truly new knowledge to the world. That is practically science! Perhaps it is not the hardest of the hard sciences like physics, but as good as well-done social science like cultural anthropology, sociology or ethnography. There is a system and a method very much like the scientific method.

Unfortunately, most reporters are not given such luxury. They have to take shortcuts – interviewing a few sources to quote for the story. The sources are, of course, a very small and very unrepresentative sample of the relevant population – from a rolodex. Call a couple of climate scientists, and a couple of denialists, grab a quote from each and stick them into a formulaic article. That is Bad Science as well as Bad Journalism. And now that the people formerly known as audience, including people with expertise on the topic, have the tools to communicate to the world, they often swiftly point out how poorly such articles represent reality.

But today, most of the information, data and documents are digital, not in boxes. They are likely to be online and can be accessed without travel and without getting special permissions (though one may have to steal them – as Wikileaks operates: a perfect example of the new data journalism). Those reams of data can be analyzed by computers to find patterns, as well as by small armies of journalists (and other experts) for patterns and pieces of information that computer programs miss.

This is what bioinformaticists do (and have already built tools to do it – contact them, steal their tools!).

Data journalism. This is what a number of forward-thinking journalists and media organizations are starting to do.

This is science.

On the other hand, a lot of distributed, crowdsourced scientific research, usually called Citizen Science, is in the business of collecting massive amounts of data for analysis. How does that differ from data journalism? Not much?

Look at this scientific paper – Coding Early Naturalists’ Accounts into Long-Term Fish Community Changes in the Adriatic Sea (1800–2000) – is this science or data journalism? It is both.

The two domains of communicating about what is new and how the world works – journalism and science – have fused again. Both are now starting to get done by teams that involve both professionals and amateurs. Both are now led by personalities who are getting well-known in the public due to their phatic communication in a variety of old and new media.

It is important to be aware of the shortness of our lives and thus natural tendency for historical myopia. Just because we were born in the 20th century does not mean that the way things were done then are the way things were ‘always done’, or the best ways to do things – the pinnacle of cultural and social development. The 20th century was just a strange and deviant blip in the course of history.

As we are leaving the 20th century behind with all of its unusual historical quirks, we are going back to an older model of communicating facts – but with the new tools we can do it much better than ever, including a much broader swath of society – a more democratic system than ever.

By the way, while it’s still cold, the rain has stopped. And that is Metaphorical language…

This article was commissioned by Science Progress and will also appear on their site in 24 hours.

A Missing Link Found (and subsequently Lost) at the SciAm Guest Blog

Here is a treat for you at the Scientific American Guest Blog. Today’s contribution is by Brian Switek – check out Breaking Our Link to the March of Progress. Read, enjoy, comment (at the registration the system suggests that you need a confirmation e-mail – you don’t, just log in and start posting).

Written In Stone: interview with Brian Switek

2010 is an incredible year for science books, many written by people who daily write on blogs.

The latest in this fantastic streak is Written In Stone (homepage, IndieBound, Amazon) by Brian Switek (blog, Twitter).

Written In Stone is officially published today. If you pre-ordered it, it should hit your mailbox in a few days and bookstores should get it soon after (watch Brian’s blogs for updates – there was a small delay in shipping). I got the book earlier, have read it and loved it – my review is coming here later today. But first, I wanted to catch up with Brian and ask him a few questions about his book, his blog, and how the two are connected.


A few years ago, you were a student and blogging was a hobby – something you did on the side, out of love. At what point did you realize that you could do writing as a profession? Was there a precipitating event or did that gradually dawn on you?

There wasn’t any single event or cause – I just fell into it. Now that we’re mostly beyond the blogger vs. journalist sniping – I hope – I can look back and say that I was acting like a science writer even before it became a viable career option. Making the transition required a change in attitude and a realization that I could actually get paid for what I like to do, and I feel exceptionally lucky that I have been able to turn my hobby into a nascent science writing career (even though I still work an unrelated day job to keep the lights on at home).

The more detailed story goes like this – After blogging for two years, I got serious about my science writing and started to pitch to magazines. My performance was abysmal. Most of the time I didn’t even hear back from the publications I pitched to. Still, I kept using my blog as a writing laboratory and tried to fine-tune my writing. Then, in May of last year, everything changed almost instantaneously. It was at that time that I started working with my literary agent – Peter Tallack of the Science Factory – and Mark Henderson of the Times was kind enough to give me my first formal op-ed about the Darwinius controversy. Those breakthroughs, paired with the earlier acceptance of my first academic paper (just published), allowed me to build up enough momentum to start making some headway into more formal channels of science writing outside the blogohedron.

I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without blogs, Twitter, or the web in general. Blogging allowed me to practice writing, plug into a community of fellow science enthusiasts, and has otherwise made it possible for me to become a professional – if still part-time – science writer. If I tried to do the same thing just a few years ago, or otherwise tried to jump into science writing without developing my writing online, I would have almost surely failed. As I mentioned above, though, I did not think of my efforts as a career change. The only major difference was that people started paying me for the sort of work I had been doing anyway!

How did you decide to write a book? You were already a well-known blogger and have started appearing in more mainstream media on occasion – why a book?

Written in Stone had a relatively long gestation and significantly changed since the time that I was first inspired to write a book. I knew that I wanted to write a book about evolution from the time I started blogging, but I was pretty clueless as to how to go about it. I used my blog as a way to practice writing, keep up with the literature, and organize my ideas. Blogging gave me an incentive to keep learning, researching, and sharing that information with whoever cared to read it.

This went on for about three years. I kept notes and wrote parts of a few chapters, but I didn’t have a story to tie things all together. I knew that I wanted to write about evolution from the perspective of the fossil record, but that’s not a book – I needed a more specific angle from which to approach the bigger story of life through time. I knew that I didn’t want to write a comprehensive textbook – we’ve already got plenty of those – but what examples should I choose to help people understand what fossils tell us about how life has changed?

Unfortunately I can’t remember the moment the idea struck me, but I settled on looking at some of the major transitions in the history of vertebrates that transfixed me as a child. The evolution of the first tetrapods from fish, the evolution of birds from dinosaurs, the evolution of whales from terrestrial mammals, the evolution of humans, and others – they were classic examples of evolutionary change, but as I became more familiar with the scientific literature I felt that the public wasn’t being presented with the latest science about these examples. Even in recent popular books about evolution, a few of these transitions would be presented but usually in such paltry detail as to be unconvincing to anyone who didn’t already agree that evolution is a reality. More than that, these changes have been debated for a very long time but we often talk about them only in reference to recent discoveries. I wanted to dig into the long history of debate and show how our understanding has changed. In distilling everything down to simple, step-by-step diagrams of evolutionary change, I felt like other authors had missed something, and I wanted to plug that gap in the popular literature.

Once I figured all that out, writing the book wasn’t too difficult. I had been rummaging through the literature for my own education for several years already – it was mostly a matter of writing the thing. With three chapters in hand, I signed with Bellevue Literary Press in September and completed the first full draft of the manuscript just two days before Christmas. The manuscript went back and forth a few times over the following months for edits, but, looking back, I am still a little baffled as to how I put the whole thing together so quickly!

Your writing – both on the blog and in the book – looks at evolution, focusing mainly on fossils, in the context of history of science. This is a pretty unique combination of themes – where did that come from? Was that a conscious decision or something that just happened as it combined your existing passions?

The mix of evolution, paleontology, and the history of science happened organically. They all overlap and feed into each other. Since I wanted to write about what the fossil record tells us about evolution, those aspects of the story came together very easily. I could have left it at that, but then I would have done the same thing as everyone else by divorcing recent discoveries from their context. I didn’t want to do that. I did not want to act as a figure of authority, handing down data for the public to digest and accept.

Instead of taking the more traditional approach, I wanted to give the book a warmer tone – I wanted to present science in the way that I might talk to a curious friend about evolution, or in terms of what I might say if I were walking with someone through a natural history museum. The history of science allowed me to do this by providing me with a flowing narrative which encompassed the scientific points I wanted to talk about. This served the dual purpose of placing recent discoveries in context and also gave me a way to lead readers through the tangled process of scientific discovery. This was especially important in the historical chapters about the beginnings of paleontology and evolutionary theory (Ch. 2 and 3). I found the idea of simply laying out the nuts and bolts of stratigraphy, natural selection, the nature of the fossil record, etc. repulsive – as I mentioned, I had no intention of writing a textbook – but by tracing the history of science I could use stories to introduce readers to those same concepts in a more palatable way.

Naturally, my own interests played a role, as well. I am fascinated by vertebrate paleontology, and both evolutionary theory and the history of science remain important in the field for understanding the patterns of life on earth and how our perspective of those patterns has changed. It was not a stretch to bring it all together. Paleontology is an evolutionary science, and paleontologists are constantly reexamining old specimens and localities. Given all these available perspectives, it was mostly a matter of choosing where to place the emphasis.

The book grew out of your blog. What proportion of the book, can you estimate, comes directly from edits of your older posts, and how much was brand new material? Was it difficult to repurpose the bloggy format into something that will work well in the book form?

The book grew out of my blog in the sense that I used my blog to practice writing about some studies and ideas which eventually became incorporated into the blog. The book is not just a stitched-together collection of posts. It was written as a story unto itself – containing many smaller stories – and even when I covered something I had blogged about earlier I disregarded what I had already said and wrote something fresh. Sometimes I would dig back into my posts for something I had referenced which I had trouble remembering, but in no instance did I edit any of my posts to place that material in the book. I wanted to write in such a way that the story flowed, and I felt that if I was going to start incorporating material directly plucked from the blog I would jeopardize that. Readers of my blogs will see some familiar subjects, absolutely, but, barring quotations, the book is 100% new writing.

Reading the book, it struck me how unique it is and how much it fills a glaring gap in the literature. There are many books on evolution. There are many books on the history of science. There are many books about fossils (though usually narrower in subject, focusing on a single group like dinosaurs, or even a single fossil like Tiktaalik or Darwinius). Yet I cannot remember another book that combines these three topics until today (literally today!). While it is fortunate for you that this niche was wide open for you to fill, do you have any thoughts as to why this niche was empty to begin with? Aren’t there other scholars who could have, perhaps should have, covered this area in this way?

I think some historians of science have written similar books, but they have usually been focused on a particular time period of group of researchers (such as Adrian Desmond’s Archetypes and Ancestors about Victorian paleontology, Peter Bowler’s Life’s Splendid Drama about early 20th-century paleontology, or Eric Buffetaut’s sadly out-of-print A Short History of Vertebrate Paleontology). When you’re dealing with the history of paleontology, you have to include biological details as well as historical ones, and in many ways this historical subgenre was very influential in determining how I should go about telling my story.

You’re absolutely right about the gap in the literature, though. I intentionally wrote this book to fill it. There’s no single reason why the gap was left open to start with. From a practical perspective, the history of science is often left out of popular books because there is a common assumption that the public doesn’t care about it. One publisher I spoke to about the book early on, in fact, wanted me to cut all the historical material from the book and focus only on new discoveries – from science magazines to book publishers, there is a major push to cover what is new and exciting and leave the historical bits for people who want to track them down (despite the success of some books, such as Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which have a heavy emphasis on history!). An exception is Sean B. Carroll’s recent book Remarkable Creatures, but, while I greatly enjoyed it, the treatment of significant people and specimens was a collection of snapshots which did not illustrate the importance of paleontology to our understanding of evolution. There are gaps and jumps in my narrative too – if I included everything I wanted Written in Stone would have rivaled The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in length – but it was very important to me to trace ideas through multiple shifts in understanding over the past 150 years.

The fact that many recent, popular-audience books about evolution – such as Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne, The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins, and Only a Theory by Kenneth Miller – have been written by lab-based evolutionary scientists is another reason for the persistence of the “paleo gap.” Paleontology isn’t their field and so, understandably, doesn’t get much attention from these authors outside of transitional forms in the fossil record. More than that, though, there is something of a conceit that genetics and microbiology are more important to evolutionary science than paleontology is. Paleontology is still often viewed as the search for old bones to fill museums with – it can demonstrate the reality of evolution by do little else. This appraisal of paleontology has been around since the beginning of the 20th century, at least, and Dawkins even downplayed the importance of the fossil record to understanding evolution in his book The Ancestor’s Tale.

Since Stephen Jay Gould died in 2002, we haven’t really had a strong public advocate for paleontology as an essential evolutionary science. I’m no Gould, but I was inspired by his work to communicate the relevance of the fossil record to understanding of evolution (as well as similar efforts made before him by George Gaylord Simpson). Not only does paleontology provide the essential context to understand why life is as it is now – it is the science which showed us that extinction is real and that life has been changing for vast periods of time – but has become arguably the most interdisciplinary evolutionary science. Paleontologists regularly use ideas and techniques from genetics, molecular biology, embryology, histology, geochemistry, and other sciences in addition to comparative anatomy and geology. Having just attended the 70th annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology just last month, I can tell you that paleontology is an exceptionally vibrant field in which everything from the color of dinosaur feathers to the tempo and mode of evolutionary change are being investigated. This makes the rather brief treatment of paleontology in many recent books on evolution all the more irritating – paleontology, as I know it, is not being reflected in discussions about evolution, and I wanted to write a book to help remedy that.

One thing that struck me as I was reading the book is how well fleshed are the characters in the story, people like Lamarck, Darwin, Owen and Huxley, among others. You present them with a nuance that is rarely seen in usual discourse on the history of evolution. How much did you use biographies of these people, their letters and diaries, in trying to understand them as complex personalities, not just cardboard caricatures that we usually see?

I have to admit that I actually did not get to include the amount of detail I wanted – I mostly restricted biographical sections to the period a given authority was working on a particular problem or idea – but I thought it was essential to provide some background as to who these people were and why they did what they did. In the case of Lamarck, for example, I didn’t know anything about his life outside of his ideas about evolution before writing the book, so I thought including a little more information about him would be a small way of helping his public image since he is so often trotted out to be a contrast to Darwin and nothing else.

The sources I used varied from figure to figure. For Cuvier, I relied on various historical papers and Martin Rudwick’s selected translations of his work in Georges Cuvier, Fossil Bones, and Geological Catastrophes, whereas I used Adrian Desmond’s biography Huxley and the naturalist’s original research papers for sections about the man famously called “Darwin’s Bulldog.” The most difficult challenge was Charles Darwin. So much has been written about him that I could not possibly read it all, so in addition to biographical accounts I used the Darwin Correspondence Project and The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online to dig into his original writings as much as possible. Of course my account of Darwin’s work is framed in terms of paleontology – I could not comprehensively cover everything he did, especially since he was such a prolific naturalist and correspondent! – but I tried to hit the major points of his career leading up to 1859 without derailing the paleontological thread of the book.

Finally – what’s next? I know you will be busy traveling the country promoting the book, but I am wondering if you already have the ideas for the next book?

I actually don’t have many travel plans. I’ll be giving a few talks in the NY-NJ-PA area, but I don’t have the budget to allow for a full-scale book tour. I am going to focus on doing what I do best – keeping up my blogs and trying to find more stories to tell in more formal science publications and journals. If opportunities to travel and talk about the book pop up, I’ll jump, but I have no idea when or where such opportunities will arise.

If anything, I have too many ideas for future books. Some are just the seeds of future projects which will require significantly more background than I presently have to cultivate, whereas others I am already in the process of starting. Right now I am trying to choose between two different projects – one on the “Dinosaur Enlightenment” which is rapidly changing our understanding of the charismatic creatures, and another on the controversial idea of “Pleistocene Rewilding.” I fully intend on writing both, but which comes first depends on an array of factors from my ability to travel to places relevant to the books to the willingness of publishers to jump at the projects. Beyond those, I have at least three more ideas for long-term book projects on three disparate subjects, so with any luck I will be writing for some time to come!

And, as a closing note, thank you for your help and support, Bora. You have been behind my writing from the very beginning, and it has been a pleasure to talk to you about a book which has grown directly from my work online. Your ongoing encouragement has helped drive me to become a more professional science writer, so I am genuinely thrilled that you enjoyed the book.

Thank you so much for the interview. And let’s hope that book sells very well – it surely deserves it.

Sigma Xi pizza lunch lecture: Images of Darwin and the Nature of Science

From Sigma Xi:

Join us at noon, Tuesday, Oct. 19 here at Sigma Xi to hear NC State University evolutionary biologist Will Kimler talk about “Images of Darwin and the Nature of Science.” Prof. Kimler researches the history of evolutionary ideas in natural history, ecology, genetics and behavior.

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

Directions to Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society in RTP, are here

Postscript to Pittendrigh’s Pet Project – Phototaxis, Photoperiodism and Precise Projectile Parabolas of Pilobolus on Pasture Poop

ResearchBlogging.orgPostscript to Pittendrigh's Pet Project - Phototaxis, Photoperiodism and Precise Projectile Parabolas of Pilobolus on Pasture PoopThis is an edited, expanded, updated, revised and (hopefully) improved version of an old post. You can see the original here (or click on the “From The Archives” icon as usual).

Have you ever been out in the country visiting a farm? If so, you must have seen piles of manure, either stashed somewhere or just lying around the paddocks. And if that manure was a little older and starting to dry out and decompose, you likely saw some fine, white fuzz on its surface. Have you seen that? That fuzz is Pilobolus (not the dance troupe, but the fungus), one of a number of species in the genus. If you had a strong magnifying glass with you, and you trained it at the fuzz, you would have seen something like this:

Pilobolus has a portion of its life-cycle in which it has to pass through the digestive tract of a large herbivorous mammal. Since large mammals roam far and wide, this is a great way for the fungus to disperse. There is one problem, though: once excreted out with the feces, how do fungal spores get back into a large mammal again?

Unlike rabbits and some rodents, large mammals do not tend to eat their own manure. Actually, if you observe a field with a properly kept cow herd – a relatively small number of animals in a relatively large area, and rotated regularly between fields – you will notice that all the cows poop in one spot and no cow ever comes close to that spot to graze. So, what is a poor Pilobolus to do?

It gets ready, it aims, and it shoots!


Pilobolus assumes the position, builds a weapon, fills it with ammunition, aims and shoots. The position is on top of the pile of manure. The ammunition are spores, packaged tightly at the very tip of the filament. The weapon is the sporangiophore, a large swelled organ right below the tip.

The sporangiophore fills up with sap – osmotically active compounds – which builds up pressure until it is about 7 kilograms per square centimeter (100 pounds per square inch). There is also a line of weakness where the cap – the spore package – joins the sporangiophore vesicle. In the end, the pressure causes the sporangiophore to explode which sends the package of spores far, far away – if the wind is in the right direction, as far as 12 feet.

The goo from the sporangiophore goes with the spore package. It is very sticky, so wherever the spores land they tend to stay put. Ideally, that is on a blade of grass which is far enough from the manure pile to have a chance of getting eaten by a cow.

Here is a pretty picture of Pilobolus and a photomicrograph of the spore mass (crushed by the slide and slipcover):

[images from BioImages]

This is very cool (though wait for more coolness below), but also has an economic and environmental impact. Pilobolus spores themselves do not cause harm to their mammalian hosts, but some parasitic worms have evolved a neat trick – hitchiking on the Pilobolus spores right into the digestive tracts of large mammals.

While domestic cattle is regularly dewormed, the real problem is with wild ruminants, especially in places in which they do not have large areas to roam in, as in the elk in the Yellowstone Park. Here is a photograph of a Pilobolus harboring the Dyctiocaulus larvae:


So, Pilobolus shoots its spores really far away, by exerting enormous pressure on the ‘cap’. But, anyone who’s been in an artillery unit in the military will tell you that the distance is determined by angle. Soldiers manning the cannons know that an approximately 45 degree angle of the cannon will result in the greatest distance for the projectile. But a cannon projectile is a large, heavy object (also smooth and aerodynamic), so air resistance plays almost no part in this calculation – the force of gravity is the only force that the projectile needs to overcome.

A fungal spore is a microscopic object. At the small scale (pdf), physics works a little differently – gravity effects are minimal and the air resistance (drag) is the main determinant of maximal distance. Thus, 45 degrees is not neccessarily the optimal angle for achieving the greatest distance.

Frances Trail and Iffa Gaffoor, working with Steven Vogel at Duke University, made some calculations (which I have not seen and I do not think they got published, but I heard them from Dr.Vogel some years ago), looking at the shape and size of spore-caps of several species of Pilobolus (they published data on some other shooting fungi, though – you can read the paper here if you have access, sorry – not OA). The optimal angle for maximal distance ranges, in different species, between 9 and 30 degrees, the most common fuzz found on cow dung requiring about 15 degrees. The maximal distance, without wind, is about 6-7 feet. Quite right. Six feet is about as close as cows will come to a cowpie in well managed cattle establishments.

But does Pilobolus really shoot at 15 degrees? Well, what it does is it shoots towards the Sun. The way Pilobolus aims is through positive phototaxis. Like a sunflower, it follows the Sun in the sky and shoots at the Sun in the morning.

If you place Pilobolus in a box with light coming in only through a pinhole, all the fungi will shoot their spores at the pinhole:

How does Pilobolus see the light? Beneath the sporangium is a lens-like subsporangial vesicle, with a light-sensitive `retina’. It controls the growth and shape of the sporangiophore quite precisely. Thus, the packet of spores is always aimed at a light source:

So, the Pilobolus spores are found 6-12 feet away from the manure and they reproduce quite nicely even in the best managed cattle herds. So, they are probably shot at their optimal 15-degree angle. But they shoot at the Sun. Ergo, they shoot at the Sun when the Sun is about 15 degrees above the horizon.

One can think of two possible ways this can be achieved. One would be a mechanical sensor that triggers the explosion when the angle between the stalk and the cap is 15 degrees. This would work only if each individual was always standing upright on a flat surface, which is not the case on the rough relief of a manure pile.

The other strategy is to time the release so it coincides with the time when the Sun is about 15 degrees above the horizon. But, the trajectory of the Sun differs at different times of year.
In the middle of the summer in a high latitude, when the daylength is, let’s say, 18 hours, the Sun shoots straight up from the East and reaches the zenith right above exactly at noon. Thus, the Sun is around 15 degrees above the horizon about 90 minutes after dawn.

In winter, when the day may be only 6 hours long, the Sun traverses the sky low above the horizon from East to South to West, and may reach 15 degrees much slower (some Earth scientist in the audience can make a quick calculation here), e.g., 2 or even 3 hours after dawn.

How does the Pilobolus adjust to seasonal differences in Sun’s trajectory? By using its circadian clock, which entrains to different photoperiods with a systematically different phase:

Actually, the Pilobolus was the first fungus in which a clock was discovered. The effects of daylength on timing of spore-release was discovered back in 1948. The endogenous rhythmicity – meaning that the spores get shot every day even if there is no light present (in continous darkness) – was discovered in 1951. The major breakthrough was provided by (pdf) Esther-Ruth Uebelmesser in her dissertation:

At the same time that Schmidle published his findings, Esther-Ruth Uebelmesser (1954) dedicated her thesis work to the same subject. Her thesis is remarkable in many ways. Many of her experiments anticipated circadian protocols, frequently used in later years (different T-cycles and photoperiods, reciprocity, night interruption experiments, entrainment by temperature cycles, etc.). Although she did not fully exploit the richness of her experimental approaches in her interpretations, she must be considered a pioneer of the field and has certainly inspired Colin Pittendrigh to use Pilobolus as a circadian model system (Bruce et al., 1960). Probably, Pittendrigh abandoned this model system because of the unbearable smell penetrating the laboratory when the bovine dung media was prepared (Michael Menaker and Gene Block, personal communication, December 2000).


While in Neurospora accumulation of conidia (conidial bands) appears to be driven in these protocols with a constant phase angle in reference to lights-off (Fig. 2A), the phase angle of the spore-shooting rhythm in Pilobolus was systematically different with changing cycle lengths (Fig. 2B), possibly reflecting circadian entrainment. Closer investigation, however, revealed that the Pilobolus sporulation rhythm is also driven by the LD cycle, but unlike in Neurospora, by lights-on. Sporulation in Pilobolus is triggered by light, and the spores mature for approximately 28 h before they are shot (see arrows in Fig. 2B and C). The maturation time represents a kind of memory capacity for prior events. This is seen in experiments in which the fungi were released to DD (e.g., from LD 4:4 shown in Fig. 2C). The rhythm, synchronized to a given light cycle, persists for another 28 h until the endogenous circadian control takes over. Thus, depending on conditions, the production of asexual spores in Pilobolus is controlled both by the clock (phase angle) and by light (a driven spore release once per LD cycle).

[images from Roenneberg and Merrow 2001]

What this all means is that a circadian clock in this fungus is entrained by the dawn (not dusk) and it integrates photoperiodic information in a manner that is consistent with the need to shoot spores towards the Sun at the time of the morning when the Sun first reaches 15 degrees (actually, the tracking movement of the spore lags the Sun by about 20 minutes – fungi are slow to move – but even that is probably compensated for by the circadian clock).

Moreover, Pittendrigh’s students discovered that the Pilobolus clock is extremely sensitive to light (both intensity and duration of light). Its clock requires only a millisecond of light to be completely reset.


In a more recent paper, the explosive ejection of the spores was filmed with an ultra-high-speed video camera and in their subsequent calculations derived from the images, the “launch speeds ranged from 2 to 25 m s−1 and corresponding accelerations of 20,000 to 180,000 g propelled spores over distances of up to 2.5 meters.” You can see the video (turn on the volume – it is set to music) here:

What next?

This is where the story ends, for the time being. But there are still gaps.

For instance, I am not sure if it was ever tested in the laboratory that Pilobolus actually shoots at 15 degrees. This is, according to Dr.Vogel, relatively easy to do, by placing the fungi on a manure-based medium at the center of one of those transparent semi-spheres used by exhibitors at various product fairs (e.g., technology fairs). The ejected spores stick to the inside of the transparent plastic and can be seen from the outside. Measuring the length of the arc from the desk to the spore (and knowing the radius) is all one needs to calculate the angle.

Second, we still do not know for sure if the Pilobolus cues in to the season-specific photoperiod (more likely) or the season-specific Sun trajectory (less likely). One can, in the laboratory, dissociate these two factors by exposing groups of fungi to summer-specific photoperiod and winter-specific trajectory (using a strong flashlight attached to a string and mounted on an arc-shaped wire, attached to a little motor) or vice-versa, as well as season-specific photoperiod with diffuse (instead of focused) light source.

Finally, an evolutionary question. Horses are not as picky as cows concerning the distance from the manure at which they will graze. Pilobolus lives in our horses and shows up in the manure all the time. Is there relaxed selection for the populations (species?) that live in horses? Is their timing off? Is their angle-determination lousy? This would be an easy head-to-head test in the lab (and field) as well. And if there is such a difference between species, looking at molecules – dynamics of gene expression patterns and protein-protein interactions – can perhaps teach us something more about the ways simple parts can accomplish complex tasks in these organisms.

But, if you’d rather learn all of the above in a Dr.Seuss-like poem, go ahead, it’s right here.


Bruce, V., Weight, F., & Pittendrigh, C. (1960). Resetting the Sporulation Rhythm in Pilobolus with Short Light Flashes of High Intensity Science, 131 (3402), 728-730 DOI: 10.1126/science.131.3402.728

TRAIL, F., GAFFOOR, I., & VOGEL, S. (2005). Ejection mechanics and trajectory of the ascospores of Gibberella zeae (anamorph Fuarium graminearum) Fungal Genetics and Biology, 42 (6), 528-533 DOI: 10.1016/j.fgb.2005.03.008

Fischer, M., Stolze-Rybczynski, J., Cui, Y., & Money, N. (2010). How far and how fast can mushroom spores fly? Physical limits on ballistospore size and discharge distance in the Basidiomycota Fungal Biology, 114 (8), 669-675 DOI: 10.1016/j.funbio.2010.06.002

Roenneberg, T., & Merrow, M. (2001). Seasonality and Photoperiodism in Fungi Journal of Biological Rhythms, 16 (4), 403-414 DOI: 10.1177/074873001129001999

Uebelmesser E-R (1954) Über den endogenen Tagesrhythmus der Sporangienbildung von Pilobolus. Arch Mikrobiol 20:1-33.

Yafetto, L., Carroll, L., Cui, Y., Davis, D., Fischer, M., Henterly, A., Kessler, J., Kilroy, H., Shidler, J., Stolze-Rybczynski, J., Sugawara, Z., & Money, N. (2008). The Fastest Flights in Nature: High-Speed Spore Discharge Mechanisms among Fungi PLoS ONE, 3 (9) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003237

On the Shoulders of Giants

…but skipping a few generations of ever smaller and smaller Giants in-between.

There will be more….but this pairing so far is awesome 😉

Books: ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’ by Deborah Blum

Poisoner's Handbook cover.jpgIf you picked up The Poisoner’s Handbook ( looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you’ll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure out a case of poisoning today, with modern sensitive techniques? And if you have read the book through, I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps you should use your fascination with poisons to do good instead, perhaps become a forensic toxicologist?
My SciBling Deborah Blum (blog, Twitter) has done it again – written a fast-paced page-turner, full of action and intrigue, and with TONS of science in it. It reads like a detective novel. Oh, wait, it is a detective novel. Who said that an author has to invent a fictional detective, an Arsene Lupin or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or the Three Investigators? There existed in history real people just like them, including Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Charles Norris was the first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, or at least the first one who was actually qualified for that position which, before him, was a political appointment not requiring any expertise. Norris served in this role from 1918. to 1935. and revolutionized both the position and the science of forensic medicine. Alexander Gettler was one of his first appointees, who served as New York City’s chief toxicologist until 1959.
The two of them used their prominent position to set the new high standards for the profession of a public medical examiner, and also set the new high standards for the scientific research in forensic pathology, including forensic toxicology – the study of the way poisons kill and how to detect it. They affected rules and legislation with their work, they sent clever murderers to the electric chair, and exonerated the innocents who were headed that way due to mistakes of the non-science-based courtroom battles. And in order to do that, they needed to do a lot of their own research during many years of long days and nights in the lab performing meticulous and often gruesome studies of the effects of various substances on animals, people, living and dead tissues and coming up with ever more sensitive and clever methods for detecting as small quantities of the poison as was technically possible at the time.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Deborah Blum notes that there were many other forensic scientists before, during and after the Norris-Gettner era, and many of them got mentioned in the book or are cited in the EndNotes (which I discovered only once I finished the book – I hate the way publishers do this these days!). But it is also true that Norris and Gettner were the leaders – they used their prominent position and political clout, and their meticulous research defined the high standards for the nascent discipline. In a way, the central importance and prominence of these two men worked well for the book – here we have two interesting characters to like and follow instead of a whole plethora of unfleshed names. And as each chapter focuses on one poisonous substance and one or two notorious cases of its use, it is just like following Holmes and Watson through a series of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – the two characters are the connecting thread, and they evolve throughout their lives and throughout the book, case by case.
Apart from being a history of forensic toxicology, the book has several other themes that keep recurring in each chapter, as they chronologically unfold. The book is also a history of 1920/30s New York City, and a history of technology and engineering. Carbon monoxide poisoning? That was the beginning of the car craze. Gas? Everyone cooked and heated with it at the time. Some other poisons were easily found in many over-the-counter products in stores and pharmacies.
Having just read On The Grid, I was also attuned to the discussions of infrastructure of NYC in the early 20th century. How did people transport themselves? Air pollution? Gas? Clean water? Wastewater? All sources of potentially toxic chemicals. How efficient was garbage collection? Not much….thus there were many rats. And rats needed to be controlled. And for that, there was plenty of rat poison to be bought. And rat poison can kill a human as well – inadvertently, as a method for suicide, or as a murder weapon. It is kinda fun to see some of the same infrastructure issues, like garbage disposal and pest extermination in N.Y.City, addressed from different angles in different books – this one, On The Grid, as well as Rats, another fascinating science book that covers New York City engineering, infrastructure and politics of the time. All the threads tie in together….
Another topic addressed in each chapter was Prohibition. One can certainly die of a huge overdose of ethyl alcohol normally found in drinks, but at the time when producing and selling drinks was illegal, people still drank, perhaps even more. And what did they drink? Whatever they could find on the black market – home-made concoctions brewed by unsavory types more interested in profit than the safety of their product. Instead of ethyl, those drinks were mostly made of methyl (wood) alcohol which is much more dangerous in much smaller doses. Prohibition saw a large increase in drinking-related deaths, a fact often loudly pronounced by Norris, leading to the eventual end of Prohibition. Can we apply that thinking to the War On Drugs now?
And the story of Prohibition has another element to it – the importance of regulation. An unregulated substance is potentially dangerous. By solving a number of poisoning cases, and by doing their research on the toxicity of then easily available substances, Norris and Gettner have managed to initiate regulation of a number of toxins, or even their removal from the market altogether. Some substances that were found in everything, even touted as health potions (even radioactive substances!!!) were discovered by forensic toxicologists to be deadly, and were subsequently banned or rigorously controlled. Today we have entire federal agencies dealing with regulation of dangerous chemicals, but in the early 20th century, it was the time of laissez-faire murder, suicide, suffering and death.
Finally, after I finished this fascinating book, I realized it gave me something more: an anchor, or a scaffolding, or a context, for every story about poisons I see now. Now every blog post on Deborah’s blog makes more sense – I can fit it into a body of knowledge and understanding I would not have if I have not read the book. This really goes hand in hand with the recent discussions of #futureofcontext in journalism – see The Future Of Context for starters. The idea is that news stories do not provide enough context for readers who tune into a new topic for the first time. A story that is an update on an ongoing story is not comprehensible without some context, which the news story cannot provide. So now various media organizations are experimenting with ways to provide context for people who are just tuning in. The perfect source of context for a topic is a book, especially now that every book appears to have its own website with links and news and a blog and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. The book provides context, and all these other things provide updates.
For example, reading Bonobo Handshake may not provide much more context for me about animal behavior and cognition since I already have that context, but it certainly now makes it easier for me to understand the news stories regarding conservation of great apes. And without that book I would never have sufficient background in the recent history of Congo to understand and appreciate this comment thread. ‘On The Grid’ gives me context for all news regarding infrastructure. Explaining Research is a great recent example of a book that is a great start on the topic, but which constantly reminds the reader that this field is in flux and that the book’s website contains frequent updates and additional resources. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides fantastic context for the discussions of medical ethics and its evolution in the USA in the past several decades, which I riffed off a little bit in my latest interview.
What reading The Poisoner’s Handbook did for me is to give me enough knowledge and understanding on the topic that I can really appreciate it. I now get excited about news stories regarding poisons because I feel I understand them better. While reading Deborah Blum’s blog was interesting before, now it is more than interesting – it is exciting and I can’t wait for a new post to show up. I did not know how much I did not know. Now that I do, I want to know more. I am hungry for more knowledge, and more news, and more stories about toxins and poisons and how various strange and not so strange substances affect our bodies – where they come from, how they get in, how they hijack or disrupt our normal biochemical processes, how they kill us, and how do we figure that all out in the laboratory or in the basement of the mortuary. I hope you will feel the same once you finish reading this book. You will do that now, OK?

Drunk History – Nikola Tesla (video)

I wonder how much more (and more accurate) detail this guy would get when sober. And how much less most other people would be able to say when sober….

Megalodon and other sharks at Darwin Day

Last night, braving horrible traffic on the way there, and snow on the way back, I made my way to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for the Darwin Day shark lecture co-organized by NESCent and the sneak preview of the Megalodon exhibit which officially opens today.
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I have to say that the trip was very much worth making – the exhibit is excellent! I like the way the exhibit is making good use of the space – so many exhibits feel cluttered and an all-out assault on all of one’s senses. Upon entering the room, it looks quite sparse. Yet, once I started going around I saw how much it actually covers, how well organized the exhibit layout is, how much information (including a lot of new-to-me information) is included and presented so very clearly and tastefully, and how much it has something for everyone independent of age, background or interest. And of course – the fossils! Absolutely amazing and stunning fossils! From the magnificent Megalodon jaws, to some of the strangest teeth arrangements one has ever seen in any jaw of any animal.
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Then, exhausted and a little faintly from the lack of food yesterday (yes, it was a busy day), I entered the lecture hall afraid I’d fall asleep or pass out in the middle of the talk. I need not have worried – Adam Summers is an amazing speaker. I was able not just to pay attention throughout, I was excited throughout the talk. For a jaded biologist and blogger, when many public lectures tend to present stuff already well known to me, it was refreshing to keep learning new stuff every couple of minutes or so. And not just new factoids, but new questions and new ways of thinking about them – why are sharks larger than bony fish, why sharks have no bone, how do sharks swim, how do sharks and bony fish manage to swim very fast, etc. Questions I never asked myself before.
There were things in there that are outside my realm of expertise, for which I am essentially a layman: engineering principles, a formula I am unfamiliar with, a couple of graphs….yet all of that was made very clear on an intuitive level. How? Because Adam is really good at using analogies (“think of this as…”) and metaphors (snuck into the description without any warning). Be it water-filters, armor, stacks of coins, or houses made of sponges, it all becomes vivid and immediately makes sense.
It is also obvious that a lot of research went into this, yet very few actual data were shown – only the key data that are essential to make the point. This is a public lecture – there is no need to drown the audience in gazillions of graphs and discussions of statistics. The slides, including the images and brief video clips were both beautiful and essential for grasping the point he is making. And then there was quite a lot of humor, mainly of the self-deprecating kind making fun of himself and his students in the context of scientist stereotypes – how they look, talk, think and behave.
All in all – well done. Who ever said that scientists don’t know how to communicate to lay audience, eh?

Darwin Day – Sharks!

This afternoon, I’ll be driving down to Raleigh to the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences for the special Darwin Day event organized in collaboration with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.
The evening will start with the sneak-peak pre-opening of the Megalodon exhibit which opens to the public tomorrow. Megalodon was the largest shark ever discovered in the fossil record and the exhibit will, apart from its massive jaws, showcase the evolution of sharks, modern sharks and the conservation issues facing these magificient fish today:

At 60 feet long, Carcharodon megalodon was the largest shark that ever lived and a dominant marine predator. Sharks are at risk today, with recent population declines attributed to humans. While the Megalodon vanished 2 million years ago, its fascinating story inspires lessons for contemporary science and shark conservation. “Megalodon: Largest Shark that Ever Lived” opens February 13 and runs through May 9, 2010.
This unique exhibit showcases both fossil and modern shark specimens, as well as full-scale models from several collections. Visitors enter a full-sized sculpture of Megalodon through massive jaws and discover this shark’s history and the world it inhabited, including its physiology, diet, lifespan, relatives, neighbors, evolution and extinction.
The exhibit also provides details on how to improve the health of our oceans and survival of threatened species. Recent worldwide declines are attributed to commercial and sport overfishing. Scientists estimate that humans kill 100 million sharks, skates and rays each year, and the life history of most shark species makes it difficult for populations to rebound.
For those wondering why sharks should be saved, the exhibit asks visitors to consider the marine food-web domino effect caused by overfishing. Another section describes how this animal continues to fascinate many, elevating the Megalodon to near cult status. From biker jackets to postage stamps, the exhibition explains the many ways that the Megalodon remains a part of human culture through art, literature, music and film.

Then, at 6:30, NESCent introduces a public lecture by Adam Summers:

To kick off the exhibit, biologist Adam Summers will tell us about sharks as inspiration for biomaterials design and how these ancient fishes swim fast and grow huge. Find out what we have learned since Darwin’s time about the underwater world of sharks and other fishes.
The talk is FREE and open to the public. First come, first served event. Space is limited. Reserve your ticket now!
Friday, February 12th
N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones Street, Downtown Raleigh
6:30 – 7:30 p.m.
While you’re there, get a sneak preview of the exhibit:
Megalodon: Largest Shark That Ever Lived
5:00-8:00 p.m.
“Special Preview” discount pricing
$5.00 Adults, $3.00 Children (ages 5-11)
Free for Members
Separate tickets for the exhibit opening and the lecture are needed. Lecture is recommended for guests 12 years and older. Exhibit is recommended for everyone. Purchase/reserve tickets at

If you will be there tonight, find me and say Hello.

Creation: A Conversation with Darwin’s Descendant

This week on PRI/BBC World Science:

This month, the movie Creation opened in theaters across the United States.
The film chronicles the life and work of Charles Darwin.
The movie is directed by Jon Amiel. Paul Bettany stars as Darwin. Jennfer Connelly plays Darwin’s wife, Emma.
Creation is based on a biography written by Charles Darwin’s great great grandson, Randal Keynes.
Keynes is a conservation biologist who lives in London.
The World’s science correspondent, Rhitu Chatterjee, spoke with Keynes about his famous ancestor and the experience of seeing his book turned into a movie.
Listen to that interview here: Download MP3.
Now it’s your turn to chat with Randal Keynes. Join the conversation — it’s just to the right.
* Did Keynes’s famous pedigree prompt his decision to become a conservation biologist?
* What is it like for Keynes to see the species Darwin studied — in the Galapagos, for instance — threatened with extinction?
* Have you seen the movie Creation? Did it change your view of Darwin as a man?


One of the nice benefits of hosting ScienceOnline conferences is that I sometimes get presents. The one that I find totally fascinating that I got this year is the 2009 issue of Phlogiston, the Journal of History of Science published once a year in Serbian language – print only (the journal does not even have a homepage).
Phlogiston cover.jpg
I got this issue from Jelka Crnobrnja-Isailovic who came all the way from Serbia to do a session on challenges to Open Access in developing countries together with her friend and colleague Tatjana Jovanovic-Grove.
The 2009 issue of Phlogiston is dedicated to Darwin and the articles are just amazing – from history to biology to societal implications to applications of evolutionary thinking to other disciplines. There is an article on biases in computer simulations of evolution, and an article on all the species that are named after Darwin himself (ending with the latest – Darwinius masillae). Jelka’s own contribution digs through Darwin’s correspondence to show how strongly Darwin himself disputed the Naturalistic Fallacy, especially in the context of his opposition to slavery which may have been one of the motivators for his thinking about evolution in the first place.
Totally cool reading! I wish the stuff was online so I could link to it, perhaps have some articles translated….

Recent Science-Related Events in the Triangle

Last couple of weeks months were awfully busy, on many fronts, not least finalizing the ScienceOnline2010 program, herding cats almost 100 moderators/presenters to do various stuff (e.g., respond to my e-mails) in a timely manner, and making sure that registration goes smoothly. This is also the time of year when activation energy for doing anything except going to bed to hide under the covers is very high for people suffering from SAD. Thus, you did not see many ‘original’ posts here lately, I know.
But, it’s not that I have been totally idle. Apart from teaching my BIO101 lab again, I also went to several science-related events in the Triangle over the past two months. I feel like I should blog about each one of them separately, at length and with nuance, as this hangs over my neck like the Sword of Damocles – I feel I should not blog about anything else until all of these event reports are out of the way.
So, in a compromise solution, instead of a bunch of long separate posts, I will collect all the brief reports from all the events here, in a single post, get that over with and mentally free myself to blog about other stuff soon.
Lisa Sanders at UNC
Lisa Sanders is a physician and a professor of medicine, but you probably heard of her in a different context: Lisa writes the Diagnosis column in The New York Times, has recently published a book Every Patient Tells a Story, and has inspired and acts as the medical adviser to the TV show House (of which I heard, not being a TV watcher, at the beginning of her talk).
Lisa Sanders came to the Triangle last month and gave talks at Duke and UNC. Bride of Coturnix and I went to the UNC talk which filled a large auditorium. Her book is being read by all the UNC medical students who will then discuss the book in smaller groups.
The process of diagnosis has three steps: interview, physical exam and laboratory tests.
Laboratory tests have become more and more dominant as the preferred part of the diagnosis process, for a number of (cultural) reasons:
First, they are the quickest, thus save the physician time (others do the work).
Second, unlike interviews that seem subjective, or physical exams that look medieval, lab tests look like ScienceTM! – there are numbers there. And you can’t argue against numbers, can you? This works great on the background of lack of statistical sophistication (or outright innumeracy) on the part of both physicians and patients. No arguing. No second opinions. The process moves on smoothly for everyone. Except, the numbers cannot be trusted as much they usually are.
Third, a number is not an opinion, thus it is a safeguard against lawsuits. It saves physician’s asses in such cases.
Both the frenzy and the (perceived) lack of time and the fear of lawsuits would be diminished if we had a real healthcare reform (not the compromise of a compromise of a compromise bill that is brewing in the US Senate right now, but an actual reform) in which the physicians could get their authority and trust back and be able to practice their art and craft and science with some degree of freedom. In a system in which insurance companies determine how care is done, physicians are just technicians and cannot earn authority and trust.
So, with everyone jumping onto lab tests, the art of interview and the art of physical examination are slowly dying out. They are not even taught in some medical schools any more. Where they are taught, as soon as newly minted physicans are on their own they join the medical culture that frowns upon these two steps of the diagnostic process.
Yet, Dr.Sanders showed data from two studies (done in different countries by different people in different years), both providing almost exactly the same results. In about 75-80% of the cases (physician encountering a new patient for the first time), the physician comes up with a correct diagnosis after the interview. In about 10-12% of the cases, the doctor has to correct her/himself after the physical exam in order to arrive at the correct diagnosis. And in only the remaining 10-12% or so cases did the lab tests provide information that forced the physician to change one’s mind and come up with the correct diagnosis. In 8 out of 10 cases, the interview was sufficient!
When asked why they are shunning the interviews, physicians respond that they have no time – the system is forcing them to see too many patients per day. A study shows that physicians interrupt patients’ stories abruptly, very soon, sometimes as early as 3 seconds into the interview. Yet, in another study, when doctors were asked specifically not to interrupt, the interviews lasted only one minute longer. Just one minute! Thus interruption does not really save any time – it’s an illusion.
But what is more important is that the interruption itself means something. First, it means that the physician is not really listening. Second, it tells the patient that the doctor is not listening. By relaxing for that extra minute and actively listening to the patient, not just fishing for diagnostically important information in the account but also listening to hear how the patient perceives him/herself, and how that perception is altered by the illness, the physician gains a better understanding of the patient, can probably come up with a better diagnosis and, most importantly, gains trust with the patient. That trust is very important later, when the physician needs to rely on the patients to be disciplined about the treatment. The interruption loses that trust, something that smooth-talking medical quacks are quick to jump on, offering to listen even if their treatments are completely bogus.
What a patient does during the interview is story-telling. A physician needs to be trained to listen to and understand such stories – to glean how the change in health status affects the self-confidence, self-view and self-worth of the patient, how it changes one’s life-plans and ambitions, what fears it brings, what difficult adjustments in lifestyle it requires. To see the patient as a person, not just a disease.
And then, the story-telling does not end with the interview. The physicians and nurses need to communicate with each other about the patient and that also entails, when done right, story-telling (which need not be spoken, it can be in the chart). Finally, the healthcare providers need to know how to tell the story back to the patient, both to convey the diagnosis and to gain the trust needed for the patient to accept and follow through with the treatment. Quick recitatiton of code-numbers and Latin words just won’t do.
So Lisa Sanders, with her book, her column, her advising of House MD and her speaking tour, tries to teach the importance of the interview and the physical exam, the art of listening and storytelling. I am glad that UNC is taking her seriously.
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The next day, a bunch of us met with Dr.Sanders at the West End Wine Bar in Durham. It was great fun to talk to her in an informal setting and to ask questions that I did not dare ask at the public talk in front of hundreds of med school professors and students and something like the entire nursing school of UNC. After all, my only perspective on medicine is from the position of a patient (and a reader of some med-blogs) so I learned a lot, yet was aware how little I actually know about medical training and practice. Anton organized that meet-up with the local science communicators and wrote his summary of the week’s events on his blog:
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Steven Churchill at Sigma Xi
Steven Churchill is a professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. His focus is on the role of projectile weapons in the evolution of humans. Dr.Churchill gave a talk at Sigma Xi as a part of their Pizza Lunch monthly series.
November 001.jpgWhat is a projectile weapon? It is something that can be thrown far away – more than just a couple of meters – and with sufficient power to seriously injure or kill a large animal. A non-projectile weapon, even if it can be thrown with force to a shorter distance of a couple of meters, requires either ambush hunting or chasing the prey into a corner or a bog where it can be approached and stabbed from a close distance. A projectile weapon allows hunters to hunt out in the open, perhaps just hiding in the tall grass. Thus two types of weaponry target different kinds of prey.
But inventing projectile weapons requires refinement in technical skills of making them, technical skills in throwing them, and changes in anatomy to make projectile weapons effective. And once invented, projectile weapons have novel ecological impacts, including impacts on further cultural evolution of humans.
This is what Dr.Churchill is studying. He is focusing on Europe, the invention of projectile weapons by modern (“Cro-Magnon”) humans and lack of such invention in Neanderthals, how that impacted the ecological relationship between the two species, and how that contributed to Neanderthal extinction as well as extinction (through competitive exclusion, as well as direct competition by killing) of all the large European carnivores except wolves.
In the talk, Dr.Churchill surveyed several different aspects of his research. He is approaching the question from several different angles. One is the study of spear tips in the archaeological record – their shape and size, the weight, the aerodynamics of the shape, etc. all tell something about their use as either close-contact or projectile weapons. Some (rare) spear handles and spear-throwers tell their own stories.
Then there is the fossil record of humans, Neanderthals and other large carnivores that show numbers and geographical distributions, migrations and dates of extinctions.
Next, there are anatomical cues – skeleton is malleable during development and bones in the upper arm develop differently in cultures that use contact weapons versus those that use projectile weapons as the stabbing technique is different from the throwing technique – throwers have different torsion angles in the humerus and also the humerus of one arm gets thicker than that of the other arm – this pattern is found in humans, but not in Neanderthals.
Finally, the general shape of Neanderthals would make them strong stabbers but poor throwers, so even if they tried throwing (perhaps by seeing the spears used that way by modern humans) they would not have been effective hunters with that technique.
November 004.jpgThen, there are wounds in the bones of some fossil humans and Neanderthals. By conducting an experiment – throwing spears into pig carcasses at various speeds, powers and distances (yes, throwing done by a machine) and analyzing the effects on bones – Churchill and his students could conclude that the wounds in the fossil bones were indeed the result of projectile weapons thrown from a distance.
The talk was, as is usually the case on these occasions, a quick survey of various studies. I did not read all the papers by him or his competitors, so I cannot write anything from a position of my own expertise. But my feeling is this:
Each piece of evidence he showed is weak on its own, but put together they make a strong case. And the strength is not purely additive, i.e., in the sense that more data is stronger than fewer data. The strength comes from consilience. Let me try to explain how that works.
Let’s call his preferred hypothesis ‘Hypothesis A’. One piece of evidence he shows is consistent with Hypothesis A, and weakens (or eliminates) an alternative Hypothesis B, but is also strongly vulnerable to alternative Hypothesis C. Another piece of evidence is consistent with his Hypothesis A, and weakens an alternative Hypothesis C, but is also strongly vulnerable to alternative Hypothesis D. Yet another piece of evidence is consistent with his Hypothesis A, and weakens an alternative Hypothesis D, but is also strongly vulnerable to alternative Hypothesis B. When you look at all of his evidence together, all of it is consistent with Hypothesis A and all alternatives look weak. Thus with all pieces being individually weak, the whole edifice still looks very powerful.
Now, to make clear, Dr.Churchill pointed out several times that the research he focuses on, his Hypothesis A, is not the one and only explanation for the extinction of Neanderthals (and other large predators). He just asserts that it is an important component of the process that led to this result and perhaps a more important component than some other people in the field are ready to admit. Of course, that’s how science works: different people focus on different aspects of a problem, and the strength of each person’s data will determine how the whole picture is built in the end.
This was definitely an interesting talk on a topic I never thought about before. DeLene was also there and wrote her thoughts about the lecture on her blog Wild Muse as well as on the Science In The Triangle blog.
RTI Fellows Symposium: Integrating Basic and Applied Research
This was a two-day event at the University of North Carolina’s Friday Center in Chapel Hill. This was also the first time I saw the Friday Center from within and I was looking at it with the eyes of a conference organizer. It has a Goldilocks quality to it: not so pleasant, intimate and science-themed as Sigma Xi, and not as big, cold and corporate as the Raleigh Convention Center. Just the right size and feel. But expensive as hell – Sigma Xi has been good to us over the years, not sure if we could negotiate a similar deal with Friday…..though we have definitely grown and a 420-seat main conference room at Friday Center looks good.
I could attend only the Monday morning portion of the meeting, but Sabine Vollmer was at the Symposium for the whole thing and wrote two blogs posts about the rest of the program here and here with a lot of details.
There were four broad themes entertained by the symposium: Personalized Medicine, Behavioral Neuroscience of Alcoholism, Global Climate Change and Education Opportunity and Achievement. Each of the themes had its own breakout session later, but Monday morning was reserved for Keynote Speakers, one on each of the four topics, each of interest to me in one way or another.
Let me first dispose of the things I did not like about the conference before I get into things I liked.
Over the past few years, most of the conferences I go to are informal, unconference or unconference-like events: from Scifoo in Mountain View, to Science FEST in Trieste, to ConvergeSouth in Greensboro, to our own ScienceOnline meetings. Even the ‘real’ science meeting I like to go to, the SRBR meeting, is very relaxed and informal – shorts-and-Hawaiian-shirt-clad scientists giving funny and entertaining talks about their new findings in my own field, with internal jokes, calling out friends in the audience and occasional hackling joke from the room (OK, OK, I overstate – folks are mostly nice and polite, especially when the talk is given by someone younger, e.g, a properly dressed graduate student, waiting in attentive silence until the end and then asking proper questions afterwards, but still, the general atmosphere is friendly and relaxed).
I realize of course that different conferences require different setup and different levels of formality. Not everything is a Bar Camp. While I was personally uncomfortable wearing my suit-and-tie costume at the IASP meeting, I understood that this was a business meeting in a business venue with businessmen (and a handful of businesswomen) in business attire talking about business.
But this one, I think, was a mismatch. All (or almost all) speakers were scientists talking about science. Almost everyone in the audience were scientists. For this kind of meeting, the organization was far too formal. And not just in pomp and ceremony and dress-code. For example, if you look at the abstracts, they don’t really say anything about the topic of the talk – they go in great detail about the speaker, including all the past and present appointments, awards and honorary degrees. This indicates that the organizers were more interested in the power hierarchy (i.e., ‘look at VIPs we managed to get here to talk’) instead of the substance of what they are saying. It felt more like a big corporate show-off than a conference meant for an exchange of ideas.
Then, there was no time designated for Question & Answer periods after the talks. I wanted to ask questions, but there was just no mechanism for doing so. I understand there were panels afterwards, but even those were built strangely – with panelists, after each gave a separate talk, sitting at a table on a podium above the audience, physically looking down at the audience, thus psychologically inhibiting all but the bravest from actually speaking up. I do not know how it went, but I doubt it was a free-wheeling discussion.
Then, the talks. Two speakers actually read their talks. Arrrgh! Yawn (and I was FULL of caffeine).
Others were much better. Howard McLeod gave a good, clear introduction into personal genomics and personal medicine, its pros and cons. Robert Jackson from Duke provided a good summary of the current state of science of climate change.
Ronald Dahl talked about adolescent brain development (something I am very interested in, both professionally and as a father of two adolescents), especially the lengthening of the period between onset of puberty which arrives earlier and earlier (the timing of which is not matched by an earlier development of other brain functions, including self-control) and the delay of societally approved age for onset of sexual activity (including marriage). Thus the duration of the period during which adolescents are sexually mature (but not entirely emotionally mature) but discouraged from sexual activity is getting longer and longer – which is an obvious problem. Couple that with the tendency of adolescents to be unable to resist, despite personal fear, engaging in risky behaviors, problems like teen alcoholism and traffic accidents are on the rise.
Lunch Keynote Speaker, Ralph Tarter, was the biggest dissapointment. His talk about bridging the Two Cultures and lessons from Hollywood was surprising for its naivete easily detectable by anyone who’s been reading science blogs for more than a year or so (including Framing Wars, response to Sizzle and response to Unscientific America, along with bloggers who routinely write about history of science). It was infused with nostalgia for good old days when scientists and poets drank wine and talked together (ehm, scientists and poets at the time were the one and the same people – that was Victorian era when gentlemen of means could afford to indulge themselves in such pastimes as philosophy, natural history and poetry and meeting their like-minded buddies at the pub). Science today is a very different business, specialized, expensive, profesionalized and rightly so. That’s progress.
The worst part was the lunch talk was the last point – a very erroneous analogy between peer-review of grants and movie reviews. First error: grants are reviewed before they are funded – movies are reviewed after they are funded. Second, as much as the grant review is prone to error, it is still done by well-meaning teams of scientists who are at least trying to evaluate the proposals according to their merits. Yes, outlandish proposals have a harder time than bandwagon stuff or conservative approaches, but it is at least attempted to be done fairly. Which movie gets funded is totally up to whims of movie moguls and producers. I bet even smaller percentage of submitted movie scripts gets actually made into movies than a proportion of grant proposals that gets funded. And while grant reviewers may look at the past publishing records of the grant submitters, the movie magnates are not in any way swayed by the statistics of positive or negative views of particular actors by movie critics in the media.
The highlight of the day was the talk by James Evans. I know Jim well, but I have never seen him speak before. And he blew me away. He knew that all the other speakers on the Personalized Medicine topics will be over-optimistic, so he took it on himself to provide a counter-view, a summary of cautionary notes backed up by data and a nice dose of humor. It was a very energetic and fun talk that explained very clearly what claims by personal genomics companies really mean, why they are so seductive if you don’t stop to think about them, and how they stack up against reality.
NESCent panel on intersection of public policy, economics, & evolution
NESCent Catalysis Meeting, coorganized by the Evolution Institute was on November 13-15, 2009 and several of the participants remained another day and came to NESCent on the 16th to report on the meeting in a form of a panel. The meeting and the panel were organized by David Sloan Wilson, professor of evolution at Binghamton University and one of my newest SciBlings. The other panelists were Dennis Embry, John Gowdy, Douglas Kenrick, Joel Peck, Harvey Whitehouse and Peter Turchin.
The main idea of the meeting is that evolutionary theory has something to offer in the realm of understanding human societies and thus shaping policies governing aspects of human activity. In the domain of economics, for example, it appears that the classical economics (i.e., the Chicago School) is unbeatable in the corridors of power. Yet, it is essentially faulty and this has been shown many times, including by numerous Nobel Prize winners in Economics. The idea that humans are rational (and perfectly informed) economic players is just plain wrong. Yet our economic policy is built upon that error. Perhaps developing and using models from evolutionary theory can finally bring the well-past-due overturn of the faulty economics and become the basis for smart, modern economic policies. The work is just beginning.
Perhaps the insights from the study of social and eusocial animals, mainly insects, can inform the discussion about social behavior of humans. How do simple rules for simple brains result in complex behaviors of, for example, bee swarms? Perhaps if we used such simple rules, instead of relying on every individual human being highly intelligent, impartial and rational, we can devise policies that will actually work, in various domains of human activity.
Taking into account multi-level selection models of evolution one can start understanding the differences between small-group societies (e.g, in rural areas) and large-group societies (e.g., in large cities), why those result in diefferent behaviors of individual humans living there, and why the differences between the two types of groups often lead to civil wars (often wars we usually do not see or describe as civil wars due to our own myopia, not realizing that a war between two adjacent regions may, in fact, be a war between the city and the country “mentality” – something quite obviously applicable to the US red vs. blue states, really small-town conservatism vs. big-city liberalism). Why imposing large-group organization (i.e., a President and a Parliament, i.e., a ‘centralized government’ of a unified country) may not work in a country like Afghanistan in which the society was always organized via local kin-and-friend networks – evolutionary theory can open our eyes on such questions.
This group of people, coming from a variety of backgrounds including history, anthropology, ecology, economics, psychology, political science, ethology and evolutionary biology, will try to tackle these and similar questions over the years to come.
Interestingly, the meeting was apparently an Unconference (though they have never heard of the term before), with discussions starting some months before the event (I presume online), leading to the choices of topics actually discussed in sessions which were free-style discussions, not speeches. One of the panelists noted that interdisciplinary meetings are usually excercises in misunderstanding, as each participant brings in different language and different axioms, but not this meeting – people actually made an effort, in advance, to study and learn other people’s perspectives before encountering them in the sessions in real life. This made the meeting, judging from the enthusiasm of all panelists, a resounding success.
This was the first time I ever visited NESCent (though I was excited when I first heard about its founding five years ago) and it was really nice to see Craig McClain and Robin Ann Smith again, as well as to meet, for the first time in real life, John Logsdon who blogs on Sex, Genes and Evolution and has come to NESCent for a nine-year sabbatical.
November 005.jpg
Solid Waste Management Vendor Fair at the RTP Headquarters
I got to see this almost by accident. I was going to the RTP headquarters to talk to them about their new blog and, for the price of free pizza, wondered around the exhibit and saw a brief talk about the ways North Carolina is doing recycling solid waste, why that is a good thing, and what are the prospect for the future. But I will let Cara Rousseau give you more details, in a post on the new RTP blog.
SCONC celebration of the Origin of Species 150-year anniversary at NESCent
Just a couple of days after my first ever visit to NESCent, I found myself there again. The occasion, the anniversary of the publication of the Origin Of Species (though officially today), was a good excuse for SCONC to have its monthly meeting at NESCent.
Robin Smith welcomed us all with a piece of great news – the funding for NESCent was extended for another five years! Then, while we were enjoying some delicious food, we were treated to three interesting presentations by current NESCent post-docs: Julie Meachen-Samuels talking about Smilodon, how it hunted differently than modern Big Cats and what it means for our understanding of palaeo-ecology and evolution, Trina Roberts about the diversity and biogeography of tree shrews (and how to get DNA from museum skeletal specimens!), and Eric Schuettpelz about the way ferns radiated into many species with the appearance of forests of (flowering) trees by occupying a new niche – living on the tree trunks as epiphytes, in the shade.
I found myself thinking about parallels between the Smilodon presentation and the one on projectile weapons I heard a couple of weeks before. Neanderthals uses stabbing close-contact weapons (and are now extinct) while modern humans used projectile weapons, thus being able to hunt different kinds of prey (and are now extant). Similarly, most Big Cats today hunt by giving chase to their prey and then killing it with their long canine teeth, often having to hold the teeth clenched in the trachea for several minutes until the victim dies. But Smilodons (the saber-tooth cats) had to hunt differently – from an ambush, presumably in thick forests and not out in the open country. They overpowered their prey using the weight and strength of their forelimbs and only at the end finished the completely immobilized victim with a quick slice with their canines. If they tried to keep their teeth inside still struggling large animals for more than a moment, their long but thin canines would break. In some ways, the Smilodon hunting technique is analogous to using close-quarters weapons, while the techniques of modern Big Cats is more analogous to hunting with projectile weapons (with themselves being “projectiles”). With such a massive body, with hindquarters so much smaller than the front half of the animal, and with no tail they could use for balance, saber-tooth cats could not run fast enough and long enough to be “projectiles”. Perhaps that’s why they, like Neanderthals, are now all dead.
And yes, we had a Darwin birthday cake – Russ Campbell has the pictures.

Museum lecture traces historic Beagle voyage

The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences hosts the final offering of its Charles Darwin Lecture Series on Tuesday, November 24 — the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s landmark publication of “The Origin of Species.” Join Museum paleontologist and science historian Paul Brinkman for a free presentation titled “Charles Darwin’s Beagle Voyage and the Origin of ‘The Origin.'”
Dr. Brinkman completed his PhD in History of Science at the University of Minnesota with research in the history of 19th-century natural sciences, especially geology and paleontology. He has published a number of articles on Darwin, museum history, and the history of American vertebrate paleontology. His second book, The Second American Jurassic Dinosaur Rush, is due out next year from the University of Chicago Press.
Please RSVP to — be sure to specify the event name and date. This lecture is free of charge and seating is on a first-come, first-served basis. Doors to the Museum and auditorium will open at 6:00 pm and the presentation will begin at 6:30 pm.
The Museum, in collaboration with the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) and the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at North Carolina State University, has presented several talks throughout 2009 to commemorate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species.” The series showcases the Triangle region of North Carolina as a hot spot for evolutionary biology research and features prominent researchers from area universities. Stay tuned to the Museum’s website [] for Darwin-themed events scheduled for 2010.

Celebrate Darwin’s 200th birthday

NESCent and SCONC:

What: November SCONC-fest
When: Thursday November 19th , 6-8pm
Where: National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham
Please join us to commemorate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of “The Origin of Species.”
Learn about the wild world of Ice Age carnivores, brainy birds, and other creatures Darwin missed. Our tour guides will be four postdocs on the frontiers of biology.
We’ll begin at 6pm at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham. Parking is free.
National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent)
2024 W. Main Street, Suite A200
Durham, NC 27705
Travel Directions: The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center is near the corner of 9th St. and W. Main St. in Durham, on the 2nd floor of the Erwin Mill Building. Free parking is available in front of the building.
To RSVP please drop a note to:

Darwin Across the Disciplines

At Duke University John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute:

Thursday, November 5th, 2009 at 4:00 pm
In collaboration with the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies and Duke’s University Institutes, the FHI is pleased to present a 2-day symposium marking the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origins of Species. The core idea of the symposium is to mark these dual anniversaries by discussing Darwin’s work (its impacts, legacies, etc) from a range of disciplinary perspectives crossing the sciences, humanities, arts, and social sciences, and to use that opportunity as an occasion for thinking about the kinds of knowledge projects and practices that can emerge when we traffic those disciplinary divides. A complete program schedule is available here.

Now this is bloggy scholarship!

Zombies of the mammoth steppes. Read it now. Can you find something as riveting, yet scholarly and trustworthy, in your newspaper today?

Re: Design

From NESCent:

> “Re: Design” – This is a dramatization of the scientific correspondence between Charles Darwin and botanist Asa Gray, and is a product of the Darwin Correspondence Project. NESCent is co-sponsoring this theatrical production with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, WUNC-TV and the NCSU Theater Dept. The production will be staged at the newly renovated Thompson Hall theater at NCSU, and will employ professional actors (not undergrads!) so it should be a really high-quality production. It will run for five days (Nov. 4th through 8th), with the first four days being 8 PM performances and the final day (Sunday, Nov. 8th) being a 3 PM matinee.
Of note, at the conclusion of the opening night performance (Wednesday, Nov. 4th), NESCent is organizing a panel discussion, which will explore Darwin’s legacy in science and society. The panel will include Dr. Jim Costa (Professor of Biology at Western Carolina University, Director of the Highlands Biological Station and author of a recently published annotated version of The Origin of Species), Dr. Will Kimler (NCSU Professor of the History of Science and noted Darwin Scholar), and Dr. Jean Beagle Ristaino (NCSU Prof. of Plant Pathology working on plant evolution, and collaborating with the Director of Harvard’s Asa Gray Herbarium on a paper on Darwin’s work on the potato famine).

I am looking forward to this very much – I’ll be there, most likely on November 4th so I can also stay for the panel.

Galileo’s telescope is 400 years old

And Google celebrates:

Charles Darwin Lecture Series – Dale Russell: “Islands in the Cosmos: The Evolution of Life on Land”


How did we come to be here? Answers to this question have preoccupied
humans for millennia. Scientists have sought clues in the genes of
living things, in the physical environments of Earth – from mountaintops
to the depths of the ocean, in the chemistry of this world and those
nearby, in the tiniest particles of matter, and in the deepest reaches
of space. On Tuesday, September 29, Senior Curator of Paleontology Dale
Russell presents a talk based on his new book “Islands in the Cosmos:
The Evolution of Life on Land,” which follows evolution from its origins
to the present day. The talk begins at 6:30 p.m. at the North Carolina
Museum of Natural Sciences in downtown Raleigh and is the fourth
offering of the Museum’s Charles Darwin Lecture Series.
In “Islands of the Cosmos,” Russell traces a path from the dawn of the
universe to speculations about our future on this planet. He centers his
story on the physical and biological processes in evolution, which
interact to favor more successful, and eliminate less successful, forms
of life. It remains to be seen, Russell notes in the book, whether the
human form can survive the dynamic processes that brought it into
Russell is also author of “A Vanished World: The Dinosaurs of Western
Canada” and “An Odyssey in Time: The Dinosaurs of North America”.
Science author David E. Fastovsky calls Russell “one of the great
creative thinkers of all time in paleontology.” Russell played a key
role in the discovery of the world’s first dinosaur specimen with a
fossilized heart, which became international news when it was reported
in the April 21, 2000 issue of the journal Science. The
66-million-year-old Thescelosaurus, nicknamed Willo, is on display in
the Museum’s Prehistoric North Carolina exhibit hall.
Please RSVP to This lecture is free of
charge and seating is on a first come, first served basis. Doors to the
Museum and auditorium will open at 6 p.m. Signed copies of the book will
be available for purchase.
The Museum, in collaboration with the National Evolutionary Synthesis
Center (NESCent) and the W.M. Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at
North Carolina State University, is presenting this lecture series
throughout 2009 to commemorate the bicentennial of Charles Darwin’s
birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of
Species.” On Tuesday, November 24, Museum paleontologist and Darwin
scholar Paul Brinkman presents the fifth and final lecture in the
series: “Charles Darwin’s Beagle Voyage and the Origin of ‘The Origin’.”

The exciting history of history of science. And mammoths!

Scientific facts are fun. But probably to a limited number of people.
It’s more fun to know how scientists got those facts – their thoughts, motivations and methods. How they did it. Why they did it. Where did they get the idea to do it in the first place.
It’s even more fun, for a broader number of people, if that finding is placed in a historical context – how work of previous generations of scientists, meandering around various age-specific ideas, led to the work of this particular group.
But it is even more fun watching the historians of science at work. Most recent science is pretty easy to figure out. But going into the past, it gets harder and harder. The unit of information today is the peer-reviewed scientific paper in a journal that is for the most part easily obtainable online. But in the past, books were more important. The standards of evidence were not as stringent. The various pseudoscientific and borderline scientific ideas were mainstream. Many scientific findings were made by adventurous explorers, not people with long and sophisticated scientific training. The line between science and fiction was not very clear. While today English is the language of science, in the past many languages were used, and not everyone could read all of them. Transport of books around the world was slow and difficult. Plagiarism was harder to detect, thus rampant. History of science, and even more the work of science historians, reads like a detective thriller! Now that’s exciting!
Which is why I regularly read John McKay at Archy, who is a professional historian, slowly working on his book. And occasionally putting some of the essays on his blog for the commenters to help with corrections, ideas and additional information. See his latest output – all riveting reads:
Fragments of my research – VIII
A mammoth literary mystery
A very brief history of plagiarism
The intellectual dishonesty of Allan Quist
Quist, Antarctica, and all that
Mammoth on ice
Mammoth illustrations

In Memoriam: Victor Bruce, 1920-2009

Victor Bruce, a lecturer emeritus in biology at Princeton who conducted advanced studies for more than 25 years on the built-in cycles governing natural rhythms like the sleep-wake cycle, has died. He was 88.
Bruce, who despite a background in engineering became drawn to biological studies, died Friday, May 29, at his home in Princeton after a short struggle with cancer.
“He was an A-1 scientist who did some really neat work,” said John Bonner, Princeton’s George M. Moffett Professor Emeritus of Biology. “He was a wonderful colleague.”
Bruce joined the Department of Biological Sciences in 1956, drawn by the work of Colin Pittendrigh, a noted professor in the department. It was in Pittendrigh’s lab that Bruce began his studies into the circadian rhythms of the one-celled Chlamydomonas, a form of green algae that ultimately became a model organism for scientists.
Plants and animals, Bruce knew, have built-in biological clocks that allow them to flower, sleep or wake at the right time. Without signals from the environment, the clocks keep to 24-hour rotations. Bruce wanted to know what controlled these cycles. In close studies of the algae, he found that some strains varied slightly in the length of their phases. As a result, he conducted some breeding experiments that led to his proving that the periods must be subject to genetic control.
“Victor was really the first person to show that there was a genetic basis to circadian rhythms,” Bonner said. Circadian rhythms and the genetics of that phenomenon are now a burgeoning area of science. Bruce retired from Princeton in 1982….

Read the rest.

Happy birthday, Milutin Milankovic

MilutinMilankovic.jpgToday is the 130th anniversary of the birth of Milutin Milankovic, a Serbian geophysicist best known for Milankovitch cycles that describe periodicities in Earth’s climate.
Vedran Vucic is in Dalj (near Vukovar, Croatia), Milankovic’s birthplace, today for the birthday celebrations. He says that the house in which Milankovic grew up has been renovated for the occasion. I am assuming it has been turned into a museum. As I will go to Serbia again this summer, perhaps Vedran and I can take a trip to Dalj, where a group of science popularizers are interested in hearing about Open Access publishing, science blogging and other developments in science communication.
[Image Source – Portrait of Milutin Milanković by Paja Jovanović (1859-1957)]

Laziness in reporting – what’s new?

You may have heard about a recent Wikipedia hoax:

A WIKIPEDIA hoax by a 22-year-old Dublin student resulted in a fake quote being published in newspaper obituaries around the world.
The quote was attributed to French composer Maurice Jarre who died at the end of March.
It was posted on the online encyclopedia shortly after his death and later appeared in obituaries published in the Guardian, the London Independent, on the BBC Music Magazine website and in Indian and Australian newspapers

Yup. Journalists check their sources carefully. Especially the despised untrustworthy Wikipedia, only a notch above the unruly mobs of bloggers.
But that’s not new.
Back in 1899, there was no Wikipedia, but there were Dictionaries. Trustworthy. Except when they are not. Pwnd.

Happy 100th birthday, Rita Levi Montalcini

Italian scientist, turning 100, still works:

Rita Levi Montalcini, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist, said Saturday that even though she is about to turn 100, her mind is sharper than it was she when she was 20.
Levi Montalcini, who also serves as a senator for life in Italy, celebrates her 100th birthday on Wednesday, and she spoke at a ceremony held in her honor by the European Brain Research Institute.
She shared the 1986 Nobel Prize for Medicine with American Stanley Cohen for discovering mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells and organs.
“At 100, I have a mind that is superior — thanks to experience — than when I was 20,” she told the party, complete with a large cake for her.
The Turin-born Levi Montalcini recounted how the anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime forced her to quit university and do research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home.
“Above all, don’t fear difficult moments,” she said. “The best comes from them.”
“I should thank Mussolini for having declared me to be of an inferior race. This led me to the joy of working, not any more unfortunately, in university institutes but in a bedroom,” the scientist said.
Her white hair elegantly coifed and wearing a smart navy blue suit, she raised a glass of sparkling wine in a toast to her long life.

Brilliant! For more details about her and the research she did, read this from Nature.

Carl Zimmer’s Darwin Day lecture video is now online

Carl has posted it:

My review of that day…

Why Study Science? (1955)

Thanks to reader Paul for this tip – what an amazing piece of history: an instructional movie from the Sputnik Era, explaining why one should study science. Many of the arguments have not changed since then, though the details of sciences and technologies used in the film are very different. The role of women is, well, so 1950s….

Found on Prelinger Archives (more information in the comments) and A/V Geeks:

Family on last night of vacation speaks of stars & then of how study of science can help son & daughter make intelligent decisions on problems confronting them in world. Narrator specifies many of opportunities science presents in professions.

We can write dozens of blog posts just analyzing this movie or using it as a starting point 😉

Life after Darwin: Are there still big discoveries to be made in biology?


Tuesday, March 31
6:30 p.m.
“Life after Darwin: Are there still big discoveries to be made in biology?” NC State ecologist Rob Dunn continues the NC Museum of Natural Science’s Charles Darwin Lecture Series. Free lecture; doors open at 6. Museum of Natural Science, downtown Raleigh. Please RSVP to
(Next in the series: Anne Yoder, director of the Duke Lemur Center, and paleontologist Paul Brinkman on Darwin’s use of fossil evidence.)

Mammoths in History

Archy continues to post snippets of his research on the history of the discoveries and descriptions of mammoths:

The description of the mammoth as a subterranean animal that dies on exposure to surface air is almost identical to that given by the Chinese writer Tung-fang So in the second century BC….

Big Beagle Project news

It appears that the Beagle Project crew will have a trial run on the Brazilian ship Tocorime – not a replacement for building the Beagle, but getting the feet wet, seeing what is involved, learning from the experience, before the Real Deal.
Funded by the British Council, they will circumnavigate around South America following that portion of the original Darwin’s trip. From the proposal:

The year 2009 marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Without a doubt the greatest influence on Darwin and the development of his theory of evolution came during his travels in and around South America, carried by HMS Beagle and supported by HMS Adventure. Darwin experienced the wonders of the tropical rainforest in Brazil, fossils in Argentina, the uplifting of land in Chile and the remarkable variation of fauna on the Galapagos Islands.
This proposal aims to support the recreation of Darwin’s travels around South America, undertaking new science as part of an international effort to understand and develop a system of DNA-based identification of taxa (DNA barcoding). It will correlate this science at sea on the Brazilian tall ship Tocorime (Portuguese for Adventure) with a view of the world that Darwin could only dream of – from the International Space Station.
Funding is sought to bring together scientists from South America and the UK, the Tocorimé operators, the organisers of The HMS Beagle Trust and NASA to plan a scientific expedition from Rio to the Galapagos that will throw new light on evolutionary science in a highly visible and exciting way.

A very brief history of plagiarism

Archy does an amazing detective job on who stole what from whom in the old literature on mammoths, going back all the way to Lyell!
Then, as much of that literature is very old, he provides us with a history and timeline of the ideas of copyright and plagiarism so we could have a better grasp on the sense of the time in which these old copy+paste jobs were done.

Diversity in Science Carnival #1 is amazing!

The very first, inaugural, and absolutely amazing edition of the Diversity in Science Carnival is now up on Urban Science Adventures. Wow! Just wow! Totally amazing stuff.
And what a reminder of my White privilege – a couple of names there are familiar to me, as I have read their papers before, never ever stopping to think who they were or how they looked like! What a wake-up call!
For instance, I have read several papers by Chana Akins, as she works on Japanese quail. And I am somewhat familiar (being a history buff and obsessive reader of literature in my and related fields) with the work of Charles Henry Turner, covered in this carnival not once but twice – both by Danielle Lee and by Ajuan Mance!
It also did not escape my notice that several of the posts are eligible for the next editions of Scientiae and The Giant’s Shoulders – double your readership by submitting those posts there as well!

Carl Zimmer on Darwin (video)

Darwin Day recap

On Thursday, for Darwin’s 200th birthday, I went down to Raleigh to the Museum of Natural Science to hear Carl Zimmer’s talk. The room was packed – I got the last empty seat and there were people standing in the back. A very mixed audience, as Museum talks usually are – there were evolutionary biologists there from Nescent and the W.M.Keck Center for Behavioral Biology at NCSU, there were Museum staff, and then there were interested lay-people, museum-goers, with no formal background in science but interested and curious. It is not easy giving a talk to such a mixed audience – how to keep the jaded Evolution-warriors interested, while not going over the heads of the non-experts, but Carl delivered masterfully.
After introducing briefly Darwin the person and his work, in broad brush-strokes, Carl did an interesting thing – he chose several stories and told us what Darwin thought and wrote about them, and what we now know due to recent exciting research: from evolution of whales, through human evolution, to bacteria and viruses. The result was that he did not tell but demonstrated two points: first, that Darwin was generally correct, and second, that evolutionary biology made tremendous strides over the past 150 years. With each story one was left to think – how cool Darwin would think the new findings are if he were suddenly resurrected and shown the data!
The questions afterwards were good – not high-tech questions one would hear at a scientific conference, but good, thoughtful questions by lay audience, the kind often heard at Science Cafes. And only one question refered to the Culture Wars – how do we deal with the existence and influence of Creationists in the USA? If there were any Creationists in the audience, they certainly remained quiet and inconspicuous.
Afterwards, Carl and I went back to Durham and joined a bunch of local bloggers, scientists and science communicators, Craig McClain, Anton Zuiker and Russ Campbell among others, for some food and beer at Tyler’s. Good time was had by all.
Finally, you should also check Carl’s latest article in TIME: Evolving Darwin

History of Mammoth discoveries in Asia

John McKay has been blogging his research on the early days of mammoth discoveries in Asia and it is an amazing read! Who ever said that academic writing has to be dull!?
Fragments of my research – I:

Studying early knowledge of mammoths presents two problems. The first, is that the people who found mammoth remains were almost never literate and the people who wrote about mammoth remains were so far removed that they almost always got their information second or third hand or worse. The second problem is that, lacking a common name for mammoth remains, it is a huge task to sort out references to mammoth ivory from similar materials used in carving. Giles Fletcher’s fish tooth ivory is most likely walrus ivory. Notice how close his description is to Kashghari’s and Kirakos’. Does that mean they were all describing walrus ivory? Could they have each been describing something different? And, while Fletcher’s description is clearly of a walrus, can we be sure that all of the ivory he saw came from the same source? Was he throwing mammoth ivory in with walrus ivory and calling them the same thing? More research is in order.

Fragments of my research – II:

At this point, an interesting fact to notice is that none of the Chinese sources have mentioned ivory yet. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the various shu are not mammoths. Although European naturalists had enthusiastically studied the mammoth since about 1700, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that they knew how the tusks were positioned. The reason for this was that they had never recovered a skull with the tusks still attached. Though generous bounties were offered for mammoth remains, the Siberian natives never reported them until after they had removed and sold the tusks. It’s possible that a similar process was at work in rural China.

Fragments of my research – III:

The generation of men who conquered Siberia were mostly illiterate and, even if they could write, they had little time for natural history, anthropology, or anything else not related to surviving, extracting wealth, and making it back alive. By the middle of the next century, a different type of person began to arrive in Siberia. Along with a more settled population came educated administrators, diplomats, and higher church authorities who had time to more closely look at the land and its treasures. At some point, they became interested in the giant bones and ivory that the natives called “mammoth.”

Fragments of my research – IV:

For centuries, if not millennia, before 1600, carvable materials had been coming out of northern Eurasia along with descriptions of large buried monsters. Of the surviving written descriptions, it’s clear that many of them refer to fossil mammoth ivory and frozen mammoth carcasses, but, with many of the descriptions, it’s less clear what the writers referred to. For historians and biologists, one of the biggest problems in sorting these descriptions out is, that the ancient writers used a large number of different terms and, lacking a common terminology, it’s almost impossible to determine what they were referring to. In the 1690s, the word “mammoth” came out of Siberia and was adopted by the intellectual community of Western Europe. While this improved matters considerably, it also created some ambiguities of its own.

Fragments of my research – V:

Witsen’s narrative of his journey, with the explanation of mammoths, was only a small part of his total work. Besides being buried inside a mountain of other material, the dissemination of Witsen’s information on mammoths was handicapped by the book’s publication history. Witsen never finished with the project. For the rest of his life, he continued to add new material. Only a few copies of each edition were printed, probably for his circle of friends. Only ten copies of his map are known to exist. Nevertheless, the Republic of Letters was a small enough community that word of his new word spread throughout Europe.

Fragments of my research – VI:

Several things stand out in Avril’s account. His translation of mammoth (or mamout or mamant) as Behemot is something that many later travelers will also do. The mention that Persians and Turks use Behemot ivory for knife handles ties into the earlier Arab sources who wrote about the substance khutu, imported from the North and used knife handles. His description of Behemot as a living animal on the shores of the Arctic ocean, suggests that he was applying the word to something other than fossil mammoth ivory. However, the mouth of the Lena River is one of the richest grounds in Siberia for collecting mammoth ivory, which suggests he was. We’ll examine all of these points after we hear from the rest of the Russian travelers.

More still to come, so stay tuned….read Archy.

Darwin Day in the Blogosphere

Lots of excitement this week on science blogs and other fans of reality.
The biggest biggy of the biggest biggies is Blog For Darwin blog swarm – submit your entries here.
But there are some other, smaller initiatives out there. For instance, this Darwin Meme. And Darwinfest haiku contest.
And if you are blogging more seriously and sholarly about Darwin’s place in history, or his publications, then certainly that would fit into the next Giant’s Shoulders carnival.
On Twitter, follow and use the #Darwin hashtag. On FriendFeed, I am assuming that the Life Scientists room will be the place to go.

Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture – a student conference at UNC-W

This will be on the campus of UNC Wilmington and I’ll do my best to be there if possible:

Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture
March 19-21, 2009
UNCW’s Evolution Learning Community will be hosting “Darwin’s Legacy: Evolution’s Impact on Science and Culture,” a multidisciplinary student conference on March 19-21, 2009.
The conference will be a unique opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and arts who are conducting research or creative endeavors related to evolution to present their research, investigate graduate study opportunities, network, enhance their resumes, and enrich the body of knowledge surrounding evolution.
With the exception of the four keynote speakers, all presentations will be made by students.
Keynote Speakers:
Dr. David Buss, University of Texas
Dr. Peter Carruthers, University of Maryland
Dr. David Mindell, California Academy of Sciences
Dr. Kevin Padian, University of California, Berkeley

Darwin Day on Twitter

No, really, it was Anne-Marie’s idea. She started it! Yeah, don’t look at me!
Charles Darwin is on Twitter, Alfred Wallace is on Twitter, Richard Owen is on Twitter, even Bishop Wilberforce (aka Soapy Sam) is on Twitter. Where is Huxley?
We are already having fun retweeting non-existent Darwin tweets 😉 I hope the real Darwin and others respond with humorous stuff:
@BoraZ I can see it; “@arwallace: damn!”
Bora: @rowen next time I’ll block you!
BoraZ: RT @cdarwin Please: need info on modification/domestication in pigeons for a book
BoraZ: RT @cdarwin w00t! Going on a cruise: Argentina, Galapagos, Australia! + dining with the Captain every day!
BoraZ: RT @cdarwin: @thhuxley – remember that @bishop_wilberforce is a troll.
BoraZ: Oh, Wilberforce is here: @SoapySam God has delivered him into my hands 😉
#Darwin is the proper hashtag on Twitter for this week’s celebrations, so dig in!

Darwin Day with Carl Zimmer – and a mini-ScienceOnline09

Darwin Full Final HR.jpgAs you may remember, this week we have a special guest here in the Triangle – Carl Zimmer is coming to enjoy NC BBQ and, since he’s already here on the 12th, to give the Darwin Day talk at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh (directions):

“Darwin and Beyond: How Evolution Is Evolving”
February 12, 2009
6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Please join us for a Darwin Day presentation by Carl Zimmer. Mr. Zimmer is well known for his popular science writing, particularly his work on evolution. He has published several books including Soul Made Flesh, a history of the brain, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, At the Water’s Edge, a book about major transitions in the history of life, The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins; and his latest book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. Mr. Zimmer contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also maintains an award winning blog The Loom.
This event is free, but the museum requests participants pre-register. Register for the talk by sending an email to Please include your name, your email address and mention that this is in reference to Carl Zimmer’s talk.
Talk Overview: Charles Darwin launched the modern science of evolution, but he hardly had the last word. In fact, today scientists are discovering that evolution works in ways Darwin himself could not have imagined. In my talk I will celebrate Darwin’s achievements by looking at the newest discoveries about evolution, from the emergence of life to the dawn of humanity.
Can’t make it to the seminar? UNC-TV’s North Carolina Now will broadcast an interview with Carl Zimmer Feb. 12, 7:30 pm. The seminar will also be posted on this website in March, 2009.

After the talk, Carl will meet with the local scientists, journalists, bloggers, people still under the influence of ScienceOnline09 and the ubiquitous traveling fan troupe at the Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom at 324 Blackwell St Durham, NC 27701 (Map) starting at around 8:30pm (until kicked out by the bartenders at closing time, at least those of us with the most stamina who can stay up that long). Please join us for the talk and the meetup if you can.
[Picture of Darwin, on the right, is the brand new art piece by Carl Buell]

Darwin Day talk by Carl Zimmer in Raleigh


Carl Zimmer
“Darwin and Beyond: How Evolution Is Evolving”
February 12, 2009
6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Talk Overview: Charles Darwin launched the modern science of evolution, but he hardly had the last word. In fact, today scientists are discovering that evolution works in ways Darwin himself could not have imagined. In my talk I will celebrate Darwin’s achievements by looking at the newest discoveries about evolution, from the emergence of life to the dawn of humanity.
Please join us for a Darwin Day presentation by Carl Zimmer. Mr. Zimmer is well known for his popular science writing, particularly his work on evolution. He has published several books including Soul Made Flesh, a history of the brain, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, At the Water’s Edge, a book about major transitions in the history of life, The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins; and his latest book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. Mr. Zimmer contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also maintains an award winning blog The Loom.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC 27601-1029

More info to come. I’ll try to grab Carl and take him to some cool local undisclosed location for a beer. I’ll have more when the time gets closer and we have something planned….

Darwin and Evolution talks in North Carolina

I get e-mails about such events, so I thought I’d share, so you can attend some of these talks if you want:

NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott will be speaking twice in North Carolina shortly.
First, at 7:00 p.m. on January 27, she will be speaking on “Darwin’s Legacy in Science and Society” in the Wright Auditorium on the East Carolina University campus in Greenville. “Charles Darwin’s publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859 was an extraordinary milestone for science, but it also had profound effects on theology, philosophy, literature, and society in general. Nowhere is this more true than in the United States, where the teaching of evolution has been contentious since the early part of the 20th century. Why have Darwin’s ideas been so valuable — and yet so controversial? The answers lie not in science, but in history and culture.” Admission is $10; free to ECU faculty, staff, and students. For further details, visit:
Second, at 7:30 p.m. on January 29, she will be speaking on “Why Evolution Is Taught in North Carolina Schools” in the Burney Center on the University of North Carolina, Wilmington campus. “The North Carolina science education standards have received high marks from national evaluators. They require the teaching of what scientists and teachers consider important for students to learn, including evolution. Why do scientists and teachers feel so strongly that evolution should be part of the curriculum? And why do some parents object to their children learning it?” Admission is free and open to the public. For further details, visit:

Edward J. Larson will be speaking on “The Scopes Trial in History and the Theatre” at 8:00 p.m. on January 22, 2009, in the Farthing Auditorium on the Appalachian State University campus Boone; the event is free and open to the public, so please spread the word!
A professor of law at Pepperdine University, Lawson wrote Summer for the Gods, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning history of the Scopes trial and its impact, as well as Trial and Error, the definitive legal history of the creationism/evolution controversy.
Larson’s talk is part of Appalachian State’s extensive lecture series in honor of Darwin’s bicentennial. Among the other speakers in the series are NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott (who spoke in September) and NCSE Supporters Michael Ruse, Kenneth R. Miller, Sean Carroll, and Niles Eldredge.
For a press release about the lecture series, visit:
For a poster advertising the series, visit:

Carl Zimmer
“Darwin and Beyond: How Evolution Is Evolving”
February 12, 2009
6:30 pm – 7:30 pm
Talk Overview: Charles Darwin launched the modern science of evolution, but he hardly had the last word. In fact, today scientists are discovering that evolution works in ways Darwin himself could not have imagined. In my talk I will celebrate Darwin’s achievements by looking at the newest discoveries about evolution, from the emergence of life to the dawn of humanity.
Please join us for a Darwin Day presentation by Carl Zimmer. Mr. Zimmer is well known for his popular science writing, particularly his work on evolution. He has published several books including Soul Made Flesh, a history of the brain, Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea, At the Water’s Edge, a book about major transitions in the history of life, The Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins; and his latest book Microcosm: E. coli and the New Science of Life. Mr. Zimmer contributes to the New York Times, National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, Science, and Popular Science. He also maintains an award winning blog The Loom.
North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences
11 W. Jones St.
Raleigh, NC 27601-1029

‘Origin of Species’ read-along

Three chapters a week.
First edition (if you know what is good for you).
With John Whitfield.
First, read this and this as mental preparation.

Blog For Darwin

From Blog For Darwin:

February 12th-15th, 2009 participating bloggers around the world will be celebrating the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth (February 12th, 1809) with a BLOG SWARM, in which posts will be aggregated on BLOG FOR DARWIN to be kept as a resource for educators, students, and others.
CLICK HERE or read below to learn how you can participate!

Yes, there’s a month left, but I hope you participate.

Darwin Bicentenary

2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of Species, so a lot of organizations are going full steam in promoting science, evolution and the history of science this year. Here are some of the examples:
The New Scientist has published Darwin’s dangerous idea: Top 10 evolution articles (see Larry for some commentary).
Nature is ready for the celebration with a special page – Darwin 200 – collecting all the articles. Check out the most recent one – 15 evolutionary gems (pdf)
Over on The Loom – a three-part interview with Ken Miller on evolution and the demise of Intelligent Design Creationism:
Smoke and Mirrors, Whales and Lampreys: A Guest Post by Ken Miller
Ken Miller’s Guest Post, Part Two
Ken Miller’s Final Guest Post: Looking Forward
And of course, expect a lot of activity on The Beagle Project Blog and, donate to the Beagle Project.

On Gould and rates of evolution

Three Obligatory Readings of the Day:
Brian Switek: Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
Larry Moran: An Adaptationist View of Stephen Jay Gould
Greg Laden: How fast does evolution happen?

Greg Cahill (1958-2008)

It is with great sadness that I learned that Dr.Greg Cahill died a few days ago, at the Houston airport, waiting for his flight. I have met Greg at several meetings of the Society for Research on Biological Rhythms and while, those being fairly large meetings, we never had big one-on-one conversations, I remember him as a humble and friendly person, beloved by everyone.
He started his scientific career in Mike Menaker’s lab, studying the entrainment of the mammalian clock in the suprachiasmatic nucleus in vitro. Making preparations of SCN and optic tracts and doing electrophysiology on such preparations was not an easy technical feat back in 1986 or so when he started doing this. After getting a PhD with Menaker at the University of Oregon, Greg did some work on circadian clocks in the retina of the Xenopus frog with Dr. Joseph Besharse.
When he got his own lab at the University of Houston, he was one of the first two circadian researchers to start using the zebrafish. I remember the SRBR meeting when we all excitedly watched the two of them present their first data – both primarily focused on the methodological question: how to continuously monitor circadian rhythms in this animal.
The other researcher, Dr.Keith Barrett (MS with Terry Page on cockroaches, PhD with Herb Underwood on Japanese quail, postdoc with Joseph Takahashi on chicken pineal, then started on zebrafish, not doing science any more, I hear), designed a continuous-flow collection and melatonin assay of zebrafish larvae placed in a 96-well plate.
Greg Cahill used a different tactic – he also placed larvae in a 96-well plate, but instead, he trained a camera on them and came up with a computer program to translate the video of the movements into quantitative data of circadian locomotor activity.
Having this methodology as a starting point, Dr.Cahill then embarked on the study of zebrafish circadian rhythms, identifying genetic mutants and elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying the rhythms. He later perfected an even better monitoring technique – constructing zebrafish with the luciferase gene which could be monitored in the dark during the early development of the circadian system in the fish larvae.
He will be sorely missed by his colleagues and the field.

The Shock Value of Science Blogs

There was a good reason why the form and format, as well as the rhetoric of the scientific paper were instituted the way they were back in the early days of scientific journals. Science was trying to come on its own and to differentiate itself from philosophy, theology and lay literature about nature. It was essential to develop a style of writing that is impersonal, precise, sharply separating data from speculations, and that lends itself to replication of experiments.
The form and format of a scientific paper has evolved towards a very precise and very universal state that makes scientist-to-scientist communication flawless. And that is how it should be, and at least some elements of style and form (if not format) will remain once the scientific paper breaks down spatially and temporally and becomes a dynamic ongoing communication – clarity and precision will always be important.
But that is strictly technical communication between scientists in the same research field. How about communication between scientists in far-away fields, between scientists and lay audience, or among the educated lay-people? How about communication between scientific colleagues outside of peer-reviewed papers? This is where we are seeing the biggest changes right now and not everyone’s happy. And the debate is reminiscent of the debate in mainstream journalism.
Until pretty recently, the informal communication between scientists was limited to Letters To The Editor of scientific journals, conferences and invited seminars. In all three of those venues, the formal rhetoric of science remained. Fine, but….
Part of training in the academia is training in rhetoric. As you go up the ladder of academic science, you are evaluated not just by the quality of your research (or teaching, in some places), but also in how well you mastered the formalized kabuki dance of the use of Scientese language. The mastery of Scientese makes one part of the Inside club. It makes one identifiable as the Member of this club. The Barbarians at the Gate are recognizable by their lack of such mastery – or by refusal to use it. And it is essential for the Inside Club to make sure that the Barbarians remain at the Gate and are never allowed inside.
Academic science is a very hierarchical structure in which one climbs up the ladder by following some very exact steps. Yes, you can come into it from the outside, class-wise, but you have to start from the bottom and follow those steps “to the T” if you are to succeed. But those formal steps were designed by Victorian gentlemen scientists, thus following those steps turns one into a present-time Victorian gentleman scientist. But not everyone can or wants to do this, yet some people who refuse are just as good as scientists as the folks inside the club. If you refuse to dance the kabuki, you will be forever kept outside the Gate.
The importance of mastery of kabuki in one’s rise through the hierarchy also means that some people get to the top due to their skills at glad-handling the superiors and putting down the competitors with formalized language, not the quality of their research or creativity of their thought. Those who rose to the top due to being good at playing the game know, deep inside, they do not deserve that high position on merit alone. And they will be the loudest defenders of the system as it has historically been – they know if the changes happen, and people get re-evaluated for merit again, they will be the first to fall. This is the case in every area (mainstream journalism, business, politics, etc.), not just academic science.
Insistence on using the formalized kabuki dance in science communication is the way to keep the power relations intact. Saying “don’t be angry” is the code for “use the rhetoric at which I excel so I can destroy you more easily and protect my own spot in the hierarchy”. It is an invitation to the formal turf, where those on the inside have power over those who cannot or will not use the kabuki dance. This has always been the way to keep women, minorities and people from developing countries outside the club, waiting outside the Gate. If, for reasons of your gender, race, nationality or class you are uncomfortable doing the kabuki dance, every time you enter the kabuki contest you will lose and the insider will win. The same applies outside science, e.g., to mainstream journalism and politics.
This is why some people in the academic community rant loudly against science bloggers. If they cannot control the rhetoric, they fear, often rightly, that they will lose. Outside their own turf, they feel vulnerable. And that is a Good Thing.
The debates about “proper” language exist on science blogs themselves. See this and this for recent examples (the very best discussion was on this post which is now mysteriously missing). In response I wrote:

We here at Sb are often accused of being cliquish and insular. But if you look at our 70+ blogs and dig through the archives, you will see that we rarely comment on each other’s blogs – most (99%?) of the comments come from outside readers. Also, most of our links point to outside of Sb. On the other hand, NN [Nature Network] is specifically designed to be a community (not a platform for independent players) and almost all of the comments there are from each other. Thus, it is easy for them to maintain a high level of politeness there (this is not a bad thing – this is how they designed it on purpose). It is much harder to harness the hordes of pharyngulites that spill over to all of our blogs – and I do not mind them at all, I think they make the debate spirited and in a way more honest by bypassing superficial niceness and going straight to the point. This may also have something to do with NN bloggers mainly being in the academia, while a large proportion of SciBlings are ex-academia, journalists, artists, etc. with a different rhetoric. The rhetoric of academia is a very formalized kabuki dance, while the rhetoric of the blogosphere has shed all formalities and is much more reminiscent to the regular everyday oral conversation.

Remember the Roosevelts on Toilets saga? The biggest point of contention was the suggestion by the authors of the paper to the bloggers to move the discussion away from blogs to a more formal arena of letters to the editor. We, the bloggers, fiercely resisted this, for the reasons I spelled above – in the letters to the editor, the Insiders have power over the Outsiders because it is their turf. No, if we want to have a non-kabuki, honest discussion, we will have it out here on the blogs, using our rhetoric, because the honest language of the modern Web places everyone on the even ground – it does not matter who you are, what degrees you have, or how well you’ve learned to dance the kabuki: it is what you say, the substance, that counts. This is why being pseudonymous online works, while academia requires full names and degrees. The Web evaluates you directly, by what you write. The academia uses “tags” – your name and degree – to evaluate you. The academia is in the business of issuing credentials, the stand-ins for quality. The credentials are rough approximations of quality – more often then not they work fine, but they are not 100% foolproof. And if one is insecure about one’s own quality, one would insist on using credentials instead of quality. The use of “proper” rhetoric is, as I said above, a good quick-and-dirty way to recognize credentials.
During the Roosevelt saga, I wrote this post very, very carefully, with a specific purpose in mind. First, I went to great effort to explain the science at length and as simply, clearly and conclusively as possible. This performed several functions for me: first, to establish my own credentials, second, to make my readers understand the science and thus be on “my side” in the comments, and third, to make sure I was as complete about science as possible so as to not have to talk about science at all in the comments. Apart from science, I also included several snarky comments about the authors which served as bait – I wanted them to come and post comments. And they bit. Go read the comment thread there to see what was happening. The author insisted on discussing science. I insisted on refusing to talk about science (to him, I did respond a little bit to some other commenters) and to talk about rhetoric instead.
But first, in a comment I posted even before the authors showed up, in order to set the stage for what I wanted, I wrote this:

In an earlier post, burried deep inside, is this thought of mine:

The division of scientists into two camps as to understanding of the Web is obvious in the commentary on PLoS ONE articles (which is my job to monitor closely). Some scientists, usually themselves bloggers, treat the commentary space as a virtual conference – a place where real-time oral communication is written down for the sake of historical record. Their comments are short, blunt and to the point. Others write long treatises with lists of references. Even if their conclusions are negative, they are very polite about it (and very sensitive when on the receiving end of criticism). The former regard the latter as dishonest and thin-skinned. The latter see the former as rude and untrustworthy (just like in journalism). In the future, the two styles will fuse – the conversation will speed up and the comments will get shorter, but will still retain the sense of mutual respect (i.e., unlike on political blogs, nobody will be called an ‘idiot’ routinely). It is important to educate the users that the commentary space on TOPAZ-based journals is not a place for op-eds, neither it is a blog, but a record of conversations that are likely to be happening in the hallways at conferences, at lab meetings and journal clubs, preserved for posterity for the edification of students, scientists and historians of the future.

What happened on Dr.Isis’ blog is very similar – a clash of two cultures. I think that the picture of the Teddy Bear on the potty was a clever and funny shorthand for your point. If you did it about something I published, I’d laugh my ass off. But I can see how the uptight strain of the scientists would balk at it. It is them, though, who need to get up to speed on the changed rhetoric of science. The straight-laced, uber-formal way of writing in science is on its way out.
The rhetoric, even after it completely modernizes, will still have four concentric circles: the paper itself will always be more formal, especially the Materials/Methods and Results sections due to the need for precision; the letters to the editor will remain pretty formal, but not as formal as they are now; the comments on the paper itself will be still less formal but still polite; the commentary on the trackbacked blogs will be freewheeling, funny and to-the-point, just like yours was, not mealy-mouthing with politeness on the surface and destructive hatred underneath, but honest and straightforward. So, if it is crap, what better way to say it than with a picture of a Teddy Bear on a potty – much more lighthearted and polite than saying it politely, and less devastating for the paper’s authors as it takes their mistake lightly instead of trying to destroy their reputation forever.
The point that both Dr.Isis and I made is that the paper is neat, experimental method sound, data are good, but the interpretation is crap. Now, having a couple of crappy paragraphs in an otherwise good paper is not the end of the world. A paper is not some kind of granite monument with The Truth writ in stone. It is becoming a living document (with comments on the paper and tracbacked blogs), and it has always been a part of a greater living document – the complete literature of a field. That is how science works.
It is hard to know which paper will persist and which one will perish in the future, what sentence will turn out to be a gem of prophetic wisdom, and which one is crap. People publish a lot of stuff, some better than other.
Making a mistake in one paper is not the end of one’s career. But many people perceive criticism as if they are just about to be sent out to join a leper colony. This is, in part, due to the formal rhetoric of science: outwardly polite, but underneath it is an attempt to destroy the person. In comparison, a light-hearted joke with a Teddy Bear acknowledges the failability of humans, allows for everyone to make a mistake and move on (we all shit, don’t we?). It is actually much more normal, and much less dangerous for one’s career to receive such a funny form of criticism than a formal-looking destruction of all our work and our personna.

In the next comment I did the one and only hat-tip to science, then moved onto the territory I wanted – rhetoric (many comments, so go and read them all now). As a result, Dr. Janszky grokked it – and we’ll probably see more of him in the blogosphere in the future. The reason he grokked it is because he is confident in his own qualities – he can change the rhetoric and tone and still not lose the debate because he knows what he’s talking about. Those who know they do not have the quality, would just have ranted harder and harder, complaining about the tone. Dr. Janszky adopted the bloggy tone in the comments right then and there. Which was a victory for everybody.
The informal rhetoric of blogs is a form of subversion – breaking the Gate and letting the Barbarians in (while not allowing quacks and Creationist to hitch a ride inside as well – which is why so many science bloggers focus on those potential free-riders and parasites). What we are doing is leveling the playing field, pointing out the inherent dishonesty of the formalized rhetoric, and calling a space a spade. This is a way to make sure that smart, thoughtful people get heard even if they did not have a traditional career trajectory, or refuse to play the Inside club games. If some of the insiders fall down in the process, that’s a good thing – they probably did not deserve to be up in the first place.
Different bloggers do this in different ways. We can use a brilliant, but snarky use of English (PZ Myers), or texting/LOLCat snark (Abbie), or awe and reverence for the great scientists of old (Mo), or sexual innuendo (SciCurious), or shoes (Dr.Isis), or a light-hearted sense of humor (Ed or Darren), or excessive use of profanity (PhysioProf). What we all do is write in unusual, informal ways. We want to shock. We feel there are many people out there who need a jolt, an injection of reality. We do it by using informal language. And this can be very powerful – just see how the dinosaurs squirm when they read some of our posts! But that’s the point. We are testing them: if, like Dr. Janszky, you “get it”, this means that you have the balls, which means you are confident about your own qualities independent from your credentials. If you keep ranting about “dirty, angry bloggers”….what are you so insecure about? Why are you so afraid of being shown a fraud if you are not? Or, are you?
Another point about blogs, which I alluded above already, is the time-frame. This is a very important point that is often forgotten in the scientists vs. bloggers “let’s be polite” debates. In the formal arenas (Letters, conferences, etc.), where formal language is used, the game some people play is to use an outwardly seemingly polite language to write or say something that is designed to destroy a career. Often in multiple places over a stretch of time. On blogs, when we snarkily attack you, our purpose is to teach a lesson (more to our readers than the scientists in question who may not even know the blog post was written). In other words, it is a one-time thing that is designed to correct a single error, not an attempt at destroying a career.
For good recent examples of the way scientists use the formal venues as well as formal language to destroy each other, see this and this (I have seen more on PLoS ONE, but don’t want to draw your attention to those right now, for professional reasons – keeping my job).
I post 8.2 posts per day on this blog, on a large variety of topics. Do you really think I have the time, energy and interest to study in great detail the life-time achievements of everyone who did something wrong on the Internet? Of course not. I see an article that says something stupid and I shoot a post that shows how stupid it is, so the readers, especially if the deconstruction of stupidity requires some expertise I may have and most people don’t, can see why that particular argument is wrong. Then I move on to the next post on some completely different topic. I have forgotten about your existence in about a nanosecond after publishing that post. I have no interest in destroying your career, but I understand that you are touchy – the life in academia, with its poisonous kabuki game, has trained you to defend yourself against every single little criticism because, underneath the veneer of civility is the career-damaging attack by someone powerful who is hell-bent on destroying you. We don’t do that on blogs. We don’t care enough to do that (unless you are a dangerous peddler of pseudoscience or medical quackery). We want to educate the lay audience and have fun doing it. I have no idea if everything else you have written before and after is brilliant and I don’t care – I think that this one stupid paragraph you wrote is good blogging material, amusing, edifying and useful to use to educate the lay audience. You are NOT the target personally. Your stupid argument is. And I don’t care if that was your one-off singular mistake in life, or an unusually bad moment for you. So, don’t take it personally. This is not academia. We are, actually, honest here on the intertubes, and you need to learn to trust us.
The attempts at character assassinations within academia, by using the formalized kabuki language by the powerful and forcing the powerless to adopt the same and thus be brought to slaughter, do not happen only in print. They also happen in person. Read this and this for a recent example of a senior researcher trying to publicly destroy a younger, female colleague at a meeting. And he was wrong. But he was powerful and intimidating. I wish the young woman responded by going outside of formal kabuki dance, shocking the audience in one way or another, giving all the present colleagues a jolt, making them listen and perhaps notice what is happening. Or, if she was shy, I wish some senior male colleague did the same for her and put the old geezer in his place. I wrote a comment:

“Tone it down” and “Why are you so angry?” are typical sleazy tactics used by a person in power over a person not in power. It was used against people of other races, against women, against gays, against atheists – this is the way to make their greivances silent and perpetuate the status quo, the power structure in which they are on the top of the pecking order. The entire formal, convoluted, Victorian-proper discourse one is supposed to use in science is geared towards protecting the current power structure and the system that perpetuates it. Keeping the dissenters down and out. Bur sometimes, anger, or snark, or direct insult, are the jolt that the system needs and it will have to come from the people outside the power structure, and it would have to occur often and intensely until they start paying attention.

And then, there is the area in between scientists and lay audience. The job of translating Scientese into English (or whatever is the local language) has traditionally been done by professional science journalists. Unfortunately, most science journalists (hats off to the rare and excellent exceptions) are absolutely awful about it. They have learned the journalistic tools, but have no background in science. They think they are educated, but they only really know how to use the language to appear they are educated. Fortunately for everyone, the Web is allowing scientists to speak directly to the public, bypassing, marginalizing and pushing into extinction the entire class of science “journalists” because, after all, most scientists are excellent communicators. And those who are, more and more are starting to use blogs as a platform for such communication.
The problem is, the professional science journalists also love to put down the blogs and use the paternalistic “tone it down” argument. But, unlike the political journalists who are incapable of seeing the obvious (stuck too far inside Cheney’s rectum to see what we all could see?), the science journalists have the added problem of not having the expertise for their job in the first place. In politics, everyone with the brain, not just journalists, could see that excuses for going to Iraq were lame. But in science journalism, there exist out there people with real expertise – the scientists themselves – who now have the tools and means to bypass you and make you obsolete because you cannot add any value any more.
To the list that includes MSM “journalists” aka curmudgeouns like Richard Cohen, Sarah Boxer, Andrew Keen, Lee Siegel, Michael Skube, Neil Henry and many others, we can now add curmudgeounly science journalists George Johnson and John Horgan as well – just listen to this!!!!! Yes go an listen before you come back. If you can stand it. But if I suffered through it, you can, too. I am a pretty calm kind of guy, but listening to that “dialogue” filled me with rage – I felt insulted, my intelligence insulted, and my friends insulted. Frankly, I’ve heard smarter science-related conversations from the drunks in rural Serbian bars.
I’ve been in this business (both science and science communication) for a long time, but I have never heard of George Johnson until today. From what I saw in that clip, I have not missed anything. Where does his smugness come from then? As for John Horgan, I’ve heard of him – he earned his infamy when he published – and was instantly skewered and laughed at by anyone with brains – his book “The End of Science”, arguably one of the worst and most misguided books about science (outside of Creationist screeds) ever. Where is his humbleness after such a disaster? Why is he not hiding in the closet, but instead shows up in public and appears – smug. Some people just have no self-awareness how stupid they appear when they behave as if they have authority yet they don’t and it’s obvious. What is it about professional journalists that makes them have illusions they are educated? “No, I am not a scholar but I play one on TV” turns into “Since I can transcribe and read smart stuff I must be really smart myself”.
Luckily, bloggers have no qualms about defending themselves – please read this gorgeous smack-down by Abbie, this older post by Ed in which he explains exactly what he meant, and perhaps this old post of mine which also, in a circuitous way, predicts the extinction of science journalistic dinosaurs.
But perhaps I shouldn’t be that nasty to Johnson and Horgan? After all, my blogging schtick is niceness. This makes it very easy for me to destroy someone – on those rare occasions when someone like me, renowned for endless patience, flies off the handle, people sit up and pay attention. If I use profanity to describe someone, that one probably richly deserves it. I know I have to use this power with prudence. If I attack someone full-blast, people will tend to believe me, as I rarely do that kind of stuff. And if you subsequently Google that name, my blogpost about him/her is likely to be the #1 hit on the search, or in the top ten.
Perhaps Johnson and Horgan are actually nice and smart guys. They may be nice to their wives and kids. Perhaps they wrote, 30 years ago, something really smart. But I have no interest in digging around for that. I want to finish this post and move on. And after watching this movie, I really have no motivation to search for anything else by these two guys as it appears to be a waste of my time. It does not appear to me like a bad-day, one-off mistake that everyone sometimes makes. It is 30 minutes of amazing ignorance and arrogance at display – probably sufficient material to make me doubt I’d ever find anything smart penned by them in the past, so why should I bother with them at all? I can probably evaluate their qualifications quite accurately from these 30 minutes and safely conclude they equal zero. Their “angry bloggers” shtick was the first give-away they know deep inside they are irrelevant and on their way out. Their subsequent chat about science was amateurish at best, no matter how smug their facial expressions at the time.
Perhaps if we remove those middle-men and have scientists and the public start talking to each other directly, then we will have the two groups start talking to each other openly, honestly and in an informal language that is non-threatening (and understood as such) by all. The two sides can engage and learn from each other. The people who write ignorant, over-hyping articles, the kinds we bloggers love to debunk (by being able to compare to the actual papers because we have the background) are just making the entire business of science communication muddled and wrong. Please step aside.
Update: Brian, Greg, Ed, Dr.Isis, Mike Brotherton, Hank and Larry chime in on this discussion as well. More: Alex, Chris Mooney, Mike, Chad, Eric Wolff, Stephanie and Tom Levenson, Sabine and Tom again.

Scientific American – special evolution issue

January issue of Scientific American is devoted to Darwin’s 200th birthday and contains several excellent articles. Check out The Latest Face of Creationism in the Classroom by Glenn Branch and Eugenie C. Scott for starters.
But beware, there are other (and I would say better) ways of thinking about some of the issues in some of the articles, so check out what Larry has to say about Why Everyone Should Learn the Theory of Evolution and Testing Natural Selection. You may not agree 100%, but you need to think about it.

Darwin Day Trailer (video)

By Miss Baker:

Darwin’s Sacred Cause

Peter McGrath, Michael Barton and Mike Haubrich brought my attention to a new book by Adrian Desmond and James Moore. Their previous biography of Darwin is arguably the best (and there are hundreds of Darwin biographies out there, many more to be published next year as well). The new book, Darwin’s Sacred Cause is a result of a lot of study by the duo, especially since the publication of all the Darwin’s correspondence. The new thesis is that the driving force behind Darwin’s work on evolution was his disgust with racism:

“This book, by Darwin’s most celebrated modern biographers, gives a completely new explanation of why he came to his shattering theories about human origins. Until now, Desmond and Moore argue, the source of the moral fire which gives such intensity and urgency to Darwin’s ideas has gone unnoticed. By examining minutely Darwin’s manuscripts and correspondence (published and unpublished) and covert notebooks, where many of the clues lie, they show that the key to unlocking the mystery of how such an ostensibly conservative man could hold views which his contemporaries considered both radical and bestial, lay in his utter detestation of slavery. Darwin’s Sacred Cause will be one of the major contributions to the worldwide Darwin anniversary celebrations in 2009.”

From the interview with the authors:

What do you think is the most surprising element of this book?
Our revelation that much of Darwin’s research over many years was about race. There was no ultimate difference for Darwin between a `race’ and a `species’, so his work on `the origin of species’ was also about the origin of races, including the human races – `man’ was never an exception for him. And while most of Darwin’s research was implicitly about human origins, the extent of his explicit interest in combating racist science is a real surprise. The fact that his most intense phase of work on racial questions came as the United States hurtled towards civil war, a war that the humanitarian Darwin dreaded, adds poignancy to the moral dimension of his research.
What sort of reaction are you anticipating from the scientific community? The history community? The evangelical community?
Many scientists will welcome a `moral’ Darwin’ to confound his religious critics; others will resent our polluting Darwin’s pure science with `extra-scientific’ factors and will declare his anti-slavery beliefs irrelevant. Historians may be more positive, if only because Darwin’s Sacred Cause locates Darwin for the first time on the well-trodden historical fields of transatlantic slavery, slave emancipation and the American Civil War. And those who study the history of `scientific racism’ will have a new Darwin to reckon with. Evangelicals may feel distinctly queasy, not least because William Wilberforce, the Clapham `Saints’ and others they revere as religious ancestors once supped happily with the freethinking Darwins and saw them as allies in the anti-slavery crusade. Darwin’s words, `More humble & I believe true to consider [man] created from animals’, will pose a challenge to every creationist.

Yup. I guess the Creationists will not be happy with the book. It appears to be a must-read for me, though. For you, too, I hope.