Category Archives: Reproductive Health

Books: ‘Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex’ by Mary Roach

A few years ago, I read Mary Roach’s first book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and absolutely loved it! One of the best popular science books I have read in a long time – informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. Somehow I missed finding time to read her second (Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife – I guess just not a topic I care much about), but when her third book came out, with such a provocative title as Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, I could not resist.
And I was not disappointed. It is informative, eye-opening, thought-provoking and funny. The language we use to talk about sex (and death) is so rich, and so full of thinly (or thickly) veiled allusions, that playing with that language is easy. Puns and double-entendres come off effortlessly and yet never seem to grow old. And the effect of interspersing serious discussion of science with what amounts to, essentially, Kindergarten humor, makes the humor effective. I guess it is the effect of surprise. The same humor in a different context (or outside of any context) may not be as effective or funny. The book made me laugh out loud on many occasions, startling the other B-767 passengers on the trans-Atlantic flight a couple of weeks ago (if it was B-777, as American Airlines promised, I would have slept, but the smaller airplane made that impossible, so I read about sex instead).
I should not point out any specific examples of research described in the book – there’s so much of it – as I don’t want to take the wind out of Scicurious’ sails: she uses the book as a starting point for many of her Friday Weird Science posts.
And I will not even attempt to write a real book review (see the review by Scicurious and the series of posts on The Intersection for more details. Also check out Greta Christina and Dr.Joan for different takes).
Instead, I will mention something that I kept noticing over and over again in each chapter. An obsession of mine, or a case of a person with a hammer seeing nails everywhere, you decide.
On one hand, the history of science shows a trajectory of ever improving standards of research, more and more stringent criteria for statistics and drawing conclusions from the data, more and more stringent ethical criteria for the use of animal and human subjects in research, etc. As the time goes on, the results of scientific research are becoming more and more reliable (far from 100%, of course, but a huge improvement over Aristotle, Galen or the Ancient Chinese who could write down their wildest ideas with authoritative flair).
On the other hand, the language of science has become, over time, more and more technical and unintelligible to a lay reader. The ancient ‘scientific’ and ‘medical’ scripts, the books of 300 years ago, the Letters to the Academy of 200 years ago, the early scientific papers of 100 years ago – all of those were readable and understandable by everyone who could read. Of course, in the past, only the most educated sliver of the society was literate. Today, most people are literate (ignoring some geographical difference in the rates of literacy for the moment). But even the most educated sliver of the society, unless they are experts in the same scientific field, cannot understand a scientific paper.
Thus, as the science gets ever more reliable through history, it also becomes less and less understandable to an educated lay reader. Why is that so?
In the past, the educated lay reader was the intended audience for the scientific and medical writings. Today, the intended audience are colleagues. The papers are hidden behind paywalls and accessible only to people in big First World research institutions where the libraries have sufficient funds to pay for journal subscriptions. The communication to the lay audience is relegated to the non-experts: the media (which does an awful job of it) and science writers (who often do a great job, but their audience is severely limited to self-selected science aficionados).
I have been wondering for a while now (see the end of this post for an early example – and we had an entire session on the topic at ScienceOnline’09) if Open Access and the new metrics (that include media/blog coverage, downloads and bookmarks – all requiring that as many people as possible can understand the paper itself) will prompt authors of scientific papers to write keeping broader audiences in mind. Even if the “Materials and Methods” and “Results” sections need to remain technical, perhaps the Abstract, Introduction and Discussion (and in more and more journals also the “Author’s Summary”) will become more readable? At least the titles should be clear – and sometimes funny.
Last week I asked (on Twitter, FriendFeed and Facebook – but FriendFeed, again, proved to be the best platform for this kind of inquiry) for examples of witty, normal-language titles of scientific papers. You can see some responses here and everyone reminded me of NCBI ROFL, the blog that specializes in finding wacky papers with wacky titles. Many, but certainly not all, of such titles indeed cover the science of sex.
Do you see this trend towards abandoning unreadable scientese (at least in titles) happening now or in the near future? Is it more likely to happen in OA journals? Do you have good examples?
In the meantime, watch Mary Roach – see why humor is an important aspect of science communication to lay audiences:


Science Cafe – Durham: Uncovering the Mysteries of Human Fertility: On Sex, Fertile Days, and Why the Rabbit Dies


Science Cafe
July 14, 2009 | 7:00 P.M.
Uncovering the Mysteries of Human Fertility: On Sex, Fertile Days, and Why the Rabbit Dies
Speaker: Allen Wilcox, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
Everyone knows where babies come from, but few people appreciate the extraordinary and in some cases completely weird processes that have to work right in order for a new life to form.
Dr. Wilcox will discuss the key steps of human conception and early pregnancy including the window of days in which a woman can conceive, some of the factors that affect a couple’s chances of conceiving, and the new options for infertile couples created by modern technology.
Periodic Tables is a monthly gathering where curious adults can meet in a casual setting to discuss the latest science in plain English. At Periodic Tables, you will chat with your neighbors and local experts about interesting and relevant science happenings right here in the Triangle and beyond. No lengthy PowerPoint presentations, no drawn-out seminars, no confusing jargon. Simply smart and relevant science in a relaxed atmosphere. There is no such thing as a stupid question.
Come out and join us for a lively conversation at Broad Street Café at 1116 Broad Street (919.416.9707).


Since my post about it is not on the front page any more, I just want to remind you of the groundswell of support for the Silence Is The Enemy initiative.
Join the Facebook group, donate to Doctors Without Borders and write a letter to your representatives. Join the blogger coalition by blogging about this and spreading the word.
Small help is better than no help. And in many cases, growing coverage of an issue in the blogosphere forces the corporate media to break the silence as well, start paying attention and start covering it. Then, once it is in MSM, the elected officials start noticing it and they may actually do something about it. This process may go even faster on this topic, since one of these bloggers is NYTimes op-ed writer Nicholas Kristof.
You can also pitch in by doing nothing but clicking! Blogs donating all June revenue to Doctors Without Borders (income is determined by blog traffic, so you can contribute with each click) are:
The Intersection
On Becoming A Domestic And Laboratory Goddess
The Questionable Authority
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Blog Of The Moderate Left
Seattle Grassroots Examiner
the rugbyologist
And if you can afford more – there are Doctors Without Borders


About a week ago, Nicholas Kristof wrote an eye-opening op-ed in NYTimes – After Wars, Mass Rapes Persist. In Liberia, and probably in some other places, the end of war does not automatically mean the end of rape:

Of course, children are raped everywhere, but what is happening in Liberia is different. The war seems to have shattered norms and trained some men to think that when they want sex, they need simply to overpower a girl. Or at school, girls sometimes find that to get good grades, they must have sex with their teachers.

The war, and the use of rape as a weapon of war, changes the culture in a way that permits the rape to continue in a civilian society, as a means of asserting power, nursing one’s wounded sense of masculinity and keeping the women under control. Kristof writes:

The evidence is overwhelming that the best way to deal with rape — whether in Darfur or Liberia, or even in the United States — is to demystify it, dismantle the taboos, and address it directly. That is happening.
The United Nations Security Council held a formal session last year on sexual violence, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague issued its arrest warrant for Sudan’s president in part because of mass rapes. Senators Barbara Boxer and Russ Feingold chaired subcommittee hearings on rape just this month, focused on Congo and Sudan, where the brutality is particularly appalling. But the lesson of Liberia is equally sad: that even when wars end, mass rape continues by inertia.

In a related article, Eve Ensler focuses on similar issues in the Congo:

Nothing I have heard or seen compares with what is going on in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where corporate greed, fueled by capitalist consumption, and the rape of women have merged into a single nightmare. Femicide, the systematic and planned destruction of the female population, is being used as a tactic of war to clear villages, pillage mines and destroy the fabric of Congolese society.
In 12 years, there have been 6 million dead men and women in Congo and 1.4 million people displaced. Hundreds and thousands of women and girls have been raped and tortured. Babies as young as 6 months, women as old as 80, their insides torn apart. What I witnessed in Congo has shattered and changed me forever. I will never be the same. None of us should ever be the same.

Ensler is also the founder of V-Day, a global movement to end violence against women and girls.
Sheril Kirshenbaum is leading a very important blogospheric initiative called SILENCE IS THE ENEMY starting today, June 1st to help a generation of young women half a world away. She says:

An International Rescue Committee survey suggests 12 percent of girls aged 17 and under acknowledged having been sexually abused in some way in the previous 18 months. Further, of the 275 new sexual violence cases treated Jan-April by Doctors Without Borders, 28 percent involve children aged 4 or younger, and 33 percent involve children aged 5 through 12. That’s 61% age 12 or under. We read about their plight and see the figures, but it’s so easy to feel helpless to act in isolation. But these are not statistics, they are girls. Together we can do more.

Today, on June 1 at 9am, ‘SILENCE IS THE ENEMY’ begins – so named because we will not be (also lyrics of a rising Top 30 song, and therefore memorable).
What can you do?
Post about this. Send the URL of your post to Sheril (see the details and instructions in her post) so she can add it to the ‘SILENCE IS THE ENEMY’ homepage. And make sure you include the links to the Doctors Without Borders Donation Page and ask for donations, as well as to the Congressional Directory so readers can contact their representatives. Sheril will also post a static letter to Congress on the sidebar of her blog, so that readers can copy it and include it in their letters to Congressmen.
And spread the word using all the online and offline tools you have.

Book Club: ‘Bonk’ by Mary Roach

I loved Mary Roach’s ‘Stiff’ when it first came out, so I was excited to see that Sheril started a book club reading the third book, Bonk, by the same author. My copy just arrived, so I will be participating as much as I can find the time.
Some of my SciBlings have already read and reviewed the book, e.g., SciCurious, or have the book and intend to read it, like Brian and Dr.Joan.
Sheril introduces the book here and begins the club, strangely with Chapter 5, here. Join in.

Harold Varmus is everywhere!

VarmusBookCover.jpgLook what came in the mail yesterday! The Art and Politics of Science by Harold Varmus and, since he is in some way my boss, with a very nice personal inscription inside the cover. I am excited and already started reading it.
And speaking o Varmus, he seems to be everywhere. See this article in TimesOnline:

A major investment in fighting tropical infections and chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes in poor countries would transform international perceptions of the US, according to Harold Varmus, who co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.
In an exclusive interview with The Times, Dr Varmus said that American diplomacy had undervalued the role of medicine and science in fostering friendly relations with developing nations.
He is asking President Obama to endorse a plan from the US Institute of Medicine that would almost double annual US support for global health to $15 billion by 2012. ….

Effects of Developmental Exposure to Bisphenol-A on the Ovary and Brain


Even if you haven’t heard of Bisphenol A (BPA), you’ve likely been exposed to it. The endocrine disrupting compound is common in plastic infant bottles, water bottles, food cans and lots of other products. Scientists debate its dangers but the National Toxicology Program (based in RTP) acknowledges BPA as a source of “some concern” due to its possible harm to the brains and behavior of fetuses, infants and children.
On Wed. Feb. 18, at noon, come hear NCSU assistant biology professor Heather Patisaul share what she’s finding about BPA’s potential permanent effects in a talk entitled “Effects of Developmental Exposure to Bisphenol-A on the Ovary and Brain.”
Pizza Lunch is free and open to science journalists and science communicators of all stripes. Feel free to forward this invitation to anyone you would like to see included. RSVPs are required (for a reliable slice count) to
Directions to Sigma XI: