Category Archives: Science News

Welcome the Popular Science blog network

 

This morning, the science blogging ecosystem just got bigger and better. More the merrier!

Our friends at Popular Science just launched a brand new blog network.

They are starting with 13 wonderful bloggers, some veterans, some new, and there will be something for everyone:

Zero Moment: Erik Sofge on our robot future
Techtiles: Emma Barker on the science behind the clothes and gadgets we wear
Biohackers: Daniel Grushkin and others on bathtub genomicists and tissue tweakers
Ignition!: Peter Madsen on the world of amateur space exploration
Our Modern Plagues: Brooke Borel on the latest contagions and infestations, and the science of fighting them
LadyBits: Arikia Millikan and others on gender and feminism in science and technology
Boxplot: Maki Naro on science through the medium of graphic narrative
Rotorhead: Chelsea Sexton on the green rebirth of the automobile and other forms of transportation
Vintage Space: Amy Shira Teitel on the history of space exploration
Under the Microscope: Jason Tetro on microbiology and the germs that define us
Unpopular Science: Rebecca Watson on the area just beyond the fringe of science
KinderLab: Kate Gammon on the science of childhood development
Eek Squad: Rebecca Boyle on creepy animals

As you may be aware, Popular Science received some pushback a couple of weeks ago for their decision to shut down comment threads on (most of) their news articles. Bloggers, on the other hand, will open up their comments and will actively moderate their commenting threads to ensure high level of discourse on their blogs. Thus, go ahead and visit them all, subscribe to their feeds, and start posting smart comments!

Advertisements

Huffington Post Science – interview with Cara Santa Maria


 

A couple of weeks ago, Huffington Post launched its Science section. I invited Cara Santa Maria, the science correspondent at Huffington Post to tell us more about this new endeavor.

Bora Zivkovic: Hello, welcome to the Scientific American blog network. The launch of the brand new Science section at the Huffington Post created quite a lot of buzz two weeks ago, so I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you, as their science correspondent, to tell us more about the project, its history, and its future. But it is probably best to first introduce you – can you tell us something about yourself, your beginnings, how you got into science, what kind of research you did, how you got into journalism, and how you ended up at Huffington Post?

Cara Santa Maria: Thanks so much for having me. Here’s a little about my background: I became interested in neuroscience while studying psychology and philosophy as an undergraduate in Texas. I had an opportunity to complete a practicum with a clinical neuropsychologist, and the more I learned about brain damage and dysfunction, the more I wanted to know about the electrophysiological, neurochemical, and network-level underpinnings of brain-behavior relationships. So, I went on to earn a graduate degree in biology with a neuroscience concentration. While in school, I worked at the Center for Network Neuroscience, where I was the chief cell culture technician and managed the culture facility. I also did some research in the area of cell-cell communication and network organization. Then, in New York, I worked in an adult neurogenesis lab, where we used a songbird (zebra finch) model. While I was furthering my education on the East Coast, life took me on an unexpected path (as it is prone to do), and I ended up in Los Angeles. Here, I was offered the opportunity to develop a pilot for HBO and to appear on different television programs, promoting science education for a mainstream audience. Along the way, I met Arianna Huffington, and when she decided that it was time to start developing a science section for The Huffington Post, she called me up and asked for my help.

BZ.: The idea about a science section at Huffington Post has been circulating for a few years now. What took HuffPost so long to start a Science section? Also: why now? What changed at HuffPost recently to make this section now possible after so many years of people proposing it?

CSM.: I didn’t start working at HuffPost until after the merger with AOL, but I know the editors have always taken science seriously. I think that the growth in editorial resources has allowed AOL/HuffPost to launch multiple new sites and sections, and it was important—especially to Arianna—that science be one of them.

BZ.: How do you go about recruiting bloggers for the section? How many did you have at the moment of launch, and how many do you expect to have as a maximum?

CSM.: HuffPost welcomes diverse voices to use its platform. We’ve reached out to many different scientists, educators, and science writers. During our launch week, we showcased blogs by Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11 moonwalker), Michael Shermer (editor of Skeptic Magazine), Lisa Randall (Harvard Physics professor), Seth Mnookin (M.I.T. science writing program educator), Saul Perlmutter (Nobel laureate), Jean-Lou Chameau (president of Cal-Tech), and even Richard Branson (founder of the Virgin Group). Site-wide, HuffPost has somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 active bloggers. At the time of the launch, we had engaged nearly 200 bloggers specifically for the science section, and that list grows every day.

BZ.: As HuffPost does not pay its bloggers, I am assuming that most of your bloggers are not going to be professional writers and freelancers, but rather researchers and others with day jobs who also like to write on the side (is that correct?). Many people like to write and gladly do it for free (just watch a billion or so people writing on blogs and social networks every day!), so why not expand one’s audience a thousand times by abandoning a small, independent, personal blog and joining Huffington Post instead? Yet this business model is making a lot of people uneasy – HuffPost is a business that makes money, so there is a sense of fairness that people who produce the product should be paid for it. Also, there is a fear of a slippery slope – if a big site like this can get away with not paying the authors, that makes it easier for other media organizations to follow the model, leaving the professional writers without a source of income. Do you have a good response to those concerns?

CSM.: Between our New York, DC, and Los Angeles offices, HuffPost has a paid newsroom staff of 320 journalists, with over 60 of them doing original reporting daily. We make a distinction between our newsroom staffers and our bloggers. People choose to blog for us because they are passionate about their ideas, and they want their words to reach the largest possible audience. Our site gets over a billion hits a month. Also, they know that they have the opportunity to cross-post the work from their independent blogs to our site, where readers have an unparalleled community experience. We also encourage our bloggers to engage with readers. Any time I write a piece or produce a new video, I find myself answering challenging questions and having exciting conversations with the commenters on my posts.

BZ.: The reactions to the launch of the new Science section have been quite interesting to watch. Most are in a “wait in see” mode, and they range between cautiously optimistic and deeply skeptical (see, for example, posts by Charlie Petit, Carl Zimmer, Keith Kloor, Mark Hoofnagle, Seth Mnookin, Michael Conniff, Autism Blog and Orac). This is understandable as Huffington Post has a long reputation as a repository for all kinds of pseudoscience, New Age woo and medical quackery, and most dangerously, the anti-vaccine screeds. Of course, only time will tell, but is there anything you can tell the skeptics today, this early in the game, why they should give the new section benefit of the doubt, and perhaps some support? You will try to do the same here at ScienceOnline2012 where many of the critics of the past Huffington Post science and medical coverage will be present (someone said to me that you must be “very brave to enter the lion’s den” there) – how can you turn your critics into your supporters?

CSM.: I am a scientist and educator first. I strive to promote rational, skeptical, evidence-based thought and to improve scientific literacy with every word I write and every conversation I have. When it comes to the science section as a whole, my editors and I feel very strongly that scientific rigor is the priority. Generally speaking, when scientists write peer-reviewed journal articles, they often take some liberties in their closing statements within the discussion section, because this is the appropriate place to discuss implications of their work, future developments, and its philosophical/moral/ethical ramifications. Without a rigorous materials and methods and results section, however, the author hasn’t really earned the right to speculate on its implications, no? Similarly, with popular science writing, information must be vetted. This isn’t to say that we don’t welcome writers with differing opinions or questioning, skeptical eyes. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that pseudoscience, junk science, and anti-science are vastly different from views that use scientific fundamentals to challenge the status-quo. I can guarantee that this is a science section, not a pseudoscience section. I can also guarantee that false equivalencies will not find a home here.

BZ.: Media outlets dedicated to science (e.g., science magazines, science sections of newspapers, science programs on the radio, science channels in cable TV, science blogs/networks, etc.) are examples of the so-called “pull” media strategy – they are destinations for the audiences that already know they are interested in science. They are easily skipped and ignored by the general audience. It takes awareness of their existence, as well as personal interest, for one to find and then consume science stories in such outlets. What we’d all like to do more is the “push” strategy – going to the audiences where they already are. This means inserting science stories into places where they will be seen by people who came there to see news about celebrities or sports or politics, and perhaps do not even think they like science. This is a way to “hook” them to science. But this strategy is hard to accomplish, mostly because of the old myth that science stories do not have audiences (myths busted over the past couple of years when outlets ranging from The New York Times to Slate noted that science stories are some of the most viewed and shared stories on their sites). Thus legacy generalist media, still with the largest general audiences out there, is really hard to penetrate. Huffington Post is one of the most visited and popular general media outlets. Its audience comes to the site for all sorts of different reasons. This is potentially a great opportunity to do the “push” method – to mix science stories in with other stuff. Which leads me to the question: how mixed is it really going to be? Will the Science section going to be just a “pull” destination for those already interested, or is it going to be always mixed in with the other topics and “pushed” on the readers no matter where on the site they may find themselves?

CSM.: Oh, I think that moving forward, we will have a very strong mix of push and pull. Our editorial mission is to inform readers, but also to engage them with the awe and beauty of the natural world. I personally find science to be poetic, intriguing, and often very, very human. I find that most individuals who run screaming from the word “science” do so out of fear more than out of boredom. Almost any topic can be described in such a way that it connects with a personal interest or emotion of a reader. I am lucky enough to be able to produce a video series, Talk Nerdy To Me, where I attempt to do just that. I discuss topics—sometimes ones that are in the news, and sometimes ones that are evergreen in nature—in a way that invites my viewers to start their own conversations around the dinner table or water cooler. I think it’s important to break down complex scientific ideas, or translate them, without dumbing down the content. Generally speaking, I think that many popular media producers underestimate the intelligence of their audiences. If we can hook a front page reader who’s perusing an article about the race for the republican nomination, the Golden Globes, or even the NFL playoffs with a snappy title and then deliver on that promise of offering an eye-opening perspective on the way the universe works, I think we’ve done what we all want to do: make a small step toward increasing the scientific literacy of the public at large.

BZ.: In his post about the launch, Charlie Petit was wondering how much science “reporting” there will be on the site. Of course, that word is tricky – there is “news reporting”, there is “investigative reporting“, and then there are op-eds, “cool animals” stories, and videos. All of that is “reporting” in a sense. There are cool stories (“look, this is so cool what they just discovered!”), there are relevant stories (“wow, this is useful information for me to have”), and there are ‘fishy’ stories (“yuck, scientists are up to no good again”). Cool stories are the best “push” stories that excite, entertain and hook readers who then, hopefully, become regular readers of science stories. Relevant stories may not be as sexy, but tend to get shared a lot. ‘Fishy’ stories are very important to do, but perhaps should go to specialized science sites rather than generalist sites as they may have a tendency to reduce trust by lay audiences in science and scientists – something that may not be a good idea on a site that is already (in)famous for its pseudoscience and angry rants against some invented conspiracies by scientists or “Big Pharma”. Or perhaps HuffPost Science may be the ideal place specifically for skeptical stories – active debunking of pseudoscientific claims (including those that appear on other parts of the site). So, how would you respond to Charlie Petit – what kind of media site is Huffington Post, and what kinds of stories can he (and all of us) expect to see there?

CSM.: As mentioned before, I think there will be a fair amount of push and pull on our site. The hope is that we will create an environment where interested readers can “hang out,” reading up on new science developments, looking at “wow” photos, watching cool videos, and engaging with bloggers and other readers within our expansive commenter community. When it comes to deniers, I have a slightly different approach than some of my peers in the scientific community. I think that scientific literacy is a gift, and not everyone has been lucky enough to receive it. It is difficult for somebody who hasn’t learned how to think scientifically to have an immediate filter for non-science, which often masquerades as science, throwing around big words that sound legitimate and hiding behind .org or .edu domain names. For example, when it comes to how many people view Big Pharma, a controversy you raised in your question, I attempt to make key distinctions between what happens in the research lab and what happens when companies market and sell their products. I, like many others, am critical of the health care system in this country. But I’m careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because I do not trust that my insurance company has my best interests at heart, it doesn’t mean that I also distrust the medication or surgical procedure that could save my life. This is an important, nuanced distinction to make, and without education, we can’t expect everyone to have the tools to make it.

BZ.: Tell us more about David Freeman, the new editor of the Science section? His introductory post was well-received. What is his vision for the place?

CSM.: David is a wonderful editor, and we are so lucky to have him. His experience and wisdom having worked at CBSNews.com, and having written for WebMD, Men’s Health, Consumer Reports, and Popular Mechanics (among others) is invaluable to the section. As for his vision, he has this to say: “Science has become absolutely central to our lives and is certain to be increasingly important as the 21st Century unspools. My goal for the new science vertical is to bring HufPost’s signature journalistic flair to the world of science, presenting science news in a way that is engaging and accessible but always intellectually rock solid. Our aim is to entertain as well as inform our readers–and to present science broadly, looking at its intersection with the arts, politics, and other aspects of popular culture. And as with all the verticals at The Huffington Post, another key goal is to foster a conversation, bringing together scientifically minded people for a spirited but always respectful exchange of ideas.”

BZ.: What exactly will be your role as a science correspondent?

CSM.: As I mentioned before, I produce a video series called Talk Nerdy To Me, in which I explore topical and evergreen scientific subjects. I also write original pieces, which generally reflect my personal style and vision, incorporating original reporting with op-ed sensibilities. Moving forward, I plan on doing more interviews/discussions both with scientific minds and everyday people. And, I am always on the lookout for new ways to engage readers and viewers, especially with new media. As Arianna said in her introductory blog, “HuffPost Science will be anchored by our Science Correspondent Cara Santa Maria.” I work closely both with my editorial team and with my video production team to ensure that the page continues to inform, entertain, educate, and inspire.

BZ.: Traffic to HuffPost as a whole is huge, but there is, I heard (correct me if I am wrong), a pronounced “Long Tail” pattern: almost all of the traffic goes to a small number of articles, while most articles get very little traffic and few or no comments. How will you ensure that Science articles get top traffic (get into the “head” or at least “neck” as opposed to the “long tail” of the traffic distribution)? Will they be routinely promoted on the HuffPo homepage? Syndicated on the sites of media partners (including Scientific American)? How much social media activity will be used to promote the content? We all have the same goal – promoting realism, rationality and science. How can we, as a community, help you do it better and reach more people?

CSM.: Science content is represented on the HuffPost homepage daily. Articles are always linked to other relevant articles within the site, and cross-promotion on other verticals (pages) is common. But, getting people to click on an article is only half the battle. We also want them to join the discussion. Site-wide, we have already reached over 2.26 million comments so far this year. The science page alone got over 4,000 comments the day it launched. We also have a team of social media geniuses on staff that are helping us engage people via all of the social tools available. We’re definitely open to any and all suggestions from the online science community at large. We are all on the same team here: team science!

BZ.: Thank you so much!

Introducing: the new Scientific American blog network!

Yes!!! It finally happened! The shiny new Scientific American blog network is now live! We are excited to announce that 39 new blogs joined the network

Check out the press release and the blogs homepage. There are also some changes on the Scientific American homepage – more of those still to come.

I know you are all very eager to see who is on the network. So I will get to that really fast – the entire list is immediately below – and will leave the technical, conceptual and editorial details to the end of the post. But, there are a few people I need to thank first (just like on the Oscar night).

First, big thanks to Mariette DiChristina, SA’s Editor-in-Chief, and not just for having the courage to hire someone wild and woolly like me, but for her vision of Scientific American as a modern, fast, nimble and experimental media organization, not afraid to try new things knowing that some will succeed and others not so much. Without courage to try new things, an organization cannot be entrepreneurial and cutting edge. But with Mariette’s guidance, Scientific American has become exactly that. See also Mariette’s introduction to the network.

The entire editorial team embraced both me and this project from the very first day. But I want to especially point out Phil Yam (Managing Editor, Online) and Robin Lloyd (News Editor, Online) who helped me navigate the labyrinths of workflow in such a large and complicated organization (like nested Russian dolls, Scientific American is a part of Nature Publishing Group which is a part of Macmillan), as well as taught me something new and interesting about the media business and the editing job every day, often in the middle of the night! They are always there to answer my questions, to help out, and support me in my work.

Finally, what you see today could not have happened without the efforts of the amazing technical, design, product and marketing team who usually work behind the scenes without visible bylines on the articles, but deserve all the kudos for doing a great job: Angela Cesaro (Editorial Product Manager), Brett Smith (Project Manager), Nick Sollecito (Senior Developer), Raja Abdulhaq (Development Consultant), Ryan Reid (Art Director, Online), Michael Voss (VP of Marketing), Rachel Scheer (Corporate Public Relations), Jamie Sampson (Senior IT Project Manager), Li Kim Lee (Web Analyst) and Carey Tse (Online Marketing Manager).

And now, the blogs…

Many of you are familiar with the eight blogs we’ve already had on the site for a while (Observations, Expeditions, Guest Blog, Solar At Home, Anecdotes From The Archive, Extinction Countdown, Bering In Mind, and Cross-Check). That number has now grown to 47. Here they are:

Editorial blogs
We now have six editorial (or “editorially-controlled”) blogs – written or edited by Scientific American editors and staff in our official capacity.

@Scientific American is a brand new blog, where several senior editors and managers will provide you with up-to-date updates on everything that is new at Scientific American: from product launches (including apps, books and more) to actions and events, from website enhancements to new issues of the magazines (both Scientific American and Scientific American MIND), from new hires to behind-the-scenes activities, including stories we are working on (and perhaps you can help us with your feedback).

– You might already be familiar with the Observations blog, as it has been around for years. With several posts daily, this busy place features opinion and analysis by Scientific American editors, writers and correspondents.

The Network Central is the blog you are on right now. This is where you will get updates about the SA blog network, including weekly summaries, Q&As with bloggers, updates on all the new plugins, widgets and functionalities, additions of new bloggers, and more. Also, in the spirit of cooperation and sharing, I will also do regular round-ups of the most interesting stories from all around the science blogosphere, including both independent bloggers and those on other networks. If there is breaking news, or interesting events, I will take a look at the coverage by science bloggers wherever they are.

– At the Expeditions blog, we invite researchers, students or embedded journalists to send in regular dispatches from their field work. Currently, we have three ongoing series: Squid Studies on ‘New Horizon’, MSU China Paleontology Expedition and The South Pacific Islands Survey, and we just recently finished the Scientific Research Diving at USC Dornsife series. Go on a virtual trip to explore the world together with our explorers! Or, if you are about to go out into the field to do research, let me know if you are interested in liveblogging your adventure.

The Scientific American Incubator is a new experiment. The Incubator will be a place where we will explore and highlight the work of new and young science writers and journalists, especially those who are currently students in specialized science, health and environmental writing programs in schools of journalism. There, we will discuss the current state and the future of science writing, and promote the best work that the young writers are doing.

– The Guest Blog has recently become one of our most popular blogs, with daily contributions (some invited, some submitted to us) by a wide variety of authors, in a wide variety of forms and styles, but particularly noted for the prevalence of good long-form writing. It was said that: “Based on #OpenLab nominations, @SciAm Guest Blog is becoming science blogging’s #TED: a place people step up and do their best work. ” And we overheard later: “The @sciam @sciamblogs Guest Blog is an incredible resource: a forest of stories planted by wonderful scientist-writers”. So, dig through the archives (just keep clicking on the “See More” button at the bottom of the page), and then come back to check it out every day.

Blogs by Scientific American editors, writers and staff

There are now six personal blogs written by SA employees. Two are already familiar to most of the site visitors, and the other four are new. There are likely to be more of them launched over the following weeks and months, so stay tuned for the announcements.

A Blog Around The Clock is my own personal blog. There, I will continue to cover both the areas of science I am interested in – circadian rhythms, sleep, animal physiology and behavior, and evolution – and more ‘meta’ topics, like science communication and education, the world of media, and the World Wide Web.

Anecdotes from the Archive. You may have heard that Scientific American is almost 166 year old. That is a lot of archives to go through. Mary Karmelek is digitizing all those archives, and while she does that she often encounters interesting old articles and images that make great topics for blog posts: to see how the world has changed since then, and what we’ve learned in the intervening decades.

Budding Scientist. Anna Kuchment, the Advances editor, will be the main host of this blog. Here, with the help of Scientific American editors, scientists, and other contributors Anna will share ideas for involving kids in science early and often. She will also bring you up to date on the latest news about science education, encourage you to share your own ideas and projects, and answer your questions. This blog will also serve as a hub for Scientific American’s many other education-related ventures, including the Citizen Science initiative, Bring Science Home, 1,000 scientists in 1,000 days, Google Science Fair, and more.

Degrees of Freedom is the brand new blog by Davide Castelvecchi, our math and physics editor, and a wizard at making complex mathematical and physical concepts understandable, exciting and fun. And every now and then, you can expect a brain teaser or a math puzzle – something for you to try to solve.

Solar at HomeScientific American editor George Musser, after using this blog to document his effort to solarize his home will, now that the project is done, broaden his topics to whatever piques his interest including, I am guessing, everything from cosmology and space to energy and environment.

Streams of Consciousness is the brand new blog by Ingrid Wickelgren, an award-winning journalist and author, and an editor at Scientific American MIND. On this blog, Ingrid will explore the brain, the mind, and especially the minds and the brains of children.

Independent blogs and bloggers

Let me introduce the four group blogs first:

Symbiartic is the blog dedicated to the exploration of the intersection between science and art, between nature and the visual representation of it. It is curated by artist Glendon Mellow and science illustrator Kalliopi Monoyios. This is a blog where the two of them act as hosts and curators. They will look around our network and around the WWW as a whole, to find and present work by other artists in a variety of domains of visual art: art, illustration, data visualization, sculpture, architecture, design, cartoons, comic strips, photography, etc. They will conduct interviews with artists and showcase their work, and invite artists to post guest-posts. They will showcase their own work, and also discuss how the widespread electronic communication is changing the notions of copyright in the visual realm. They will write How-To technique posts and then conduct reader critiques and reader contests. They will also help me choose the “image of the week” for the blog network homepage. If your names seem familiar, it is perhaps because you already saw them on our site – Scientific accuracy in art by Glendon, and Art in the service of science: You get what you pay for by Kalliopi.

PsiVid is a blog very similar in concept to Symbiartic – except here, the images are not still but are moving. Hosted and curated by Joanne Manaster and Carin Bondar, this blog will focus on video, movies, television, animations and games – how they present and treat science, and how they can be used in science education and popularization. You may remember that Carin has already published a couple of pieces with us (Apple, meet Orange and Reflections on biology and motherhood: Where does Homo sapiens fit in?). At PsiVid, Joanne (cell biologist) and Carin (evolutionary biologist) will host discussions, interview film-makers, showcase interesting videos, teach video techniques and host reader contests. They will also help me pick the “video of the week” for the homepage.

– At Plugged In, two young scientists – Melissa Lott and David Wogan – and two veteran writers – Scott Huler and Robynne Boyd – will explore how our civilization uses energy, how our infrastructure works, how this impacts the environment, and what can each one of us as an individual do to make a positive impact on the health of the planet. You have seen some of them on our site before, e.g., Melissa (Texas “Tea” becomes the Texas “E”?), David (Power from pondscum: Algal biofuels, Deja vu: What does the Gulf oil spill tell us about the Japanese nuclear and From fuel to film: The story of energy and movies), Melissa and David together (Waste to Energy: A mountain of trash, or a pile of energy?), Robynne (The low-carbon diet: One family’s effort to shrink carbon consumption and Epiphany from up high: Can a suburban family live sustainably?) and Scott (How Does Sewage Treatment Work?). This group blog will have a breadth and diversity of topics, a broad range of ‘reading levels’, a lot of science, and a little bit of everything else. Should be both useful and fun!

Creatology – Every July I will invite a few recent graduates from a science writing program at a journalism school to run a blog here for one year – they will be good colleagues to one another, members of the same cohort in school and living in the same town so they can easily work together and help one another. They will have a sandbox here to do whatever they want, experiment with a variety of media forms: text, images, audio, video, data visualizations, animations, diavlogs, ‘explainers’ and more. The first year, this blog is Creatology, blog run by three recent graduates from the Science Journalism program at City University London. They are Christine Ottery, Gozde Zorlu and Joe Milton. You may have seen Gozde’s name at ScientificAmerican.com before, as well as a number of Christine’s reports. I am looking forward to seeing what they do over the course of the year.

Here comes the long list of individual bloggers and their new blogs:

Anthropology In PracticeKrystal D’Costa is an anthropologist in New York, and a huge Mets fan. She is a writer and digital strategist and her interests include (online and offline) networks and identities, technology, immigrants, and history. And New York. And coffee. And baseball. This blog, continuing where she left off at the old blog of the same name (as well as at The Urban Ethnographer where she will make you fall in love with New York City), will look at the ways the urban environment shapes urban culture and affects the way we relate to each other – both offline (see Hold that door, please! Observations on elevator etiquette) and online (see Weinergate: Private Records in a Public Age). Advice: there is something essential to have when reading Krystal’s posts – a cup of good coffee, so you can sit back, relax and enjoy.

The Artful AmoebaJennifer Frazer knows her fungi! With a degree in plant pathology and mycology, Jennifer decided to become a science journalist and writer. She graduated from the MIT science writing program and worked for newspapers and as a freelancer. And I hear she may have a book in the future. Her blog (see the previous incarnation) looks at biodiversity, especially of critters we don’t often hear about – not whales or pandas, but things like moss-animals, Ediacarans and giant viruses. Important to note: Jennifer’s posts are always a visual treat as well, with lush illustrations (sometimes drawn by herself) and photographs of the alien-looking creatures.

Assignment ImpossibleCharles Q Choi likes to have fun letting his imagination run wild. A long-time blogger and a frequent contributor to Scientific American, Charles likes to ask questions like “what is too hard for science to do?“, or “what is easy to do and why hasn’t been done yet?”, or “what discoveries come straight out of Science Fiction?”, or “what wild place on Earth can I travel to in order to report cool science?” Watching this blog will be a fun ride for all of us.

Basic SpaceKelly Oakes is one of the youngest bloggers on the network, just about to shed the title of “undergraduate student” as she finishes her final year studying physics at Imperial College London. Kelly writes about space and astrophysics, trying to make it interesting to non-scientists and fun to read. Along with the research and studies, Kelly also edits the science section of Felix, the student newspaper at Imperial College. You can also see Kelly’s previous article at our Guest Blog – Habitable and not-so-habitable exoplanets: How the latter can tell us more about our origins than the former.

Bering In Mind is one of the eight old SA blogs you are probably familiar with. Written by psychologist and author Jesse Bering, this blog does not shy away from controversial topics, ranging from science of religiosity (Jesse’s latest book is The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life), to science of sexuality, to science (and personal and cultural angles) of homosexuality. If you are looking for long, active, vibrant discussions in the comments, you are likely to find one or two on Jesse’s blog at any time.

Cocktail Party Physics – Yes! Scientific American and Discover are now officially connected through marriage! I don’t know if her husband, physicist Sean Carroll, checks her science while she fixes his prose, I still think we got the better half – the amazing writer Jennifer Ouellette. If you think it’s hard to make physics fun, think again, but first you’ll have to read Jennifer’s blog, old news reports, or some of her books with titles like “The Physics of the Buffyverse”, “Black Bodies and Quantum Cats: Tales of Pure Genius and Mad Science” and “The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse”. That is fun! As she was, until recently, the Director of The Science & Entertainment Exchange, it is not surprising that there is a lot about movies and Hollywood in her posts, along with the science and its history. I am delighted to welcome Jennifer to the network.

Compound EyeAlex Wild is an entomologist studying ants. He is also a professional photographer with his subjects, not surprisingly, being mostly small, six (and sometimes eight) legged, winged and with hard exoskeletons. It is this latter side of his expertise, the nature photography, that Alex will mainly bring to this new blog. Amazing photographs, technical advice for amateur photographers, and what it all means for promotion of nature and science! All this with a touch of insect taxonomy and evolution on the side.

Context And VariationKathryn Clancy is a biological anthropologist who focuses mainly on female reproduction – from physiology, to medicine, to society, to policy. Her previous blog got on everyone’s radar when she wrote (almost live-blogged) her own personal experience with in-vitro fertilization. That takes some courage! To get an idea what to expect, see also Kate’s previous appearance on out site: I don’t have a 28-day menstrual cycle, and neither should you. Of course, the blogging cycle is much more regular than that ;-)

Cross-Check by science writing veteran John Horgan is a fixture by now on our blogs. You may have already learned that this is the place to go to enjoy John tackling controversial topics, and to jump into lively comment discussions on topics ranging from the origins of war, to evolutionary psychology, to ‘who is wrong on the Internet this week’. His long career in journalism and a huge rolodex of sources also allow John to be fast and accurate when there are breaking news for which the scientific angle needs to be explained before the rest of the media botch it all up.

Crude Matter by Michelle Clement (formerly at the C6-H12-O6 blog) is about all the gunk and goo that makes the bodies of humans and other animals work, all the solids, liquids and gasses that exist in our bodies and are sometimes ejected out of them. In one word: physiology! How the body works can be approached in different ways, from medical perspectives to energetics, from ecology to evolution. Michelle does a little bit of all of it. And she is not afraid to sometimes blog about her own body – what it is, what it does, what it wants, and what it is hurting from. Another recent refugee from the lab bench to the newsroom, Michelle is a fascinating person and an exciting writer. But you’ll see that for yourself as the blog proceeds in the future. For starters, check out her SciAm Guest Blog post What’s the deal with male circumcision and female cervical cancer?.

Culturing ScienceHannah Waters has done research in the field, studying coastal marine ecology, and in the lab, studying epigenetics of yeast ageing, before deciding to move in a very different direction and try for a career in science writing. Apart from the archives of the previous edition of Culturing Science, see also her other blog Sleeping with the Fishes and her previous Guest Blog post Now in 3-D: The shape of krill and fish schools. Every area of biology, from molecules to ecosystems, is fair game for Hannah’s blog, as well as some wise discussions of science education and communication. Welcome to the network, Hannah!

Disease ProneJames Byrne is a PhD student in Microbiology and Immunology all the way in Adelaide, Australia (so he may be sleeping at the time readers from other continents are posting comments on his blog). His interests, well represented in his blogging, include the cause of diseases (human and non-human patients alike) and the history of medicine. James has published two articles with us so far – Bacteria, the anti-cancer soldier and Divine intervention via a microbe, which can give you some idea of the range of his topics and the style of his writing.

Doing Good ScienceJanet Stemwedel is the Cool Aunt of the scienceblogging community. With two PhDs (in chemistry and philosophy), Janet works as a professor of philosophy of science and is a veteran blogger, covering philosophical, sociological and ethical aspects of science with a characteristic cool. Also, as a parent, she is involved in, and often blogs about, science education in everyday life, including her wonderful Friday Sprog Blogging series.

EvoEcoLabKevin Zelnio is a marine ecologist, invertebrate zoologist, freelance writer, musician and a veteran of several blogs over the years. He is one of the editors (and the webmaster) at Deep Sea News. His new blog here, EvoEcoLab, will explore the intersection of ecology and evolution, as well as the way these two disciplines affect us, humans. To get a glimpse of Kevin’s writing, check out his previous SA posts – To catch a fallen sea angel: A mighty mollusk detects ocean acidification and A World Ocean.

Extinction Countdown is one of the eight blogs we already had before the launch of this network, so you may already be familiar with it. John Platt is a journalist specializing in environmental issues and, on this blog, he covers conservation issues, looking at various species (mostly but not exclusively animals) at the brink, their conservation status, the efforts to save and protect them, and the scientific, cultural and political dimensions of the struggle to preserve the Earth’s biodiversity.

Guilty Planet – After taking a year off from blogging, Jennifer Jacquet is back! You may remember her old blogs – the original Guilty Planet or, before it, Shifting Baselines. Her blog bio states that she is “a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons” yet what this means is that Jennifer studies ecology, mainly marine ecology, often in a very complex mathematical ways, as well as conservation and the cultural, societal and policy aspects of saving the biosphere, especially the oceans. See her previous Scientific American contribution – Ecologists: Wading from nature to networks.

History of Geology – When the hustle and bustle of busy life wears you down, when you come back home exhausted after a long day at work, when it’s time to put on your slippers and fix yourself a Martini on the rocks – that is a perfect moment to visit David Bressan who will transport you to his small town in Italian Alps and take you to a journey through the slow history of earth science, and even slower movement of glaciers – David’s scientific expertise. You will notice your heart beating slower, and your high blood pressure going down. Be nice about an occasional error – I bet his English is better than your Italian. To get a taste of his style, check out The discovery of the ruins of ice: The birth of glacier research and Climate research in the geologic past, David’s prior contributions to Scientific American.

Lab Rat – A biochemist turned microbiologist, Shuna E. Gould writes about bacteria, bacteria and bacteria at the Lab Rat. And it never gets old – as there are so many bacteria and they do so many wondrous things! Alongside with her blog here, Shuna also hosts the ConferenceCast blog on our sister network, Nature Scitable Blogs. Her previous Guest Blog post is Synthetic biology: Building machines from DNA.

Life, UnboundedCaleb Scharf is currently the director of Columbia University’s multidisciplinary Astrobiology Center. He has worked in the fields of observational cosmology, X-ray astronomy, and more recently exoplanetary science. He is also the author of the undergraduate textbook “Extrasolar Planets and Astrobiology”. His blog explores the research on the origins of life and the possibilities of life emerging on planets other than ours. How does Caleb think about this? See in How to find a habitable exoplanet: Don’t look for one.

The OcelloidPsiWavefunction is the pseudonym for a young researcher in a relatively small but exciting field of Protistology – studying a wide variety of organisms with an amazing diversity of biochemistry, physiology and behavior, that all have a nucleus in their cells, but are usually too small to see without a microscope. As this group of organisms is much less studied than others, e.g., animals, plants, fungi or bacteria, new studies quite often completely reshuffle the taxonomy of the group, or even change the notions we have on the origins and early evolution of Eukaryotes (organisms with cells that have a nucleus). Thus, evolution and systematics are big topics on the blog. As many of those organisms are unfamiliar to most of us, and as images and photographs of them are not easily available, Psi often draws them for the blog posts, and those drawings are really cool.

OscillatorChristina Agapakis is a biologist with a freshly minted PhD from Harvard. She is also a designer, a movie-maker and a writer with an ecological and evolutionary approach to synthetic biology and biological engineering. With her blog Oscillator, with the Icosahedron Labs and the video-making Hydrocalypse Industries she works towards envisioning the future of biological technologies and synthetic biology design. And makes really cool science movies! Check Christina’s Guest Blog post – Mixed cultures: art, science, and cheese.

The Primate DiariesEric Michael Johnson got his Master’s degree in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke, focusing on great ape behavioral ecology. He is currently a doctoral student in the history of science at University of British Columbia looking at the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics in England, Europe, and Russia in the nineteenth century. His blog, Primate Diaries, has been traveling for a year – Eric exclusively did guest posts on other blogs for a year, before deciding to settle down here at Scientific American. Master of historical long-form writing, Eric has published on our Guest Blog before – A primatologist discovers the social factors responsible for maternal infanticide.

The Psychotronic GirlMelody Dye has a degree in philosophy and intellectual history from Stanford University and is a current NSF IGERT fellow in cognitive science at Indiana University at Bloomington. She is interested in developmenal and cognitive psychology, especially the process of learning language in children. Melody is also a professional photographer. She is also a co-blogger on the Childs Play blog and has published with us in the Mind Matters column, including Why Johnny Can’t Name His Colors (also published in the print version of Scientific American MIND) and The Advantages of Being Helpless.

The Scicurious BrainSciCurious is a neuroscience postdoc, researching actions of neurotransmitters. But on the blog, Sci is fun, and Sci writes in third person singular. With images – some funny images, some weird images, and some gross images. There are posts explaining the basics of how the brain works. There are posts covering the brand new research. There are posts covering old, classical papers. And there are posts covering bizzare research, especially about, erm, reproduction. Sci has published twice with us so far – The antidepressant reboxetine: A ‘headdesk’ moment in science and Serotonin and sexual preference: Is it really that simple?, the latter one going on to win the prestigious 3 Quarks Daily prize.

Science Sushi – Christie Wilcox is a marine biologist working on her PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at the University of Hawaii. I once said about her blogging that “When Christie Wilcox dissects a scientific paper or an issue, that is the sharpest, most definitive and usually the final word on the subject. ” I still stand by that statement. Christie is thorough. Yet great fun to read. See for yourself – How do you ID a dead Osama? and Bambi or Bessie: Are wild animals happier?

Science With MoxiePrincess Ojiaku is studying neuroscience at North Carolina Central University, and plays bass in an an awesome band. So it is not surprising that her blog often connects these two aspects of her life, from discussing neuroscience (and other science, like physics) of music perception, to interviewing scientists who are also musicians. Obviously, this blog will rock!

Tetrapod Zoology – there is no science blogging network without someone writing about dinosaurs, right? Well, Darren Naish does it here, and he knows what he’s talking about as he’s named and described a few. But his blog is about much more than just dinosaurs. Darren covers, in great detail, all kinds of living and extinct tetrapods (vertebrates with four legs, or whose ancestors had four legs), their taxonomy, their anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations, and why some of them are so hard to find out in the wild. He has published Do Giraffes Float? in the Scientific American print magazine, as well as a three-part post on the new systematics of Iguanodons – The Iguanodon explosion: How scientists are rescuing the name of a “classic” ornithopod dinosaur, part 1, The explosion of Iguanodon, part 2: Iguanodontians of the Hastings Group and The explosion of Iguanodon, part 3: Hypselospinus, Wadhurstia, Dakotadon, Proplanicoxa…. When will it all end?. Needless to say, there are always interesting discussions in the comments, often featuring quite a range of experts in various areas of zoology.

The Thoughtful AnimalJason G. Goldman is a graduate student in developmental psychology at the University of Southern California, where he studies the evolutionary and developmental origins of the mind in humans and non-human animals. On his blog, Jason usually discusses the latest research in animal and human behavior, neuroscience and cognition. I also closely worked with Jason last year, in his role as the Guest Editor of Open Laboratory 2010. Jason has also been quite a regular contributor to our Guest Blog, so you should check out Man’s new best friend? A forgotten Russian experiment in fox domestication, Turkey talk: The social cognition of your Thanksgiving dinner, Impact of the Japan earthquake and tsunami on animals and environment and Digitizing Jane Goodall’s legacy at Duke.

ThoughtomicsLucas Brouwers received his MS in the program for Molecular Mechanisms of Disease at Radboud University Nijmegen. He writes about science for a Dutch newspaper, he blogs and he’s recently reported for us from the Lindau Nobel conference. Lucas covers mainly evolution, usually from a molecular or bioinformatics angle. His previous Guest Blog article was We all need (a little bit of) sex.

The Urban ScientistDanielle N. Lee did her PhD research in animal behavior and she sometimes blogs about it, as well as about evolution, ecology (often urban ecology) and mammals. But her main strengths are in blogging about science education and outreach, especially to women and minorities, and she does it often herself – both at the old version of this blog and in her other project – SouthernPlaylisticEvolutionMusic where she uses hip-hop to explain basic evolutionary concepts. Check out her Guest Blog post – Under-represented and underserved: Why minority role models matter in STEM.

The White Noise – Last on this list due to the vagaries of the alphabetical order, but most certainly not the least, let me introduce you to Cassie Rodenberg. With a degree in chemistry, and love of herpetology, Cassie turned to science journalism and never looked back. After stints in local newspapers and another popular science magazine, Cassie is now interactive producer for Discovery’s Emerging Networks, including Discovery Fit & Health and Planet Green. The topic of her new blog is addiction. Every angle of it: chemicals, brain, behavior, culture, society, policy and more. And yes, personal experiences with addiction involving people around her. That is courageous. Knowing how well she writes, and suspecting how personal some of this will be, I expect her blog to make for some amazing, riveting and emotional reading.

Some more notes about the network

First, let me tell you a little bit how I chose the bloggers, and what is the concept and vision for the network.

Over the past nine months, since I got hired to develop this network, I checked out thousands of science blogs, dug deep into the archives of several hundred of them, then closely followed, day-by-day, about 200 of those, removing some and adding some over time, finally managing to whittle it down to about 42 who I ended up inviting.

Though not absolutely unique in this, Scientific American is very rare in completely incorporating the blogs and bloggers into its website and daily workflow. A blog is just a piece of software. We are trying to eliminate the artificial line between “blogging” and “journalism” and focus on good, accurate writing, no matter what form it comes in or what software is used to produce it. Our bloggers are a part of our team, as ‘continuous correspondents’ or ‘full-time freelancers’. Thus, I made careful choices keeping this in mind – I invited bloggers whose expertise, quality of writing, and professionalism fit well with the mission and general tenor of our organization.

Diversity

The vision for the blog network I have is a collection of people who bring to Scientific American a diversity of expertise, backgrounds, writing formats, styles and voices, who will bring diverse audiences to Scientific American. They differ in typical lengths of posts, in posting frequency, in the “reading level” of their work, in the use of non-textual media, and in their approach to science communication. Each one of them will appeal to a different segment of our readership: from kids to their teachers, parents and grandparents, from the hip-hop culture to the academic culture, from kindergarteners to post-docs.

Another thing I was particularly interested in was to find bloggers who in some way connect the “Two Cultures” as described by C.P.Snow. Some connect science to history, philosophy, sociology or ethics. Many are very interested in science education, communication and outreach. Some make connections between science and popular culture, music, art, illustration, photography, cartoons/comic strips, poetry, literature, books, movies, TV, video, etc. Several produce such cross-discipline and cross-cultural material themselves – at least two are musicians, two are professional photographers, several produce videos, two are professional artists, a couple are authors of multiple books, some produce their own blog illustrations. But there are also commonalities – they all have strong knowledge of their topic, they strictly adhere to the standards of scientific evidence, they are all very strong writers, and they are all enthusiastic to share their work with a broader audience.

When I put together this group, with such diverse interests and styles, it was not surprising to discover that, without really having to try hard to make it so, they also display diversity in many other areas: geography, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, personal/professional/scientific background and more. This is something that is important for science, and is important in the science blogging world.

So, as I expect that several of you are already counting, let me make this easy for you. We have 47 blogs with 55 bloggers. Of those, our editors and staff make up 13 people (8 women, 5 men), while independent bloggers make up the difference with 42 of them (25 women, 17 men). That is a total of 22 men and 33 women writing on our network. The age ranges from 22 to 58, with the mean around 32 and median around 31 (at least when including those who are willing to admit their age).

While geographic concentration in New York City is mainly due to the fact that most editors and staff have to come to our NYC office every morning, the rest of the bloggers are from all over the country and the world (see the map of some of their birthplaces) and also currently live all over the place (see the map) and, as academic and other jobs require, move around quite often. Right now, other urban centers with multiple bloggers are Vancouver city and area (4), Triangle NC and surrounding area (4), Urbana-Champaign, IL (3), Los Angeles, CA (3), London, UK (3), Columbus, OH (2) and Austin TX (2). There are bloggers in Australia, Italy, Netherlands, Canada (5) and the UK (6). And the birthplaces also include Trinidad, Hong Kong, Belgrade (Serbia) and Moscow, Russia (two bloggers).

Size of the network

Will the network grow any more? Perhaps, but not fast, and not by much. This is pretty much the ideal size for a network, and getting much bigger becomes unpleasant for bloggers, managers and readers alike – there is a potential loss of the feeling of community, as well as a fire-hose of posts in the feed. This size is, as Goldilocks would say, just right – neither too small nor too big. We’ll try to keep it that way. As is to be expected, every now and then a blogger will decide to leave and pursue some other career avenue, which will open up a slot for someone new. One of the blog spots is designed to exist only one year at the time. And at least two blogs – the Guest Blog and Expeditions, are here to provide the platform for many others who are not regularly writing for our network.

Commenting

As regular users of our site know, commenting on our articles requires registration with Scientific American. But, for the posts on our new blogging network, there will soon be two additional log-in options: you will be able to log in with either your Twitter or your Facebook ID and password. Providing additional options is necessary to foster conversations and build our community.

We are about to update our official rules for commenting on the editorial blogs. Independent bloggers will have their own rules for what is appropriate behavior in their comment threads. Most, but not all bloggers will moderate comments ‘post-publishing’, i.e., deleting already posted comments that are deemed to be spam or in other ways inappropriate. A couple of bloggers will moderate pre-publishing, i.e., they will first have to approve those comments that will show up on their sites.

I know this post was long, but I hope you at least managed to go and visit all the blogs, and say Hi to the new bloggers in the comments. I think this is going to be great fun for all of us. Subscribe to feeds and keep coming back to see what these wonderful writers have prepared for you each day.

Thank you!

New at Scientific American : Introducing the blog network!

We have an exciting announcement to make this morning. Our new blog network has launched!

To our existing lineup of eight blogs you are all familiar with, we have added another 39. There are now six editorial blogs, six personal blogs written by our editors and staff, and 42 independent bloggers who will write on our platform starting today.

Bookmark the new Blogs Home Page and read the official press release.

Editor in Chief Mariette DiChristina, has written a welcome post, explaining what the network means to Scientific American.

And I have written an introductory post in which I introduce all the blogs and bloggers on our brand- new network.

This is a stellar lineup of bloggers. Give them a hearty welcome in the comments of their introductory posts, and keep coming back to read their amazing writing.

The Bezos Scholars Program at the World Science Festival

The World Science Festival is a place where one goes to see the giants of science, many of whom are household names (at least in scientifically inclined households) like E. O. Wilson, Steven Pinker and James Watson, people on top of their game in their scientific fields, as well as science supporters in other walks of life, including entertainment—Alan Alda, Maggie Gullenhal and Susan Sarandon were there, among others—and journalism (see this for an example, or check out more complete coverage of the Festival at Nature Network).

With so many exciting sessions, panels and other events at the Festival, it was hard to choose which ones to attend. One of the events I especially wanted to see centered on the other end of the spectrum—the youngest researchers, just getting to taste the scientific life for the first time in their lives.

On the morning of Saturday the 4th, four high school seniors from New York schools presented their research at the N.Y.U. Kimmel Center. This is the second year that the project, The Bezos Scholars Program, sponsored jointly by the Bezos Family Foundation and the World Science Festival, took place.

Each student starts the program as a high school junior and, with mentoring by a science teacher and a scientist or engineer in the community, spends a year working on the project. At the end of the year, the students get to present their findings at the Festival and also get to meet the senior scientists, attend other events, all expenses paid by the Bezos Family.

The event, so far, has not been broadly advertised by the Festival probably to avoid having crowds in the thousands assembling to give the students stage fright. Still, the room was filled by dozens of local scientists, writers and educators and the students certainly did not disappoint.

It is important to note here that a big part of organization, coordination and coaching was done by Summer Ash (see also).

The projects

To summarize the research projects, I asked Perrin Ireland to provide cartoon versions of the presentations. Perrin Ireland is a graphic science journalist who currently serves as Science Storyteller at AlphaChimp Studio, Inc. She uses art and narrative to facilitate scientists sharing their stories, and creates comics about the research process.

More importantly for us here, unlike most of us who write notes when attending presentations, Perrin draws them. You can find more of Perrin’s work at Small and Tender, and follow her on Twitter at @experrinment.

“Aluminum Ion-Induced Degeneration of Dopamine Neurons in Caenorhabditis elegans”

First up was Rozalina Suleymanova from Bard High School Early College Queens. Her teacher is Kevin Bisceglia, Ph.D. and her mentor is Dr. Maria Doitsidou from The Hobert Laboratory in the Department of Biochemistry & Molecular Biophysics at Columbia University Medical Center.

Aluminum is found in brain tissues of Alzheimers’ patients. It is reasonable to hypothesize that aluminum can also affect neurons in other neurodegenrative diseases such as Parkinson’s. In Parkinson’s, it is the neurons that secrete dopamine that are affected.

Human brains are large and complex, but the nematode worm Caenorhabditis elegans has a simple nervous system in which every individual neuron (out of a total of 302) is known – where it is, what neurotransmitter it uses, and what function it performs. It is also an excellent laboratory model organism, with easy husbandry and breeding, short lifespan, and genetic techniques in place.

What Rozalina Suleymanova did was make a new strain of C.elegans in which only the eight dopamine-releasing neurons express green fluoresecent protein which allowed her to see them under a epiflorescence microscope.

She then exposed the worms to different doses of aluminum(III) in the form of AlCl3 either as acute exposure (30 minutes of high concentration) or as chronic exposure (12 days of continuous exposure of lower concentration).

Under the acute regimen, some worms died (how many – depended on the concentration). But the worms that survived showed no changes in the dopamine neurons. Under chronic exposure, all worms survived and only a very small proportion (not different from chance) showed some minor changes in the dopamine neurons. Thus, essentially negative results (hard to publish), but excellent work!

“The Structural Stability of Trusses”

Next up was Matthew Taggart from the NYC LAB School for Collaborative Studies, his teacher and Ali Kowalsky and his mentors Jeremy Billig, P.E., Senior Engineer at McLaren Engineering Group in NYC.

He used a program called Risa3D to build virtual bridges. The program enabled him to test the design of bridges built of iron trusses.

By varying heights (‘depth’) and widths (‘span’) of trusses and applying vertical downward force onto them until they broke, he discovered that it is the height-width ratio, not either one of the dimensions alone, that determines the strength and resistance of this kind of bridge design.

Needless to say, these kinds of calculations are performed during the process of actual design of infrastructure – using computer program first, verifying by hand calculations second, then doing test designs before starting the real construction.

“Identifying Presence of Race Bias Among Youth”

Saba Khalid from the Brooklyn Technical High School was the third student researcher up on stage, accompanied by her teacher Janice Baranowski, and her mentor Dr. Gaëlle C. Pierre from the Department of Psychology at NYU School of Medicine.

She devised a questionnaire, based on some older literature on race perception, and distributed it to the students at her school. Each question showed five pictures of dolls, each with a different skin tone, and asked which of the five dolls is most likely to be working in a particular profession.

Saba Khalid then analyzed the data correlating the responses to the race/ethnicity of the responder, to their socio-economic status and other parameters.

Out of many different responses, Saba Khalid pointed out three examples that are in some way typical. For one, respondents of all races predominantly pointed the darkest doll as a likely employee in a fast-food restaurant. At the other end, most respondents of all races chose the lightest doll for the profession of a pilot. Interestingly, for the profession of a teacher, the answers were quite evenly spread, with some tendency for respondents to pick a doll closest to their own skin color.

“Proactive and Reactive Connection Relevance Heuristics In A Virtual Social Network”

Finally, Tyler A. Romeo from the Staten Island Technical High School took stage. His teacher is Frank Mazza and his mentor is Dr. Dennis Shasha from the Department of Computer Science at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at NYU.

There are two ways an online service can make recommendations to its users. One method tracks the user’s prior choices and recommends items that are similar in some way. Think of Amazon.com recommending books similar to the books you have looked at or ordered. The other method is collaborative filtering – the site recommend items that other users who are similar to you have liked in the past.

What Tyler Romeo did was to recruit eight volunteers from his school who are active Facebook users, and wrote an app for them to install. The app analyzed prior behavior of these users as to which items they found interesting (by commenting or “Like”-ing) using the type and length (but not content) of the post as a key parameter. Tyler then used a support vector machine to predict which new items on the participants’ Facebook walls would be considered interesting by others.

What Tyler concluded was that a support vector machine may be able to predict which posts users will find interesting. Also, “cleaning up” the Facebook Walls to include only the “interesting” posts improved the overall quality of the posts compared to a random feed, which can possibly lead to an improved experience for the user.

***

After the event, several of us in the audience concluded that the quality of the work we just saw was definitely higher than expected for high school – college level for sure, and the Nematode work probably as good as a Masters project. Also, the way they did the presentations gave us confidence to ask tough questions and not to treat them too gently just because they are so young.

And it is there, during the Q&A sessions, where they really shone and showed that they truly own their research and are not just well coached by Summer Ash and their mentors. They understood all questions, addressed every component of multi-component questions, demonstrated complete grasp of the issues, and always gave satisfactory answers (and yes, sometimes saying “I don’t know” is a satisfactory answer even if you are much older than 18 and not just entering the world of science).

They identified weaknesses in their experiments, and suggested good follow-up experiments for the future. I was deeply impressed by their focus and presence of mind – I know for myself how hard it is to do a good Q&A session after giving a presentation. They are definitely going places – I hope they choose careers in science as they have what it takes to succeed.

***

My first thought, after being so impressed by the presentations, was: why only four students? There must be many more talented students in New York schools, with aptitude for and interest in science and engineering.

Finding the right match between three very busy people—the student, the teacher and the mentor—and then coordinating their times and sustaining the work and enthusiasm for an entire year must be quite a challenge.

I am wondering how much a program like this can be scaled up to include more students. Also, having such a program in a city that is smaller, slower, less competitive than New York City, where fewer such educational organizations may exist but are more likely to see each other as collaborators than competitors, may be easier. It would be interesting to see how well similar programs do in other places. But for now, clearly, New York City takes the lead. Great job!

Stories: what we did at #WSF11 last week

As you probably know, I spent last week in New York City, combining business with pleasure – some work, some fun with friends (including #NYCscitweetup with around 50 people!), some fun with just Catharine and me, and some attendance at the World Science Festival.

My panel on Thursday afternoon went quite well, and two brief posts about it went up quickly on Nature Network and the WSF11 official blog.

But now, there is a really thorough and amazing piece on it, combining text by Lena Groeger (who also did a great job livetweeting the event) with comic-strip visualization of the panel by Perrin Ireland – worth your time! Check it out: All about Stories: How to Tell Them, How They’re Changing, and What They Have to Do with Science

More about the trip and the Festival still to come…

Update: See also coverage at Mother Geek.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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