Archive for the ‘radio’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: March Mammal Madness Edition

February 18, 2014

That time of the month again:  tomorrow being the third Wednesday of February, I’ll be going on the ‘tubes at my usual gig with Virtually Speaking Science for a conversation with Katie Hinde — biologist at Harvard and major-domo of the world-class awesome blog, Mammals Suck…Milk!

You can listen live or as a podcast later here.  If you’re virtually real, you can join us in the live studio audience at the Exploratorium’s joint in Second Life.  (I’ll get the SLURL up in an update and/or tomorrow’s reminder. We kick off at 6 p.m. ET.

Hinde is just a treat of an interview — fast, funny, and with incredibly rich and interesting science to discuss.  Here’s what she’s about:

Mother’s milk has an organizational effect on infant outcomes, not just by providing the energy that sustains growth, but by also contributing to immunological, neurobiological, and behavioral development.

Guided by evolutionary theory, we investigate how variation in mother’s milk and behavioral care influences infant outcomes from post-natal life into adulthood and subsequent generations.

Her research has centered on primates, but as Ed Yong discusses here, she’s a marvelously agile opportunist, and in one sweet move she managed to turn what has been a field developed on the back of very labor intensive, small sample size studies into something approaching big milk data.  Her trick?   Taking advantage of the detailed record keeping American dairy farmers perform for obvious reasons to acquire 2.4 million lactatation records from 1.4 million cows.  Now that’s some statistical power!

DAM120727

Technique is one thing — asking good questions of data is another, and that’s what makes Hinde such an interesting scholar.  She’s been looking at differences by gender of the offspring in the composition and delivery of milk.  The answer is (a) the details are all in all; different species with different evolutionary histories and behavioral landscapes exhibit different lactation patterns in the context of different behaviors exhibited by daughters and sons, and (b) seemingly obvious evolutionary stories often fail to fit what actually happens at the udder or the breast — and after, through the life of the nourished children.  You can get a sense of the field and a whiff of Hinde’s own work in her review chapter here. [PDF]

We’ll talk about all that — what the story is for cows, as compared with rhesus macaques, for example, and then we’ll talk about that research as it hits the wider world.    That’s in Hinde’s mind because of a very recent encounter with the inimitable (thankfully) Daily Mail.  We’ll talk about that monument to crap science writing, but with this twist:  a look at the importance of social media for contemporary scientists.  Hinde was able to mobilize correctives to the disastrous reporting on her research only because she has a robust presence across a number of networks — and we’ll use her experience over the last week to think about the shifting power structure in media.  A long way — but not really — from the milking shed.

And last, burying the lede as usual, we’ll get to Hinde’s annual mammalian extravaganza — her own bracket of mammals taking on each other in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw competition that makes the NCAAs look like toddlers in sandboxes.  Just to give you a taste, last year she pitted (inter much alia) the honey badgers against the wolverines.  Now, there is simply no mammal around that matches the wolverine for sheer, incomprehensible bad-assery (see, e.g., the tale of M3 Hinde often cites).  But Hinde is an honest bracket-builder, so home field matters.  Wolverine could wreck Honey Badger on any neutral field, but in HB’s home turf — Africa — the heat and  humidity negated the advantages of stamina and ferocity, leaving one of the  pre-tourney favorites a loser as the Madness played out.

Hinde will be running a new Mammal Madness this coming March — and that’s where the conversation tomorrow will come to rest.

As you may have gathered, I’m looking forward to this one.  Join in the conversation tomorrow.

Image:  Winslow Homer, Milking Time1875.

Winslow

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel edition

December 18, 2013

It’s the third Wed. of the month again (remarkable how that comes around), and I’ll once more be doing my internet radio thing on Virtually Speaking Science (a program within the Virtually Speaking empire that recently featured our own Richard Mayhew in conversation with Jay Ackroyd).

This evening at 5 p.m. ET/ 2 p.m./PT, I’ll be talking with Maryn McKenna and Janet Stemwedel about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and science writing.  (We’ll also be live in Second Life at the Exploratorium’s joint.  Come join the live studio audience if you’ve got that kind of virtual bent.)

Titian_-_Rape_of_Europa_-_Google_Art_Project

As many of you I’m sure know, it’s been a tumultuous couple of months in the science writing world. Since October, we’ve seen Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a researcher and blogger at ScientificAmerican.com get called an “urban whore” for the sin of politely declining to write for free — and then have her equally polite explanation why that’s not OK deleted on spurious pretences by a Scientific American editorial staff who thus, effectively silenced an African American woman trying to let the world know this sh*t still goes on — every damn day.  You can listen to Lee herself on all of this as part of the invaluable Story Collider series of tales of science and life.

In the wake of Lee’s story, first one woman, then two, then three reported incidents of sexual harassment by then-Scientific American blog editor and Science Online co-founder Bora Zivkovic.  Of particular note at this stage of events was the pattern of reactions to the news about Zivkovic, who was a cornerstone of the English-language science blogging world, widely known and liked.  By me too, btw.  Devoted fans of my Virtually Speaking Science gig — yes, all 6 of you, counting my cat — will recall that Bora was on the show last January.  He was kind to my fledgling blog as he was to many others, and the reserves of good will he engendered play a role in this story.  The concept of “community” was invoked to suggest that Zivkovic’s role in fostering community as an end in itself suggested some kind of amelioration or alternate context for the one incident on the table.  As more women came forward, that line of argument largely evaporated — but it set the context for the public debate that followed.

Moving forward, there was Rapey-Einstein-Curie-Bobblehead-gate.  I kid you not.  Joe Hanson, who writes the It’s OK To Be Smart blog for PBS digital posted a Thanksgiving video showing famous historical scientists (bobbleheads) gathered around the table.  Marie Curie was the only woman on hand, and the video ended up with Einstein assaulting Curie.  Oy.

What made that particular embarrassment worse that neither Hans0n nor PBS seemed to get quite what was wrong with the piece — as Kate Clancy* writes, Hanson apologized, but said he was trying to draw attention to the insufficient representation of women in science through the video.  PBS merely lauded Hanson and itself for  opening up “up an important, though difficult, debate” — as if the conversation about rape, discrimination or abuse of power was suddenly brought to our attention by this act of intellectual courage.

One of the most striking aspects of the whole last few months was the surprise gap.  Women in science writing were unhappy to hear of each insult and act of diminishment imposed on other women — but, at least as documented in that immaculate scientific assay, Twitter, they were utterly unsurprised by the pervasiveness of the phenomenon.  Men, those with some power and those pretty much without, mostly had a different reaction. They — and this certainly goes for me — had a collective “I had no idea that this happens to all of y’all” reaction.

Cole_Thomas_Expulsion_from_the_Garden_of_Eden_1828

But it does.  Crap gender behavior is a constant, it seems; at least every woman I’ve spoken to in the science writing world reports interactions ranging from the unnecessarily and workplace-inappropriate awkwardness to outright sucker-should-be-in-jail awfulness.  The data on women’s advancement through the ranks of power in both science itself and public science communication reflect both the leaky-pipe impact of such environments and the power of old-boy networks, even in this day and age.  See this and this and this for examples, with Janet Stemwedel’s post as context.

So we’ll be talking about all of this:  what happened to bring the issue of sexual harrassment and gender discrimination to the fore in the professional world of science communication; what it means on the ground for the craft — and hence, inter alia, for the goal of engaging the public in science and the use of scientific thinking for civic participation; and what can be done to address the systemic flaws that have enabled gender discrimination to persist, for all the (often quite spectacular) self-congratulation science communicators have allowed themselves in the very recent past.

As to my guests.  Maryn McKenna is a return visitor to the program, having joined me in April to talk antibiotic resistance and why we’re all doomed.  She’s one of the country’s leading public health journalists, who has spent the last several years diving into the problem of antibiotic overuse and the evolution of increasingly resistant microbes.  She’s also someone who has thought long and deeply about gender issues in our shared profession, and you can find some of her writing on the subject on her blog (variously linked above).

Janet Stemwedel is a professor of philosophy at San Jose State University who teaches the philosophy of science and its ethics, among other concerns.  She’s known on the web as Dr. Freeride, and she blogs about a wide range of issues of ethics and public responsibilty in science.  It’s both too horrible and necessarily inaccurate to say that someone is “the conscience” of a group, but Janet is nonetheless one of those to whom many of us turn when we want to talk through a question with rigor and humanity.

Should be a rich conversation this afternoon. Hope y’all can make it, or check out the podcast when it suits your schedule.

One more thing:  it should go without saying, but in case it doesn’t, there’s nothing unique about science journalism or public outreach.  Some of us in the business (almost exclusive the male sort) thought there was, that we had enlightened ourselves as a group past the broader social issues raised by ongoing gender crap.  This program is both a result of and an attempt to further disabusement of that notion — and, I hope, whatever I’ll learn from Janet and Maryn will also serve as a guide to navigating the same issues in settings beyond science writing.

IOW — this may all look like inside baseball for science writers.  It’s not.

*BTW — as I write this the news just came off embargo that Kate’s been named one of the journal Nature’s 10 — “Ten people who mattered this year,” recognized for her work in developing data to demonstrate the reality of sexual harassment and physical or sexual assault in research settings.

Images: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1559-1562.

Thomas Cole, The Expulsion from Eden, 1828.

 

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics*

November 20, 2013

It’s that time of the month again.

This afternoon at 5 ET I’ll be doing my internet science radio gig as one of three hosts on Virtually Speaking Science.  The others, btw, are Alan Boyle and Jennifer Ouellette.

My guest will by my MIT colleague Allan Adams.  Allan is a physicist — a string theorist, AKA someone who works on problems that have been famously twitted as having no rea world test or validation.

Jan_van_Bijlert_-_Musical_Company_-_WGA02182

That’s a misleading claim on a bunch of levels, some of which are implicated in some recent work Allan and several colleagues have done.  The latest, reported in a paper in Science last summer, uses math derived from string theory that’s been applied to the study of black hole dynamics to investigate what happens as a superfluid — a frictionless fluid whose behavior is described by quantum mechanics — displays turbulence.

That’s a mouthful, to be sure.  Here’s the nub:  a mathematical description of one kind of physical system — a black hole — turns out to explicate the behavior of a very different one, that, as it happens, can be produced, observed and analyzed right here at home.

Think on that for a second.

This is an instance of the most …

…miraculous is the wrong word for it, so perhaps better, astonishing fact about modern science:  it really, really works, and it does so through a path that mathematics opens up.  We can make sense of our surroundings because of what seems to be an invention of the human mind, a system of logic rigorously expressed that can describe and evolve the relations between ideas, concepts and things in the world.  But here’s the weird bit:   that tool, that invention of thousands of years of human culture, does so across every more disparate, ever more encompassing domains — from the lab bench to a collapsed star, for example.  Mathematics as a creation of fallible humans seems to be in some sense an intrinsic property of the universe, which is a much more banal statement than it appears, in one sense, since what it really says is that  mathematical accounts do what people were trying to do with the stuff:  find ways to construct   arguments in forms that can be checked for accuracy and internal consistency that satisfactorily describe, say, the flight of a cannonball or the path of a planet.

So Allan and I are going to talk about all that:  his recent work as an example of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics; about how physicists actually use math — what kind of thinking actually goes into doing this kind of work;  and about why string theory, for any paucity of new prediction or unique evidence in its favor is still such a fertile field of inquiry — and what that fact tells you about how science actually advances.

Heady stuff, I know, but I, with my physics degree from the school of having things fall on my head, will keep the conversation working as a way to see into what (a) physicist does.  Allan, you’ll find, is great value, that most fortunate of human who finds nothing but joy in the work he does. That’ll come through — the great pleasure of my work is to get to spend time with people who know cool stuff, find out more, and can’t stop talking about it. That’s what you’ll get in just a little while.

Tune in if you have a chance, or stop by the Second Life live studio experience, or catch it later as  a podcast.

*The phrase “The unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” was the title of an essay by Nobel laureate physicist Eugene Wigner.  Highly recommended.  It’s concluding thought:

The miracle of the appropriateness of the language of mathematics for the formulation of the laws of physics is a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve. We should be grateful for it and hope that it will remain valid in future research and that it will extend, for better or for worse, to our pleasure, even though perhaps also to our bafflement, to wide branches of learning.

Image: Jan van Bijlert, Musical Companybefore 1671.

For A Good Time On the ‘Tubes: David Dobbs, Sociable Genes edition

September 18, 2013

Dear all,

A little late — but it’s that time of the month again.  I’ll be doing my regular gig as one of the hosts of Virtually Speaking Science this evening at 6 EDT — just a little more than two hours from now.

My guest this time is David Dobbs, a wonderful science writer and (full disclosure) a good friend.  David has been focusing on neuroscience, genes and behavior for some time now.  Some of you may recall his big Atlantic feature on “the orchid hypothesis.”  There, David wrote about a fascinating line of scientific research that, among much else, showed how subtle and powerful the interactions of genes and environment can be.  Nature or nurture, that old debate, turns out (in this and in many other good works) to be a much richer, and much less dichotomized point of inquiry.

Jacopo_Bassano_-_Paradiso_terrestre_ca_1573

Flash forward to now.  David has been working on a book, The Orchid and the Dandelion, to be published by Crown in 2015, that extends the ideas and arguments of that magazine feature into a nuanced (and very tricky to write) account of how scientists are now trying to piece together the gene-to-behavior chain.  Some of that work led to the essay he just published at one of the delightful new web-based venues for serious, long-form public intellection, The Pacific Standard.  In that piece, “The Social Life Of Genes,” David writes about fascinating work on the way experience affects gene expression — which both takes the nature-nurture interaction to new, much more ephemeral time scales (itself a delightful shocker, at least to me) and points to the way the extraordinary advances in genetic and genomic research have reached a peculiar moment.  We know vastly more than we ever have before about the informational content of life.  We have tools that allow us to produce intimate moments in the daily life of genes and attendant molecules.  But that knowledge has gone just far enough to demonstrate how much more complex, intricate and so far ill-deciphered the genetic view of life remains.  We know more — and yet that knowledge leaves us much less certain about how a lot of biology works than we thought we understood a decade ago.

Which, of course, is just great.  (Physicists would kill for such wide open spaces!)  We live in interesting times — which, as I hope this conversation will demonstrate, is not always an accursed thing.

Tune in:  audio and later podcast here.

Also — do check out David’s website. Lots of good stuff there, but I’d draw the attention of any writers (or devoted readers) to David’s links to good work, and to his own  and others’ fine analyses of writing craft.

Image:  Jacopo Bassano, Earthly Paradisec. 1573

For A Good Time On The Intertubes TODAY! — Sports, Genes, Human Potential edition

July 31, 2013

A reminder/follow up to Monday’s post.

This evening at 6 p.m. EDT I’ll be talking with author and Sports Illustrated Senior Writer David Epstein about his new book The Sports Gene.  You can listen to the show, Virtually Speaking Science live and later here — and  you can catch up on my episodes or those of other hosts (Alan Boyle, Jennifer Ouellette, PZ Myers) either by searching my name or Virtually Speaking Science at either Blog Talk Radio or on iTunes.

The show also goes up virtually live in Second Life (yes — it still exists!) at the Exploratorium’s in-world space.  If you’re into SL, or merely avatar-curious, come on down.  It’s weirdly fun doing this in front of a “live” studio audience.

Now to the substance. Let me get right out in front of it.  A book that looks at genes and human possibility — both physical and mental/emotional — is navigating a mine field of sloppy science, bad intentions, and terrible history.  David has managed to write a book that is smart, scientifically literate, clear and subtle.

Here’s the passage with which David begins his Epilogue:

Eero Mäntyranta’s life story is a paragon of a 10,000 hours tale.

Mäntyranta grew up in poverty and had to ski across a frozen lake to get to and from school each day.  As a young adult, he took up serious skiing as a way to improve his life station — to land a job as a border patrolman and escape the danger and drudgery of forest work.  The faintest taste of success was all Mäntyranta needed to embark on the furious training that forged one of the greatest Olympic athletes of a generation.  Who would deny his hard work or the lonely suffering he endured on algid winter nights? Swap skis for feet and the Arctic forest for the Rift Valley and Mäntyranta’s tale would fit snugly into the narrative template of a Kenyan marathoner.

If not for a batch of curious scientists who were familiar with Mäntyranta’s exploits and invited him to their lab twenty years after his retirement, his story might have remained a pure triumph of nurture.  But illuminated by the light of genetics, Mäntyranta’s life tale looks like something entirely different:  100 percent nature and 100 percent nurture….

And, a little later in this concluding essay:

In all likelihood, we over ascribe our skills and traits to either innate talent or training, depending on what fits our personal narratives.

One of the pleasures of the book is a proper debunking of the Gladwell version of the 10,000 hours story, and we’ll talk about that.  We’ll talk about genes, about the implications of genetic and human variation, on what use those of us who aren’t elite athletes can make of new scientific investigations into things like the genetics of brain trauma or injury, and much more.  I found this book deeply intriguing, a page turner, for all the complexity of some of the technical matters under scrutiny.  Most of all, for all its presentation as a sports book, or sports science book, I found it best read as an idiosyncratic doorway into an increasingly rich understanding of human possibility.  I didn’t need genetics to tell me that I never could have been an Olympic (or high school) sprinter.

Schiele_-_Laufende_-_1915_

It gives me a kind of joy to realize as a fifty something slowest-jogger-on-the-river that there is a growing body of knowledge that can help me think systematically about the best way to train the body I’ve got.  Cool stuff.

Last — a couple of factoids that turned up in my pre-interview with David that are too good not to share ahead of time.

For one, just for those who think we’re in post-racial America, David pointed out to me that the alleged inverse relationship between athletic prowess and intellectual skill only started to getting talked about in the US as African-American athletes gained access to previously all white or white dominated sports.  For another:  in the 30s, basketball, historically an urban sport, had a disproportionate number of Jews at high levels of the game.  So folks talked about a Jewish basketball gene, and you got some predictable crap about canny Jews knowing how to steal the ball and such like.

Oy — but fodder for some fascinating radio.

Tune in this afternoon or later as you get the chance.

Image:  Egon Schiele, Running Girl,  1915

A Stray Thought, Plus, For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes, Really Scary Microbe Edition

April 24, 2013

Sad to say, but true, some folks have complained to me that I don’t give enough notice of all the good stuff.  So, as usual around here, the beatings continue until morale improves…

…which is something of an apology for the fact that I’m only now mentioning that at 5 p.m. Eastern time I’ll be talking to Maryn McKenna on my monthly science-radio-web/podcast, Virtually Speaking Science (where I’m one of several hosts as we inch our way to regular weekly episodes).  (You’ll be able to pick up the podcast later at that link, or on iTunes, having searched for Virtually Speaking Science.)

Maryn, for those of you who have for some odd reason not glued yourself to her blog Superbug, or immersed yourself in her book by the same name, is the leading journalist working in the US on problems of antibiotic resistance, infectious disease and similar sources of gnawing (and occasionally acute) anxiety.  She and I have talked before, but, sadly, there’s always more scary bug stuff to talk about.

Flea_Micrographia_Hooke

This time, our focus will be on an under-reported outbreak of (likely) Totally Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (TDR – TB) and on the H7N9 flu story out of China.  But we’ll no doubt talk about antibiotics in agriculture and the way agribusiness and the tocsin of cheap food is posing such a thread.  Should be, dare I say it, fun.  Or at least interesting.  Or perhaps just terrifying.

Oh — and as for that stray thought.  Am I the only one wondering whether The Pet Goat will have a place of honor in Wee Bush’s presidential library?

Thought not.

ETA: Here’s a nice  bit of reporting on potentially untreatable gonorrhea appearing in the US.  I’ll be asking Maryn about this too.

Image:  Robert Hooke, Flea, in Micrographia, 1665

On Fluorescent Fish, Pet Prosthetics, Roach Cyborgs, and the Ethics of Engineered Animals

March 20, 2013

Program notes, here. It’s the third Wednesday of the month, which means I’ll be talking to a guest on the Virtually Speaking Science Strand at Blog Talk Radio and in Second Life.

This month my interlocutor will be a first for me: 0ne of my former MIT Science Writing graduate students, Emily Anthes. Emily is (a) great — a fine writer, a ferocious reporter, and someone with a sharp-elbowed, quirky view of the world.

She’s just out with a new book, Frankenstein’s Cat, on what’s happening now — and what the implications may be — in a range of ways we’ve begun to modify our pets and other animals. The book treats of genetically modified fish that glow in the dark; dairy animals manipulated to produce therapeutically valuable proteins in their milk, the concept of editing the genomes of useful (and/or decorative) animals, cloning, brain hacking (that’s the roaches) and more.

Emily is an engaged reporter on all this; she has strong points of view. Broadly, she favors the side of intervention; in part, as she notes, because it’s hardly as if the history of selective breeding leaves us exactly virginal in the matter of using our fellow creatures as means, rather than ends in themselves.

Joannes_Fijt_-_Spaniels_Stalking_Rabbits_in_the_Dunes_-_WGA08353

The question isn’t whether we should manipulate animals, but how, and with what ethical lens — and that’s what we’ll talk about.

We’ll do so both as a live and listen-later audio cast, and in front of a virtually (and virtuously, I hope) live audience in Second Life, tonight at 7 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time, 4 p.m on that far coast I used to call home.

Should be fun. Emily’s the real deal. Listen in; buy her book; make an old teacher happy.

Image: Jan Fyt, Spaniels Stalking Rabbits in the Dunes, 1658


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