Archive for the ‘science writing’ category

For A Good Time On The Intertubes: Deborah Blum, Poison, Murder, Chemical Ignorance Edition

January 15, 2014

Hey, everyone.

It’s that season again — third Wednesday of the month (what, already?) at at 6 p.m. ET, I’ll be talking on that old Intertube Radio Machine with science writer extraordinaire Deborah Blum.  Live and later here, and/or in Second Life at San Francisco’s Exploratorium in-world theater, should you be minded to join our virtually live studio audience.

Deborah is probably known to you as the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, a really elegant book on the birth of forensic chemistry in the Prohibition-era investigations of New York City’s nascent chemical crime investigative laboratory.  It’s just a fabulous read — noir true crime with a solid steel core of great science running through every misdeed.

Jacques-Louis_David_-_The_Death_of_Socrates_-_Google_Art_Project

The PBS series The American Experience just broadcast an adaptation of the book, by the way, which can be viewed here.

There’s a lot more to Deborah’s career than simply this most recent success.  She won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee for reporting on ethical issues in  primate research, work contained and extended in her first book The Monkey Wars.  She’s published five previous books in total, all great — my favorite is Love At Goon Park, but there’s not a dud in the bunch. Far from it.  Her day job now is teaching science and investigative journalism at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Her students are lucky ducks (or badgers).

We’ll be talking about the new stuff:  poison, the emergence of systematic chemistry as a tool, the issues we face of our ignorance of so much of the chemical universe — the West Virginia spill will be our proof text there — and more.  We’ll also continue the extended conversation I’m having with several colleagues about the constraints and worse affecting the work of women in science writing.  Deborah has been a leader in organizing public thinking and discussion on these matters, so that’ll be on tap as well.

I should add what you may have guessed: Deborah is a good friend as well as a professional colleague.  So I’ve got the experience to assure you she’s a great conversationalist.  It will be an interesting hour.  Come on down!

Image:  Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Socrates1787.

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.

 

Women in Science Communication: Two Lows and One High

October 15, 2013

I’ve been spending (too much of) my day thinking and talking/tweeting with colleagues about a couple of the pathologies that have recently reasserted themselves in the popular science communication arena.  One incident was the grotesque case in which Scientific American blogger the Urban Scientist, Danielle Lee, was called a whore for the sin of inquiring whether or not someone asking her to write stuff might actually pay for her work.  Compounding that outrage, Scientific American took down Lee’s post describing this incident for a couple of days amidst murky attempts at justification.  The original guy’s been fired from his company, I’m happy to say, and Scientific American’s leadership has made some effort to right the ship.   I may/probably will have more to say about that whole story in a little bit.  (Elon posted on this, btw.)

Then, last night, I learned of playwright and writer Monica Byrne’s post on an encounter  with the editor of Scientific American’s blog network, Bora Zivkovic, that amounted (in my view, recalling that IANAL) to sexual harassment.*   I know and have great affection for Zivkovic, which has slowed my reaction to this news (I’ve also published a couple of guest posts at Scientific American under his editorship).  But there’s no doubt either about the truth of Byrne’s account — Zivkovic has confirmed it — nor about the deeper and broader reality it reminds us exists out there.  Gender discrimination and harassment is not simply about the big obvious shit.  It’s a daily burden, driven by the fact that women in America have to be always on at least yellow alert, even in spaces and circumstances that should be/appear-to-even-well-meaning-men to be totally safe.  I’ll try to come up with something a little more thoughtful and in depth on this one too, but for now I’ll leave it at that.

I’ll add that I hope to have my thoughts in order by Wednesday, October 23, when I’ll be doing my monthly host gig at Virtually Speaking Science.  My guest will be Eileen Pollack, professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan, one  of the first women to earn a BA in physics from Yale, and the author of this New York Times Magazine piece asking why there are still so few women in science.  It’ll be at an unusual time for the show – 3 p.m. ET — but it’ll be podcast too, and I hope you’ll check it out.  We’ll have a lot to talk about.

But none of that’s what prompted me to post right now.  Rather it was my chance encounter with a right proper reclamation of the place and priority of one of the great women scientists of the 20th century, Rosalind Franklin — who happens to be a rather loosely construed family connection of mine. (Franklin was my mother’s cousin’s husband’s aunt.  My English relatives form kind of a clan and we count folks like that as kin.  Call ‘em all cousins and let someone else sort  them out.)  Especially at the end of a day dealing with the recognition that my particular community is no more immune to inequity and more than any other, watching the video below offered a moment of take-that joy.

So sit back, hit play, and enjoy the new wave of science communication.  Franklin, resurrected, represents:

*To be precise.  The post was a year old.  Byrnes updated it last night to identify Zivkovic by name, a decision triggered, she wrote, on reading of Danielle Lee’s troubles at Scientific American.

Brief Non Political Interlude To Celebrate Some Smart Writing (Scott Huler edition)

October 14, 2013

Been celebrating the Bat-Mitzvah-hood of my wonderful niece the last few days, and so benefited from some low-intertube days.  Got dug into a book I’ve been peering at on my shelves for a couple of years now along the way.  (One of the pleasures of travelling is the sudden opening of slices of time that the working day routine obliterates.)  And this morning, still on east coast time in my childhood home town of Berkeley (explains a lot, doesn’t it), reading in bed just before 6:00 a.m., I came across this paragraph of just plain, intelligent, happy writing:

What caught my attention about the Beaufort Scale was at first the beauty of its language, but there was something else, something powerful, about how it does its job.  What the Beaufort Scale is, fundamentally is scientific language.  Its descriptions are beautiful, to be sure — but what they also are is distilled, thorough, complete.  The Beaufort Scale, in Beaufort’s form, takes the wind at sea, anywhere all over the planet — wherever a ship might encounter it — and reduces it to a format that is not only clear but quantifiable and communicable.  The Beaufort Scale takes observation and turns it into information.

That’s from Scott Huler’s de-fin-ing the wind, delightful book on the making and significance of the Beaufort Scale, the standard measure of wind strength sailors have used for a couple of centuries now.

Fishing_Boats_with_Hucksters_Bargaining_for_Fish_1837-1838_JMW_Turner

Scott’s a friend of mine, and a fine writer.  He gave me my copy of this book a while ago, and it was just the pressure of all the stuff my day job needs me to read that held it up on the pile this long.

My loss.  I’m finding lots of smart pleasure as I go along with Scott, and nuggets like the passage above  (on p. 124, if you’re asking) is that capture his gift for doing what I like best in science writing (or really, any text).  He distills his narrative down to the essence of its point, the meaning to extract from the (delightful) journey through historical narrative and anecdote.  Where and how and by whom the idea of matching measures of wind strengths to the effects of given speeds on something physical — a tree branch, a windmill vane, a sail — makes (in Scott’s hands) a wonderful account of how  18th century minds made sense of their world.  That’s reward enough on its own — but in the passage above you get something more, something of how an enterprise, science, actually works, or rather, made itself into a system of acquiring both knowledge and understanding of unique rigor and power.

And with that note, apropos of nothing contemporary or political (unless you read well between my lines), why don’t we all enjoy some nice, fresh (never half-) baked open thread.

Image: J. W. M. Turner, Fishing Boats with Hucksters Bargaining for Fish, 1837-1838.

 

The Best of Times (Good Reads Redux)

August 8, 2013

Fair warning:  What follows is ~3000 words on what a good time it is to find science fascinating.  Avoid if you’re not interested.

Given my day job teaching young writers about covering science, and given that we’re a month shy of the first day of classes for our next cohort of science-writing graduate students, I’ve been doing an informal survey of what’s out there as venues in which those folks will perform over the next few years.  And, as I suggested in this post, I came away with the somewhat unexpected sense that we are living in a genuinely great age for writing and the public engagement with science.

Science writers are fond of weeping in their cups* about the dire state of the traditional science media.  And they/we should.  MSM science writing is often said to have peaked in the so called “golden age” of the 80s.  That was when a whole new crop of science-technology-gee-whiz glossies appeared.  I think I listed a fair number of the new rags last time — Time Inc.’s Discover (my first real employer), Science 8X, Penthouse publication’s Omni** (founded 1978, actually) and others I’m blanking on, joining old stalwarts enjoying new interest — Scientific American, Popular Science, Science News,and others.  The end of the decade saw the birth of one of my all-time favorites, the short-lived, much missed Mondo 2000, and in the early 90s, you got Wired.

The NYT’s Science Times first appeared as a separate section on November 14, 1978.  It still exists, and is reasonably healthy — but diminished from its heydey.  Following the Grey Lady (no longer of) 43rd St., other newspapers built up their own dedicated science, technology and health desks.  There were lots of jobs to be had, a seemingly endless tally of stories to be written.

Juan_Gris_004

Part of the reason you saw such an expansion of science journalism was that the late 70s and onwards have been simply a fabulous time to be covering the beat.

Consider:

ITEM: You had the beginnings of the digital revolution ramping up into full scale insurrection over those years.  I didn’t grasp fully what it meant that I could haul my Kaypro C/PM driven, dual-disk drive machine down to the subway below the Time-Life Bldg., and then muscle it up to my fourth floor walk-up in Little Italy to pound away through the night — but I knew that this was a wholly different experience from the typewriter-and-carbons system I’d used just a year or two before to file from Manila and London.  I got the significance a little more when I first played with  the 300 baud modem I got with my TRS 100 (NEC clone, actually) notebook computer a couple of years later.***  But even if I was a little blase about this sudden appearance of computation in the nooks and crannies of my daily life, still, it was clear something big was in progress.

ITEM: Same for the molecular biology story.  As of 1980, it was still a huge deal to sequence a single gene, which meant that there was a lot of what looks from here to be dicey scientific claims and dicier stories about the “gene for (x)” — where x could be alcoholism or what have you.  But again, even if in those days both researchers and reporters leapt to conclusions actual biology would erode over time,**** it was clear that we were in the midst of transformative shift in the precision and levels of explanation — the understanding of causation — that biology could approach when it tackled life at the molecular level.  If we’ve learned that all the problems that seemed just one more DNA sequence short of solution are considerably more complicated than we might wish, still it’s not often you live through the kind of conceptual earthquake that occurred from the 70s to the 90s.  That it now seems obviously the necessary approach is just a measure of how powerful a wave it was then.

ITEM:  I could go on all day (and some might say I have).  The original Keck telescope saw first light with its complete 10 meter mirror on April 14, 1992 — an event that ended Mt. Palomar’s Hale telescope’s 45 year run as the world’s largest (high performance) optical telescope.*****  In the two decades since the Keck went live  — though I need to check this number — I believe more telescope observing area has been installed around the world than was used in the entire prior history of professional observing dating back to 1609.

Galileos_Moon

Throw in the Hubble, the other NASA “Great Observatories” — and the record of NASA’s other unmanned space-science missions — and you have a revolution in our knowledge of both the earth (remotely sensed from space) and our cosmic surroundings through incomprehensible ranges of space and time.  And then there’s…

…hell, you get the idea.  Oh Brave New World that has such knowledge in’t.

Science is still roaring along, of course, and  fundamental inquiry lands in technology with astonishing, daily-life-reworking speed.  I remember in 1983 taking a trip to the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, where a virtuoso microscopist showed me a video image of a segment of a neuron, saying “some think that’s where memory resides.”  This year I spent time at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Science, and talked to someone who was tracing in high resolution images of living brains thinking the development of specialized systems of thinking about other people.  We live in amazing times; flat-out gorgeous, exciting times.

Only, not so much for science writers trained up as I was, in an ecosystem dominated by a robust print advertising model.  The newspaper science sections are gone, mostly, hundreds of them between 2000 and now.  Magazines have folded, or eroded into shadows of their former selves.   There’s a fragmentation of the business; there are these things that every graduate student seems to write — I think they’re called blogs and….

… you know this drill too.

But here’s a funny thing.  I do not believe there has been a better time to be a science reader. Ever.

Again, in that earlier post, I focused on a couple of fine articles turning up in one of the new venues for long-form science writing, London-based Aeon Magazine.******  Aeon is in some ways simply a digital expression of a conventional media type.  It publishes essays and features, nicely illustrated with a bit of flat art, just like a magazine on dead trees. But even with that utterly familiar genre focus, there is still this crucial difference:  that Aeon  is an all-digital production means that it has no constraint either as to the overall length of  the pieces it publishes, or to a need to cram its pieces into set frames, one page in the magazine for a short, say, and five for a full length feature.  The news hole is what it wants to be for each and every article it chooses to put out into the world.    This sounds like a small thing, or maybe just an obvious one — but it sets up a radically different writing framework than the one that I and my friends and colleagues encountered (and still do, sometimes) when working to the constraints of cold type.   Stories get to be what they need to be, and not what the issue-budget that month dictates.

(One corollary:  this puts a premium on the one true constraint in this new golden age:  excellent editing.  Long doesn’t mean good, unless it’s actually good, and the only way to be sure of that is if someone with a brain, an ear and a sharp red pencil is available to go to work on one’s deathless prose.)

Merely digitizing words, thus, opens up venues and forms to writers who could never have hoped to try that sort of thing when only The New Yorker and a handful of other rags would let their chosen few rabbit on until they were done.  We hear more voices, younger voices, more from across the gender line and so on, and that’s a big change.  Thus the importance not just of Aeon,  but of  MatterByliner (not just a science-themed site, but  with a lot in that area), Nautilus, which is trying to enact a concept-album approach to popular science publication, and many more.  I sent out a query to some science writing buddies to survey the venues people in the business are pitching to, and the names came pouring out:  Quanta, Pacific Standard (formerly Miller McCune Magazine, and also not exlusively aimed at science)The Vergeand others that my colleagues are already writing for, despite the fact that they have yet to launch.  Older venues are shifting some resources this direction too — I’ve written once for The New Yorker’s new Elements strand, a daily feed of some commentary and some original science and technology reporting under that august brand.  Old warhorses like Popular Mechanics, Scientific Americanor Popular Science are putting good material out there, and so are places like the Nature New Service…and the list goes on.

The science blog world is enormously valuable as well, the more so (IMHO), as it professionalizes.  There’s the Scientific American blog network; National Geographic’s new Phenomena  salon, Wired.com’s stable and many others.  The New York Times may be dropping blogs — but in the science writing world, there’s no shortage, and increasingly, the old signal-noise problem of that blogosphere is resolving itself through a rather traditional gate-keeping/quality control editorial approach, updated for new media.

And then there is the penetration of science into culture and vice versa as documented at strands like Io9, or parts of the ArsTechnica site, BoingBoing, and dozens more that I know exist but one one-person/one-day-per-day life doesn’t permit me to read.  A torrent of words, of ideas, of engagement with science, its applications in technology and the useful arts, and its intellectual penetration into the realms of story, narrative, expression, art, all the good stuff.  Just digging through this first layer of links to write this essay has made me happy:  so much interesting, unexpected, important stuff out there, daily, for my private, personal edification.

And wait!  There’s more.  I and a lot of the folks I talk to about the future of science communication talk often about Atavist.  The Atavist acts as both a publisher and a platform, and the secret sauce there is their system to produce multimedia reads:  texts augmented by computation to permit the use of a rich range of materials, moving images, sound, interactive graphics and so on.  You can turn on or off such add-ons, (and you can buy Atavist published work as plain e-books  for a bit less than the fully gadgetized texts if you choose).  But theirs is one of the most elegant solutions yet to the challenge and opportunity posed by what the digitization of words permits in the way of marrying text to all the rest of the ways to communicate with each other — both the ones we’ve had for a while and those now being created.  Other publishers are working on similar stuff, “books” that are actually apps.  In such work, you have something inconceivable when I started out in the business:  an account of something about science that can, at the reader’s command, reach through the first layer of words into (conceivably) anything that bears on the matter at hand that exists anywhere on the web.

All of which is to belabor the obvious:  this is a Gutenberg moment, a handful of years — decades at most — when the range of ideas about science and its connections to human experience can reach audiences that have never had such a wealth of information and interpretation so immediately available to them.  As someone for whom this stuff is the Greatest Story Ever Told — as a reader — I couldn’t be happier.

Rembrandt_-_A_Scholar_Seated_at_a_Desk

But as a writer and a teacher of those who would deliver this stuff into the great, gaping maw of the web?

There are problems, no doubt.  All those good staff jobs of a generation ago are gone, and there is no reason to expect them back anytime soon.  Take the current run on resume-writing software in a newsroom in DC as a material reminder of that reality.*******

The reality is that science writing of the sort that I’ve been discussing here — longer pieces, essays, attempts to dive beneath the surface of any single paper or finding — is largely a free-lance game.  Freelancing in the context of a mostly online publishing ecosystem is tricky; the dust is very far from settling in the transition from a centralized on-paper publishing model to the much more variegated evolutionary tree we’re seeing now.  I  get emails regularly from well-intentioned people who want me or my students to write for free “for exposure,” — and who are surprised when they are told that exposure don’t pay the rent.

Some of the new web-publications get this and are paying rates that are at least plausible, even if they don’t approach the five figure paydays one could aspire to with a major feature in a top glossy.  Some places — notably Atavist,  but others as well — are trying some new payment models that can reward writers very well indeed. Some are still stuck in the old couple-of-bucks-for-a-blog-post mindset, even as they seek the much more involved and deeply reported-and-thought pieces you now often see at the best blog venues. The writers I admire are making it (that’s a bit of circular logic, I guess; they wouldn’t be there to admire if they weren’t) but there’s no question that it is an uncertain, unpredictable game for newer writers trying to build a self-sustaining career.

But acknowledging that reality, this wealth of new venues implies an audience responding to these attempts to bring serious, sophisticated, complex, variegated stories of science to the public.  That, to me, is the most hopeful sign for a healthy, economically viable culture of science communication.  The argument made by the simple existence of a venue like Aeon or a platform like The Atavist is in direct contradiction to the daily-evident failure of those media institutions that have tried to chase a presumed ever shorter attention span and/or a hunger for one flavor or another of raw meat.  CNN isn’t imploding for lack of resources; it is, at least as I see it, dying of contempt for its audience.  So it is with many others…and so it isn’t with the best of what’s happening in the science writing-and-reading world.

Here endeth the lesson.

*Fond of their cups full stop, I might add.  Standard wisdom at the relevant conferences:  Don’t drink with the ocean folks.  Hangover city.¹  Trust me on this.)

1: Actually, puke till it leaks past your eyeballs city, but never mind.

**As I was working on this post, news has come that Omni is getting a reboot. Great news.  It really was a gonzo magazine, a great one when it played to the top of its game.  One of its strengths — killer fiction to go along with all the rest, works by folks like William Gibson, Bruce Sterling (who’ll be appearing in the reincarnation, it seems) and many others.  As I say through the rest of this post, this is a fine time to be a reader of smart stuff infused with ideas, science, technological imagination and all the rest.

***That Radio Shack box was truly revolutionary — the first really functional traveling computer, one that in some ways was never really replaced.  It weighed three pounds, ran on AA batteries (I repeat: it ran on double A’s!) and could do just a couple of things with its 8 lines by 40 character screen. But what it could do was great:  you could write, and using its on-board modem (an add on for my NEC) you could file over any phone line in the country.  Netbooks and earlier versions of ultralight computers could serve the same function, but what the Trash 100 (as it was affectionately known) had going for it was (a) extreme simplicity, (b) a go-anywhere capability made possible by the use of standard batteries, and (c) after a while, a pretty reasonable price.  I don’t know if this is just my impression, having been in a world — journalism — that really glommed onto the little beasts, but that one bit of kit seems in retrospect to be a true cultural harbinger.  YMMV.

****(not that we’ve altogether shed that particular error)

*****A Soviet era telescope with a mirror 6 meters in diameter went into operation in the north Caucasus mountains in 1977.  In the context of the Cold War, the instrument took direct aim at the 5 meter Hale for the title of the largest optical telescope in the world.  A series of issues with the mirror and the siting and design of the observatory itself significantly limited its effectiveness, and it never out-resolved the Hale.  Hence, most western histories of optical astronomy ignore it, perhaps, unfairly.

******As of this writing (August 7, 2013) the top-of-the-feed post is another good one, an essay on privacy in the context of Snowden and Facebook.  I take some issue with its dependence on that most studied of all human groups, 18-22 year old, at least relatively well-to-do American college students, but I found provocative the notion that while we retain a desire and/or need for privacy, the fact that, as writer Ian Leslie puts it, “we don’t really believe in the internet,” puts us in a position where there is a mismatch between the technology of communication and our expectations of it.  There’s a bit of a “get off of my lawn, kids” feel to that argument, but I don’t think it’s all wrong.  And here I’m making my point:  the piece is making me argue with it and myself, which is a marker of useful writing.

*******Not intended to be a factual statement.

Images:  Juan Gris, Still Life with a Guitar, a Book, and a Newspaper, c.1919.

Galileo’s sketch of the moon from Sidereus Nuncius, 1610, with a photograph of the same view.

Rembrandt van Rijn, A Scholar Seated at a Desk1634.

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

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater –Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.

Max_Liebermann_Waisenhaus_Amsterdam_1876

Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”

Big_Ant

Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.

Pierre-Auguste_Renoir_063

The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

I Sing The Body Electric: Program Notes — this afternoon at 5 EST 2 PST

February 20, 2013

It is once more that time of the month:  I’ll be doing another of my interviews on Virtually Speaking Science, live from the Exploratorium’s hall in Second Life!

My guest this month is Cynthia Graber.  Cynthia is a double-threat science journalist, working in both print and radio; she’s currently at MIT, as it happens, as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Most recently, Cynthia’s been blazing trail in what is rapidly becoming a new genre for nonfiction — what I’ve been calling in my head the non-fiction novella, stories that explode the seams of even length-happy magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but that do not require a full book’s level of engagement.  These e-book shorts appear now as Kindle Singles, TED books, Byliner projects and more. Perhaps the most discussed in the community I hang with has been the approach pioneered by The Atavist, which adds a fair amount of computing to the text in books sold both as e-texts and as apps.  The other eye-catcher in this domain recently has been the Matter project — a Kickstarter-funded start-up dedicated to original reported and investigative stories centered on science.

Cynthia wrote what became Matter’s second publication, Electric Shock: How Electricity Could Be The Key To Human RegenerationIt’s a story of a Tufts University researcher named Michael Levin, who believes he is on track to work out pathways through which humans could emulate the salamander and regenerate damaged or lost body parts0.

Hans_Canon_Der_Salamander

His approach is out of the mainstream for what begins as a kind of out-there body of research, as he focuses not on genetics or stem cell research, but on the electrical signalling functions of our biology.

It’s a wild subject, meticulously and carefully handled.  We’ll be talking about that — and about the perils of reporting on science when the line between the daring and the too-far-out-there isn’t always that easy to discern. That’ll cover most of the hour, but we will also save some time to talk about this brave new world of forms and genres emerging in the context of the new media ecosystem.  Should be fun; stop by if you have a chance.

Listen here.  The program will be available later as a podcast at that link to Blog Talk Radio and on iTunes — look for us under Virtually Speaking Science.

If you’re a virtual world type, you can join the live Second Life audience here.

Again timing:  5 p.m. today Eastern time; 10 p.m. in London; 2 p.m. in the land of my youth over there on the left coast.

Image: Hans Canon,  The Salamander, 1863.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

August 29, 2012

Just a quick heads up for fans of smart (I hope) talk.  In just about an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT (10 GMT, 2 PDT) I’ll be trading views with science writer Jennifer Ouellete (AKA Jen-Luc Piquante), proprietor among much else of Cocktail Party Physics, which gig gives me the excuse for this pic:

The conversation will take place over at my more or less regular monthly gig on Virtually Speaking Science.  Listen live or later here. Alternatively, come join the virtually live audience in Second Life.  Podcasts of VSS, including the work of my co-host, Alan Boyle, can also be downloaded at the iTunes store.  Lots of back issues there — of particular current interest, you might check out my conversations with climate scientist Michael Mann; science studies scholar Naomi Oreskes, and science journalist and “framing” advocate Chris Mooney.

Jennifer and I will be leaping off from the impulse that led her to write her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries. That’s her account of being an admitted math-phobe coming to grips with the beauty and practical value of what is truly one of the handful of greatest human inventions ever.  As I blurbed for her — calculus allows one to think rigorously about change in time and space; it just doesn’t get bigger than that, really.

We’ll go from the book to the latest kerfluffle about what kinds of math should be taught in school (see the algebra controversy sparked by this piece. For a good reply, see this.)  More broadly we’ll use the question of how to present the actual importance of thinking mathematically in everyday circumstances to think out loud a bit about an issue that is bugging me more and more these days.  To put it in personal terms — I’ve been doing science writing/film making for public audiences for just about 30 years now.  Looking at the convention of one of our major political parties in which that party declares its denial of anthropogenic climate change, evidence based medicine, investments in science education and research and so on and on and on (without even going into the anti-evolution lunacy, nor the pseudo-science with which it justifies government regulation of ladyparts and … you get the picture) — looking at all that and more, it’s depressingly easy to conclude that my career has been a net negative.

Yes, I know, correlation is not cause, which is why some of us still believe that milk drinking does not  lead to heroin addiction. But really, for all that we live in something of a golden age of popular science writing and communication other media, it is past time, in my ever-so-humble opinion, to think about what, if anything, we should be doing to reach a mass audience we clearly have not fully attracted, much less persuaded.

Finally, Jennifer is near the end of a book that has proved much more challenging to write than she blithly thought going in.  I’m just starting a book I’m convinced I have got under control. (Thus every folly begins, in innocent confidence…) So we’re going to talk just a bit of shop:  how every book project trips you up, and what you can do about that terrible moment when you are finally, utterly, deeply certain that you computer is going to reach through the display and throttle you; just put you out of your and everyone else’s misery.

Should be fun.  Check it out when and as you have a notion.

PS:  As a DEW — Sunday, September 9, 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MT, I’ll be talking one of my old books, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science with the incomparable Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking. I’ve been on the show once before as a guest of Marie-Claire Shanahan, and it was a lot of fun.  Desiree is a fabulous interviewer, so I’m looking forward to this one too. But it’s relevant to the post above, if only because the book that both nearly killed me and most taught me to write was Measure…in which I succumbed to what I have decided is the dreaded second book syndrome.  More to come…

Image: Edgar Degas, L’absinthe, 1876

Of E-Books, Reviews, And the ReMaking of Literary Journalism. (Shameless Self and Project Promotion…)

August 23, 2012

Hey all –

For those that might be interested, I’ve got a review up of TED Senior Fellow Alanna Shaikh’s What’s Killing Us:  A Practical Guide to Our Biggest Global Health Problems.  It’s good-not-great IMHO, for reasons I go into with my usual gift for brevity.  I’ll post the full review below the jump — but I urge you to click on the link, as it will take you to the Download the Universe site, which is the project I’d like to bring to your attention.

DtU is the brainchild of uber-science writer Carl Zimmer, who while talking on a panel about e-books at last January’s Science Online conference was challenged to do something about his complaint that popular science writing lacks the community and infrastructure that the romance and mystery/thriller worlds have used to great effect.  On the spot he agreed to get something going.  He got in touch with some of his colleagues, me included, and we all agreed to put together (under Carl’s leadership) a site that would review as many e-books/apps/shorts and the like as we could.  The site’s been running since the beginning of the year; the editorial board, present company excepted, of course, is solid gold; and we’ve built up a reasonable archive of takes on stuff you might like to read.    For the snarkaholics among us, let me point  you to a couple to get started:  David Dobbs ripping several new orifices in Ron Gutman’s TED offering Smile; and Carl himself rendering  bodily harm to another TED published work (a theme here?) on Zimbardo and Duncan’s ghastly-sounding The Demise of Guys.

There were works we liked too.  Some favorites?  Steve Silberman’s take on the rescue of William Craddock’s psychedelic classic Be Not Content; Carl again on the app-book Leonardo which he asserts is “the first great science e-book;” Ed Yong on  The Electric Mind, an Atavist app-and-e-book; Deborah Blum on one of my all time favorites, Michael Faraday’s  Chemical History of a CandleThere are lots more.  Again, this site is populated by as fine a list of popular science writers as I can imagine; I’m honored to join them.

Here’s the thing.  These writers have come together because we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we talk to each to other– the existence of this blog is an example of communication and community that would not have been possible a very short time ago.  One consequence of that change is that models for making a living through the craft of writing are being remade.  Publishing has been disintermediated, which to my mind is mostly a very good thing indeed.   (I do know that all this is old hat to everyone reading this.)  But DtU came into existence because such disintermediation makes it harder to get the word out about good stuff.  So as science writers, working in an area we think surpassingly important (and lots of fun) we’ve taken matters into our own hands, as the technology requires us to do.  So, if you do have an interest in the construction of a culture of smart lay conversation about science, Download the Universe may be very useful to you.  I hope so.

Shameless self-and-other promotion complete.  As promised, the review of Shaikh’s work, complete with all the DtU apparatus, follows below the jump.

Image:   Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (Marat assassiné), c.1693. (more…)


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