Archive for the ‘science writing’ category

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead

March 24, 2012

5:37 — and that’s a wrap, folks.

5:33:  Lloyd — don’t wanta quantum laptop just yet (takes a lot of gear just to talk to 12 atoms.)

Sweet spot for qu computing–factoring large numbers, which could break all public key codes. (Talk about disruption.)

5:15: Q & A time:  Belcher and Sharp talk about the sense of science as both a search for basic knowledge and very much an applied endeavor…Lloyd notes that most of the big problems are more political than scientific, but that in the end you still have to do the science to produce any remotely plausible solutions.

Q: Question about whether or not nano materials or organic quantum computers are disposable.  Sharp responsds that the nice thing about biological systems is that they are all pretty much made of stuff (proteins etc) that other creatures can eat.  But it is very important to design in recycleabilty (sp?).

Q:  Issue of framing problems — are we aiming too low, as in, investing in cancer drugs that at best prolong life for a few months.  Seth Lloyd responds:  aiming low is not really a problem at MIT — different calculation at drug companies.  He believes that we should allocate more resources to people trying “crazy” stuff.  Primary leaps for society come from technology that arise out of fundamental research — see e.g. the transistor — and not from incrementalism.  Hence, need to prioritize basic research over the attempt to divine the right applied line to follow.

Sharp: it matters at the highest level who’s setting policy because, yes, framing a problem is crucial; if you have the right statement of the problem you can solve that problem… much harder otherwise.  His example: lung cancer may be best approached by cutting smokng — that might be the right way tof rame the issue.

Belcher: emphasizes the value of interdisciplinarity. Putting her next to engineers at the Koch Center changes her insights, and vice versa.  She remembers her own experience of getting funding despite her “crazy” idea of giving genetic info to a nonliving system.

Sharp adds: origins of molecular biology lie in physics.  People like Delbruck came into physics and disciplined people to look at the simplest organism and work out those problems.  Cross fertilization of ideas and techniques…

Q: are the lawyers going to muck up the future of these sciences?  Sharp’s answer: there is an enormous amount of litigation around the health sciences, and an enormous amount of regulation.  The motivation of the regulation is clear — but you do have to work through/around this reality.

Lloyd asks Belcher, “you’ve patented a gazillion things — what do you think about the IP system.” Belcher — doesn’t have any sense of having been slowed down by litigation.  Maybe material science is easier than say, software.

Lloyd patents everything reflexively — ever since he didn’t patent an idea in quantum computing because, he thought, it’ll never work…which it didn’t until a company in Vancouver dropped $100 million to make it work.  Ah well….

5:02: Lloyd now moves to the specific question of quantum computing.  A quantum computer is wher eyou store and process information at level of individual quanta.

Now we get a delightful introduction to wave particle duality. Lloyd’s aside: it’s a toss up between quantum mechanics and natural selection as to which has more confirmation — and thus isn’t it curious that both are routinely under attack.

This leads to an anecdote about pitching a quantum search device to Brin and Page in a meeting held in a hot tub.  Interesting times…

Lloyd not interested in quantum computing to beat Moore’s law, particularly; rather, Lloyd want’s to understand how information processing happpens, in say, Belcher’s photosynthesizing plants/and/or/nanosystems.

Photosynthesis: take a photon, have it absorbed by a chromophor; it creates and electron-hole pair (exciton — a particle of excitement) which has to hop through the photosynthetic complext until it gets to a reaction center..reaction center is abou 5% efficient, whilst transport is hugely efficient….99 %.  Turns out the transport system involves a quantum biological step as these electron-hole pairs “ooze” (Lloyd’s word) through the complex.

So need insight into quantum information processing to understand what’s actually going on as we speak.

4:46: And yes — my fingers and wrists hurt.  Belcher talks fast.  Now it’s Seth Lloyd’s turn.  His specialty, says my colleague Marcia Bartusiak “All things Quantum.” (She challengers her inner Terry Pratchett, I think.)

Seth Lloyd begins with a shout out to science writing. (Yay!)

Grant writing is advertising — Mad Men without the sex.

Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, not to mention that the public in this country actually pays for most of it.

A rather small fraction of scientists are good at communicating to that public what they do…and so Lloyd is here because he thinks that what our grads do is great — with which sentiment I thoroughly agree.

Now the talk:  Predicting 50 years is a mugs game.  Agrees w. Sharp that one tends to overestimate what comes in 5 years, and can’t have a clue what will happen in 50 years.

So if the scale of the earth is 10^8 meters (equator to pole via the Paris meridian. to the size of a liter of water…and then down to the atom level — you get the rough equivalence — the number of atoms that fill a liter water bottle is the same as the number of liter bottles that could fill the earth…all this to give a sense of the scale involved in thinking in quantum and or nano terms.

If you think of size not as an absolute measure, but as in relation to the smallest component to which we have access — then a liter bottle has grown very large indeed in the last decade or so.

Key take away — none of this discovery could have been anticipated a decade ago; we had no way to tell what would transpire when we got down to that level.

So Lloyd channels James Brown for his prediction of what will happen in 50 years.  “I don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is will be funky!”

Thinking about Moore’s law…an extrapolation would say computers with single atom components could come around 2050 — except that’s what his group is doing now in quantum computing.

Talking Moore’s law — uncertain as to the details of its future course…but just thinking about the nanoscale discussions by Belcher and Sharp — we know that very funky things will happen as we travel down the slope of scale and speed.

4:39:  Belcher adds that the A123 products went from invention in 2000 to broad commercial use now.

Our whirlwind tour heads now to healthcare.  Cost is formidable 17% of GDP in US will soon go to health care.  Need now for minimally invasive diagnostics and treatment; new and better imaging; and more…nanoscience impinges on the whole sequence: nano probes can take measurements within single cells; nanoparticles are being used to perform rapid diagnostics for particular proteins.

Moving now to ideas about nanotreatment — if you can get nanoparticles with particular properties, can target cells very specifically for treatment.  Neat idea — a nanoparticle that can detect a tumor cell can signal other nanoparticles to deliver a drug or what have you to the cell.

Belcher’s own work is trying to take CO2 from emissions and turn it into building supplies, through an engineered yeast system.  Discusses promise of nanotech for water purification.

Last thought: can give DNA to manufactures; have engineered viruses to make batteries, e.g.

4:27 Say hello to Angela Belcher, MacArthur Fellow and nanotechnologist extraordinaire.

Future of science turns on interfaces: in 50 years won’t say “I’m molecular biologist or engineer ” or what have you — as the fields merge.

Her quesetion:  What does that non-living/living interface look like.  Can we impart to nonliving materials some of the exquisite properties or capabilities that life has.  Can you evolve properties of materials into the DNA coding that indivduals could pass on to their kids?

E.g. — what if you could grow batteries from a dna-located code in petrie dish.  Belcher cites the Feynman idea “plenty of room at the bottom.

Key idea is that nano isn’t just small, but that you can control atoms precisely, make the system do exactly what you want.

Belcher’s motivation:  want to do nano to make the world better/livable for her kids.  Because you can control systems at the atom by atom level, nano has such broad potential — tons of fields.

What’s happening at the nano scale — just in cells, see proteins, Ribozomes, Linear alpha helix collagen, DNA…lots of models for sophisticated functionality at nano level.

See e.g. Bawendi’s quantum dots that use nano properties for a range of properties.  Others are workign on self cleaning solar cells deriving insight from self cleaning lotus leaves that work at nano scale.

Bob Langer is watching how geckos walk up walls and is looking at ways to build better bandages.

Unifiying idea: look at what evolution has produced over millions of years and see what ideas one can steal.

Now Belcher turns to the energy issue; we see a chart look at energy production.  The chart makes it clear that production of renewables is not now close to keeping pace with future need…nanotechnolgy can impinge on the solution to problem, in applications that range from solar — with improvements in efficiency, processing, cost, self-maintenance.  Similarly nano can improve energy conservation (efficiency) — see, e.g. Bawendi et al. quantum dot applications to LED innovations.  Next up:  improvement in battery tech; in which the nano scale can play a significant role — see what’s happened w. MIT spin off A123 Systems.

4:14:  Sharp continues…He co-chaired a National Academy report committee on “A New Biology for the 21st Century.”

Major challenges identified there:  (1) Nearly a billion undernourished in the world i ’07 w. population growth going on:  how do we sustain that population.

(2) Human activities are stressing the environment from which that sustenance must derive…getting worse.

(3) Transportation fuels depend almost entirely on limited non-renewable resources.

(4) Healthcare, which is costly now, and will get more so: so how to make it more effective and cost-effective.

These are the issues that molecualr biology may and will need to address over the next 50 years.

So, what about  the food challenge.  Next revolution — molecular engineering of plants to grow in places and with a control of inputs not now achievable. Turns on genetically informed decisions, which include understanding biodiversity, systematics and evolutioanry genomics.  Think “analsyis fo crops as ecosystems.”

Bad news says Sharp:  we in the US invest trivially in this; center of gravity is in Europe; we just lost the best researcher in this field to UK.

Environment Challenge:

Need a comprehensive and quantitative (my emphasis) meausre of ecosystem services…molecular biology can contribut

Energy Challenge:

To meet hte renewable fuel standard 2022 goal — need 4x increase in ceonomical biofuel production…

To get there must approach biomass to biofuel production process as a systems/engineering problem.

Health Challenge:

We can sequence a genome now for $1,000:  have an incredible ability coming soon to approach your health from a genomic point of view.

Issue — you ahve to participate in this: have your genome on your iPad…If the goal is individualized health surveillance and care.

Some future goals: develop conceptual and technical capacity to monitor metabolome (new term to me — I like it) integrated phenotypic readout.

Many major diseases are already getting tackled death-rates down from cancer etc.  Big challenge: aging.  Sharp expects that in 50 years his grandson will expect to live into the hundreds, being active into his eighties and nineties….

That aging breakthrough, if it comes, carries with it all kinds of social, ethical and practical challenges.

Thus, says Sharp:  hold on to your seats.  Big change at the macro level is coming from revolution at the molecular one.

4:09:  What has happened here over 50 years: first, shifted MIT’s biology dept. from “food processing” to molecular biology — a shift aided by recruitiing Luria to come here.  In 1972, decided to add a Center for Cancer Research — which shifted emphasis from single cell approaches, and to take on the problem of fundamental processes of cancer in humans.

IN 1983, along comes the Whitehead, w. the challenge of understanding how single cells transform into 3 D structures of a complex organism; central problem to how biology works.

in 1993, MIT decided in which biology became a core requirement — a huge shift for the whole institute, as physical scientists and engineers now had to respond to biologically informed questions from their own students…so they had to learn biology to.

in 2000, came the neuroscience complex; followed by the Broad Institute in 2003, which brings big science approaches to biology…and last, the Koch Institute combines the cancer center w. engineers…to mark the latest stage of the evolution of life sciences as a practice at MIT.

MIT is now central to the cluster of life sciences research and industry in and around Kendall Sq. — by far the largest such complex in the world.

4:07: Sharp:  I knew Crick for many years, and had lunch with Watson just the other day — and I can assure you they had no idea what would come from that double helix at the point of discovery.

People overestimate advances in short range; underestimate it over 50 years.  So to get a sense of the scale issue — look at what’s happened at MIT over the last 50 years in molecular biology as a prelude for speculation on what’s to come.

The idea…there is a third revolution coming in a convergence of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

4:02:  Professor Marcia Bartusiak begins by highlighting both successful predictions — Arthur C. Clarke and satellite tech, e.g. — and less excellent ones, like the original IBM Watson’s declaration that the world market for computers might touch five.  First up, Nobel laureate Phil Sharp on molecular biology

3:58:  Just about to start the second panel in the celebration of ten years of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT.  The panel title:  Fifty Years Ahead: Imagining Nanotechnology, Quantum Computing, and Molecular Biology in 2062

Coming up:  talks from Philip Sharp, Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher on molecular biology, quantum computing and nanotechnology, respectively.  (No promises as to the order.)

Mnookin and Me

November 16, 2011

Hey, all:

This is just a reminder of tonight’s internet radio and/or Second Life* farrago, me and Panic Virus author Seth Mnookin in conversation.  Here’s Seth’s take on what we’ll be doing.

For my part, the first goal is to get some distance into why it’s so hard to get scientific thinking — and not just results — into the civic conversation.  Seth’s work on autism/vaccine tribulations is a path into that question that starts us off outside of politics, which I think is important.  That is: it’s not just overt malign interest that makes people reject settled conclusions and resist arguments that would seem (to folks already inside the tent) to be persuasive to anyone who just doesn’t know the details of this or that yet.

As commenter Linnaeus on the last thread I posted on tonight’s conversation pointed out, the Science Studies gang has in fact developed a name for the problem: agnotology.  We live in a culture that has taken the genuine scientific value of skepticism, and has turned it into a rhetorical tool to frame public attitudes towards and constrain access to knowledge about science.

It’s my view that as the weapons used are those of rhetoric, the counter will have to come from some understanding of what it takes to persuade (and move) people, given our current media landscape.

A big job and question, and one to which I doubt either Seth or I will have any conclusive answers — but worth thinking about.  Come along, shoot some questions at us, and have a good time.  Plus, we’ll probably say some stuff about Jenny McCarthy.  I mean, how not?

*Second Life venue:

Image: Jan Steen, The Crowned Orator, before 1675.

What We Say; What We Mean

October 24, 2011

There is a table has been making the rounds of the science blogosphere for the last couple of weeks — and I thought it’s the kind of thing that the B-J crowd enjoys:

Blog friend Southern Fried Science is extending the list, and you can add your own gems on his public Google Docs spreadsheet.

The original table comes from this Physics Today feature — “Communicating the science of climate change“ [PDF], by Richard C. J. Somerville and Susan Joy Hassol.  I entirely agree with their conclusion:

We must find ways to help the public realize that not acting is also making a choice, one that commits future generations to serious impacts. Messages that may invoke fear or dismay—as projections of future climate under business-as-usual scenarios often do—are better received if they also include hopeful components. Thus we can improve the chances that the public will hear and accept the science if we include positive messages about our ability to solve the problem. We can explain, for example, that it’s not too late to avoid the worst; lower emissions will mean reduced climate change and less severe impacts. We can point out that addressing climate change wisely will yield benefits to the economy and the quality of life. We can explain, as figure 5 shows, that acting sooner would be less disruptive than acting later. Let us rise to the challenge of helping the public understand that science can illuminate the choices we face.

The most important claim in that paragraph, IMHO, is that “it’s not too late to avoid the worst…”  As outright denialism becomes ever more risible, the fall back for those hopelessly drunk on dinosaur wine* is that climate change is just too bad, because some irrecoverable threshold has already been crossed.  This is nonsense.  See, e.g., for just one of many arguments on this issue, this 2009 report from the Yale e360 project. [Another PDF].  Confronting the (tactical) climate fatalists is the next huge communications challenge for scientific — and science writing — communities.

That said — the gap between what’s understood in conversation between people speaking the same technical jargon, and what gets through to the public remains a major stumbling block.  Which, I suppose, keeps me and my students in work. Ill winds and all that.

But I digress.  The point of this post is to encourage the Balloon-Juice commentariat both to add to the list above — or perhaps, depending on your mood, to come up with a similar table, a what-they-say/what-they-mean guide to Republican debate speak.

Have fun.

*”Dinosaur wine” is a phrase I steal from Dan Jenkins’ classic (sic–ed.) football novel, Semi-Tough.  So yes, I  know.  It ain’t dinosaur corpses that wind up in black gold.

Image:  Thomas Blount, Glossographia Anglicana Nova, (Title page from the 2nd edition, 1719)

“Who is the worst science writer?” “Gregg Easterbrook” “Who is second?” “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”*

October 22, 2011

[Fair warning:  this post is merely the scratching of a pet peeve.  No grand significance here.  You have been warned.]

I don’t know why, but I still, more or less as a reflex, skim Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column over at ESPN.  (No linky, ’cause I’m kind — but it’s easy enough to find if you are so moved.) 

That Tuesday habit is one I really should break, not least because even a quick scan robs me of five minutes I’ll never get back.

But the real reason to give the column a miss is because it is depressingly often larded with nuggets like this:

A Cosmic Thought: Last week researchers announced they had found, in a South African cave, evidence of painting 100,000 years ago. The previous oldest evidence of painting was from 60,000 years in the past; the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France were made about 17,000 years ago. The latest find, in South Africa, shows both that our ancestors were experimenting with iron oxides to make permanent paint 50 millennia in the past: all that time ago, they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander. Each time anthropology makes an advance, the human experiment is shown to be older and more complex than thought. Who can say where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

A bit of backstory.  Easterbrook has been around a long time, promoting a technological optimist’s view of a lot of problems facing us.  He’s been a climate change scoffer — Naomi Oreskes, (whom I interviewed this week – podcast available here) called him out for deeply misleading writing on global warming as far back as 1992, when he put professional denialist Fred Singer’s words in the mouth of the enormously distinguished climate researcher Roger Revelle — all in an attempt to paint Al Gore as a (not yet fat) environmental extremist.  (See p. 194 of her excellent book, Merchants of Doubt.)

Easterbrook is also one who pulls cards from the bottom of the deck when it comes to science and religion.  One tactic he’s used fairly often  is to chip away at the authority of science as a measure of the material world by stray snarking at all that science doesn’t know.  Things like dark matter (who knew!) and dark energy — what? 95.3 % of the mass-energy density of the universe is made of stuff we can’t see? — all add up (for Easterbrook) into a sly case that maybe scientists don’t know as much as they think they do…which leaves room for more supernatural speculation.

That’s the old God of the gaps argument in defense of faith.  It’s a semi-regular source of fun in my science writing class to bring in a scientist to talk to our graduate students about what it’s like to be on the other side of the notebook — and in such sessions we’ve regularly found Easterbrook’s classic bad faith advance of this tired old trope in this Wired feature  serving as a “don’t-do-this” example.

And here it is again, more subtly framed than usual.  I got nothing against Easterbrook’s noting that there are ongoing discoveries in paleo-anthropology, though I have a bit of a problem with his fatuous statement that these ancestral paint works, amazing as they are, reveal any desire of early homo sapiens to communicate with us.  The past is a foreign country, Gregg.  They do things differently there.

But anachronism is a venial sin.  More serious is Easterbrook’s cleverly un-ostentatious transition to the power of telescopes to reveal cosmic riches. It’s a subtle move, but the effect is to link human aspiration with some kind of cosmic teleology, a goal to which we and the universe aspire.

He’s still retailing gaps and God:  look, Easterbrook says, every time we chip away at our ignorance, we find more wonders.  All that we don’t know is evidence of … he doesn’t quite say. But the implication is clear:  it’s an enterprise, it’s cosmic, and it’s heading somewhere.

As a matter of fact, he’s wrong.  The history of astronomy since Copernicus is one that continuously deflates the idea of human centrality in the universe (which is what makes his anthropology-cosmology faux transition so egregious).  The suggestion of a goal, especially one in which (by juxtaposition) human ingenuity is implicated, gives the game away.  And most of all that phrase, “the human experiment,” is a tell.  If we are the objects of experiment, who is the experimenter?

And that’s what makes Easterbrook’s the worst kind of science writing in my book:  the goal of this writing is not to illuminate, but to emphasize false mysteries, to conflate hugely disparate ideas and discoveries, all to advance an argument that theologians themselves have long disparaged.

I suppose, amongst those we read and mock as needed, he’s hardly the worst.  But he gets my goat, so there.

*referencing this, for those among us with little interest in holes in the water into which you throw money.

Images: Francisco de Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal, between 1812 and 1819

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Creation of the Sun and the Moon(Sistine Chapel ceiling) 1512.

You Can’t Win. You Can’t Break Even. You Can’t Leave the Game

November 5, 2010

Check this out:  one video to tell you about the 2nd law of thermodynamics (the “You can’t break even” of the title), and how to make a science video.  Fun.

Further to the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing’s Stealth Rise To World Domination: Boston Globe edition

September 8, 2010

Not to toot one’s own horn or anything so vulgar, but it is with great pleasure that I find that MIT’s Grad Program in Science Writing could preen in the reflected glory of three of our graduates, seemingly taking over the Boston Globe’s science coverage this Monday.

Here is Emily Anthes (MIT SM 2006 and new PLoS One blogger) on childhood mental illness. (Sidebar here.)

Here is Courtney Humphrey (MIT SM 20o4, and author of the very well received Superdove) on the pros and cons of saliva as a wound palliative.

And here is Globe science reporter and MIT SM 2004 Carolyn Johnson on the virtues for a range of research of the South African frog Xenopus.

Two things:  this array of stories is one of the reasons I flat out love science writing — the doing of it, teaching it, reading it.  No other beat I know has such range, riches and human consequence.  And then there is the pleasure of seeing those you’ve worked with going out and having such fun with it.

It’s a good day (and moment) to go teach the first class to next year’s crop of MIT science writers.  See y’all.

Image:  Marzipan frog made by one of the chefs at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris. Photograph by Musical Linguist.


August 4, 2010

ScienceBlogs bloggers live on in very spiffy new digs.

Many of my favorites from the old place have reorganized themselves here, at

Most wonderful, from my perspective, the interaction/conversation between blogs and bloggers that was one of the best (and occasionally worst) of the Seed Megalith’s science blogging aggregation is reproduced here, with much good fellowship and very sharp intelligence.

An evolution to be watched…

Image:  Anicet-Charles-Gabriel Lemonnier, The Salon of Madame Geoffrin” 1812.

Tasty Blog Bits/What Good Young Journalists Can Do In The Right Kind of MSM

July 21, 2010

I’ve long been a fan of the High Country News, not least because they’ve given good work to some of the wonderful students at the best science writing program in the country (I’m supposed to say that, which doesn’t make it untrue).

But these lines from a post reminded me of what makes HCN such bright spot in my MSM reading these days

If natural gas was going to try and pick me up at a bar, the encounter would likely go like this:

Gas: “I’m low-carbon, cute, and widely available.”

Me: “You’re not that cute.”

That’s from a post by HCN Social Network Editor Stephanie Page Ogburn on the marvelously named The Goat Blog, and it is just a treat of journalistic writing in the context of old+new media.

Smart, funny, instantly engaging and all that you need to read on to get a nuanced reaction, backed up by actual real data, to the prospect of natural gas as a bridge fuel from the high to low carbon emission energy system I devoutly hope my son will see.

It can be done; journalism is not dead — and the seeds of its next incarnation can be found, often, far, far from the Bos-Wash corridor.

Image:  Filippo Palazzi, “Hay Car Attacked by Goats,” 1857

A quickie Saturday post with a brief answer to the question: how do I become a (better) science writer?

February 6, 2010

It’s reasonable, I guess.  My day job has me running what I can confidentyl say is one of the best science writing programs in the country.* So I often take part in some version of this email conversation I had recently with a graduate student in one of the physical sciences.

This student told me that “Though I am currently studying experimental science, one career path I am interested in is science writing or journalism.”

To which I said, in effect, “Great!”  We need good science writers more than ever, and someone committing to the field from a base of advanced training as a bench scientist is a clear win, from where I stand.**

The next question is the one they always ask…beyond or until they can sign up for a class or a program, “If you have any other advice as to how I could learn more about this field I would greatly appreciate it.”

So, just in case anyone out there may also wonder, here is what I wrote back, the short form of a theme on which I expand (as my students can certainly tell you) at much greater length when I have a captive audience:

The most immediate way to learn about writing about science for the public is to read a lot of it.  I’d go to the “Best American” series of science writing — there are actually two, Best American Science Writing and Best American Science and Nature Writing, published every year. While one can argue about some of the selections, the worst of the pieces there are not bad, and some are superlative.

Read like a pro — don’t just focus on the content, what you are learning — but try to analyze how the pieces are written. What’s the structure involved.  How do the different writers use sentence length and rhythm; what kind of voices do different writers employ.  How present are they in the piece — how present do they demand their audiences be — and so on.

You could pick up a copy of A Field Guide For Science Writers, edited by Deborah Blum, Mary Knudson, and Robin Marantz Henig.  That gives you a  good overview of the field and some basic techniques.  Though it is a bit long in the tooth, I like Elise Hancock’s Ideas Into Words. Follow the Knight Science Journalism Tracke, — a good aggregator blog that offers some commentary on good and bad science writing.

I’d add that there a bunch of excellent science blogs out there on which one can see others honing their craft (and talking a ton of science).  But actually, I think blogs are better to read as you write one, or are working on traditional articles.  I’d say that for someone first trying to get one’s ear and eye in on the forms and styles of good writing about science it’s better to read pieces crafted with a view towards a longer life than a blog piece.  Perhaps this is just projection, for though I do spend quite a bit of time on much of my writing for this blog, I also know that I don’t work the prose the way I do when I’m writing a book or an article intended to stand on its own, without the fabric of the ongoing conversation of the blog to sustain it.

But in any event, the core message is to read and read and read — but always like a pro.  There’s an old joke:  Q: What do writers talk about when they converse among themselves?  A: Money.  What else?

Within that truth, this one — writers as writers don’t read for pleasure.  They read to learn, to steal.  If you want to be one, in any genre, start taking apart your pleasure.  It will be less short-run fun to open a book, but much long-term gain to come.

And now, off to drink a very nice bottle of wine with a couple of very smart Harvard Med types…and talk a little science.

*Actually, of course, I’m sure it is the best, full stop — just as I know my son is the most wonderful boy in the world and that my cat is a prince among felines.  These are beings under my care, and if my connection to them is more immediate than that of an institutional responsibility, still, the same emotional logic applies.

**Though some of you know from my exchanges with Bora among others that I don’t think that such advanced training is a requirement for science writers.  This is a long conversation, but the gist is that whether you enter this field as a turn from the bench or towards it, there are distinctive strenghts you bring with you, and particular weaknesses as well.

Image:  Gerald Dou, “Portrait of an old woman reading (also, Rembrandt’s mother reading),” c.1630.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 7,785 other followers