Good Science Explaining =/= Good Science Writing

“The general public is pretty intimidated by science since it sounds like homework. It’s not fun. The biggest reason science isn’t accessible is that it’s boring. Not inherently boring, but people want stories. We’re a storytelling species. This is a book about a family, losing a mother, scientists doing research. There are characters. It takes work to read science, but when there’s a story you don’t care. It’s like taking medicine with something that tastes good. Storytelling shows people why it’s relevant to them—everyone out there has benefited from the research done with HeLa cells.”

This is the mantra I repeat to myself when I’m teaching, and have been working on getting better at this in technical and popular science writing as well. The good explanation is not good enough to excite the reader to read, unless the reader already so deep down the rabbit hole of the discipline he or she can appreciate it. 


Political Scientists

I’m going to be catching up on responding to articles I’ve had a chance to read in the last year, but haven’t had a chance to properly digest. This article by one of my instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, Cory Dean, is spot on:

“In a telephone interview, Dr. Ehlers, a Michigan Republican who retired this year, said he thinks a kind of “reverse snobbery” keeps researchers out of public life. “You have these professors struggling to write their $30,000 grant applications at the same time there are people they would never accept in their research groups making $100-million decisions in the National Science Foundation or the Department of Energy,” he said. He said it was “shortsighted” of the science and engineering community not to encourage “some of their best and brightest” into public life.”

All too true. And scientists have other gifts, aside from technical expertise, sorely lacking in the political sphere: patience. Scientists have the ability to see nuance in arguments – an argument is not necessarily wrong because it comes from the other side of the aisle. Further arguments are multi-faceted, and one part of an argument could be wrong, part could be right, and part live in the “we don’t have evidence” land. Speaking of evidence, scientists love finding the facts, and are patient in getting to the bottom of them. The oft-true stereotype of a political campaign: truthiness.

“Alan I. Leshner, a psychologist who heads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agreed. He recalled learning as a young scientist in the 1960s that people who engaged in issues outside the lab “were wasting time and a sellout.” Young researchers today want their work to be “relevant, useful and used,” he said, but “they still get that message from their mentors.”

In other words, as long as your doing your fair share in the lab, do what you want! Just realize your advisor might grumble a bit. But it doesn’t mean they will ruin your career or even give you a lukewarm recommendation. If you keep up with your passions outside of research, some might even begin to admire it.

And on a similar note:

“Some researchers are concerned that if they leave the lab, even briefly, they will never be able to pick up the thread of their technical careers. But Dr. Foster said he had had no shortage of interesting job opportunities in science after his two years in Congress. And, he added, such risks were built into public service.”

I’ve got (almost) rhythm

Music is one of the things thought to make us human, to differentiate us from animals. If you’ve ever heard a piece of electronically generated music, you can tell in an instant. The beat is too regular, too perfect. It’s a little unsettling. Researchers in Germany have been looking at the flip side: what makes music human?

Actually, a lot of electronically produced music does have imperfections baked into it, to make it sound more human. “White noise” is added, random deviations from the beat. One note is a little too soon, the next is really late, and so on.

But, as the research team discovered, the natural human deviations aren’t purely random. They studied the rhythm of human subjects in two tasks: drumming and voice performance.

Both types showed “pink noise” type variations, meaning that if you were a little too early on the first note, you’re more likely to be a little early on the next note as well. Eventually you will “forget” about the first note, and be just as likely to be early or late.  It’s all still pretty random, but less so than white noise.

The drumming was less random than the voice, displaying almost perfect “1/f” behavior. [I won’t delve into the math.]

To further investigate this, the researchers produced two electronic versions of the same music, and added white noise  rhythm deviations to one sample, and “1/f” deviations the other. Subjects preferred the “1/f” version. You can try it out.

It remains unclear why we prefer this sort of noise – why would this have evolved? Why do we care about deviations? Shouldn’t perfect rhythm be preferable?

Another question is the timescale, the average human deviation was on the order of 10 milliseconds. Why is this pleasing?

This “1/f” noise shows up a lot of places. It has actually been shown to exist for two other aspects of music: pitch and volume. Heart beats and neural signals have been shown to display it. It’s present in electronics as “flicker noise” and can be used to describe phenomena in economics and meteorology. It’s unknown whether this is all the reflection of some universal truth, but it’s speculated it may be.

Naked Mole Rats FTW

I have seriously been told I resemble a naked mole rat when I’m roused from sweet, sweet slumber. My eyes refuse to open, and I burrow under the sheets. I’m pretty pale and mostly hairless, too.

While I hope I don’t resemble a naked mole rat in all ways (a bit on the uncomely side) I think there’s reason to hope my cells act like their’s.

Naked mole rats never get cancer.

It appears they don’t get cancer because their cells experience “contact inhibition.”

Humans get cancer quite a bit, and the odds increase as we age. The chances of a cell switching to cancerous increase, simply because we’ve given them more chances to do so. Lab mice get cancer about 70% of the time, if allowed to live for several years.

Human and mouse cells experience this contact inhibition phenomenon as well. Cells divide and fill up the space they’re in. Once they touch, they generally slow down their division; there are enough cells.

Cancer cells don’t have this contact inhibition, and grow wildly, unchecked.

Naked mole rat cells, when studied in the lab, exhibit a super kind of contact inhibition – cell division completely stops when cells touch.

In the future, perhaps we can identify what causes this, and turn on a switch in our own bodies if we suspect we have cancer.