Good science writers.

I believe that it is important to give both credit and criticism where they are due. Unfortunately, I don’t seem to do these in equal measure when it comes to science reporting. So, as a small corrective, here is a list of science writers whose work I have praised in the past:

Everyone likes to get a pat on the back now and then, and I know several of them read the blog.

Bad press release.

Oh my.

Bacteria can anticipate a future event and prepare for it, according to new research at the Weizmann Institute of Science. In a paper that appeared today in Nature, Prof. Yitzhak Pilpel, doctoral student Amir Mitchell and research associate Dr. Orna Dahan of the Institute’s Molecular Genetics Department, together with Prof. Martin Kupiec and Gal Romano of Tel Aviv University, examined microorganisms living in environments that change in predictable ways. Their findings show that these microorganisms’ genetic networks are hard-wired to ‘foresee’ what comes next in the sequence of events and begin responding to the new state of affairs before its onset. E. coli bacteria, for instance, which normally cruise harmlessly down the digestive tract, encounter a number of different environments on their way. In particular, they find that one type of sugar – lactose – is invariably followed by a second sugar – maltose – soon afterward. Pilpel and his team of the Molecular Genetics Department, checked the bacterium’s genetic response to lactose, and found that, in addition to the genes that enable it to digest lactose, the gene network for utilizing maltose was partially activated. When they switched the order of the sugars, giving the bacteria maltose first, there was no corresponding activation of lactose genes, implying that bacteria have naturally ‘learned’ to get ready for a serving of maltose after a lactose appetizer.

Another microorganism that experiences consistent changes is wine yeast. As fermentation progresses, sugar and acidity levels change, alcohol levels rise, and the yeast’s environment heats up. Although the system was somewhat more complicated that that of E. coli, the scientists found that when the wine yeast feel the heat, they begin activating genes for dealing with the stresses of the next stage. Further analysis showed that this anticipation and early response is an evolutionary adaptation that increases the organism’s chances of survival.

Ivan Pavlov first demonstrated this type of adaptive anticipation, known as a conditioned response, in dogs in the 1890s. He trained the dogs to salivate in response to a stimulus by repeatedly ringing a bell before giving them food. In the microorganisms, says Pilpel, ‘evolution over many generations replaces conditioned learning, but the end result is similar.’ ‘In both evolution and learning,’ says Mitchell, ‘the organism adapts its responses to environmental cues, improving its ability to survive.’


There has been some discussion in the comments section of the previous post about probable interest in a regular EvoCast (cf. Astronomy Cast) that people could listen to, presented by evolutionary biologists and covering basic processes and exciting discoveries in evolution. This, or something like a series of videos on Youtube, has crossed my mind. It would certainly fit nicely between Evolver Zone and E:EO. The question is, would this really be something people are keen to see? If I get the sense that there is a real interest in it, I may just follow up on it (though I already have plenty on my plate with the journal and other writing).

Let me know what you think!

Darwinius masillae.

Participating in Darwin conference this week, so not much time to comment on this announcement. The discovery of Darwinius masillae is pretty intriguing, and I am eager to read the published study. But check out this hype…

This is a big mess. See these posts by others for the scoop.

Scientists about media: put up or shut up?

Kathy Sykes has a provocative article in New Scientist entitled Science in the media: Put up or shut up. She opens:

Most scientists want to see more science and technology in the media, but we’re making life hard for ourselves by forever criticising each other’s efforts or denouncing journalists and film-makers for not portraying science in ways we approve of. While healthy debate can improve science communication, I think we could all shut up a bit, and stop the more rabid criticism altogether. I include myself here.

Prof. Sykes is not a biologist, which may account for the fact that she sees little wrong with stunts like New Scientist’s recent “Darwin Was Wrong” inanity:

Similarly, New Scientist recently took flak over its cover that proclaimed “Darwin was wrong”. The article inside described discoveries that are leading to modifications to the theory of evolution. A cheap trick to sell magazines while giving fodder to the enemies of evolution? Sales certainly went up that week, but if more people than usual bought the magazine and read the article, more people will have found that scientists agree that Darwin was fundamentally right.

The problem, as pretty much every evolutionary biologist knows too well, is that most people who seek to undermine science will use the cover and not read the article. It was irresponsible, and it damaged New Scientist’s standing with scientists, without a doubt. I certainly have a much lower opinion of the magazine at this point.

That being said, I agree with Prof. Sykes’s frustration on another point:

I have ranted and railed at scientists and journalists who treat tentative results as if they are certain.

But, she continues:

Does ranting do any good? In some cases it does, especially if science is being carelessly mangled or deliberately distorted. But in many cases communicators are passionate about science and are simply trying to communicate it as clearly as they can to as large an audience as possible. We risk drowning out what’s good with a stream of public bickering. We also risk discouraging a new generation of communicators.

What’s the solution?

If you’re still troubled by how others communicate, why not spend less time ranting and get out there and communicate in ways you do like? Blogging is easier than ever, for example.

The thing is, lots of researchers do have blogs. And they use them for many purposes, such as: 1) criticizing inaccurate journalism (usually including clarification of the subject), 2) explaining new discoveries to a broad audience, and 3) praising good journalism. My blog certainly does this, as do many of the blogs I follow. In other words, the ranting is hardly decoupled from clarification in many cases.

My feeling is that Sykes is a little disconnected from the main issues as they are seen by scientists, especially since many of the most vocal critics of bad reporting are also engaged in communicating science themselves.

Is inaccurate science reporting better than no reporting at all? I think it is an open question.

Danish, anybody?

Sadly, I can’t read Danish and therefore I am not sure quite what this article in Ingeniøren actually says.

Evolutionsteorien er under stadig udvikling

However, I can say that the author, Robin Engelhardt, was not only pleasant but he absolutely had done his homework and grasped the issue (whether the rise of epigenetics constitutes neo-Lamarckism) quite well. I wish more science writers would take this example!

Another Earth Day, Canadian scientists concerned.

From the Quirks and Quarks blog by Bob McDonald, beloved host of the CBC program of the same name.

Another Earth Day, Canadian scientists concerned

While people around the globe celebrate the beauty of our planet on Earth Day, April 22nd, scientists in Canada are concerned that government funding is heading in the wrong direction to provide sensible solutions to environmental problems. More than 2000 scientists from across the country have signed an open letter to Prime Minister Harper and the Leader of the Opposition, expressing concerns over cuts to basic science research. It’s basic science that takes the pulse of the planet.

The scientists are concerned that government money is overlooking vital areas. For example, the current Conservative budget allocates $2 billion for university infrastructure – in other words, renovations to aging buildings. But those funds come with a catch. They must be matched with private funding, something everyone is having trouble finding during these tough economic times. Keeping roofs on buildings is important, but if there are no scientists to work in them, what’s the point?

The Canada Foundation for Innovation, a major source of science funding, did receive $740 million, but it also comes with that match-funding hook. The other funding agencies, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, have had their budgets cut back, while Genome Canada was essentially ignored.

The rest of the government’s support for science is going towards the automotive industry, carbon sequestration, biofuels and scholarships for business students. In other words, applied science is taking precedent over basic science.

While we do need both, when it comes to the environment, the two types of science are often at loggerheads.

Politicians like to support applied science because it leads to jobs and products, such as more efficient cars or new wireless devices. Basic science, on the other hand, can’t promise an immediate economic return because it simply looks at nature to understand how things work – and more importantly these days, how things are changing. As we’ve seen with climate change, basic scientists have been out in the field watching ice caps disappear before their eyes, carbon dioxide levels rise and climate patterns shift. At the same time, those dealing with the technology at the heart of the problem resist the basic science to keep the current systems in place.

The beauty of Earth Day is how we come together for a short time to appreciate the complexity and unity of our planet. Basic science describes the many spheres we live on and within. There’s only one atmosphere, one hydrosphere, one biosphere, one cryosphere, one geosphere, and they all interact with each other in ways we’re just beginning to understand.

We need those scientific eyes to keep track of this dynamic Earth. We also need to see how our technology is impacting every one of those spheres.

Applied science and the technology it provides have made us who we are, but it needs to be guided. An airliner can fly itself but it still needs the eyes of a pilot to see the destination. Basic science is our eye to the future destination of our spaceship called Planet Earth.