Posts Tagged ‘science


A Nation of Rosalind Franklins, Rather Than Ben

Another quick note on our educated populace. I recently watched someone try to learn physics on his own. He was assiduous about the learning, and–being availed any number of written, online, and hands-on resources–one would think he quickly became an expert. And yet, after 4 years of trying, he still has a serious misunderstanding of the fundamentals of the science. Is it because he’s unteachable? No. Is it because physics is too difficult to comprehend, even at its basest level? No. Why, then, could he fail to learn it after trying so hard?

What I have noticed in my (admittedly paltry)Look, Ma, lots of hands! year-ish of teaching here in the States is that more and more people have a serious difficulty synthesizing information. While the problem my students have in communicating a hypothesis effectively is understandable (as is their lack of being able to formulate good game plans in general), what I find interesting is their seeming lack of ability to analyze their own results. For example, say a student indirectly measures the height of a table by seeing how long a pencil takes to fall off of it. If one measurement says the table is 4 feet tall, and another says it’s 8, they have a very difficult time understanding what that data means. In truth, they tend to just not think about it. They report it, then move on.

This is a problem I’ve seen reflected in myriad instances in the country. Immediate utility, rather than broad applicability, is what has increasingly become of the focus of a populace ever more terrified and bewildered by the idea of thinking critically about subjects. It seems that the emphasis in everyday problem-solving has become immediate gratification. Maybe it’s the result of the Sesame Street generation growing up. Maybe the further infantilization of the Facebook crowd is adding to it. I tend to think, however, that the problem is one that has historically plagued anyone who is obsessed with linear thought.

Linear thought processes are great. They can help keep ideas organized, can keep ideas focused, and can keep blogs on-track. They are not, however, so great at seeing the forest for the forest. Take the titular case of Rosalind Franklin, for example. While her photograph of DNA’s structure may have been the first, her inability to see it for what it was led to her getting scooped by James Watson on her own data.

Our country has always purported to encourage the Ben Franklins amongst us to greatness. Those who can understand that the electricity coming out of the bulb might be the same as the luminescence visible during a thunderstorm are supposed to always find a home here. More and more, though, this kind of thinking is being seen as suspect and, worse yet, European.At least it's still sunny in December, suckers!

Nowhere is the lack of understanding the causation of the big picture from the little picture more evident (and evidently disastrous) than in California.

California boasts a “direct democracy.” In other words, voters decide on policy. It sounds great, but it’s actually a horrible idea given the lack of ability of the statewide electorate to understand and extrapolate from data. Want better parks? Sure. Better schools? Absolutely. More cops and firemen on the streets? You bet! Want to pay more taxes? No way! And that, in a nutshell, is how a state with a huge economy can go bankrupt.

The basic understanding of how the little picture relates to the big picture is part of what makes a science like physics fun to teach. Look at the pencil fall off the table. That’s also what holds our universe together (and on, and on). It’s also what makes nations work. Looking at the data of our society right now, we can derive the following: we are not recovering from an almost-depression as quickly as we should; we are quickly becoming a nation of the chronically un-and-under-employed; we are coexisting with other first-world markets that are equally hurting; we are trying to mitigate terrorist threats from multiple countries of origin; and we are paying historically little in taxes. After reading this list of problems the next president will need to address, one can easily derive that the next president must be:
1. Highly proactive and persuasive to a bipartisan group
2. A master diplomat
3. Tough-minded and steady
Nate Silver’s work has shown as much. Specifically, it said that, if the economy continues to recover slowly, the GOP candidate is a shoe-in against Obama. Just so long as he’s neither an extremist nor has taken crazily extreme positions.

Here are the GOP candidates:

Nuff said.


Eric Cantor Likens Stem Cell Research To Human Cloning

Oh, Eric Cantor, you are such a fucking idiot.

If I don't understand it, it must be evil/useless/imaginary.

I know hating on stem cell research is what all the cool(?) kids in the GOP are into, but come on.
“Frankly, federal funding of embryonic stem cell research can bring on embryo harvesting, perhaps even human cloning that occurs,” he said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union”.
OK, OK, once and for all, let’s do this:

From the NIH (an agency of the government you work for…when you’re not managing the asshole store, that is):

Studies of human embryonic stem cells may yield information about the complex events that occur during human development. A primary goal of this work is to identify how undifferentiated stem cells become differentiated. Scientists know that turning genes on and off is central to this process. Some of the most serious medical conditions, such as cancer and birth defects, are due to abnormal cell division and differentiation. A better understanding of the genetic and molecular controls of these processes may yield information about how such diseases arise and suggest new strategies for therapy. A significant hurdle to this use and most uses of stem cells is that scientists do not yet fully understand the signals that turn specific genes on and off to influence the differentiation of the stem cell.

Human stem cells could also be used to test new drugs. For example, new medications could be tested for safety on differentiated cells generated from human pluripotent cell lines. Other kinds of cell lines are already used in this way. Cancer cell lines, for example, are used to screen potential anti-tumor drugs. But, the availability of pluripotent stem cells would allow drug testing in a wider range of cell types. However, to screen drugs effectively, the conditions must be identical when comparing different drugs. Therefore, scientists will have to be able to precisely control the differentiation of stem cells into the specific cell type on which drugs will be tested. Current knowledge of the signals controlling differentiation fall well short of being able to mimic these conditions precisely to consistently have identical differentiated cells for each drug being tested.

Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
For example, it may become possible to generate healthy heart muscle cells in the laboratory and then transplant those cells into patients with chronic heart disease. Preliminary research in mice and other animals indicates that bone marrow stem cells, transplanted into a damaged heart, can generate heart muscle cells and successfully repopulate the heart tissue. Other recent studies in cell culture systems indicate that it may be possible to direct the differentiation of embryonic stem cells or adult bone marrow cells into heart muscle cells (Figure 4).

In people who suffer from type I diabetes, the cells of the pancreas that normally produce insulin are destroyed by the patient’s own immune system. New studies indicate that it may be possible to direct the differentiation of human embryonic stem cells in cell culture to form insulin-producing cells that eventually could be used in transplantation therapy for diabetics.

To realize the promise of novel cell-based therapies for such pervasive and debilitating diseases, scientists must be able to easily and reproducibly manipulate stem cells so that they possess the necessary characteristics for successful differentiation, transplantation and engraftment. The following is a list of steps in successful cell-based treatments that scientists will have to learn to precisely control to bring such treatments to the clinic. To be useful for transplant purposes, stem cells must be reproducibly made to:

* Proliferate extensively and generate sufficient quantities of tissue.
* Differentiate into the desired cell type(s).
* Survive in the recipient after transplant.
* Integrate into the surrounding tissue after transplant.
* Function appropriately for the duration of the recipient’s life.
* Avoid harming the recipient in any way.

Also, to avoid the problem of immune rejection, scientists are experimenting with different research strategies to generate tissues that will not be rejected.

‘Kay? Human cloning is NOT THE SAME as cloning human tissue to be used for medical treatments that might otherwise be impossible. I know, it sounds scary and generates lots of knee-jerky “OMG”s amongst the mouth-breathing part of your base (the whole base?), but it’s fucking nonsense and you know it. Here’s where I really got pissed at you, though:

“[L]et’s take care of business first. People are out of jobs.”

I’ve been belaboring this point of late, but it needs belaboring. In the interest of driving it home, allow me to paraphrase one of your party’s heroes, Charlton Heston:


What I mean is, funding scientific research keeps people employed, and gives unemployed scientists jobs. I should know, since I’m a bonafide employed scientist who is looking to continue thusly. Really and truly I am, and I got the fancy schmancy alphabet soup after my name to prove it!

In short: I exist. I need a job. Funding science gives me a job. That supports my (and my thousands of compatriots’) finances and makes me willing and able to be spending money in the United States. Except at the asshole store. Its manager is a total loon.


John McCain, I Am Here To Take You To School, Motherfucker

That may sound strong, but it was the first thing that came to mind when reading his Twittered list of wasteful spending.

I shouldn’t let it bother me, since I knew it was coming. I even told my husband, when I saw there would be a list, that I would bet all our money on scientific endeavors topping it. Still, seeing that, once again, scientific research and education (like that “infamous” planetarium we heard about ad nauseum during his debates with Obama) gets the shaft from old McNasty just kills me. And so, as is my profession, I will now explain to the old man why he’s active like a fool in opposing governmental funding of science. Here we go.

As an experimental scientist, I am going to illustrate to you how the experiment I work on has revitalized an economy abroad, thereby explaining how experimental science is stimulus for failing economies, m’kay?

I first started with my current experiment about 8 years ago. Remember what was going on in Argentina around that time? Probably not, but, boy howdy, we do. They went bankrupt. Kaput. No mas dinero. Luckily, though, they still came through with the money that had been promised for our project. Was it because they desperately want to know the origins of the highest energy particles in the universe? I doubt it (it is, after all, knowledge that it useless for anything other than sounding smart at parties, practically speaking). Nope, they did it because it was an economically stimulative thing to do. How, you ask?

Scientific field research usually requires a large, untouched area. I could explain why, but it would involve words like “light pollution” and the like, and I don’t want to confuse you. Suffice to say that, for our experiment, we had to go out to the pampas and into a tiny town with no industry in it whatsoever. I don’t mean it had a couple of small businesses; I mean there was nothing. Nada. Zip. An old, abandoned salt mine. The men there had two options: be a goat farmer, or join the gendarme. The women had two options also: marry a goat farmer, or marry a member of the gendarme. While there were schools there, it was impossible to get them to attend past the age of 13 or so, since they began to see there was no point. And then they’d start getting pregnant (the abstinence-only education really is effective, eh?), having children they couldn’t support, and the cycle continued. I knew a teacher there who had to drag her 15-year-olds to class while they were pregnant with their second child. Really, it was rough.

So in we came: 250+ scientists from around the world. And we needed stuff. Like places to stay, places to eat, and people to help us construct an enormous and costly experiment. Over the last 8 years, I have watched the hotel prices go from $8 a night to over $60. I’ve seen multitudes of new restaurants open every year. Curio stores, tour guides, bakeries, and other shops now line the streets. Everyone there has a job, mostly centered around bilking us our per diems (as I suggested to my beloved hotel proprietor). And we happily pay it, because we are academics. Which means we’re activist hippie types at heart.

We show our bleeding hearts, in part by patronizing a ton of local businesses, but also by taking the most talented of the kids in the schools there and sending him, all expenses paid, to a university in the United States. The first such recipient graduated in 3 years with honors, then went on for his doctorate.

That’s how it works, on a practical level. But why focus on increasing the scientific and intellectual curiosity of our youth, with “wasteful” projects like making planetariums up-to-date or promoting astronomy in Hawaii? While I know that Arizona has no interest and/or economic stake in supporting astronomy (sarcasm doesn’t translate to the written word very well; what I mean to say is that YOUR FUCKING STATE houses one of the biggest and most active astronomical communities in the world, one to which I’ll be bringing Irish funds to spend soon). One of the second biggest communities resides in Hawaii, a place that drew $10 million from an old millionaire’s fortune for the express purpose of bettering the astronomical research done there. So, the promotion of astronomy has, historically speaking, brought in a buck or two here and there.

Besides, lack of education and intellectual curiosity is what brought us this:

…and, subsequently, this:

Now, see? Scientific research is stimulative to jobs for people from all walks of life, and education is never a waste of time. Not even for old, bitter men.