Here’s my weekly column, which will also run in Monday’s Health and Science section of the Philadelphia Inquirer
Image is from Penn and reportedly shows a color enhanced tissue section from a healthy mouse. The mouse cells are green and bacterial cells are purple.
Next time your digestive system malfunctions in some embarrassing way, you can always blame man’s best friend – not the dog, but the bacterial cells that live in your intestines. Not everyone has a dog but we all have enormous communities of bacteria that help us digest food. They don’t always do a perfect job, but without them we’d have trouble surviving.
In fact, our bodies have about ten times as many bacterial cells as human cells, said David Artis, a microbiologist at the University of Pennsylvania. “Some people have even joked that if one considers the meaning of life,” he said, “it could boil down to us being vessels to carry around bacteria.”
Artis has been studying our relationship to our resident microbes, the vast majority of which live in our intestines. Recently, he’s focused on how they know to be so friendly and refrain from spreading around the body and making us sick.
This little commentary about science writing was published by the journal Science. Scientist/writer Adam Ruben’s piece makes a couple of amusing points as it goes through a list of unwritten rules of science writing. Here's a sample:
"Don’t think of what you’re doing as “dumbing down” science. It is, but don’t think of it that way.
All stories benefit from the human element, and the human of interest in your story is the scientist. So be sure to describe the scientist physically in vivid detail. Scientists love that.
Finally, the best ending for your article is always—always—a cutesy ending. If you’re writing about a new species of dinosaur, for example, end by saying, “Just don’t invite him to dinner!” This allows you to demonstrate common cause with the reader, showing him or her that you realize that you both slogged through a boring science article, but now that you’re through it you can wink at each other on the other side. Remember, they hated reading the article as much as you hated writing it, so by the end, you each deserve a little chuckle. Imagine inviting a dinosaur to dinner! Ha! But it’s a dinosaur!"
There’s a reason for those last two. When we turn in our stories, one of the most common questions from editors is “what did this person look like?” and one of the most common requests is a snappier “kicker” as we call the ending. We have to supply the needed kicker and looks description before we’re allowed to go out and play.
The tropical mantis shrimp is not only beautiful, it’s powerful, using a club-like appendage to pound open clam shells and the heads of fish. Engineers at UC Riverside are studying the material properties of the “club” down to the nanoscale to figure out how the shrimp manages to use it without hurting itself. The published their results in this week's issue of Science. From UCR:
The bright orange fist-like club of the mantis shrimp, or stomatopod, a 4-inch long crustacean found in tropical waters, accelerates underwater faster than a 22-caliber bullet. Repeated blows can destroy mollusk shells and crab exoskeletons, both of which have been studied for decades for their impact-resistant qualities.
The power of the mantis shrimp is exciting, but David Kisailus, an assistant professor at the Bourns College of Engineering, and his collaborators, were interested in what enabled the club to withstand 50,000 high-velocity strikes on prey during its lifespan. Essentially, how does something withstand 50,000 bullet impacts?
Read more here
See a video of the shrimp in action here. That’s a lot of food for a shrimp.
Ray Bradbury, who died at 91, was one of my favorite writers when I was in my teens and early 20s. Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, and Fahrenheit 451 were all classics and his unforgettable short story “A Sound of Thunder” made the world stop and think. That was the story in which a time traveller inadvertently crushes a butterfly - an accident with far-reaching consequences.
Somewhere along the way I’d also purchased a Bradbury writing guide called “Zen and the Art of Writing”.
For reasons I can’t explain, I pulled it off my shelf last November and read the whole thing, and it helped me get in the spirit of blogging. Newspaper deadlines can be stressful enough without having to think about producing blog posts nearly every day. There’s no editor for blog posts. We’re out there on our own. I was scared.
Zen isn’t a how-to book as much as an explanation of how Bradbury found his inspiration. But he did give one piece of advice: You have to write every day. That seemed worth taking up. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ray Bradbury wrote something every single day until he died. He clearly loved writing. Here’s a quote from a talk he gave several years ago:
In 2009, at a lecture celebrating the first anniversary of a small library in Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, Bradbury exhorted his listeners to live their lives as he said he had lived his: "Do what you love and love what you do."
Either listening to Paul McCartney makes you younger, or there’s something amiss with social science.
Here’s a story on bad science that ran on the Inquirer's front page today (Tuesday). I got the idea from a fascinating paper in which researchers created a test case to show how dubious social science could pass acceptable standards of statistical significance. Others say the problem extends to medical research as well. Read the whole story here.
Would you believe a scientific paper that said listening to the Beatles song "When I'm 64" made people get younger?
It was tested by experiment, and the result came out with "statistical significance," which is the gold standard for incorporating new findings into the established scientific literature.
The point of the experiment was not really to test the youth-restoring effects of the song, but to show how too many dubious studies are getting published in respected journals. (If it were really true, Paul McCartney would get even richer.)
Wharton researcher Uri Simonsohn constructed the song experiment as a sort of test case, along with colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California, Berkeley. They conducted a similar experiment showing that listening to the children's song "Hot Potato" made people feel older.
F.F. People write hate mail for all kinds of reasons. It’s not written entirely by fundamentalists with religious objections to science. I can never predict what will come over the transom. Part of the problem here is that I hired a hate mail responder and he’s been slacking off on the job. I woke him up and asked him to offer his viewpoint on this little morsel that came in last week:
I don't really want to bang on you but this article is offensive in its ignorance. Any second year college student would know that you are crediting other people with Noam Chomsky's claim to fame. Literally, Chomsky's entire academic career was based on his theory that human ability to organize and use language and grammar was a native quality not learned and that it most likely was possessed by other mammals. Prior to Chomsky, a consensus orthodoxy had language and grammar being a learned ability from culture. Chomsky basically told them the world was round. He lays out numerous reasons why he was led to this conclusions and he changed everyone's mind instantly. It was the most ground breaking discovery in modern linguistics and shaped entire fields of study since, including this experiment. Because you don't make the proper connection, the article comes off as crude and unlearned, or in a more modern description, something only a blogger would write and not be embarrassed about. You should be studying, not having a public voice.
Higgs: You woke me up for that? Well, now that I’m up, I might as well deal with it. Dear Sir, I believe you are being a touch insincere when you say you don’t want to “bang on” my co-blogger. If that were the case it would be quite easy for you to resist pushing the send button. I’d also like to call your attention to the dozens of other stories on the same study in the New York Times, BBC and other news outlets. We could not find a single one that mentioned Dr. Chomsky. There’s a reason for this.
If I wrote the script for Faye’s life, I’d have Noam Chomsky walk in right now, the way Marshall Mcluhan walked onto the set of Annie Hall and offered some much-needed humility to a blow-hard professor, who quite frankly couldn't hold a candle to you. Here’s what I’d have Noam Chomsky say:
"Dear sir, while it’s true that I did some seminal work in linguistics, it’s silly to expect me to be trotted out in every newspaper story on the study of language. The researchers profiled in the column did original work on word recognition in non-human primates. I never did any studies of this kind. They devised a clever experiment and deserve credit for it.
This is my column for next week. It will also appear in the Health and Science section of Monday's Philadelphia Inquirer:
It’s nearly impossible to write objectively about the science of human kindness, cooperation, and altruism if you are, in fact, a human being. That’s especially true now that there’s a rift in the evolution community over two competing theories to explain why we’re nice or, in technical terms, eusocial.
Since the best way to deal with bias is disclosure, I’ll admit I’ve had more vicious hate mail than usual this week, and so when I hear the world eusocial, I think my part of the universe is mal-social. When the scientists talk about understanding why we’re nice, I say, “where?”
Biologist David Sloan Wilson, who is enmeshed in the scientific dispute over the evolution of niceness, says it’s understandable that our personal attitudes come into play. Those who value individualism may gravitate toward the theory of kin selection, which is favored by Richard Dawkins. Those who have a more communitarian attitude may be more open to an idea known as group selection, also called multilevel selection, which was recently championed by the equally prominent scientist-author E.O. Wilson.
Group selection, roughly, is the idea that Darwin’s theory can act on groups as well as individuals, and that genetic tendencies toward cooperation can proliferate when groups of people cooperating outcompete groups that are constantly hitting one another over the head with clubs and hogging all the food. Kin selection, on the other hand, equates kindness with benefiting relatives and others who share genes.
It’s not too soon to start looking for eye protection and an unobstructed view to the west. This Tuesday Venus will eclipse the sun for the last time until 2117. My colleague Tom Avril wrote this fascinating story about the way David Rittenhouse and other 16th century astronomers used a transit to calculate the distance between the Earth and the sun.
Here’s what Rittenhouse wrote about the sight: "Imagination cannot form any thing more beautifully serene and quiet, than was the air during the whole time; nor did I ever see the Sun's limb more perfectly defined, or more free from any tremulous motion."
On the East Coast, the best viewing is from 6 pm until sunset. If you plan to be near Philadelphia you might want to check out this event at the Frainklin Institute. They'll make sure your eyes are safe.
When psychologist Johan Lundstrom decided to test whether there really was an “old people smell” he got good news and bad news. Unfortunately, he found, people can tell the difference between young, middle-aged and old peoples’ body odors. The good news is people aren’t very good at telling which odors came from which age group – they could only tell they were different. Also in the bright side: women smell no worse as they age and men get nicer smelling after 75.
Lundstrom, who works at the University of Pennsylvania and the Monell Chemical Senses Center, said he decided to investigate this matter when giving a recent talk at a retirement home near Philadelphia. He smelled something familiar that took him back to his childhood. “As soon as I stepped in the home I recognized an odor that I’d smelled in Sweden when my mother was working as a nurse in a retirement home,” he said. How, he wondered, could you have the same odor in two different populations on two different continents?
At first, he did what most of the rest of us do – he used Google. That turned up some anecdotal reports about old-age smell, and the fact that the Japanese even have a word for it – kareishu.
Then he set up his own body-odor experiment in collaboration with colleagues at Penn, Monell and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. The results were published in Friday’s issue of the journal Public Library of Science One.
He recruited a group of “donors” and a group of 41 volunteers willing to sniff them. The donors were chosen to fit into three discreet groups: young(20-30), middle aged(45-55), and old(75-95). To keep the sniffers blind to the actual ages of the participants, he collected the odors of the “donors” using t-shirts with special pads sown into the armpits. Some studies involve donors that run on treadmills, he said, but the smell of exercise-induced sweat is different from ordinary body odor. The odors originate from different glands and contain different chemicals.
In a video clip that's made the rounds lately, Richard Feynman puts the essence of science in a nutshell: If your idea doesn’t agree with experiment or observation, it’s wrong. The sound bite was clipped from a much longer lecture, in which the famous physicist offered some important insights into the process of science.
And indeed, getting at the truth is complicated because it's not always obvious what agrees or disagrees with nature. If it were clear-cut, you’d never see two titans such as Richard Dawkins and E.O.Wilson in raging disagreement. But they are.
The Dawkins/Wilson war is over the roots of cooperative and altruistic behavior. I touched on the controversy more than a year ago in this column. There, I took on a question of more general interest: Do humans need to believe in God to be good? Both sides agree that we don’t. We’re social animals and we evolved to be cooperative and, to some extent, altruistic.
But how does natural selection do this? The existing paradigm rests on a concept known as kin selection or inclusive fitness, which is based on the idea that our selfish genes nudge us to help our relatives. The more related, the more we help. Dawkins and most of the biology community take this view, as did E.O. Wilson, until recently.
Wilson is famous for his groundbreaking work on social insects and his founding of the field of sociobiology (now evolutionary psychology). Now he’s abandoned kin selection and in its place embraced a concept called group selection – in which natural selection can favor some groups of organisms over others. In biology, the mention of group selection is not just controversial – it’s downright inflammatory.