Scientists Behaving Badly

Event: Envy: The Cutthroat Side of Science
Moderator: Mariette DiChristina; Panelists: Harold Garner, Ivan Oransky, and Morton Meyers
Date: April 31, 2013
Organizer/Source: New York Academy of Sciences

Like many of the Academy’s Science and the City events, “Envy” presented a panel of speakers. Ultimately it showed the strengths and weaknesses typical of panels. The panel’s main strength was its range of expertise. Its corresponding weakness, a lack of focus, would scarcely bear mentioning, except that this particular panel was split between two perspectives that neither clashed nor harmonized. This split brought to mind the proverbial donkey that stands midway between a trough of water and a bale of hay. The poor beast fails to move towards either because it is just as thirsty as it is hungry.

The first perspective, scientific misconduct as an expression of individual character, was covered by Dr. Morton Meyers, Distinguished University Professor and emeritus chair of the Department of Radiology in the School of Medicine SUNY, Stony Brook. Actually, Meyers did not dwell on the most obvious forms of misconduct such as plagiarism and outright fakery. For the most part, he told stories of acrimonious priority disputes.

Although attendees were probably aware that many scientists are capable of being as selfish as they are ambitious, Meyers provided historical details of considerable intrinsic interest. For example, Meyers explained how the discovery of streptomycin involved a dispute between Schatz and Waksman. Also, he explained how the development of magnetic resonance imaging involved a dispute between Damadian and Lauterber. (These and other controversies are discussed in Meyers’ book, Prize Fight: The Race and Rivalry to be the First in Science.)

Meyers’ co-panelists were less interested in historical drama than in timely metrics. Dr. Harold Garner, Director of Medical Informatics Systems at the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, described how database applications are being used to detect instances of plagiarism. Dr. Ivan Oransky, a blogger at Retraction Watch (and Executive Editor of Reuters Health at Thomson Reuters), discussed the increasing number of retracted articles. By some estimates, more than two-thirds of retractions are due to misconduct, not simple error.

To their credit, Garner and Oransky avoided sensationalism, perhaps because they feel that the available data are just beginning to characterize scientific misconduct. In any event, these panelists called for incremental improvements, not sweeping reforms.

Garner suggested that post-publication searches could be augmented by preemptive searches. If a preemptive search were conducted as part of the review of a grant application, a granting agency might detect an attempt at “double dipping,” the solicitation of funds for a project that has already been funded by another granting agency.

Oransky insisted that retraction notices should be clearer. At present, vague notices frustrate attempts to understand the nature of retractions. (Clearer notices might suggest ways to prevent the publication of retraction-worthy papers.)

The circumspection observed by the panelists contrasted with the willingness of the attendees to offer their speculations during the Q&A. Some attendees boldly suggested that the scientific enterprise itself, not just individual scientists or research projects, might be compromised. They raised questions about the role of commercial incentives and political pressures. The panelists, however, seemed unimpressed. Garner expressed confidence that worthless products, ineffective drugs, say, would fail to win patent approval. He concluded, “Products must work.” (For an alternative point of view, see this article.) Similarly, in response to a question about whether political interests could pressure researchers, Oransky said, “It is not so easy to gin up slanted research to support your agenda.”

Perhaps other issues, such as the desirability of more stable funding, could have been taken up, but time was too short, particularly since most of the Q&A time was consumed by just one attendee. Many attendees of Science and the City Events are well informed, though perhaps no so well informed as they imagine. (It seems that they would happily replace any speaker, given the chance.) They must pose a challenge to moderators!

Image: Gustave Doré’s illustration of Dante and Virgil among the envious.

Eavesdropping on Bacteria

Event: Tiny Conspiracies: Cell-to-Cell Communication in Bacteria
Speaker: Bonnie Bassler
Date: April 3, 2013
Organizer/Source: SciCafe, American Museum of Natural History

At one time or another, while fighting off a bacterial infection, you may have imagined that the attack was personal. That is, you may have felt that the bacteria somehow managed to gang up on you. If so, upon recovery, you probably dismissed such notions, ascribing them to self-pity or delirium. Bacteria are simple single-celled organisms that are incapable of devising or carrying out a plan. Certainly such primitive organisms lack the ability to coordinate their actions … or do they?

While attributing malice or any like purpose to bacteria is meaningless, they are capable of communicating and cooperating with each other. Their language is chemical. And their chemical messages aren’t necessarily sinister. Most bacteria are harmless. Some are even beneficial.

Whatever their potential for mayhem, bacteria read from a fairly limited script. They secrete chemicals called autoinducers that say, “I’m here.” And … that’s about it. If a sufficient number of bacteria are whispering “I’m here,” they may be emboldened to begin shouting “I’m here.” And a sufficiently robust chorus of “I’m here’s” may prompt bacteria to act in unison. They may form a biofilm, glow bioluminescently, or release nasty toxins.

This brief sketch omits many subtleties. For example, bacteria appear to be multilingual. At the least, a particular species understands messages expressed in its own language as well as those expressed in the bacterial equivalent of Esperanto. And so bacteria not only gauge their own numbers, they also weigh their numbers against those of potential foes.

Quite a few other subtleties were presented by Bonnie Bassler, the invited speaker. Bassler, a distinguished molecular biologist, is a peerless communicator. Even though her lecture was pitched to a popular audience, it did not seem dumbed-down in the least. More than once, Bassler emphasized a point by saying that she was taking the trouble to speak with precision. She displayed charm, but rigor, too.

I suppose both qualities are helpful in her field, which goes by the name “quorum sensing.” Quorum sensing has raised expectations that it could lead to novel therapies. In addition, its evolutionary implications have aroused controversy. For example, how could cooperation have evolved in the presence of “cheaters,” non-cooperating bacteria that benefit from the cooperative behavior of their peers?

Bassler’s presentation did not dwell on evolutionary issues. And they did not arise spontaneously during the Q&A. Instead, it seemed that the attendees were more interested in what quorum sensing implied about human-bacterial relations. One attendee raised that possibility that a human host could become collateral damage in a fight between bacterial species. And several attendees were fascinated by thoroughly uncontroversial matters of scale. For example, the ratio of a human’s cell count to the number of bacterial cells carried by that person is 1:10. The corresponding ratio for gene count is even more lopsided at 1:100. I imagine that  many attendees were relieved to hear that despite their teeming multitude, bacteria account for just 2 pounds of a person’s body weight.

Cosmic Candles

Event: Cosmic Candles
Speaker: Ashley Pagnotta
Date: March 15, 2013
Organizer/Source: Columbia Astronomy Outreach

Columbia Astronomy Outreach events are well summarized at the organizer’s own blog. This particular event is no exception, and so I have little to add. I can note, however, that the speaker, Ashley Pagnotta, was pretty clear that it should be possible to distinguish between supernova progenitor mechanisms, at least for some Type Ia supernovae. For example, she asserted that one particular Type Ia supernova remnant, SNR 0509-67.5, had a double-degenerate progenitor. (Slides from Panotta’s presentation are posted here.)

Progenitors, stars or star systems that cause certain kinds of supernovae, are not understood in great detail, which is too bad, because if they were, astrophysicists would have a better idea of just how well Type Ia supernovae serve as “standard candles.” These supernovae, because they radiate with intrinsic brightness, appear dim or bright depending on their distance. That is, information about their luminosities is readily translated into information about their distances. Supernovae are veritable cosmic yardsticks.

By taking the measure of the universe with these cosmic yardsticks, astrophysicists have determined that the acceleration of the universe is accelerating, a finding that has stimulated theories about dark energy. Were supernova mechanisms to become better understood, cosmic measurements could become more precise, potentially helping astrophysicists refine their theories. Better theories about dark energy are much desired, given that dark energy constitutes roughly 70 percent of the universe.

So, with that at stake, what are we learning about supernova progenitors? According to Ashley Pagnotta, there are at least a half dozen possible progenitor systems, of which two likely account for most Type Ia supernovae. Single-degenerate progenitors consist of a white dwarf star that draws material from a larger companion star and grows ever more unstable until it explodes. The dwarf star is destroyed, but the former companion remains. Double-degenerate systems consist of two white dwarf stars that spiral into each other. When these systems explode, or “go supernova,” both dwarfs are destroyed.

By scrutinizing a supernova remnant, astrophysicists may satisfy themselves whether an ex-companion star, or widow star, is at the center of the remnant’s expanding shell-like region. The absence of any good candidate for a widow star suggests that the supernova had a double-degenerate progenitor.

Pagnotta’s collaborator, Bradley Schaefer, has characterized this line of reasoning by repeating an old Sherlock Holmes quotation: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” (See this NASA story.) At least one skeptic has responded with another old quotation: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” While such wordplay is diverting, the issue won’t be decided by means of dueling clichés, but careful examination of the available evidence.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

Long Past Secret

Event: Mechanisms of Memory and Forgetting
Speaker: André Fenton
Date: March 12, 2013
Organizer/Source: Secret Science Club at the Bell House

The Secret Science Club event on memory and forgetting attracted a line of hopeful would-be attendees that began at the Bell House’s entrance and stretched to the end of the block, briefly enlivening an otherwise lonely piece of Gowanus, a neighborhood of re-purposed warehouses. The old buildings hummed with industry decades ago. Today they are occupied by a motley assortment of distributors, plus an unusual venue for a science-lecture series.

The evening looked promising. The invited speaker, neurobiologist André Fenton, gained some measure of fame when he discovered a chemical that could effectively erase memories. His experiments involved rats, not people, but the results were suggestive. People were intrigued by the idea that they might selectively delete “bad” memories while preserving “good” ones.

Fenton believes that such self-editing would pose grave risks were it to become possible. For now, while the gardens of our minds grow free of our deliberate weeding and pruning, Fenton focuses on the biological mechanisms behind memory and forgetting. His work may yield insights into schizophrenia, dementia, and other conditions.

But let’s return to that dark street in Gowanus… A portion of the crowd was ushered inside while the remainder, say, two hundred people, were told that they might later squeeze into a bar area, where they could listen to an audio feed of Fenton’s presentation. Moaning commenced, and most everyone who was still waiting outside, including this writer, decided to leave.

Evidently it is nothing unusual for large numbers of people to be turned away at Secret Science Club events. (Check out these stories: The Not-So-Secret Science Club and Continuing Education, at the Bar.) The Secret Science Club showcases marvelous speakers and is to applauded for making science lectures so appealing. I’m not sure, however, that the organizers’ intent was to make science velvet-rope exclusive. The current arrangements tend to favor die-hard fans, the sort willing to camp on a sidewalk to secure coveted concert tickets. To spare scores or even hundreds of people inconvenience, if not disappointment, might the organizers consider asking attendees to register in advance? To preserve the openness of the events, no registration fees need be charged. Such an approach seems to work for the SciCafe, a lecture series organized by the American Museum of Natural History.

Stand-Up Science

Event: Brain Awareness
Speakers: Jess Zimmerman, Mike Nitabach, Andrew Revkin, et al.
Date: March 11, 2013
Organizer/Source: The Story Collider

Co-hosts Ellen Barker and Ben Lillie began by announcing The Story Collider’s “no learning rule.” Barker seemed especially unapologetic on this point, though Lillie allowed that some audiences would, regrettably, have difficulty with the idea of not learning anything. He observed that Boston audiences were particularly troubled.

I immediately felt sympathy for the Bostonians. Just because one is attending a storytelling event and not a lecture, why should all learning, however incidental, be disallowed? Admittedly, I was in a foul mood. I disliked the venue, a basement barroom that housed a small stage. As far as I could tell, everyone else was delighted to be there, crowded together and looking uncannily uniform—thirtyish and very casual. Apparently all were unconcerned that the emergency exit, which was clearly marked “for emergencies only,” was in frequent use by kitchen staff members, who were ferrying trays of greasy-looking food to the bar.

But the show was on, so I stopped wondering what a fire marshal might need to do and paid attention to the storytellers. They were really, really good. So good, in fact, that you could imagine them making a career as stand-up comedians. (Evidently there is a good deal of overlap between stand-up comedy and storytelling.)

Jess Zimmerman, by day an editor at Grist.org, told of dating a neuroscientist who was not only a bad boyfriend but also, more damningly, a bad scientist. To make her points, Zimmerman had to describe the boyfriend’s experimental work, so perhaps there was some sliver of science to be learned despite the no-learning rule. Next up was Mike Nitabach, a researcher at Yale who studies how neural circuits process information and control behavior. Nitabach described how the maddeningly intense and narrow focus required of him as a graduate student temporarily drove him from science. He even made an impressive start to a legal career before deciding that science was his true calling after all.

The last storyteller I heard was Andrew Revkin, a science and environmental writer. (He writes the Dot Earth blog for the New York Times.) I was sorry to leave before Revkin finished, but the room started to feel awfully warm. Too many people in too small (and too poorly ventilated) a space, I suppose. Also, it didn’t help that Revkin was describing a frightening medical episode so vividly that one could easily imagine sharing the symptoms. I felt light-headed and decided to stagger outside before I fainted.

Alas, I missed the last three storytellers—Paula Croxson, Stuart Firestein, and Kelly McMasters. But I also avoided meeting any emergency medical technicians, so I counted myself fortunate.

Science in the Machine

Event: The Colonial Machine: French Science and Overseas Expansion in the Old Regime
Speakers: James E. McClellan, III and François Regourd
Date: February 27, 2013
Organizer/Source: New York Academy of Sciences

SaintDominigueHistorical content is often worked into science talks, at least those intended for general audiences. Even the addition of a brief chronology of events can make a challenging topic more accessible. And so one might think that a science-history talk, a talk in which history is of primary interest, would be even more amenable to a popular treatment—but only if the speakers have a general audience in mind.

This particular event, The Colonial Machine, flirted with popularity but ultimately embraced professionalism. Nonspecialists in the audience may have felt like interlopers even though the material that was presented was bound to interest anyone—or at least any moderately curious person.

The talk’s master image was of a many-geared machine, with each gear representing an element in the Old Regime’s elaborate and far-flung scientific establishment. The various elements—observatories, cartographic institutes, medical academies, botanical gardens, etc.—interlocked with each other as well as elements of church and state. What’s more, the machine included regulatory mechanisms between institutions of the home country and those clustered in France’s overseas possessions. One could easily imagine how the machine chugged along, amassing profit and projecting power.

This is an image everyone deserves to see, not just professionals in the emerging discipline of science and empire studies. A good look at the Colonial Machine could give us a fresh perspective on Big Science and its uses in our own day.

Although it was by no means the goal of this particular event to address such points, the speakers did seem inclined, if only briefly, to appeal to a broad audience. Showing that academics, too, have marketing savvy, the speakers referenced their own book, highlighting a chapter entitled “The Problem of Longitude at Sea – Version Française.” Clearly, they were playfully boarding the Dava Sobel bandwagon. (Sobel wrote the bestselling Longitude, which focused on navigational innovations that emerged in 18th-century England.)

Bonhomie has its limits, however. While asking a fairly involved question, an attendee confessed that she was by no means a specialist. While answering, one of the speakers (McClellan) observed, mostly in jest, “Oh, so you’re not trying to trap me.” A professional’s caution: academics in their own company must always be on their guard.

Image: Carte de l’isle de Saint Domingue by Jacques Nicolas Bellin (1750). 

Not Edgey

Event: Astronomy Live: Edges of Space
Date: February 26, 2013
Organizer/Source: Hayden Planetarium

The fun of this event was seeing how difficult it is to find any edges in space. One supposed edge after another was revealed to be something of a blur. The edge of Earth’s atmosphere? By some accounts, it extends, however thinly, halfway to the moon. Or does it mix with the Sun’s atmosphere at that distance? Or is the boundary between Earth and Sun best defined by the shifting envelope of the Earth’s magnetosphere?

All that was just the start. Projections on the dome of the Hayden Space Theater swept ever deeper into space. Tracing the path of Voyager 1 to the craft’s present location, one would be hard-pressed to say where, exactly, Voyager 1 would finally, officially, exit the solar system.

Next: the constellations. The stars that constitute each constellation (or asterism) appear to be part of the firmament, all equally distant from Earth. Or so it appeared to the ancients. We have long since learned that the connect-the-dot lines between the stars aren’t traced across the surface of a celestial sphere. Still, it was surprising to view the lines from a deep-space perspective. The zigged away from the Earth and zagged back so crazily that the stately constellations became a cloud of crazy scribbles.

And yet, during this voyage through the universe’s ambiguities, structures emerged. On the way to the ultimate non-edge—the edge of the observable universe—galaxy filaments and voids filled space like a gigantic cobweb, or pile of cotton candy.

The clearest edge that emerged was the Earth’s radiosphere, which has been growing at the speed of light ever since we started transmitting information wirelessly. One day, when our transmissions cease, the sphere will become more of a bubble. It will grow ever larger and more tenuous. With any luck, it will become so tenuous that advanced extraterrestrial civilizations will never judge our species by re-runs of our television shows.

Image credit: M. Blanton and the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (www.sdss3.org).

Higgs Fandom

Event: My Life as a Higgs Boson
Speaker: Gladys Velez Caicedo
Date: February 15, 2013
Organizer/Source: Columbia Astronomy Outreach

The title of this event apparently referred to “My Life as a Boson,” a lecture that has been given by Peter Higgs at various times over the years. But what purpose would be served by invoking Higgs’s lecture? By the time the event ended, I had a fair idea.

Higgs’s lecture, though autobiographical, describes the crucial roles played by various physicists in developing the prevailing theory of how certain elementary particles acquire mass. Ever modest, Higgs notes that names such as the “Higgs field” and the “Higgs boson” gained currency pretty much by accident.

Higgs raised the possibility of a new particle only after one of his papers was rejected by a journal editor. (The rejected paper, slightly altered to mention the particle, was ultimately published elsewhere.) Somehow the particle, not the field from which it rises, captured the world’s imagination—even though the field is by far more important. At any rate, the name “Higgs boson” stuck.

And so we come to “My Life as a Higgs Boson,” the talk delivered by Gladys Velez Caicedo, an undergraduate student at Barnard College. Velez Caicedo sensibly avoided the somewhat involved story of how the Higgs came to be called the Higgs. As far as her audience was concerned, the name of the Higgs needed no justification.

Popular accounts of the mass-generating mechanism overwhelmingly refer to Higgs, not some combination of Anderson, Brout, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Higgs, Kibble, and ‘t Hooft. Even references to the “God particle” seem to be fading. (Perhaps people are tired of hearing the story of how this particular name came to be. Leon Lederman joked that his book about the elusive Higgs should be titled the Goddamn Particle, which inspired his publisher to come up with a title that was bound to be taken too seriously.)

“My Life as a Higgs Boson” was, for the most part, a straightforward celebration of the recent discovery of a “Higgs-like particle” at the Large Hadron Collider. Occasionally the presentation became a little too celebratory. PowerPoint slides included the $9 Billion Dollar Graph, Higgsdependence Day, and AAAAAAAAAAWWWWWW YYYYYYEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAA. (Yes, that was the exact spelling.) Also, Velez Caicedo revealed that her forearm carried a tattoo of one of the likelier Higgs-production mechanisms.

Such displays of exuberance were well received, suggesting that there may be a place for science fandom. Some may even prefer out-and-out science-fan events to stuffy, old-fashioned lectures. No harm in that, I suppose, provided that no writer one day feels moved to write A (Science) Fan’s Notes (with apologies to Frederick Exley).

Image credit: CERN.