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The Burying of Roza Levina (or, How History Can Shape Science)

The April 1984 issue of the Journal of Learning Disabilities includes a review paper about how kids learn to read. The author, Joanna Williams from Columbia University, outlined the history of an idea: that children who have trouble learning to read also have trouble with phonemes, or the sounds that make up words. Teaching children to read, she argued, should begin by teaching them how to sound out words.

The theory is fairly mainstream today. But in the 1980s and 90s educators were loudly debating which reading methods work best. (Remember all of those annoying “Hooked on Phonics worked for me!” commercials? You’re welcome.)

In her 1984 review, Williams argued that research had long focused on visual rather than auditory aspects of reading. She dates the earliest work on phonemes to 1963, when two Russian psychologists published papers “in very sparse detail.” No other research happened until the 1970s, and even then it wasn’t much, Williams wrote. “To a great extent this is still an experimental idea.”

That was true — in the West. But in Russia, phonemes were old news, as I learned in a fascinating review published last month, also in the Journal of Learning Disabilities. Beginning in the 1930s, phonemic instruction became popular all across Russia, thanks in large part to the work of a woman who was never mentioned in Williams’s paper, nor in dozens of similar reviews that have appeared since. Her name was Roza Levina.

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Why More Scientists Should Tell Stories

Scientists aren’t very good at telling stories.

That’s a generalization, but true. I’m constantly cajoling scientists to tell me the story — hell, any story, any anecdote, any remotely narrative nugget — of their work. More scientists than you’d expect are good at simplifying a complicated technology or theory into layman’s terms. And many are good, sometimes too good, at distilling years of research into a few “bottom line” bullet points. But the scientist who tells a real story — where people do things in some kind of compelling sequence and ultimately arrive at something new — is rare.

So rare that last week I paid $10.70 to hear a few at an event called The Story Collider. Every month, half a dozen people take the stage in the basement of a popular Brooklyn bar. Each gets 10 to 15 minutes to entertain a packed audience of 120 beer-drinking hipsters with a tale of science. Story Collider’s mission is to demonstrate that science affects all of us, every day, and most of the performers aren’t scientists. But some are, and their stories don’t disappoint.

Last week, for example, evolutionary biologist Diane Kelly told us about her research on armadillo penises. In the early ’90s, as a graduate student at Duke University, in North Carolina, she wanted to study how penises work. (Erectile tissue has pretty unusual mechanical properties, after all.) But Kelly, a lifelong animal lover, hated the idea of killing animals for her project. She nearly fainted once when attempting to demonstrate how to euthanize a frog. So her clever, if extreme solution was to temporarily move to a place (Florida) that had a bounty of big-penis roadkill (armadillos).

Kelly’s tale was full of surprising twists and turns, culminating with a policeman and a bloody crotch. But its essence was about how she came to terms with the cold fact that her work would require some animals to die. Take a listen:

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What Americans Don’t Get About the Brain’s Critical Period

On April 17, 1997, Bill and Hillary Clinton organized a one-day meeting with a long and lofty title: The White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning: What New Research on the Brain Tells Us About Our Youngest Children.

The meeting featured eight-minute presentations from experts in public policy, education and child development, and one neuroscientist. They discussed, among other things, how 6-month-old infants learn to discriminate the sounds of their native language, and how, if a kitten’s eye is patched during early development — and therefore deprived of light inputs — it will go permanently blind in that eye, even after the patch comes off. The First Lady gave the gist of the meeting in her opening remarks: The first three years of life, she reportedly said, “can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves.”

Behind the hyperbole of that statement is an important idea based in solid science. The first few years of life are a “critical period” for brain development, during which experiences — strong parental attachments, exposure to written and spoken language, social interactions — sculpt brain circuits in a way that’s difficult to un-sculpt. When a developing brain isn’t adequately stimulated, as often happens to children living in poverty, for example, or in the foster care system, this deprivation can lead to problems in cognition, attention and social behaviors.

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Galápagos Monday: Lynn’s Tortoises

Every Monday for the next six weeks I’ll be posting about my recent trip to the Galápagos. After a week on a big boat, hopping from one imposing volcanic island to the next, I saw most of the odd creatures that Charles Darwin famously wrote about: century-old tortoises, finches with beaks of all sizes, swimming iguanas. But most of what I learned was new to me — like how the Ecuadorian government hired expert hunters from New Zealand to shoot down thousands of goats by helicopter, or how, in 1954, a massive geological uplift almost instantaneously raised one island’s coast 15 feet, taking with it mounds of coral that have since blackened with dust. Many of the stories converge on what’s, for me, a perplexing theme: that people can be sources of both ecological destruction and impressive restoration. As the climate changes, and population and tourism rates continue to skyrocket, it will be fascinating to see how the economic-political-scientific ecosystem of the Galápagos evolves.

I kick off the series (below, after the jump) with a story about one of my naturalist-guides, Lynn, who has lived on the islands since 1978.


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The Seven Deadly Sins: Pride

On June 26, 2000, three famous men — one president, two scientists — made a big announcement at the White House. Two independent teams — one public, one private — had published a first draft of the human genome, or as one of the scientists called it, the “book of life.” It was a feat. It would change the world. It would “revolutionize the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of most, if not all, human diseases,” the president said. Everybody was proud.

Ten years later, a journalist at a big newspaper pointed out that, well, no, the $3 billion we spent on the human genome — a dollar for each pair of DNA letters — had not bought us the ability to diagnose, prevent or treat common diseases. The genome had revolutionized basic biology, sure, but done little for human health.

The newspaper article made a lot of scientists angry. (Some of them are still sputtering about it at conferences.) It also launched a broader discussion about science communication and hype. A month ago, I went to a public event at the American Museum of Natural History, in Manhattan, called “The Human Genome and Human Health: Will the Promise Be Fulfilled?” Four experts on genetics, medicine, ethics and law discussed whether the promises of that 2000 announcement would ever come true. The general consensus was that the White House hoopla had raised expectations much too high, inevitably leading to disappointment. Pride goeth before the fall.

As a journalist, I hate hype, and I will never argue that journalists should be anything but skeptical of scientific advancements. But I recently learned that, like all of the Seven Deadly Sins, pride is necessary for survival. So I wonder, does science need hubris?

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Dear Mom

My mother is spunky and smart and I love her very much. But she’s got this one trait that drives me crazy: she believes everything she sees on The History Channel.

I visited her in Michigan a few weeks ago. One night at a local brewery, with my sister, Charlotte, and her boyfriend, Greg, in tow, Mom began telling us about why she believes humans came to earth from another planet. “Your evolution theories can’t explain the pyramids,” she said triumphantly.

“How does that have anything to do with aliens?” I asked triumphantly.

Charlotte, who goes out to eat with Mom much more often than I do, looked at Greg and smirked.

“How else would the Egyptians have known how to build them?” Mom said.

“And what evidence, exactly, do you have to support our alien origins?” I said.

“Geometry!” she said.

She then went on and on about latitudes and longitudes and the Maya and alien images in cave paintings. I understood little of what she said, but knew enough to proclaim, too loudly, “That’s such bullshit, Mom!”

For the sake of continuing an otherwise pleasant meal, we dropped it. But I resolved to find out what nonsense she was talking about and eventually set her straight.

So I found out. And it’s as crazy as I thought.