A Very Special Tree of Life

Yesterday I went to Rutgers University to give a talk about medical ecology. Afterwards, I got a delightful surprise: Amy Chen Vollmer, the president of the Waksman Foundation for Microbiology, got on stage to announce I had won the Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in Public Communication of Life Sciences.

Byron Waksman, who passed away this June, was an immunologist who made important discoveries about auto-immune diseases and the signals white blood cells send to each other. Spreading the word about science was another of his passions; after he retired from his scientific work, he became a middle-school science teacher. Waksman was also the director of a foundation set up by his father, Selman Waksman, who won the Nobel prize for discovering many of the antibiotics we depend on today.  Byron Waksman used the foundation’s resources to advance the understanding of science. One of the programs he initiated brings journalists to the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole to learn how science is done. All the journalists I’ve spoken to who have gone through it have sung its praises. It shows them the real science that lies beyond the press release and the phone call.

I’m hugely honored to get an award in Byron Waksman’s name. And it’s a particular pleasure to get an award decorated not with some non-descript humanoid, but with the Tree of Life. It’s a privilege to get to jump among its branches for a living.

Science Literacy: A Worldwide Look

I was skimming through the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation when I came across this very interesting table. Whenever I see reports about science literacy in the United States, the reports are very parochial, with no comparison to other counties. Here is a table of scores on similar tests given around the world. We Americans do relatively well on a lot of the questions (although that sometimes means we’re about as bad as most other countries). The one big exception is when Americans are asked about the origin of the universe and of our species.


Thanks to readers!

Just wanted to thank readers who recently sent me requests for signed bookplates. To make sure that I was dealing with human readers, instead of Ebay robots, I asked folks to send me a picture. Here are a few.

The offer continues to stand: if you’ve gotten a book of mine and want to get it signed, I’ve printed up bookplates appropriate to each title.  Email a picture with your mailing address and any special signing request.

The tedious inevitability of Nobel Prize disputes

Once more we are going through the annual ritual of the Nobel Prize announcements. The early morning phone calls, the expressions of shock, the gnashing of teeth in the betting pools. In the midst of the hoopla, I got an annoyed email on Tuesday from an acquaintance of mine, an immunology grad student named Kevin Bonham. Bonham thought there was something wrong with this year’s Prize for Medicine or Physiology. It should have gone to someone else.

Kevin lays out the story in a new post on his blog, We Beasties.  The prize, he writes, “was given to a scientist that many feel is undeserving of the honor, while at the same time sullying the legacy of my scientific great-grandfather.” Read the rest of the post to see why he feels this way.

Kevin emailed me while he was writing up the blog post. He wondered if I would be interested in writing about this controversy myself, to give it more prominence. I passed. Even if I weren’t trying to carry several deadlines on my head at once, I would still pass. As I explained to Kevin, I tend to steer clear of Nobel controversies, because I think the prize is, by definition, a lousy way to recognize important science. All the rules about having to be alive to win it, about how there can be no more than three winners–along with the lack of prizes for huge swaths of important scientific disciplines–make these kinds of disputes both inevitable and tedious.

The people behind the Nobel Prize, I should point out, have done a lot of good. Their web site is a fine repository of information about the history of science. I’ve tapped it many times while working on books and articles. There’s also something pleasing to see the world drawn, for a couple days at least, to the underappreciated byways of science. If the Nobel Prize makes more people aware of quasicrystals, the Prize is doing something unquestionably wonderful.

But the vehicle that delivers this good is fundamentally absurd. Take the rule that no more than three people can win an award. This year’s prize for physics went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess for their work on the accelerating expansion of the universe. Half went to Perlmutter, and a quarter went to Riess and Schmidt. But, of course, scientists do not work in troikas. It wouldn’t even make sense to say that three people could accept the prize on behalf of three labs. Science is a stupendously complex social undertaking, in which scientists typically become part of shifting networks over the course of many years. And those networks are not just made up of happy friends collaborating on projects together. Rivals racing for the same goal can actually speed the pace towards discovery. Now, some individual scientists are certainly remarkable people. But the Nobel Prize doesn’t merely recognize them for being remarkable individuals. The citations link each person to a discovery, as if there was some sort of equivalence between the two.

In his wonderful book The 4% Percent Universe, Richard Panek describes the history of the research that led to this year’s physics prize. I read the book to review it for the Washington Post, and I was particularly taken by a story at the end. In 2007, the Gruber Prize, the highest prize for cosmology research, was awarded for the research. Schmidt haggled with the prize committee until they agreed to widen the prize to all 51 scientists who had been involved in the two rival teams. Thirty-five of them traveled to Cambridge for the ceremony. It would have been fun to watch Schmidt go up against the Nobel Prize committee. He would have lost, of course, but at least he would have made an important point.

Should scientists get credit for great work? Of course. But that’s what history is for. Charles Darwin and Leonardo da Vinci never got the Nobel Prize, but somehow we still manage to remember them as important figures anyway. The time that’s spent arguing over whether someone should get fifty percent of a prize or twenty-five percent or zero percent could be spent on much better things. Like more science.

[Update: Revised post to clarify that the prize was for research on the acceleration of the universe, not the dark energy many think is driving the acceleration.]

We'd rather sell than pack!

The Zimmer clan is preparing for some renovations to the house, which means boxing up all my books. We’ve got a particularly tall stack of copies of my first book, At the Water’s Edge: Fish with Fingers, Whales With Legs, and How Life Came Ashore and Went Back to the Sea. We’d rather sell these books than pack them. And so, from today till Friday, I’ll be offering autographed copies at my Amazon store for the low, low price of $5. (Imagine me shouting all this, Crazy-Eddie style.)

If you’re not familiar with the book, you can check out its carlzimmer.com page or check out this review in Times Higher Education, in which the reviewer writes, “It is wicked, I know, but I have the habit of turning over the corners of pages whenever I chance upon something unexpectedly interesting, exciting or informative. Zimmer’s At the Water’s Edge quickly became the most dog-eared book on my shelves.”

Update 5/16 9:50 am: Whoa! I put this post up this morning before I caught at cab to LAX. By the time I got through security at the airport, all the sale copies were sold out. Many thanks for helping us with our home renovation!

I’ll be back home on Thursday, at which point, we’ll see whether we can’t clear some more space. In the meantime, you can still check out other autographed titles in my Amazon store.

"Treasure your exceptions"

“If I may throw out a word of counsel to beginners, it is: Treasure your exceptions! When there are none, the work gets so dull that no one cares to carry it further. Keep them always uncovered and in sight. Exceptions are like the rough brickwork of a growing building which tells that there is more to come and shows where the next construction is to be.”

William Bateson, in The Method and Scope of Genetics, 1908. [pdf]

[Image: National Portrait Gallery]

Ashes to Ashes, Soap to Soap (Or Maybe Ashes to Soap)

To make soap, you must mix grease or fat with lye or some other alkaline substance. Sometimes, however, the stuff makes itself. If, for example, water laced with alkaline soil seeps into a coffin, it can transform a human body into soap. (This cadaver soap is known as grave wax or adipocere.) Here’s a picture of a “soapman” in the collection of National Museum of Natural History in Washington, just posted in the Smithsonian’s “Snapshot Series.” It belongs to a man who was buried in Philadelphia around 1800. His body was discovered in 1875 during an excavation to build a train depot. This particular example of grave wax is kept under lock and key in the museum’s “Dry Environment room,” so this is the closest you’ll get to seeing it. But if you want to see grave wax in person, be sure to get to the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which keeps its eerie “Soap Lady” under glass.

Help a science teacher, o mighty hive-mind

Chris Farnsworth, a seventh-grade science teacher with an awesome tattoo, has a question for which I’d also like an answer…

Do you know of a good place to find popular science writing for middle and high school students? I wind up using the same places, like Discover, or The Best American Science Writing, but I feel like I am in hit-or-miss mode. Any ideas?

The end of Sex Week and the start of SciFoo

I hope you enjoyed Sex Week (in a purely intellectual way, of course). I’m now off to a confab called SciFoo, which I’ve heard a lot about over the years and am now finally able to attend. Each year, Google and O’Reilly Media bring together a motley crew of scientists, writers, and others, and basically tell them to make up a conference on the spot. There are a whole bunch of people on the attendee list that I’ve waited years to meet in person, so it will definitely be worth the trip to California. But if there are any SciFoo vets out there with advice for making the most of the experience, I’d love to hear it.

I will try to report on my experience, either in a measured reflection next week, or in a torrent of half-baked tweets.

And You Are…? [Feeding the Meme]

A couple years ago, Ed Yong, blogger/whippersnapper, asked his readers to describe themselves in a comment thread. It was a very successful experiment, one that many science bloggers have since replicated. Now Ed’s reviving the meme, which seems as good a time as any for me to join in (especially after a day so hot that my brain was parboiled inside my skull like some exotic delicacy). So, to quote from the memester:

In the comments below, tell me who you are, what your background is and what you do. What’s your interest in science and your involvement with it? How did you come to this blog, how long have you been reading, what do you think about it, and how could it be improved?

But really, these questions are a rough guide. I’m working on the basis that what you have to say will be far more interesting than what I think you might say.

So…who goes there? I’m curious.