A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Life Magnified

If you travel through Dulles Airport in the near future, you may see some lovely scientific images on the walls. It’s an exhibit called “Life: Magnified,” organized by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, the American Society for Cell Biology and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s Arts Program. If you aren’t passing through Dulles, you can see the images on the web.

Here are a few of my favorites. You can see high-resolution versions on the web site, plus many others.

First, the mouthparts of a Lone Star tick (an awesome beast):

Mouth parts of a lone star tick. Igor Siwanowicz, Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, Va.
Igor Siwanowicz, Janelia Farm Research Campus, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Ashburn, Va.

Neurons in the cerebellum, a region of the brain:

Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego
Thomas Deerinck, National Center for Microscopy and Imaging Research, University of California, San Diego

HIV (yellow) attacks an immune cell (blue):

Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health
Seth Pincus, Elizabeth Fischer and Austin Athman, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

New yeast emerge after two yeast cells have sex:

Juergen Berger, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, and Maria Langegger, Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society, Germany
Juergen Berger, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, and Maria Langegger, Friedrich Miescher Laboratory of the Max Planck Society, Germany

Hairs on a gecko lizard’s toes, allowing them to stick to walls:

Dennis Kunkel, Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.
Dennis Kunkel, Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.

An ovary from an anglerfish:

James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, Pa.
James E. Hayden, The Wistar Institute, Philadelphia, Pa.


A Blog by Carl Zimmer

What Dolly Wrought: Retro Report Looks at Cloning

Last month I blogged about Retro Report, a new outfit that produces deeply researched videos that bring history up to date. I found today’s report especially interesting, as it explores some of the same material I wrote about in my piece for National Geographic about de-extinction in April. The Retro Report team looks at the sensation caused back in 1997 by Dolly, the cloned sheep. All of the scare-mongering about armies of zombie clones has blotted out people’s understanding of cloning’s actual history, its disappointments, and its big impacts today.

I’ve embedded it below; you can also see it here.

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Retro Report Looks At the Afterlife of Thalidomide

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the great work at Retro Report in looking back at news stories that were in the headlines decades ago. It was especially gratifying to see all the science they’ve delved into. This morning, they unveiled another fascinating look at the history of science. It’s on the drug thalidomide, which caused dramatic birth defects to children’s arms and legs in the 1950s and led to the modern regulation of medicine.”The Shadow of Thalidomide” features interviews  with the victims of the drug and scientists who discovered new medical uses for it.

Thalidomide’s unexpected benefits actually go beyond medicine. It can also reveal hints about the mystery of how arms and legs develop normally. I wrote about this research for the New York Times.

Here’s the video:

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

The Second Draft of the History of Science

I’ve been hearing good things for a while now about Retro Report, a journalism project that produces 10-to-20-minute-long videos about what happened to big headline stories from decades ago. I’m now gobbling up my Monday morning watching their backlist. It’s excellent stuff, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I like it. I think it’s because the programs get beyond the simple “Where Are They Now?” format. The journalists who make the pieces really report the stories–they go back and find people who were in the midst of the news to interview them, and then they discover the surprising course of the story after it fell away from the world’s attention.

What really surprised me about Retro Report is that most of their categories are related in one way or another science. I write about new scientific research, and so my job requires me to keep my eyes locked on the future, trying to figure out what some discovery or invention will mean to generations to come. And the longer you spend in this job, the more you start asking yourself, “Hey, what happened to…?” In many cases, things quietly take an unexpected–but revealing–turn. Retro Report shows that going back to a story about science can reveal important lessons about what’s going on today, but ones you may not have predicted.

Here, for example, is a piece about a GMO tomato that turned up in supermarkets way back in 1994. People went hysterical over the Flavr Savr tomato, either as an evil plot or the salvation of our food supply. After the cameras were shut off and the reporters went away, the company that made the tomato struggled to make a business out of it and quietly sold their patent off to GMO giant Monsanto, which then quietly shut the project down–arguably because it was boldly labeled in stores as genetically modified. Since then, Monsanto has gone on to make big profits on GMO plants by making farmers their customers, not consumers.

Here’s another piece, called Crack Babies. In the 1980s, people got frantically worried that crack-addicted women would give birth to a generation of brain-damaged infants. The idea–based on some preliminary research–turned out to be wrong. Yet it became a wildly successful meme, perhaps because it involved a then-new drug and perhaps because crack addicts were mostly poor blacks. Retro Report rightly asks why we never talk about the threat of “Booze Babies,” when alcohol is more harmful during pregnancy than crack.

These videos remind us forcefully that the real meaning of stories about science takes time to unfold. That is very hard to remember, because there’s something intoxicating about a new science story. Suddenly some great truth about the world seems to be unveiled. That truth can be terrifying, or elating. I can’t count all the emails I’ve gotten when I’ve written a story about some very preliminary research on a disease, from people who suffer from the disease and want to know where they can go to get cured.

In reality, a lot of science-related conclusions fall apart or have to be revised in later years. Science itself is starting to grapple with its flaws, with papers like “Most Published Research Findings Are False.” On the other hand, some findings gain strength over the years, as more and more evidence supports them. But those studies pile up like sand grains, and so it’s easy for journalists to overlook them, even after they’ve grown into a mountain.

I hope Retro Report does more investigations into science. They’re wonderful history lessons, and they also help people think more realistically about today’s news.

Other science stories include:

Summer of Fire: How this year’s massive forest fires are part of a 25-year trend, due in part to human activity.

Biosphere 2, the sealed building that was supposed to become self-sufficient and instead went wrong in a fascinating way.

Y2K, the computer bug that terrified the world in 1999 with the prospect of computers shutting down on New Years Day.

Voyage of the Mobro 4000: an ill-fated voyage of a garbage barge that gave rise to the recycling movement.

(P.S.: Retro Report is a non-profit project. The New York Times, where I’m a columnist, distributes Retro Report, but I’ve not had any dealings with them aside from as a viewer.)

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Ben Goldacre on more bad data: this time from drug companies

This morning I was accused of writing “corporate sponsored blogs whoring themselves out to all and sundry.” Actually, I was arguing that science writers have a duty to call out weak science and press manipulation rather than cave into it. That applies to any kind of research. I happened to be talking about research on genetically modified foods and their health risks. But it applies just as well to pharmaceutical corporations that deep-six drug trials that don’t support their drugs. The most eloquent critic of this bad behavior is Ben Goldacre. You can watch this video of a TED talk he recently gave on the subject, read this essay in the Guardian, or pre-order his new book, Bad Pharma.

If highlighting Goldacre’s vital work means I have to return my gold-plated corporate-whore Corvette, so be it.

[Update: Guardian link fixed, book title fixed]

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Retraction Watch in the Boston Globe: Make Science More Transparent

As I blogged yesterday, I have a story in the New York Times today about some scientists who are calling for a reformation of science, pointing to troubling indicators such as the rise in retractions of scientific papers.

As any sane journalist would do, I consulted the fantastic Retraction Watch, written by Adam Marcus (left) and Ivan Oransky, while working on my own piece. I also called Oransky for his thoughts on the argument I was describing, championed by, among others, Ferric Fang of the University of Washington and Arturo Casadevall of Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Oransky was a huge help. But by the time my editor and I had shaped the story to fit in the paper, only a brief mention and a link to Retraction remained. Oransky’s own opinions were left behind on the cutting room floor. Fortunately, he knows that floor very well, having swung the journalism scimitar plenty of times himself as the executive editor at Reuters Health.

Even more fortunately, the Boston Globe has published some extended reflections from Oransky and Marcus on what retractions mean for the state of science. Check it out.

[Image: Retraction Watch]

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

A Smithsonian Q & A with E. O. Wilson: complete with outtakes

Smithsonian recently asked me to interview Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson about his new book, The Social Conquest of Earth. You can read the Q & A on their web site. 

Wilson and I spoke for quite a while, covering wide range of subjects. One particularly interest part of the talk addressed his ongoing attack on a major aspect of modern evolutionary theory, known as inclusive fitness. I reported on his attacks–and the response of his critics–in the New York Times in 2010.

Basically, most evolutionary biologists believe that a great deal of behavior–including altruistic behavior–can be explained by the way genes get passed down among relatives. If you help your cousins, some of your genes will get transmitted even if you have no kids of your own. Wilson and his colleagues at Harvard, Martin Nowak and Corina Tarnita, argue instead that inclusive fitness doesn’t make mathematical sense and is unnecessary. Wilson holds that good old natural selection on individuals can explain a lot, and he also argues for selection on higher levels. Groups of organisms–human tribes, for example–can be selected for their group-level traits.

In the year and a half since my article, his critics have counterattacked. If you want to see why they think he’s wrong, I’d recommend reading five fiery posts by University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne at his web site Why Evolution Is True: 1, 2, 34, 5.

For those who have been following this scrum, I thought I would include a portion of the conversation that did not end up in the final version, focusing on Wilson’s response to critics. It goes pretty deep in the biological weeds, and it doesn’t read smoothly, because both of us would stop in mid-sentence to make ourselves clear to each other. (I’ve trimmed a few really incomprehensible dead ends.) But if you just can’t enough of the Hamilton Inequality, enjoy:

Q:  When you presented your ideas in that Nature paper in 2010 with Novak and Tarnita, a number of scientists responded–over 150 scientists responded both in Nature and then in some other journals as well, taking issue with your argument. They said that inclusive fitness was, in fact, a very powerful and legitimate explanation. Had you anticipated that kind of response?

A:  Yes. (Laughter) It’s just that the inclusive fitness theory had persisted as the correct and prevailing theory for almost four decades. And the ones who were animated most of course were those who were working in the field, trying to perfect it and using it to explain social behavior.

But there were two things wrong, and this is what I was pointing out over a period of four years, and finally came to a more definitive form in the Nature paper. First, as the mathematicians showed, the basic foundations of the inclusive fitness theory are unsound. The Hamilton Inequality does not work except in extreme conditions that scarcely exist on earth. And inclusive fitness is a phantom measure which seems intuitively right but which simply doesn’t exist in any form that could ever be measured.

And that being the case, then we should look more carefully at just what has been accomplished with inclusive fitness theory. Extremely little, in quantitative terms. And most of the applications that have been made–and they’re made over and over again to make up the main corpus of literature on inclusive fitness theory–applies to degrees of conflicts of societies, which vary inversely with the degree of relatedness among individuals. I’ve been able to show that there is a perfectly good set of alternative biological hypotheses to explain that. That’s in my part of this article, in Nature, but I went into much more detail in an earlier paper in Bioscience.

Even the applications of inclusive fitness theory are not necessarily the only ones that can be made. I have argued that ones from an individual-level or group-level selection–or the interaction between the two–provide superior fits. And further, the multi-level selection model allows us to explore and explain a great deal more phenomena. And I expect that to be shown as work goes on. I think it’s particularly relevant to the explanation of the social behavior in humans.

Q:  Just to take one example that the critics raised, they talked about how inclusive fitness theory makes a prediction about sex allocation, about the investment in different sexes in the offspring. And they say this is something that inclusive fitness predicts and we’ve gone out and we’ve done a lot of tests to see if that’s true and they find these ratios in lots of animals as predicted by that theory. When they make that sort of argument, what’s your response?

A: It’s a little bit like Ptolemaic astronomy: epicycles will always give the exact results if you’re willing to add them. And in this case–I have pointed this out as well–there’s a flaw in the reasoning about the studies of investment, particularly in whether you invest more in males or females in the social insect societies.

If you have only one female who is queen in the colony, and if that queen has mated only once so that her offspring are that close, then you should see because of the implications of haploid/diploid, the way sex is determined in ants, bees, wasps. You should see a favoring of investment in new queens, over investment in males as measured by the amount of biomass. And that inequality does exist and it should be three to one investment in the weight. And that has been what is thought to be a very powerful argument.

However, this I believe has a major flaw in the reasoning. The colony wishes to make an investment in males versus females in numbers that would be most advantageous in having a female successfully mated, when they leave the nest to get mated, bees, ants, wasps. And therefore, the colony should be trying to get something closer to a one-to-one investment.

And since females are much bigger–they have to have all that fats and ovary and so on–and males are much smaller because in most of these social insects. All they have to do is find a female, deliver their sperm, and die. So the males are much smaller.

This means then that getting a one-to-one ratio in sex that is the same as you see throughout the rest of the animal kingdom, means that you will be having to invest much more in the females when you invest in males. And actually when you make that hypothesis, use that principle, which is the obvious one, then that comes closer to the actual figures we have in the biomass investment.

They [Wilson’s critics] may dispute that, but my point is that they did not by any means find a testing ground on which the old theory could stand or fall. It’s in my view a much simpler and more precise explanation to use the argument of one to one ratios of male and female.

Q:  One other thing that critics have brought up is they claim that there are no new predictions in the argument that you and your colleagues set forth. Are there predictions that you can make from this different view of social evolution?

A:  My book, The Social Conquest of Earth, is filled with them.

Q:  What would be a couple predictions?

A:  You mean in terms of group versus individual level selection? Yeah. What it is, is more of a…Rather than an a-prioristic application of group selection as it is the use of group selection to explain what actually happened. And that is, you piece together only by the close examination of the biology of the various stages leading up to advanced social behavior. That’s the best I can say right now.

Multi-level selection theory is undeveloped, essentially, most undeveloped because it has been almost abandoned due to the dominance of inclusive fitness theory. I think inclusive fitness theory has been rejected and now we have every reason to return to a multi level selection theory and develop it. And Martin Novak is beginning to do that to some extent and to develop a rejuvenated, multilevel selection theory.

So I think at this point multi-level selection now is open to development without the inhibition of inclusive fitness theory–may I use the expression the deadweight of inclusive fitness theory?—will, I believe, from this point on be developed and tested in a proper way.

Photo by On Being via Creative Commons

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Gutenberg, the Solar System, and Biological Cities: New Reviews at Download the Universe

Here’s the latest batch of reviews from Download the Universe. Check out these science ebooks:

Living Architecture: How Synthetic Biology Can Remake Our Cities: A contemplation of how tinkering with cells can change civilization.

The Solar System: An interactive guide to the planets.

Gutenberg the Geek: How the explosion of the Internet today mirrors the birth of movable type.

Natural History: Mammals – Carnivores: Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!

The Stir of Waters: Radiation, Risk, and the Radon Spa of Jáchymov. A journey to a bizarre resort where people bathe in radioactive waters.

A Blog by Carl Zimmer

Take the Flame Challenge

Alan Alda has come up with an excellent contest for scientists:

Answer the question, “What is a flame?”

Here’s the catch. The audience for the answer is 11-year-olds. Writing this week in Science (free pdf), Alda recalls how he asked this question to his science teacher when he was 11. The answer he got was, “It’s oxidation.”

Accurate, but not enlightening. This, of course, is a challenge that science writers face every day–how to use everyday language to convey insights that scientists describe to each other and students with precise, but often obscure, terminology.

It’s not easy for experienced writers to do this, and it can be even harder for scientists who are just starting to communicate to a broad audience. When I teach workshops for science graduate students, I force them to do without a long list of jargon. (The Index of Banned Words) I want them to think of plain-English alternatives and mind-lifting metaphors instead.

It can be a struggle for them to resist those words. The most vivid way I can illustrate the struggle is to pick someone at random at a workshop and ask, “What do you  do?”

Simple enough to ask, but remarkably hard to answer. All the people I’ve picked have been investigating fascinating stuff, from subconscious priming to nanotechnology to coral reefs. And yet they manage to give me answers that are both boring and vague–and peppered with those banned words. So I just keep asking them to try again until we get to the heart of things–an answer that’s accurate, but also conveys to a non-scientist why their research is interesting, important, and inspiring enough to keep them working insane hours on it.

Alda has thought a lot about these issues as well; he’s on the advisory board of the Center for Science Communication at Stony Brook University. And he hopes, through his “Flame Challenge” to get more scientists to think about them as well. Here are the rules for his contest:

1. Answer the question — “What is a flame?” — in a way an 11-year-old will find intelligible and maybe even fun.

2. Answers will be screened for accuracy by scientists, then judged by a panel of 11-year-olds.

3. Answers can be submitted through April 2, 2012. [Click here for the entry form.]

4. The winning entry will be unveiled at a special event at the World Science Festival in New York in June. The winner will get VIP tickets to the Festival, along with a Flame Challenge T-shirt, and the gratitude of a nation of 11-year-olds.

5. Finalist entries, as well as the winning entry, will be posted on the Flame Challenge website:www.flamechallenge.org

6. Entries can be written, spoken (on video), or told through graphics.

7. There is no limit on length, but remember – brevity is the soul of wit, particularly when the 11-year-old has a cell phone, an X-Box, a Facebook habit, etc.

May the best explanation win…

[Image: Photo by qisur on Flickr, via Creative Commons]