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An Amazing Race

28 May

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Part of the drama in any race is figuring out which team to cheer for. Looking back on the quest to reach the South Pole nearly a century ago, it’s a seesaw between two teams with different goals. On one side is the single-minded consummate planner, Norwegian Roald Amundsen, who learned about travel and survival from the Inuit and built a village in the ice– sauna included. Then there’s the Englishman Robert Falcon Scott, a man who valued science as well as the bragging rights of being first.

In the new American Museum of Natural History exhibit, Race to the End of the Earth , which opens on Saturday (I got  an early peek at a press preview this week), the visitor gets a chance to follow the journey of those first teams to reach the South Pole. I knew the winner already, but I didn’t know the compelling story of the journey– An Original Amazing Race, without the reality TV trappings. A twisting comparative timeline forms the spine of the exhibit, and it becomes increasingly clear as you traverse it how sound planning and single-mindedness ultimately triumphed. But the exhibit also highlights the achievements of Scott, the man also interested in understanding the science and natural history of this alien continent. The research stations in Antarctica feel like the legacy of the man who came in second.

Scott comes off as the sentimental favorite, particularly when you read his final notes– when he knew he would not survive– to his friends, his colleagues, and his wife and baby son. (Besides getting there first, Amundsen and all his men survived.) But you also wonder at some of his planning choices: bringing ponies to haul sleds in Antarctica? having his men drag sleds laden with food and supplies over hundreds of miles? Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but those choices feel like part folly, part hubris.

The exhibit does the story justice. It’s hard to imagine such bitter cold and nearly intolerable conditions, but at the same time. But I’m thinking of the magic of being among “the first” to see emperor penguins, to traverse this mysterious place and begin to understand its compelling and dangerous secrets.

Scientist hobbies and grand gestures

25 May

Scientific research can seem all-consuming, and sometimes it is. But I think one critical component of creativity is to have an outside hobby that allows you to get your head out of the game for a little while. So, when I saw this article in the latest issue of the HHMI Bulletin, I felt the need to share Harvard Medical School’s Amy Wagers high-flying hobby. I love that she was willing to share her trapeze-loving side of herself. Being a stem cell researcher takes guts, so it’s not all that surprising to me that she likes the adrenaline rush.

Wagers had always loved heights, but her spontaneous foray into trapeze made her curious to try other sky-high stunts. When she and another junior faculty member at Harvard collaborated on their first paper and got positive comments from Nature, Wagers came up with a plan: “If this very first paper for both of us gets in,” she told her collaborator, “we’re going skydiving.” The paper was accepted, and Wagers booked a sky dive in Newport, Rhode Island. Though her collaborator conveniently forgot the date of the booking, Wagers went ahead and jumped. “Then I decided whenever my lab had an important paper published, I would go skydiving.”

Most research laboratories have some way to celebrate major milestones– maybe a champagne toast. I have no personal desire to jump out of a plane, but I really love her approach. Major accomplishments deserve recognition, and skydiving is a grand gesture. If I were her collaborator, I’d probably be tempted to chicken out. But if I did, I also think I’d regret it.

Blogathon Haiku day

24 May

As part of the WordCount Blogathon, today we’re all embarking on haiku posts. I really should let my inner science poet out a little more often. Today, I decided to riff on the my writing process of taking my research– the papers I’ve read, the experts I’ve talked with– and synthesizing that mix into a science article. It’s a dance: you have to process what you’ve learned, decide what to leave in, what to take out, and wrap the whole thing in an attractive flowing package. Doubt lingers every time I begin this journey, but I’m still swimming on the other side.

My haiku:

drowning in detail

pulling the puzzle apart

story now complete

Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

14 May

Webb of Science needs a breather, so I’ve decided to repost my inaugural post from the 2009 blogathon about problem-solving in both science and writing. I still love what I do, the puzzle of pulling words together. Last year and this year, blogging each day in May reminds me of old lessons and teaches me new ones: learning isn’t just about thinking but doing. And, on a personal side note, it looks like my husband was right.

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

I got a phone call from my husband a few weeks ago when he was away doing dissertation research. “Well, I’ve had an epiphany,” he says. “I’ve realized why what I’m doing won’t work.” This explanation was so logical, delightfully simple. I’m sure he’s right, though he now has to rejigger his experiments.

After we got off the phone, I could have been disappointed (Logically, every partner of a Ph.D. student hopes that experiments will move quickly rather than slowly). But I’ve also slogged through PhD-dom myself, so I was actually excited. Why? Because that moment and his clear idea took me back to the joy of research that kept me going through the slog. Strangely the best moments of my Ph.D. were actually when I somehow managed to step back after weeks, months, or years, and had the clarity to look at the problem from a different perspective. Suddenly, after weeks, months or even years of approaching a problem as the same-old, same-old, I’d know exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Of course, each of those moments led to mounds of hard work, but always taught me something new. I learned new purification techniques and found new collaborations with other smart people. And I was suddenly trying to do chemical reactions in water. Mother Nature is a master at water-based chemistry– human beings, well, we have a few million years to catch up on. Continue reading

Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

11 May

View of the Gulf Oil Slick from the Terra satellite Credit: NASA/Earth Observatory/Jesse Allen, using data provided courtesy of the University of Wisconsin’s Space Science and Engineering Center MODIS Direct Broadcast system.

How much? It’s one of those basic journalism questions, but when it comes to many science stories, it can be a tough one to answer in meaningful way. In most of my writing and reporting, I’m trying to find analogies to describe features smaller than the eye can see. But on the macroscale– like with the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico– comparisons are equally challenging.

This weekend, NPR’s On The Media looked at how reporters have characterized the size, scope, and political implications of this environmental disaster. Here’s a piece of the size discussion:

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jackie Savitz, a senior scientist with Oceana, an international ocean conservation association, says that describing the scale of the leak in geographical terms, or how it looks from outer space, gives the public an incomplete understanding of the spill’s true dimension.

JACKIE SAVITZ: It may paint a picture of an area on the surface of the ocean that’s the size of Delaware, to the exclusion of all that area down below the surface, where lots of fish and other marine animals live who are also being exposed to the contamination. It might be more telling to think of it in terms of volume, like how many Olympic-sized pools is that or how many stadiums would that be, or what lake might that be equivalent to.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Does the fact that can see it from space actually convey anything meaningful?

JACKIE SAVITZ: Most people don’t really have a sense of how far away space is, and even when you say it I’m not really sure how far away you’re talking about. Is it a satellite that’s circling the Earth or are you seeing it from the moon, right?

Yet another reminder to think carefully about analogies to thread that needle between cliche and useful comparison.

Listen to the whole segment here.

Five great science blogs

10 May

Blogging is tricky and developing a good one requires both a command of the topic and a unique and entertaining angle. That’s a tough balance, but as far as I’m concerned, each of these five science blogs get it right.

  • Not Exactly Rocket Science: Written by British science writer Ed Yong, the majority of these posts are based on a single scientific study. Yong finds some new quirky finding and describes what it means for the everyday person. Though science journalists often lament that science news is disappearing, this is one format where reporting on new studies is alive and well.
  • I think of Pillownaut as the classic weblog. As an astronaut for NASA, she has a fascinating job and she’s entertaining. As a result, the journal concept works. I want to hear exactly what she’s thinking about.
  • Cocktail Party Physics: I’ve never met Jennifer Ouellette, but anyone who writes about both science and Buffy the Vampire Slayer gets serious props in my book. This blog involves a few other contributors, too, but it really is my favorite type of conversation, the rambling type that you might have at a bar or party with a smart new friend.
  • Science journalist Carl Zimmer has won a major science journalism award for his blog, the Loom. It’s exactly the right mix of telling his readers where he’ll be appearing next, new science information, and a wonderful gallery of science-based tattoos.
  • At Smithsonian’s Surprising Science blog, Sarah Zielinski also serves up news along with analysis. I particularly like a recent post where she picked up on a  study in which a researcher argued that animals filmed in documentaries have a right to privacy. I tend to agree with her that any violation of privacy is probably outweighed by the increased public awareness for the needs of animals, but I’m glad she highlighted it.

With so many great science blogs out there, what are your favorites?

That’s a (particle physics) rap

8 May

For the remaining Saturdays in the blogathon, I’m featuring creative and fun science videos. This one made the online rounds a few years ago, but it’s still one of the best general explanations of the Large Hadron Collider that I’ve seen. And, it’s catchy, too.

Check out the rapper, alpinekat, also known as Kate McAlpine.

Triple digits!

7 May

No, I’m not riffing on 10 squared, or even the the discovery that DNA sequences called genes are combined into packets called chromosomes (100 years ago).

No, today marks this blog’s 100th post.

I’ve offered my own version of how to become a science writer (in 10 not-so-easy guidelines) and the cultural divide between my new world and the old one. I’ve written about my favorite Mars rover, my Monopoly money bet on Spirit, and her transition to stationary science station.

Here are a few other favorites:

I’m looking forward to the next hundred.

Brilliantly beautiful bee nests

6 May

nest constructed by female bee, Osima avosetta, by J.G. Rozen, AMNH

I tend to think of bees in hives, but three out of four species of these pollinators strike out on their own. A newly discovered species, O. avosetta, lines its underground nests with flower petals. Two teams of researchers found these unusual nests in Turkey and in Iran.

From the American Museum of Natural History press release:

“In this species, a female shingles the wall of her brood chambers with large pieces of petals or with whole petals, often of many hues,” says Jerome Rozen, curator in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at the Museum. “Unfortunately, her larvae never enjoy the brilliant colors of the nest’s walls because they have no eyes—and, anyhow, they would need a flashlight!”

Hat tip to NPR— Read more about how these bees make the nests and see more amazing flower nest photos.

Whales, mate!

5 May

I can’t imagine not being awed by massive air-breathing creatures that move through the water. Whales are smart creatures that live in a dark, alternative Earth-world, where sound is the dominant sense.

This weekend I got a chance to see this wonderful exhibition from New Zealand— complete with two sperm whale skeletons and a life-size model of a blue whale’s heart– at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (I’ve mentioned the blue whale replica at AMNH before. The heart replica blows your mind in the same way– an adult person can fit inside). Check out the first part of this video.

Continue reading