As is often the case, my inspiration for this piece arose from a short opening in the deadlines and an extended travel block: California to New York, originally planned as an overnight flight that turned into a 27-hour saga that then merged into a New York-to-Paris trip. I started this piece while soaring over London as the sun rose on my unplanned back-to-back overnight flights. I finished it on a train, hurtling across southern France.
For those that have been following this set of occasional observations and comments, mostly on optics and/or history; this one is a bit informal. Whenever I am surprised by a topic, I write about it, so that perhaps you can be surprised too. Here is this week’s surprise.
We are perhaps a bit different in the amount of reading material that seems to flow into the house, much of which I never get past glancing at the cover as I bring it up from the mailbox. Sometimes a topic of debate, “Do we need all these magazines?” I keep thinking every now and then that one of the teenagers in our household will spontaneously engage with Science or Nature (in some of its many flavors), or The New Yorker, Wired, The Economist, Forbes, National Geographic, Smithsonian, or even Toyota Trails, a monthly for the Land Cruiser enthusiast. So far, these never seem to flow out of the house, forming stacks wherever the floor provides an opening.
So, as we were exiting the house, I grabbed the recent Science, Economist, and MIT Technology (Google glasses, perhaps a blog in my future, but not today). With a 6-hour layover in Chicago, and not enough sleep to be productive, I actually read this week’s issue of Science cover to cover. Although I’ve been getting Science for over five years, this was a unique experience and seemed worthy of discussion.
I’ve always marveled at Science as a weekly magazine. It somehow exists in a world removed from the optics journals. What I found striking is how it is formatted as an engaging discussion, rather than a report of results. Assuming this is a representative issue, since it was selected at random, I was struck by how far it extended into the social implications of science. As I may have mentioned in a past piece, one of the most influential books in my early reading was Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, whose premise is there are scientists/technologists, and then there is everyone else. This was one of the few cases where I went out a few months back, bought a copy (I seemed to have loaned out my original paperback from some 40+ years ago), and presented it to the older teen with an earnest pitch, but to no avail.
Returning to the main track, here is Science, pages 1477-1606, reporting directly on the influence and I might dare say the impact of science, right now, right outside the window, on the world, with emphasis on world. I am now intrigued to go back to the early stacks, down in the lower level of the house, to see if this is an evolution in the forum. The editors and those who set the vision of this journal are to be commended for their vision. How they are so successful in extracting from the deluge is a mystery to me.
Assuming you are not like me and do not have stacks of unread copies of Science scattered about your abode, let me give you a flavor of this issue to bring context and perhaps inspire you to drift into your local library and read a copy sometime this summer (I’m not sure you can buy this magazine on the newsstand).
As with most of my reading, I engaged from the back to the front. Not sure what that is about, but I thought to repeat it here for the full experience. First (or in the case of the magazine itself last), are the closing set of commercials. They are all urging me to grab my iPad/tablet and check out careers in science, opportunities for women is science (sponsored by L’Oreal, as I like to say, who knew), unusual careers in science, and the all-important (and pricey, if you have ever tried to place an ad for your services in such a place) back cover is urging me to give up on my need for paper and get with it and reset my interaction with information to be exclusively in tablet space. I admit, I haven’t gone there yet, although there appears to be a strange, flat device that I sometimes see buried amongst the latest onslaught of journals in the house. I am beginning to think that this transition, like the Internet itself, is inevitable, and becoming perhaps even a necessary evil, or asset, a point that remains to be seen.
In Science magazine, the title of every article is juxtaposed with the content, which is unusually well engineered to be clear. The title of very single article is clearly meant to impress anyone who happens to be sitting next to you on the airplane, as in, “Look at what they are reading!” An example title is, “The lac Repressor Displays Facilitated Diffusion in Living Cells.” To some extent, this is exactly why I am writing this piece. I actually read this article and felt I had some idea what the message was. How could this be? It is, I believe, the format. Much like Nature, which we are trying to submit to (again), graphics are a dominant use of real estate. Over half of most pages is not a figure I would have extracted from my last PowerPoint talk on the subject, but rather, for lack of a better word, very complete conceptual presentations. The pictures are teaching you what you need to put this information in the context of your life. The other major editorial impact on relevance is that nearly all articles in both Science and Nature are exactly three pages long. Three pages and one of those consists of graphics. It points to the fact that in today’s onslaught, our attention span is very close to three pages, something I should probably note at this point and wrap this up.
As a quick wrap-up, this is what I learned from Vol. 336 of Science:
- Fewer red foxes means more Lyme disease. We have a fox den under our library, which this year produced 5 foxlets, unfortunately, if last year’s outcome is a leading indicator, they have not yet adapted genetically to cars, hence the spread of Lyme disease.
- The collective weight of all adults in the world is 287 million tonnes. That trivia must be good for something.
- The NIH has proposed completely revamping what they fund to focus more on training graduate students in management and entrepreneurship (yet another future blog).
- NASA launched NuSTAR last week (another who knew), to study X-rays and black holes using “133 layers of glass” on a 30 foot mast – this one I do have to track down.
- A nice article on “Curiosity,” to land on Mars, in August, definitely worthy of watching live, excellent graphics, but will it work this time? On the last, failed attempt, the computer detected the landing gear snapping in place as contact with the ground and shut down the thrusters, resulting in a 40 meter free fall, which even with Martian gravity was enough to kill years of dedication. Almost as frustrating as the units conversion error of a few years ago I would expect. This was matched with what appears to be a very public debate about whether methane has been detected on Mars – a big deal if yes.
- There is a potentially cool book out there on (and called) Consciousness, C. Koch/MIT.
- Another potentially cool book, how to enhance the opportunity to create “aha” moments in your life, title: “Imagine: How creativity works” – bold title. I’ll buy it next time I drift into B&N.
- The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) has created a website where educators in biology can access some excellent material for teaching biology. It does seem like this should be the future of education.
- And then, there is the science:
- Entangling superconductivity and antiferromagnetism, - as opposed to ferromagnetism? The younger teenager is showing interest in magnetism, seems like an interesting choice.
- A unifying role for prions in neurodegenerative diseases – having just lost Doug Goodman to Parkinson’s, it was useful to learn more. The byline is, “A profound change in thinking about the etiologies of many neurodegenerative diseases has far reaching consequences for therapeutics.” I think what really affects the character of these, is, in the early paragraphs, the author speaks in “I” did this, “I” did that, “I’ve been working on this for 20 years and here’s what I think”. I find this very engaging, particularly when it is two pages – probably why I read backwards, I want to know how long the article is before I start.
- A paper on unraveling cancer mechanisms.
- OK – now a really good one – “Primed to Remember”, catchy title, byline is, “With the potential to mimic the human brain phase-change memories are operating faster, while imaging (they said imaging – special attention) provides further insight into the switching mechanism.” To me, this is a nearly perfect example of information transfer.
- “Biotic multipliers of climate change,” an interesting perspective on how food chains collapse in the context of climate eliminating or causing the dislocation of an element of the chain – really great figure – if I wasn’t so near 3 pages at this point, I would digress, but, some other time maybe.
- OK, you probably are either intrigued by this point, or skipping to the end, which is near.
- Today’s quiz – what is a telomere, and why do you care?
This, by the way, is the issue where the controversial article on H5N1 is published, which, with positioning by the editors, introduction, background on the situation and the authors, and then the article itself, is found on pages 1521 – 1547.
At this point, the last third of the issue, they get serious, with the “research articles.” Here you read the details from the earlier discussions about telomeres (I think that is a noun), graphene, rotons, PCM (a new acronym for you that may be the future), those phase change memories mentioned above.
OK – I’m done, and it’s still page 3. Bottom line, if you’re interested in science, reading the second-tier news is not the best approach.
Read the source material