Archive for the ‘science’ category

Big Science

January 17, 2009

Here’s a link to an interesting article by Aaron Hirsch in the New York Times. He discusses the idea of Big Science, and mentions how much of the scientific community now relies on large institutions for processing or collection of data (i.e. genome sequencing centers or the Large Hadron Collider). I’ll leave it to you to read the article more fully, but I’d like to add to Hirsch’s concern about the future of Big Science.

As a scientist, it is scary to me that it is becoming so expensive to do science. Many of the results that appear in the high impact journals (like Science or Nature) require lots of resources and people. I doubt that science, especially biology, will soon be a garage experience, though there are people who believe in do-it-yourself biotech (like the DIYbio organization, the Biobricks foundation, and some Synthetic Biologists). Still, I pause when I think about how much of science has been centralized and is “owned” and commercialized by large institutions (see the Ventner Institute, for example).

Fortunately, there are movements to make science more accessible and welcoming to lay-people, like MIT’s Open Course Ware, where MIT has posted access to nearly every class taught at the Institute. As scientists, we’ll need to continue to work to make science accessible and open so that the public is not left standing outside staring at the “urban high-rise” (as Hirsch calls it), wondering what happens in there and how one gets inside.

Useless but cool

December 23, 2008

John Hart from Ann Arbor, MI made these nanobama images from carbon nanotubes before the election as a way of demonstrating his support for Obama. They’re totally useless, but are still fascinating. Each one is 1/2 of a millimeter wide. For more information, check out this link.

Each face is made of approximately 150 million tiny carbon nanotubes; thats about how many Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election.

Each face is made of approximately 150 million tiny carbon nanotubes; that's about how many Americans voted in the 2008 presidential election.

More science in our policy making, please

December 3, 2008

Olivia Judson has a nice Op-Ed piece in the NYT today.  She references a book called “Undermining Science: Suppression and Distortion in the Bush Administration” by Seth Shulman that I’d like to read.  She also makes a couple of great points.  Many scientists have been dismayed by the Bush administration’s efforts to suppress the role that science plays in public policy (especially, for me, regarding climate science).  However, I’ve never been able to articulate succinctly why science and the scientific method are so valuable.  Judson does this as well as I’ve ever seen:

In schools, science is often taught as a body of knowledge — a set of facts and equations. But all that is just a consequence of scientific activity.

Science itself is something else, something both more profound and less tangible. It is an attitude, a stance towards measuring, evaluating and describing the world that is based on skepticism, investigation and evidence. The hallmark is curiosity; the aim, to see the world as it is. This is not an attitude restricted to scientists, but it is, I think, more common among them. And it is not something taught so much as acquired during a training in research or by keeping company with scientists.

Now, I don’t want to idealize this. To claim that scientists are free of bias, ambition or desires would be ridiculous. Everyone has pet ideas that they hope are right; and scientists are not famous for humility… Moreover, to downplay evidence that doesn’t fit your ideas, and to place more weight on evidence that does — this is something that human brains just seem to do. Worse, such biases become stronger under certain circumstances.

However, the beauty of the scientific approach is that even when individuals do succumb to bias or partiality, others can correct them using a framework of evidence that everyone broadly agrees on.