Saturday Science Video: When Things Get Small

This Beakman’s World for nanotech video, When Things Get Small,  came out a few years ago, but it’s still a great, entertaining introduction to the world of nanotechnology.

I reviewed the video and interviewed Ivan Schuller, one of its creators and a physics professor at UCSD, at a showing in NYC back in 2006. My story for Popular Science was also picked up by

It is a time investment, but if you’re looking for a way to spend 30 minutes this holiday weekend, it’s worth your time.


An Amazing Race


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

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

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


Saturday Videos: The Beard-ome

When you spend more than 40 hours a week in a laboratory, strange creative synergy can crop up. When I was a graduate student, we had a few of those moments. The most notable was our takeoff on “The Night Before Christmas” in late 1999, as we riffed on the coming nonpocalypse of Y2K. Unfortunately, I don’t think I still have that poem– it was one of our better moments.

But it’s nowhere close to what the folks at Hypocalypse Industries have cooked up. The people in this lab clearly have some fun. I’m betting they work pretty hard, too. The Beard-ome brings Office/Parks & Recreation satire to the molecular biology laboratory.

Continue reading Saturday Videos: The Beard-ome


Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

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 Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies


Social media, health and drug marketing

I recently wrote about social media and prescription drug marketing for Nature Biotechnology. The policy issues balance precariously on a number of fulcrum points: free speech, public health and safety, and the sense of online community that can grow out of social media interactions. How do you regulate how companies can talk about prescription drugs in these settings? Space is often limited, so companies can’t include the fine print that discusses the risks and benefits of particular products. At the same time, if a company can’t participate, it also isn’t in a position to correct misinformation that might be circulating among consumers. The FDA held hearings in November to discuss the issues and will be advising pharmaceutical companies about how they can interact with the public in the world of Web 2.0.

If you’re interested in following this topic, check out the following links


A biologist’s take on Mother’s Day

This Mother’s day tribute is so good that it can’t wait until next year, or even for my Saturday video feature. It’s completely fabulous– the lyrics, the delivery, the biological illustrations, and the solid science backing it up. See more on his YouTube channel. Forward it to your mother, your favorite biologist, or your favorite scientist mom!

Hat tip to my friend and colleague, Tom Hayden.


Making sense of 200,000 gallons per day

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.