Archive for: January, 2012

Tuesday Sprog Blogging: #scio12 storytelling and critters not imagined by my offspring.

So, Friday was busy here. Spring semester classes started on Wednesday, people want add codes to add my courses, students are making sure they know where everything is in the online section of my "Ethics in Science" course -- the usual. But, I was also dealing with a larger than usual portion of ScienceOnline in my bloodstream* (as in the past it's been about a week earlier in the calendar than it was this year).

Anyway. As usual, the Free-Ride offspring met my return to Casa Free-Ride and normal life (such as it is) with a barrage of questions about the conference. What did you see? What did you do? What did you learn? Who was there? What did you bring us? (More on that last question in the next Sprog Blogging installment.)

Among other things, I told the sprogs about the storytelling event at the Friday banquet, organized by The Monti. The sprogs dig a good story; it's probably part of what got them interested in science. And, I decided they might enjoy listening to the podcast of two of the stories that we heard at the banquet, Ben Lillie's and Bug Girl's.

I'll admit, I recognized that maybe Bug Girl's story was on the edge of age-appropriate for my offspring (currently 10.5 and 12.5 years of age). However, they have always had a healthy interest in entomology and in parasites of various sorts. So, I threw caution to the wind.

In the process, I discovered that even though my offspring are well aware that humans approaching adulthood grow hair in a number of places that are not the head -- and even though they each have more than theoretical knowledge of the habits of Pediculus humanus capitis (thank you, afterschool program!) -- neither one of my worldly children had ever imagined that there might exist a critter that would regard a not-on-the-head tract of follicles as a hospitable environment. Indeed, the looks of sheer horror on their faces when they learned that there is such a thing as "pubic lice" was worth the price of conference registration.

Ours is a universe of wonders. Some of those wonders are exotic (and maybe gross) enough that they are hard to anticipate, until some intrepid explorer brings back reports of them, changing our sense of where we are and what we might encounter -- and, of how squicked out we might be in that encounter.

I did mention to the Free-Ride offspring that I told one of the stories at the banquet. The younger Free-Ride offspring especially has been trying to get me to disclose details of the story I told. My answer has been, "When the podcast of it goes up, I'll let you listen to it."

I expect that after the sprogs listen to my story, there may be a discussion on which I'll report here. Stay tuned.

*Also, as it turns out, in my hair shafts -- not at all faded from ScienceOnline violet to almost normal beginning of the semester brown. One hopes my students won't infer from my current hair color that I'm cooler than I actually am.

One response so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: I hugged ... hey, that's not Bora!

Jan 20 2012 Published by under Critters, Kids and science

An image from the elder Free-Ride offspring:

Hug a Tarantula. They Appreciate it Too.

So far at ScienceOnline 2012 I have not noticed any tarantulas, let alone sized them up for hugging. Should you encounter a tarantula in your immediate environment, use your own judgment on the hugs.

One response so far

Things to read on my other blog: lab safety, open access, and lads' mags.

For those of you who mostly follow my writing here on "Adventures in Ethics and Science," I thought I should give you a pointer to some things I've posted so far this month (which is almost half-over already?!) on my other blog, "Doing Good Science". Feel free to jump in to the discussions in the comments over there. Or, if you're daunted by the need to register to comment at SciAm, go ahead and discuss them here.

Suit against UCLA in fatal lab fire raises question of who is responsible for safety. You should also read the posts on this case by Prof-like Substance and Chemjobber.

The Research Works Act: asking the public to pay twice for scientific knowledge.

Lads’ mags, sexism, and research in psychology: an interview with Dr. Peter Hegarty (part 1).
Lads’ mags, sexism, and research in psychology: an interview with Dr. Peter Hegarty (part 2).

Dr. Hegarty is one of the authors of that paper we discussed here in December on the influence that magazines aimed at young men (“lads’ mags”) might have on how the young people who read them perceive their social reality.

2 responses so far

Friday Sprog Blogging: Interview with a Chloroplast.

Jan 13 2012 Published by under Biology, Kids and science

Yes, it's been a while. This week, I was able to have enough of a conversation with the elder Free-Ride offspring to discover a homework assignment that looked ... a lot like a conversation about science.

In this case, it's a conversation between the elder Free-Ride offspring ("Me") and a chloroplast ("Chloroplast"). Big ups to my child's science teacher for giving assignments that can generate content for this blog (and for letting kids type their homework so I can copy the file rather than having to transcribe).

Me: So, what exactly are you?

Chloroplast: I am an organelle found in the cytoplasm of plant cells and a few kinds of bacteria.

Me: How many of you are there per cell?

Chloroplast: It depends on the organism. There are about thirty to forty of me per leaf cell, but in a certain type of single-celled alga, there is only one of me.

Me: What do you do for the organisms you are a part of?

Chloroplast: I capture the energy of the sun and use that energy, along with some carbon dioxide and water, to make glucose for the cell.

Me: Wow, that's amazing! Is that the process that plants use to make their own food?

Chloroplast: Yes, it is. That process is called photosynthesis.

Me: Is it anything like making a sandwich?

Chloroplast: What!? No! Of course not!!!

Me: Did I offend you? Or do you just not care for a nice, delicious BLT?

Chloroplast: Of COURSE you offended me! We chloroplasts don't use other organisms to make food! And especially not organisms that contain other chloroplasts!

Me: Okay, I'm sorry. How do you cook up some glucose in place of a sandwich?

Chloroplast: It's more like engineering than cooking, you know. First, I store energy from the sun and obtain six molecules each of carbon dioxide and water.

Me: How do you get the water?

Chloroplast: It's carried up to the leaves, where I live with my fellow chloroplasts, by the roots. Now, as I was saying, once I get those compounds, I use the light energy to remove their bonds. Then, I rearrange the elements and make them into a glucose molecules and six O² molecules. The glucose is used by the cell for its daily functions, and the oxygen is expelled from the plant by the leaf's stomata.

Me: Whoa! I didn't know that plants did chemistry!

Chloroplast: Believe it. Bask in our autotrophic glory, you inferior heterotroph.

Me: By the way, you do know that cooking is just a form of chemistry-

Chloroplast: Shut up.

Me: Okay, another question. Are all organelles as rude as the chloroplasts, or is it a unique feature?

Chloroplast: It's not at all unique. You should hear the nucleus sometime.

Me: Now then, I've been wondering about this. How do you absorb the light energy?

Chloroplast: I have a green pigment inside me called chlorophyll. It absorbs red and blue light. Chlorophyll is what turns plants a lovely shade of green, and not your ugly human skin tone.

Me: I have something else to do now. Thank you for your time.

Chloroplast: Wait! I'm not done gloating about my other superior features!

Me: Too bad. Good bye, you jerkwad of an organelle.

7 responses so far

Help high school "nerds" visit the Large Hadron Collider.

Last week, I got a really nice email, and a request, from a reader. She wrote:

I am a high school senior and an avid follower of your blog. I am almost definitely going to pursue science in college - either chemistry, physics, or engineering; I haven't quite decided yet! I am the editor of my school's newspaper, and I frequently write about science topics; I find science journalism interesting and possibly will pursue it as a career. 

I'm writing because this spring, 32 physics students from my high school will hopefully be taking a trip to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Geneva. We are extremely excited to make the trip, as it will allow us to glimpse some of the most groundbreaking physics research in the world. Twenty-two of the 32 students going are girls, and we are all involved with the physics department at our school. Women are overwhelmingly outnumbered in the science classes at my school, especially the tougher Advanced Placement classes; thus, taking this trip with a majority of women feels like a triumph.

My correspondent is, this year, the president of her high school's science club, which is affectionately called "BACON: the best All-around Club of Nerds". If you look at the BACON website, you will see that they do some pretty neat stuff. They field a bunch of teams for competitions like the Science Olympiad, Zero Robotics, and the Spirit of Innovation Challenge. And, they launch weather balloons to capture video and still photographs in a near space environment, have a day of launching model rockets and flying model airplanes, and have created a giant tank of ooblek to run across.

Basically, the kind of science-y stuff that might make high school not just tolerable but fun, which I think is a pretty big deal.

Here's where we get to the request.

The planned high school trip bringing the 32 students from Virginia to CERN will be exciting, but expensive. So, as students have come to do for pretty much every field trip, the BACON members are doing some fundraising. Here's their fundraising page, from which we learn:

As we speak, scientists at CERN are conducting groundbreaking research and rewriting the science textbooks for future generations. It is imperative that our students gain an interest and understanding in such endeavors. A two-day tour of CERN will surely aid in our students’ comprehension of particle physics, the study of the mechanisms and interactions that underlie all chemical, biological, and cosmological processes. But more importantly, through exposure to the leading edge of physics research, this trip is intended to excite students about scientific progress and demonstrate the power of experimentation and collaboration outside of the classroom. ...

We need money to cover the cost of travel, lodging, food, and tours. Specifically, the cost breakdown per student is as follows: $1000 for travel; $300 for meals; $300 for lodging; $100 for tours and exhibits. Thirty-two students are scheduled to attend, and without fundraising the total cost is $1700 per student. Unfortunately, not all students can afford this. Any donations are welcome to lower the per-student cost and facilitate this trip for all who want to go!

For donations of various sizes, they are offering perks ranging from thank you cards and pictures of the trip, to signed T-shirts, to something special from the CERN gift shop, to a video to thank you posted on YouTube.

If you want to help but can spare the cash for a monetary donation, you may still be able to help these plucky science students make their CERN trip a reality:

Tell your friends! Share this link with others: There are also other ways to help us besides monetary donations. Do you have any objects, gift certificates, coupons, or other items you could donate for a raffle? Do you have an idea for a fundraising event we could host? If you want to get involved, please email us: We are really looking forward to this amazing opportunity, and we appreciate any help you can provide. Thank you!

I know I'm looking forward to living vicariously through this group (since no doubt I'll be grading mountains of papers when they're scheduled to tour the LHC). If you want to pay some science enthusiasm forward to the next generation, here's one way to do it.

Meanwhile, I will inquire about whether the BACONite can share some highlights of their trip (and their preparations for it) here.

Cross posted at Doing Good Science

One response so far

Straightforward answers to questions we shouldn't even have to ask: New York Times edition.

The Public Editor of the New York Times grapples with the question of whether the Times' news reporting ought to get the facts right.

The question is posed nicely in a letter quoted in the piece:

“My question is what role the paper’s hard-news coverage should play with regard to false statements – by candidates or by others. In general, the Times sets its documentation of falsehoods in articles apart from its primary coverage. If the newspaper’s overarching goal is truth, oughtn’t the truth be embedded in its principal stories? In other words, if a candidate repeatedly utters an outright falsehood (I leave aside ambiguous implications), shouldn’t the Times’s coverage nail it right at the point where the article quotes it?”

Arthur S. Brisbane, the Public Editor, responds by asking:

Is that the prevailing view? And if so, how can The Times do this in a way that is objective and fair? Is it possible to be objective and fair when the reporter is choosing to correct one fact over another? Are there other problems that The Times would face that I haven’t mentioned here?

Here's a suggestion: Budget some money for fact-checking, whether by dedicated fact-checkers or the reporters themselves. And then, make sure every piece of the story that makes a factual claim -- whether it is in the reporter's background or analysis, or in a direct quotation from someone else -- is checked against the available facts. Tell us whether the claims are supported by the available evidence. Present the readers with the facts as best they can be established right there in the story.

Because people reach for newspapers to get factual details of things happening in the actual world we're trying to share. If the paper of record views getting the facts right as a style choice, where the hell is the public supposed to get the facts?

6 responses so far

Looking ahead to #scio12: the nature of the unconference.

One of the things that makes ScienceOnline different from lots of other academic or professional conferences is that it is structured as an "unconference". So ... what exactly does that mean?

For one thing, it challenges the standard model of the expert at a podium at the front of the room, dispensing finished knowledge to the audience. The assumption is that the "audience" is really a group of interested participants who are bringing plenty of expertise to the table, and that they will be working together with the session moderator to figure new things out.

I've been to the rare academic conference with "workshop" sessions that achieve real engagement of, and participation from, nearly everyone in the room. At ScienceOnline, those levels of engagement and participation are not rare at all.

Some unconferences are so participant-driven that the program doesn't even exist until the conference goers convene. Folks use whiteboards or paper to describe a session they want to happen (whether they have the expertise to lead it or are looking for other participants who could share that expertise), and ideas, people, spaces, and blocks of time are negotiated on the spot to build a program.

For those of us in disciplines where conference presentations usually flow from finished papers submitted a year in advance, this process can feel a little destabilizing. It's not necessarily a bad thing.

The other unconference in which I've participated (She's Geeky) has used this process. Along with it, the conference organizers provide reminders:

"Be prepared to be surprised!"

"Whoever comes is the right people. Whatever happens is the only thing that could have. Whenever it starts is the right time. When it's over, it's over."

In other words, part of the point of having an unconference is to cultivate serendipity, to foster connections of ideas and people that can happen organically but that might not happen with too much rigid planning. Working this way has its risks. There may be only a handful of people interested in what you want to talk about, and what people have to say may fit in a non-standard time interval. But the risks are part of the deal to unlock the rewards.

There was another reminder, whose placard I managed not to photograph, of "The Law of Two Feet" -- basically, that each participant should take responsibility for being where she wanted or needed to be, even if that meant leaving one group midway through or joining another already in progress, and that other participants should respect each individual's decisions rather than expecting a captive audience. This strikes me as the right attitude to take to cope with a session which turns out to be not what you expected or wanted to be a part of, rather than complaining later, "That's an hour of my life I'll never get back."

If you look at the ScienceOnline 2012 conference program as it's shaping up, you'll see that this is not a conference generating sessions on the spot each morning. Rather, there are multiple sessions in each time slot, each with a title, one or more moderators, and a description of the topics to be discussed. In other words, this is a relatively organized unconference.

My sense, though, is that even though the advanced planning that goes into the sessions seems to pull against the "un"-ness of the conference, it actually makes possible a lot more participant-steering of sessions to address things the people coming to the sessions want to talk about -- burning questions they have, experiences or expertise they want to share, resources, applications, connections to other things they care about, what have you. One way this can happen is via session wiki pages. For example, I'm helping lead two sessions, one (with Amy Freitag) on "Citizens, experts, and science", the other (with Christie Wilcox) on "Blogging Science While Female". Those wiki pages are just calling out for ideas, questions, or useful links. (Your ideas, questions, or useful links! What are you waiting for?)

Indeed, this is not simply a matter of shaping an hour-long discussion at the conference, but of jumping into a conversation now. It's not a conversation that has to end when the next session starts -- or when the conference itself is over. Nor is is a conversation that's restricted to the people who are physically in the room. You can be part of the conversation even without setting foot in North Carolina.

And this brings me to another way ScienceOnline strikes me as interestingly different from other conferences I've attended. At many of these conferences, sessions spill over to interesting discussions over drinks or meals. That happens at ScienceOnline, too -- but unlike discussions at other conferences that recede into memory when you get home, the conversations at ScienceOnline have a better than even chance of being tweeted, liveblogged, or otherwise captured and signal-boosted, making it possible for us (and you, and anyone else who want) to come back to them and push them further until we (not our feeble memories) decide we're done with them.

6 responses so far

Packing for #scio12: plumbing the inky depths.

A bunch of ScienceOnline 2012 attendees will be spending the Friday afternoon of the conference on The ScienceOnline2012 Science of Ink Tour, graciously hosted by the Dogstar Tattoo Company and featuring a lecture by Carl Zimmer on the science of tattoos

Some of the participants in this tour will also be coming back with brand new ink, which means they will want to pack accordingly.

1. Your copy of Science Ink for autographing. There are likely to be copies of the book available for purchase on the tour, but lots of you inked-up scientists already have one. Sure, maybe Carl Zimmer will have a chance to inscribe your book for you. The real action, though, is going to be finding conference-goers whose tattoos are featured in Science Ink and getting them to sign the the pictures of their tattoos.

2. Ointment to apply to your new tattoo. A new tattoo needs a thin layer of ointment twice a day. While some prefer a concoction called "Tattoo Goo" that is reputed to smell like hippies, my tattoo artist recommends Aquaphor, which you may be able to find in a 0.35-ounce tube that is conveniently sized for travel.

3. Antibacterial liquid soap. New tattoos also need to be washed twice a day (before you apply the ointment), preferably with a liquid soap that contains an antibacterial agent like Triclosan. (The store brand at most national drugstore chains will have such an option.) Bringing a conference-sized supply in a 1-ounce travel container will probably get you through.

Not pictured: Artwork to show your tattoo artist. When you're getting inked, a picture is worth a thousand words. Print that puppy out, full-sized if at all possible.

Not pictured: Cash for your tattoo. Most tattoo parlors are cash-only. If you want the body art, be sure to bring the legal tender.

4. A clean washcloth. Even if you're sticking to the temporary tattoos at the conference, hygiene matters. Always apply them with a clean washcloth, and try not to use brackish water.

8 responses so far

Packing for #scio12: sharing space with others.

ScienceOnline 2012 is the biggest instantiation yet of a conference that started small(er) in January 2007. There will be lots of opportunities to have interesting conversations and build connections. There will also be lots of opportunities to get on each other's nerves.

If you're sharing a room with another conference-goer at one of the conference hotels, here are a few items that might foster peaceful coexistence.

1. Snore-reducing nasal strips. To snore is human. To be able to minimize your audible snoring when you're sharing a room with someone else who wants to sleep is ... maybe not divine, exactly, but surely considerate.

2. Ear plugs. Some of us sleep like stones, but some of us know that we may have a hard time sleeping well, especially in a strange hotel room, if there are random sounds nearby. Pre-emptively blocking those random sounds with ear plugs may be the right call. (Depending on the level of amplification, ear plugs may also be useful at open mic night.)

3. OTC analgesic. It's nice to be able to manage your own headache, and to have enough to offer if your roommate has developed a headache, too. (In the event of ethanol intake, which can lead to headaches the next morning, roommates might also remind each other to drink plenty of water before going to bed.)

Of course, for a significant portion of the conference you will be sharing space with many more people than you'd want to cram into a hotel room. And, given that this is a conference all about science on the Web, lots of those people are going to be wielding electronic devices whose batteries are being depleted.

Which means that you may contribute to the tranquility of the room by bringing one of these:

Pictured is a mini surge protector, more compact than a full-blown power strip, which lets you plug three devices into one existing outlet.

As a bonus, this one also accommodates a couple of USB devices that might be in need of a recharge.

2 responses so far

Packing for #scio12: what are you drinking?

In your packing for ScienceOnline 2012, you'll want to keep in mind that the human body is some fairly substantial percentage water. Which means you've got to drink.

What is doesn't mean, however, it that you need to leave a pile of paper cups and plastic bottles in your wake.

1. Water bottle. Talking about science on the Web can be a thirst-inducing business, so staying hydrated is a good call. Doing so in a way that avoids the environmental impacts of bottled water is an even better call.

2. Travel mug. Nestled between the various conference sessions, there will be opportunities to get a caffeine fix. If you bring your own mug, you avoid putting paper or styrofoam cups into the waste stream -- and you may have an easier time distinguishing your cup of joe from everyone else's.

3. Hip flask. If you're going to be transporting small quantities of potent potables from one hotel room party to another, this is the traditional vessel in which to do so. On the other hand, you might use one of these as your water bottle to give the appearance of #DrunkSci while keeping your wits about you.

Pro-tip: Bringing too many specialized vessels can eat up a lot of room in your luggage (and where does it end -- cocktail shakers? Erlenmeyer flasks?). A travel mug can handle hot and cold beverages (including water). However, if it's full, you probably need to have it in hand unless it has a very secure top.

10 responses so far

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