Tag Archives: Charles Darwin

Scientists, outreach and Twitter research plus some tips from a tweeting scientist

I have two bits today and both concern science and Twitter.

Twitter science research

A doodle by Isabelle Côté to illustrate her recent study on the effectiveness of scientists using Twitter to share their research with the public. Credit: Isabelle Côté

I was quite curious about this research on scientists and their Twitter audiences coming from Simon Fraser University (SFU; Vancouver, Canada). From a July 11, 2018 SFU news release (also on EurekAlert),

Isabelle Côté is an SFU professor of marine ecology and conservation and an active science communicator whose prime social media platform is Twitter.

Côté, who has cultivated more than 5,800 followers since she began tweeting in 2012, recently became curious about who her followers are.

“I wanted to know if my followers are mainly scientists or non-scientists – in other words was I preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops?” she says.

Côté and collaborator Emily Darling set out to find the answer by analyzing the active Twitter accounts of more than 100 ecology and evolutionary biology faculty members at 85 institutions across 11 countries.

Their methodology included categorizing followers as either “inreach” if they were academics, scientists and conservation agencies and donors; or “outreach” if they were science educators, journalists, the general public, politicians and government agencies.

Côté found that scientists with fewer than 1,000 followers primarily reach other scientists. However, scientists with more than 1,000 followers have more types of followers, including those in the “outreach” category.

Twitter and other forms of social media provide scientists with a potential way to share their research with the general public and, importantly, decision- and policy-makers. Côté says public pressure can be a pathway to drive change at a higher level. However, she notes that while social media is an asset, it is “not likely an effective replacement for the more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists are now engaging in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc.”

Further, even with greater diversity and reach of followers, the authors concede there are still no guarantees that Twitter messages will be read or understood. Côté cites evidence that people selectively read what fits with their perception of the world, that changing followers’ minds about deeply held beliefs is challenging.

“While Twitter is emerging as a medium of choice for scientists, studies have shown that less than 40 per cent of academic scientists use the platform,” says Côté.

“There’s clearly a lot of room for scientists to build a social media presence and increase their scientific outreach. Our results provide scientists with clear evidence that social media can be used as a first step to disseminate scientific messages well beyond the ivory tower.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper (my thoughts on the matter are after),

Scientists on Twitter: Preaching to the choir or singing from the rooftops? by Isabelle M. Côté and Emily S. Darling. Facets DOI: https://doi.org/10.1139/facets-2018-0002 Published Online 28 June 2018

This paper is in an open access journal.

Thoughts on the research

Neither of the researchers, Côté and Darling, appears to have any social science training; so where I’d ordinarily laud the researchers for their good work, I have to include extra kudos for taking on a type of research outside their usual domain of expertise.

If this sort of thing interests you and you have the time, I definitely recommend reading the paper (from the paper‘s introduction), Note: Links have been removed)

Communication has always been an integral part of the scientific endeavour. In Victorian times, for example, prominent scientists such as Thomas H. Huxley and Louis Agassiz delivered public lectures that were printed, often verbatim, in newspapers and magazines (Weigold 2001), and Charles Darwin wrote his seminal book “On the origin of species” for a popular, non-specialist audience (Desmond and Moore 1991). In modern times, the pace of science communication has become immensely faster, information is conveyed in smaller units, and the modes of delivery are far more numerous. These three trends have culminated in the use of social media by scientists to share their research in accessible and relevant ways to potential audiences beyond their peers. The emphasis on accessibility and relevance aligns with calls for scientists to abandon jargon and to frame and share their science, especially in a “post-truth” world that can emphasize emotion over factual information (Nisbet and Mooney 2007; Bubela et al. 2009; Wilcox 2012; Lubchenco 2017).

The microblogging platform Twitter is emerging as a medium of choice for scientists (Collins et al. 2016), although it is still used by a minority (<40%) of academic faculty (Bart 2009; Noorden 2014). Twitter allows users to post short messages (originally up to 140 characters, increased to 280 characters since November 2017) that can be read by any other user. Users can elect to follow other users whose posts they are interested in, in which case they automatically see their followees’ tweets; conversely, users can be followed by other users, in which case their tweets can be seen by their followers. No permission is needed to follow a user, and reciprocation of following is not mandatory. Tweets can be categorized (with hashtags), repeated (retweeted), and shared via other social media platforms, which can exponentially amplify their spread and can offer links to websites, blogs, or scientific papers (Shiffman 2012).

There are scientific advantages to using digital communication technologies such as Twitter. Scientific users describe it as a means to stay abreast of new scientific literature, grant opportunities, and science policy, to promote their own published papers and exchange ideas, and to participate in conferences they cannot attend in person as “virtual delegates” (Bonetta 2009; Bik and Goldstein 2013; Parsons et al. 2014; Bombaci et al. 2016). Twitter can play a role in most parts of the life cycle of a scientific publication, from making connections with potential collaborators, to collecting data or finding data sources, to dissemination of the finished product (Darling et al. 2013; Choo et al. 2015). There are also some quantifiable benefits for scientists using social media. For example, papers that are tweeted about more often also accumulate more citations (Eysenbach 2011; Thelwall et al. 2013; Peoples et al. 2016), and the volume of tweets in the first week following publication correlates with the likelihood of a paper becoming highly cited (Eysenbach 2011), although such relationships are not always present (e.g., Haustein et al. 2014).

In addition to any academic benefits, scientists might adopt social media, and Twitter in particular, because of the potential to increase the reach of scientific messages and direct engagement with non-scientific audiences (Choo et al. 2015). This potential comes from the fact that Twitter leverages the power of weak ties, defined as low-investment social interactions that are not based on personal relationships (Granovetter 1973). On Twitter, follower–followee relationships are weak: users generally do not personally know the people they follow or the people who follow them, as their interactions are based mainly on message content. Nevertheless, by retweeting and sharing messages, weak ties can act as bridges across social, geographic, or cultural groups and contribute to a wide and rapid spread of information (Zhao et al. 2010; Ugander et al. 2012). The extent to which the messages of tweeting scientists benefit from the power of weak ties is unknown. Does Twitter provide a platform that allows scientists to simply promote their findings to other scientists within the ivory tower (i.e., “inreach”), or are tweeting scientists truly exploiting social media to potentially reach new audiences (“outreach”) (Bik et al. 2015; McClain and Neeley 2015; Fig. 1)?

Fig. 1. Conceptual depiction of inreach and outreach for Twitter communication by academic faculty. Left: If Twitter functions as an inreach tool, tweeting scientists might primarily reach only other scientists and perhaps, over time (arrow), some applied conservation and management science organizations. Right: If Twitter functions as an outreach tool, tweeting scientists might first reach other scientists, but over time (arrow) they will eventually attract members of the media, members of the public who are not scientists, and decision-makers (not necessarily in that order) as followers.

I’m glad to see this work but it’s use of language is not as precise in some places as it could be. They use the term ‘scientists’ throughout but their sample is made up of scientists identified as ecology and/or evolutionary biology (EEMB) researchers, as they briefly note in their Abstract and in the Methods section. With the constant use of the generic term, scientist, throughout most of the paper and taken in tandem with its use in the title, it’s easy to forget that this was a sample of a very specific population..

That the researchers’ sample of EEMB scientists is made up of those working at universities (academic scientists) is clear and it presents an interesting problem. How much does it matter that these are academic scientists? Both in regard to the research itself and with regard to perceptions about scientists. A sentence stating the question is beyond the scope of their research might have been a good idea.

Impressively, Darling and Côté have reached past the English language community to include other language groups, “We considered as many non-English Twitter profiles as possible by including common translations of languages we were familiar with (i.e., French and Spanish: biologista, professeur, profesora, etc.) in our search strings; …”

I cannot emphasize how rare it is to see this attempt to reach out beyond the English language community. Yes!

Getting back to my concern about language,  I would have used ‘suspect’ rather than ‘assume’ in this sentence from the paper’s Discussion, “We assume [emphasis mine] that the patterns we have uncovered for a sample of ecologists and evolutionary biologists in faculty positions can apply broadly across other academic disciplines.” I agree it’s quite likely but it’s an hypothesis/supposition and  needs to be tested. For example, will this hold true if you examine social scientists (such as economists, linguists, political scientists, psychologists, …) or physicists or mathematicians or …?

Is this evidence of unconscious bias regarding wheat the researchers term as ‘non-scientists’?  From the paper’s Discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

Of course, high numbers, diversity, and reach of followers offer no guarantee that messages will be read or understood. There is evidence that people selectively read what fits with their perception of the world (e.g., Sears and Freedman 1967; McPherson et al. 2001; Sunstein 2001; Himelboim et al. 2013). Thus, non-scientists [emphases mine] who follow scientists on Twitter might already be positively inclined to consume scientific information. If this is true, then one could argue that Twitter therefore remains an echo chamber, but it is a much larger one than the usual readership of scientific publications. Moreover, it is difficult to gauge the level of understanding of scientific tweets. The brevity and fragmented nature of science tweets can lead to shallow processing and comprehension of the message (Jiang et al. 2016). One metric of the influence of tweets is the extent to which they are shared (i.e., retweeted). Twitter users retweet posts when they find them interesting (hence the posts were at least read, if not understood) and when they deem the source credible (Metaxas et al. 2015). To our knowledge, there are no data on how often tweets by scientists are reposted by different types of followers. Such information would provide further evidence for an outreach function of Twitter in science communication.

Yes, it’s true that high numbers, etc. do not guarantee your messages will be read or understood and that people do selectively choose what fits their perception of the world. However, that applies equally to scientists and non-scientists despite what the authors appear to be claiming. Also, their use of the term non-scientist is not clear to me. Is this a synonym for ‘general public’ or is it being applied to anyone who may not have an educational background in science but is designated in another category such as policy makers, science communicators, etc. in the research paper?

In any event, ‘policy makers’ absorb a great deal of the researchers’ attention, from the paper’s Discussion (Note: Links have been removed),

Under most theories of change that describe how science ultimately affects evidence-based policies, decision-makers are a crucial group that should be engaged by scientists (Smith et al. 2013). Policy changes can be effected either through direct application of research to policy or, more often, via pressure from public awareness, which can drive or be driven by research (Baron 2010; Phillis et al. 2013). Either pathway requires active engagement by scientists with society (Lubchenco 2017). It is arguably easier than ever for scientists to have access to decision- and policy-makers, as officials at all levels of government are increasingly using social media to connect with the public (e.g., Grant et al. 2010; Kapp et al. 2015). However, we found that decision-makers accounted for only ∼0.3% (n = 191 out of 64 666) of the followers of academic scientists (see also Bombaci et al. 2016 in relation to the audiences of conference tweeting). Moreover, decision-makers begin to follow scientists in greater numbers only once the latter have reached a certain level of “popularity” (i.e., ∼2200 followers; Table 2). The general concern about whether scientific tweets are actually read by followers applies even more strongly to decision-makers, as they are known to use Twitter largely as a broadcasting tool rather than for dialogue (Grant et al. 2010). Thus, social media is not likely an effective replacement for more direct science-to-policy outreach that many scientists are now engaging in, such as testifying in front of special governmental committees, directly contacting decision-makers, etc. However, by actively engaging a large Twitter following of non-scientists, scientists increase the odds of being followed by a decision-maker who might see their messages, as well as the odds of being identified as a potential expert for further contributions.

It may due to the types of materials I tend to stumble across but science outreach has usually been presented as largely an educational effort with the long term goal of assuring the public will continue to support science funding. This passage in the research paper suggests more immediate political and career interests.

Should scientists be on Twitter?

This paper might discourage someone whose primary goal is to reach policy makers via this social media platform but the researchers seem to feel there is value in reaching out to a larger audience. While I’m not comfortable with how the researchers have generalized their results to the entire population of scientists, those results are intriguing..

This next bit features a scientist who as it turns out could be described as an EEMB (evolutionary biology and/or ecology) researcher.

How to tweet science

Stephen Heard wrote a July 31, 2018 posting on his Scientist Sees Squirrel blog about his Twitter feed,

At the 2018 conference of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution, I was part of a lunchtime workshop, “The How and Why of Tweeting Science” – along with 5 friends.  Here I’ll share my slides and commentary.  I hope the other presenters will do the same, and I’ll link to them here as they become available.

 

I’ve been active on Twitter for about 4 years, but I’m very far from an expert, so my contribution to #CSEETweetShop was more to raise questions than to answer them.  What does it mean to “tweet to the science community”?  Here I’ll share some thoughts about Twitter audience, content, and voice.  These are, of course, my own (roughly formed) opinions, not some kind of wisdom on stone tablets, so take them with the requisite grain of salt!

Audience

 

Just as we do with blogging, we can draw a distinction between two audiences we might intend to reach via Twitter.  We might use Twitter for outreach, to talk to the general public – we could call this “science-communication tweeting”.  Or we could use Twitter for “inreach”, to talk to other scientists – which is what I’d call “science-community tweeting”.  But: for a couple of reasons, this distinction is not as clear as you might thing.  Or at least, your intent to reach one audience or the other may not match the outcome.

There are some data on the topic of scientists’ Twitter audiences.  The data in the slide above come from a recent paper by Isabelle Coté and Emily Darling.  They’re for a sample of 110 faculty members in ecology and evolution, for whom audiences are broken down by their relationship (if any) to science.  The key result: most ecology and evolution faculty on Twitter have audiences dominated by other scientists (light blue), with the general public (dark blue) a significant but more modest chunk. There’s variation, some of which may well relate to the tweeters’ intended audiences – but we can draw two fairly clear conclusions:

  • Nearly all of us tweet mostly to the science community; but
  • Almost none of us tweets only to the science community (or for that matter only to the general public).

The same paper analyzes follower composition as a function of audience size, and these data suggest that one’s audience is likely to change it builds.  Notice how the dark-blue “general public” line lags behind, then catches, the light-blue “other scientists” line*.  Earlier in your Twitter career, it’s likely that your audience will be even more strongly dominated by the science community – whether or not that’s what you intend.

In short: you probably can’t pick the audience you’re talking to; but you can pick the audience you’re talking for.  Given that, how might you use Twitter to talk for the science community?

I particularly like his constant questions about audience. He discusses other issues, such as content, but he always returns to the audience. Having worked in communication(s) and marketing, I have to applaud his focus on the audience. I can’t tell you how many times, we’d answer the question as to whom our audience was and we’d never revisit it. (mea culpa) Heard’s insistence on constantly checking in and questioning your assumptions is excellent.

Seeing  Coté’s and Darling’s paper cited in his presentation, gives some idea of how closely he follows the thinking about science outreach in his field.

Both Coté’s and Darling’s academic paper and Heard’s posting make for accessible reading while offering valuable information.

Why don’t you CRISPR yourself?

It must have been quite the conference. Josiah Zayner plunged a needle into himself and claimed to have changed his DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) while giving his talk. (*Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.*) From an Oct. 10, 2017 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company (Note: A link has been removed),

“What we’ve got here is some DNA, and this is a syringe,” Josiah Zayner tells a room full of synthetic biologists and other researchers. He fills the needle and plunges it into his skin. “This will modify my muscle genes and give me bigger muscles.”

Zayner, a biohacker–basically meaning he experiments with biology in a DIY lab rather than a traditional one–was giving a talk called “A Step-by-Step Guide to Genetically Modifying Yourself With CRISPR” at the SynBioBeta conference in San Francisco, where other presentations featured academics in suits and the young CEOs of typical biotech startups. Unlike the others, he started his workshop by handing out shots of scotch and a booklet explaining the basics of DIY [do-it-yourwelf] genome engineering.

If you want to genetically modify yourself, it turns out, it’s not necessarily complicated. As he offered samples in small baggies to the crowd, Zayner explained that it took him about five minutes to make the DNA that he brought to the presentation. The vial held Cas9, an enzyme that snips DNA at a particular location targeted by guide RNA, in the gene-editing system known as CRISPR. In this case, it was designed to knock out the myostatin gene, which produces a hormone that limits muscle growth and lets muscles atrophy. In a study in China, dogs with the edited gene had double the muscle mass of normal dogs. If anyone in the audience wanted to try it, they could take a vial home and inject it later. Even rubbing it on skin, Zayner said, would have some effect on cells, albeit limited.

Peters goes on to note that Zayner has a PhD in molecular biology and biophysics and worked for NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Administration). Zayner’s Wikipedia entry fills in a few more details (Note: Links have been removed),

Zayner graduated from the University of Chicago with a Ph.D. in biophysics in 2013. He then spent two years as a researcher at NASA’s Ames Research Center,[2] where he worked on Martian colony habitat design. While at the agency, Zayner also analyzed speech patterns in online chat, Twitter, and books, and found that language on Twitter and online chat is closer to how people talk than to how they write.[3] Zayner found NASA’s scientific work less innovative than he expected, and upon leaving in January 2016, he launched a crowdfunding campaign to provide CRISPR kits to let the general public experiment with editing bacterial DNA. He also continued his grad school business, The ODIN, which sells kits to let the general public experiment at home. As of May 2016, The ODIN had four employees and operates out of Zayner’s garage.[2]

He refers to himself as a biohacker and believes in the importance in letting the general public participate in scientific experimentation, rather than leaving it segregated to labs.[2][4][1] Zayner found the biohacking community exclusive and hierarchical, particularly in the types of people who decide what is “safe”. He hopes that his projects can let even more people experiment in their homes. Other scientists responded that biohacking is inherently privileged, as it requires leisure time and money, and that deviance from the safety rules of concern would lead to even harsher regulations for all.[5] Zayner’s public CRISPR kit campaign coincided with wider scrutiny over genetic modification. Zayner maintained that these fears were based on misunderstandings of the product, as genetic experiments on yeast and bacteria cannot produce a viral epidemic.[6][7] In April 2015, Zayner ran a hoax on Craigslist to raise awareness about the future potential of forgery in forensics genetics testing.[8]

In February 2016, Zayner performed a full body microbiome transplant on himself, including a fecal transplant, to experiment with microbiome engineering and see if he could cure himself from gastrointestinal and other health issues. The microbiome from the donors feces successfully transplanted in Zayner’s gut according to DNA sequencing done on samples.[2] This experiment was documented by filmmakers Kate McLean and Mario Furloni and turned into the short documentary film Gut Hack.[9]

In December 2016, Zayner created a fluorescent beer by engineering yeast to contain the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish. Zayner’s company, The ODIN, released kits to allow people to create their own engineered fluorescent yeast and this was met with some controversy as the FDA declared the green fluorescent protein can be seen as a color additive.[10] Zayner, views the kit as a way that individual can use genetic engineering to create things in their everyday life.[11]

I found the video for Zayner’s now completed crowdfunding campaign,

I also found The ODIN website (mentioned in the Wikipedia essay) where they claim to be selling various gene editing and gene engineering kits including the CRISPR editing kits mentioned in Peters’ article,

In 2016, he [Zayner] sold $200,000 worth of products, including a kit for yeast that can be used to brew glowing bioluminescent beer, a kit to discover antibiotics at home, and a full home lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. In 2017, he expects to double sales. Many kits are simple, and most buyers probably aren’t using the supplies to attempt to engineer themselves (many kits go to classrooms). But Zayner also hopes that as people using the kits gain genetic literacy, they experiment in wilder ways.

Zayner sells a full home biohacking lab that’s roughly the cost of a MacBook Pro. [Photo: The ODIN]

He questions whether traditional research methods, like randomized controlled trials, are the only way to make discoveries, pointing out that in newer personalized medicine (such as immunotherapy for cancer, which is personalized for each patient), a sample size of one person makes sense. At his workshop, he argued that people should have the choice to self-experiment if they want to; we also change our DNA when we drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or breathe in dirty city air. Other society-sanctioned activities are more dangerous. “We sacrifice maybe a million people a year to the car gods,” he said. “If you ask someone, ‘Would you get rid of cars?’–no.” …

US researchers both conventional and DIY types such as Zayner are not the only ones who are editing genes. The Chinese study mentioned in Peters’ article was written up in an Oct. 19, 2015 article by Antonio Regalado for the MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

Scientists in China say they are the first to use gene editing to produce customized dogs. They created a beagle with double the amount of muscle mass by deleting a gene called myostatin.

The dogs have “more muscles and are expected to have stronger running ability, which is good for hunting, police (military) applications,” Liangxue Lai, a researcher with the Key Laboratory of Regenerative Biology at the Guangzhou Institutes of Biomedicine and Health, said in an e-mail.

Lai and 28 colleagues reported their results last week in the Journal of Molecular Cell Biology, saying they intend to create dogs with other DNA mutations, including ones that mimic human diseases such as Parkinson’s and muscular dystrophy. “The goal of the research is to explore an approach to the generation of new disease dog models for biomedical research,” says Lai. “Dogs are very close to humans in terms of metabolic, physiological, and anatomical characteristics.”

Lai said his group had no plans breed to breed the extra-muscular beagles as pets. Other teams, however, could move quickly to commercialize gene-altered dogs, potentially editing their DNA to change their size, enhance their intelligence, or correct genetic illnesses. A different Chinese Institute, BGI, said in September it had begun selling miniature pigs, created via gene editing, for $1,600 each as novelty pets.

People have been influencing the genetics of dogs for millennia. By at least 36,000 years ago, early humans had already started to tame wolves and shape the companions we have today. Charles Darwin frequently cited dog breeding in The Origin of Species to demonstrate how evolution gradually occurs by a process of selection. With CRISPR, however, evolution is no longer gradual or subject to chance. It is immediate and under human control.

It is precisely that power that is stirring wide debate and concern over CRISPR. Yet at least some researchers think that gene-edited dogs could put a furry, friendly face on the technology. In an interview this month, George Church, a professor at Harvard University who leads a large effort to employ CRISPR editing, said he thinks it will be possible to augment dogs by using DNA edits to make them live longer or simply make them smarter.

Church said he also believed the alteration of dogs and other large animals could open a path to eventual gene editing of people. “Germline editing of pigs or dogs offers a line into it,” he said. “People might say, ‘Hey, it works.’ ”

In the meantime, Zayner’s ideas are certainly thought provoking. I’m not endorsing either his products or his ideas but it should be noted that early science pioneers such as Humphrey Davy and others experimented on themselves. For anyone unfamiliar with Davy, (from the Humphrey Davy Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet PRS MRIA FGS (17 December 1778 – 29 May 1829) was a Cornish chemist and inventor,[1] who is best remembered today for isolating a series of substances for the first time: potassium and sodium in 1807 and calcium, strontium, barium, magnesium and boron the following year, as well as discovering the elemental nature of chlorine and iodine. He also studied the forces involved in these separations, inventing the new field of electrochemistry. Berzelius called Davy’s 1806 Bakerian Lecture On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity[2] “one of the best memoirs which has ever enriched the theory of chemistry.”[3] He was a Baronet, President of the Royal Society (PRS), Member of the Royal Irish Academy (MRIA), and Fellow of the Geological Society (FGS). He also invented the Davy lamp and a very early form of incandescent light bulb.

Canadian content*

A Nov. 11, 2017 posting on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) Quirks and Quarks blog notes that self-experimentation has a long history and goes on to describe Zayner’s and others biohacking exploits before describing the legality of biohacking in Canada,

With biohackers entering into the space traditionally held by scientists and clinicians, it begs questions. Professor Timothy Caulfield, a Canada research chair in health, law and policy at the University of Alberta, says when he hears of somebody giving themselves biohacked gene therapy, he wonders: “Is this legal? Is this safe? And if it’s not safe, is there anything that we can do about regulating it? And to be honest with you that’s a tough question and I think it’s an open question.”

In Canada, Caulfield says, Health Canada focuses on products. “You have to have something that you are going to regulate or you have to have something that’s making health claims. So if there is a product that is saying I can cure X, Y, or Z, Health Canada can say, ‘Well let’s make sure the science really backs up that claim.’ The problem with these do-it-yourself approaches is there isn’t really a product. You know these people are experimenting on themselves with something that may or may not be designed for health purposes.”

According to Caufield, if you could buy a gene therapy kit that was being marketed to you to biohack yourself, that would be different. “Health Canada could jump in. But right here that’s not the case,” he says.

There are places in the world that do regulate biohacking, says Caulfield. “Germany, for example, they have specific laws for it. And here in Canada we do have a regulatory framework that says that you cannot do gene therapy that will alter the germ line. In other words, you can’t do gene therapy or any kind of genetic editing that will create a change that you will pass on to your offspring. So that would be illegal, but that’s not what’s happening here. And I don’t think there’s a regulatory framework that adequately captures it.”

Infectious disease and policy experts aren’t that concerned yet about the possibility of a biohacker unleashing a genetically modified super germ into the population.

“I think in the future that could be a problem,”says Caulfield, “but this isn’t something that would be easy to do in your garage. I think it’s complicated science. But having said that, the science is moving quickly. We need to think about how we are going to control the potential harms.”

You can find out more about the ‘wild’ people (mostly men) of early science in Richard Holmes’ 2008 book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.

Finally, should you be interested in connecting with synthetic biology enthusiasts, entrepreneurs, and others, SynBioBeta is more than a conference; it’s also an activity hub.

ETA January 25, 2018 (five minutes later): There are some CRISPR/CAS9 events taking place in Toronto, Canada on January 24 and 25, 2018. One is a workshop with Portuguese artist, Marta de Menezes, and the other is a panel discussion. See my January 10, 2018 posting for more details.

*’Segue: There is some Canadian content if you keep reading.’ and ‘Canadian content’ added January 25, 2018 six minutes after first publication.

ETA February 20, 2018: Sarah Zhang’s Feb. 20, 2018 article for The Atlantic revisits Josiah Zayner’s decision to inject himself with CRISPR,

When Josiah Zayner watched a biotech CEO drop his pants at a biohacking conference and inject himself with an untested herpes treatment, he realized things had gone off the rails.

Zayner is no stranger to stunts in biohacking—loosely defined as experiments, often on the self, that take place outside of traditional lab spaces. You might say he invented their latest incarnation: He’s sterilized his body to “transplant” his entire microbiome in front of a reporter. He’s squabbled with the FDA about selling a kit to make glow-in-the-dark beer. He’s extensively documented attempts to genetically engineer the color of his skin. And most notoriously, he injected his arm with DNA encoding for CRISPR that could theoretically enhance his muscles—in between taking swigs of Scotch at a live-streamed event during an October conference. (Experts say—and even Zayner himself in the live-stream conceded—it’s unlikely to work.)

So when Zayner saw Ascendance Biomedical’s CEO injecting himself on a live-stream earlier this month, you might say there was an uneasy flicker of recognition.

“Honestly, I kind of blame myself,” Zayner told me recently. He’s been in a soul-searching mood; he recently had a kid and the backlash to the CRISPR stunt in October [2017] had been getting to him. “There’s no doubt in my mind that somebody is going to end up hurt eventually,” he said.

Yup, it’s one of the reasons for rules; people take things too far. The trick is figuring out how to achieve balance between risk taking and recklessness.

What’s a science historian doing in the field of synthetic biology?

Dominic Berry’s essay on why he, a science historian, is involved in a synthetic biology project takes some interesting twists and turns, from a Sept. 2, 2016 news item on phys.org,

What are synthetic biologists doing to plants, and what are plants doing to synthetic biology? This question frames a series of laboratory observations that I am pursuing across the UK as part of the Engineering Life project, which is dedicated to exploring what it might mean to engineer biology. I contribute to the project through a focus on plant scientists and my training in the history and philosophy of science. For plant scientists the engineering of biology can take many forms not all of which are captured by the category ‘synthetic biology’. Scientists that aim to create modified organisms are more inclined to refer to themselves as the latter, while other plant scientists will emphasise an integration of biological work with methods or techniques from engineering without adopting the identity of synthetic biologist. Accordingly, different legacies in the biosciences (from molecular biology to biomimetics) can be drawn upon depending on the features of the project at hand. These category and naming problems are all part of a larger set of questions that social and natural scientists continue to explore together. For the purposes of this post the distinctions between synthetic biology and the broader engineering of biology do not matter greatly, so I will simply refer to synthetic biology throughout.

Berry’s piece was originally posted Sept. 1, 2016 by Stephen Burgess on the PLOS (Public Library of Science) Synbio (Synthetic Biology blog). In this next bit Berry notes briefly why science historians and scientists might find interaction and collaboration fruitful (Note: Links have been removed),

It might seem strange that a historian is focused so closely on the present. However, I am not alone, and one recent author has picked out projects that suggest it is becoming a trend. This is only of interest for readers of the PLOS Synbio blog because it flags up that there are historians of science available for collaboration (hello!), and plenty of historical scholarship to draw upon to see your work in a new light, or rediscover forgotten research programs, or reconsider current practices, precisely as a recent Nature editorial emphasised for all sciences.

The May 17, 2016 Nature editorial ‘Second Thoughts’, mentioned in Berry’s piece, opens provocatively and continues in that vein (Note: A link has been removed),

The thought experiment has a noble place in research, but some thoughts are deemed more noble than others. Darwin and Einstein could let their minds wander and imagine the consequences of certain actions or natural laws. But scientists and historians who try to estimate what might have happened if, say, Darwin had fallen off the Beagle and drowned, are often accused of playing parlour games.

What if Darwin had toppled overboard before he joined the evolutionary dots? That discussion seems useful, because it raises interesting questions about the state of knowledge, then and now, and how it is communicated and portrayed. In his 2013 book Darwin Deleted — in which the young Charles is, indeed, lost in a storm — the historian Peter Bowler argued that the theory of evolution would have emerged just so, but with the pieces perhaps placed in a different order, and therefore less antagonistic to religious society.

In this week’s World View, another historian offers an alternative pathway for science: what if the ideas of Gregor Mendel on the inheritance of traits had been challenged more robustly and more successfully by a rival interpretation by the scientist W. F. R. Weldon? Gregory Radick argues that a twentieth-century genetics driven more by Weldon’s emphasis on environmental context would have weakened the dominance of the current misleading impression that nature always trumps nurture.

Here is Berry on the importance of questions,

The historian can ask: What traditions and legacies are these practitioners either building on or reacting against? How do these ideas cohere (or remain incoherent) for individuals and laboratories? Is a new way of understanding and investigating biology being created, and if so, where can we find evidence of it? Have biologists become increasingly concerned with controlling biological phenomena rather than understanding them? How does the desire to integrate engineering with biology sit within the long history of the establishment of biological science over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries?

Berry is an academic and his piece reflects an academic writing style with its complicated sentence structures and muted conclusions. If you have the patience, it is a good read on a topic that isn’t discussed all that often.

Science snobbery and the problem of accessibility

There’s a look you see in people’s eyes when you say ‘science’ or ‘mathematics’ or ‘engineering’ or ‘technology’. It’s not happiness or excitement.

At some point in our schooling, the sciences, mathematics, technology, and engineering became the exclusive property of those who were deemed to be talented in those areas and the rest of us weren’t necessarily treated well by the teachers or ‘talented’ fellow students.  Some people are so wounded by the experience they lose any interest or curiosity they might once have had and refuse to engage at all.

The odd thing is that most of us have more experience with science, engineering, and mathematics than we commonly believe.

There are very few people today compared to thirty years ago who don’t more or less understand how a computer operates. Car mechanics typically have to repair very sophisticated mechanical and electronic systems featuring computers and wireless technology. Hairdressers need to know a lot about chemicals and how hair and skin might react to them.  And, on it goes.

A sense of superiority seems to be a feature of human nature as if somehow we need to be better than someone else. That sense of superiority is found in many areas, as well as, within the sciences and mathematics and engineering and technology communities. Chemists are superior to engineers who are superior to technologists and all of them are superior to social scientists who return the favour and look down on scientists who they view as having low moral character and having, undeservedly, lots of money (I was in a session at a 2007 conference where that was the gist of the presentation and comments).

In this somewhat balkanized atmosphere it’s good to see people trying to establish a discussion about science, technology, mathematics, and engineering that doesn’t require an advanced degree or discount the comments of an amateur.

There’s a delightful Aug. 5, 2015 posting by John Hinton for the Guardian science blogs that espouses the joy of a ‘scientist pretender’,

I adored science at school. But my coursework assignments bewildered my teachers. Details of experimentations were often accompanied by personal anecdotes and quotes from obscure song lyrics. Irrelevant clip-art was rife. So when I had to pick a path through the labyrinth of life, i.e. select my A-levels, science fell away in favour of subjects where personal anecdoture and obscure lyricalism are paramount.

Despite my enforced rebuttal of science as a professional pursuit, it always retained a very special place in both my brain and bookshelf. Deep down, I wanted to be a scientist. And if you pretend for long enough (it has been suggested by non-scientists), eventually you become the thing you’re pretending to be.

So six or seven years ago, I started pretending to be a scientist. Specifically, I started pretending to be Charles Darwin in my first science-theatre show, THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES … And people were fooled – they came from far and wide to hear me speak, invited me to Australia and Norway and Croatia and Hemel Hempstead. …

Hinton has also pretended to Einstein but I find his latest pretence the most interesting,

Now it’s not easy, we’re told by lots and lots of people, to recruit women into the sciences – and it’s rendered even harder by off-hand remarks made by Nobel laureates. So I started wondering whether I could pull off the ruse of the century and pretend to be a woman scientist, to see if that’d help matters at all.

The scientist I chose was Marie Curie. Like the other two I’d pretended to be, she is the linchpin to a whole branch of science (evolution, relativity and radioactivity respectively). Like the other two, her discoveries have been used both for good (conservation, GPS, radiotherapy) and bad (eugenics, nuclear bombs, radium quackery). And like the other two, I don’t look very much like her.

I’ve already pretended to be Marie Curie in Brighton, where the reception was very positive, and I shall shortly be pretending to be Marie Curie in Edinburgh. And in a few decades’ time, we’ll see whether my efforts have led to a redress of the gender bias (the scientific basis I’ll use to judge my eventual success shall be strictly cum hoc ergo propter hoc, if you know what I mean).

Hinton will be at the 2015 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, so if you should happen to be in the vicinity,

The Element in the Room: a radioactive muscial comedy about the death and life of Marie Curie runs at Edinburgh Fringe’s Pleasance Courtyard, 5-31 August 2015 at 3.30pm, alongside the full trilogy playing in rep.

More information here.

While this next bit concerns women and science, it still pertains to the main theme of this posting which is that anyone can participate in science/mathematics/technology/engineering, including comedians. David Bruggeman in an Aug. 4, 2015 posting on his Pasco Phronesis blog reveals information about a very interesting new video series (Note: Links have been removed),

Last fall [2014] Megan Amram released Science…For Her!, a science textbook written as though by a women’s magazine writer who knows little about science.

If you couldn’t be bothered to read the whole thing, but still want to dive in, Amram has a solution.  She has partnered with Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls on a web series, Experimenting with Megan Amram.  (Poehler’s website has a great deal of science, technology, engineering and mathematics – STEM – content worth exploring, not just this series.)

I find it inspiring that comedy writers want to talk about science. You can find Experimenting with Meg Amram here. I understand from David’s posting that this is comedy with some science and the first episode features an interview with Dr. Beverly McKeon, associate director of the Graduate Aerospace Laboratories at the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).

Meg Amram and her book were featured here in a May 25, 2014 posting about the then upcoming book. For anyone unfamiliar with Meg Amram and Amy Poehler you can check out the Internet Movie DataBase (imdb.com) for their various television and movie credits.

Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), the Royal Society, and men

Silent Spring, the book by Rachel Carson, has had an extraordinary impact in Canada, the US, and many other parts of the world. The 1962 publication of the book effectively launched the environmental movement.

Carson died two years after publication with the consequences that 2014 is the 50th anniversary of her death. Britain’s The Royal Society in partnership with the Royal Society of Literature is marking this anniversary with a public lecture and panel discussion on Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014 (6:30 – 7:30 pm at The Royal Society, London). This is an astonishing event for reasons to be discussed after reading a description: Writing Wrongs,

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Rachel Carson, the American conservationist responsible for putting the environment on the political agenda. When her masterpiece Silent Spring was published in 1962, she was attacked as savagely as Darwin on the publication of The Origin of the Species, but the book spurred a reversal in US pesticide policy and led to a ban on DDT and other pesticides. But does Silent Spring persuade because of the strength of its arguments, or the beauty of its language? And have Carson’s warnings been sufficiently heeded? John Burnside FRSL is a prize-winning poet, short-story writer and novelist. A passionate environmentalist, he contributes a regular nature column to the New Scientist. Professor John Pickett FRS is Scientific Leader of Chemical Ecology at Rothampstead Research, and a world authority on pest control. In a conversation chaired by Damian Carrington, Head of Environment at the Guardian, they will discuss the complementary roles of literature and science in saving the planet.

This event is free to attend and open to all. No tickets are required. Doors open at 6pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Speech-to-text interpretation will be provided at this event.

If you require British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation please contact the events team no later than 2 weeks prior to the event and we would be happy to arrange an interpreter.

A live video will be available on this page when the event starts and a recorded video will be available a few days afterwards.

You’ll note that this is an all male panel, which is astonishing, given the number of female scientists working in the fields of environmental science and female writers of all stripes, especially in light of the raw sexism Carson was subjected to at the time her book was published. Victoria Johnson in her Aug. 7, 2014 posting on the Guardian science blog network supplies some context for concern not only about this particular event but others too (Note Links have been removed),

The problem is, Writing Wrongs has an all-male panel.

Debates about gender-balanced panels at conferences and public events are not new. In 2009 the group Feminist Philosophers set up a Gendered Conference Campaign, challenging the prevalence of all-male conferences in their field. In 2011, a group of gender equality advocates and activists pledged to boycott events with all-male panels. Then, in early 2013, journalist Rebecca Rosen took the rather novel step of asking men to sign a pledge to refuse speaking at or moderating events dominated by male contributors. More than 300 people signed the online pledge. But, within hours, it had to be anonymised because of the torrent of abusive comments.

Johnson then focuses specifically on Writing Wrongs event (Note: A link has been removed),

Earlier this week I wrote to the Royal Society asking why Writing Wrongs had an all-male panel. I even offered some suggestions for female speakers they might like to ask. My argument was that Carson is not only the most famous environmentalist and nature writer of the 20th century; she was also a female scientist who faced gender-based slurs from the mainstream media and naturally, vested interests, on the publication of Silent Spring. Keen to discredit the conclusions of her detailed analysis they dismissed her as a hysterical woman, unable to conduct objective research.

Not only was it strange to see an all-male panel, especially when I knew plenty of female science writers, academics and environmental journalists who would have been equally qualified to speak, it seemed entirely inappropriate given who had apparently inspired this event.

The Royal Society responded to my email. They’d asked a female chair, but she was unavailable. I was then told they were looking into other female speakers, but had needed to proceed with promotion of the event. Is it really that hard to find a female science writer or a leading academic working on pesticides? Not if you live in the 21st century and know how to use the Internet, write an email or operate a phone. I was then reassured, that sometimes; the Royal Society does have female representation on at important events. This was followed by some blurb and a link to their Equality and Diversity policy. Unfortunately, whenever I have challenged other event organisers on the lack of gender-balance, I have pretty much had the same response.

To get a sense for the quality of the vituperation that Carson experienced in 1962, there’s this from her Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Carson and the others involved with publication of Silent Spring expected fierce criticism. They were particularly concerned about the possibility of being sued for libel. Carson was also undergoing radiation therapy to combat her spreading cancer, and expected to have little energy to devote to defending her work and responding to critics. In preparation for the anticipated attacks, Carson and her agent attempted to amass as many prominent supporters as possible before the book’s release.[54]

Most of the book’s scientific chapters were reviewed by scientists with relevant expertise, among whom Carson found strong support. …

American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson’s analysis of DDT.[60] According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”[61] Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her personal character. White-Stevens labeled her “a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature”,[62] while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson—in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower—reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”[63] [emphasis mine]

Many critics repeatedly asserted that she was calling for the elimination of all pesticides. Yet Carson had made it clear she was not advocating the banning or complete withdrawal of helpful pesticides, but was instead encouraging responsible and carefully managed use with an awareness of the chemicals’ impact on the entire ecosystem.[64]  …

In the US (and elsewhere), an accusation of being a ‘communist’ particularly in the late 1950s and early 1960s could destroy your career.

Getting back to the modern day, having organized panels in the past, I appreciate how very challenging it is to get a diverse set of people on a panel but as Johnson notes, it shouldn’t be all that difficult in 2014.

Abandoning the effort to find a female speaker after what was apparently a single attempt seems a bit chicken-hearted. Were the event organizers concerned about avoiding rejection? If so, they should perhaps consider other job or volunteer activities as rejections are pretty common when trying to attract panel members.

Should the organizers try again, I have some advice: “Try to get more than one female speaker on your panel as cancellations are also common in these endeavours.” Of course, the organizers may end up with an female panel in the end as bizarre things can happen at the last minute to your carefully planned panel. I wish the event organizers good luck!

Darwin’s barnacles become unglued

The world’s strongest glue comes from barnacles and those creatures have something to teach us. From a July 18, 2014 news item on Nanowerk,

Over a 150 years since it was first described by Darwin, scientists are finally uncovering the secrets behind the super strength of barnacle glue.

Still far better than anything we have been able to develop synthetically, barnacle glue – or cement – sticks to any surface, under any conditions.

But exactly how this superglue of superglues works has remained a mystery – until now.

An international team of scientists led by Newcastle University, UK, and funded by the US Office of Naval Research, have shown for the first time that barnacle larvae release an oily droplet to clear the water from surfaces before sticking down using a phosphoprotein adhesive.

A July 18, 2014 Newcastle University (UK) press release, which originated the news item, provides some context and describes the research,

“It’s over 150 years since Darwin first described the cement glands of barnacle larvae and little work has been done since then,” says Dr Aldred, a research associate in the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, one of the world’s leading institutions in this field of research.

“We’ve known for a while there are two components to the bioadhesive but until now, it was thought they behaved a bit like some of the synthetic glues – mixing before hardening.  But that still left the question, how does the glue contact the surface in the first place if it is already covered with water?  This is one of the key hurdles to developing glues for underwater applications.

“Advances in imaging techniques, such as 2-photon microscopy, have allowed us to observe the adhesion process and characterise the two components. We now know that these two substances play very different roles – one clearing water from the surface and the other cementing the barnacle down.

“The ocean is a complex mixture of dissolved ions, the pH varies significantly across geographical areas and, obviously, it’s wet.  Yet despite these hostile conditions, barnacle glue is able to withstand the test of time.

“It’s an incredibly clever natural solution to this problem of how to deal with a water barrier on a surface it will change the way we think about developing bio-inspired adhesives that are safe and already optimised to work in conditions similar to those in the human body, as well as marine paints that stop barnacles from sticking.”

Barnacles have two larval stages – the nauplius and the cyprid.  The nauplius, is common to most crustacea and it swims freely once it hatches out of the egg, feeding in the plankton.

The final larval stage, however, is the cyprid, which is unique to barnacles.  It investigates surfaces, selecting one that provides suitable conditions for growth. Once it has decided to attach permanently, the cyprid releases its glue and cements itself to the surface where it will live out the rest of its days.

“The key here is the technology.  With these new tools we are able to study processes in living tissues, as they happen. We can get compositional and molecular information by other methods, but they don’t explain the mechanism.  There’s no substitute for seeing things with your own eyes. ” explains Dr Aldred.

“In the past, the strong lasers used for optically sectioning biological samples have typically killed the samples, but now technology allows us to study life processes exactly as they would happen in nature.”

The press release also notes some possible applications for these research findings (Note: Links have been removed),

Publishing their findings this week in the prestigious academic journal Nature Communications, author Dr Nick Aldred says the findings could pave the way for the development of novel synthetic bioadhesives for use in medical implants and micro-electronics.  The research will also be important in the production of new anti-fouling coatings for ships.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Synergistic roles for lipids and proteins in the permanent adhesive of barnacle larvae by Neeraj V. Gohad, Nick Aldred, Christopher M. Hartshorn, Young Jong Lee, Marcus T. Cicerone, Beatriz Orihuela, Anthony S. Clare, Dan Rittschof, & Andrew S. Mount. Nature Communications 5, Article number: 4414 doi:10.1038/ncomms5414 Published 11 July 2014

This paper is behind a paywall although a free preview is available via ReadCube Access.

Charles Darwin attends Vancouver’s (Canada) Feb. 12, 2013 Café Scientifique

Next week on Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, Vancouver’s Café Scientifique community will celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday. From their Feb. 5, 2013 announcement,

Our next café will be a special event to celebrate Charles Darwin’s birthday, Darwin Day, on Tuesday, February 12th, 7:30pm at Science World. (Note: There is no charge to enter Science World for this event, but admittance is to the Science Theatre area, not all of Science World.) Our speaker for the evening will be Dr. Greg Bole from UBC’s Department of Zoology.

He will be appearing in costume and in character, portraying a young Charles Darwin, as he has been for several years to classes and conferences in a wide variety of locations. His talk is titled, “Charles Darwin: Citizen Scientist”, and it will deal with the life and times of the man who developed the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Following Greg Bole’s talk and the Q&A period, Ian Bushfield of the BC Humanist Association will show us the certificate he received from Mayor Gregor Robertson proclaiming February 12, 2013 as International Darwin Day in the city of Vancouver. Finally, we will be screening the 2009 biographical film, “Creation”, starring real-life couple Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly as Charles and Emma Darwin.

We’re not able to provide beer for sale at this event, but you are welcome to bring your own alcoholic or non-alcoholic beverages, as well as your own food/snacks. We’ll have some ice available to cool your drinks.

I have seen Dr. Greg Bole perform as Charles Darwin at the Railway Club. ‘Darwin’ was a guest at an evolution rap performance as per my Feb. 21, 2011 posting titled, Performance, feedback, revision: Baba Brinkman’s Feb.20.11 performance.

Notice the reference to alcoholic beverages (beer) and snacks. It’s necessary since this Café Scientifique group usually meets at the Railway Club where they can order beer and food. Science World, aka Telus World of Science, is located at 1455 Quebec Street.

Prince Charles, evolution, and Baba Brinkman

It’s the Prince Charles Cinema in London’s Leicester Square not the prince himself that I’m talking about. Baba Brinkman, the Vancouver-based rapper whose Rap Guide to Evolution performance is about to be launched in a June off-Broadway show in New York, is launching yet something else tomorrow, May 25, 2011. From Baba Brinkman’s May 23, 2011 newsletter,

On Wednesday May 25 at the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square, London, we will be premiering the Rap Guide to Evolution Music Videos [emphasis mine], sponsored by the Wellcome Trust. The new website, www.rapguidetoevolution.co.uk, is now live, please take a moment to check it out! Over the next few months the site will be populated with a whole series of new music videos, links to evolution news and information, resources and discussion, all in aid of teaching evolutionary science through rap.

Here’s a preview of one of the new videos which will be premiered tomorrow night,

Here’s one more tidbit from Baba’s newsletter,

I’ve also just had word that Charles Darwin’s great-great-grandson, Randal Keynes, who has written a biography of Darwin and whom I had the pleasure of meeting two years ago in Cambridge, will be the opening speaker at the event. I just spoke to Randal half an hour ago and he said he’s really looking forward to the launch as well.

David Bruggeman at the Pasco Phronesis blog has more details about this launch in the UK (excerpted from his May 16, 2011 posting),

The new phase of the project is visual, with a grant from the Wellcome Trust and over 12,000 additional pounds (raised from volunteers) used to shoot and produce videos for each of the tunes. It was prompted by requests from teachers for a DVD edition of the Rap Guide. There is also a new track out, which Brinkman says is the first track from a forthcoming remix album. The project gets a proper U.K. rollout (the home of the Wellcome Trust) in London on May 25th.

Good luck to Baba Brinkman and the various teams working with him to produce these videos and shows.

Performance, feedback, revision: Baba Brinkman’s Feb.20.11 performance

Last night (Feb.20.11) was Baba Brinkman’s first Vancouver (Canada) performance in a few years and it may be another two years or more before he’s back. His Rap Guide to Evolution shows (commissioned by a UK scientist in 2008/9) led to a soon-to-be enhanced DVD (he raised the $$$ by crowdsourcing his funding) and to an off-Broadway run in a few months (as he noted in an interview featured in my Feb.17, 2011 posting).

Couple the scarcity of local performances with the fact that Baba performs an acclaimed (sometimes controversial) peer-reviewed rap, likely the only one of its kind at this point, then throw in a legendary Vancouver music venue, The Railway Club, and you have what amounts to an irresistible invitation (in my mind anyway).

An account of events from the Feb. 20, 2011 The Rap Guide to Evolution performance at Vancouver’s Railway Club: The venerable Charles Darwin took the stage first. Dressed in clothing reminiscent of the Victorian period and carrying a book, the actor (?), gave a history of his (Darwin’s) life and his theory of evolution. (ETA Feb.23.11 via Twitter: The “actor” at my show was
Dr. Greg Bole, biology professor at UBC and sometime Darwin impersonator.)

Generally speaking I wouldn’t expect a crowd with a few beers under their collective belts to welcome a history lesson. Well, it was a friendly crowd in the first place. Many of them were friends, family, members of the Centre for Inquiry, associates of RadioFreethinker and/or CITR 101.9 FM, as well as, Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms’ fans, etc. Plus, the actor (sadly, I don’t know his name) was very good and, after a few minutes, he managed to get the audience’s full attention and the room grew quiet.

That all changed when Baba took the stage. Somewhere in there, Charles Darwin/the actor left and we embarked on The Rap Guide to Evolution. The performance’s organizing metaphor was that of a book (also, Darwin read from a book) and each chapter reveals a new rap, lecture, and/or visual. There is data, as well as, music and rhyme and, at the end, Baba provides a list of the reference books he consulted when creating the ‘guide’.

Amazingly, he pulled off a very good performance about creationism, religion, belief, social constructivism, poverty, violence, gender, dating and mating mores, and, memory fails, other stuff too. There were even graphs to illustrate his statistics along with lots of music and audience participation on such songs as ‘I am A African’ (originally by Dead Prez) and ‘Performance, Feedback, Revision’ (an original by Baba where he sums up evolution).

It’s thoughtful, provocative work.

As for Aaron Nazrul & the Boom Booms, I had to pass up the opportunity to hear them this time, I hope there’ll be another.

Darwin theme: Rap about Darwin & evolutionary biology and Darwinism in quantum dots

You wouldn’t expect someone with this pedigree,

… Professor of Microbial Genomics at the University of Birmingham since July 2001. … is dually qualified as a scientist (PhD) and as a medic/clinical bacteriologist (MBBS, MRCPath), and benefits from Research-Council funding for both bioinformatics and laboratory-based molecular bacteriology projects. His interests focus on bacterial pathogenesis and the exploitation of sequence data, particularly genome sequence data.

to commission a piece of rap music but that’s just what Professor Mark Pallen did last year to honour Darwin’s anniversary (150 years since the publication of Darwin’s theory and 200 years isnce his birth). He contacted Baba Brinkman, a Vancouver, Canada -based rap artist, to commission a series of raps about Darwin and evolutionary biology. The project has become The Rap Guide to Evolution. You can find more about the work at Pasco Phronesis (thank you for the pointer) which also features a number of Brinkman’s videos. There’s also a Brinkman ‘evolutionary’ video on the CBC 3 (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) site. In that video, Brinkman spontaneously adds some lines to his rap. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to improvise while you’re presenting for any length of time but it’s not easy and Brinkman actually manages to do this while rhyming about evolutionary biology in front of an audience that’s somewhere between 200 and 500 people (I can’t be sure of the number).

There are some places I don’t expect to see any mention of the theory of evolution and quantum theory is one of those places. From the news item on physorg.com,

Physicists have found new evidence that supports the theory of quantum Darwinism, the idea that the transition from the quantum to the classical world occurs due to a quantum form of natural selection. By explaining how the classical world emerges from the quantum world, quantum Darwinism could shed light on one of the most challenging questions in physics of the past century.

The basis of almost any theoretical quantum-to-classical transition lies in the concept of decoherence. In the quantum world, many possible quantum states “collapse” into a single state due to interactions with the environment. To quantum Darwinists, decoherence is a selection process, and the final, stable state is called a “pointer state.” Although pointer states are quantum states, they are “fit enough” to be transmitted through the environment without collapsing and can then make copies of themselves that can be observed on the macroscopic scale. Although everything in our world is quantum at its core, our classical view of the universe is ultimately determined by these pointer states.

How researchers have used quantum dots  to provide evidence of quantum Darwinism and the link from quantum physics to classical physics is covered in the rest of the news item. The researchers’ study is published here,

A.M. Burke. “Periodic Scarred States in Open Quantum Dots as Evidence of Quantum Darwinism.” Physical Review Letters 104, 176801 (2010). Doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.104.176801