Category Archives: Science

A Scientific Disjoint

I’ve been fortunate to work in a double bubble. As a university scientist, I’ve been immersed in a culture that promotes open discussion of issues and results, and as Director of SFU’s Centre for Dialogue I work in an environment whose sole reason for existence is the free exchange of ideas.

Scientists in other habitats don’t have that same luxury to be approachable and accessible. Take Canada’s federal scientists, for example: their attendance at conferences is highly restricted, even mildly controversial opinions are muzzled, and those few researchers allowed a rare media interview are accompanied by a handler who shuts down queries that make the current political party in power uncomfortable.

Research libraries are being unceremoniously dumped of their contents, and field stations shuttered if they conduct research that might yield results out of synch with government policies.

And then there are industry scientists, who rarely publish information contrary to their company’s best interests. Even outsourced industry research in collaboration with university scientists often is tightly controlled by contract, with publication allowed only with industry permission. With diminishing government support for science, these arrangements with industry have become increasingly pervasive, further driving the scientific community into the most anti-science of attitudes: silence.

The increasing control of science by political agendas and industry funding is particularly tragic given the myriad issues that would benefit from a more public discussion of results and ideas. Climate change, pharmaceutical side effects, health of fishery stocks, pesticide impacts and the environmental consequences of oil spills are only a small sample of the many issues that citizens need to hear about from scientists representing a wide spectrum of perspectives in order to make informed decisions.

Part of the answer to this conundrum is for scientists themselves to advocate for more open exchange of results from government and industry research, and for limitations on the silencing impact of corporate funding. In recent months we’ve seen scientists rally in protests across the country, write commentary opinion for newspapers and even practice civil disobedience to bring the currently dismal state of scientific discourse to public attention.

But more is needed, particularly from opposition political parties, to promote policies that open scientific inquiry to public attention. A few pro-science ideas in an election platform would be intriguing, policies that would improve the capacity of scientists to contribute to important civic issues:

  • Allow media unfettered access to government scientists, and allow their now-suppressed opinions to emerge without censure or consequences
  • Cease relying on research from industry about the health and environmental consequences of their products, replacing this currently self-serving system with independent research funded at arms length by industry, without corporate control
  • Link all research grants with a requirement to communicate results clearly to the public, and provide students at undergraduate and graduate levels with the skills to communicate effectively with public audiences
  • Ask media to do a one-for one: every time they are denied access to a government scientist, they will list the incidents on the front page of their paper or within a television broadcast, pointing out what we, the public, won’t know because of muzzling
  • Revive a federal science office, dedicated to enforce the open communication of science

Naïve? Absolutely. But I’ll campaign for any political party that adopts one or more of these or similar pro-candidness election platforms.

 

Eat, Pray . . . Scientist?

I learned a surprising thing from an unusual source the other day.

The unusual source was Elizabeth Gilbert, in her novel The Signature of All Things, about a fictional 19th century woman who studied moss. Gilbert is best known for her blockbuster romantic breakup and resurrection memoir Eat, Pray, Love (but for her most extraordinary writing try the lesser-known but phenomenal The Last American Man http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/books/the-last-american-man/).

The surprising thing I learned from her novel was that the word scientist has not existed for long. It was coined in 1834, and its origins reflected one of the most significant trends in human curiosity: a fracturing of knowledge into what can be proven and what cannot.

The inventor of the word was William Whewell, a 19th century English thinker notable for his breadth rather than any specialized accomplishment.

He was successful as a philosopher, mathematician, and Anglican priest, and most known scientifically for his research on ocean tides. He also published in the fields of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy and economics,  as well as composing poetry, translating Goethe and writing sermons and other theological articles and books.

Whewell wrote two prominent books on the history of science, invented the terms physicist, ion, diode, anode and cathode, and also is attributed with the first use of the word scientist, although it did not come into common use until the end of the 19th and early into the 20th centuries.

Whewell was being critical in coining the new term scientist, condemning the emerging disciplines of science as representing “an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment . . . the mathematician turns away from the chemist, the chemist from the naturalist; the mathematician, left to himself, divides himself into a pure mathematician and a mixed mathematician, who soon part company . . . and thus science loses all traces of unity.”

Whewell used the term scientist to comment on how society in his day was changing the nature of inquiry. Prior to Whewell, those who inquired were referred to as natural philosophers, whose seeking of knowledge was not restricted to any one sphere.

The new term reflected an emerging division in human thought, in which scientists conducted research to better understand nature, while philosophers were those who pondered intangibles that couldn’t be proven by data.

Science was moving towards strict hypothesis testing, narrowing its activity to encompass only that which could be tested, recorded, observed and measured, constricting the breadth of inquiry.

We’ve gained and lost something by becoming scientists rather than natural philosophers. The gain is in rigor, the scientific way of knowing that requires proof, in which ideas can be tested and rejected or accepted.

But we’ve also lost that broader capacity to embrace that which cannot be proven through experiment. The terminological division between scientist and natural philosopher, and the narrowing of science to each practitioner’s narrow discipline, diminishes the scope of wonder we can bring to the mysteries of the universe around us.

Whewell’s naming of what was an incipient phenomenon in his time only recognized what has become a signature element of modern life: a diminished capacity to accept that which we cannot know.

Call it religion, spirituality, nature loving or just plain awe: life is richest when the unknown seamlessly mingles with fact, when science and unsubstantiated reverence are held comfortably together.

If you’d like to read more about Whewell and the etymology of scientist, see:

Sydney Ross B.Sc. Ph.D. (1962) Scientist: The story of a word, Annals of Science,

18:2, 65-85, DOI: 10.1080/00033796200202722

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00033796200202722

Experience your education

I was a seriously underperforming undergraduate student at Boston University in 1970, bored by classes and distracted by, well, all the things that distract a young man of 20. But I needed a summer job, and as a Biology major I got it into my head to knock on faculty members’ doors to see if I could find a research position. I had a dim understanding that’s what biologists, at least the real ones, did for employment: they were paid to study things.

I began knocking, wearing my usual overalls, long and unkempt hair and beard, with only my pathetic transcript loaded with C’s and D’s to offer prospective employers. After being quickly refused and dismissed at every door, I finally found myself at Lynn Margulis’s office door. I had no idea that Lynn was among the most stellar evolutionary biologists of the last 100 years, and Boston University’s most famous scientist at the time. To me, she was just another door to knock on and face what I had come to expect as inevitable rejection.

But instead, she dragged me into her office, and spent most of that afternoon passionately and enthusiastically introducing me to primitive one-celled organisms. She pulled out old articles by LR Cleveland about the magnificent termite gut symbionts, and the work of then-obscure Russian protozoologists describing the most bizarre organisms imaginable. I didn’t understand more than 5% of what she was saying, but was hooked on her passion. And to my great surprise she gave me a summer job, and let me loose in her lab to do real research.

In spite of her stratospheric accomplishments and huge reputation, Lynn had little in the way of grant money, due to her reputation as a maverick and an outspoken critic of how mainstream science was funded and conducted. And, being a strong-minded woman in 1970’s science with what were then radical scientific ideas was not endearing to granting bodies.

But oddly she did have some funds to develop a new screening method for anti-cancer drugs. The idea was to examine how the potential drugs interfered with the growth of tiny hairs (cilia) that make up the mouthparts of one-celled organisms. These hairs are made of the same proteins that create the push-and-pull structures that divide cells. If a drug interfered with the mouthpart hairs, it might also interfere with the out-of-control cell division that characterizes cancer.

My first task was to do a 24-hr. experiment in which I shocked the cilia hairs to shed with chemicals, then followed their regeneration every 2 hours in the presence of various doses of potential anti-cancer drugs. Control cells would take about 8 hours to regenerate, and our hope was that the anti-cancer drugs would slow or prevent regeneration until at least the next day.

I began at 8 AM, checking the dishes of pond water in which the cells were swimming every two hours, recording the state of the hairs. It got to be dinnertime, then later, and it occurred to me that I would be up all night with this experiment doing my two-hour checks.

Fortunately I had friends in the neighborhood near the laboratory who habitually stayed up late imbibing various things and partying. I joined in, but returned to the lab faithfully every two hours to collect the data.

By the next morning I was over-tired and in a somewhat altered state, but dying to know whether the results meant anything. After the last 8 AM check, I took out a piece of graph paper and recorded each 2-hr. data point, and to my amazement the data formed a perfect straight line; the dose of drug was exactly related to how long it took the cilia to regenerate.

A perfect fit. Exactly related. Unusual in science, but a life changer for me. For the first time I understood that a well-conceived experiment could reveal something about the world no one had known before, unpeeling the tiniest, tiniest piece of the great mystery posed by the universe around us.

It was also my first experience in school with personal agency. It was a revelation that  even as a student I could make things happen, find things to study that made a difference in the world outside of what, until then, had been the boring classroom. It made me want to pay attention in lectures, to learn what I needed to know so that I, too, could be a scientist.

I’m often asked why I started an experiential learning program, Simon Fraser University’s Semester in Dialogue (www.sfu.ca/dialogue/semester), and Lynn Margulis comes to mind. Lynn passed away recently, after an illustrious career replete with almost every award imaginable, but it’s her faith in what students could accomplish that remains to me as her most lasting legacy.

I had the pleasure of introducing Lynn at a lecture once, and called her my fairy godmother. I think that’s about it: she reached out and touched so many of us with her magic wand, turning what looked like toads into princes with her unwavering confidence and support that we could be more, way more, than we thought we could be.

Isn’t that what teaching should be about?