Telling the Scientific Method Story

science art, storytelling in science, science in society
The scientific method as a bucket filled with Mother Nature’s water with an ever -changing hue.

The science gap is huge. One of the biggest misconceptions hindering the advancement of scientific literacy in society is also one of the most crucial – the scientific method. And no wonder. Most people would look back at primary and secondary school and cringe when thinking about all the facts and concepts they had to memorize in science classes. I cringe when I think of the public concluding science is static and just the sum of all data gathered through the centuries.

The scientific method is dynamic and so is the collection of accepted scientific knowledge

Nothing in science is certain. In the words of the great Richard Feynman:

We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified — how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know, as a matter of fact. And most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge…

The idea that scientific knowledge is like a statue is a horrible, infectious disease in society. Consider this…

The scientific method is a bucket. This is not just any bucket; it holds all the scientific knowledge gathered throughout history. The bucket is just a utilitarian tool for collecting knowledge. Luckily, this bucket has a hole in the bottom. The scientific method is a two way street and is objective just like a bucket is just a bucket. At the beginning of it all, the bucket was filled with crystal clear water. Mother Nature had filled it for us but all its contents were a complete unknown. As human inquiry began, discoveries were like drops of color that allowed us to have a glimpse of the contents as it dispersed like food coloring in a glass of water. Each new discovery or observation adds a touch of color to the bucket. Nature’s true color will not be observed in our lifetime or possibly at all. Our curiosity and practice only adds to the hue within the bucket.

Sometimes we don’t know the hue of the water is wrong until new knowledge is obtained and added to the large bucket. With addition of the new color, drops of discolored water pour from the hole in the bucket. Soon the prevailing knowledge is uniform within the bucket. Science never sleeps so this constant increase in knowledge and data get us one step closer to the true color of the universe, or so we think until we find out the hue is all wrong as the hole opens and a novel color drops in.

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Storytelling in Science: The Cell as Your Favorite Restaurant Part II

Recap: The restaurant is the bacterial cell, the employees are the proteins/enzymes that serve the patrons which are the compounds/metabolites.

Who are the bosses that determine which, and how many, employees are needed for each type of patron?

The restaurant managers have a very important job to perform. They have to make sure the right number of employees are available to help their respective patron. If the balance between employees and patrons is not well maintained, it could cause disaster for the restaurant itself. In a past post, I tried to describe how bacteria made decisions. One of the predominant ways was the use of two-component systems. For this story, think of the restaurant managers as actually two people who need to work well together. One identifies its respective patrons and the other makes changes to the number of employees for those patrons. It is this balancing act that helps the entire restaurant to work smoothly.

A successful restaurant will open up new locations. The same can be said for bacteria. If conditions are right, the cell will divide into two cells. As with a cell, restaurants have to make sure certain activities are undertaken to ensure the new restaurant will be exactly like the successful one it is copying. The success of this restaurant is based upon the ability to keep the employees happy (by having patrons to serve and not sitting around bored) and keeping the patrons coming in. To duplicate this success, the new restaurant should have a building exactly like the current one so the patrons will easily continue to enter and leave. The new restaurant will also need the exact employee list for the managers to call upon when needed. The employee list is the genome of the cell that encodes the proteins needed for survival. That would make the copy machine that duplicates the employee list the DNA replication machinery. This special restaurant building is state of the art. It can expand until it is roughly double its original size then place a dividing wall down the middle of the large building until the building becomes actually two buildings. Now the restaurant can serve twice the number of patrons with the same efficiency as before. Each new building has the same employee list and rough the same number of employees to start off with. Then the managers start their work identifying the patrons in the restaurant to make sure the employees are there to serve them.

The two buildings shake hands and go their merry way…ready to serve.

In Part III, I will talk about the intercom system that allows major changes to happen to the kind of employees needed for economic downturns.

My Dream for Science Literacy: Abstracts 2.0

I have been wondering for some time: How can I make the biggest impact to science literacy (This was a start). However, I know I can do more.

Science Literacy

I received my weekly email of the Table of Contents for one of my favorite journals PNAS today and read over the titles of the articles. As usual, I’m reading them and saying in my head, blah blah blah because I am looking for certain keywords to identify the article as something I would be interested in (like chemotaxis or second messenger cyclic-di-GMP). Then it occurred to me,

I’m trained to know what these titles mean and which ones would interest me. What about everyone else in America? To them it’s just blah blah blah without the training to know if they would like the research or not. 

A majority of published scientific research is federally funded by taxpayer dollars in the U.S. yet most taxpayers have no idea why the research findings from these funds are important or how they contribute to a better society.

What if the article abstracts, laced with big words and jargon, were rewritten to a level where most people could understand; an abstract 2.o if you will? By reading a short summary of the work, anyone who wanted to know could actually understand the problem studied and the results. Maybe more importantly, the reader would not have to rely on interpretations of the research from popular media sources that have higher priorities than educating the public.

I will have more on this concept in the near future. Please let me know what you think and add comments and suggestions.

A Look Back (and not just about science)

I have never been one to look back the past year and reflect. It goes against my ADD personality, but this past year was really the best and worst of times…

The year started in style: the Animal Kingdom Lodge in Orlando on the concierge level in our pajamas dancing to the music in the lobby 6 stories below (we couldn’t sleep if we wanted due to the incredibly loud music). Life was good; I was a Science Writer. Little did I know in graduate school that this would be my dream job. How was I lucky enough to land it right out of the gate? We were rich (by our standards), my wife was preparing to quit her job as an underpaid, under-appreciated kindergarten teacher in the local public school district. Life was good.

For the first time in my life, I felt whole. I was providing for my family, contributing to the dissemination of scientific discovery to all that would listen (or read), and I was happy (especially taking pictures of deer outside my office window almost weekly to show my four year old daughter). I was even finding new creative ways to reach a broader audience through teaching myself 3D graphic/illustration software for the visual learners like me. Showing science was not a book of facts, but instead a beautiful creative glimpse at Mother Nature in all her glory.

The cards fell mid-August when I was told my position was being eliminated (post here). By mid-September, I was an over-qualified (yet under-qualified) stay at home dad with a Ph.D. I was broken and still am. Even though I have found one (maybe two hopefully) part time gigs to bring in some income, but my wife now must suffer through another year of purgatory-resembling bureaucracy teaching kids while pregnant (Yay!). It’s not fair to her or my family.

What a year, 2013. Good riddance.

Never underestimate clever bacteria: bacterial persistance

If there is anything I try to convey to anyone who will listen: never underestimate the intelligence of bacteria. A new case-in-point was published in the journal Infection and Immunity (Abstract only- Paywall) from researchers in Buffalo, New York to back up my claim. Former knowledge from two pathogens that cause strep throat, ear infections, and colds suggested they did not survive long outside the human body. However, a new study about Streptococcus pyogenes and Streptococcus pneumoniae suggests we were wrong and the bacteria were right.

Previous studies used unnatural conditions; i) cells grown in broth media and ii) free-living cells. These both are not encountered by bacteria which invade a human host. S. pyogenes and S. pneumoniae both infect humans as biofilms; very resistant, closely-connected bacterial communities. The present study used biofilm bacteria to test how long these bacteria could survive outside the body and still infect mice.

To drive the message home, researchers tested a day-care center for S. pyogenes and S. pneumoniae living on surfaces and capable of causing infection. Results indicate these bacteria were found at high levels and viable even after surfaces were cleaned before sampling.

Let me re-iterate: bacteria know survival. Don’t underestimate their ability to evade our most clever defenses and come out on top while we lay in bed recovering.

Thinking of moving operations to Blogger via JustScience.co.vu

I’ve been thinking about this for a long while. I have had a Blogger site up for a while and I think it is time to make the complete transfer. I love the community of WordPress, but I don’t like the restrictions for free users like myself. So, visit JustScience.co.vu and take a look. Please let me know what you think.

Thanks.