Jumping on the Carl Sagan Bandwagon (And Following the Laws of Physics)

Embarrassingly, I have to admit something. Despite my overwhelming love of science and passion for teaching science to others, I grew up not knowing whom Carl Sagan was. Back story: I grew up in East Tennessee, the son of a mechanic and a bookkeeper. I never even opened one of Sagan’s books until my 30s. I must say, it was my loss.

I have had the privilege of listening to the stories from those who knew Carl Sagan personally. He sounded like such a sweet, endearing person that the world desperately needed and unfortunately still does. By today’s standards, Sagan was a cosmic anomaly harnessing the knowledge from learning, the oration of a great leader, and the passion to spread the wonders of the universe to the masses.

Since the premier of the new production of Cosmos, listening to everyone talk of Sagan makes him sound like a god, but he was something even more great. Carl Sagan was a genuine, compassionate human being. He saw the big picture, even though it is too often clouded by politics and special interests, as what it was; our collective, solitary home among the vast cosmos. Our home has problems that must be addressed and these problems will continue to grow without intervention. Sagan knew a curious, enlightened society could be a force for change.

I wish I had known Carl Sagan, knowing how he has touched the lives of those who encountered him. Neil deGrasse Tyson has had enormous shoes to fill by assuming the role of navigator through the Cosmos. It is our turn to do our part as science communicators to ensure Sagan’s legacy rekindled is not in vain.

Repeat after me: There is no newly discovered hidden code in DNA.

It is a very sad and unfortunate occurrence when newly released research findings are hyped and overstated. This week the University of Washington Office of News & Information released a press release embarrassingly called “Scientists discover double meaning in genetic code“. Since then, the release has been picked up by websites across the globe. In that way, the press release did its job. Unfortunately, the statements within the release along with the title have done a world of harm. I can only hope it was unintended.

The release starts by stating scientists discovered a second code hiding within DNA.

This second code contains information that changes how scientists read the instructions contained in DNA and interpret mutations to make sense of health and disease.

This ‘second code’ will not change anything scientists do regarding studying DNA. This ‘hidden second code’ has been known and studied for decades.

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1960s, scientists have assumed that it was used exclusively to write information about proteins. UW scientists were stunned to discover that genomes use the genetic code to write two separate languages. One describes how proteins are made, and the other instructs the cell on how genes are controlled. One language is written on top of the other, which is why the second language remained hidden for so long.

Let me rewrite this paragraph to make it factual:

Since the genetic code was deciphered in the 1950s, scientists have continued to find additional layers of complexity in the regulation of how genes are transcribed to make proteins. The current study from UW scientists have added additional knowledge to this growing field.

This is the most unfortunate part:

“For over 40 years we have assumed that DNA changes affecting the genetic code solely impact how proteins are made,” said Stamatoyannopoulos. “Now we know that this basic assumption about reading the human genome missed half of the picture. These new findings highlight that DNA is an incredibly powerful information storage device, which nature has fully exploited in unexpected ways.”

This release was written by writers in a news department as a marketing piece, but when the scientist also grossly exaggerates the findings, it is very sad. Like Emily Willingham said in Forbes, “I can only hope that Stamatoyanopoulos didn’t really say that”. Scientists have not made any such assumption and have decades of evidence to the contrary.

The study shows that changes in the DNA sequence can have two-fold consequences upon the protein made from it. It can change the amino acid sequence of the protein and change which proteins bind that help transcribe the DNA into the RNA used to create the protein. This is not new. The finding that made this study worth of the prestige of publishing into Science is the frequency of the DNA code that is used to determine which proteins bind to the DNA to create the right form of the protein. These proteins, known as transcription factors, have been known for decades and bind to a number of DNA sequences to ensure the cell creates the exact protein needed.

As is common in press releases, the last part of the piece tries to explain DNA and the language of genes. In this aspect, the release does an even worse job:

The genetic code uses a 64-letter alphabet called codons.

The genetic code uses 64 different combinations of nucleotide sets of three, called codons; most of which code for one of the twenty amino acids needed to make a protein.

I could keep going, but I’m exhausted by trying to set the record straight.

Let me handle that, I’m a professional: A case for letting science writers tell of scientists’ discoveries

Everyone talks about how scientists should give back, outreach, blog, tweet, tumble, etc., as if it is some kind of charity work. What about science writers and science communicators? Are they to sit idly by while scientists (who are more worried about where the next grant will come) fumble through trying to communicate their “latest discoveries and innovations”? I think science writers should also give back, outreach, blog, etc., but not the way you think. The growing group of science writers should outreach to scientists as a form of charity. We all know they (most of anyway) need our help. When was the last time, writer, you emailed some of the top scientists in your passionate field to ask if there was any way you could help communicate to everyone what exciting new findings they have that most people wouldn’t know about?

This is all tongue in cheek dribbles I’m writing. But, I am trying to get a point across. As presented by scicurious, professors and grad students have a lot on their plate. It is about time we engage them.

Disclaimer: I’m very new at science writing since I just graduated with the Ph.D. in August 2012. I’m naive but optimistic (about this anyway).