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Call it a blogging sabbatical

Yup, it’s been a while since I posted anything new here. And it’s going to be a while before I post anything new again.

Four years ago, when I started this blog for a course assignment, I had no real intentions for it beyond having a little bit of fun en route to a relatively easy A grade. It was a light-hearted virtual forum where science could be funny at a time when real-life science was starting to feel decidedly unfunny. Eventually, it turned into a more serious exploration of issues surrounding scientific and academic communication, and ultimately, writing in general.

But as one might surmise from lengthy gaps between posts over the past year or so, it’s really become a blog in want of a purpose. It’s not that some of the recurring themes here have become less important or less interesting to me — I’m still writing about science communication and will still happily rant at anyone who will listen about the ways in which we teach writing and rhetoric. (Or don’t teach…but don’t get me started.)

What’s really changed for me over the past few years (besides, well…everything in my life & career) is my appreciation for story. Of course, writers don’t become writers without some knack for narrative, but I’m not talking about the mechanics of stitching together a beginning, middle, and end. I’m thinking about the ways in which we are cognitively wired for story — how our ability to frame (and reframe) our experiences through narrative inherently shapes our understanding of ourselves and others. This isn’t just the writer’s domain, it’s what we do as humans. We’re a storytelling species.

Lately, I keep running into interesting examples of story as a way of connecting people — from “story as civic engagement”, to large organized efforts like StoryCorps, to community storytelling as a means of fostering social inclusion among students from diverse backgrounds. Scratch beneath the surface of such initiatives, and what you find is shared vulnerability….story not only taking down walls between people, but creating its own safe space, respecting not only what can be spoken, but gently shedding light on what is left untold.

Is this not what we aspire to achieve as writers?

It’s making me rethink my understanding of story and what makes it tick. At times, that can be fascinating writing, but it’s not usually very interesting reading…especially not for a blog. So I’m taking some time off from the blog to tinker in the workshop, so to speak.

Worst case, something tells me that scientific and academic communication will still be rant-worthy six months from now.

Stories move in circles. They don’t move in straight lines.
So it helps if you listen in circles.
There are stories inside stories
and stories between stories,
and finding your way through them
is as easy and as hard as finding your way home.
And part of the finding is the getting lost.
And when you’re lost,
you start to look around and to listen.

~A Traveling Jewish Theatre, Coming from a Great Distance

Ten papers demonstrating unequivocally that scientists have a sense of humour

Of all the adjectives that come to mind when you think of academic or scientific writing, there’s one I’d bet sinks to the bottom of the list regardless of the audience. You might think a paper is unintelligible, incomprehensible, jargon-filled, complicated, detailed, sometimes exciting, often boring, but certainly not funny. I mean, science is serious business, and no researcher in his or her right mind would dare compromise citations for laughs.

Or would they?

Every year the scientific community waits on the edge of its collective seat for the announcement of the IgNobel Prizes, celebrating real research that “makes people laugh, and then think.” The lucky winners become the laughing stock for awhile, but the giggling is often followed by a sober realization: “Someone actually studied that? Seriously?”

Part of what makes the IgNobels so unabashedly funny is that often, they start out with a completely serious question. Does a person’s posture affect their estimation of an object’s size? (Apparently so, especially if you lean slightly to the left). Can a doctor accidentally make your butt explode while performing a colonoscopy? (Turns out it’s rare, but I’m sure…um…relieved that they did the research).

What’s a little harder to find in the scientific literature are examples of researchers being intentionally cheeky. But such examples do exist, and they call out for a Top 10 List.

Here it goes:

10. The unsuccessful self-treatment of a case of writer’s block.” (D. Upper. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 1974)

The reviewer’s comment on this paper sums it up best: “Clearly it is the most concise manuscript I have ever seen — yet it contains sufficient detail to allow other investigators to replicate Dr. Upper’s failure.” 

Which is precisely what other investigators set out to do. That it took 33 years and a research grant of $2.50 underscores the scope of the problem. Writing, it seems, is hard.

Many papers tackling such a difficult problem are lost to researchers outside of the discipline, but the beauty of Upper’s pivotal work is that it can be readily applied to different fields. Consider its recent application to a study in molecular biology:

Screen shot 2013-06-25 at 5.55.09 PM

Excerpt from Lorenz et al. (2011) ViennaRNA Package 2.0; Algorithms for Molecular Biology, 6:26 (Click to enlarge)

Only time will tell whether science will have the last…or first…word on this mystifying phenomenon.

9. “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” 

What at first seems like just another paper full of jargon about faster-than-light particles reduces to a simple and elegant conclusion: “Probably not.”

8. Synthesis of Anthropomorphic Molecules: the NanoPutians” (Chanteu & Tour, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2003)

They drew stick figures. With molecules!

Ever vigilant, however, of illustrating their nano-peeps in a way that would not be representative of their equilibrium state, the authors add this caveat: “…the liberties we take with the nonequilibrium conformational drawings are only minor when representing the main structural portions; conformational license is only used, in some cases, with the NanoPutians’ head dressings.”

Science…solving bad hair days, one molecule at a time.

7. “Trajectory of a falling Batman” (Marshall et al., Journal of Physics Special Topics, 2011)

This study is exactly what it sounds like. They analyzed the path of a falling Batman to determine whether our beloved caped crusader could indeed survive on a Batwing and a prayer. Their grim conclusion? Splat.

Or, as the authors put it (albeit far less eloquently in my opinion): “Clearly gliding using a batcape is not a safe way to travel, unless a method to rapidly slow down is used, such as a parachute.”  Noted.

6.  “The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute” (Lim et al, British Medical Journal, 2005)

Don’t you just hate it when your co-workers steal all the teaspoons?  If you’re a real scientist, you don’t get mad. You get a publication!

5. Chicken, chicken, chicken.

There are few things more satisfying in science than publishing a really important paper, and then being asked to present it at a really important conference. This is one of those truly remarkable papers that must be seen to be appreciated.

Now, you might think that a study such as “chicken chicken chicken” could have little application outside the poultry world. But you’d be wrong. Indeed, I know at least a few people who have adopted “chicken chicken” as the universal code word for a scientific talk that has gone on way too long. So here’s my public service announcement to researchers everywhere: if you’re ever speaking and the audience starts muttering “chicken chicken” to themselves, they’re not hungry — they want you to stop.

4. Santa and the moon” (Barthell, CAPJournal, 2012)

Do you remember when you were a kid on Christmas morning, and how you carefully examined the wrapping paper for its scientific accuracy before meticulously unwrapping the toy you’d been waiting for all year?

I totally thought so.

This one belongs in the category of “You might be a scientist if…”

Parents: If your child ever exhibits signs of trauma from the inaccurate portrayal of moon phases on wrapping paper, it might be time to have a serious talk about graduate school. Might I recommend this book at bedtime?

3. Absolute dating of deep-sea cores by the PA(232)/TH(230) method and accumulation rates: a reply” (Journal of Geology, 1963)

Sometimes, despite their best efforts, scientists make mistakes. Luckily, when this happens, there are usually other scientists happily willing to point it out. Such was the case with this paper, in which some scientists pointed out an error in the original paper, and the authors simply replied, “Oh well, nobody is perfect.”  Gotta admire their honesty.

2. Two body interactions: a longitudinal study

Who says romance is dead? Nothing quite says “publish or cherish” like a marriage proposal embedded in a scientific paper!

1. 20 more hilarious scientific papers in five minutes.

Thanks to Seriously, Science?  (or, the artists formerly known as NCBI ROFL).

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