Sunday, December 31, 2006

More in the NY Times on women in science

The NY Times is reporting on a conference at Rice University about women and science. (Free registration required.)

I've probably already said more than I should have about this subject, but there is stuff in this article that I can't let pass without comment.

I do agree that:
- Women make great scientists. We should have more of them.
- Women have faced severe discrimination on the road to a successful science career, especially the generation that currently holds most tenured faculty positions.

I think the greatest barrier women face in science today is not men looking down on them - it's the disproportionate cost borne by women in a career that demands severe sacrifices of people who are trying to juggle work and family. I believe that in academia there are fewer mechanisms of instutional support for women in tenure-track jobs who need time for family than there are in business or other professions like law or medicine. In terms of managing the grant funding for a research lab and training graduate students, women who hope to get tenure but take time off when their kids are young are at a severe disadvantage. I think we need to fix this (like 'start-up funds' or reserved grants for women who need to get the lab going again after maternity leave), so that the profession does not lose these talented women scientists.

What gets me riled up is the kind of garbage you can find in the Times article today - the claim that women will be judged more harshly than men if they don't use the correct balance of 'we' and 'I' when giving a talk on the collective work in their labs, that women can't be as aggressive as men when negotiating for resources, that they are excluded from networking, and that women are widely viewed by their male professional colleagues as "unsuited" for science. This is simply not true of the colleagues I work with.

One of the more egregious claims reported in the Times is that men show up to faculty job talks in jeans while women have to come in a suit. I have been to a lot of these talks - nobody who is serious about getting the job shows up in jeans, male or female. I have no clue where that ridiculous claim came from. Scientists, men and women, are notorious for dressing casual around the lab, but not when they are applying for competitive tenure-track jobs.

I can't speak for fields outside of my own - research in the basic life sciences, typically done in basic science departments at medical schools. Maybe it's different in all the other fields - social sciences, clinical sciences, engineering. Maybe it's a generational thing - I was born too late (or I'm too male) to really be attuned to the persistent prevalence of sexist attitudes in science. But I really don't see science as a major bastion of misogyny (which yes, it once was). The scientists I know are socially progressive and usually quite politically liberal. I just can't agree that the major reason for the attrition of women in science is the attitude of their male colleagues. The problems are structural problems in the career path which take a high toll on women who chose to have children at some point in their careers.

Are some gene names too demeaning?

Recently, science journals have reported on criticism of whimsical gene names - critics say that names like sonic hedgehog and lunatic fringe are offensive to people (or parents of children) who have a disease caused by an altered variant of one of these genes. This is also occasionally being picked up by the larger media - I heard a brief reference to this debate on NPR the other day. In the Nov. 9 issue of Nature (yes, I know I'm way behind on my news) we find this news brief (subscription required). It says:

"A survey by the Gene Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organisation, based at University College London, came up with ten genes that have "inappropriate, demeaning and pejorative" names, many of which are linked to eponymous developmental defects."

I agree that we shouldn't tell parents that their child has a bad sonic hedgehog gene, but the above sentence is wrong on so many levels. The gene names may be inappropriate, but, considering that these names came from the fly versions of the genes (since these genes were first discovered in flies), it makes no sense to call them "demeaning and pejorative." Nor does it make any sense to talk about the "eponymous developmental defects" since the genes are named after the fly develpmental defects, not the human ones. (Humans with mutations in one of the hedgehog genes do not look like hedgehogs, but fly embryos, with some creative imagination, do.)

What bugs me about this stupid debate is the scolding tone taken by the critics. Fly geneticists shouldn't give a damn about curbing the craziness of their gene names just because somewhere down the line the same gene may be involved in human disease. Science is a career that involves passion and fun, and biologists shouldn't walk around being excessively somber about their research, just because it may have implications for human disease.

The solution to this dilemma is simple, and shouldn't require the lecturing of the Orwellian sounding Gene Nomenclature Committee of the Human Genome Organisation. (I confess I have no clue who these people are.) Sonic Hedgehog and other such genes are frequently referred to by their abbreviations, such as Shh. This is how physicians should refer to them when speaking with patients or writing for clinical journals. Physicians can explain to their patients, who are often curious and will go do a literature search on their disease, that the gene Shh is named after the fly gene sonic hedgehog, which was named that way because it is somehow related to the hedgehog gene, which was named that way because mutant embryos look like hedgehogs. It's that simple, and nobody should be offended. And those of us who work on model organisms should be as whimsical as we want to be.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Scientist's take on Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day

Thomas Pynchon is an author that scientists should love. No other first-rate novelist has engaged more deeply with the actual content of our civilization's scientific discoveries, especially math and physics. His latest book, Against The Day, is no exception, and in fact incorporates even more scientific content than the rocketry-obsessed Gravity's Rainbow. This is because Against the Day spans the scientifically rich years around the start of the 20th century. Although a lot of my colleagues seem to have never heard of the guy, at least one physicist shares my taste for contemporary fiction and love for Pynchon's books.

What's great about the science in Pynchon's novels is that he knows his material well enough to purposely and very effectively blur the lines between what we'd call serious science and crank science. Ambiguity is a hallmark of Pynchon's writing, and the late (and not-so-late) 19th century advances in math and physics are fertile ground for Pynchon to plow: Grassman algebra, Maxwell's equations on electromagnetic theory, Hamilton's quarternions (there is even a crazy quarternion song at a Quarterionist party that begins: "O, the, Quizzical, queer Quarter-nioneer, that creature of i-j-k"!), Riemann surfaces, the Michelson-Morely experiment, etc. Throughout the book, Pynchon features fanatical crank devotees of various scientific ideas right alongside legitimate scientists. For example, various more or less nutty groups show up in Ohio for the Michelson-Morely experiment, which takes place early in the book.

Louis Menand, in a review of Against the Day for the New Yorker put it this way:

"We [today] know (roughly) how it all turned out, but if we had been living in those years it would have been impossible to sort out the fantastical possibilities from the plausible ones. Maybe we could split time and be in two places at once, or travel backward and forward at will, or maintain parallel lives in parallel universes."

Yet Pynchon is by no means anti-science. His books are about forces that shape and drive people's lives, and how people respond to them - to the personal, societal, and physical forces that leave us uncertain about what's true and what control we have over our own lives. Science and technology have been major forces acting on all of our lives, and Pynchon handles this theme better (and with more complexity and nuance) than any novelist I've come accross, including great science fiction novelists like Asimov and Dick.

This is why I think Laura Miller is seriously wrong, reviewing Against the Day for Salon (under the ridiculously portentous title "The Fall of the House of Pynchon") when she writes that younger writers now have a "grasp of the systems that fascinate Pynchon -- science, capitalism, religion, politics, technology -- [that] is surer, more nuanced, more adult and inevitably yields more insight into how those systems work than Pynchon offers here." While I love the writers Miller mentions (David Foster Wallace and Neal Stephenson), nobody can do what Pynchon does as well as he does it. Maybe you need to have some basic literacy in math and science (and the aid of Wikipedia or Penrose's The Road to Reality) to really appreciate it, and as many professional reviewers of Against the Day admitted, 7th grade math is enough to confuse most people. (Pynchon started out as a physics or engineering major at Cornell before swtiching to English, and he worked as a technical writer for Boeing, so he has some background. But for most of it, I imagine he has to be self-taught, something he obviously has a great capacity for.)

Which leads me on to the subject of the high-profile negative reviews the book has received. (If you're bored by literary dust-ups, here is a good place to stop reading this post!) There were several prominent, early negative reviews that overshadowed the many positive ones. Kakutani, in the NY Times, trashed the book, but it's not surprising - she has a long history of hating this kind of fiction, and I doubt she really spent the necessary time with the 1,100 page novel - her mind was made up before the book was even published. For scientists, it's like having the guy who is philosophically opposed to your work review your manuscript submission - that's the kind of guy you ask editors to exclude from lists of potential reviewers. Incidentally, the NY Times also published a longer, very positive review by someone else. (For a positive review, and a ton of links to other reviews, check out the Literary Saloon.)

The common theme in most of the negative reviews (and a common complaint made by critics of Pynchon in general) is that his characters are flat and devoid of humanity. I find Pynchon's books to be some of the most human books I've read. The best way to make this clear is by a comparison with modern art: Some people think that characters in a novel are inhuman unless they are fully fleshed out, filled with rich and undistorted detail that allows us to know all about them, much like a Delacroix painting (like this or this.) But in great modern art, artists can capture the essential humanity of a character in more sparse, angular strokes, without the flood of realistic detail - like Picasso here and here. If Pynchon's character's are cold and inhuman, than so are Picasso's.

If you're tempted to read Against the Day, don't let the high-profile negative reviews scare you away. Pynchon's books are complex, but in a good way - the way wine is complex compared with Coke, or a good coffee compared with Nesquick. His prose is stunning, and I, for one, can't get enough of it.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Going though the NIH review process

One of the most critical things a postdoc in science has to do is get independent funding. Even if your mentor is rich, proving that you can put together a research proposal and successfully obtain funding is a critical career step.

I submitted four funding applications this year, my first year as a postdoc. It's a long, slow process - each funding application has different length and content requirements - ranging from 10 pages not counting references, to 5 including references. By far I found the NIH applicatio to be the most onerous. (The NIH was the only US government agency I applied to - the rest were private foundations.) The application includes a massive, 104 page instuction manual for filling out all the damn forms. And then it takes months and months to go through the whole cycle. I submitted my application in August, and I just got my reviews back. I won't know about a final funding decision until February at the latest.

It was an interesting experience getting these first reviews. NIH fellowship applications are scored on a scale of 100-500, with 100 being the best. (Actually, I don't think they really score proposals that earn a score worse than maybe 300 - the applications considered to be in the worst 40% are 'triaged' and not reviewed further.) Applicants also get a summary of the discussion that took place in the review session, and written critiques from three reviewers.

Each of my three reviewers disagrees with the other two at some point. It's amusing to read some of the examples:

Reviewer 1: "The application is for an average candidate in an outstanding environment..."
Reviewer 3: "This is a very strong application from an outstanding candidate..."

Reviewer 1: "However, there is little discussion of the possible outcomes of each set of experiments, or the possible pitfalls and stumbling blocks that might be encountered if all does not go as planned..."
Reviewer 2: "This specific aim was concise, comprehensive and well-written. It
addresses potential concerns..."

As long and cumbersome as the overall process is, I got fair, good-faith reviews from all the people involved, even though I disagree with some points here and there. My program officer at the NIH (the person handling my application) said I was in the 'maybe' category. The worst part is that I have to wait a few more months (by which time I will have completed my first year as a postdoc) to hear the final decision. And then I may have to do a minor rewrite, and go through the whole damn cycle again. It's a long process for something that's supposed to happen during a relatively short postdoctoral period.

Now that I'm obviously much wiser about this, having gone through the whole process exactly 0.75 times, I have some advice for any grad students who stumble across this blog:

- find a mentor who has excellent grant writing skills and get him or her to give you a ton of advice

- find a postdoc who already has fellowship funding, and get a copy of that proposal. Reading someone else's successful proposal is invaluable.

- keep sending in applications everywhere you can until someone gives you money.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Molecular biologists don't understand molecular biology, but Creationist engineers do?

Via Pharyngula I heard about these thoughts by a Creationist engineer musing on the contents of a molecular biology textbook (the link is to All-Too-Common Dissent, a pro science blog written by a scientist, where you can find the link to the original Creationist post):

"My hypothesis is that the field of molecular biology is simply not understood by the majority of biologists and thus pretty secure from rational debate by laymen. By claiming that this discipline (which they probably don't understand either) proves Darwinism and that Darwinism is vital to understanding molecular biology, the Creationists can be silenced, humiliated and put in their place by simply invoking superior knowledge. More malpractice?"

And there's this gem:

"It [this molecular biology textbook the guy was looking at] has a considerable Physical Chemistry and Organic Chemistry component which would make it intimidating for the large majority of biologists, but this subject is really foundational to understanding the molecular foundations of genetics"

Eh? The field of molecular biology is not understood by the people who are actually doing professional research on the subject, but it is understood by a fundamentalist Christian engineer?

So biologists don't know enough math, chemistry and physics to understand what they're doing? I hear comments like this every so often, like the guy who told me that his chemist friend doesn't consider biochemists real chemists. Another example is the first comment to the All-To-Common Dissent post where one guy says this:

"I'm an engineer but also did biology at university for one year. Let me say that the math and physics done at the university level by biology students nowhere approaches real math or physics; it's barely beyond grade 12 level. That said, the only biology you get in engineering is a few things about bacteria when it came to municipal water engineering, so not a whole lot, and certainly less than what biologists got in math and physics."

One year of freshman biology does not really give you an idea of the kind of quantitative training biologists get. I definitely think that biologists these days need more quantitative training to deal with some of today's most exciting research questions (and the educational trend is going in that direction). However, as Scott showed in the original post on All-To-Common Dissent, undergraduate biology curricula require plenty of math, physics, and chemistry - enough to truly grasp molecular biology as well as it's understood today, and usually much more chemistry than engineers are required to learn (chemical engineers excepted of course).

Biochemists get serious chemistry training - as an undergraduate, I had 5 semesters of chemistry (plus labs) before I took a year's worth of biochemistry; I also had 4 semesters of physics, including a class on quantum mechanics where we practiced solving the Schroedinger equation (admittedly just the easier time-independent form). Most biochemistry programs require 1-2 semsters of physical chemistry as well (I didn't major in biochem, so I didn't take p-chem). Anyone who has taken an upper-level undergrad course in physiology can vouch for the quantitative nature of that field. (The course I took involved more math than was in my chemistry classes.)

It's true that biologists generally don't go beyond two semesters of calculus and maybe introductory linear algebra, but frankly you don't need more than that to be a successful molecular biologist who understands the field. (Also, most of us learn much of our math in physics and chemistry courses, not math courses.)

At the graduate level, almost all programs require anyone in biology to take a graduate-level biochemistry course, which involves a lot of homework problems dealing with kinetics and thermodynamics (physical chemistry) and enzyme reaction mechanisms (electron-pushing organic chemistry) - maybe intimidating, as the Creationist engineer claims, but the fact is, all of us biology PhDs had to take and pass it.

And I'm not even getting into genetics, which has its own quantitative foundation.

Engineers and physicists like to pretend that biologists stop their quantitative training as soon as they finish high school. As we've seen, that's not true, but there is another important point - nobody, not even engineers and physicists, has really figured out (yet - I'm still hopeful) how to effectively, compellingly, use more sophisticated math to produce a deeper understanding of biology. Computer scientists and statisticians have contributed a lot to genome sequence analysis, but we have not yet produced very predictive theories or models of cellular behavior that are rooted in the physical behavior of the components of the cell. That may require more math than what biologists are using now. However I doubt that biology (or engineering, for that matter) will ever require the kind of math used by today's theoretical physicists. For the time being, most biologsts know enough math and chemistry to understand the discipline they work in.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Best Science Books

Once more, it's the most commercial time of the year, and every one is coming out with their Holiday Book recommendations. While the NY Times and the Washington Post put out the most well known best books list (and I'm peeved, but not surprised, that Thomas Pynchon and Richard Powers didn't make these top 10 lists), Discover Magazine has put out a list of the best 25 science books of all time.

The blog for the National Book Critics Circle notes that this list "is more about scientific umph than readability." Frankly, I don't even think that's true - I really can't see what bizarre criteria would generate a list that includes Newton's Principia (not that readable), Lovelock's Gaia (not much scientific umph), and Watson's Double Helix (very readable, but not a scientific milestone like the Principia). "Scientific umph" is frankly a bad criterion for a list of great scientific books, because major accomplishments in science are generally not first presented in book form (with a few obvious and older exceptions - Newton's Principia, Darwin's Origin. Sheer literary value is not a good criterion either, because you can have well-written 'science' books where the science itself is not really that substantial, but the writing is so good they're worth reading anyway. (Some people are going to hate me for this, but I find Lewis Thomas's books to be in this category. Personally, I don't find them as insightful about science as the books on my list below, but I know others disagree.)

A list of great books should have both scientific umph, and literary value, but in this sense: they should be compelling, well-written books that convey something deep about science - how it works, how its practitioners think, or about a specific concept. They should make a serious contribution to how we (scientists and the public) think about some aspect of science.

So I've put together my (currently partial) list of what I think are the best science books (in English), books which should be readable (though not necessarily easily readable - understanding science does take effort) by people who aren't professionals in the subject dealt with:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes (1986) (and the 'sequel', Dark Sun, about the hydrogen bomb). This is the most amazing scientific history I've every read. Rhodes writes in absolutely stunning prose, and gives the best current historical account of the development of nuclear physics. Along with the elements of scientific history and biography, Rhodes also develops other themes, like the relationship of science to war, the state, and secrecy. Science writing doesn't get any better than this.

The Character of Physical Law, Richard Feynman (1965). I have fantasies about some day teaching an Intro to Science course using these incredible lectures about scientific reasoning. Feynman was a master lecturer (keep in mind that essentially all of Feynman's books are edited transcriptions of lectures). So while the prose, in a literary sense, may not be Pulitzer material, as lectures, Feynman's language is superb. This book provides very deep insight into scientific thinking, with (naturally) a large slant towards physics.

On the Origin of Species, Charles Dawrin (1859) (Also, The Descent of Man, which I think is a better second Darwin book to read than the Voyage of the Beagle.) One of the few books of the last 200 years to be in itself a major scientific contribution. The Origin is still popular because it is one of the most readable original scientific contributions out there. Darwin was apologetic about his writing style, but hey, in general those Victorians were pretty damn literate, so it's a good read. Actually, Darwin's style is quite good - he usually avoids the pathologically florid style which other scientific writing of that era often succumbed to. This book is substantial because it lays out a major scientific discovery and is an excellent example of scientific reasoning.

Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman, Leighton, and Sands (1964) (In principle, this should be generally readable, since it begins with Freshman physics; in reality, it's very tough. Lay readers can do almost as well with the subset of the lectures contained in 6 Easy Pieces and 6 Not So Easy Pieces.) Why am I giving this a separate entry, when I've already included The Character of Physical law? These lectures, while providing similar insight into general scientific reasoning, give an excellent presentation of specific scientific content - of what we have actually learned through scientific reasoning. If you're a person whose willing to plow through dense books by people like Kant, Wittgenstein, or James Joyce, the same effort with the lectures on physics will be well worth the payoff. In terms of language, again keep in mind that these are edited lectures - from this perspective, the language is very well crafted.

The Double Helix, James Waton (1968) This is a well-written account of one of the major discoveries in biology.

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins (1976) This is sort of a popular book, sort of an original contribution, but like Darwin's Origin, a well-written exposition of one way of reasoning using evolutionary concepts.

What is Life, Erwin Schroedinger (1944) This is somewhat dated, and some of the ideas presented have been rejected. However, this book single handedly pushed many physicists into biology, some of whom turned out be major figures in the development of molecular biology. This book is valuable for more than just historical interest though - Schroedinger raises unsolved issues about the Origins of Life.

Genius, James Gleick (1992) (Chaos is another great Gleick book that I think is at the same level.) This is my favorite scientific biography of all time. Gleick, like Rhodes, is a superb writer. I almost didn't put this book on this list though, because I don't think Gleick effectively conveys the content of Feynman's scientific work. (In Gleick's defense, quantum electrodynamics is incredibly abstract and tough to convey.) But, as a work about what makes a scientist tick, and how a great scientist develops, this book ranks among the best.

Goedel, Escher, Bach, Douglas Hofstadter (1979) A great big, substantial meditation on math, music, and logic, composed in vivid, well-crafted language.

A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking (1988) A classic discussion of some of the big questions facing physics.

I'm going to stop the list here (out of sheer laziness, and to leave room for other great authors I haven't read yet), but obviously there are many more that can be included. There are a bunch of other books that are some of my personal favorites, but don't, for one reason or another, quite have the timeless/universal quality of the books above:

The Road To Reality, Guns, Germs, and Steel, Ahead of the Curve, The Demon-Haunted World, Human Natures, The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Creationists (this is a really well-written book about people trying to cope with their faith and the progress of modern biology), This is Biology, Boltzmann's Atom, Silent Spring... - this list can go on for awhile.

My favorite science book published in 2006 was Nicolas Wade's Before the Dawn, about human evolution. Wade is a skilled writer who can effectively convey scientific content in accessible language. On the downside, I don't think this book does enough to distinguish hypotheses and speculation from widely accepted scientific conclusions, always a tough issue when you're describing science at the frontier of a given field.

There's a lot of good stuff to read out there.

UPDATE 12-4-06: I forgot to include one major book that should have been on Discover's list: The Eight Day of Creation, by Horace Freeland Judson (1979) This is one of the most insightful histories of science. It deals with the molecular biology revolution, and is full of excellent material about how the founding molecular biologists chose their questions, thought about them, and largely solved them. There is no better book on molecular biology.