Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Science Blogging: There are Plenty of Readers Out There

There is currently a blogging debate going on about the absence of science from science blogs (initiated over at bayblab). Why are the most popular science blogs full of religion, politics, and controversy?

Larry at Sandwalk has also weighed in on the issue and notes that his posts devoted to geniune science get only a fraction of the readers that his more controversial posts get. There is no doubt that the evolution and creation controversy draws people - I see that in my traffic stats too.

So what should science blogs be about? I agree with Larry's point that a blog should be about whatever the writer is interested in; if you want to write about religion, science, or maybe even Thomas Pynchon (check my labels), go for it. But do you need to avoid the science to draw readers? Are most readers just bored to tears by our blogging on peer-reviewed research?

Not by a long shot, but you have to go out and find those readers. There are millions of readers who love to read the NY Times science section, Scientific American, Discover, and a bunch of other magazines like it. Books like "The Best American Science Writing" do reasonably well every year. These publications cover controversies, but they primarily have really good science writing - and maybe science bloggers could learn something from them.

Those of us who are professional scientists are so used to writing for our colleagues or blogging peers, and we think that with a few tweaks, it should be easy to get the reader off the street interested too. If those readers aren't interested, we take it to mean that few people care about real science. But I don't believe it. It's hard work to write about science well for the average National Geographic or Discover reader, and those of us who are used to writing NIH proposals may have a lot to learn.

If your major goal is to have your posts linked to by most of the other science bloggers around, that's fantastic and admirable, but it's not the same thing as writing for a big popular audience. When we write science mainly for other bloggers, we're not going to get a lot of traffic for our serious science posts.

The other problem is being found in the overgrown jungle of cyberspace. It feels like there are more blogs than people out there, about all sorts of crazy stuff; so it takes a lot of work for an interested, non-professional science reader to dig up the good stuff. Things like Digg and reddit make it easier, but it's still hard. You probably know where I'm going if you've been following my blog - the other place I write for, Scientific Blogging, is focused on writing about science for a really broad audience. It has double the traffic of ScienceBlogs, so clearly it's reaching a different audience. The readers are out there. (And anyone can go sign up for a blog on Scientific Blogging.)

Money has also came up in the debate - should bloggers be paid? I don't do ads here, but Scientific Blogging does give the larger share of the ad revenue back to its writers, who are free to write what they want (as long as it is about real science - real being the key term here). So I write there, and get paid. But if you write a book, you get paid. If you write a science piece for the New Yorker or National Geographic, you get paid. The pay for blogging for me and most of the rest of us doesn't come close to the value of the time I put into it - those of use with day jobs are not about to get rich from this. I'm hoping to be able to head over to Amazon a little more often, and to not have to stop buying coffee at my favorite roaster when money runs out about a week before I get my pacheck. But I do this primarily to talk about science - if money was my major motivator for doing things, there is no chance in hell I'd be a postdoc right now.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Plug-And-Play Inside Your Cells: Signals and Side Effects

My latest column is up on Scientific Blogging:

If you've ever had a severe asthma attack or gone into premature labor, there is a good chance you were given the drug terbutaline. Terbutaline can relax your involuntary smooth muscle when it's causing problems: in constricted airways during an asthma attack, or in the uterus during contractions. But if you've taken terbutaline, you've probably also noticed another effect: it can induce a pounding, racing heartbeat. How can one drug produce such opposite effects - relaxing smooth muscle in some parts of your body, while making your cardiac muscle work harder?

The answer is that terbutaline switches on a common information-processing module, called a signaling pathway, which gets used over and over in different cells to perform very different jobs. This information-processing module can be plugged into different cell types, where it will transmit signals from the environment outside the cell to the inside where the information is processed and acted upon. Because our cells use a common set of information-processing modules to carry out so many different jobs, it's easy for drugs that act on these modules to produce a wide range of side-effects.

Go read the rest at my column.

(Just to repeat my earlier note to long-time readers: for now own, my stuff aimed at a lay audience goes up on Scientific Blogging, more technical or personal stuff stays here on Blogger.)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Making Biology Easy Enough For Engineers

No, I'm not knocking the intelligence of engineers. But we're still not at the point where, in the words of synthetic biologist Drew Endy:

...when I want to go build some new biotechnology, whether it makes a food that I can eat or a bio-fuel that I can use in my vehicle, or I have some disease I want to try and cure, I don't want that project to be a research project. I want it to be an engineering project.

Just like designing a new bridge or a new car is not a scientific research project, designing biotechnology shouldn't always be a research project. But biology is still too hard, argues Drew Endy, in a reflective interview on The Edge. (Thanks to The Seven Stones for the tipoff).

Endy draws a distinction between those of us trying to reverse engineer complex biological systems and those who want to build them - you could say, systems biologists vs. synthetic biologists:

Engineers hate complexity. I hate emergent properties. I like simplicity. I don't want the plane I take tomorrow to have some emergent property while it's flying.

He seems to also be arguing that if we want to build truly predictive models of biological systems, like, say, an individual yeast, we should work on building biological systems, not just reverse engineering them:

If I wanted to be able to model biological systems, if I wanted to be able to predict their behavior when the environment or I make a change to them, I should be building the biological systems myself.

I understand this to mean that you start by engineering really simple things (individual genes), and move up to more complex things (promoters, chromosomes, genomes).

This sounds like a useful approach, but I still don't see how synthetic biology is going to go from engineering really, really simple systems to systems that approach the complexity of real organisms. In the case of mechanical or electrical engineering, the physical theory behind how these systems behave has been worked out, to a high level of sophistication, for decades. And thus we can engineer, fairly easily, things from thermostats to computers to Boeing planes.

But how do we go from building artificial genes and promoters to artificial metabolic pathways (without just copying and pasting an existing metabolic pathway, with minor tweaks)? Let's say you can cheaply synthesize a 50 million-base artificial chromosome, big enough to hold a set of metabolic or signaling pathways of your custom design. How do you choose what to put on your artificial chromosome?

I don't see how you can do it without a genuinely quantitative, formal, theoretical framework for treating biological systems, which we just don't have yet. To echo Endy's earlier quote on engineering, every new effort to model a biological system is a research project in itself, not a routine engineering task. How do we change that?

It's a fascinating interview, worth checking out.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

If Darwin Had A Web Browser, He Would Never Have Written The Origin

I've got a post on Darwin and the pace of science today up at Scientific Blogging:

How can today's wired, multitasking scientist ever compete with the great scientists of the past? One feature of Darwin's work as a scientists was that it proceeded slowly, very, very slowly. He wrote massive groundbreaking books, compiled huge amounts of data on orchids, barnacles, and Galapagos animals, but all over a long period of time. Scientists in Darwin's day had hours to kill on long voyages, took long walks out in the field, and waited while their scientific correspondence leisurely wended its way across oceans or continents.

Even in the first half of the 20th century, great scientists are famous for what they accomplished on long walks, hiking trips, and train rides. Niels Bohr would walk for hours around Copenhagen and come up with groundbreaking ideas, while Werner Heisenberg spent weeks every year hiking in the mountains. Even Richard Feynman, working in our more modern (but still pre-internet) era, insisted on long blocks of time to concentrate; he likened his thought process to building a house of cards, easily toppled by distraction and difficult to put back together.

Does that mean the kind of science we do in our overscheduled, multitasking world will never be the same as it was in the past? Certainly in one sense it won't - earlier generations of scientists had one distinct advantage we don't have today: Servant

Read the rest here

A note to regular readers: I'm going to start a division of labor between my blogs - posts aimed at a broad, non-specialist audience will go up at my column on Scientific Blogging, and more technical stuff or personal rants (which I haven't written much of lately, but more on systems biology and genomics is coming) will stay here in their entirety. I'll put links and the first couple paragraphs of my Scientific Blogging posts here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish and More on Darwin Day

Tuesday, Feb. 12 is the anniversary of Darwin's birthday, and has been dubbed Darwin Day. In celebration of Darwin's scientific achievement, many organizations are holding Darwin Day events.

Over at Scientific Blogging, we're celebrating with a feature page chock full of Darwin Day articles, links to Darwin Day blogging around the web, and highlights of events around the country. If you have a blog post you'd like highlighted for Darwin Day, head on over there, download the badge, and we'll put up a link to your post.

Included is my review of Neil Shubin's recent book, Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into the 3.5-billion-year history of the Human Body. Just to get you started, here is the first paragraph:

“ 'What does the body of a professor share with a blob?' Neil Shubin answers this and other questions about the evolutionary history of our anatomy in Your Inner Fish: A Journey Into The 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body (Pantheon, 2008). As an undergraduate student considering a research career in science, I once endured a 7 AM human anatomy course. In my semi-conscious state, breathing the slightly disturbing fumes of the preservative that the teaching assistant kept spraying on the cadavers, I was thinking, ‘this is morbidly fascinating, but really not that relevant to what scientists do today.’ If Neil Shubin had been teaching my anatomy course, I wouldn’t have struggled to get out of bed and make it to class on time. His book is a fun, compelling tour of the evolutionary history of the human body, filled with dozens of examples that nicely illustrate why biology only makes real sense when it is understood in the context of evolution."

Go read the rest over at Scientific Blogging

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Looking for Darwin Day Writers!!

Darwin Day is coming up Monday, and I'm sure a lot of you bloggers out there will be writing good stuff. Over at Scientific Blogging, we're organizing a last-minute Darwin Day Carnival. Download the badge here (keep in mind the page is still in the draft stage), put the badge in your post, and we'll provide an intro and link to your post.

Scientific Blogging gets almost 600,000 visitors per month - if you want a larger audience for your Darwin Day post, come take advantage of this Carnival.

Any questions? Leave a comment in this post, and I'll get back to you.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Super Tuesday Links

I'm trying to find time to write a paper, and thus I've neglected my blog. But here are two interesting links:

Super Tuesday and Science Debate 2008: The US National Academies of Sciences have joined in the call for a US Presidential Election Science Debate. The National Academies have offered to co-sponsor this event. If you haven't heard of this movement yet, go check it out.

One of the pioneers of molecular biology, Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg, passed away this past weekend. Lederberg worked in an era very different from today's big-team biology. His brilliant work making bacterial genetics possible is inspiring to at least one biologist who longs for more science based the ingenuity and creativity of individual researchers, as opposed to the large-scale, brute-force work common in today's biomedical research.