Review: The Lives of a Cell

In a scurrying ant hill, it is tempting to see a civilization, constructing its pyramids or cathedrals for generations far in the future — tempting too to consider our own societies as higher-order ant hills, each individual barely aware of their contributions to a larger force. Often these metaphors are dry, breaking down at the slightest probing, offering little beyond a shrug.

But in The Lives of a Cell, Lewis Thomas manages to create, from such simple analogies, deep and complex meaning. In this delightful collection of essays from the early 1970s, Thomas, a physician and member of the National Academy of Sciences, uses empiricism not as final truth, but as a nucleating event for greater insights into our human nature and the driving curiosity behind science.

His central thesis, conveyed steadily across each compact essay, is the fundamental need for life to interact and the whole that emerges greater than its parts. From termite colonies to human language to the biosphere itself, Thomas treats symbiosis and emergence not as special arrangements but as the natural order of things: organisms seek cooperation before annihilation.

What sets this collection apart from most science writing is that it principally focuses on forming good questions rather than leading the reader to the ‘correct’ conclusion. It is searching and expansive. The essays synthesize disparate facts into cohesive, fresh interpretations of the meaning of life — all life. Most of Thomas’ ideas, unlike the science they are based on, are untestable. Those that could be falsified may be one day. Does this detract from his insights? I hardly think so; not all things worth considering can be tested.

It is also refreshing to see a committed scientist connect his discipline to his wider interests. Language in particular fascinates Thomas, with whole essays committed to language as humanity’s anthill — our genetic inheritance to construct and improve, ceaselessly. Entire other pieces absorb the reader in the speciation of words from Indo-European roots and the surprising (or is it obvious?) parallel development of etymological and biological evolutionary theories in the 19th century.

The work is of its time, of course. Thomas writes lovingly of our endosymbiotic organelles — the mitochondria and chloroplasts that undergird all complex life — and speculates that the centriole, the fibers that properly divide chromosomes, may be the third such cellular companion. Though this is not the case, we now know, it hardly detracts from the lesson on symbiosis as a deeply entrenched force of nature.

And even 25 years after the Cold War, his appeal against Armageddon resonates still. It takes the form of a challenge: to input into a computer a complete set of knowledge about a single organism, so that the survivors of a nuclear holocaust have a head start in rebuilding biological science. The target, Mixotricha paradoxa, is a brilliant choice as it, astoundingly, comprises at least five species in close endosymbiosis. These bonds are so tight that, in place of cilia, the protozoan uses hundreds of thousands of spirochete bacteria to power its swimming through the termite’s gut, where it digests cellulose in an additional layer of collaboration.

Thomas gives the challenge a lunar-like ten years and, more optimistic about a computer’s motivations than our own, writes:

“I take it on faith that computers, although lacking souls, are possessed of a kind of intelligence. At the end of the decade, therefore, I am willing to predict that the feeding in of all the information then available will result, after a few seconds of whirring, in something like the following message, neatly and speedily printed out: ‘Request more data. How are spirochetes attached? Do not fire.’”

With such cleverness, he explores the anxieties of his time and communicates enduring lessons about the ceaselessly mysterious nature of studying biology, where each new answer only spurs more questions.

Science can tell us truths about nature; it has little to say on truths about ourselves, on how we should live, how we should feel about the world we study. Yet in contemplating the human need to search for understanding, and in attempting to synthesize a collection of biological facts into a philosophy of life, Thomas has drawn from science inspiration for a decidedly unreductive view of the creatures that inhabit our blue and green Earth.

Joyce Carol Oates, in reviewing this collection, writes:

“The Lives of a Cell anticipates the kind of writing that will appear more and more frequently, as scientists take on the language of poetry in order to communicate human truths too mysterious for old-fashioned common sense.”

Indeed, it is just this kind of poetry that elevates science — so often mistaken for dull and dry — to the the level of exploration, of wonder, of… what if!

[A version of this post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]


Why my sources are (usually) happy to talk to me

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Hard at work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom

Mid-way through my experience as a science journalist for the summer, I realized that unlike some of my colleagues in the newsroom around me, my conversations on the phone with sources were rarely combative. The university researchers and government scientists and physicians were usually happy to talk with me about their work—the process, the scope, and the limitations.

(In fact, many are keen to point out the limitations, for fear of stoking baseless hype.)

Sure, getting your name in print is fun, and most scientists don’t often see that. But maybe more that that: Scientists want to look at the world and then tell other people about what they’ve seen. Is that really so different than what drives journalists?

We even use the same language. The verb “report” comprises a formal account, as in a research study, and the gathering of information and preparation for print or broadcast. Reporting is what I do at the Journal Sentinel. Reports are the main section of Science Magazine.

Science has its share of scandals and closed doors—it's a human endeavor after all—but as an institution it’s about discovery and transparency, even if it falls short of those goals.

So I can go ahead and ask probing questions. That’s what scientists are trying to do of themselves all the time; there’s no offense to be taken there.

Now, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.

Scientists are concerned about their reputation, like anybody else. The one piece of hate mail I have received in my work was from a researcher who was incensed, thinking we intentionally made him look bad. It was a misunderstanding, and he reacted petulantly, saying his reputation was at stake. Nobody wants to look dumb, and I’m sorry he felt hurt.

Other sources have been guarded at the beginning of our conversations, claiming they have been “burned” before with misquotes and inaccuracies. Speaking with a reporter is a brief relationship built entirely on trust, so it’s natural that when that trust is violated people are more cautious for a time. A few well-formed questions and assurances typically open them up; their inclination is ultimately to speak freely.

But most have been thrilled to set aside half an hour or more of their time to talk with me. They are passionate about sharing their work with just one person, and hopeful that our readers will see their work as they do.

I am preparing to go back to being a scientist as my ten-week internship continues to fly by. I hope that I have gained some skills in communication, writing and investigation that will help me be more successful in that work.

But I also hope that the passion for discovery and communication I hear from the sources I speak to every day sticks with me as I head back to lab.

 [This post originally appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

A Summer of Science Reporting

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

The motherboard at the NPR mothership

After learning I’m a graduate student, a lot of people I meet start asking me in the spring what kind of job I’ll get for the summer. It’s a year-round appointment, I tell them, and is a lot like a normal job—no summer vacation. I had to do even more explaining than usual this year because I am taking the summer off from lab, but neither to lollygag nor to pad my bank account. Instead, I’ll be a science reporter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This summer, I am one of 20 scientists accepted into the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Mass Media Fellowship. We will scatter all around the country to report on science for newspapers, magazines, radio, and television.

Now in its 41st year, the MMF aims to give young scientists the opportunity to learn about and hone their skills in science communication. Many alumni stay in academia or industry research, while still writing for a general audience more often than their peers. But many others—43% according to the AAAS—formally transition to science journalism and communication, a number many fold greater than for most graduate students.

The fellows are drawn from a pool of students pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees in the natural sciences and engineering; journalism students do not qualify. Across their different disciplines and education levels, the MMF participants are connected by their motivation to solve the challenges of translating technical information into understandable and engaging material. The program has trained hundreds of students in four decades, and counts among its alumni the co-chair of President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, and popular reporters such as NPR’s Joe Palca and David Kestenbaum.

I can no longer remember how I learned about the program, or even how I discovered that ‘science communication’ was a viable (albeit not exactly lucrative) profession. But knowing both, securing a spot in this program became my top professional priority. As one alumni says, the MMF is “a ready-made way to pole vault out of academia and into journalism.” And I needed that boost.

About this time last year, I happened to meet the one person in the world who knew that the American Society of Plant Biologists-sponsored fellow had dropped out at the last minute, and I was put in touch with the program coordinator, Dione Rossiter. I hurriedly submitted a half-application to try and fill the slot, but was rejected in light of the unusual circumstances, although invited to reapply for real in 2015. The 2015 program was already in my sights, but I was only more motivated to land a spot by this close encounter. Plus, I got to learn more about the application process in a way that helped me prepare to apply in January of this year. Luckily, things broke my way and I was accepted.

Now I am cruising at 33,000 feet on my way to Washington, D.C. to meet the 19 other fellows and go through orientation. We’ll practice interviewing techniques and how to pitch a story to our editors, tour NPR(!), and mingle with alumni. Then off to Wisconsin, where I will write science stories for the local desk of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. According to accounts from previous fellows at the JS, it’ll largely be up to me to find, pitch, and report the stories I’m interested in, so long as they have a local angle. The freedom is enticing, but nerve-wracking. Fortunately, the paper has Pulitzer prize-winning science reporters I can probe for advice, but the impetus will be on me to make the connections necessary to be successful.

I am grateful for this opportunity and anxious to get started moving my byline from blog posts to newsstands. Check back here for updates during the summer. Or pick up a copy of the Journal Sentinel in the coming weeks to see what I've been up to.

[This post first appeared on the Haswell lab blog]

Audio File #4: Civil, Civic Discussions

Our conversations about civic matters—economic policies, schooling systems, religion, science, and social institutions—are severely lacking in nuance and reasoned debate. Instead, what flourishes are simplistic arguments and ad hominem attacks. This trend is strengthened by a media environment where we can easily consume pieces tailored to our point of view, avoiding challenge and change.


On Being is a weekly public radio show hosted by Krista Tippett ostensibly about religion and spirituality, but now the host of a broader series of discussions called the Civil Conversations Project. I used to turn off On Being when it came on my radio Sunday afternoons, put off by the wispy quality, assuming it was a liberal echo chamber of feel-good, empty spirituality.


But as I would listen in snippets, or accidentally turn it on in the car, I found it to be a series of careful, respectful dialogues about difficult subjects, with religion, of course, among the trickiest.


So it did not altogether surprise me to find myself enchanted by arecent episode on gay marriage, which really became a window into how to have civil debates. An interview of David Blankenhorn and Jonathon Rauch—originally on opposite sides of the gay marriage debate, and now friends in agreement on many issues—the discussion covered David’s changed mind on gay marriage, but much more interestingly their process of what they called “achieving disagreement.”


For this post I really want to excerpt some longer segments that, I think, speak for themselves. I encourage listening to the full episode. To have two people agree about how to disagree, that are intellectually honest in their point of view and empathetic enough to consider the other side is tragically rare these days and models a better way to converse. I think we can learn from them how to continue to passionately disagree while remaining not just polite, but truly civil.


Following are minimally-edited excerpts.

Read More

Reaching Across the Gap with Curiosity

"I think there is nothing so exciting as listening to someone think on the radio." — Jad Abumrad

On Wednesday, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich of Radiolab fame presented at Washington University’s first Ampersand Week, a series of events celebrating the ‘and’ of Arts and Sciences, or the value of liberal arts education over exclusive specialization. A perfect choice for such a purpose, Radiolab draws on the composing background of Jad and the inventive science journalism of Robert to explore scientific topics with a humanistic lens. The event took place in Graham Chapel, the pews filled with students, faculty, staff, and the public for the free event.

I was not sure what this presentation would entail. Would they present a live version of Radiolab? Or just introduce a series of archived podcast segments? The experience was somewhere between those two. Relying on existing tape, Jad and Robert discussed the production of Radiolab, the task of distilling technical knowledge from experts for a lay audience, and the musicality and intimacy of radio over other mediums.

Jad opened by acknowledging his mother, sitting in the front row, an obesity researcher here at Washington University, a professor in my program no less. I had no idea. On the large screen behind them, Jad put up a picture of his mother’s protein, what she studies every day, which helps bring fats into the cell. In fact, Jad grew up in a scientific home, with a medical doctor father and scientist mother, an environment that clearly influences his work to bridge the sciences and the arts.

The first segment began by peeling back the curtain on how a formal interview with a scientist becomes radio drama. Robert spoke with Cynthia Kenyon, a C. elegans researcher at UCSF, about two genes that control aging in the tiny worms. One is a hormone receptor, which, when activated, represses the activity of a transcription factor. When the transcription factor is allowed to function, it controls the expression of many separate genes that work together to increase the lifespan of the worms several fold. Jad played the unedited interview, demonstrating how even a media-savvy researcher stumbled to translate the molecular action of genes into something a non-scientist could grasp, and even care about. It was awkward and difficult to keep track of.
But as Jad pointed out, Cynthia’s explanation naturally gravitated to exciting, narrative verbs. Spring. Inhibit. Leap into action. The nouns suffered from alphabet soup—scientists rely heavily on acronyms and jargon for naming genes—and specialized phrases. Receptor. Transcription factor. DAF-2. Radiolab’s job, then, was what Jad called “noun replacement therapy.” Keep the substance, but swap technical language with vernacular.

The translated version: The Grim Reaper Gene (hormone receptor) cue evil laugh battles it out with the Fountain of Youth Gene (transcription factor) cue toddler giggles for control of the aging process. Beat up on the Grim Reaper (mutate it) painful groans and the baby is free to keep cells, and the animal, youthful, blowing spit bubbles as it does.

To some scientists, this kind of translation may seem simplistic. (Cynthia produced the gene nicknames, it was not a liberty taken by Radiolab.) Robert even phrased it as having to ask, “How stupid do you want to be?” Always there is a trade-off between accuracy and understandability. Always. “You’re somehow trying to find a way to stay in the middle,” Robert said. Choosing that point, and then finding that point, is the challenge a show like Radiolab contends with for every topic. But to avoid any kind of simplifying is to wall off scientific research to the ivory tower, something far more damaging than “noun replacement therapy.”

This translation is not foreign to most of us, maybe just lost. Jad recalled trying to bridge the gap with his mom to explain her work when he was a kid, dinner plates standing in for cells and the salt shaker for her protein, the iterative process of trying to get closer to the truth one curious question after another. Our interest in understanding something new, something difficult, is dampened by a culture that discourages looking stupid, but it can be encouraged as well. Jad and Robert try to use the power of stupid questions asked with genuine curiosity to recapture that sense of wonder. “Yes, but why?”

Robert said that if they approach a scientist with sincere curiosity, about 60 percent will spend the time to tell them what they need to know. I wish that number were higher, but I am surprised it is that high. I think they may have a self-selecting group of scientists more inclined to work with the media than most. But I could not say for sure.

Beyond translation, the hour-long presentation delved into the frenetic production of the show, with layers of music and noise and swirling audio energy, a style that aims for a composer’s musicality and an authentic struggle for new knowledge. As a technically naïve but huge fan of radio, I appreciated seeing the depth of production at the software level that goes into making one of my favorite shows. Although hard to miss in a show like Radiolab, I know that most audio production is successful when it goes unnoticed, but it is good to be reminded of the work that goes into these programs.

The floor open to questions, I waited in line at the mic to ask: How can scientists help reach back out to the journalists, or the public, who have reached toward us to help bridge these gaps? I did not get an answer to my question, but I did get a good answer to a good question.

Robert instead answered the why. Why should scientists care about communicating their work? He couched it in militaristic, epic terms—scientific inquiry is the product of intellectual freedom, a resource that is constantly endangered. To tell a story of the science we do is an enchantment, one that can draw people in and convince them that the freedom required for this kind of work is worth demanding and worth preserving. No less than the ability to perform honest work is at stake in the communication of our research.

Jad again put on screen the structure of his mother’s protein, her life’s work, to help illustrate his partner’s answer on the value of free inquiry. He then answered a question closer to my own. “The story of science is in most cases the story of ceaseless failure, which is really the story of everyone who walks the earth,” he said. Tell that human story of vulnerability, confusion, failure, and occasional bright points of insight and success, and anyone can be reached.

Distilling the Discussion of Climate Change

Speaking science is hard. There’s a lot that goes into it. How do scientists, journalists, or other communicators get across the scientific process, facts, models and predictions? In a way that doesn’t put everyone to sleep? Persuasively, even? Science is a process that goes on for years and decades, and a particular subject area may need to be condensed down to 15 minutes, if we’re being generous.

Climate change is the prime scientific subject in our culture today. Everyone has heard of it, most people have an opinion about it, yet it remains muddied in a haze of misinformation, hyperbole and doom. “How to talk about climate change so people will listen,” an article by Charles C. Mann in The Atlantic, tackles the problems of persuasion and the limits of facts in this conversation.

Unlike most non-scientists—okay, unlike most scientists too—Mann digs into a doom-and-gloom news story about sea level rise associated with climate change and reads the two journal articles that backed up the story. He found that the timeline was left out of the story: barely any effect would be seen in his lifetime or even while any descendants could remember his name, according to the predictions. An economic-moral problem at the heart of this incredibly long-term problem is how much do we value future generations, and how much should we do to help them out? “How much consideration do I owe the people it will affect, my 40-times-great-grandchildren…,” Mann writes. “Americans don’t even save for their own retirements! How can we worry about such distant, hypothetical beings?” The human species isn’t good at planning for the future. Can facts and scary stories overcome that limitation at all?

Every side in the debate throws a mass of data at unsuspecting lawmakers or the public, hoping to win over hearts and minds. This strategy has two weak points: the invocation of Science, and the presentation of facts. The data, Mann writes, only work well between climatologists, but “for the typical citizen they are a muddle, too abstract—too much like 10th-grade homework—to be convincing.” Previous research on persuasion shows the limits of data for winning over the skeptical, even the neutral. Another problem is that every side claims the science is on their side, and the do-nothing crowd is all-too-happy to point out the rare dissenting scientist and then let the ‘controversy’ spin itself. “Bewildered and battered by the back-and-forth, the citizenry sits, for the most part, on its hands,” writes Mann. Like children in the middle of feuding parents, most people are too frozen to pick a side, instead hiding their head under the pillow. Who can blame them?

Science communication comes upon this thorny problem like Sisyphus against his boulder. Progress is made—in polls, in treaties almost signed—then lost again, erased in a cloud of obfuscation and contrived debate. Because it’s not easy, because facts are insufficient, because it will take work and money to address the causes and symptoms of climate change seriously. Some environmentalists turn in frustration toward hyperbole—spitting out boldly false predictions of Malthusian starvation—and “moral blackmail” that sours the public on the whole movement.

Mann argues that to move past the confusion, we need to simplify the discussion and define quantifiable objectives. When talking about carbon, the majority comes from burning coal. And although a lot of carbon dioxide is also released by burning gasoline in personal cars, coal is burned in a much smaller number of power plants, making it easier to wrap our minds around. “No matter what your views about the impact and import of climate change,” Mann writes, “you are primarily talking about coal.” Although the most economically sound solution to producing too much carbon dioxide, an essentially global carbon tax that avoids ‘carbon haven’ countries, is still politically and practically difficult, “it is, at least, imaginable”. And that’s a step.

The Obama administration is, in fact, taking this approach. Coal emissions in the United States are now supposed to be reduced 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.  Is it enough? No. But it’s a start. And reflecting on the lessons taught by the conversation around climate change can help us think about other thorny issues where the communication of science is at the forefront. If we can begin to condense down the salient points about climate change—coal is at the forefront, and changes can be made—then we can think more clearly about simpler issues, like GMOs. Coming to a mutual understanding about what’s at stake, be it coal emissions or agricultural pesticides, can help clear away the clutter and improve both the communication of science and help society decide what to do about the issue at hand.

Narratives in Science Communication

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an eminent scientific journal, recently published a Supplement focused entirely on science communication. I was happy to see this arrive in my inbox from my mentor because not only do I want to work professionally as a science communicator, but I also want my fellow scientists to recognize the importance of this endeavor and focus on the presentation of our work to non-scientists. Frankly, I expect it will be easier to get a job if people give a damn. And my motivations for wanting to get into science communication are several, but among them is a desire to see the issue of talking about science taken seriously and worked on by scientists of all kinds.

(A note: The full articles are open access and available to all. So take a look!)

There are twelve articles in this Supplement and I have yet to churn through them all, but I want to present a summary and commentary of one in particular. I think it is representative of some of the accomplishments and limitations of this kind of scientific writing on science communication.

Titled “Using narratives and storytelling to communication science with nonexpert audiences,” this article by Michael Dahlstrom argues that, despite storytelling’s un-scientific nature, it is an effective form of communication that should be leveraged in our efforts to speak with non-scientists. Contrasting narrative with the “logical-scientific” form of communication common within scientific groups, the author notes how scientific communication aims to remain general and true across contexts, while narratives are inherently tied to a specific context for their meaning.

Drawing on social science research, Dahlstrom points to the primacy of narrative in the human brain. We think in narratives, we speak in narratives, we muse over the past and plan the future entirely in stories. An intrinsic property of human thinking is to prioritize narrative over the less-familiar scientific forms of thinking we have developed over the centuries. It’s presented as an evolutionary advantage for our social species. So, harnessing the power of narrative to drill into the psyche provides an advantage to anyone using the form, including scientists.

Dahlstrom goes on to take the media as an example: forced to compete for an audience’s attention, media naturally gravitates to the powerful narrative format that connects with people. Yet there are limitations—in column inches and in accuracy—to the ability of this kind of narrative journalism to capture scientific workings.

Finally, the article concludes by pondering ethical issues. Should scientists try to bring the public to the right answer, or engage them more on the process and be open for debates? Who decides when it is okay to lead people on in the name of the greater good? Should narratives be used at all, given their limitations in accuracy? Specifically, Dahlstrom questions whether non-scientists will respect the narrative form, given their expectation that we will be speaking in scientific terms.

Well, to answer that, I’d say take a look at Radiolab’s Twitter followers (153,000).  Of course people respond to narrative! This article is powerful in its direct take on the fallacy that narrative has no place in scientific communication, and its reliance on social science research to conclusively prove that point, and in its visibility for other scientists.

Ironically, because it is after all a scientific article, this contribution is itself an example of the blunt instrument that is scientific writing for communicating with an audience. A couple quotes that feel both clumsy and self-evident: “individual people generally act in a timespan that more closely matches the frequency of news publication.” Or, in reference to narratives: “Obvious examples include interpersonal conversation, entertainment television programs, and news profiles…” The fault is not with this article per se, but this article itself demonstrates some of the limitations of this format.

I am fascinated by some of the ethical issues raised. Using narratives to communicate science is a no-brainer to me. But how do we best use them? What about representativeness? Stories rely on the power of a single example to demonstrate something grander. But if that example is chosen poorly, then the audience arrives at the ‘wrong’ conclusion. Or, perhaps worse, if an unrepresentative example is chosen deliberately to lead an audience to the ‘right’ conclusion, then we contend with acting unethically and losing the trust of our audience.

Finally, the article raises some questions that cannot be succinctly answered. My favorite: What is the best way to communicating beyond the human scale? We are built to consider timescales of days, maybe years. Not billions of years. Not nanometers or lightyears, not the mass of the sun, or the movement of electrons, or the probabilistic nature of biology. Through careful deliberation we can consider all of these. But in narrative format, every metaphor feels inadequate and we are left with great challenges to communicate the real science performed every day in a way that is engaging, accurate, and relatable. 

I am glad to see this conversation going on at the highest levels. I hope other scientists are reading and listening. Maybe next time, we should tell them a story about it instead.