Of late, space and bacteria have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, there was the wanton speculation about aliens that preceded the “arsenic life” controversy (NASA fanned the hype with a poorly described press conference). Then, the Journal of Cosmology made headlines with claims about fossilised bacteria in meteorites (NASA disavowed any participation).
But to me, the real story involving space, bacteria and NASA is very different, but far more important. The gist is simple: when bacteria are sent into space, they become better at causing disease. This poses a big problem for the long-term space missions planned in the future, but cracking that problem could have big benefits for public health back on the ground.
I’ve told this story in a feature for this month’s Wired UK, which has finally come online. The feature focuses on Cheryl Nickerson, an American scientist who is spearheading research in this field. I talk about Nickerson’s motivations, her latest fascinating results on how bacteria change in space, why this has already been a problem for space missions and why it’ll get worse, what it’s like to do science in space, and finally, what this means for human health back on Earth. Here’s a taster:
On Twitter, John Pavlus recently asked me which bit of the writing process I like most – researching and collating information, or actually getting it down on paper.
So to answer that question more fully (and because it’s been a bit of a slow week), here’s a graph depicting my process of writing a feature. Enjoyment’s on the vertical axis, time runs along the horizontal. This applies to longer features rather than blog posts – those are more straightforward and less emotionally variable.
(And yes, I know “regurgitated” is spelled wrongly in the image. I can’t be bothered to change it)
I like noting anniversaries, even belated ones. I hopped across to Discover from ScienceBlogs a year ago last Saturday and as if to mark the occasion, it’s been a record-breaking month in terms of traffic. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being here among illustrious company, and it’s given me a lot of impetus to up my game, and play around with new ways of talking about science.
My sincere thanks to Amos Zeeberg for recruiting me, Gemma Shusterman for providing speedy and kick-ass tech support and Eliza Strickland, Andy Moseman, Joe Calamia, and many other Discover staffers for helping to promote this blog. And of course, an even bigger shout-out to everyone who continues to read Not Exactly Rocket Science and who have passed links to their social circles.
In which we take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to celebrate… a scarf. At first glance, it looks like an ordinary strip of black and grey wool, but if you look down its length, an iconic hidden pattern emerges (see below).
Yes, thanks to this present from my awesome friend Alice Bell, I now get to wind an illusory double helix around my neck. There’s probably a joke about histones to be made.
The DNA illusion scarf is Alice’s own design (video here). In her own words:
DNA and illusion knitting seemed to be made for one another. The ladders of the striping pattern twist round those of the helix as purls and knit-stitches collect to display a regular shape. I also like that you have know how to look at the scarf to really see the pattern. There’s an “OH!” moment when you spot it. Symbolic of the science it reflects, the pattern isn’t self-evident.
Here are some photos from the award ceremony for the National Academies Science Communication Prize, which I attended at Washington DC last Friday. All photos are credited to Paul Kennedy, who did an incredible job at making me look like a non-idiot. His full selection of photos are here and here.
The whole thing was very sincere and classy; my wife was there to share it with me; I managed to avoid tripping, breaking the certificate or insulting anyone very important, and I actually got to say the words, “I’d like to thank the Academy for this great honour”. It was a great moment, so forgive the rather unBritish indulgence of posting the photos.
For a few weeks now, I’ve been cryptically hinting at some good news and I can finally reveal what it is: I’ve won one of the 2010 National Academies Communication Awards.
These awards are jointly presented by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine. They consist for four $20,000 prizes (seriously) for “creative, original works that address issues and advances in science, engineering and/or medicine for the general public”, in the categories of book; magazine/newspaper; broadcast; and online. I won the online category for this blog (press release here).
Woo, and I might add, hoo.
So in a tradition I started when I wrote my 600th post, this is an open thread. Feel free to ask/talk about anything you want. I’ll do my best to reply, time pending.
Cheers, and thanks for reading,
I woke up this morning to various emails and tweets saying that I’ve just won the 3 Quarks Daily Science Prize for 2010. Monday mornings don’t usually start this promisingly!
For those who haven’t been following, this is the second of what will hopefully be a long-running competition, focusing on science writing on blogs. The winning entry was this post on the gut bacteria of Japanese people, which have borrowed sushi-digesting genes from their oceanic relatives.
It goes without saying that I’ve very grateful to all the readers who nominated posts and voted for them and to the editors of 3 Quarks Daily for organising the competition.
I’m feel very proud of this, especially because this year’s finalists included some of the finest science writers in the market and because it was judged by none other than Richard Dawkins. The latter is important, for The Selfish Gene was hugely influential to me, showing not only how incredible evolution is but how inspirational a piece of good science writing can be. Without it, I would probably be doing something else.
I also wanted to say something about writing competitions, from the perspective of someone who’s currently judging the ABSW ones, and has judged OpenLab entries in the past. These competitions, by their nature, are incredibly and necessarily subjective. There’s no SI unit for writing quality and no standard template for what the ideal, Platonic piece would look like. It’s relatively easy to sort pieces into rough categories of merit but when it comes to discerning between the top entrants at a finer level, personal opinion factors heavily into it. Which is a really roundabout way of saying that getting into the top stratum is a massive honour and I wholeheartedly congratulate all the semi-finalists and finalists for their tremendous work.
And finally, it’s worth mentioning again (given recent accusations that bloggers have the luxury of time – ha!) that most of us write our blogs in our spare moments, often getting nothing in return save a sense of satisfaction and the odd comment or so. These efforts are worth recognising and I thank the editors of 3 Quarks Daily for doing so.
I just noticed that last Wednesday’s piece on the movies of the dividing cells was my 700th proper post for Not Exactly Rocket Science! That includes opinion pieces, Not Exactly Pocket Science and the usual lengthy articles, but excludes reposts, photo posts or random missives. At the current pace, I’m averaging a respectable rate of around 100 posts every 5 months or so (the full list is here).
I always like to mark these moments as little milestones for myself. But enough from me. Over to you. This is an open thread. Say or ask whatever you like.
If anyone wants to find out a bit more about me, my background, my goals and my thoughts on online science communication, this is probably a good place to start.
Some background: following every ScienceOnline conference, Bora likes to pretend that he doesn’t already know everything about everyone by watching their internet habits on a gigantic bank of monitors, while cackling and stroking a cat. To that end, he does a series of interviews, where the conference participants say a bit about themselves. It’s now my turn, and we’re both posting this up at the same time. Given that I wrote this for Bora, it seems fitting that I was a bit more verbose than usual.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Where are you coming from (both geographically and philosophically)? What is your (scientific) background?
I’m Ed, I talk to people about science and I do it in three main ways. I write a science blog called Not Exactly Rocket Science, I do a fair bit of freelance journalism for British press, and I work in a science communications role for a big UK cancer charity. Round about the time that swine flu was saturating the headlines, I started calling myself a triple-reassortant science writer, which is a seriously geeky affectation but worth it for the occasional person who gets it and sniggers.
In terms of my background, I did a degree in Natural Sciences at Cambridge, covering all sorts of fields from animal behaviour to experimental psychology. I assumed that research was going to be my calling and I spent a year or so as a PhD student before realising that I was apocalyptically bad at it. Mythically bad. People composed ballads about how much I sucked. If I didn’t destroy the world during my time in the lab, it’s only because that would probably have counted as a publishable result.
Thankfully, the insight that I sucked at doing science coincided nicely with the revelation that I wasn’t too bad at talking about it. Essentially, I can’t narrow my attentional spotlight on a single subject; I need broad vistas. I can’t derive motivation from rare but transcendental moments of success amid a long drought of failure; I need a more regular fix. And my hands are clumsy and inept when handling a Gilson; they’re much better at dancing on a keyboard. And thus concludes my origin story. Maybe I should have just lied and said something about being bitten by a radioactive David Attenborough.
Moving on to here and now, I’m constantly excited by the new discoveries that I read about and I’m keen to infect other people with the same enthusiasm. I just think that people will be better off if they have a deeper understanding of the world around them and if they’re motivated to sceptically seek out that knowledge in the first place. Telling awe-inspiring stories about science is one way of achieving both those ends. My own love for science was fuelled by masterful communicators and I want to carry on that tradition.
Oh, and I live in London, a great, beautiful, cosmopolitan, culturally vibrant city that has the god-awful problem of being full of Londoners.