Friday, September 22, 2006


I think one reason science, while admired and appreciated, gets such a bad rap from the general public is that anything that doesn't fall under the domain of the Scientific Method is summarily dismissed.

What I mean by the Scientific Method is first, your subject of interest must be observable, then you must be able to describe this subject with enough clarity to hypothesize how it works. From your hypothesis, you would then make predictions about your subject of interest, and you would create and carry out experiments to test your predictions. The experiment part is often repeated many times to determine if the hypothesis is accurate.

There are a lot of things that don't fall under the domain of the Scientific Method, which doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't true. It just means that it is silly to look at them from a scientific viewpoint. Now this little prelude is not leading up to some deep discussion of pseudoscience or religion or the paranormal.

Old Wives Tales.

There are reasons these things stick around.

1) They have been around for a while (hence "old")
2) Wives tell them so they should be believed
3) If you say something enough times it's gotta be true, right?

How about the one: "It's fun until someone loses an eye?"

Should we subject this one to the Scientific Method? Or should we just take it at face value?

Apparently we should subject it to the Scientific Method. Did you know that the seemingly playful activity of egging a person (throwing an egg at someone, i.e. a politician) can actually cause damage if it hits them in the eye? Warning: This link will take you to the actual article published in a british medical journal.

As a science communicator I constantly comb the scientific literature for what is going on and to see what is relevant to me and to you. I have noticed that - in this blog - I tend to pick on studies that seem ridiculous and "why botherish". I guess one of my big beefs is that not everything should be submitted to the Scientific Method. The Scientific Method is a good way to test a hypothesis, but some things just need to be taken on faith.

Also this kind of stuff is really easy to talk about.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Science on Tap in the news

...well in the Northwest Life section actually.

I'm so proud of this. I've got a couple accountabilities in my life that I love to do so much, I'd do them for free. This is one of them.

I'd love to see you at one.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Do plants feel pain?

I'm sitting here avoiding doing the work I'm supposed to be doing, but I've got a really good reason... Construction workers outside my window are tearing up the grounds around the building across the street. Watching them tear up the shrubbery this morning made me wonder if they were going to get to the 3 story tall cedar next to the building, and sure enough it just went down.

Watching the big truck with the shovel on the end (yea, I'm a scientist not an engineer) wrestle this thing to the ground was intense. I was actually saddened by the death of this tree and wondered if it felt anything as it was being ripped to shreds. Of course I have the internet at my finger tips and I found this video of a plant being tortured while hooked up to a polygraph.

A polygraph measures the galvanic skin response or the change in electrical resistance between two electrodes hooked to something (i.e. a liar, or in this case, a plant under duress). They measured a response whether the plant was merely being slapped, or was being blasted by a fire extinguisher. Now, a lot of work has been done by various men to show that when a human is distressed by something (even unconsciously) their galvanic skin response registers a change. I'm not sure enough work has been done in the field of plant psychology to say that this is also true of plants. Although, it makes absolute sense that a tree in danger would have some means to communicate to it's neighbors that something dangerous is happening.

This does bring to mind; however, an almost buried Deep Thoughts quote by Jack Handy:

If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down? We might, if they screamed all the time, for no good reason.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Remember-Forget 9/11

Five years after that surreal day, I'm surprised at the upwelling of feeling. If you turn on the TV at all today, all you see are tributes and remembrances. We are flying our American flag, which only seems appropriate. And yet I'm curious at my own annoyance at being reminded of that whole day. I do remember thinking that I would never forget, and that it was horrifying and could only bring about a new era for Americans, I mean, look at how we pulled together after that day.

So why, a mere five years later am I scoffing at movies designed just to make sure we don't forget? I haven't seen United 93, have you? And it's not just that things don't look like I wanted them to look 5 years later, because I have the same feelings about the Columbine massacre. I don't want to hear about it.

Freud - no matter what you may think of him - did suggest that we humans have a unique ability to suppress memories that are unpleasant or highly stressful. That theory had been controversial until 2004 when we (not like I had anything to do with it, scientists just like to speak in the third person) found through neuro-imaging that we can suppress remembering the same way we suppress a voluntary muscle movement. So remembering the events of that day five years ago is going to take actively generating remembering.

And I did say I wouldn't forget... I guess I will be seeing United 93 after all.

Editor's note: Slate has an interesting take on a picture from 9/11 that hasn't been shown until now because of it's "disturbing" nature.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Walking... 60 miles

It's such a small thing, walking. I mean we do it everyday. Most of us don't even have to think about it, it's automatic. But I have to hand it to the folks who put on the Breast Cancer 3-Day here in Seattle, turning something so mundane into something so significant, so monumental... That was a work of art.

It is walking 60 miles mind you, which is pretty significant - 20 miles a day, for three days in a row.

I did this walk last year, and just like childbirth, I forgot the painful parts until I was there again this year. It's why I have three kids, and why I'll walk again next year too.

You have to be pretty determined, to ask people for money, to train, to be willing to ask for or just allow yourself to be helped along the way... of course then there is the determination to just keep walking. Although I promised I would train better (ok, train period) this year, I did not set up a plan to make sure that happened, and Friday I was in pain near the end of the route - turns out my IT band was snapping past a bone in my knee and walking downhill was unbearable.

Now, you may be asking yourself, "Self, given what she has shared, why would she do it again next year?!"

Because when I walk across an intersection, I don't get a round of applause or a volley of horns. I don't have toddlers standing in the middle of the side-walk high fiving me and saying "good job". I don't normally have men giving me flowers just for walking. I don't have people handing me popsicles because I'm walking and it's hot outside. None of these things happen to me on an ordinary day, but they happened everyday for three days because I was walking. Walking on this event had me be part of something really extraordinary, something much bigger than me, and something that makes such a difference. It makes a difference not just to those who get the funds we raised, but it makes a profound difference for those of us who walk.

Walking and fund-raising makes abundantly clear how many people are touched by breast cancer. Not just those who lose someone to it, but those whose family member had to sit through the diagnosis and then who had to survive the treatment. And the treatment at this stage of our medical know-how consists of poisoning the patient with the intent of killing the cancer before the patient dies. The moment you are touched by anyone who has gone through this experience, walking 60 miles over three days - even with a sore knee - is trivial.

I was honored to have Doris Copenhaver on my team; a bunch o' boobs (that was our team name not just a description of us as a group). Doris' two daughters, Kirsten and Dana, her partner, Leslie, and I all walked in honor of her. There were 350 survivors on the walk with us, not only did they fight breast cancer, but they walked the 3-day as well. My hat's off to you, Doris.

The experience was amazing, fulfilling, completely confronting, and such an opportunity... an opportunity to see yourself at your best and your worst. My juvenile sense of humor could be said to be both. Somewhere past the 10 mile mark, I started to get delirious. Seriously, fart jokes can be funny again. One of my team-mates said at one point "she farted so loud, I had to check my own pants"! (yea, I guess you had to be there). And I probably don't need to tell you that there was a plethora of boob jokes, 'cause there were hundreds of boob jokes. The van with "SAVE THE TATA's" on the side, the man who filled our water and thanked us because he was "a big fan of breasts", they were so amazing to have out supporting us.

But when I say see ourselves at our worst, having to battle with my mind while walking that much, hoo! My mind is a big proponent of "I can't", and every time my mind said that, I couldn't. Funny how that works eh? I had to be transported a couple of times to have someone look at my knee, which of course separated me from my team, and I don't do well when I'm all by myself. Don't get me wrong, I THINK I can do all right by myself, so I left everyone behind and walked a two whole miles by myself. It was the slowest most painful part of the walk for me. And those of you who know me, know I'm pretty upbeat, but everyone who passed me on that short leg of the walk asked me if I was ok.

My team did catch up with me, Thank you Kirsten for being so great with me, and graciously showed me that nothing big I ever take on can be done all by my lonesome. Thanks bunch o' boobs, thanks Morgan, Scott, Alexis, Sydney and Cam for being there on the route to cheer me on, and thanks especially to all of you who supported me financially. It was extraordinary.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

When does Science Fiction become fact?

I am a big fan of SciFi. Good science fiction is my favorite way to escape from life's more pressing and mundane matters. Now when I say "good", I mean that there is real science in it. Nothing annoys me more that to have a character peer through a microscope to determine the chemical structure of some liquid they found, or some other such nonsense.

I'm also a big fan of having science be accessible to the general public. Which is often difficult given how pedantic and obsfuscating us scientists tend to be. Which is why I am an organizer for Science on Tap. At these events, we bring in a scientist and - if you are so inclined - we drink beer and ask the scientist all those questions we would never dare to ask in an academic setting.

Last monday, we didn't have a scientist at our event, we had Michael Laine, President of the Liftport Groups. Liftport is planning on building a space elevator. Now this is definitely science fiction, has been for over a century, yet we are now at a point where it is starting to encroach on the realm of the possible. All that means however, is now we can actually start to realistically ask the questions that will have this dream take on life and alter the way we see ourselves in the universe, or fade back into the realm of someday. One thing that is becoming clear, is that even if we don't/can't build one on earth, this is an entirely viable option for the other celestial bodies we colonize, oh wait, that part is still science fiction too.

At next month's event we delve back into the world of hard science, string theory. Actually that in itself is a little joke; a Columbia University Mathematician has come out with a book that poo-poos the whole theory, Not Even Wrong. Next months talk should be lively, yes even for those of you who can't possibly think of a talk about string theory being lively.