Planned obsolescence for science, even?

garbage-can

The publisher at AAAS/Science wrote something truly remarkable about how he sees his job.

In an era with more access given to less qualified people (laypeople and an increasingly unqualified blogging corps presenting themselves as experts or journalists), not to mention to text-miners and others scouring the literature for connections, the obligation to better manage these materials seems to be growing. We can no longer depend on the scarcity of print or the difficulties of distance or barriers of professional expertise to narrow access down to experts with a true need.

Ah, the good old days, when hoi polloi were excluded, when journals were locked away in dusty library stacks and only the initiates in science were aware of their existence, and when we knew that only an elite few actually needed access to knowledge.

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Why do we deify or despise the unfamiliar?

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I’m in the curious position of having met a great many Nobel laureates. I’ve had dinner with some, gone drinking with others, had long conversations with a few. I’ve gone to the Lindau meetings twice, where Nobelists are everywhere. Furthermore, I’ve known brilliant people who have done phenomenal work of Nobel quality who would never be awarded one because the Nobels only cover a very small, limited number of subjects.

And I realized that I’ve known more Nobel prize winners, and with greater familiarity, than I’ve known plumbers. I’ve probably known only 3 or 4 plumbers, and not well at all: they come to my house, they do a job, and they leave, and we don’t go out for drinks afterwards. So my knowledge base for plumbers is a little weak, but I can do a comparison anyway. Here’s what I’ve learned.

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Space left me feeling cold and empty

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I’m a fan of the Science Museum of Minnesota, and I’m out here touring the place today, but their latest theme, Space, did not satisfy. Maybe it’s just me, but I think the space program has lost its way — if it ever had a good direction in the first place — and the exhibits just confirmed it for me.

Gadgetheads will enjoy the exhibits. It’s gosh-wow engineering all the way through. The Omni Theater movie is called Journey to Space, narrated by Patrick Stewart, and you’ll get your fill of thundering rumbly lift-offs and a dome-shaped screen filled with flame and smoke. The space shuttle is glorified, we are given many grandiose promises about the next generation, the Orion spacecraft, and we get to watch a few of the hundreds of astronauts who’ve been to the International Space Station gamboling about.

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A transitional turtle, Pappochelys

iliketurtles

Turtles are nifty animals, with a remarkable adaptation: they’ve taken their ribs and shifted them outside their appendicular skeleton, flattened and expanded them, and turned them into a shell. It’s a clever twist, and it doesn’t require any magic — just a shift in timing during development, with a little extra signaling. The molecular biology and development explain mechanistically how it happened, and we also have fossils of some of the in-between states.

Odontochelys, a 220 million year old fossil, for instance, is a good example of a turtle ancestor that’s got some of the bits but not all. It has a well developed plastron, the belly armor of a turtle, but it doesn’t have a shell — it has broadened ribs that form a kind of flexible bony plate under the skin.

And now we have even older ancestor, from 240 million years ago, called Pappochelys. It lacks the plastron, too, instead having an array of ventral ‘ribs’, called gastralia. What caught the attention of the researchers was the true ribs. They also are flattened and broadened — they look like curvy cricket bats.

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It’s a poor job-hunting strategy

MichaelLacour

You may have been left hanging in the case of Michael LaCour, the UCLA grad student who seems to have invented a bunch of his data. Before he was exposed, he’d been offered a job at Princeton, and was supposed to start working there this summer.

Whoops. Princeton has rescinded that offer.

Let that be a lesson to you all, kids: don’t fabricate data and don’t lie on your CV. It never ends well.

A distinguished pedigree

Last weekend, I was in Oregon at a science conference honoring my graduate advisor, Chuck Kimmel. We had science talks, and people gave little speeches, and we had a big ol’ party. One of Chuck’s colleagues and a former advisor of mine, James A. Weston, had something similar some years ago called the JAWFest; we called this one the ChuckFest. Jim told a few stories, and he also recited the intellectual lineage of Charles B. Kimmel, which is an old tradition — like the long recitations of fathers in the Norse sagas, or the begats in the Bible, only this is a chronological list of our educational forebears, and there’s a little less blood and violence.

I got the files from Jim and include it here, which is only fair since it’s also my intellectual pedigree.

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Charles B. Kimmel graduated with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, where his advisor was…

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