Happy Birthday, Nettie Stevens


In addition to having fabulous taste in hats, Nettie Stevens is also an underappreciated scientist. She was a cytologist, embryologist, and entomologist at Bryn Mawr, where she worked with Edmund Wilson and a certain fellow you have almost certainly heard of, Thomas Hunt Morgan. In fact, she’s the person who introduced TH Morgan and Drosophila, so we would owe her just for that.

But her main claim to fame is that she’s the person who figured out all that business about X and Y chromosomes — the chromosomal basis of sex determination. Strangely, most of the genetics textbooks grant all the credit for that to TH Morgan, I can’t imagine why. Oh, wait, I can guess. When Stevens died, Morgan got to write her curiously distant obituary in Science, where he credited her with a “share” in the discovery. It’s not a terrible obit, in that he does discuss the breadth of her work, but otherwise it’s rather dry and nitpicky.*

But you know she had to be remarkable in many ways. She was a woman in a deeply sexist culture, and she was forty years old when she started studying biology in 1901, so she already had the deck stacked against her. Yet she managed to build a commendable career in just a few short years — she died in 1912 of breast cancer, just before finally getting a faculty position — and it’s a shame that what must have been a fascinating person has been lost in the rush to take credit for her work. She’s someone who deserves a bigger place in the textbooks.

*The part that annoyed me most in the obit was in the first paragraph, where he credits some of her success to the “liberality of Bryn Mawr College, which created for her a research professorship”. Was it also very generous of Bryn Mawr, Columbia, and Cal Tech to grant poor TH Morgan research positions at their institutions? It sure was liberal of them to let him in the door.

Tell me again why grad students shouldn’t unionize?


The University of Hawaii, like universities everywhere in the US, has been facing major cuts. There seems to be zero support for higher education in this country, and every legislature sees a way to save their favorite perk for the rich by carving more dollars out of the university budget. Only now the cuts are reaching vital organs … like the faculty and students. One symptom is the abuse of graduate students.

Grad students in Hawaii are working under the very same salary they would have received over a decade ago, which is ridiculous. Pay at the university must adjust to circumstances, or you’re just building up to kill the institution.

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They had me going for a moment


This “news” article lead in with some rather positive statements, and had me wondering for a bit how life could exist on a comet.

Evidence of alien life is “unequivocal” on the comet carrying the Philae probe through space, two leading astronomers have said.

The experts say the most likely explanation for certain features of the 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, such as its organic-rich black crust, is the presence of living organisms beneath an icy surface.

Rosetta, the European spacecraft orbiting the comet, is also said to have picked up strange “clusters” of organic material that resemble viral particles.

Hmmm. I could imagine bacteria living deep in a organic-chemical-rich rock in space, but it would have to be metabolizing at an extraordinarily low rate — how would a probe that wasn’t designed to detect life even see it? Are there cues other than that the surface is dark? Because that’s kind of routine, and doesn’t require life.

And then that bit about viral particles…how would they know? Does Philae carry an electron microscope on board?

Despite the emphatic wording, this article is extremely suspect. But it’s Sky News, a real UK news source! Just like Fox News in the US! They would at least check with real scientists, wouldn’t they?

Nope. All is revealed.

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Milo Yiannopoulos is just the worst

He’s at it again, as Phil Plait notes in a post that says all the smart things.

And now another attack piece on St. Louis has been posted on the far-right-wing Breitbart site, saying she has become immune from criticism because she’s black.

Yes, you read that right. And that’s not all. In a sentence so tone deaf I’d swear it’s parody, the author, Milo Yiannopoulos, writes*:

St Louis is responsible for the sacking of Sir Tim Hunt, a Nobel prize-winning biochemist who became the target of an online lynch mob after his comments about women in science were taken out of context.

Yes, again, you read that right. You might ignore the obviously incorrect statements in that one sentence (Hunt wasn’t sacked, he was asked to resign from an honorary position; and as we’ve seen his comments were not taken out of context), but it’s much harder to ignore that, in an article attacking a woman because she’s black, Yiannopoulos used the phrase “lynch mob.”

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Planned obsolescence for science, even?


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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