This 21st century scientist’s life & learning.

Building on the platform. 

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve built over the last few years as I have made my way out from someone that wanted to just leave the world to someone who wants to contribute in real ways, in positive ways (don’t we all?), and meaningful ways.

Coming out of the dark and into a world of wonder can be complicated. Being flat and feeling divorced from connecting to the world to being vital, more engaged, can be a scary process. I realize just how much I’ve missed out on, not going deep into any particular subject because I didn’t feel much in whatever I engaged in. I’ve written before about just what depression takes away from learning and it’s hard to describe since plenty of successful people have depression (perhaps they succeed despite it), and I can still read and write (perhaps not well, but it is something I work on) and do basic math. I feel I can learn things. But I have tended to lack an emotional connection to something that can boost learning. Depression feeds into the fixed mindset as well, rather than a growth mindset too— with constant rumination and the voice that says ‘who do you think you are? You’re nothing, no one, and don’t matter’.

Eiffel Tower under construction 1888-1889. Source: Yale Libraries.

This blog has really documented that process for me. I hope I’ve been building a platform on which to build even better and greater things. Beth Buelow an entrepreneur, coach, and introvert in her really good book talks about an image series she got of the Eiffel tower being constructed. They built the base quickly, and then progress appeared to stop for a long while before the tower was completed. During that apparently fallow time, the construction workers were doing a lot of reinforcement of the structure, adding rivets and doing the preparatory work to build the tower. Building a strong base to create what was one of the tallest structures in the world at that time that persists to this day.

I hope I’ve been building that kind of base. That I’ve gotten better in some key ways to start the next phase, to really get out into the world visibly for the world to come and see. I do need reminders of how habit change can be most effective like this from James Clear. And it helps to be reminded to surround yourself with people that help you be your best. Though I find myself overdosing on ‘Lifehacking’ lately (it can be great for ideas, but easy to overdo it or to be constantly trying new things). I’ve built up a system that kind of works, I think, that’s healthy for me. And now I need to mold it into output that helps me grow more and gets me out into the world, being mindfully productive.

And as James Clear points out, prioritizing matters, and taken further, and perhaps scarier/harder is the idea between finding the distinction between should/must and choosing the latter. And continuing to learn, grow, and retain new knowledge/experience through a system that works and is evolving. And that also means being able to make decisions more rapidly than I do now, and act on them and being guided by what is truly important to me.

What is essential? 

I’m going to write an ambition of mine: I want to be a science writer in some way, shape or form. I love transmitting knowledge between minds. It seems to drive a lot of the decisions I make. It’s something that is more important to me than the research I do now. It’s an ambition that’s scary, but also seems deep-seated. I love science. I love writing, art, and popular culture. I love learning and teaching/communicating. Maybe it’s because I’ve listened to one to many podcasts and read one to many amazing writings about science that I’ve gone out of my mind, but why do I gravitate towards those things in the first place? And how to get from where I am now to a new place? That’s not easy to answer.

Being a scientist now means having to wear a lot of hats, being seen as competent and amazing at many things that Ben Lillie (partially) listed, including having a public face to engage with non-scientists. It seems like people are expected to do more and more every year, to sacrifice our lives for our work, to produce ever more value. And whatever we do has to be quantified and standardized, even if that’s not the best or is too narrow a measure.

With the digital tools most of us have access to, we are expected to do everything ourselves, to produce more, always learn things flawlessly, and basically be perfect. And yet, that is unrealistic for any individual human. Not all of us are skilled at everything, but the 21st century world seems to demand that in an era of impatient teaching and exclusion if you’re not in the ‘in’ crowd from early on. And there is infinitely more to learn. And of course, digital tools allow for tracking of productivity more than ever.

Many circumstances can keep us from trying things that we’re truly suited to do. There’s a story Mark Twain tells (attributed to him, anyhow. I can’t find a source) talking about a man seeking the world’s greatest general only to die and go to heaven to find that a cobbler would have been the greatest if given the opportunity. Did he just live at a time with no war or was it that there was a crucial moment where he didn’t take a leap into the military life? If it’s the latter, hopefully there’s still time for me to make a leap. Maybe by not having an alternative, it’s possible.

Coding is something I am just starting to dabble in…and we’re all told it is the essential skill of the 21st century. I don’t know if that’s the case, but it certainly seems handy to any citizen of the Internet where many of us spend out time. And if not having a full understanding, at least knowing some of the theory behind the gorgeous websites we see each day is important. And it’s important to know that the people who build them are not perfect either; and often have biases/problems. And I don’t think this idea applies to just coding. To be in demand seems to mean being good at all the things and not needing a learning curve. Of course, that might be my warped perfectionist perception speaking.

A lot of science news is dedicated to reporting how we might all live better, parent better, be healthier, do more for the environment, and basically be better people if only we’d all behave, spend money, or act differently. Only that is vastly unrealistic. And the recommendations often wrong because of flawed science. Science really is the last word on nothing.

What can we get wrong?

Phil Plait, in a post on his Slate blog, wrote about response to a picture he tweeted about actresses that have a passion for science (great!). The problem comes with Mayim Bialik (w/ a Ph.D. in neuroscience) and her anti-vaccination views; which are scientifically indefensible as this NPR story on a documentary about the effects of not eradicating polio demonstrates. Keith Kloor addresses this with Dr. Oz and similar and perhaps not as dangerous are Bill Nye’s anti-GMO views; if only because Nye, an engineer, does not have as informed views about biology and doesn’t seem to be strongly anti-GMO as yet, just highly skeptical. He could change his mine yet. Bialik and Dr. Oz must know better/be more familiar with life sciences and medicine.

The process of robust science dictates that any ideas or technologies supported by science (e.g. climate science, gravity, evolution, smart phones, vaccines, current GMOS) are in fact safe, work, and that is the final word (of course, each product needs to be taken on a case-by-case basis). Selective application is not acceptable. There are areas of science that are still debated and the above ideas continue to be investigated and tested by science to test new methods of delivery, to explain parts of these ideas we don’t know the answers to yet, or to improve them in some way (or create vaccines to viruses we don’t have vaccines for as yet). And of course, scientists are never absolutely certain; we’re taught to critically examine our ideas and design experiments/seek data that challenge our ideas (that may happen less in an era of hyper-competition, tight funding).

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In today’s world, it really appears unacceptable, especially as a public figure/celebrity to say ‘I don’t know’ when pressed about some question that’s out there in the world (uncertainty being a perceived sign of weakness?! I would argue that it’s the opposite). I am not a psychologist, social scientist, or neuroscientist, only a sufferer of depression and anxiety who has learned what I can about them and write about my own solutions (some scientifically grounded, others likely less so). I’ve tried to strike a voice of not barfing rainbows magical positivity, but of grounded optimism. I routinely say that I do not know, and feel uncertain about most things and this can be paralyzing. Who would do anything given the potential repercussions of getting something wrong? Phil Plait seems to have changed his mind after hearing from fellow bloggers about Bialik’s anti-vax views. I don’t even know where her anti-vax views stem from (is it a case like Dr. Oz where his spouse seems to have opened the door to pseudoscience views?).

Some of these views may be caused by hastiness and shorthand/lack of time to think. In an era where we’re awash in information, it is impossible to be informed about everything and yet we’re also too quick to be aghast when people don’t have views or don’t know something. At best, it comes off as enthusiasm you want to impart to someone about a topic. At worst, it’s used as an identity marker to exclude people, even if they’re new enthusiasts for something you’ve been into for years…and get turned out because of newness to something and simply don’t know as much. While I agree enthusiasm only takes you so far, it’s a spark that can carry you into new and unexpected places and shouldn’t be discouraged whoever has deemed themselves a gatekeeper of a community.

There is demand to specialize and yet be a generalist at the same time. And to instantly able to learn and absorb new things. I’m willing to work hard to figure things out, but if I’m given insufficient time to learn what I need to, I’m much more likely to make a mistake (and learning time seems shorter and shorter…and unexamined learning can lead to problems). We’re all encouraged to learn how to learn, and yet that seems hugely insufficient somehow. I am nearly paranoid of missing something critical or leaving some citation out. Of course, it’s not all about what we’re informed about. It’s also true that we develop identities around shared beliefs (‘people like me have this belief, I must think that too’) that can become quite entrenched in communities in which case information alone cannot change someone’s mind, as work by Brendan Nyhan and other’s has shown.

Hard at work reflecting.
Hard at work reflecting.

It may be that I’m just worried about something I feel exists but isn’t actually as bad as it seems. However, everywhere I look, there are demands to be up on the latest everything and if not, you’re falling behind the times! Keep up or go away, you can’t compete and so shouldn’t even try. The world is complex and crazy and there is likely more awareness of that than ever. Being humble in the face of that is a virtue in my book. There is likely always more to a story. And just because we’re not always completely informed does not mean we can’t act or put our voices to an idea, but we need to listen to feedback and accept evidence contrary to what we think is going on. All of these mental gymnastics should underscore just how hard it is for scientists to come to strong theories about how the world works and when a scientific consensus is reached, it’s a big deal, and more credible than an individual report alone.

I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup

Good coffee takes time.
Good coffee takes time.

I am an academic scientist right now, trying to contribute to my field in a meaningful way and not add to the noise of wrong/hasty information that’s out in the world. Patience isn’t a virtue we hear a lot about anymore. The world seems to be more about speed and getting to something first. Instant may be good for some things, but I like to think of it like sources of coffee. I’ve never had a good cup of instant coffee. I’m not sure that exists. Putting in the work to grind beans, put them through a quality filter, and taking the time to let it steep often makes for a better cup (not always). And perhaps due to my (highly) introverted side that likes reflection, writing, and learning before speaking up. And I hope any job I do hold will allow me to do just that, within reason, of course. I am determined to add value wherever I work, and I hope that the skills I gravitate towards/have developed are valued somewhere in the world.

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Blogging, National Academies postdoc experience report, et al.

Terry McGlynn (@hormiga) put in his application for Full Professor recently and wrote about how he described his blogging activity and tried to put it into context for the review committee and describing the benefits he gets out of it, most of which are not tangible, or really “count” by traditional academic metrics. He’s a teacher and a scholar. Productive includes syllabi and publications for the most part.

And I agree that locally, blogging probably has no impact or is seen as a slight negative on the campus where he works. I try to keep my social media and blogging activity under wraps too. I don’t talk about it at work at all.

Except. Here’s the thing with my blog. It’s saved my life.

I don’t have 4,000 hits/month like Dr. McGlynn does, nor have I been a good scholar and published as I should. Though Katie Hinde (@mammals_suck) does nicely lay out the argument for why publishing fewer “real” papers with more rigour and less status-chasing on her own blog.

Ottoline Leyser (@OttolineLeyser – a great plant scientist, btw, auxin!) published a post today about the state of the academic environment and the effects of hyper-competition and chasing prestige on academics and why it’s problematic (specifically in the UK).

Also issued today was a National Academies report on the postdoc experience and suggested reforms. There are two posts about it in Science careers here and here (and I’m sure a lot more coverage elsewhere– it’s a big deal for the science world).

Publishing matters. However, I have refused to play the game of chasing prestige. I’d rather do good work that’s correct rather than overhype some result. Of course, as I’ve written, I haven’t been productive. Failed projects, perfectionism, crippling impostorism, clinical depression, have all derailed productivity. Some of that is completely 1000% my fault. Some of it is the system of academia though and the mental health problems it can cause as Melonie Fullick writes (@Qui_oui). Largely, I have managed my mental health problems the last year or so and am in a much better place to actually do something. And this year, in ways that academia would say don’t count, I have.

What has my postdoc experience been? Getting over depression, but also blogging. I don’t have a lot of hits each month, but blogging has helped me build a writing habit and given me opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. It’s helped me build out my network (mostly on Twitter). It was a way to put my voice out into the world that had no other place to go. If I hadn’t started writing, I honestly think it’s quite likely that I’d have gone the way of Stefan Grimm.

Because of my blog, it’s made me want to stay. To do better. To write more, to learn, explore, connect, and yes, do good science (a manuscript I’ve written will be submitted soon!). None of these things really count in academia though. I know that and beat myself up for it still sometimes that all I do is what anyone else can do: start a blog and type words on a page (the bloggers/writers I follow in fact, by and large all do it better than I do, in my opinion). Blogging has brought me back from the ledge. Perhaps I could have achieved the same ends with a personal journal, but at least my blog is something I wrote, publish and maintain and made a commitment to write on at least once a week.

The National academies report seems useful for anyone just entering grad school or is early on in their postdoc time. For me, it’s cold comfort, but glad it’s out there to further the discussion of the postdoc experience and how it can be better for everyone involved.

So no, my blog doesn’t count, except that it does. It’s the most important thing to me. And I know that no one else probably cares, but it’s an archive of writing samples that I can trot out for discussions I see on Twitter. It’s also led me to new small projects like this:

see plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more plant advice to scientists.
See plantscienceadvice.tumblr.com for more advice from plants.

My next goal is to write more about actual science (I don’t tend to say I want to be a science writer because currently, that seems outlandish somehow– I want to help the enterprise of science, but am still not sure if or where any talent I might have lies). I’m not sure if I’ll do it here or someplace else, but if my “alternate career” can involve writing, count me in.

 

And even if not, I’ll still find a way to keep writing online about things that interest me like the Twitter discussion I was in earlier today that set off the horrifying thought that any image of a plant and a DNA molecule now signifies GMO, not just a plant (because some may not realize plants have full genomes unto themselves as living beings). Perhaps that’s my next post.

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GMO labeling.

I had a creative thought about GM labeling that might also teach people something about the evolutionary past of plants and agriculture (both of which involved extensive genetic modification of plants before what is considered GM came into being in the 1980’s:

CompleteGMLabels
Figure 1. Complete GM history of crop plants. (A) A made up phylogenetic tree of plants, focusing on Zea mays, with notes (small arrows). Small arrow s indicate notes/interesting evolutionary features/sarcastic notes (B) A basic lineage of modern hexaploid wheat. Purple circles indicate areas of modern species, even if there is a GM trait present. ya = years ago.

I believe something like the cartoons in Figure 1 (panel A has made up branches to the dendrogram, but the relationships are basically right. Panel B is a very basic diagram of the species’ genomes that hybridized to form hexaploid wheat) tell the full evolutionary history including any genetic modifications in modern times. If a GM label exists, it has to be more than ‘GMO’…that’s not the important part in a lot of ways; the specific modification is (as in, what trait has been conferred or taken away from the plant through that genetic modification). Heck, maybe with this ‘full’ label, even Monsanto would be in favor of labeling their products since it provides the full picture of plant modification (both the natural and some unnantural).

Some thoughts on GM & companies behind them (& why they’re so loathed by some):

—Yes, Monsanto is a large for-profit biotech company that is part of the industrial agriculture complex that basically owns the US Government and can get whatever policy they want passed (fact is, it still costs $10 million to go through the regulatory hurdles to bring one of their GM crops to market– which is why all GM crops come from large companies…they’re the only ones who can afford to go through the regulatory approval process).

—Monsanto sells a product. It is genuinely useful to some farmers in some places. In other places, less so. Mileage will vary. Now, Monsanto’s marketers would (probably) tell you that GM is a panacea, but it’s not. They’re great for some situations, but right now at least, certainly not ALL situations. But I’m sure scientists are hard at work coming up with new GM products that might genuinely help even more farmers grow higher yielding food on their land.

—A lot of the hate Monsanto gets is exactly why anyone hates a large corporation (or the government)…it’s a big entity that seems to get away with things the rest of us who are *ACTUALLY* people can’t get away with (tax shelters, anyone?).

—The optics of a large company these days are inherently terrible: They own Washington & get all the legislation they want (just see the FCC & Net Neutrality debate) and will do anything to enrich executives at the expense of other employees (& favoring share holders above all). It has little to do with what the company actually does. However, the bad optics don’t matter unless it affects the profits of said company (how many bank CEOs got canned after the financial crisis?). And of course, I’m sure this is a bit of a cartoonish picture of how things actually operate, but there is some validity to it, and that’s kind of sad that people like me have become  so jaded by ‘The Man’, for lack of a better term.

—Boycotts and actual science can work to change a company; Monsanto used to make agent orange…they don’t anymore as far as I know in part due to a changing Ag industry and in no small part due to the shift in the culture at large.

—Monsanto hasn’t done itself many favors by being so opaque about it’s technologies and what their scientists are motivated by; they’re not out to destroy the world, I genuinely think they want to leave it a better place– they have kids and families too, after all.

—Monsanto is keenly aware that if they put out a GM product that is actually dangerous or detrimental, they’re done. Finished as a company, no one will trust them ever again. So they really do extensive testing of their products before releasing them. And they’ve got a great safety record (the environmental degradation is not necessarily due to GM, but simply to agriculture itself…a very disruptive process to the environment…something that I hope they’ll work to improve, after all, no environment & we’re all kinda screwed…).

Labeling issues.

Vermont recently became the first state to mandate GM food labels. There are other proposals and this was recently in ‘The Atlantic’. It’s popular and part of why it’s popular is the simple ‘right of the consumer to know’ what they’re eating. Other states have come close to passing similar legislation. I haven’t followed these debates closely, but here are some of the issues to consider in labeling GM foods:

—What would the genetic engineering label entail? Not all GM crops are the same; scientists can put basically any gene into a plant (we do this for strictly research purposes all the time), so is labeling each modification important? (yes, it is– depending on the gene, a lot of different traits can be conferred to a plant, that is more important than the fact that it’s been genetically modified).

—What ‘counts’ as GM? Agriculture has been practiced for 10,000 years. The crops we grow now are selected varieties for traits that are good for growing a lot of food in a small area…like dwarf wheat, responsible for the Green Revolution; there are some very real genetic modifications that happened in that time…even whole genomes introduced into plants (that’s about 20,000 genes…not just the usual 1 or 2 of today’s GM). And then, of course, evolution shapes plant genomes too; is that genetic modification?

—Nature is messy. So called horizontal gene transfer (a gene passing from one organism to another that aren’t related; in other words, not a direct descendant) happens all the time. Viruses insert DNA into genomes of all kinds of life every day.  Bacteria swap genes constantly, sometimes into eukaryotes like humans and plants, and there are even examples of eukaryotic horizontal gene transfer, the neochrome gene in many ferns originated in an early land plant called a hornwort…and yet anti-GM activists aren’t torching the fern covered forest floors. Natural does not mean good, it means natural. Human-made does not mean bad (often, that’s the case, but not always), it means human-made.

Wrap up.

So does a GM label have to incorporate both modern and traditional GM? Should it include all of the genetic, natural and evolutionary history of a plant we eat? Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, after all. My Ph.D. advisor found an op-ed once by a guy saying that if he ate a plant engineered with a human gene and ate it, it’s cannibalism. That’s a little ridiculous…after all, humans share quite a bit of DNA with plants (so that salad you had for lunch…you may be 50% cannibal), and at the molecular level, we’re all pretty similar, made of all the same stuff. We’re all breathing in and incorporating atoms of people and diseases long gone and forgotten by history…does that make us all cannibals?

it is difficult to trust a large company (I’m uncomfortable having Google know everything about me at some level), but Monsanto does, ultimately want to help farmers and they recently acquired a company that models climate/climate change to help farmers grow food in what will be an increasingly changing climate. That’s not the move of a company that doesn’t think about the future and leaving the Earth a better place (of course, they’ll make money doing it, but profit isn’t inherently evil…it just can be). I know a few scientists that work at Monsanto and I would consider working for them myself (not that they have reason to hire me— especially after I’ve been a bit harsh on them here..after all I think too much and ask too many questions). I am not an expert in everything Monsanto does (in fact, a lot of it is kind of under wraps, trade secret…which also probably doesn’t help themselves), nor farming. I am a plant scientist studying plant development

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PiPC2: Tomacco.

Tomacco.

‘The Simpsons’ is one of my favorite shows. And it brings me to the second in my series on plants in popular culture. See my first post in the series here (spoiler alert).

In the episode from Season 11 ‘E-I-E-I-(annoyed grunt)’, Homer creates a plant that’s a hybrid between tobacco and tomato.

In addition to the plant-centered theme, this episode is also great because it’s the one where Homer sees a movie with Zorro in it and attempts to emulate Zorro by challenging people around town to duels after slapping them with a white glove. After the first incident at the movie theater where Homer defends Marge’s honor, he takes a ketchup bottle and squeezes out a red ‘H’ on Marge’s dress as Zorro would make a ‘Z’ with is sword.

After a lot of glove slapping, Homer is finally taken up on his offer to duel by a Southern Colonel who’s in town. The Colonel chooses ‘pistols at dawn’ as the dueling method. Homer goes home despondent and talks to his family about it. Through some very funny dialog, The Simpsons escape the Colonel who is camped out on their front lawn and flee town, apparently never to return.

Now before getting to Tomacco, there are some interesting things set up early on in this episode. There’s ketchup and southern culture (also associated with tobacco) in the form of dueling and the Colonel (I know dueling is not specific to The South)- a foreshadowing of what’s to come. There’s also a set up of what is basically horribly processed food at the beginning of the episode- Buzz cola (advertised by WWII soldiers on D-Day…), milk duds soaked in movie theater butter (someone must have tried this in real life…), and ketchup.

So The Simpsons take up residence on Grandpa Simpson’s old farm to lay low. Despite the rustic home, Homer decides he’s going to become a farmer and the family sort of enthusiastically follows despite raccoons- er, cats with rabies- on top of it all.

Seeds to grow things are essential to a farmer and so Homer goes to the local farm shop to get some farm equipment and seeds- and Gummi bears where the initial implication is that he’s going to plant them in the soil to see what they grow into. The fact that Homer initially gets a handful of Gummi Bears to potentially plant is also a statement about how most of us are pretty divorced from where our food actually comes from. This is also another example of a processed food in the episode.

The locals tell him he won’t grow anything at ‘The ol’ Simpson place’, but Homer wants to prove them wrong despite apparent high soil pH.

Back on the farm and a month after planting…nothing is growing. By comparison, the neighboring farm has corn literally grown up to elephant eye height. Desperate, Homer calls his friend Lenny at the nuclear power plant to ship him some plutonium (yes, that’s radioactive) to use as a soil supplement, to grow large plants- overnight (I love the way cartoons show radioactivity with things glowing visibly- in reality, you don’t see the deadly kind of radiation).

Giant plants don’t grow (not even invisible ones- not a reasonable hypothesis, Homer, but keep trying) but Lisa discovers a tiny seedling buried underneath the soil. And the family discovers a whole bunch of seedlings growing underneath a layer of soil. What are they? Did the Gummi bears magically become seeds and sprout? One thing is for sure, you’d likely get one, maybe two depending on your population size of seeds started with that would turn out to have a similar set of mutations and thus create the same kind of plant.

When the plantlets bear fruit some time later- they look exactly like tomatoes- this happens:

Bart: Bleh!  Tastes like cigarette butts.

Marge:[takes the half-eaten “tomato”] That’s odd.  The outside looks like a tomato, but the inside is brown.

Lisa: Maybe the tomato seeds crossbred with the tobacco seeds.

Homer: Oh, great, I’ve got a field full of mutants.

Bart: Gimmie.  I want more.  [grabs back the tomato and eats it]

Lisa: I thought you said it tasted terrible.

Bart: It does.  [grinds out the remains of the first tomato] But it’s smooth and mild.  [grabs another] And refreshingly addictive.

Homer: Addictive, eh?

Homer calls this new ‘mutant’ Tomacco and sells it on the side of the road to passers by (as Ralph Wiggum takes a bite- “It tastes like Grandma”). Marge is trying to sell home-made mincemeat pies (where she got the ingredients for it is not explained), but doesn’t have any takers because the addictive tomacco is so, well, addictive. This series of scenes suggests we as a society are addicted to our modern food products (read: sugar) that are the result of science and reject the home made, the local, the healthier. While science is partly responsible for this, there are also societal reasons for it as well. Although it is a little ironic that Homer is essentially a small scale farmer in this episode.

Tomacco is so successful that Laramie, the cigarette company, comes and makes an offer for it of $150 million which The Simpsons decline demanding 100 times that amount which gets them kicked out of the Laramie limo. Back on the farm, there are other problems; namely neighboring farm animals have gotten into the field and nearly eaten all of the tomacco crop! And they’re addicted to it too. In the end, the last tomacco plant is destroyed, and the Simpsons return to 742 Evergreen Terrace and resolve their issues with the dueller- with a mince meat pie (Of course, they do have a duel first).

What’s the reality of the science behind this episode (hint: not much, but it’s still fun)?

Based on This analysis of the family that tomatoes and tobacco are in (commonly called the nightshade family), they are distantly related; sharing a relative some 25 million ago. Given that the definition of a species is typically ‘a population that can interbreed’, tobacco (Nicotiana tobacum) and tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) likely can’t pollinate one another, despite still having similarly structured genomes (diploid chromosome number = 24 in each). However, one person did graft a tomato shoot onto a tobacco root stock and created a tomato like fruit that had tobacco in it- or nicotine, suggesting that nicotine is being produced and transported from the tobacco root into the tomato shoot system.

As for Lisa’s assertion that tomato and tobacco seeds must have gotten mixed together and the plutonium radiation must have brought them together- it does not work that way. Radiation can definitely mutate DNA. The Sci-fi writer, Neal Stephenson, told a story (sorry, I don’t remember where) about when he was a kid where his Boy Scout troop grew maize seeds exposed to the core of a nuclear power plant to see who could grow the weirdest plant. Radiation that your body is exposed to can cause single nucleotides to change (may or may not be consequential) to inducing a so called ‘double-stranded break’ which is what it sounds like; a chromosome (a double helix of DNA millions to billions of nucleotides long) breaks in two (or more) segments and the cell’s repair machinery can’t always fix that kind of damage correctly (which end goes together with which end?). Higher radiation usually means more damage done (radiation has effects on cells besides on DNA too).

As for the assertion that the tomacco plants are ‘mutants’, well, yes they are. But in science, a mutant is defined in less pejorative terms. We all have different DNA in our bodies and so we could all be considered mutants in some way. Individual genes have different versions called alleles that float around in a population (that’s how natural selection works- it needs variety to select and at the base of physical variation is gene variability). Geneticists talk about ‘The wild-type’ that can be defined as the most common allele of a gene in a population and anything different is considered ‘mutant’. Alternatively, it’s not necessary to designate a ‘normal’ and a ‘mutant’ and just give the frequencies of an allele within a population. Basic researchers also use a reference called a wild type too that we compare intentionally made mutants (often meaning complete loss-of-function of the gene of interest) and expose both to a condition to see if the mutant responds differently from the wild-type. This is how we often figure out what a gene’s particular function is within an organism (yes, it’s more complicated than this, but it’s the basic idea).

After treating with plutonium, there’s a whole field of tomacco plants all of a sudden. In reality, as noted above, radiation wouldn’t affect each seed the same way so it’s unlikely to produce a combination more than once or twice that will result in the tomacco plant. Now it is possible that tomacco is vegetatively apomictic- sending out roots (called ‘runners’) that pop up elsewhere and become new shoot systems (though clones of the original). Potatoes can do this, as can many grasses and aspen trees. Or Homer made cuttings of one plant that regenerated into whole tomacco plants. Some plants can be propagated that way as well.

It really is true that alkaline soils (or basic soil, pH>7) make it hard to grow most plants. It’s what would be called ‘marginal’ farmland until it can be rectified (which may involve growing other plants to remediate the soil).

Although The Simpsons is one of the smartest shows on television (employing many former scientists, mathematicians, etc.) they are there to tell good stories and be funny. Not necessarily get science right. The larger issues this episode brings up, that foods heavily modified by humans may be inherently bad for us. However, the story is more complicated than that. Humans have been selecting traits and modifying plants ever since we started agriculture. We can now extract sugar and put it into forms like Gummi bears or butter soaked milk duds that our ancestors couldn’t have dreamed of, and that may be highly addicting- the sugar craving that many of us struggle with. However, genetic modification (either traditional or modern) is not necessarily all bad as increasing production of agriculture will be necessary to feed the world.

It is largely not how we modify the plants themselves, but how we process them after harvest that’s the issue. Laramie could be a stand in for Monsanto- wanting a new plant technology to sell to farmers, but Monsanto isn’t all evil- far from it. They want to make plants that require less input of resources and increase yield- to soften the footprint that agriculture has (and they are still that crop- whatever it is- Monsanto is not in the business of producing combination species like tomacco as far as I know- even a desirable one). Now any institution as big as a Monsanto will have things that are problematic which can happen when making money is as important as fulfilling a scientific mission. I don’t think it’s worth Monsanto’s time to try to create GM crops that are smaller in scale than soy beans, maize, cotton and rice, though I can’t divine what Monsanto’s next projects are…they are rather secretive about what they work on.

2% of the US population are farmers. That leaves 98% of us that are mostly clueless about how or food is grown, where exactly it comes from (solanacious species of plants are distributed all over the world with the highest diversity in South America which is where potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and tobacco originate). Do we plant Gummi bears? I hope most people know that we don’t. But a larger point of this episode is that when we’re cut off from where our food comes from, we’re also ignorant of agricultural and environmental issues in growing it, the footprint it has, and whether a few large companies really do run the show in producing things that aren’t the healthiest of products.

Connecting to what nature produces, where food comes from, how it’s farmed, what problems farmers face, what is seasonal (even if you still buy it year round), what environmental impact that crop has, and avoiding overly processed foods all has a lot of potential upside for individuals’ health and well being. Studies show that connecting with nature is good for the human mind.

This turned into a long post! Thanks for reading if you made it this far. Time for some Milk Duds soaked in butter…

Ever on and on.

Novelty.

I was reminded recently of a 19th century invention that actually shocked people when it was installed in Harrod’s in London. It was an escalator. And apparently they gave out shots (drams?) of brandy at the top to calm people’s nerves after riding it (do you in fact ride an escalator?). I think nothing of escalators. I use physical stairs whenever possible, but if I have no choice, escalator it is. It’s just a thing that exists. I can’t imagine being shocked by it or surprised in the least. Maybe the first time I rode one as a kid? They are fun…always wanted to slide down the railing.

At one of the first ever screenings of motion picture in a theater, a train arriving at a station, the story goes that the audience leapt out of their seats with fright as the train in the scene was moving towards the camera, and potentially therefore off the screen. I can’t imagine having a reaction like that to a movie, something obviously a projection on a screen.

Not to say I haven’t flinched at a movie when something is scary or shocking or that movies aren’t powerful and can make you react in a very real way. But my sense is that I always know it’s just a movie; nothing will leap out of the screen (except emotion and feelings that can certainly cause a physical reaction, but that’s not most movies. Or even most things we encounter these days in a civilization that is based on science and technology.

I wonder what the modern equivalent of the train pulling into a station or the escalator is- or nearly anything that was electric/mechanical that came into being in a rapidly industrializing age. Certainly when Apple introduced the iPhone, everyone’s jaws dropped; it was just a huge leap from what existed before (I know, Blackberry had been around before, but this really opened things up to the average consumer). And yet still familiar some how; it was still a phone after all (though we seem to use them less as phones as they get more powerful and connected).

I am thinking about all of this because it is hard to wrap my head around the fact that there are still crazy things out there in the world to find- to invent. Could I invent one of them? Do I look for problems to solve in that way?

Discoveries have become routine and a bit blasé. Of course there was a breakthrough, those happen every week (even if some don’t turn out to be in the end because of the hype-machine that exists today).

What could I do that would wow the world? Am I thinking too audaciously? I am a scientist after all. I feel like I should be inventing new things- or realizing the eventual potential of my current work, but I don’t just now. Maybe I need to be engaged with it more. Think outside the boxes that I’ve put myself in the last several years.

There is natural resistance to some new technologies- and certainly rules need to be in place for responsible use of anything new. These ought to be based on sound science. And of course that requires a level of scientific literacy to come up with sensible rules, for citizens to be able to grasp enough to be OK with the technology and to adopt it. I think the latter is not nearly sufficient in the US these days with large numbers of people not very engaged with the scientific process, but also denying climate change, being anti-vaccines or anti-GMO. An individual vaccine might be bad (unlikely after all the development they go through) or an individual GM modification may be bad (again, there’s heavy regulation here too), but they need to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

I’m pretty amazed by modern communication technology, even if it can be frustrating. Computers, the Internet, smart phones- all pretty awesome things.

What’s the thing that would truly blow away a modern audience? I’m not sure. But I think it exists. Or will. I’m far less certain that I’ll be a part of it, but I’d still like to try I think.

Ever on and on.

Fantasy.

Things I fantasize about.

Sometimes I imagine things. Probably silly things. Mostly.

  • A job. That I like. That doesn’t feel too dead ended.
  • Being a professional wrestler. There’s something about imagining you’re facing your problems in the Steel cage and suplexing them into submission. 
  • Swinging like Spiderman through the buildings of NYC.
  • Getting a job interview.
  • Never having to switch off so I can get more done.
  • Performing the Jedi mind trick to get free coffee. 
  • Being as smart as The Doctor.
  • Moving.
  • Being normal.
  • Building a better world.
  • Giving a great talk. Or lecture. 
  • Introverting to inspiration. To my bliss.
  • Run a half marathon.
  • Traveling in the TARDIS
  • Publishing. (Maybe my research project will actually succeed or I’ll write a great novel).
  • Vacationing someplace new I’ve never been before and not freaking out b/c of it.
  • Sleeping enough.
  • Becoming a beer brewing internet guru. 
  • Repeating my (mostly non-roaring) 20’s.
  • Becoming a speed reader.
  • Falling in love.
  • Getting a hug. Every day.