When my grandfather was alive, each of his children and grandchildren was responsible for reporting to him about the world in which they worked. He loved knowledge; he always had. As the only scientist in the family, I was in charge of “science.” This never quite seemed fair and yet I did what I could until the day he asked me to explain dark matter. I am a broadly trained scientist. I have worked on bacteria, birds, plants, insects and a great deal else. But, when pressed, late in the evening, dark matter was beyond my comfort zone. I faltered. Sometimes with my grandfather, faltering could be propped up with grandstanding, but on this particular day there was no such doing. He knew I was guessing. His shoulders slumped and he announced softly, “I don’t think I am ever going to learn everything.” My ignorance was the BS that broke the camel’s back.
In part because of my grandfather I have always felt a responsibility to answer questions people ask about science. This year, I decided I would make this responsibility more conscious. I would try to focus much of my writing on answering questions that came up in my daily life, questions that I am responsible for because I am a scientist. It was a sort of New Year’s resolution. My other resolution was to write shorter articles.
1— Sitting around enjoying a glass of wine with my family and our friends Ari Lit and Michelle Trautwein, Ari asked, Hey dude, why do we drink alcohol? Do monkeys drink alcohol? This led me to think about the big story of alcohol and, in as much, to write a whole series about our complex relationship with the yeasts that, as waste, produce our favorite drinks. It ended up becoming a forty thousand word online series, about alcohol, civilization and yeast. So much for the resolution to write short articles. Also, I forgot to check on the monkeys.
2— My favorite questions tend to come from kids and earnest parents. This year at my daughter’s school, every third student and then every other students and then, jeez, almost every student seemed to have lice. Parents asked me, “what should we do about lice?” This was a follow-up to an article I had written years prior in response to a similar query. I was able to tell the story of how the louse problem (or success, depending on your perspective) came to be, over the last million years. But I failed to really answer what a parent should do if their kid gets lice. It turns out parents whose kids have lice don’t want to hear about ancient hominids and their lice. Go figure.
Continue reading at Scientific American