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.
Brother of the blowfly… no one gets to heaven without going through you first. –Yusef Komunyakaa
Sixteen years ago, my wife and I, along with our friend Audrey were standing outside a guesthouse near the towns of Boabeng and Fiema in Ghana when Kojo, a young boy, approached on a bicycle. His whole shadow rose and fell with each turn of the crooked front wheel. Behind him were miles of fields and the dust-dry trees of forest. He stopped in front of me and opened his hand to reveal a small crumpled note. I unfolded it and read, “My friends, two of my children have died, i.e. the black and white colobus monkeys. Please come, quickly!” The note was signed, “the chief, Nana”
Once the diversity of the microbial world is catalogued… it will make astronomy look like a pitiful science. – Julian Davies
For Neil Armstrong, the giant step for mankind was taken on the moon. For Jeff Leach, it might just be in the colon, at least if he can find the money.
Jeff Leach called me not so long ago to ask me about my colon. Well, that isn’t totally right. He called to tell me about other peoples. Is that worse?
In the colon live trillions of bacteria (though such estimates are guesses as wild as those about the numbers of stars), a universe of planet-sized cells just above the sphincter. These bacteria are important, but uncharted. The most poorly known feature of these beasts is how they vary from one person to the next and why. Your metabolism, immune health, propensity to diabetes and ability to digest seaweed have all, recently, been suggested to depend upon the microbes on or inside you, but on what does the composition of those microbes themselves depend?
Scientists give you all their data in the hopes that you will outsmart them
So you want to be a scientist? Here is your chance. We are going to release one of the largest datasets on the microbes of our skin ever collected. We are going to release it right now, before we publish it. We are going to release it so you—the person out there, wherever “there” is—can come up with new hypotheses and even analyses. We are going to release it because we think that you are, collectively, much smarter than we are.
What we have on offer here is a new approach, one that might fail but is worth trying. When we learn about science in school, we typically learn the “standard method” of doing science. In the standard method, there are four steps…
This is a confession. I started out as a respectable sort of ecologist studying rain forests and then at some point my road turned and I ended up where I am today, lost among the belly buttons.
I know how it happened. Two years ago we began to focus much of our lab’s work on engaging the public. One way to make science public is to work with people to study their own lives (see yourwildlife.org). This is just what we did. Spurred by the idea of an undergraduate student, Britné Hackett and the microbiological skills of a postdoc, Jiri Hulcr (and funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute), we went boldly where few had dared or really wanted to go before: into the navel. We saw piercings, an infection or two, lint, and more hair than we were comfortable with. It was innocent, or at least it started out that way.
Right now, one half of all Americans are on a diet. The other half just gave up on their diets and are on a binge. Collectively, we are overweight, sick and struggling. Our modern choices about what and how much to eat have gone terribly wrong. The time has come to return to a more sensible way of eating and living, but which way? An entire class of self-help books recommends a return to the diets of our ancestors.
Odds are you sometimes think about calories. They are among the most often counted things in the universe. When the calorie was originally conceived it was in the context of human work. More calories meant more capacity for work, more chemical fire with which to get the job done, coal in the human stove. Fat, it has been estimated, has nine calories per gram, whereas carbohydrates and proteins have just four; fiber is sometimes counted separately and gets awarded a piddling two. Every box of every food you have ever bought is labeled based on these estimates; too bad then that they are so often wrong.