View from the AAAS Conference in Chicago

A couple of weeks ago I attended the American Association for the Advancement of Science Conference in Chicago. It was my first conference of that size, and the first time I have gone as a journalist, and not a participant.

It is cold in Chicago in February, the lake was frozen for as far as you could see, with sheets that had broken off at some point rising out of the flat desert landscape on the water. It looked a bit like there had been a landslide or earthquake, with the plates sliding above each other.

It has been a harsh winter in general here, and Chicago had experienced some of the coldest temperatures in decades, I found this photo below on the Huffington Post site.

 

Chicago Frozen

Chicago Frozen by Scott Olson/Getty Images

In the background we see the Chicago skyline, and the conference was held in one of the giant hotels that looks out over the lake. There are many hotels on the shorefront, and one thing that surprised me is that they are all linked together by a series of underground tunnels.

Tunnels is a bit of a misrepresentation really, they are underground streets, with shops and bars and sign posts, so that on a cold winter’s day guests do not have to step outside. The conference made use of several different hotels and restaurants, and some people told me that although attending different venues they had not in fact been outside, and had not put on a jacket since their arrival.

The system is known as the pedway, see an explanation here, it covers 40 square blocks. The photo below gives an idea of what parts of it look like. Apparently they are not uncommon in North American cities, in Montreal it is known as the underground city.

An Underground World

An Underground World

As I said above the conference was a giant affair as the program demonstrates. I wanted to see a session on responsible innovation and to take part in the launch of the Journal for Responsible Innovation (I am on the Editorial Board and the Bassetti Foundation sponsored the event) but at any one moment there were dozens of panels in session and associated events.

The journal launch clashed with a talk given by Alan Alda the American actor (most famous for his part in MASH). Alda now runs The Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science where he addresses issues and trains people in the art of science communication.

Alan Alda in Mash

Alan Alda in Mash

As I said I couldn’t attend but many of my colleagues told me that his talk was great.

I attended a session called Responsible Innovation in a Global Context early on Saturday morning. It was a great session and I learned a lot. Did you know for example that all research that is conducted involving water has to use an internationally accredited water? Yes it is purified water that then has certain amounts of certain minerals added. This means that scientists doing research in Brazil are using identical water to those conducting research in Italy, or Australia or anywhere else for that matter.

Great we might think, but using this type of water also makes some of the research useless. If bacteria lives in a river it interacts with its own type of water, plants life etc and reacts in particular ways. In the official water these reactions are not seen, so the research does not replicate a real life situation, so the results are different to the real experience.

But in order to get funding and to have their research accredited only one type of water is allowed. So money is spent on research that does not represent reality because “that is what the funding bodies want”. A ridiculous situation it would seem.

The influence of politics in research was also addressed from a Brazilian perspective, but one that can be applied throughout the world. When research and innovation is so tied to politics and touted as the saviour of the economic decline or development of a country it sometimes takes on a nationalist hue. This leads to questions about by whom, for whom and with which goals, that involves ethics and responsibility.

One of the most interesting developments though involves collaborations between the hard and social sciences. In several areas social scientists have been placed within science labs to act as a forum that allows scientists to talk about and understand the ethical dilemmas that they face while carrying out their work.

Much of the stuff I write about is related to the problem of scientific development and dual uses, unforeseen effects and changes they bring about in society, and having a social scientist, philosopher or ethicist in the lab seems to open up debate and even effect scientific outcomes. It might even seem to improve productivity is some ways!

As an aside I should add that attending a conference as a journalist has many advantages. As a participant you want people to listen to you, you have to pay to attend and publicize your event. But as a journalist everyone wants to talk to you so that you will write about them.

At every chance organizations try to engage you. There are free cooked breakfasts offered by national research councils, aperitifs form journals and unions, awards, free books and cd’s more alcohol, cakes and coffee, nights out with transport laid on, more food and more alcohol. Many of my colleagues were jealous, they had to pay for everything.

Thousands of people attended the conference and a lot of networking took place. I get the impression that this is really what these large conferences are all about. I am pleased to report that science bloggers (such as myself) are taken seriously and accepted as serious journalists, and there were many of us sitting alongside Reuters and the New York Times. All Kudos to the AAAS for that.

I stayed at the Palmer house hotel in Chicago, a splendid structure and once the largest hotel in the world. Worth a stay or even just a look if you are passing through. Other famous guests include Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Charles dickens and the scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, so I won’t be asking for a plaque to be erected about my visit.

Hereditary Memories?

The BBC has recently been reporting that memories can be carried from one generation to another through genes. We always knew that certain characteristics were passed on, but we had never known if or how memories were transferable.

Well it seems that they are, but what might this actually mean?

On 1 December Nature Neuroscience published a report that you can read the abstract of here although it is extremely technical.

In lay terms the research aimed at understanding how experiential and behavioural traits could be passed on. In the case under discussion they used mice to see if traumatic stress experiences could be seen to influence the next generation.

The experiment went something like this. A mouse is put into an environment that has a particular smell, cherry blossom for example. In that environment and accompanied by the smell the mouse is traumatized in order to produce stress.

The post traumatised mice then produce offspring, and they themselves produce a new generation. The grandchild mouse is exposed to the smell (cherry blossom) and their activity is monitored to see if they behave differently as a reaction to that particular smell, and they do.

Passing it all on

Passing it all on

The mice were “extremely sensitive” to cherry blossom and would avoid the scent, despite never having experienced it in their lives, and changes in brain structure were also found related to the smell.

The report concluded that “the experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations”.

I wonder if associations are just negative? My children love the smell of Indian food, my father was raised in India and also loved the food, but he died many years ago and my children never knew him. Do they like the smell because my dad passed a liking of the food through my genes to them?

This is a simple example to question, but what are the implications for society after war? If we think about the Vietnam conflict, or more recently Afghanistan or Iraq for our our US veterans, what have they passed on to their children? Could the post war generation be suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress disorder thanks to their parents’ experiences?

And could the memory be more complete in a human brain, possibly being better functioning that that of a mouse?

And think about the implications for the theory of evolution.

Journal(s) of Misrepresentation

It is often said that the Internet has democratized the world. Maybe not in terms of governance, as we all know various governmental organizations collect huge amounts of data about our web use, but in terms of information.

When I was a teacher I saw many students relying on Wikipedia for information. I do the same myself of course, but I am at least wary about the accuracy of the information. They were not, and were shocked when I suggested to them that maybe all that is written is not true.

One worrying aspect is that the more critical a person is the more they are likely to distrust newspaper and TV reporting. This leads to more trust being put into Internet communication. The younger the user the more likely they are to get their news and information through digital media, but the more likely they are to trust it too, and this has consequences.

One of the consequences of this belief coupled with Internet freedom of information is the blurring of boundaries between reliable information in science and more fanciful or non- proven claims. Anyone can start an online journal, webpage or blog and for practically nothing set up a fake foundation, center of excellence or anything else they fancy, become the Director and Editor and publish to the world.

And you or I might find their work and not know how to interpret the information offered.

Sorting the truth from the lies

Sorting the truth from the lies

A couple of years ago I wrote an article on the Bassetti Foundation website about cold nuclear fusion. A small group of scientists is working to create nuclear fusion without using heat. A breakthrough would mean clean, practically free energy. I mentioned it here too as part of my Health of the Planet series.

In 2011 the Journal of Nuclear Physics announced such a breakthrough. It was reported in the national press in Italy, on CNN and the BBC. A Journal of this quality reporting such findings! Peer reviewed, high quality articles etc etc….

But as I was saying earlier, we should look beyond the gloss and at the substance, and it turns out that this wonderful journal is in fact produced and edited by the very scientist/entrepreneur that has made the breakthrough that he is telling us about.

It is not really a rigorous scientific journal, it is really a personal blog, and as such contents are possibly a little bit liable to bias (maybe).

Last week saw wide reporting of an experiment conducted by journalist John Bohannon and published through Science, an online and paper and much more reliable source of information.

To cut the story short Bohannon wrote a paper about a kind of miracle drug for cancer treatment. The paper contained many of the same errors that you or I might include, as non scientists. It came from a false research center too. Then it was submitted to just over 300 online journals. Fake results, flawed experiments, fundamental errors of high school biology, all included.

Half of the journals published the article as it was. High quality peer reviewed online journals (supposedly) accepted the article, it passed their stringent review systems and made it to publication.

You can read a much more detailed account of the event here in the original Science article. Tales of China and payments for publication, love letters from editors etc, it is all here.

So the problem becomes noise. With all of this noise, information, reporting and news, how can we pick out the real important stuff? Everybody’s voice becomes equal, the fact that 99% of scientists believe in something no longer means anything. The 1% of scientists (I know it is a big word) who do not believe that humans are contributing to global climate change have the same weight of voice as the others, and here in the US you can see the results.

Free market, free thinking, free Internet, free publication, free speech. Free propaganda and free misreporting too, unfortunately.

Calling While Driving

One of the problems with humanity is that we all believe that we can do things safely even if others tell us that they are not safe. People who drive fast do so because they are good drivers (so they tell us), people claim that they can drive while under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the statistics prove otherwise, and even making a call or texting does not distract some super-drivers.

Governments take some action in some form or other to try and stop people doing these things, but it is selective in nature. Let us take texting while driving as an example. In some countries it is illegal to drive and text at the same time. In the USA it is allowed in some states and prohibited in others. In some states you can talk on the phone, in others not you need a hands-free system.

The law though seems to be selective. Last week research published in the Science journal demonstrates that it is not holding the phone to text or speak that is the problem, it is the conversation itself that causes the distraction.

 

A typical sight today

A typical sight today?

The research showed little or no difference between the rate of accidents when people are using a hands-free system and when they are physically holding the phone. The type of conversation does make a difference though, the more the driver has to concentrate on the subject matter or think before replying, the more chance there is of having a crash.

They also found that any type of interaction, even listening to the radio, effects reaction times and attention paid to the road. The radio is the least invasive because it does not require a response, but I wonder if listening to a news show or a discussion that you have to concentrate to follow causes more distraction, a logical line of thought would seem to imply so. Interestingly enough voice to text is the most dangerous type of technological interaction addressed.

So there are laws against texting, and not holding a phone (I must add not everywhere) but why not make speaking hands-free illegal too? And we should bear in mind that cars are ever more designed for connectivity, and that means distraction, maybe this should also be regulated.

Well that would require a change in business practices and take away personal freedom some might say, but we should remember that driving is not a right, it is a privilege that is governed by rules.

This is a serious piece of research that uses eye monitoring technology to measure distraction and driver awareness. The findings are clear and there is plenty of supporting data from other sources, but how would you feel about not being able to make a call at all though while driving?

At least your boss couldn’t call you while you were on your way home.