Category: writing

What was this “Science Dystopia” badge she spoke of?

It was a real treat to have Margaret Atwood out to UBC last night, and she was a delight to host from start to finish.

At the beginning of her talk, she made mention of a science badge – a “Science Scout” badge – and I thought it would interest some folks to share a bit more on her nod to this unconventional thing that came from my lab.

Essentially, a while back, she was kind enough to help design a Science Scout badge.

What is a science scout badge exactly?

Well, it’s one of those things that goes a long while back, and is usually best left unexplained – except to say that searching the internet will get you there.

In a nutshell, the badges are a silly thing, if not amusing, but also a portal into science culture. Usually, these badges are virtual stamps to leave on one’s website, or an opportunity to tell an interesting science story. And on occasion, we do have talented folk who make physical incarnations of them.

In this case, I arranged for one of these talented folk (Rachel Newlin) to make a few of Miss Atwood’s badges. Here is a photo of one of them:

Lovely, isn’t it?

More importantly, I think it’s another great example of science culture. It’s another instance that shows that it’s o.k. for a writer like Margaret Atwood to participate in science things (obviously) – likewise, it’s o.k. for a scientist like myself to participate in storytelling things. It’s really not that strange.

Science isn’t a technical term – it is a form of culture. It’s also a tool or a way to understand and experience the world. And as such, it can be embedded into everything, in large or small parts, technically or philosophically, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it. Perhaps we should be wary of it, but not afraid of it – these are not the same thing. If nothing else, it seems to be a pretty good inspiration for badges.

Here’s another song I wrote: This one is about climate change, the first law of thermodynamics, and the awesomeness of science.

I don’t know what it is about marking papers, but my brand of procrastination seems to lead to silly creative science pursuits.

And so, here is a song I quickly wrote and laid down some tracks last night. It’s kind of amazing what you can do with the average computer and a decent microphone these days. Hope you enjoy!

Listen, things are getting warmer
You can call it climate, climate that is changing
Simple in that science, science is the reason
We should take a stand, come up with a plan, listen to

It’s like this, living in a greenhouse
throwing in the air now, burning in the air now
warmer radiation, holding at the station
models add it up, heat is going up.

G A Dm G
Don’t you know It’s science, showing us the numbers
showing us a truth, something we can trust,
Something that we must take hold and move on forward


It’s like this, following the first law
Which is all to say that, that everything is bookkept
Counted and accounted. Following the heat
Following the work, following the state of things

Heat up, means it getting warmer
And with work a storming, moving air and water
Also changing states, melting ice to liquid
Averaging it out, causing thing to shout

Don’t you know…

Science: it’s not opinion, it’s not like fiction, and not religion. It’s rational, and looks at facts, mistakes are tracked, it looks at evidence.

In case you missed it: The 2012 Candy Hierarchy

This went up last week at Boing Boing, and is reprinted here in case you missed it. If you want to weigh in on the peer review, you can leave a comment here, or you can leave one at Boing Boing. Cheers ~Dave

– – –

By David Ng and Ben Cohen

Candy culture plays a particularly prominent role during Halloween, especially in terms of providing what we describe as “joy induction.” Consequently, the “Candy Hierarchy” is a concerted effort to provide systematics that define a candy taxonomy in order of desirability and with the expressed idea of maximizing such joy. Each year, through the tireless efforts by teams of researchers, the ranking receives peer review in the form of comments left. This brings new data that are then tabulated and incorporated into each revised edition.

The Candy Hierarchy has been a work in progress since 2006 when initiated by B.R. Cohen, an environmental historian over at Lafayette College, and has since been published in a variety of venues.  In 2010, with collaboration from David Ng, a geneticist based at the University of British Columbia, the hierarchy established an exclusive relationship with the highly reputable journal Boing Boing. This then allowed a significant increase in feedback from the peer review community due to the journal’s high citation index.

We, the authors, have greatly profited from this peer community feedback. That is to say, we almost got rich — the Hierarchy was optioned by a few Hollywood types and months were spent in writers’ rooms hammering out a pilot for NBC, before having the whole thing axed once it became clear NBC was not a thing anymore. But we got to keep the money.  And we bought candy with it. And now here we are.  So on with it already.

Discussion: There comes a time, when we heed a certain call. When the world. Must come, together as one.  That time is now. We can’t go on, pretending day by day, that someone, somehow will make a change. Therefore, presented within is the newly reformulated Ng and Cohen Candy Hierarchy. This taxonomy updates the 2011 edition, which culled massive peer review in the form of several hundred comments, and by including the latest research findings.

As with prior iterations, we placed a high value on this process, since past attempts (see previous versions 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2010) produced noteworthy revelations, including establishment of reference samples, now understood as index candies, as well as the discovery of the importance of caramel in defining the upper tiers.

Along with minor adjustments, two new broadly defined features stand out this year.  One is the discovery through spectral analysis of a mint-based layer (you can almost taste it just by reading it, right?); two is the demotion of American chocolate products from their prior (and erroneous) exalted placement near the top.  Clearly, that earlier placement was a remnant of North Ameri-centric cultural commitments that somehow (damn you post-modernism!) snuck in to the lab. We’d prefer to blame the children for this flaw, those doing the grunt work of tricking and treating, though we shouldn’t — colleagues in biology recently confirmed that they are our future — but come on, it had to be their fault. So chocolate is all in a tizzy and the tectonic shift this year comes from a groundswell of new research coming from our international contributors, the basic thrust of which is that European chocolates embarrassHershey’s. (This does open things up to a probable adjustment next year to account for a global account, not just Western.) Hershey’s Dark Chocolate stands a chance, but all in all, the Cadbury’s, the Lindt’s, the Nestle’s, the Ferroroses of the world are the aristocrats to Hershey’s proletarians, the hoities to American toities, the Prince Williams and Harrys to our Prince Fielders and Bonnie Prince Billys. Having said that, it sort of doesn’t matter that much anyway.  Kids still won’t snag a Lindt Truffle before a Hershey’s Kiss, so what can you do.

Interestingly, this particular discourse led to heated discussions on the overall reliability of our peer review process.  If we could so easily miss the contrasting nature of North American and European perspectives, then might there be larger biases at play?    And then, literally at the very moment when our voices had reached an ugly and angry crescendo and fingers were pointing with blame, LIKE AN OMEN FROM THE HEAVENS (or at least somewhere approximating a breathtaking view of the Milky Way from Mars), we received word of a most relevant piece of research.

Yes, it was research with real data, collected from real children.

And not only that, it clearly laid out, in a sort of pencilly scientific table kind of way, that only a paltry third of the participants queried even bothered to single out chocolate as a preference!

Of course, we should note that these were Canadian children, so one could argue that the data is hardly what you might call trustworthy.  Nevertheless, if taken at face value, it would suggest that this Candy Hierarchy is a potentially invalid piece of work.  Or put another way, might we be witnessing a paradigm shift, perhaps?

And so, let us also apply some caution to this current Candy Hierarchy, as well as offer a plea for more children-centric candy data.   This will be good for candy, good for science, good (dare I say) for the world, and certainly good for our continued search for a TV pilot since Disney or Nickelodeon might now take note.

And please, please remember that we do this because this here is relevant stuff.  It affects the mindset of our planet, truly.  Indeed, it was only recently, that we learned that our Hierarchy has been applied to broader research programs.  Although we were not cited in this report, recent studies by Franz H. Messerli, M.D., show that those countries receiving more Nobel Prizes also eat more chocolate.  [from Chocolate Consumption, Cognitive Function, and Nobel Laureates (October 10, 2012DOI: 10.1056/NEJMon1211064), New England Journal of Medicine.]  But now in light of our new observations (albeit observations recorded with shaky handwriting and some minor spelling mistakes), we are forced to ask whether this research was performed under a chocolate bias paradigm and subsequent flawed methodology.

In conclusion, then, and as we present this year’s hierarchy, we can honestly say, without hyperbole, that this is the biggest, most significant categorization that has ever been created. Big and significant because there is so, so much at stake.  So remember, it’s not your father’s candy hierarchy.  It’s your kids. Sort of.

The hierarchy is also available in PDF format for easy printing

1. Because like, score! (Bcsizemo, 2010)

2. a.k.a. God’s Candy

3. These may be rolled to a friend.

4. Not sure if this should be included. Systematics are still on going – denomination appears to be key.

5. Appropriate ranking may depend entirely on date of purchase versus date of opening. Experts in this field often refer to this dichotomy as “fresh CCE” versus “stale CCE,” or FCCE versus SCCE (Beschizza, 2011). Note that its interior has also been described as “pustulent.” (Petersen, 2010)

6. Sometimes spousal influence forces these placements as with, ahem, this primarily southern delicacy.

7. Includes comparable Commonwealth version of “Smarties.” (Devo, Legionabstract, gadgetgirl  et al, 2011)

8. Although has also been classified as packing material (Cunning, 2010)

9. This and the Lindt one are higher quality, which makes it strange that trick-or-treaters just don’t want them.

10. Whoppers blow.

11. The authors are curious as to which neighborhoods you belong to.

12. Admittedly an outlier – like that fish you’ve seen on television. You know – the one which looks like it can breathe air and stuff.

13. Whose value comes as payoff to parents, as children do not rank this highly.

14. Still a contentious subject with a rich history of controversy. Briefly: Candy Corn, as of 2006, remained unclassified, but as of 2007 had been tentatively placed in the Upper Chewy/Upper Devonian. 2008: no sighting. In recent years, we have elected to leave in the same tier as consensus has yet to be determined.

15. The discontinued candy, not the equally rankable discontinued board game.

16. Oh smack, can you even imagine if you got Fritos?

17. Unless it’s something caramel, pronounced “caramel.”

18. By some accounts, these two are actually one and the same (Gadgetgirl, 2010)

19. Yet some would be just as well to be left off. Bit-o-Honey, for example, might be called a lower tier member, but why bother? It says to your trick-or-treaters, “Here, I don’t care, just take this.” The lesson of Bit-o-Honey is: you lose. Doorstep offers of lectures in civics, too. You’re making a social statement–“I hate you and everything you represent”– when you give these out.

20. Yes, we really meant fruit that is healthy, clean-cut upstanding fruit that takes time from its gym membership and all the demands that come with it to contribute a positive message of citizenship and camaraderie to the community.  This isn’t a typo of healthy for healthful. (see U.M.H. 2011)

21. Research has further defined this relationship. Currently, it has been suggested that Blackwing Pencils > Hugs > Creepy Hugs > Pencils. (Lobster, Prufrock451, and Warreno, 2010)

22. Unless you eat them properly. To quote Anonymous, 2010: “The trick to realizing how brilliant and delicious Now ‘n Laters are is a two step process. The first step is to carefully read the name of the candy. “Now ‘n Later.” What does it mean, you ask? Well, it implies that the candy will be different “now” (when you put it in your mouth) and at some point “later” in time. A small leap of logic takes us to the second step: be patient. You need to suck on it for a while until it softens. If you skip this step, the Now ‘n Later will be an inedible, rock-like colorful brick quite worthy of the low end of the hierarchy. But if you are patient in your candy-eating process, oh the rewards you will reap!”

Examples of glorious peer review and also paradigm shifts. Sciencegeeks, we present the 2012 Candy Hierarchy.

If you really think this sucks, then please leave a comment here.

(Click for larger version)

Here is a song I wrote about that buzz you get when you meet folks who speak your (scientific) language, jargon and all. #scio13

Just an old demo, but kind of nice.

Essentially, it started with a challenge of giving me strange technical terms that I would have to incorporate into a song. The words that immediately came back included Epiglottis, Flagella, Dictyostelium, Homo erectus, and Phthalates.

And so, I went ahead and wrote something pretty quick about how sometimes it’s kind of wonderful to revel in jargon, especially when you’re nattering on with your scientific peers. In some ways, I kind of feel like it’s my own unofficial theme song to the ScienceOnline2013 conference coming up in January. This is my tribe – we talk science, and we love it.

Play above or here is the mp3 to check out, and lyrics reprinted below.

One of these days, I’ll have to re-record a second take (sound levels are very low), and maybe with a capo on the second fret to move it up vocally a bit. Also, you may notice that the word Phthalate didn’t make the song – that was more because I didn’t know how to pronounce it! If you let me know how to say it properly, maybe I’ll write a song just about that.


I notice something today
About the way you talk in jargon fueled ways

It’s those crazy words that you say
That make me realize about your jargon fueled ways

Those things you sing to me acapella
Like dictyostelium and flagella
You shout out stuff like homo erectus
Always great to hear epiglottis

So when you think you will say
The sort of things in your own jargon fueled way

And let’s just say it’s o.k.
That I kind of love your jargon fueled ways.


When a Crocodile Hunter Becomes a Planet Hunter


Cor Crikey! And g’day mate! Right now we’re walking up to Hawaii’s Gemini Observatory on the summit of Mauna Kea. It’s got a beaut of a telescope inside, and we’re hoping to find a new planet today.

(Whispering) Here we are at the front door. But we should first give it a bit of space. Patience is important when dealing with telescopes. And we’ve got to be careful with that door. It’s locked! Looks like the observatory doesn’t open for another 20 minutes.

(20 minutes later) Alright mate! Let’s go! (running) Quickly mate! We’re already inside, but we’ve got to move fast! If you look around, you might see that there are other humans around here that will also want to use the telescope, but if you get there first, you’re in there mate. You can use one hand for the controls, and the other to fend the others off.

(Reaching the console) We’re the first here! And it looks like we’ll get to have it to ourselves too. Ripper! Looks pretty complicated, but I’ve been around telescopes all my life and this is definitely an “on” button. But before I press it, let’s first camouflage ourselves behind this adjustable office chair, just in case! I’m going to turn it on now.

(Apparatus makes a noise). Watch out mate! We’ve got to stay extra alert now. Remember – never do this without the supervision of an expert like myself around.
It’s on. And don’t forget to be on the look-out for other humans. We can scare them off by making ourselves look as big as possible – spread your arms wide and look like you’re real pissed. That’s right, like that. Beauty mate! Alright, now let’s go find us some planets…

(7 hours) Did you see that?

(12 days) Did you see that?

(4 week) Did you see that?

(6 weeks) Did you see that?

(7 weeks) Crikey! Did you see that?

(3 months and 1 week) Did you see that?

(4 months) Did you see that?

(5 months and 3 weeks) Did you see that?

(6 months later and looking weary) Well mates, that’s all we have time for in this show. It’s a shame we didn’t find a new planet but that’s sometime how it is in these observatories. See you next time!

Newton, shoulders, giants and other things he may or may not have stood on during his lifetime.



A stage of some sort.
Tippy toes.


Laminate Flooring
Olympic podium.
Someone’s throat.

William’s Ecological Footprint: an attempt at an environmental children’s book


A few years ago, for fun, I took a course on “Writing Books for Children.” It was pretty good, in that it kind of forced me to sit down and come up and work through an idea. Or at least, work through it enough so that it was close to the stage of becoming a proper idea.

My friends already know that children’s books have always fascinated me, especially with two young children in my own household. It’s probably why I’ve written about it on occasion in other places. There’s something altogether amazing when you read a great children’s book to your kids, especially so (for me anyway) when the book has some science in it.

Anyway, shown below is a slideshow of my book idea. It’s basically about a group of animals marvelling at their habitats, considering their own “footprints” so to speak. Then, of course, there’s a bit where they meet a human: whereby the idea of a footprint becomes grossly different.

Apologies for the simplistic art, but I am curious about what you think of the book conceptually. One day, I might even try to edit and tighten it up, so as to submit it somewhere. Although, to be honest, I’m not sure if the idea is good enough and (as the case may be) I’m not even entirely sure where best to send such queries. Still, take a peek, and send on some feedback – it’ll be much appreciated.

Read the rest of this entry »

Types of Sharks that Also Sound Like Heavy Metal Bands


Great White*

Clouded Angel*






Angry Words From a Gnome Who to This Day Continues to Think The Human Genome Project was Actually The Human Gnome Project


It’s hard to believe that the Human Gnome Project formally began in 1990s. It was quite frankly a great time for all of us gnomes as we thought we had finally gained the attention and respect we deserved as a community. But decades later, we as a community are disappointed, angry, full of resentment, and still addicted to nicotine.

To our knowledge, of the billions of research funds given to human gnome initiatives, none of it ever actually went to fund “gnome” research. Instead, a sizable portion went to human human research, and in an apparent slap in the face to my kindred, significant amounts also went towards research looking at bacterial, yeast, worm, fugu, fly, and mouse genetics. Suffice to say, that with the exception of humans, these are all organisms that do not smoke pipes. To say that this has been hard on my community is an understatement of vast proportions. Apart from the soaring lung-cancer rates, I find I am continually aware of other lost opportunities the money could have been used towards.

For instance, for whatever reason, we as a race are forever doomed by our incessant need to wear pointy hats. I hate my stupid hat—loath it with a passion. And yet I have to wear it. We all do. Why this is so has been mystery for many an age. Maybe that’s why I go through 70 grams of tobacco each day. And whilst pointy hats are fine for garden work (one of our main sources of economic recovery), they are hardly advantageous in the current global market—especially when first impressions play a key role. Surely, there is an underlying neurological basis for this behavior—a basis that science could have elucidated.

And what about our facial hair? Believe me, it is not because we are particularly fond of our beards. It’s not even because tobacco pipes look cooler in this context. Our beards just happen to grow at amazingly fast rates! This is not such a huge issue with me and the other male gnomes, but my poor wife actually has to shave every 45 minutes or else deal with social harassment. This is also compounded by the fact that services, like laser hair removal or electrolysis, are just too expensive, especially on a gardener’s income. Ironically, the only gnomes who could possibly afford these high tech solutions are the few who have made it into Hollywood where maintaining the typecast “bearded” look is required anyway. Furthermore, even when a hairless gnome is needed on a movie set (e.g., Mini Me in the Austin Powers franchise), we still get passed over because of our goddamn pointy hats! I bet billions could have sorted this problem out a long time ago.

But if there was ever a strong case for gnome research, you only need to look at my poor Uncle Bill. This unlucky bastard of a gnome must have some bladder problem or something, since he is (no exaggeration) urinating constantly. Seriously, I don’t think he’s even had a chance to put his penis away since he started 14 years ago! And the truth of the matter is that this particular problem is relatively rampant in my circles. Most start off fishing, and then they feel the urge and then whammo! It’s like a disease. I don’t think it’s too difficult to appreciate the magnitude of this medical condition. Aside from the psychological pain endured, imagine how uncomfortable it must be to leave it “out” constantly in all manner of weather conditions. I don’t care if you are the gardener type— when it’s cold, it’s cold! Plus, it makes smoking a pipe tricky.

Anyway, I’m not here to preach endlessly about our problems. I just here to say I want a fair piece of the action. If the project is called the Human Gnome Project, then it only makes sense that at least some of the money should go towards gnome research—right?

O.K., I’ve said my piece. I really have to go outside now to smoke my pipe—stupid human nicotine patch, piece-of-crap waste of money …

(This is very old and originally published at Yankee Pot Roast, inspired by this)

In case you’re wondering how an oil spill can turn into a theme park.


Ever since the Keystone XL Pipeline (originally slated to transport Tar Sand bitumen from Alberta to Nebraska) was stalled, the attention on finding a new route has focused around my own neck of the woods – namely through British Columbia which is currently viewed as a portal for shipping to China. And it seems like every time I open the paper, there’s some new story about big oil shenanigans. Here, Enbridge is the company, and the varying reports of spinning include allegely censoring a newspaper cartoonist, producing a promo video that conveniently leaving out islands in the challenging shipping routes, being quiet on the omission of particularly nasty environmental reports in certain due processes, the somewhat positive downplaying of a spill that happened only a few weeks ago, and finding out that the required “scientific review” won’t really happen because the government recently gutted the department that would have been responsible for that job..

All of this, of course, makes you wonder what a meeting in an oil company’s PR division is really like, and here, I thought I’d have a little fun with this: Seriously, though, at the rate we’re going, I wouldn’t be surprised if memos like the fictitious one below are being passed around:

– – –

Memo: Turning pipeline leaks into something positive!

Alright everyone, it’s time for some major spin control. We managed to plug that pipeline up, but now we seem to be losing the public relations fight what with the freaking amount of bitumen that spilled out. Seriously, the bad press is everywhere, and we are, quite frankly, getting crucified out there. So what can we do about this? How can we turn this PR nightmare into a PR fairytale?

Well, we in the spin department think that we’ve got an idea that can’t lose. Let me explain. Basically, when we thought about the idea of a PR fairytale, we thought about castles. And when we thought about castles (stay with me here), as vanguards of the capitalist world, of course we didn’t think about real historic castles – no, we thought about pink stucco creations, like the kind you might associate with movie studios and animated versions of Cinderella. And then (like magic, we did this all at once, I swear) we said to ourselves, “THEME PARK!” And then we wondered, how much energy is in this leaked tar sand product anyway?

Well, it turns out (with some very speedy back of the envelope calculations) that the amount of energy we can get from it might be good enough to explore the running of our own magic kingdom! Well, at least if we can count on a few more leaks along the way. But how cool would that be? Anyway, here’s the gist. We just pull that energy from our happy accident(s), redirect it, and then run this baby! It’ll be like the leaks happened on purpose! Awesome!

But we digress. Let’s not bore you with talk of energy and leaks, let’s talk THEME PARK!

Now this is just preliminary brainstorming, but we’re thinking a great name would be something like “Slick City!” Nice, right? Maybe even add to that a catchy tagline – something like The Family Friendly Pipeline Spill! We can even have animal characters wandering around the park, with maybe some kind of funky gel-like oil in their fur and feathers so it looks all cool and shiny like. There will be a Fossil Fuel Palace, made out of shiny coal! I can even envision a theatre area where an oiled down animal mascot version of the musical Grease is performed. Is it just me, or are people going to pay some serious coin to see that?

And the rides? How about a ride like “Shutting down the science!” You can have these carts that go around a track, and the riders have these light guns that shoot at things for points. For instance, they can shoot at all the nasty scientists who want to report on their work, or shoot at research centers that might be making inconvenient discoveries. Ha ha, just kidding – I’m just throwing ideas out there, but you get the picture right?

We also need a giant slide ride of somesort. What if we design the slide so that it followed the same curve as the hockey stick graph? And what if we call it the Carbonator or something cool like that?

And the big ticket item? Obviously, this will be an epic roller coaster. Perhaps one made to look like a big old pipeline. We could even make it from real pipeline parts! Don’t we get discounts for those kinds of things? As well, this ride is going to be amazing: it’s going to be the future of log rides. Instead of logs, the folks could sit in oil barrels, and instead of traveling through water, maybe those barrels would even go faster in a petroleum based fluid. Extra bonus if we get to light it on fire!

This is totally a goldmine of an opportunity. It’s like the ideas are just flowing and the theme park is creating itself! FRIED FOOD! Whoa. That one came out of nowhere! Seriously folks, we’ve hit oil here and it’s a gusher!

(Image by D.Ng, text originally published at Boing Boing)

Some writing (with a nod to thermodynamics) that didn’t make the cut in my book proposal.

So, I’m just finishing up a non-fiction book proposal for my agent and initially I had the below text as an entry point. In the end, I ditched it because I decided to instead use a personal anecdote about a child and her unicorn questions. Anyway, I still kind of like the below, so it seemed a shame not to show it off somewhere.

– – –




The book you are holding in your hands follows the laws of thermodynamics. This is possibly something you take for granted, or more likely, it is something you are not familiar with – maybe because of the use of terminology foreign to you. Nevertheless, it is a reality that informs some of your expectations of this book. You assume, for instance, that the book will not spontaneously turn into an elephant – no matter how fond you might be of elephants. You also assume that the book will not leap away from your hands, unless, of course: (1) you hurl it away yourself; or (2) you are surprised by an errant gust of wind; or (3) you are accosted by an excitable neighbour (perhaps an elephant?) who physically snatches it from your hands and throws it across the room. Although all of these silly assumptions sound obvious, it is the laws of thermodynamics that encapsulate some fundamental science necessary to translate them into elegant conceptual and mathematical descriptions. Furthermore, these elegant laws work everywhere. More importantly, the moral of our fable (and we can call it a fable because of the involvement of our elephant) is that often we find that obvious assumptions can also be obviously explained by robust scientific concepts.


But what if the assumptions are not so obvious; what if they are confusing even? What if you are getting information from a variety of conflicting places? What if someone you trust told you that there is value in eating this book. They tell you that ingestion of this book will cure cancer, or that it will make you rich, or that it might even earn you a pet elephant. What if they tell you that they know this to be true, because they have “seen it with their own eyes?” At this point, a person might use a variety of different criteria to judge this assumption. How much do I trust this individual? Is the individual knowledgable? What is the evidence involved? How good is the evidence? How badly do people want the assumption to be true? Should this matter?

All of these criteria sound reasonable, and presumably if you use them, you would come to the conclusion that maybe eating this book isn’t such a good idea. Yet, interestingly, when people are poised with numerous day to day claims about the world, they don’t always think to use all of these criteria. In fact, sometimes decisions are often made by quickly skimming through these criteria, or focusing on only one of them. In particular, many people evaluate these assumptions without looking deeply at things like the expertise of the source, or the soundness of the evidence. Which is unfortunate, since this is really an ignorance of the scientific process, a way of obtaining knowledge that has fundamentally changed the course of human history, and has provided us with information to make sense of the physical world around us. This process isn’t always the best way to evaluate claims – religion and philosophy may have more pertinent roles in questions about how the book might move your soul, or what the purpose of this book is – but for many scenarios, where there are empirical things you can measure and see, it’s a pretty decent way to evaluate your options and make good important decisions.


Then, of course, there is the issue of forgetting the roles that science plays in almost everything you do and everything you have. This is something you already know, but don’t really think about: that the vast majority of your activities and objects past have been historically informed by both scientific concepts and the scientific process; and that the vast majority of your activities and objects future will be informed by new scientific concepts and society’s continued participation in the scientific process. This book, for instance, didn’t materialized magically. Intellectually, the words were recorded on a computer, and an author’s health is maintained by medical research. Physically, there were players from biodiversity (the pulp from the trees, the dyes to create the ink) and advances in publishing technology involved (the printing press, distribution mechanisms). But these science-centric things are, in the best case scenario, often forgotten, and in the worst case scenario, are deliberately hidden from us. It’s as if science literacy isn’t worth acknowledging. The scientific way of thinking is being ignored. The world is crying, “Sciencegeek down” without an afterthought.

This book’s assumption is that this isn’t a good thing. And that, dear reader, is the real elephant in this room.

On Traveling with Children and a Lesson in the Value of Different Perspectives

I’m currently on vacation right now, exploring some of the prettier parts of British Columbia. For now, here’s a piece I wrote for Boing Boing a while back on the merits of traveling with kids. You can also check out the original post, which also has some great comments from other traveling parents. I also use the anecdote at the bottom sometimes, as a lesson in the value of different perspectives – you just never know where the best ideas come from.

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One of the things you have to do when you’re on sabbatical in a city like London, is make sure you take advantage of your travel opportunities. For my family, this equated to visiting a number of iconic European cities, a luxury that from Vancouver (where I’m usually based) would have been far too costly. Anyway, it’s been clear to my wife and I that during these once-in-a-lifetime visits, our consciousness is very much overridden by one central question: “What will Ben and Hannah do?”

(Clockwise from left) Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy; Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France; near Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh, Scotland; 2010

Just so you know, Ben and Hannah are my children. You’ve might have seen them in this previous post, and like any parent, I love them dearly. Nevertheless, traveling with very young children is an interesting experience, as it is by turns wonderful, exhausting, memorable, frustrating, and (just to be clear) exhausting. You are, after all, interacting with a tourist that would most likely rank the playground or the cat that they saw by a tree, far above the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Also, if you’re lucky enough to be staying somewhere where there is indoor swimming, then you can rest assured that you will hear of nothing else.

Despite this, one of the things I relish about traveling with kids is how you, as a parent, get to bulk up on your storytelling repertoire. Each travel is its own epic, with logistics as critical as any Everest expedition, a cast of characters that cannot be any more three dimensional, and more video and photographic footage than anyone would ever care for. Best of all, you are part of the cast: you might not have the biggest role, but that’s o.k. – you get to be responsible for the Director’s Commentary.

And oh what a commentary! The trip would have it all. There will be drama, there will be tears, there might even be vomit, and in my son’s case, there will always be plain pasta with only butter on it. If nothing else, you can tell your listeners that the best part of traveling with children is how funny they can be: they interact with culture in their own special way. For me, I still don’t think I’ve laughed any harder than when my daughter, during an outing to one of the many cathedrals we’ve visited, looked upon a crucifix and then with a slightly confused look on her face, asked in a loud clear voice, “What is up with that guy?” Seriously, the stories you build from these experiences can pretty much cover every conceivable narrative theme (with, I suppose, the possible exception of sex – see previous note on exhaustion).

This is actually why I’m surprised that I haven’t found a good website whose primary aim is to collect such personal kid travel commentary. Wouldn’t such a hub be a great resource for families everywhere? The advice that it would reveal would presumably not only be incredibly useful but also very entertaining to read. Indeed, it might even be emotionally relevant. It could be that first crucial step in combating a long festering anguish, the sort that a mishap during a family vacation might inadvertently create. This, I know to be true: I am speaking as a parent who once booked a hotel with a swimming pool that was off limits to children.

Anyway, if ever such a website existed, here would be my most useful and surprising travel tip. It would concern a vacation we took when my daughter was only 9 months old, where we took it upon ourselves to spend 4 weeks exploring, on the cheap, the European Alps. I can’t remember why we did this, but “because we were idiots” seems to work. What I do remember, vividly, is my wife and I being incredibly stressed before the flight to France. This was due to the prospect of being stuck in an enclosed airplane for double digit hours: obviously not the best setting for a potentially fussy baby. In fact, we were so stressed about this, that we had been unable to sleep for two whole days prior to the flight, and to add further insult, we were unable to get a wink in during the flight itself. Contrast that to Hannah, who ended up not even aware of the plane, having slept peacefully throughout the entire experience. Worse still, we hadn’t properly considered the consequences of arriving in France so late in the evening. In fact, we wouldn’t be able to check into our cramped hotel until after midnight. Physically, we were two parents who were fatigued beyond belief. Emotionally, we were crushed. Our late arrival meant that we would be now be navigating an experience ostensibly entitled, Overnight in a thin walled hotel room with a fully rested and loud baby.

Hannah at a playground, Chamonix, France; 2002

So how did we deal with this predicament? The short answer is that we didn’t have to, whereas the long answer wonderfully demonstrates that the most brilliant of ideas can come from the most unexpected of places. When we arrived at our hotel, as tired and as anxious as humanly possible, the hotel manager booked us into our small room and told us of the small crib that would be provided. He then calmly informed us that since there was also a deaf tour group staying at the hotel, he had taken the liberty of strategically booking these hard of hearing customers into all of the rooms around us. In other words, he had in effect created a baby noise buffer zone, and to this very day, I look back at that moment as being one of the happiest of my life.

In any event, there must be other parents reading this right now, with their own useful and surprising traveling tips, or maybe an epic to share. Would be lovely to hear a few more.

Cartoon Episodes About Science


The Super Friends epsiode:
“Wonder vs. Wonder”

When it becomes clear that a mission is botched because Wonder Woman is clearly visible in her invisible jet, unhappy murmurs begin to surface within the Super Friends’ organization. In particular, Zan, of the Wonder Twins, is merciless in his teasing of Wonder Woman. It also doesn’t help that Wonder Woman, herself, is generally not impressed with his otherwise useless superpower (“Form of a bucket of water? What in Amazon is that about?”)

In any event, Batman decides to put his scientific mind to work by fixing the jet and soon discovers a small error in the optics of one of the twenty cameras that are responsible for the illusion. Unfortunately, this only seems to encourage Zan further, who torments Wonder Woman on the seemingly mundane manner that invisibility is conferred. (“It’s literally all done with cameras! What a loser plane!”) In the end, fed up with Zan’s abuse, Wonder Woman soundly beats the crap out of him.

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Peanuts episode:
“That’s Biotechnology, Charlie Brown!”

Charlie Brown loses yet another kite within the branches of his nemesis, the kite-eating tree. However, Linus cleverly observes that this action is not unlike the concept of phytoremediation—whereby green plants are capable of removing pollutants from the environment. Linus, along with Sally as his doting lab assistant, immediately sets upon cloning this particular tree, and goes on to secure a patent for “the use of the kite-eating tree to remove kites and other airborne contaminants from the air.” As a result, Charlie Brown and Linus embark on a biotechnology business venture that quickly makes them extremely wealthy. Empowered with his new affluence, Charlie Brown finally tells Lucy to “fuck off.”

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The Simpsons episode:
“My Fat Bonehead”

Guest starring as herself, Jessica Simpson visits Springfield to teach Homer the ropes of becoming a southern gentleman (à la My Fair Lady). This goes as well as expected, and Bart in particular becomes completely smitten by the young lady. However, it is then revealed that Lisa is recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and furthermore is in need of a bone marrow transplant. Miraculously, Jessica Simpson is the perfect match, which culminates in the use of genetic testing techniques to show that she is, indeed, Homer and Marge’s long-lost lovechild. Bart then has to deal with conflicting feelings of lust and the heebie-jeebies from this apparently incestuous crush.

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Dora the Explorer episode:
“¡Hola! I Have a Brain Tumor!”

In this episode, Dora visits her doctor to complain about her dry, red, and itchy eyes. The doctor quickly solves the problem by advising Dora to try blinking for a change. However, at this visit, the doctor quickly suspects Dora is plagued with a more serious psychosomatic condition, since she continually refers to a talking backpack, a talking map, and a talking monkey with a perceived preference for sturdy yet red colored footwear. When Dora continues to stare off into the distance and ask bizarre and loud questions towards no one in particular (“What was YOUR favorite part of the day?”), the doctor decides to take matters into his own hand and schedules her for a CAT scan.

(Originally published at Yankee Pot Roast)

Mother Goose and the Scientific Peer Review Process


Jack and Jill went up the hill.
To fetch a pail of water.
Jack fell down and broke his crown.
And Jill came tumbling after.

First of all, we are not sure there’s enough clarity in this text. Scientific literature, in particular, should leave little room for confusion. Where exactly did Jack fall down? Into the well? A little ways down the hill? All the way down the hill? It’s just too vague. Worst still, we’re not convinced that the science conducted is of high enough caliber. I mean really, who would be stupid enough to put a well on the top of a hill? In conclusion, we feel that this manuscript should be rejected in its current state, but are not opposed to viewing a revised version in the near future.

Twinkle twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.
Up above the sky so high.
Like a diamond in the sky.
Twinkle twinkle little star.
How I wonder what you are.

Initially, we were quite intrigued by your work, especially since it appeared to contain several elements that merit genuine excitement. However, it was then brought to our attention that this body of work had remarkable similarities to a previously published report (The Alphabet Song). It was upon further investigation, that our worst fear was confirmed to be true – that this manuscript constitutes an act of plagiarism. We must state that we feel this to be a serious breach of scientific ethics, and must therefore strongly decline your manuscript.

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the King’s horses and all the King’s men.
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Although otherwise promising, the reviewers felt that the research in its current state is incomplete. Quite frankly, it was agreed that your principle subject needed to be put back together again. Several of the reviewers suggested courting the expertise of a mathematician who could perhaps create an appropriate algorithm to solve this problem. Alternatively, one reviewer suggested glue. As a final note, questions were also raised regarding the treatment and well being of Mr. Dumpty. Why exactly was he made to sit on the wall? And why exactly would you allow horses (of all things) to put him together again. No matter, the reviewers overall impression was that if you were able to address each and every one of these issues, they would see no problem entertaining a revised version.

Hey diddle diddle, the cat and the fiddle.
The cow jumped over the moon.
The little dog laughed, to see such a sight.
And the dish ran away with the spoon.

The reviewers felt that not enough data was presented to support your claims. For example – how many times did your group observe the cow jumping over the moon? From the text and supporting figures, it would appear that you base this conclusion on one data point as no calculations regarding standard deviations were presented. As an analytical journal of high repute, the reviewers felt that this is simply not acceptable. In addition, several of the reviewers felt that the word ‘diddle’ was inappropriate, and should have been replaced by the more scientifically correct, ‘Hey fornicate fornicate.” Because of these, and other problems, we are sorry to inform you that your manuscript has not been accepted for publication.

Rub a dub dub, three men in a tub.
And who do you think they’d be?
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.
Turn’em out, knaves all three.

Thank you most kindly for allowing us to see this marvelous manuscript. We feel that it is a great privilege that you and your colleagues decided to submit it to our journal. We truly feel that it represents seminal work that could even one day lead to a Nobel prize. To be frank, we were quite surprised to receive your submission, in that we all felt it could have easily been accepted by the more high profile publications (The Nature and Science journals for instance). In any event, we are very pleased to inform you that, we, the reviewers are unanimous in our decision to accept your manuscript.

(Originally published at the Science Creative Quarterly)

Ways Politicians and Robots are Alike


Their eyes.

A politician’s eyes appear to be fully capable of eliciting an empty yet intense robot gaze.  Intriguing because this look is reminiscent of the kind that any human might make when solving difficult math problems in their heads, and which, coincidentally, is also an activity that robots are notorious for doing all the time. On the other hand, maybe they look that way (the politicians) because their eyeballs are also recharging and getting ready to shoot out laser beams.

Their focus.

Politicians are always super focused and always “on message,” sometimes to the point of “muzzling” individuals who might veer away from their specific agenda.  This, of course, is indicative of algorithmic behavior and also of spyware filtering, which when taken to certain extremes is closely associated with “programming” for robots of the evil genius ilk.  Indeed, this observation is quite striking: there is an eerie similarity between most Democrats and Dave from 2001, as well as most Republicans and Megatron from The Transformers.

Their message.

Robots, like computers, are often relentless in producing endless streams of spam. As well, this spam almost always fits in one of two categories: (1) either promises for financial wealth and economic prosperity; or (2) pornographic photos of genitalia.   Sound familiar?

Their apathy towards unusual climate patterns.

Typically, politicians have a poor record on climate change policy.  It is almost as if they don’t care that it’s happening.  Which begs the question: why the nonchalance attitude?  Wouldn’t most leaders in our society be wary of what is arguably the single greatest challenge facing humanity today?  Is it because they know that they as robots are generally impervious to temperature and weather extremes?

Their wariness of appearing too robot-like.

This particular attribute is most likely to manifest itself as a collection of exaggerated attempts to draw attention away from their robot ways.  For example – Possible exaggerated attempt #1: kissing babies.  Possible exaggerated attempt #2: serving customers at a small local business.  Possible exaggerated attempt #3: saying something very very stupid.  Interesting to note that the combined symbolic aesthetic of baby kissing plus humbly serving customers plus saying very very stupid things is widely recognized as the perfect antonym to the “essence of robotness.”

Their hearts.

There are some politicians who seem programmed to care little for social programs and/or initiatives that aim to help the less fortunate.  This suggests that the concept of inequity is perhaps too difficult to compute.  If so, that’s a little cold… maybe even robot cold.

Ways Charles Darwin Could Jump the Shark


He makes exploitative
prime-time-television cameos

Darwin appears as the “man in need of a haircut” in an episode of Gossip Girl, and is the first contestant voted off Survivor: Galápagos. Eventually makes Barbara Walters’s list of most fascinating people of the year. Cries during interview.

He sells Darwinian fashion accessories

Darwin takes advantage of the current interest in natural fashion products. Begins marketing items like organic-cotton neckties and honey-flavored lip gloss. Darwin-sanctioned “stylish feces beads” appear soon after.

Reviews movies

Darwin becomes a staff writer at Rolling Stone. Is asked to critique animal-related movies. Loses credibility when caught gushing over Catwoman.

Hosts free holiday cruises

Moonlighting as an authority on nature and boats, Darwin takes advantage of free holiday cruises. His cruise talks are very successful and Darwin becomes the No. 1 hit when Googling the words “lido deck.”

Guest-stars on The Dog Whisperer

Memos to the effect of “He sailed on a boat called the Beagle. Isn’t a beagle a dog?” begin to circulate. Capitalizing on this attention, Darwin joins The Dog Whisperer as a dog-anatomy expert. Wins Emmy for segment on comparative dog-tail structure. In acceptance speech, cites the fact that “dog” spelled backward is “god” as evidence of a Christian conspiracy.

Joins the Ice Capades

Darwin is hired for small part in a Lion King–themed ice show. Takes skating lessons and practices hard. Soon nails both the triple axel and the triple lutz. Is fired from the show when he tests positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Loses his mind

Darwin endorses Scientology.

Dresses up as Santa Claus during holidays

Sporting his full white beard, Darwin is hired to impersonate Santa Claus at the local mall. He initially does well in this job, looking the part, being punctual, amicable, and knowledgeable about reindeer. However, he soon begins to insist on teaching children words like “invertebrate.” He also starts giving out stylish feces beads instead of candy canes. Later, he gets in an argument with another Santa Claus in another mall over biologically sound explanations for Rudolph’s glowing nose. The “Darwin vs. Santa Claus” fistfight goes viral on YouTube.

(Originally published at McSweeney’s for Darwin’s bicentennary)

In which I tell a story about the pervasiveness of my name (with a little genetics thrown in for good measure)


Just told this story at the Pathology Arts Gala last night, and I thought that maybe others would like to hear it. This is based on a piece I wrote for the Believer, and it’s about a time when I was a bit obsessed with my name.

Recorded by The Monti at ScienceOnline 2012, January 20th, 2012.

Francis Bacon, Kevin Bacon, and the Search for the Six Degrees of Separation Heir.


Lately, I’ve been doing a little writing on the philosophy of science, and a consequence of this, is my mind pondering the plight of Bacon.  Not the food, but rather Sir Francis Bacon, who as you may or may not know, is the renown writer and gentlemen of the 16th and 17th centuries – famous for being a member of Parliament, friend to the British Monarchy, and (most important to me) often referred to as the “Father of the Scientific Method.”
Such thinking then naturally led to Kevin Bacon, who in turn, reminded me of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Which is also to say that inevitably, I landed at entertaining the specifics of the “Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon.” 
This refers to the phrase, “The Six Degrees of Separation,” which submits that you are less than six “friend of a friend” steps away from everyone else on the planet.   In other words, it suggests that mankind is more connected than you would think.  Interestingly, this calculation has never been formally proven, and there might even be some evidence to suggest that social media has brought it down to four degrees, but despite all this technical wrangling, it is nevertheless obvious that it probably only works well if the people involved happen to be alive.
Which is to say that the “Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon,” a man who died in 1626, are probably all dead.
With this in mind, we need to return to the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Whilst, this originally concerned itself with connections in the entertainment industry, the phrase nowadays is kind of symbolic of humanity’s interconnectedness.  Put another way, Kevin Bacon is a little like an unofficial figurehead of this game.
But figureheads are usually transient. Indeed, the fact of the matter is that Mr. Bacon is no longer the sprightly young man that danced into our hearts in Footloose.  Nor is he, despite the fact that he played an “invisible” character in Hollow Man, capable of hiding from the debilitating onward march of time.  In essence, he should be fully aware that as he ages, the concept and the mathematics of the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” will no longer be practical – indeed, it will no longer even be relevant.   Consequently, you might suppose that one day, there will need to be a proper discussion about a “six degrees” successor. 
And why not start that discussion now? Namely, how would one decide on such a successor?  Of course, this would come with a few rules.  For instance, whoever is chosen should, at the very least, be younger than Kevin Bacon. Perhaps Mr. Kevin Bacon should even have a role in this process.  Anyway, as I continue to procrastinate from doing whatever it is I am supposed to be doing, I’d like to put forth the following scenarios and then maybe see if the procrastinating community at large has any thoughts on the matter:

1. The British Monarchy model.
This is where the weight of responsibility is passed on to the first born.  Furthermore, since we’re being thematic and all, this option should totally include a throne and also a crown that can be worn on special occasions.  Maybe a fancy sword as well.  Yes, a sword would be totally awesome – “The six degrees of so and so and his/her sword” has a nice ring to it.

2. The Democratic Model
Why not do this with an open election?  This would certainly be entertaining to watch, and would no doubt fuel some interesting discussion.  Although the mind boggles at how the nominees will be decided upon, and how exactly they would present themselves (more so, since the principle of the Six Degrees, hypothetically is meant to be immune from the nuisance of ideology).

3. The “So You Think You Can Dance” model.
This would be the obligatory “how can we turn this into reality TV” option. Furthermore, as Mr. Bacon, himself, is no stranger to the entertainment industry, it is perhaps the most logical model to find a successor. A dance off, moreover, would be nothing less than magical.  Think of the how fun this might be, think of the spectacle, think of the press, and think of the Kevin Bacon themed So You Think You Can Dance stationary.  As well, each time a successor is chosen, the theme of the next reality show could be tweaked according to the accomplishments of the new figurehead.  Imagine different contests each time around, ranging from cooking to planning a wedding, to a full on Hunger Games styled competition.

4. The Kevin Bacon as an Eternal Deity Model (and the similar themed “Kevin Bacon Reincarnate Model”)
Let’s face it – maybe Kevin Bacon would rather keep all the glory to himself, and also keep it forever.  If so, there is another option out there.  Both Jesus of Nazareth and Kim Jong-il of North Korea used it.  Basically, it’s where Kevin Bacon declares himself the reference point, and instead of looking for a successor, the actual number of degrees changes with time.  In other words, in a few years, we can call it “The seven degrees of Kevin Bacon,” and then “The eight degrees…” and so on and so on.  Alternatively, it could be like the Dalai Lama, and every time you pass on, there is a reincarnated version of you being born elsewhere.  I am not sure how this would work exactly (how would we identify this reincarnated Kevin Bacon?), but it seems to me a reasonable idea.  Plus, the thought of an organized religion with the word “bacon” in it has great appeal.

Anyway, it would be interesting to hear of any other ideas, or even better, to hear a successor suggestion or two.  As well, let me just end by saying that if this all sounds a little too complicated, then let’s simplify things and just pick me. I would totally be down with being next in line – especially if I can somehow score a throne, crown and a sword out of the deal.
(Originally published at boingboing.net With apologies to Kevin Bacon and Sir Francis Bacon)

It’s a Lucky Thing for Stem-Cell Research that the Following Passages aren’t in the Bible.


The petri plate is the work of Satan. How does God know what a petri plate is in this ancient time before the advent of scientific achievement? It is because he’s God, which is really handy for that sort of thing.

Go forth my children and use the word “embryo” whenever you can. It is a very pleasant-sounding word—say it as often as possible. In fact, my children, try this: point to anything and everything and say, “That’s an embryo.”

Mary tells us, “When a sperm and an egg come together, it represents the ultimate act of compassion and love. Therefore, it is a grievous sin to do studies on this type of thing. Plus, it’s also kind of private.”

The Lord says that our precious hearts and minds represent flesh of enormous piety. They should never be regenerated, regardless of the circumstances. While we’re at it, we should also never regenerate eyebrows, nosehairs, or nipples — although the Lord figures that that is a given anyway.

For people who have had an accident and have lost the use of their legs, it is not the way of the Lord to try to fix this pain. Instead, God will tell them, “That’s too bad.” Then he will likely tell them a good joke to make them feel better.

And Jesus said, “Liquid nitrogen is evil. Once, while playing with it, I froze my finger solid and it actually broke off. Lucky for me I’m the Son of God, and I can just grow another one.”

I wrote this back in 2005, and originally published at McSweeney’s.

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