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Background Briefing

 

Sunday 15 July 2007

Beautiful science

 

Kirsten Garrett: Science is all around us - in nature, in our bodies, in how the heavens run. It's in the kitchen, the garden, the childrens bedrooms. Science sometimes has a bad press, because it does make mistakes and it can be used and abused. But the great thing about science is that, at it's best, it is open to criticism, and will change as new truths come to light.

Hello I'm Kirsten Garrett. This is Background Briefing on ABC Radio National.

Natalie Angier is one of the most popular science writers in America. At the Free Library of Philadelphia here is the introduction to her talk, by Adrienne Prewitt.

Adrienne Prewitt: Tonight's speaker is the Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Natalie Angier, and I'm very excited to be able to introduce her.

Natalie Angier has written for Discover magazine, Time , the Atlantic Monthly , Savvy , Cosmopolitan and a score of other journals and anthologies. In 1990 she became a science writer for the New York Times and in 1991 she won the Pulitzer Prize for her beat reporting there. She has also been awarded the American Association for the Advancement of Science Prize for Excellence in Science Journalism, and the Lewis Thomas Award for Distinguished Writing in the Life Sciences, among many other honours.

This fall she will begin a five-year term as the Andrew D White Professor at Large at Cornell University, a position that has the distinction of previously being held by such diverse contributors to cultural achievement as Jane Goodall, Oliver Sachs and John Cleese.

Over nearly 30 years of writing about science, Natalie Angier has covered nearly every subject imaginable. Her books include Natural Obsessions , a behind-the-scenes look at the high pressure world of cancer research, and The Beauty of the Beastly in which she examines under appreciated wonders of nature like cockroaches, parasites, dung beetles and the surprisingly sordid details of dolphin sex.

Her third book Woman: An Intimate Geography is an eloquent celebration of female biology that was named one of the best books of the year by national public radio."

CLAPPING:

Kirsten Garrett: Having just come from her orthodontist, Natalie Angier began her talk by raising the wonderful world of teeth and the mouth.

Natalie Angier: I have in the last l0 years or so been taking much better care of my teeth, really diligently taking care of my teeth, and that involves constantly fighting against something called dental plaque and I bring this up for a reason. Dental plaque, which is something I learned about in the course of researching this book, is an amazing phenomenon. It's not just...okay, you know, bacteria cause cavities and all those other problems and swelling of the gums and so on, but what you may not realise is that it's not just bacteria. What it is is this community of 600 different species of bacteria, all of them, according to Bonnie Bassler who is this wonderful microbiologist at Princeton, all of them as different from each other as Martians would be from humans.

So you have one species that might be able to metabolise the sugar residues on your teeth, another is good at clinging to the enamel, the next one releases these abrasive chemicals that begin scraping away at the enamel. You can't see any of these little microbes...I have a chapter on scale and talk about that. They're very tiny of course. If you had a pin and you look at the pin head which is about two millimetres across and you wallpaper that with these microbes, you'd have about 20 million of them. But you can feel them if you run your finger across your teeth across like that you'll feel that kind of slime. That is your dental plaque.

The important thing is that you get rid of them every night, or you try your best. You brush, as I do, for at least two minutes a night and you floss with three different kinds of floss and you use Listerine and so on with which 99.9% of them are killed. T he next morning, they're all back again and they're all back not just sort of coming and going, they're back in that same structure of 600 cooperating species of dental plaque microbes. And so I think if you just continue to pound away at them you can actually make a real dent in keeping away the dentist. So I haven't had any problems in ten years since I've been very diligent, and now I know why; it's because you really have to keep at it day after day after day.

So you may say, well, so what? So what is these bacteria, which are one of billions of mouth of course, the nose, ears, vagina, urethra, anus, lower intestines. When you breathe you're breathing in these vortices of airborne species of bacteria? They don't even begin to know how many different kinds of bacteria there are. They are the salt of the Earth, they are supporting us all. You would not believe the importance of bacteria. I want to just read you a little bit about these wonderful bacteria. You can't possibly sterilise yourself, it's really impossible. You are covered with bacteria. There's maybe half a billion of them blanketing your skin. It's this kind of teeming microtropolis of several thousand different strains. Billions more happily fill all those moist orifices of your body; the bacteria.

But the great majority of them are harmless, they're really not capable of colonising your lungs and making you sick, and in fact many of these bacteria are essential to our survival. They feed us, they cook for us, they clean up our messes by fixing nitrogen into a form fit for plants...and by 'fixing' that means making it something that we can use. You know the atmosphere is filled with nitrogen but it's not in a form that we can actually use that we need to build our cells. So plants have these root-dwelling bacteria that do that for us. Once ingested, our meals are digested with the help of intestinal bacteria. Something like 99 out of 100 cells in your intestines are actually bacterial cells. They flourish in that warmth and plenty of our plumbing, and in return they synthesise vitamins for us, help extract from our food essential nutrients that would otherwise pass through unclaimed.

Wherever you go, there they are dowdily doing the world's dirty work. If you dig up a gram of soil, a pinch of it, you're looking at thousands of different species, detritus recyclers breaking up the dumped and the dead and making them fit for new life. We think of things like earthworms and dung beetles, flies and other things but actually when you get right down to it it's the bacteria that do it all for us.

So what is it about bacteria that makes them so wonderful? Their cells. This is one of the fundamental principles that I discuss in my chapter on biology. Cells are really the unit of life. The reason why we all work so well is because we are built of cells, and one of the things that happens is you read about stem cell debates, and people, I think, don't have a sense of cells; what they are, how big they are or why we're made up of them instead of just sheets of materials. You ask these questions...why are we made up of cells? Well, it turns out that one of the things that cells are great at doing is they actually make...they are little islands of stability in an otherwise chaotic environment. So what you have...if you crack open any cell, you crack open a bacterial cell or a cell of your liver, kidneys or any cell you care to, it's going to have a very similar kind of geography inside, and one of the things that its doing is that by having that little border around it and all the things inside of it can be controlled.

I'll read you something else that I actually think is an idea most people don't quite see the beauty of because there have been cells on Earth non-stop for 3.8 billion years. It was such a successful thing to arise that ever since then it's been all cells all the time. So the beauty and power of the cell and one of the core insights to emerge from modern biology is: 'A cell confronts the harshness and instability of the outside world by making itself a haven. A cell contains all the tools it needs to preserve order and stability within its borders, to keep its interior recesses warm and wet and chemically balanced, and in this equilibrated, level-headed setting, the cell's vast labour force of proteins and enzymes will operate at peak performance and so sustain the cell in its state of mild grace. There is nothing more natural than a cell. The natural world, after all, is full of them. At the same time, a cell is the ultimate act of artifice, a climate controlled limousine with cushioned seats and a private bar, cruising through a mad desert storm.'

So one of the principles that I discuss is the importance of the cell and why its small, also the second part of that, the flip side of it, and getting back to our story of plaque bacteria, is although bacteria are single-celled organisms, meaning that eac h one is kind of autonomous, the thing that makes the plaque community so amazing is that they communicate with each other. And the other thing that happened that was a revolutionary development is that cells spend a lot of time eavesdropping on each other, gossiping with each other, nagging each other, bullying each other. Half of the genes in our cells (and this is one of the discoveries of the genome project that was kind of striking)...half of the genes are devoted to communicating with other cells. So you have on the one hand the autonomy of the cell, on the other hand this constant communication among them so they can coordinate with each other. And with these two basic principles you have everything that you need to make this vast panoply of life on Earth, and it's really amazing.

I talk about what's inside the cell, the fundamental parts of the cell, what you need to know about genes and so on, but ultimately I'm a real fan of the cell and I think that if you understand the cell you kind of can build on that and understand pretty much anything about biology.

One of the ideas about this book, the reason I wrote it is that as somebody who had been covering science for many years I'm always having to write about the news, and it's true, there's a lot of news in science and it's exciting, but the truth is that most people don't have the foundations on which all of those results are coming. They don't know the basics, or if they learned them they forgot them, maybe actively so because they hated it so much. Everybody seems to have flunked high school chemistry. This amazing phenomenon...it's almost 100% flunk rate if you talk to people. So they forgot...like, what exactly is a molecule? What's an atom? What is a chemical bond? All of these basic things on which all of the science news is going on, people don't know.

So what I try to do in the book is give people that kind of foundation, a few basic concepts in every discipline that if you grasp them you really can consider yourself fairly scientifically literate. You're not going to be somebody who has this kind of...you're not going to have the working knowledge of a scientist but you will be able to follow things and ask the right questions, and most important feel like you own it, that you're not intimidated by it and that you could laugh at it. One of the things that I try to do in the book is have a lot of humour which I see as the great emulsifier to make people feel that science is your friend because actually it is, we own it. Do you realise how many billions of tax dollars go to support science? You own it so you might as well take advantage of that and become at least moderately familiar with it. These are the basic concepts that if you grasp them I think you'll be in pretty good shape.

So, how did I do it? What I did was...my husband is also a science writer and so we kind of brainstormed this together and we also did a lot of the interviewing together. So what we did was we just went around and talked to...I don't know how many scientists, hundreds of them, and asked them, 'What do you wish the public understood about science? And on the general side about science and how to think scientifically and more specifically in your discipline, if you were giving a class, what would you want your students...an introductory class in your discipline, what would you want them to remember when they actually left your...the day after finals, what would you wish that they would remember?' And so we kept hammering away at that until we started hearing similar themes coming up again and again, then we knew we had what we needed. to make the book.

Kirsten Garrett: Speaking is Natalie Angier, prize winning science writer, at the Free Library in Philadelphia. This is Backgound Briefing on ABC Radio National. At this point, Natalie Angier spoke about how she finds science grounds her in life, and that she finds inspiration in common sense and logic. In this context, Natalie Angier talked of her daughters fascination with the famous Star Trek series.

Natalie Angier: Her two favourite characters are Mr Spock and also Scotty. She said the reason she likes Scotty was because he was so sensible, and I thought there is something about that that's very comforting, to be sensible. Science is...even though there's a lot of counterintuitive discoveries coming out, ultimately it's a very sensible way of looking at the world.

So I kind of take people through the paces of that, how to think about things scientifically, how to do fun things like make estimates on your own. This is something where if you have a grasp of what's around you, if you have a sense of what they call the sample space and are able to make estimates it's a very powerful tool that you can apply to everything, including if you go to the doctor, you get a medical test result and it comes up positive and all of a sudden you're about to have a heart attack, and so here is the kind of information that you can ask or think about that will probably allay your fears about what that actual positive result means.

So we did a general thing. Also, thinking probabilities. One of the things all scientists wish everybody had a better sense of was the likelihood of things happening, what it means for things to happen randomly, what a coincidence is, all of these concepts. Another basic thing is scale. Interestingly, scientists don't tend to think in the scale of everyday life, they think in the very big or the very long or the very short, very tiny, so how to think about things on scale levels. And then into the individual disciplines-physics, chemistry, biology, geology and astronomy-these are the disciplines that most people think of as hard or the ones they feel intimidated by as opposed to the softer sciences where I didn't think they need as much of a grounding. So what we tried to do is come up with the canon, the fundamentals of each discipline. Not facts, not a list of terms (anything but) but ideas, the kind of unifying concepts in each discipline, a few things that by understanding them you start to see what's going on.

I mentioned the cell in biology. Another example is in geology...what is the Earth? The Earth is this really hot ball in frigid space and it's trying to get rid of that heat, it's trying to get all the heat from the inside, the core and sort of shrugging it out into cold space. That basic dynamic explains just about everything that you see. In astronomy there's some really cool concepts there obviously, one of them being (that most people don't think of) that everything we know about our heavens, everything we know, we know by looking at light. We associate astronomy with the night, with darkness, but in fact everything we know about our universe we know by studying light beams, light beams that have a story to tell about where they come from and where they've been until they've reached us. Another fundamental unifying idea that is cool...and always try to keep in mind that when you look out into the sky you're looking into the past. It's kind of scary to think that some of the things you're looking at may no longer be there but it's also the reality.

So these are some of the concepts that I try to get across. I try to do it in the way I think about science, the way I try to really metabolise it from the inside out. Everywhere I went, I asked scientists, okay, so we're not working on human scale or everyday scale but let's try to see what would happen if we did. If we had a cell, if we took a cell, tiny, and blew it up to something the size of a desktop accessory, what would it look like? And one of the scientists had the best answer, she said this kind of happily, 'It would look like snot.' And it turns out that...why would it look like snot? Well, one of the definitions of life, by some clever scientist, is; 'that which is squishy', and in fact all aspects of life are ultimately very squishy. So if you actually took a cell and blew it up, most of it would feel kind of like goo. What would the proteins feel like, what would they look like? It's kind of cool, they would look like these little Nerf balls with little origami parts. So I'm always trying to give you a sense of...make it into something like you're walking through it, almost like a movie.

But ultimately it really is I think about the ideas. I like ideas. This is what makes science so exciting and why I stick with it is because there are always new ideas coming up. Just today in fact I was looking at something that's going to be published ab out...this is not such a happy idea, but it's about female chimpanzees and how there have been observations lately of female-initiated infanticide. Normally we associate infanticide with males because what males do is they want to kill the young of other males so they get the female back into oestrus so they can mate with her and have their babies. Now it looks like the female chimpanzees are committing infanticide against competing females' young, for reasons that we are going to have to devise some kind of theoretical framework in which to understand it. But it's kind of a new concept, and so these are the kinds of things that are always coming up, exciting new ideas.

I like science because it is humans getting it right for a change. It's actually a sense of progress and possibility as opposed to basically just blowing everything up. So I really feel like every time I get depressed, science...you know, scientists can sometimes be sort of like...I've made this comparison before, that science...like Paris, you have to deal with the Parisians, but even though scientists can be very pernickety and they can be difficult and prima donnaish because they work in their own little world, still ultimately they are so generous for trying to convey their love of what they do. Now, how often do you talk to people that just love what they do, feel privileged to do it every single day, long days too, but they love it because they feel like it's actually building as opposed to, as I said, tearing down. So you get this sense of optimism from it that I'm trying to encourage in people because I'm not a naturally optimistic person but through studying science I fell like it brings me hope for the future.

I'm just going to read you a little bit more from my astronomy chapter and then I will be happy to entertain questions. 'Astronomy is so easy to love. It is filled with outrageous magic that also happens to be true. Novas and supernovas and pulsar stars that spin and click and are as thick as an atomic heart, as thick as Joyce's Muster Mark. And those thicker, darker collapsed star carcasses we call black holes, which are so dense that even light cannot escape their gravitational grip, and quasars, celestial furnaces at the edge of the known universe that are the size of stars but as luminous as entire galaxies. And theoretical plausibilities like extra dimensions beyond the four we know, or the creasing of space-time into shortcut wormholes which, if they exist, would be the equivalent of time travel machines. Astronomy is about the heavens, the divinest of final frontiers and the presumed zip code of Ra, Vishnu, Zeus, Odin, Tezcatlipoca, Yahveh, our Father who art in...and a host of other holy hosts, and that religious resonance markedly broadens the discipline's appeal, making it feel both cosier and more profound than it might otherwise.

Astronomy also seems chaster than other sciences, purer of heart and freer of impurities, mutagens, teratogens, animal testing. Astronomers are like responsible eco-tourists, squinting at the scenery through high quality optical devices, taking nothing but images that may be computer enhanced for public distribution, leaving nothing but a few Land Rover footprints on faraway Martian soil...and okay, okay maybe the Land Rover too. Astronomers are pure of heart and appealingly puerile. They look into the midnight sky and ask big questions, just as we did when we were in college: Who are we? Where do we come from? And why are we standing around outside on the night before finals? Do we want to end up like our father and work in a factory or what?'

I also get into, towards the end of the chapter...so I take us through some of the basics like the Big Bang and how we know the Big Bang is real, what is the evidence for it, and also how we are all made of star stuff and why that is. And then at the end I get into a discussion of what I think of as the most profound issue of all and that is whether we're alone. I was much more pessimistic until recently about whether we'd ever be able to communicate with other civilisations if they are out there. I was with this guy who works at SETI, Seth Shostak, who said that he actually thinks, believe it or not, in the next ten years we are going to hear from alien civilisations, that they are actually on their way and they will have something to say when they get here. Unfortunately maybe machines, he says, because he actually has this idea that we too are going to...computers are also going to evolve sentience and end up being the ones who do our travelling for us, which may or may not be a good thing. In any case, it would be a profound revelation to think that the universe is filled with life, that there are other eyes of the universe looking out there. So I go through some of the steps involved in trying to calculate the probability of things being out there.

'Take heart. Remember that while our naked night vision is limited mostly to the Milky Way, our sample space is not. Even if there were only one communicative society per galaxy...' And that's something that people think that basically when you get to the point of being able to communicate it's not very long before you blow yourself up, so there's only going to be one per galaxy. Anyway: '...that still leaves us with billions of hypothetical entries on the rolodex of hope. Admittedly the terrible distances between galaxies could well preclude any communication beyond the science fictional, or maybe not, but it's good to think that they're out there, those probabilistic star flecked partners in space-time. And who knows, they may be better off then we are and have found the perfect intergalactic wormhole and are steadily heading our way. Please, please stop by any time, any star date. We can't promise but we will try with all our heart and haemoglobin and every one of our 90 trillion body cells and our bacterial symbions too to hang on, dodge our own bullets and be here when you arrive.'

Thank you very much.

CLAPPING.

Speaking is Natalie Angier, science writer, and Pulitzer Prize winner.

Man: At this point we'll take questions. I see a lot of hands right here in the front, gentleman in the blue.

Audience member: Would you consider the possibility that the disturbed behaviour as shown now by the chimpanzees is the result of man's intrusion on their territory? I say this because I was corresponding with Jane Goodall in 1962 when she was sitting out on a hillside observing them at long distance through binoculars and reported consistently warm fuzzy cooperative behaviour, with some irritability when one troop ran into another troop, but no major crisis anywhere along the line until she set up a research station in the Gombe reserve and started feeding them bananas, at which point they became mean, competitive, aggressive and hierarchical, and I think are still showing the same results of our moving in on them.

Natalie Angier: The problem is that...there have been a number of...chimpanzee research has kind of branched out and there are many researchers who have their own troops that they have been following, in some cases for almost as long as Jane Goodall, so they've been able to get data from many different kinds of environments, many different degrees of interference...human habitat, disturbance by humans and their habitat, some of them are in quite, quite wilderness with really no sign that they would be disturbed by humans. Also the researchers themselves tend to be...do not supplement their diets. So they start to gather all that data together and come up with some overarching patterns that they see.

The thing that's interesting about chimpanzees is that on the one hand there are similarities in behaviour, on the other hand there are a lot of cultural variations. There have been some papers recently on the fact that yes, chimpanzees do have culture, they do have variations in how they do certain things from one group to another, like variations in how they greet each other, variations in how the males try to attract the attention of the females. So there is that variation and it seems to be taught from elders to younger, or at least it's observed and it's passed along through the ages but it's not genetic.

So what you start to see are patterns, and one of the patterns that has been observed really...chimpanzees are not that nice, they are actually quite war-like, and one of the things that Jane Goodall first started observing, apart from any kind of supplemental feeding she was doing, was the equivalent of genocide, that one group, the males would systematically wipe out the males and sometimes the females too of a competing neighbouring group. So they are pretty aggressive and not necessarily very...nothing that you'd necessarily want to imitate or write an etiquette book based on. So I think in the case of these female-led infanticides that it will probably turn out to be for a good Darwinian reason that they're doing it and Darwin I think ultimately is right about...why would you behave in a given way? Well, if it's going to further your cause genetically and also your power alliances with the animals nearest to you...if there's reason to do it, it's going to get done.

So we can come up with a genetic explanation for both good and bad behaviour but ultimately most things make sense when you start to understand them in the framework of Darwinism. So I have not read this new report, I don't know how good the data are, I do n't know how widespread this phenomenon is, I just know that this, along with the fact that female chimpanzees also do this kind of hunting where they kill these little pro-simian things, bush babies, they take sticks and they use tools to hunt them (this is another new observation about their behaviour) shows that there's a lot going on and that females can be pretty aggressive.

Audience member: As a scientist who loves science as much as you do, I was going ask what can we do to get kids in school excited, since we have such a dearth of people going into science now?

Natalie Angier: This is of course a question that comes up all the time and I think what we have to do is start having more programs where scientists go into the schools and take kids out in the field and do experiments with them. Somebody else mentioned today...birding, that that's a way to involve citizens in science and that's one thing. And in Maryland, where I live, they have this program where they take all Maryland kids out for overnights in the field and have them learn about Maryland ecology. We need to do more of that because I think that every scientist I've ever known, they got interested in science because of doing science, getting some hands-on experience, just being able to get out there and get your hands dirty, roll up your sleeves, all of that, and I think that if scientists were to do more of that.

One of the problems I think is that scientists don't get rewarded enough for that kind of activity the way they do for publishing reports and getting grant money coming in. but we have to, as a society, make these decisions collectively, that this is what we want to encourage. We keep talking about it though, and nobody...it's just like the weather, nobody is doing anything, so I don't know...I think it's tragic but it's the sort of thing that only as a society can we come up with solutions, it can't be a stopgap thing.

Audience member: I would agree that scientist have a love for science but I also think that a lot of the practicing scientists do not spend time nurturing science educators, people who are not going to do science in a laboratory but are going to do it with kids.

Natalie Angier: Yes, I agree....another thing that we don't do very well in this country is we don't seem to respect the signs of great education.

Look what happened with Bill Clinton. Now, he's a smart guy, he really was smart, and if you ever saw him in action...for example, I saw him at a genetics meeting, and he absorbed things like that [clicks fingers], was able to synthesise all this new information and immediately start asking these kinds of questions. He's a really well educated guy, very smart, but when he gets on the campaign trail he has to act like none of this ever happened, that he's just one of these 'good old boys', and he can't be proud and say here I am, I'm a really well educated person who really values education. That's somehow seen as elitism. And then we want our kids to be well educated.

It's so contradictory and we seem to have all these mixed messages; we don't respect teachers but teachers have to...we have to test to make sure they're doing a good job. We want our kids to be educated but we hate elitists who seem over effetely educated. As I said, there has to be a social-wide movement to affect change and I don't know who's going to lead that, maybe the next president.

Audience member: As a comment, I heard Philip Glass about two weeks ago talk about the lack of young people going into music and the arts, so I wonder where they're going if they're not...

Natalie Angier: Into finance and...

Audience member: But the question I had for you is that Science is in the midst of controversy...the last time I was here there was a bishop and theologian taking about the relation between science and religion. Why is your book focused as it is on the joys of science and not a critical...what happened to the critical look at it?

Natalie Angier: I think that that's a good point and I have in the past been more critical and said, oh well, we have to get to the point where we can criticise science the same way our critics criticise art. You don't just serve as a cheerleader for science, and I have to say that all science writers felt the same way, that we had to evolve towards being more sceptical about a lot of the claims, and we are, but at the same time all of us are getting into this panic because what we see happening to the scientific enterprise here is it's just like dissolving before our eyes. And we all ultimately really love it and we don't want the United States to become like a second tier scientific force in the world, and yet we're just starting to see the signs of that happening. So I think we all feel like we have to convey some of our enthusiasm for it.

So I guess being critical of it is kind of a luxury of good times. This was a time when the NIH budget was flourishing instead of being narrowed, this was a time when we didn't have to worry that they were going to...politicians were making scientific decisions and interfering with the course of research done at the EPA or USDA or wherever. This is a time when perhaps it was just in more stable condition than it is now. The patient is critical so we all feel like we have to keep it alive.

Kirsten Garrett: This is Background Briefing on ABC Radio nationa. I'm Kirsten Garrett. Speaking is Natalie Angier, Pulitzer Prize winner science writer, at the Free Library of Philadelphia. Members of the audience are asking questions.

Audience member: Obviously you've been writing about science for a long time, but I was wondering when you interviewed the scientists for your book, did anything stand out as real surprises to you?

Natalie Angier: Yes, actually some of them are quite well dressed. This one guy could tie a really good Windsor knot in his...I think what surprised me was how pleading they were that...for certain things that they wished people understood about science, and one of the biggies being that science is not a dry body of facts and that people have to see that science is a way of looking at the world. We kept hearing this. It was as though everybody was reading from some kind of script, it was amazing to me. It started to feel like...your eyes start to glaze over because they go into the spiel. But it's because they all are, as I say, there's some sense of desperation out there. They want people to be like Scotty and be sensible. And so I think that the surprise is how they all seem to be speaking with one voice.

Audience member: If you were having beer with the three Republican candidates who recently said that they don't believe in evolution. What would you tell them?

Natalie Angier: I'm sorry, if I were in the room with them?

Audience member: No, having a beer.

Natalie Angier: Oh, having a beer with them?

Audience member: Yeah. Because you're going to be in an informal setting, you're not on a stage and you're really just talking to them down to earth. What would you discuss with them about evolution?

Natalie Angier: I would ask them if their kids ever had head lice, and I'd say, well, how can anybody deny evolution when it's happening all around us? How can anybody deny that...you know, if your kid has head lice and you put some of these shampoos, these supposedly licicidal shampoos on them, they don't work because they've all evolved this resistance to it. The same with a lot of the antibiotics. If you're infected with a virus that's mutating within you, how can you deny that evolution happens when, on an everyday short scale like that, it's happening?

Also when you look at how similar our parts are. If you compare the hand of a human with this thing in the flipper of a penguin, or you look at a whale or anythi ng you look at, you see these patterns coming up. We're all connected. So how could you possibly..? One of the scientists said it kind of takes almost a malign intent to ignore all that, but maybe it's just a line, maybe it's just a pose, maybe it's just like you have to declare your allegiance to a very radical right-wing of the party and this is one of the kind of the little clues, the keys, it's almost like the early Christians having the fish...maybe it doesn't really mean anything. I don't know.

I would have not been so worried because, you know, Reagan questioned a lot of things that were kind of silly but ultimately he actually chose decent people to run the different scientific agencies, so I thought okay. But then Bush comes along and he kind of interferes at a level you would not believe, that you think it's not possible but they are, they're infiltrating every level of government and scientific operations. So I'm not so optimistic that it can be benign.

Audience member: Hi, I'm curious about your day-to-day at the Times , whether or not you're given specific things to research or whether you're given free rein or whether that's changed since the Pulitzer.

Natalie Angier: Right now I write this column called 'Basics' and it's kind of like the book in that it's trying to get some of the basics that people don't necessarily know or may have forgotten, like 'what is a plant?' or 'why we have equinox?', that kind of thing. One of the things I'm working on now, which I think is kind of fun, you can take something in the news and go do a riff on it. So I'm working now on a piece about...the Queen is here visiting so I'm writing something about queen bees. And also the idea...okay, of course we're all concerned now about bees because there's this vanishing population, half of bees are disappearing and we don't know where they're going, so I'll talk about that.

And there's also some interesting work being done on the bee genome, mapping out all the bee genes and trying to associate them with different behaviours, and it's perhaps less incendiary to do that with a bee than it would be to do it with us or even a mammal. So there's a big effort underway now to assign specific genetic markers with certain kinds of behaviours. So I like being able to do that. But it's hard because one of the things is you're really...the relentless kind of criticism you get...this is true everywhere, blogs and people writing in emails and so on and it's kind of hard not to get a little sensitive about it, but I have a lot of fun with it, I really do. I really like being able to come up with an idea that's related to the news but give it a novel twist, not just do something that's just the news.

Audience member: On the subject of ethics and bioethics and honesty of data reporting of scientists, the Helsinki Declaration was several years ago and most scientists think that it was a necessary thing to do, but as people interviewed scientists in various laboratories, they found out that barely 55% of the scientists interviewed had ever heard of the Helsinki Declaration. Would you care to comment on that question of bioethics, and is the Helsinki Declaration usable or necessary or is it just obsolete already?

Natalie Angier: You know something? I'm a brave person and I'm going to admit that I do not know what the Helsinki Declaration is. Can you tell us what it is?

Audience member: It has to do with the relationship that scientists have with their peers and with their superiors in creating a published report which is clearly reproducible by another scientist in another laboratory or in another country. Many of the scientific labs that have inventions or new science on the forefront do not want to have that kind of free publication for commercial reasons. So the Helsinki declaration required scientists to have a certain amount of abilities to publish their findings so that other scientists, if they wanted to, could have a reproducible experiment.

Natalie Angier: One of the things that's related to that that's going on now is Harold Varmus has tried to actually...when he was the head of the National Institute of Health he tried to instigate a lot of changes in getting scientists to agree to put all...for example, the human genome project, make sure that everything that they did was going to be put into the public database that would then be accessible to anybody who cared to use it, as opposed to keeping a lock on it to try to get a patent on it while you could.

He also has tried to start up public journals in which results would get published in these journals and be accessible to anybody to read if they cared, because if you look at any of the major journals, Science and Nature , subscriptions are hundreds of dollars a year, so what we end up doing as tax payers is we support science with our tax dollars and then if we want to see the fruits of that effort we have to pay again to these very expensive journals.

So he was trying to get scientists to agree to publish in his public journals instead, PLOS, there's a whole series of them. It's met with mixed success because there's this incredible infrastructure in place now were you have to get your results out in th e most prestigious platform possible and that's going to be one of these journals. There's also increasing pressure...and I can't tell you how great it is, to Penn to file patents on things, to hold back things until you can get your patent out there, sometimes so quickly that you don't even know what your patenting.

Why is there so much pressure on scientists to do this? Because there's decreasing public financing of research. So there's all of this competition going on with the journals, with the need to privatise, to come up with these public private partnerships. One of the amazing things to me is that Congress has spent a lot of time lately going after NIH scientists who are not abiding by this conflict of interest resolution. At the same time they're saying you guys have to work with private enterprise, but they're also making sure that they can't profit from it and they're going to jeopardise their careers.

So everybody is kind of crazy with what to do about keeping science open and accessible versus people being able to profit off of it. This is something that is still...this is very much in flux, so I don't know what is going to happen on an international level but I do know that on a national level there is enormous pressure on scientists to get with the program of privatisation. And I don't know what's going to happen, because one of the things that's great abut science is that it is this kind of free form of sharing information, and that has been the abiding ethic of it until very recently, and it would be shame if it changed. Maybe that's part of the reason why things are in bad shape now, is that it is in this state of crisis and change.

CLAPPING.

Kirsten Garrett: That was science writer and Pulitzer winner, Natalie Angier giving a presentation at the Free Library of Philadesphia. Natalie Angier also spoke at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, in conversation with Roy Eisenhardt. At the Commonwealth Club, questions were again raised about why science has lost its buzz in the new politics, and her thoughts on that.....

Natalie Angier: When people accuse science, and they get very defensive about this, because of course there's been this ongoing game with Creationists about "Oh well, this one little factor, that ought not to be correct, or this (farcically) is in dispute," It's as though by saying "this is in dispute, the whole edifice of your argument is going to fall down,". And scientists are saying "No, just because this one fact that you're pointing to may have turned out to be something else, doesn't threaten this whole towering edifice of evolutionary theory." By emphasising the uncertainty, the error bar, "they mistake) the fact that it's always evolving, a very dynamic process, (and that this) gives it this great strength. It's self-correcting, it's got all these built in kinds of controls and mechanisms that make it a very powerful system for understanding reality.

Audience member: I have a friend who defines his job as a scientist as 'succeeding when he is unable to prove that something is untrue.

Natalie Angier: Exactly, yes. Right. Well the thing that scientists say if you're a good scientist you are your own worst enemy. You are your own hardest critic, you are spending your time trying to prove yourself wrong so that if you're designing your experiments properly, you're always trying to rule out your own pet little notions. They trip up when they become kind of wedded to this dream of what's going on, and they're not doing their controls to try to disprove it, and that's a bad sign. So one of the scientists said 'Why do you think we spend so much time in training? It's to help us get rid of our biases, to help us know how to design experiments and to think in a way that we're undermining our own fondest wishes and dreams about what we want to find." If you know that, and if you can apply it to your own life, it's actually something very useful for just the way you deal with reality, to try to disprove your own pet theories. And and it is of course a good process for negotiators, for diplomacy. Science is actually to me a kind of a model for how we can behave. When you look at science, it's very international, it's this co-operative venture, it's very competitive, but it's co-operative. There's this kind of understanding of the way to go about things that totally transcends borders and warring nations. Scientists are not lovey-dovey, they're not Utopian Socialists, but they have a system that works and that they respect, and that allows them to get along and to progress in the work they're doing. So it is a kind of a model for international behaviour.

Audience member: And fixing your computer, too.

Kirsten Garrett: Natalie Angier speaking there at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco and before that at the Free Library in Philadelphia. Her most recent book is The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science.