Thursday, January 6, 2011

And so it begins

It is a firmly established fact that everyone loves cookies. True, people may quibble over which cookies are the best types of cookies or whether there is such as a thing as “eating too many cookies” (utter nonsense). But when you strip it down to the bare essentials, a clear truth emerges: Everybody. Loves. Cookies. Anyone who claims an exception to this rule is clearly in denial. Remember Will Ferrell’s character in Stranger Than Fiction in that scene where Anna feeds him milk and homemade cookies? Case in point.

Unfortunately, not everyone loves science. Some view science as a hopelessly complicated affair, one better left to the glasses-wearing intelligentsia, one filled with Latinate jargon, incomprehensible experiments, and—horror of horrors—math. If you need proof of this, the next time some stranger asks you what you majored in in college, say “Inorganic chemistry,” “genetics,” or “astrophysics”; watch as they gasp, say “Wow…” and look suddenly unsure about whether or not they can even talk to you. Other people see science as a waste of taxpayer money. Witness Sarah Palin's comment on the uselessness of fruit fly research.

Taken individually, scientific studies seem exasperatingly narrow. Instead of tackling important issues like curing cancer, stopping climate change, or making cell phone batteries last longer, these damn scientists argue about whether the validation of the multivariate model of the leaf ionome is fundamentally confounded. How could studies characterizing pelagic rotifer communities, estimating atmospheric hydroxyl radical variability, or investigating MAP kinase cascade processing possibly benefit society?

To answer this, let’s think of scientific progress as a giant jigsaw puzzle with each puzzle piece representing one research team. AAAS estimates there are 5.8 million researchers in the world (2008 data), so if we say there are 2-3 people working on any given project, that gives us 2.32 million pieces.

Holding just one or two of those pieces in your hand isn’t going to give you any idea of what the entire puzzle looks like. Put 200 of the Arabidopsis thaliana-related pieces together, though, and behold! It starts to look like a plant! Why study that little weed? It’s a priceless model organism for addressing all sorts of questions about agriculture, genetics, and climate change, for a start. (A model organism is a species used in labs to investigate whole truckloads of other organisms. The roundworm C. elegans, the poor, mocked fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster, and beady-eyed Mus musculus mice are common model organisms.)

Every single puzzle piece contributes to a larger understanding of our world. Some pieces might not contribute much; they might even represent flawed conclusions that sidetrack other researchers in that field (think of how putting a piece into the wrong space makes it that much harder to finish the puzzle). But with each successive addition of a new piece, the puzzle starts to make a little more sense. With each new study, scientists move closer to addressing the big-picture problems that do matter to society.

My plan for this blog is to intermingle baked* goodies (which you love) and science (maybe you love it, maybe you don’t) with the hope of making the latter a bit easier to swallow. I’ll try to make the science at least tangentially related to the recipe of the moment, but no guarantees. There will be pictures, sarcasm, and a minimum of typos. Best of all, there will be science, and there will be cookies.

*Warning: I might be lying about the baked goodies part. Savory cooked goodies, raw goodies, and other sorts of goodies might make their way onto the menu too.

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