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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Friday, February 29, 2008

The Truest Science Blog

Recently, Bayblab bloggers raised some controversy in the science'o sphere with their article about the current state of science blogging.

Anonymous Coward noted that:

Now there are thousands of blogs dedicated to science, yet only a few are popular. And strangely the popular ones are only loosely related to science. Just take a look at the top 5 science blogs (according to postgenomic):

1 Pharyngula (mostly about creationism)
2 Cognitive Daily (psychology research)
3 Living the Scientific Life (personal journal)
4 Sandwalk (some evolutionary genetics, and creationism)
5 Aetiology (pop science)

Of those only Cognitive daily is consistantly talking about peer-reviewed research. Why is that? Perhaps there is less appeal in discussing recent papers than bashing creationists. But bashing creationists is almost too easy, and not very constructive...

A.C. then added that:

... If you examine the elephant in the room, ScienceBlogs, the trend is maintained: politics, religion books, technology, education and music are tagged more often than biology or genetics. This suggests that their primary motives are entertainment rather than discussing science. Why? Because it pays. Seed Magazine and the bloggers themselves profit from the traffic. That's right, Seed actually pays these bloggers for their posts. And the whole ScienceBlogs thing is a little incestuous, they really like linking to each other, but not so much to the little blogs. I'm afraid gone is the amateur blogger, and in is the professional gonzo science journalist. Might as well read Seed magazine.

They immediately got a massive and largely negative response from science bloggers both inside and outside the ScienceBlogs community. Even heavyweights like PZ Myers and Larry Moran addressed the points in the post.

I think that many of the main points have already been discussed in these blogs and in the Bayblab comments section, so I won't add to those.

However, A.C.'s post has brought two interesting side issues to my attention, and I think it's worthwhile examining these further.

1. Peer-reviewed research papers = Science?

Other bloggers have already debated the suggestion that science blogging should be mainly about peer-reviewed research, akin to a journal club in academia. The consensus view is that science blogging need not be restricted to this - other resources are just as relevant to the main topic of science.

There is another implication - is science really just about discussing research articles? Papers are definitely important, but publishing is on the tail end of a long, long journey.

No matter how boring that paper already looks, the actual process of getting all that data is even less glamorous.

It seems to me that to be a True Science Blog, one should not only write about the highly-polished end product, but should also include the laborious process at the heart of the practice of science.

Often omitted from most science blogs are the arguments, disagreements, tedious experiments, inconclusive results, blind alleys, endless troubleshooting, health hazards, frustrations, self-doubts, mental and physical exhaustion that is the inescapable reality of research.

Will it make for compelling reading?

Difficult to say.

Is it "science"?


2. Not blogging for money = Noble?

Another curious point is the negative sentiment that some bloggers have about money. A.C. is certainly not the only one to feel this way, and this view is not limited to science bloggers.

Somehow, if the primary motivation for blogging is not some sort of ideal (such as educating the public on good science), then it MUST be for the money.

This is a strange false dichotomy because people can blog for all sorts of non-idealistic reasons that have nothing to do with money.

Here are some common possibilities:

a. fame
b. vanity
c. to relieve stress
d. to practice writing
e. to hone debating skills
f. for social interaction
g. for self-expression
h. for self-education
i. for hot babes (dream on buddy...)

As you can see, none of these are particularly noble reasons to blog.

Yet blogging for money is regarded more negatively than blogging for popularity, for example.

Does it mean that it's OK to be a vain, selfish and rude blogger - as long as you're not rich?


Friday, February 22, 2008

Excellent Blog Award Recipient

The Flying Trilobite has anointed Fresh Brainz with its delicate wing.


Thanks Glendon!

This is a pay-it-forward meme of sorts, as well as an award. When accepting it, the recipient should also grant it to ten more superb blogs.

Without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to grant the E for Excellent Blog Award to (in alphabetical order):

1. Anders Rasmussen Blog - Focusing on science and rationality, Anders writes clear, immersive and well-argued posts.

2. Angry Doctor - Healthcare issues and medical quackery cannot escape the intense scrutiny of the Angry Doc. Woo-meisters beware!

3. Bayblab - Smart and snarky, the Bayblab team discuss science oddities, engaging in lively banter in the comments section that is an intellectual's playground.

4. Entertaining Research - Guru highlights interesting facts about the weird and wonderful world of materials science and physics in general.

5. Hyphoid Logic - Mad Mycologist Mike aims his sights at the science culture wars in the US, as well as peer-reviewed literature about his beloved fungi.

6. Rat in the Lab - Do you live in the lab? Lab Rat is a fellow bleary-eyed participant of the yawningly quiet Singaporean science'o sphere.

7. Science Avenger - The Science Avenger fights the good fight against pseudoscience and cdesignproponentsists for you, so that we can all chill out more.

8. The Biology Refugia - Grand Dame of the Singaporean science'o sphere, the Biology Refugia team has been tackling interesting biological topics since 2004.

9. The Other 95% - Invertebrate-loving (but earwig-hatin') marine biologist Kevin is not only a sexy dude and a mean cook, but also writes up a storm.

10. When docs turn gods - Let Blacktag take you on a trip to the dark and mysterious world of specialist surgeons. Quacktitioners need not apply.

Please enjoy your well-deserved awards. Free-flowing waffles on the house!

Edison Chen vs Network Biology

Unless you have been living under a rock (or in a lab), you would be aware of a massive sex scandal that has rocked Hong Kong's entertainment scene and hogged their news headlines for the past few weeks.

Lurid sex photos of dashing young actor Edison Chen together with some female celebrities began circulating on the Internet in late January. Apparently, somebody nicked his private collection of photos when he sent his computer for repairs.

The fallout is severe; now the careers of the women who appeared on his photos are in jeopardy. Especially hard hit is actress singer Gillian Chung, a member of the Cantopop group Twins, who had built her career on a wholesome teenybopper image.

That image has been shattered and irate parents are protesting her continued appearance on TV.

Next to be affected is Edison Chen himself, who announced his retirement from the Hong Kong entertainment industry yesterday.

Actually, he had flown in from his hometown of Vancouver to attend this press conference at considerable personal risk. Rumour has it that a triad boss has put out a HK$500,000 bounty to chop off one of Edison's hands.

Though not intentional, one man's action has led to huge headaches for a whole bunch of people.

That instantly reminds me of something else.

You'd never guess...


A network biology diagram, depicting a cluster of protein-protein interactions in yeast (Barabási and Oltvai 2004).

In a cell, not all genes are equally important to its survival and daily function.

Some key genes hold the network together by interacting with a large number of downstream targets. These genes are called "hubs".

In above diagram, hub proteins are the ones that seem to spawn a "firework burst" of other interacting protein partners.

Hub genes are interesting to me because of their potential role in speeding up the process of biological evolution.

Tiny mutation changes to hub genes can become amplified by successive downstream interactions to become a large biological effect.

Analogous to how Edison Chen's personal collection of photos became amplified to a huge public debacle, due to his "hub" status to all those unlucky women, and hub status as a popular celebrity as well.

Of course, the opposite is also possible - some mutations to hub genes can also stop the evolutionary process if the effects are so large that it becomes lethal to the cell.

Interestingly, not all hub genes are essential genes.

In the diagram above, coloured dots indicate what would happen to the cell if that protein is removed. Red denotes lethal, green means non-lethal, orange results in slow growth and yellow has unknown effect.

In general, hub genes are disproportionately more important to cell than most others.

But a few hub genes can be removed without noticeable effect to the cell. One reason why this happens is because there are many redundant interactions in a cell. No matter how important a gene is, if there is a "spare" (homolog) that can perform its function, then it is dispensible.

Conversely, there are some "recluse" genes at the edge of the cluster that ARE essential to the cell, despite the fact that they don't have many interacting partners. Perhaps these genes fulfill a critical specialized function that cannot be replaced.

To use this in an overextended analogy (a Fresh Brainz favourite!) several organizational levels up to the level of society:

High profile, hub status individuals tend to have a disproportionately larger impact to the whole social group.

However, unless such a person performs a unique, critical and irreplaceable function, no matter how spectacular the situation appears to be, other players will simply step up and the whole thing will blow over almost as quickly as it started.

So in my opinion, nobody will remember this debacle in a few years time.

Nor will they remember its participants, especially the leading man.

Is that good news or bad news?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Look Around You: The Brain

Interesting facts that you may not know about The Brain.

I've lost count of the number of insider jokes.

I think it's probably 55 54.

(Pipette tip to Pharyngula)