The Jitters

You’d think that a person who sets out to write a book on immunology would be an immunologist. A professor, perhaps, or a medical doctor specialising in immune disorders, or anyone else who’d spent some time involved in the field.

For many books that does turn out to be the case – but not in mine. I studied some immunology at uni, but my sum total of hands-on experience in immunological research is one year when I worked as a student/ research assistant at a university lab, after which my lab head suggested gently, firmly, and rightly, that I should seek my scientific future in another field. “Perhaps molecular work would suit you more”, she suggested, because for immunology work you need to be good with your hands as well as with your brain. I wasn’t such a hot thinker, but my handiwork was even worse; everything I touched turned out crooked, blotched, spilt, contaminated or all of the above at once.

I left immunology – and, some years later, scientific research altogether – with a feeling of resignation. Like two lovers who know they are not meant for each other, we said our farewells and went our separate ways. I knew it was over between us, but I bore no resentment, and checked up on immunology sometimes to see how she was doing without me.

Then I wrote an immunology book. I’m not formally the most qualified person to write one of these, but I tried hard to make up for that by reading up on research and gathering information from reputable resources until I reckoned I had enough to go on. Still, I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t making a fool of myself somewhere along the line. Perhaps I was missing some important advance or theory that somehow slipped past me? Perhaps I misunderstood what I was reading and couldn’t even tell?  Perhaps anything. If you’re an active immunologist, even if you’re not sure of something, you have labmates and other colleagues you can ask. I was going it alone, and that’s scary.

With WAWDY well on its way to publication, the jitters were getting worse, and I was asking around whether anyone knew a good immunologist who might be kind-hearted enough to read an entire manuscript and see whether it was scientifically sound. Time was growing short and I was getting actually rather worried, but then two friends came forward almost simultaneously with two possible contacts – and lo and behold,a short time later I had people who were willing to devote time and energy to telling me just how off the mark I was.

The feedback from both volunteer reviewers is now in, and I’m feeling better. I received a number of comments and suggestions for improvement, of course, which is lovely, but I was relieved to see that I didn’t get any comments along the lines of “you’ve obviously never heard of…” or “that’s not how T cells work at all” or “what the hell gave you that idea?!”.

So off I go now to edit the third draft and insert some scientific corrections and additions, but I do it with a feeling of a weight lifted off my shoulders. Whatever people think of the immunology book I’ve written, immunology itself at least will recognise its face within the pages, and to me, that’s important.



Kissing as Manipulation

Like millions of other people, I found the “First Time” video (20 strangers filmed kissing each other) on my Facebook feed, and spent a few heartwarming, vaguely life-affirming minutes watching it. The next day it turned out that there was more to the story than this: First off, this wasn’t a film-school project or a social documentary work, but a stealth commercial for a clothing brand. Not only that, but many of the “strangers” were of the acting and modelling professions, with a couple of musicians thrown in for good measure. I felt cheated. But actually, why should I feel cheated? As far as I know (and I’ll give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt here), nobody actually lied to me. The “strangers” were indeed strangers and hadn’t met (let alone kissed) before; the encounters were unrehearsed and took place as shown. The clip didn’t make any promises it didn’t keep. Any expectations or interpretations are entirely the viewer’s responsibility. Why, then, my uneasy sense of betrayal?

At the heart of the matter, for me at least, is the feeling that I was implicitly promised something. The word “strangers” implies that what we will be watching are more-or-less random strangers, whereas what we were getting were, for lack of a better definition, professional strangers: actors and models are people who, by dint of inclination and training, are adept at creating intimacy – or the illusion thereof – with others. Their reactions within this situation may be genuine, but they are nowhere near typical.
(leaving aside for a moment the fact that they also look way better than the average man-on-the-street).
This is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that it’s all a commercial. The warm and fuzzy feeling engendered by the video is just another route the advertising professionals try to take into our psyches. At the next stage, the emotional manipulation then goes meta: now that the truth has been revealed, the buzz grows even more, and so on ad infinitum (or at least for a day or two, until the next trending video comes along). And frankly, I don’t like people trying to sell me things this way.

But hang on. I’m trying to sell something as well, aren’t I? I’ve just written a pop science book about the immune system, and I’d like nothing more than for people to buy it in droves when it hits the shelves. Even just the one drove would be nice. What, then, is the difference between these people trying to get you to buy their clothes and me trying to get you to buy my book?
I’d like to think that the answer has to do with integrity. Although the “First Time” people weren’t lying as such, they weren’t telling us the whole truth. I, on the other hand, made it something of a point to come right out at the start of the book and inform the reader what the book isn’t. I list many useful benefits (health, diet, etc.) that the book refuses to confer. You know where you are with that kind of introduction.

…but then, that’s a sort of manipulation in itself, isn’t it? Like that guy in the 90s film “Singles” who admits to a girl he fancies that he doesn’t have “an act” he can chat up girls with, to which the girl replies “I think that, a) you have an act, and that, b) not having an act is your act.” I suppose that’s my act, too.

I’m not sure there’s any way out of this dynamic of constant manipulation. It’s certainly a fact of life in the natural world: just about every biological entity I can think of plays this game to some extent. You can certainly see this happening when immune systems and their infecting pathogens engage each other in their struggles. Watching this dance unfold endlessly within our bodies brings with it a sense of resignation: in advertising, politics, love or biology, ’twas ever thus.

The Buzz II: Revenge of the peers

short update: This article by Carl Zimmer in Slate might give you an idea of the controversy generated by the “Arsenic-based Life” announcement and research paper I wrote about a little while ago. Many scientists are not happy with the quality of the paper and argue that the NASA researchers may have been too hasty in publishing it, and point out technical problems in the article. The authors of the paper do not agree. It’s all very exciting, especially for those of us who enjoy seeing science in the making.

Another Life?

Something’s cooking at NASA. The webs are abuzz with the words “extraterrestrial life” but a cursory examination reveals that the rumors actually point to an announcement of terrestrial life, albeit one that is very different from life-as-we-know-it. I think that’s even more exciting; a finding that will shake the foundations of Biology – and it involves a lot less travel.No, really, what’s more thrilling: finding alien life forms on Mars or Titan, or finding them right here among us?

The concept of the “shadow biosphere” has been talked about before, but actually few people have taken it seriously up until now. I’m rooting for it, but NASA does have a bit of a reputation for making a lot of noise about findings, so we’ll see.

Anyway, we’ll have to wait for the press conference, then for the publication of the result, then for the independent verifications, then for the arguments, then for the setup of testing protocols, then for some more findings of the same sort – and then we can rewrite every single textbook in the life sciences.

Making a Mockery

At the Grand Academy of Lagado on the flying island of Laputa, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver encounters strange and fanciful creatures: the scientists. He observes their attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, weave coloured spider webs by feeding the spiders differently coloured flies, and other absurd projects. One ardent researcher is working on “an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odor exhale, and scumming off the saliva.”

Swift would’ve felt completely at home at the Ig Nobel award ceremony. The most recent one was held about a month ago at Harvard University:, and featured, among much else, prizes given to researchers documenting remote-controlled helicopters collecting whale snot; rather naughty fruit bats; and a study urging people to wear socks over their shoes. This year’s offering was, if anything, relatively tame. The 2009 prize in Biology, for instance, was awarded to three Japanese researchers “for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.” The focus on feces seems to be a recurring theme: the 2007 Chemistry Ig Nobel was awarded to Mayu Yamamoto for her method of extracting vanilla flavouring from cow dung. How very Laputan.

The Ig Nobels are awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, a satirical journal produced by scientists, mostly for scientists. The Igs are awarded for scientific achievements that range all the way from the bemusing to the outright bizarre. The ceremony itself, a joyous travesty of serious award ceremonies, has been held annually since 1991 and features, among other things, much throwing of paper airplanes, a “Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate” contest, and Miss Sweetie Poo, a little girl who cuts short award acceptance speeches when she’s bored with them.

I’m trying to think of another community or institution that mocks itself so consistently. The Golden Raspberry award (or “Razzie”) is the obvious candidate. It functions as the Academy Awards’ evil twin, handing out prizes for the film industry’s worst achievements of the year. But although the spirit seems to be the same, there’s a difference: Razzie winners very rarely show up to collect their awards, while most of the Ig Nobel recipients show up, traveling at their own expense from all over the world. The Ig Nobel ceremony is also well attended by serious scientists: no less than nine Nobel Prize winners were presentin 2009, handing out the awards. A picture in the official Ig Nobel website shows three of them onstage, each wearing a combination brassiere/gas mask.

Is science not supposed to be a serious endeavour? Whenever the practice of science is shown in popular culture, be it on “CSI” shows or apocalyptic thriller films, the lab on the screen is gloomy and forbidding, bathed in darkness, the hush disturbed only by blinking lights and intermittent electronic beeps. The scientist is shown working alone and in silence, huddled over the microscope or expertly manipulating a computer with nary a smile or, god forbid, laughter.

Where , then, is all this foolishness coming from?

One explanation might be that science and humour are much more alike in spirit than it seems at first, though the methods used couldn’t be more different. The comic and the scientist struggle to make some sense of the world around them, and in the process, remind humankind of its frailty and vanity. Both fields are concerned with the undermining of authority and accepted wisdom, with intense observation of reality and with self-examination – key concepts in the practice of science. Scientists are expected to be very critical of their own thoughts, theories and experiments, and the Ig Nobels provide just that – a festival of foolishness to balance the pomp of the Stockholm Nobel ceremonies.

That said, there is another part to this willingness of science to revel in its own ridicule: self-directed humor is often a sign of underlying self-confidence. Perhaps one reason for this confidence may be surmised when we read some more of the Laputans’ aims in Gulliver’s Travels: “One man shall do the work of ten, a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever, without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose…” Swift’s Laputans failed miserably at these attempts, but today such wonders and others like them, unimaginable in Swift’s time, are a reality, conjured for us by modern science. It has grown robust now; it can take, and make, a joke.

Guilty as charged.

Author copies of the Brazilian edition of SW – “Pequenas maravilhas” – arrived this morning at my doorstep. A very nice way of starting one’s day; I recommend it heartily.

I had a peek inside, as you do  – though what you expect to achieve by that is a mystery. The first and only thing that caught my eye is the interesting fact that the translator chose to amend the first few paragraphs, in which I originally demonstrated my ignorance of cricketing terms;  I now appear to be demonstrating to Brazilian readers my ignorance of GOLFING terms. Which is quite correct. Good job there. How did they know?