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Imagine a plant that grew into a plum pudding, a cricket bat, or even a pair of trousers. Rather than being a magical transformation straight out of Cinderella, these ‘wonderful plants’ were instead to be found in Victorian Britain. Just one of the Fairy-Tales of Science introduced by chemist and journalist John Cargill Brough in his ‘book for youth’ of 1859, these real-world connections and metamorphoses that traced the origins of everyday objects were arguably even more impressive than the fabled conversion of pumpkin to carriage (and back again).
In a recent neuroscience study, researchers focused on the visual side of the brain and concluded that volunteers saw words and pictures and not individual letters. This research could prove very helpful in understanding how struggling readers process words, and improve tactics for teaching.
Arbordale truly believes that reading, and being read to, is a very important part of growing up. So, we are closing out the work with a Friday Reads Giveaway! Comment on this post to be entered to win these three Arbordale books!
Learn more about the Journal of Neuroscience article on Science News.
Jay Hosler's new graphic novel The Last of the Sandwalkers is not going to grab everyone, but for the right audience it is absolutely terrific. You're going to love it if you like comics, science, adventure and humor.
Hosler drops readers into the middle of the age of New Coleopolis, the world of beetles where nothing exists beyond their protected oasis. You see, Old Coleopolis was destroyed over 1,000 years ago when the god Scarabus obliterated it with a barrage of coconuts. And yet Lucy, an intrepid young researcher (the sandwalker beetle from the title), is sure that life exists beyond the oasis.
Lucy sets out on an epic quest to prove that life exists in the great world beyond. She is accompanied by Raef, a pun-loving firefly, Professor Bombardier, the wise level-headed elder of the group, and Mossy, a giant Hercules beetle. One disaster strikes after another, as Lucy and her friends confirm their hypothesis and then try to make their way home.
Ajani, an Emerson 5th grader who's avidly read science nonfiction as well as all types of comic books for years, started off our conversation about this saying, "I wish they'd make another one." Ajani's favorite character is the firefly Raef.
"Half the reason is he's a frickin' robot, shooting laser beams at 'Dyna-soars.'" -- 5th grader Ajani describing why he loves Raef
Hosler's humor is sophisticated, layered and yet totally accessible. Ajani loved that the Dyna-soars were birds (they'd look like giants if you were a beetle!), and he definitely got the reference to birds being descendants of dinosaurs. But he also picked up on Raef's character traits, protecting himself and his friends out of steadfast loyalty.
Lucy & friends try to escape from the "Dyna-soars"
Hosler, a biology professor at Juniata College, weaves scientific information throughout the story, but this just adds to the wonder and fun of the adventure. As he states on his website, his goal "is to use the compelling visual power of comics to illustrate the alien worlds that often go unnoticed and unappreciated." My favorite character is Professor Bombardier, so I was thrilled to have Hosler visit for this blog tour and tell us a little more about the Bombardier beetle.
Character Name: Professor Bombardier Species: Pheropsophus verticalis Length: 10-13 mm Color: Mostly dark brown elytra with orange/broan markings. Habitat: woodlands or grasslands Superpower: Flaming-hot chemical spray
Many beetles are capable of storing nasty chemicals in their body and secreting them as a means of deterring the unwelcome attention of predators. The pioneering chemical ecologist Thomas Eisner talks about many of them in his book Secret Weapons. The bombardier beetle, however, is probably the most impressive. It has two reservoirs in its abdomen that contain reactive chemicals. When it is disturbed, it releases the chemicals into another chamber that is lined with enzymes. These enzymes initiate a series of chemical reactions. The result is the build up of a blazing hot, extremely irritating concoction that the bombardier beetle can spray at any nuisance that gets on its nerves.
Whipping up such a nasty elixir qualifies the bombardier beetle as a world-class beetle chemist, but it’s also quite a marksman. There is a tiny turret at the tip of a bombardier beetle’s abdomen that it can aim in 360 degrees. When sufficiently annoyed, these beetles will spray their calamitous cocktail in a series of short pulses. A steady stream of chemicals could be hazardous to the beetle’s health. The turret actually cools slightly between pulses and this prevents the beetles from cooking their own abdomen. Sounds far-fetched, I know, but don’t take my word for it. Sir David Attenborough will show you the whole amazing display in this video.
The bombardier beetle has also rubbed elbows with some of the great scientists of our time. Charles Darwin even mentions one in his autobiography. Apparently, he was out collecting beetles when he came across a particularly fascinating specimen. Unfortunately, he already had a beetle in each hand. Undaunted, he popped one of those beetles in his mouth for safe keeping so that he could pick up this third specimen. Much to his dismay, he quickly learned that the beetle in his mouth was a bombardier and the repellent experience distracted him so much that he lost all three beetles.
In Last of the Sandwalkers, Professor Bombardier plays an important role as the guiding hand of our team of intrepid explorers. But don’t be fooled by her patient, genteel demeanor. Threaten her friends and you just might be on the receiving end of a scalding chemical scolding.
Find out more information about the Bombardier beetle here:
Many thanks to Jay Hosler for sharing such a terrific story and great background information. I know this is a graphic novel that my science-loving, comics-fans will read again and again and again.
Make sure to stop by each of the post for The Last of the Sandwalkers blog tour. Hosler will share information about different characters at each. The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, First Second. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.
Egg: Nature's Perfect Package
by Steve Jenkins and Robin Page
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
The reviewer borrowed a copy of the book from the public library.
Louise and I have been on the lookout for the best nonfiction books of 2015. So far this year (as in past years) biographies and history books outnumber science books by a large margin. However, there is
I, Fly: The Buzz About Flies and How Awesome They Are
by Bridget Heos; illus. by Jennifer Plecas
Primary Holt 40 pp.
3/15 978-0-8050-9469-5 $17.99 g
An adorable fly — googly-eyed, fuzzy-bodied, and with a winning smile, as portrayed in Plecas’s funny but informative cartoon illustrations — makes a compelling argument for why he should be the science-class representative for insect life cycles instead of the overexposed, annoyingly perfect butterfly. He pleads his case in front of a skeptical classroom audience, who grill the fly about his more unsavory habits (garbage-eating, disease-spreading). Eventually convinced that “Flies rule!” the students capture the fly for scientific study, and he quickly changes his tune, pleading for his release. Heos cleverly skewers the classic elements of the typical animal book — the insect life cycle is told through a sappy reminiscence, and the point-by-point comparisons to butterflies and mosquitoes highlight just what makes an insect an insect. Those educators also weary of the primary-science butterfly bias will find this take on insects refreshing, amusing, and scientifically accurate. Appended with a glossary, select bibliography, and list of experts (presumably consulted).
Fatal Fever: Tracking Down Typhoid Mary
by Gail Jarrow
Calkins Creek, 2015
Grades 5 and up
We received copies of the book from the publisher.
We are thrilled to take part in the Fatal Fever blog tour today! As part of the tour we will give away one copy of the book. (See below.)
In Fatal Fever, Gail Jarrow masterfully describes how Dr. George Soper tracked down Mary
Fin de siècle Hungary was a progressive country. It had limited sovereignty as part of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy, but industry, trade, education, and social legislation were rapidly catching up with the Western World. The emancipation of Jews freed tremendous energies and opened the way for ambitious young people to the professions in law, health care, science, and engineering (though not politics, the military, and the judiciary). Excellent secular high schools appeared challenging the already established excellent denominational high schools.
Think there’s no need for sepia-toned filters and hashtags in your classroom? Don’t write off the world of #selfies just yet.
Instagram is one of the most popular social media channels among generation Z, or those born after 1995 and don’t know a world without the Internet. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that this is a generation of visual learners and communicators, where sharing your life-from the food you’re about to eat to your thoughts about anything and everything-is a part of your everyday routine. So, why allow Instagram in your classroom?
For starters, preparing students to be college and career ready involves helping them build their digital literacy skills on a professional level, and Instagram is a technological tool that offers educators innovative ways to motivate and engage students, opening up a new platform for collaboration, research, and discussion. Secondly, we all know the importance of interest and ownership for getting students excited about learning, and since your students probably already love Instagram you’ve already won half the battle.
Teacher/Classroom Instagram Accounts
Create a private classroom Instagram account that you control and can use to connect with your students, their parents and guardians, and other grade team members. Invite them to follow your account and catch a glimpse of your everyday classroom moments and adventures.
Student of the Week: Each week, feature a different student on the class Instagram account, posting photos-with their permission- of their favorite classroom projects and other examples of their hard work and achievement. This is a fun opportunity to highlight your students’ individual strengths, positively reinforcing their behavior and progress.
Daily/Weekly Classroom Update: Similar to student of the week, you can instagram your students’ classroom projects and activities on a daily or weekly basis. From photos of new classroom reads to capturing field trip memories, this is an excellent way to build a sense of community while allowing parents to see what lessons, topics, and exciting activities are happening in your classroom. This is also a great way to easily and quickly share your classroom ideas with other grade team teachers.
Student takeover: If you’re not able to encourage students to create their own individual Instagram accounts, invite each student to “take over” the classroom account for a day or week by sharing photos from his or her everyday life. This is a great opportunity for students to learn more about their peers by instagramming their interests, hobbies, routines, and even cultural traditions.
Photo Inspiration: Finding inspiration to write can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Spark your students’ imaginations and help them discover new ideas through instagramming writing prompts by playing with different angles, perspectives, and filters to capture random moments and objects that you encounter throughout your day-to-day.
Caption That! For a variation of the writing prompt, post an interesting photo and ask your students to write a descriptive caption in the comments. Differentiate how challenging this task is by asking students to write their caption using specific sentence types, different parts of speech, clauses, prepositional phrases, and their current vocabulary words.
Daily challenges: If your students are able to follow the classroom Instagram account on a regular basis, you can use it to post daily challenges in the form of visual word problems, review questions, and bonus questions. Instagram photos of important learned concepts and pose questions to your students in the caption, asking them to write their answers in the comments. For example, this fifth-grade teacher used Instagram to review who Henry Ford was and other important events in history.
Student Instagram Accounts
Asking your students to follow the classroom Instagram account with their personal accounts is one, highly unlikely, and two, probably not the best idea. What you can do is ask your students to create additional Instagram accounts that would only be used for school or classroom purposes. You know how LinkedIn is your professional Facebook? A similar idea applies here.
A Day in the Life: Challenge students to assume the role of a fictional literary character and share images that he or she believes the specific character would post, highlighting the character’s interests, personality traits, and development throughout the story. The 15-second video option is a great way to really let students get into character through recorded role-playing and even performance reenactments. These activities can also be applied to important figures in history, such as the creator of Honda, Soichiro Honda, or jazz musician, Melba Liston.
What the Kids are Reading: Students can snap photos of their favorite reads and write a brief 1-5 sentence review in the caption. To take it a step further, ask them to record 15-second long persuasive book trailers to hook their peers. Boost further discussion among your students by asking them to comment on other book reviews and book trailer videos to share their opinions. Tip: Encourage your students to use a unique #hashtag (ex.: #SMSGrade4Reads) for each book review posted, and by the end of the year you will have a visual library of all of the books your class has read.
Math Hunt: “Why do we have to learn this?” “I won’t need this in my everyday life.” Sound familiar? Help your students see the real-world math applications all around them by sending them on a hunt to document or illustrate their knowledge of different math concepts:
Geometry: lines (parallel, perpendicular, and intersecting), angles (right, acute, obtuse, etc.) symmetry, and three-dimensional shapes (prisms, cubes, cylinders, etc.)
Everyday fractions and arrays
Concepts of money
Examples of volume vs. mass, area vs. perimeter
STEM Research: Students can watch, observe, and record science experiment data and results over time by documenting any step-by-step process with photo and video narration of learned science concepts. Outside of the lab, students can use their Instagram accounts for observing science in nature or sharing their own scientific findings. What makes this special is how quickly and easily students can share and revisit their visual references and recorded data.
Physical & chemical changes
Weather patterns and phases of the moon
Habitats in nature
Note: Instagram, as well as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Tumblr, and Snapchat, has a minimum age limit of 13 to open an account, but according to Instagram’s parents’ guide, there are many younger users on Instagram with their parents’ permission since you don’t have to specify your age. Always check with your school’s administrator and obtain parental permission before sharing photos of students or their work.
Know of any other interesting ways to use Instagram or other social media sites in the classroom? Already using Instagram in the classroom? Let us know in the comments!
Veronicahas a degree from Mount Saint Mary College and joined LEE & LOW in the fall of 2014. She has a background in education and holds a New York State childhood education (1-6) and students with disabilities (1-6) certification. When she’s not wandering around New York City, you can find her hiking with her dog Milo in her hometown in the Hudson Valley, NY.
The news that Britain is set to become the first country to authorize IVF using genetic material from three people—the so-called ‘three-parent baby’—has given rise to (very predictable) divisions of opinion. On the one hand are those who celebrate a national ‘first’, just as happened when Louise Brown, the first ever ‘test-tube baby’, was born in Oldham in 1978. Just as with IVF more broadly, the possibility for people who otherwise couldn’t to be come parents of healthy children is something to be welcomed.
by Susan Stockdale
The reviewer received a galley from the publisher.
Susan Stockdale, author and illustrator of Stripes of All Types and Bring on the Birds, has a new informational picture book for very young readers.
Spectacular Spots features spotted creatures in their natural habitats. Each page includes a colorful
Humdrum or delicious? When students eat their homework, the classroom suddenly turns from tedious to oh-so-tasty. Get ready to serve up some yummy new fun—while discovering and learning about math and science.
Psst, did you remember that Pi Day is March 14? It’s time to divvy up some Variable Pizza Pi. Look up the recipe for this constant crowd-pleaser in Eat Your Math Homework, and get set for variable excitement—quite a lot . . . or mega.
Never mind the constants (the crust and the sauce), here’s your chance to add your own variables: toppings such as pepperoni, green pepper, or pineapple chunks. And we’re not done yet! Measure the circumference and determine the diameter of the pizza. This will help you pinpoint pi, that amazingly endless decimal number that starts 3.1415926 . . . (pi = circumference divided by diameter)
What about in the classroom? How about switching things up a bit with this yummy classroom adaptation? Share circle shaped cookies (Yes, the cookie itself and the icing are the constants). Have students decorate each cookie with variables such as chocolate chips, raisins, or colored marshmallows. Figure out the circumference and diameter of one cookie (Hint: To measure the circumference, use a piece of string. Place the string around the rim of the cookie. Cut or mark the string to match the size of the cookie’s circumference. Straighten this measured string and find its length using a ruler).
When students find the circumference divided by the diameter, it’s easy as pie to calculate pi. Was the answer close to 3.14? Why wasn’t it exact? What else can you find out about pi?
And now here’s another tasty tidbit. Let’s face it, all science lessons are not created equal. Neither are rocks. In fact, there are three basic categories of rocks: metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary. Heat and pressure cause metamorphic rocks to morph, or change form. Igneous rocks form from cooled liquid rock beneath the earth’s surface. And sedimentary, well, think of a lasagna—when layers of sediment press against each other, the layers meld together.
Speaking of lasagna, check out the recipe for Sedimentary Pizza Lasagna from Eat Your Science Homework . . . Yum!
. . . Or whip up some classroom friendly Sedimentary Sandwiches instead. Use 3 or 4 layers of bread (or crackers) and your favorite sandwich fixings to build a rock solid masterpiece. Bite in—and don’t worry about chipping a tooth!
Between the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland a few weeks ago and it recently being entered into my medical records that I am moderately allergic to the tetanus vaccine (fever, body aches, fatigue and injection site pain far above and beyond a mere sore arm), I was primed to On Immunity by Eula Biss. I fully believe in the importance of vaccinations and have a hard time understanding the whole anti-vaccination movement. I mean, small pox no longer exists because of vaccination and polio is nonexistent in the United States and very close to being wiped out in the rest of the world. Yes, there is always a small risk — allergy, severe illness, death — but the risk is so small in comparison to the benefit that it seems more than worth it. Yet, so many are eager to believe that the measles vaccine causes autism (it doesn’t), or that the government and/or pharmaceutical companies are purposely poisoning children (they aren’t), or any other number of strange reasons having to do with government control, conspiracies, science experiments and invasion of privacy.
Biss is pro-vaccination. She is well-educated and her father is a doctor. Yet, when she became a mother even she had qualms about vaccinating her son. It is through this lens that she examines the fears and beliefs of those who refuse to have their children vaccinated. Along the way we get a cultural and scientific history of vaccination.
We fear a good many things these days and if you have children, the fear is intensified because it is your job to keep them safe. What do you do when you hear about all the chemicals in food and BPA in plastics? Or toxins in the air and water? It is hard to enough to protect a child from the threats you can see, how can you keep them safe from the ones you can’t see, and worse, don’t even know about? We hear that a particular vaccine might have mercury in it used as a preservative. We know mercury is poisonous, therefore the vaccine is poisonous too. We blow the tiny risk factors far out of proportion because here is something we can do to protect our children.
The thing is, the human body is already “contaminated.” We are porous creatures and our defenses from outside organisms were breached long ago. We have pieces of virus DNA in our genes. And here is a fascinating bit of information:
The cells that form the outer layer of the placenta for a human fetus bind to each other using a gene that originated, long ago, from a virus. Though many viruses could not reproduce without us, we ourselves could not reproduce without what we have taken from them.
Some might wonder then what the big deal about not vaccinating is if viruses are so important to our very being. Besides being useful in some circumstances, viruses also kill and disable and it is those viruses we vaccinate against.
Those who do not vaccinate rely on the protection of all the people who do. You can only have children who are not vaccinated against measles never get the disease because the child is surrounded by people who have been vaccinated. Biss points out over and over that we think vaccination is an individual choice that has no effects on anyone else, but we are wrong. Because in order for vaccinations to be most effective, most people in the population need to be vaccinated. Immunity to disease is a communal undertaking.
Here I have to admit that in spite of believing whole-heartedly in vaccines, I have never gotten a flu vaccination. My reasoning has always been that I don’t get the flu. And truly, it has been so long since I have had the flu I can’t remember when it was — fifteen years at least. But Bookman dutifully gets a flu shot every year. He has to because he has multiple sclerosis and therefore his immune system is compromised. Now after reading Biss’s argument about vaccination being a communal thing I realize that perhaps one reason I have not gotten the flu is because nearly everyone I know gets a flu shot. In addition, it is possible for me to get the flu and then give it to someone who, for whatever reason, could not be vaccinated and then they could get really sick or possibly die. Because people do die from the flu. Did I ever get a big dose of guilt realizing that. So now next year when the email goes out at the University where I work that free flu shots are being given, I will go an roll up my sleeve.
It was easy to get me to change my mind about flu vaccination, but what about all those people who refuse more important vaccinations for their children? Studies show that forcing science down the throats of anti-vaxxers does no good whatsoever. Biss is unable to offer any suggestions other than insisting on the communal nature of vaccination. It worked for me but it won’t work for all those parents who still believe vaccines cause autism or that the HPV vaccine will make girls more likely to have sex. Clearly for those parents there are many factors that need to be addressed. It is a complex issue and sadly, government is not very good at solving those sorts of things.
On Immunity is a well-written, non-judgmental look at the issues in the vaccination debates. It could not have been more timely if it tried. If you’d like a little insight into the anti-vaccination movement, then I highly recommend this book.
On March 5, Marie Mutsuki Mockett and I will be reading and talking about exorcising the past (all meanings of exorcise possible) at McNally Jackson at 6 p.m.
Marie’s wonderful new book, Where the Dead Pause and the Japanese Say Goodbye, is about death and grief and family and ghosts and so much more. She’ll read from it, and I’ll read from the working introduction to my book on the science and superstition of ancestry, and then we’ll talk about all of that and take questions and comments from you. Hope to see you there!
Sisson, Stephanie Roth. 2014. Star Stuff: Carl Sagan and the mysteries of the cosmos. New York: Roaring Brook.
In simple text augmented by word bubbles, thought bubbles, and sketches, Stephanie Roth Sisson gives us the highlights of Carl Sagan's life—but more importantly, she offers a sense of his wondrous enthusiasm for the cosmos,
It gave Carl goose bumps to think about what he had learned about the stars, planets, and the beginnings of life. He wanted everyone to understand so that they could feel like a part of the stars as he did. So he went on television.
This is the first book that Stephanie Roth Sisson has both written and illustrated. The fact that she is enthralled with her subject is apparent in the artwork. Painted cartoon images (often in panels with word bubbles), depict a happy Sagan, wide-eyed and curious. While some pages are like panel comics, others are full-bleed, double spreads depicting the vastness of the darkened skies, dotted by planets or stars. One foldout opens vertically, reminding us of our infinitesimal existence in the cosmos. We are so small, yet we are reminded,
The Earth and every living thing are made of star stuff.
Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Bob’s perspective.
Bob is just an ordinary guy who happens to be scared of witches. His beliefs are strongly rooted in personal experience, and this approach brings him to blows with the unyelidingly scientific Sarah.
Sarah: That’s unfair! You don’t expect all the scientific resources of the Western world to be concentrated on explaining why your garden wall collapsed, do you? I’m not being dogmatic, there’s just no reason to doubt that a scientific explanation could in principle be given.
Bob: You expect me to take that on faith? You don’t always know best, you know. I’m actually giving you an explanation. (Mustn’t talk too loud.) My neighbour’s a witch. She always hated me. Bewitched my wall, cast a spell on it to collapse next time I was right beside it. It was no coincidence. Even if you had your precious scientific explanation with all its atoms and molecules, it would only be technical details. It would give no reason why the two things happened at just the same time. The only explanation that makes real sense of it is witchcraft.
Sarah: You haven’t explained how your neighbour’s muttering some words could possibly make the wall collapse.
Bob: Who knows how witchcraft works? Whatever it does, that old hag’s malice explains why the wall collapsed just when I was right beside it. Anyway, I bet you can’t explain how deciding in my own mind to plant some bulbs made my legs actually move so I walked out into the garden.
Sarah: It’s only a matter of time before scientists can explain things like that. Neuroscience has made enormous progress over the last few years, discovering how the brain and nervous system work.
Bob: So you say, with your faith in modern science. I bet expert witches can already explain how spells work. They wouldn’t share their knowledge around. Too dangerous. Why should I trust modern science more than witchcraft?
Sarah: Think of all the evidence for modern science. It can explain so much. What evidence is there that witchcraft works?
Bob: My garden wall, for a start.
Sarah: No, I mean proper evidence, statistically significant results of controlled experiments and other forms of reliable data, which science provides.
Bob: You know how witches were persecuted, or rightly punished, in the past. Lots of them were tortured and burnt. It could happen again, if they made their powers too obvious, doing things that could be proved in court. Do you expect them to let themselves be trapped like that again? Anyway, witchcraft is so unfashionable in scientific circles, how many scientists would risk their academic reputations taking it seriously enough to research on it, testing whether it works?
Sarah: Modern science has put men on the moon. What has witchcraft done remotely comparable to that?
Bob: For all we know, that alleged film of men on the moon was done in a studio on earth. The money saved was spent on the military. Anyway, who says witchcraft hasn’t put women on the moon? Isn’t assuming it hasn’t what educated folk call ‘begging the question’?
Sarah: I can’t believe I’m having this conversation. Do you seriously deny that scientific journals are full of evidence for modern scientific theories? Isn’t all of that evidence against witchcraft?
Bob: How do we know how much of that so-called evidence is genuine? There have been lots of scandals recently about scientists faking their results. For all we know, the ones who get caught are only the tip of the iceberg.
Sarah: Well, if you prefer, look at all the successful technology around you. You’re sitting on a train, and I notice you have a laptop and a mobile phone. Think of all the science that went into them. You’re not telling me they work by witchcraft, are you?
Bob: Lots of modern science and technology is fine in its own way. I went to hospital by ambulance, not broom, thank goodness. None of that means modern science can explain everything.
Have you got something you want to say to Bob? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Bob’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 6th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Bob’s response!
Tetralogue by Timothy Williamson is a philosophy book for the commuter age. In a tradition going back to Plato, Timothy Williamson uses a fictional conversation to explore questions about truth and falsity, knowledge and belief. Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Zac’s perspective.
Zac wants everyone to be at peace with everyone else, whatever their differences. He tries to intervene and offer a solution to the conflicts that arise between the other characters, but often ends up getting dragged in himself.
Sarah: It’s pointless arguing with you. Nothing will shake your faith in witchcraft!
Bob: Will anything shake your faith in modern science?
Zac: Excuse me, folks, for butting in: sitting here, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You both seem to be getting quite upset. Perhaps I can help. If I may say so, each of you is taking the superior attitude ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ toward the other.
Sarah: But I am right and he is wrong.
Bob: No. I’m right and she’s wrong.
Zac: There, you see: deadlock. My guess is, it’s becoming obvious to both of you that neither of you can definitively prove the other wrong.
Sarah: Maybe not right here and now on this train, but just wait and see how science develops—people who try to put limits to what it can achieve usually end up with egg on their face.
Bob: Just you wait and see what it’s like to be the victim of a spell. People who try to put limits to what witchcraft can do end up with much worse than egg on their face.
Zac: But isn’t each of you quite right, from your own point of view? What you—
Zac: Pleased to meet you, Sarah. I’m Zac, by the way. What Sarah is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of modern science. And what you—
Zac: Pleased to meet you, Bob. What Bob is saying makes perfect sense from the point of view of traditional witchcraft. Modern science and traditional witchcraft are different points of view, but each of them is valid on its own terms. They are equally intelligible.
Sarah: They may be equally intelligible, but they aren’t equally true.
Zac: ‘True’: that’s a very dangerous word, Sarah. When you are enjoying the view of the lovely countryside through this window, do you insist that you are seeing right, and people looking through the windows on the other side of the train are seeing wrong?
Sarah: Of course not, but it’s not a fair comparison.
Zac: Why not, Sarah?
Sarah: We see different things through the windows because we are looking in different directions. But modern science and traditional witchcraft ideas are looking at the same world and say incompatible things about it, for instance about what caused Bob’s wall to collapse. If one side is right, the other is wrong.
Zac: Sarah, it’s you who make them incompatible by insisting that someone must be right and someone must be wrong. That sort of judgemental talk comes from the idea that we can adopt the point of view of a God, standing in judgement over everyone else. But we are all just human beings. We can’t make definitive judgements of right and wrong like that about each other.
Sarah: But aren’t you, Zac, saying that Bob and I were both wrong to assume there are right and wrong answers on modern science versus witchcraft, and that you are right to say there are no such right and wrong answers? In fact, aren’t you contradicting yourself?
Have you got something you want to say to Zac? Do you agree or disagree with him? Tetralogue author Timothy Williamson will be getting into character and answering questions from Zac’s perspective via @TetralogueBook on Friday 13th March from 2-3pm GMT. Tweet your questions to him and wait for Zac’s response!
Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow by Carmelo Piazza and James Buckley Jr with illustrations by Chad Geran (be sure to check out Chad's board book, Oh, Baby!) is by far the BEST science experiment book for kids I have seen in my two decades of children's book selling and parenting. Visually, Crazy for Science with Carmelo the Science Fellow is infinitely more engaging
February is Black History Month. To commemorate the contributions of African-Americans to science and innovation, we offer this list of 12 books chronicling some of their many achievements: Black Inventors.
Watching the field of genomics evolve over the past 20 years, it is intriguing to notice the word ‘genome’ cozying up to the word ‘million’. Genomics is moving beyond 1k, 10k and 100k genome projects. A new courtship is blossoming.
Now both Craig Venter and Francis Collins, leads of the private and public versions of the Human Genome Project, are working on their million-omes.
The company 23andMe might be the first ‘million-ome-aire’. By 2014, the company founded by Ann Wojcicki processed upwards of 800,000 customer samples. Pundit Eric Topol suggests in his article “Who Owns Your DNA” that without the skirmish with the FDA, 23andMe would already have millions.
Venter’s path will be through his non-profit Human Longevity, Inc (HLI), launched in San Diego, California in 2014 with $70 million in investor funding. To support the company’s tagline — “It’s not just a long life we’re striving for, but one which is worth living” — Venter aims to sequence a million genomes by 2020.
At a price tag of $1000 dollars per genome, one million genomes could cost a billion US dollars. The original human genome project cost $3 billion only 13 years ago, but produced 1 trillion US dollars in economic impact.
The Collins’ ‘million-ome’ will pull together new and existing genomes, with an initial budget of $215 million dollars. This includes genomes from the MVP, which has already enrolled 300,000 veterans and sequenced 200,000. The focus will initially be on cancer but subjects will be healthy and ill, men and women, old and young; it is the foundation of a Precision Medicine Initiative.
In addition to these projects we will have millions anyway. ARC Investment Analysis suggested we could see 4 to 34 billion human genomes by 2024 at historical rates of sequencing – if current trends in dropping costs and demand continue.
How could we have more genomes than humans living on earth? Cancer genomics is in ‘gold rush’ phase. Steve Jobs was famously one of the first 20 people to have his genome sequenced. He paid $100k but did so to also have the genome of the cancer that killed him sequenced. He left a personal genomics legacy to the world, but his investment in DNA sequencing also serves as a reminder that a genome is not the same as a cure. Hopes are high, though, especially for cancer diagnostics. The International Cancer Genomics Consortium is already backed with a billion dollar budget and the field continues to explode.
Further, an adult human body consists of 37 trillion genomes all working together (plus the 100 trillion genomes of the microbial cells in our microbiome). There is mounting evidence we are all genomic mosaics, meaning we all have more than one genome (e.g. from pre-cancerous cells, transplants, and mothers who carry the genomes of past live-born babies).
It is good to cultivate a healthy skepticism and not be drawn into the hype. Critics exist, as always. At the other end of the continuum, Ken Weiss of The Mermaid’s Tale blog, a geneticist himself, has outlined reasons to put valuable research dollars elsewhere than a million genomes project or precision medicine, but given than they will happen, he also contemplates what should be done with resulting data.
Eric Topol said in response to the rise of ‘million-ome’ projects, that there are now many 100k projects and he “might rather have 100,000 people with ‘pan-oromic definition’ than 1 million with just native DNA”. By high definition he means all the mapping (sensors, anatomy, environmental quantified, gut microbiome, etc.) that belongs to his vision of a “Google medical map”.
There are huge differences between “projections,” “announcements,” and “hard (published) data.” Big projects can fall by the way-side. 23andMe hit a barrier with the FDA decision. The BGI is still tooling up. Obama hasn’t yet secured a budget. Venter is giving himself time. Everyone is starting to think about genomes inside the systems in which they exist in (cells, organs, organisms, ecosystems).
Regardless of trajectory, it is a foregone conclusion that, counting all sources, the number of sequenced genomes will pass one million in 2015, if it hasn’t already.
Google is imagining the day when researchers compute over millions of genomes and is building the infrastructure to support it; Google Genomics has launched offering $25/year pricing to hold your genome in the Cloud.
Why stop at millions? Jong Bhak is calling for billions. He is suggesting that “the genomics era hasn’t even started.” Bhak, a leader of the Korean Personal Genomes Project, a project to sequence the genomes of all 50 million Koreans, has outlined a vision for a Billion Genome Project.
The first to talk of ‘a genome for everyone’ was perhaps George Church, technologist and founder of the Personal Genome Project. He wrote 2005 a paper entitled “The Personal Genome Project.” In it he recalled talking with Wally Gilbert that “Six billion base pairs for six billion people had a nice ring to it”—back in 1976, soon after Gilbert invented DNA sequencing, for which he won a Nobel Prize.
The fact that more voices in global science are debating the pros and cons of ‘millions and billions of genomes’ is evidence that 2015 marks a shift towards a Practical Genomics Revolution. It is becoming practical to think big(ger).
On 25th March 2015, 530 years after his death, King Richard III of England will be interred in Leicester Cathedral. This remarkable ceremony is only taking place because of the success of DNA analysis in identifying his skeletal remains. So what sort of genes might a king be expected to have? Or, more prosaically, how do you identify a long dead corpse from its DNA? Several methods were used, and in particular the deduction of the skeleton’s probable hair and eye colour raises some interesting questions about future trends in forensic DNA analysis.
Richard III is one of England’s best known kings, largely due to the famous play of William Shakespeare in which he is portrayed as an evil villain. He only reigned for two years and was killed at the age of 32 at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. According to the historical records he was unceremoniously buried at Greyfriars Friary in Leicester. At some stage knowledge of the exact location of Richard’s burial was lost. But in 2012 excavations under a car park at the probable site of the former friary yielded “skeleton 1″. Suspicion of his royal identity was excited by the fact that the skeleton had a severely bent spine causing the right shoulder to be higher than the left. This well-known deformity of Richard was mentioned in a contemporary source, as well as by Shakespeare. Furthermore, the skeleton was male, the age was about right, it had evidently been killed in battle, and the radiocarbon date was consistent with death in 1485.
This was all very suggestive, but it was the DNA analysis that really proved the case. The work was led by a team at the University of Leicester, with participation by many other UK and European centres. It is important to note that this was not the normal type of forensic DNA identification, which relies on comparing a set of highly variable DNA markers to a database. Such analysis is fine so long as your suspect is in the database, but it is no use for identifying a long dead individual who is not in any database.
By far the best evidence for the identity of Richard III comes from the analysis of his mitochondrial DNA. Mitochondria are bodies found in every cell, responsible for the production of energy. They have their own DNA which is passed down the generations only through the female line. Barring the occasional new mutation, the DNA sequence of mitochondrial DNA should be identical from mother to daughter down a particular female line of descent. Like their sisters, males also carry the mitochondrial DNA of their mothers, but they do not pass it down to their own offspring.
Richard will have shared mitochondrial DNA with his sister, Anne of York. Two complete female lines of descent were traced back to Anne of York, one of 17 generations down to Michael Ibsen, a resident of London, and the other of 19 generations down to Wendy Duldig, formerly of New Zealand. Complete sequencing of their mitochondrial DNA showed a 100% match between skeleton 1 and of Michael Ibsen, and a single base change compared to Wendy Duldig. One change over this period of time is quite likely to be a new mutation. The sequence family (haplogroup) to which the mitochondrial DNA sequence belongs is a fairly rare one, so few other people in England in 1485 would have shared it and in fact the team has systematically ruled out all the other males of the period who might have shared it because of a common female lineage with Richard III. So this match is highly significant and is the best piece of evidence that the “skeleton 1″ is indeed King Richard.
Also applied was a newer method which is a technique for predicting the hair and eye colour of someone from their DNA. The most important variants affecting hair colour are mutations of a gene called MC1R, which encodes a cell surface receptor for a hormone. Individuals carrying variants of the MC1R gene with reduced function are likely to have red or blond hair rather than the normal dark hair. The pigmentation of the iris of the eye depends significantly on a gene called OCA2, encoding a protein which transports tyrosine into cells. Again variants of reduced function give less pigmented eyes, meaning that the colour is blueish rather than brownish. Recently a Dutch group created a forensic test based on variants at 24 genetic loci, of which 11 are in the MC2R gene and the rest in 12 other positions including the OCA2 gene. Identification of these 24 variants yields a fairly accurate prediction of hair and eye colour, and in the case of skeleton 1 the prediction was for blue eyes and blond hair. The existing portraits of Richard III all date from some time after his death but the older ones do indeed show light-coloured eyes and reddish-brown hair, an appearance which is consistent with the prediction.
These two types of analysis indicate two rather different senses in which we use the word “gene”. The sequence variants of the mitochondrial DNA, like those used in normal forensic identification, do not, in general, affect the characteristics of the individuals carrying them. The DNA changes often lie outside actual genes, in the regions of DNA between genes. They are better described as “markers” than as “genes”. But the hair and eye colour analysis is based at least partly on actual gene variants that might be expected to generate those visible characteristics.
How much further might this kind of analysis be pushed? Could the height, facial features or skin colour of a crime suspect be deduced from their DNA? The essential issue is the number of gene variants in the population that affect a feature. If it is relatively small, as with hair and eye colour, then prediction is possible. If it is very large, as for height, then it is not possible, because most of the variants affecting height have too small effects to be detectable. Most of the human characteristics that have been studied in this way have turned out to depend on a very large number of variants of small effect. So, contrary to popular perception, there are real limits to what is possible in terms of prediction of bodily features from DNA data. There will doubtless be some other features that are predictable, and these may eventually include skin colour. But unless a completely new approach is invented, it is unlikely that we shall ever see an identikit picture of a suspect generated from DNA at the crime scene.
Featured image credit: Stained glass, by VeteranMP. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons