What the staff is reading

Published September 13 2016

At ASBMB Today, we love to read as much as we love to write. We also love to talk about what we’re reading. Our office is always buzzing (whether it’s with not-so-hushed voices or the ping of email delivery notifications) as we share the inspiring, emotionally compelling, fascinating or simply funny articles or videos we can’t put down, stop watching or scrolling through. So, we figured, why not keep the conversation going? Here’s a compilation of what our staff was reading last month. Enjoy and feel free to tweet us your thoughts.

Angela Hopp, executive editor (@angelahopp)

D.A. Henderson, ‘disease detective’ who eradicated smallpox, dies at 87

By Emily Langer at the Washington Post

I was first introduced to D.A. Henderson by Richard Preston's "The Demon in the Freezer." It was the summer of 1999. I was 21 and working the overnight shift as a concierge at a residential high-rise in the Texas Medical Center. As part of my job, I collected residents' mail while they were away. In the pile I'd collected that night was an issue of the New Yorker that contained an article that was the precursor to Preston's book by the same name. This was, full disclosure, the first New Yorker article I'd read for leisure. It was, as is usual for the New Yorker, long and slow reading. But the way Preston told the story of the biology of smallpox and how he explained how we don't really know where Russia's stockpiles have gone was so brilliant. I wanted to be able to make complicated topics as fascinating and understandable as he had. I later got the book. I later also read Henderson's book, "Smallpox: The Death of a Disease,"' which explains in detail what it takes to do something of this scale and significance: diplomacy, cultural understanding, patience, concession and steadfastness.

An ugly summer for science: Turmoil rocks Canadian research community

By Carolyn Abraham at STAT

Full disclosure: I know very little about the peer-review system in Canada. But, wow, was this article eye-opening. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research rolled out its new review system, and lots of things went terribly wrong. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so you’re just going to have to dig in. h/t Barbara Gordon, ASBMB’s executive director


By Ryan Gabrielson and Topher Sanders at ProPublica

This is the kind of journalism science writers should be doing. This story is about how a $2 roadside drug-identification assay provides unreliable results. The vast majority of drug convictions are settled with guilty pleas – before labs can confirm that the substances police have found are actually illegal. And, yet, these tests remain in use. Here’s an excerpt: "Even trained lab scientists struggle with confirmation bias — the tendency to take any new evidence as confirmation of expectations — and police officers can see the tests as affirming their decisions to stop and search a person. Labs rarely notify officers when a false positive is found, so they have little experience to prompt skepticism. As far as they know, the system works. By our estimate, though, every year at least 100,000 people nationwide plead guilty to drug-possession charges that rely on field-test results as evidence. At that volume, even the most modest of error rates could produce thousands of wrongful convictions."

Doctors and sex abuse

By the staff at the Atlanta Journal–Constitution

I’m intrigued by the approach taken by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to reveal the extent to which doctors sexually abuse patients and, more importantly, get away with it. Here’s an excerpt from the series’ introduction: “While the vast majority of the nation’s 900,000 doctors do not sexually abuse patients, the AJC found the phenomenon is akin to the priest scandal: It doesn’t necessarily happen every day, but it happens far more often than anyone has acknowledged.” Start with the editor’s note, which is what drew me into the investigation in the first place. Then see the table of contents.

Rajendrani (Raj) Mukhopadhyay, managing editor (@RajMukhop)

Tales from retail

By Tom Grennell

I simply loved it.

Why scientists are losing the fight to communicate science to the public

By Richard P. Grant at The Guardian

Excerpt: “Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

It’s tribalism.”

We finally know who forged Piltdown Man, one of science’s most notorious hoaxes

By Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post

Another healthy reminder that being skeptical at all times is very helpful in both science and journalism.

"Solving the Piltdown hoax is still important now," De Groote and her colleagues write. "It stands as a cautionary tale to scientists not to see what they want to see, but to remain objective and to subject even their own findings to the strongest scientific scrutiny."

Internet agrees: Buzz Aldrin has the best #firstsevenjobs ever

By Gael Fashingbauer Cooper at Cnet

I never tweeted out my first seven jobs because I’m still on my fifth (pampered expat brat who didn’t get to do summer jobs #dontjudge), but this is pretty awesome.

Dog eat dog: Is a troubled expedition to Kenya causing the Smithsonian to devour its young?

By Michael Balter at The Verge

A Smithsonian Institution’s scientist is accused of research misconduct. But are the accusations true?

This Smithsonian scientist’s death was a mystery; 150 years later, his skeleton helped solve it

By Sarah Kaplan at The Washington Post

This tale of a Smithsonian scientist’s life and lonely death is mesmerizing.

The slime whisperer: One biologist's instagram disguises civic science lessons as visual art

By Zoe Schlanger at The Village Voice

A biologist uses social media and visually arresting images to showcase science to her 34,000 followers.

The ALS ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ is working

By Abby Ohlheiser at The Washington Post

I was dubious about the impact of the Ice Bucket Challenge when it was the rage. (Nope, not even watching Benedict Cumberbatch get doused swayed me). Looks like I was wrong.

One immigrant's path from cleaning houses to Stanford professor

By Octavio Blanco at CNN Money

This is an inspiring story about an immigrant going from cleaning houses to heading up a Stanford’s artificial intelligence lab.

The bicycle problem that nearly broke mathematics

By Brendan Borrell at Nature

This quote sums up why this story is a fascinating read: “The study of bicycles is interesting from a purely intellectual point of view, but it also has practical implications because of their ability to get people around.”

John Arnst, science writer (@ArnstJohn)

Are we the earliest intelligent life in the universe?

By Richard P. Grant at The Guardian

And suddenly the silence of the cosmos became less terrifying:

“By eons, here, Loeb is thinking in terms that don't generally get discussed in geological or even astronomical terms. The universe may be an ancient 13.7 or so billion years old, but Loeb sees a potentially brighter future for life not billions — but trillions — of years from now. Peak life in the universe, he says, may arrive several trillion years hence.”

Cosplayers use costume to unleash their superpowers

By Angus Chen at National Public Radio's Shots

This National Public Radio piece is about the ability of cosplay, or costume role play (reported from D.C.’s recent AwesomeCon), to alleviate social anxieties and foster a sense of wellness in participants.

Allison Frick, print and digital media specialist (@allisonfrick)

[SPOILER ALERT] We had a theoretical physicist break down our most burning question
about Netflix hit 'Stranger Things' — and it blew our minds

By Erin Brodwin and Ali Sundermier at Business Insider

E.T. was one of my favorite movies growing up. My aunt gave me the VHS tape for Christmas one year, and I watched it over and over. I’d scrunch myself into one of those yellow Fisher Price chairs, scooch up about a foot from my dad’s ancient TV, which was outfitted with tinfoil-covered, rabbit-ear antennas, pop the tape into our VCR player, a finicky camcorder jerry-rigged to the TV, and I’d watch Elliott and E.T. take on the town. When I saw the trailer for “Stranger Things,” which proudly pays homage to 1980s films (including E.T.), I was right back in front of our NASA-inspired TV set, and I knew I HAD to watch this show. This article explains some of the scientific inspiration for “Stranger Things.” Sharing this article seemed like the perfect way to celebrate Netflix’s announcement that the show has been renewed for a second season, but re-watching E.T. for the millionth time might be an even better use of time – I’ll leave it up to you.

How a Danish town helped young Muslims turn away from ISIS

By Hanna Rosin at National Public Radio's Shots

This article explains how police officers in Aarhus, Denmark, applied principles of social psychology to fight radicalization by supporting the town’s young Muslim citizens instead of adopting harsh policies that promote discrimination.

Valery Masterson, print and digital designer

Bjork's new mask is based on scans of her bone and tissue

By Juxtapoz

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor uses 3-D printing to create bone-and-tissue inspired masks for singer Bjork.

Alexander McQueen's DNA could be turned into "100% human leather" handbags

By Claire Lampen at Mic

An art student patents material extracted from deceased Givenchy fashion designer Alexander McQueen’s DNA.