Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A bit of advice from a fellow Memphian...
If you click on the above link, it will take you to an opinion piece by Douglas Green, a researcher at the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital here in Memphis, TN.  The point of the piece is to provide some advice for those of us just starting out in science and looking to become successful, which I take to mean: get lots of papers and grants which are the currency that can be used to purchase a PI position at a college or university of good standing.  (PI by the way stands for Primary Investigator, but, for all intents and purposes, it usually means tenure-track, or tenured, faculty).  I agree with Green on several points, I think that being passionately curious is a great driving force that can keep you motivated regardless of the many setbacks one too often faces in the process of scientific investigation. However, this passion can also make it that much more disheartening if your grant proposal fails to convince your peers that what you so ardently want to know is something the rest of the world should want to know as well.  It is here that Green boils down what he thinks is the essence of academic success, which appears to be, to paraphrase: "wow me."  Or, rather, "wow us".  "Us" being the members of the study section reviewing your grants, or the fellow scientists selected to review your papers and determine whether they are worthy of publication.  I think this is a wonderful sentiment, and something that I believe we all try to do in coming up with original research ideas.  Most of the scientists I know hope that their ideas will bring something completely new to the table, or that they will someday change the way people think about a particular idea in their field, BUT, I also think this idea is too simplistic to be complete in offering substantive advice for burgeoning scientists.  The reason for my dissent is simply that "wowing" your audience of scientific peers is a somewhat limited goal.  Not only is it poorly defined (some ideas are truly great, but may be seen as too risky) but also it seems that there may be numerous ways to garner such approbation from scientific peers, yet Green provides little road map for how to get there, nor does he address the road blocks one might find along the way.  He diminishes "grantsmanship" in favor of astonishing or important ideas, and, while I agree with him that a really great idea would strike me as more favorable than a flawlessly put together grant for a lesser idea, grantsmanship (or salesmanship) can definitely mean the difference if your proposal floats dangerously close to the cutoff line.  Similarly, dumb luck all too often plays a role in one's success in science.  First, there is the fact that many important discoveries come from unforeseen results from sometimes unrelated fields of research (Thermus aquaticus and Taq polymerase, CFC refrigerants and Teflon, Staphylococcus and Penicillin, etc.) and thus those avenues initially proposed can only be identified as groundbreaking after the fact.  Even if we leave serendipity aside, consider how important luck can be just in the sense of relying on fellow human beings for funding and for approval.  If the political climate favors fiscal conservatism, then public funding for science will be scarce, and many very good ideas will fail to get funded, regardless of how "wowing" they may be.  Conversely mediocre ideas can get funded or accepted in important journals simply because a particular field is getting a lot of attention in the media, where whole issues of Science and Nature get devoted to something like "swine flu" and any paper that happens to be ready for submission that month gets published.  Often the fate of one's science can rest less on its merit and more on a reviewer's mood, how much time and attention they have to give, how open they are to contradictory ideas, or how well they can sell your idea to other scientists on the panel.  As scientists, or perhaps as academics, we like to believe that we exist in a true meritocracy, where there are no corporate politics, no game playing or salesmanship, and certainly nothing so fickle as chance.  We would believe that if you have great ideas you will be rewarded, if you work hard and support your ideas through grants and publications, you will be rewarded, and if your work truly impacts the field, you will be rewarded.  And while this is true to some extent, an academic career is still a human endeavor, and like all human endeavors, an ability to play politics, an ability to be a good salesperson, and a bit of dumb luck are all likely going to be essential supplements to hard work and ingenuity if one hopes to be truly successful.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A hectic time of year...

So, now that I have a few days "off" around the holidays, it occurs to me that I have been neglecting the blog, and that maybe I should get to writing.  The good news is, a lot has been going on in the past month or so, and so I have a lot to post about, like the Society for Neuroscience conference, and a couple very interesting lectures I have attended on neuroethics and Alzheimer's disease.  Now that I have a little bit of time, these, and other posts will be forthcoming... in the meanwhile, here is some of the online content for the book I am currently reading: Sleights of Mind: what the neuroscience of magic reveals about our everyday deceptions.  So far, the book is a very good read, with lots of examples of illusions that take advantage of weaknesses in human perception.  For example, if you go to the website, you can see numerous examples of illusions, like the ones in the following video, which take advantage of our limited ability to pay attention to more than one thing at a time.  If you watch the video below, you will see a magician who is playing a different version of three card monty, or the shell game with you.  He begins by placing a green ball under a clear glass and moving it around with two other glasses that are empty.  Of course, we focus intently on the glass with the ball and track its position as it is moved around because we are expecting, like in a normal version of this game, that he is somehow going to make the ball disappear.  Since we are focusing all of our attention on the one glass, we are not really able to pay attention to the other two, which allows for some slight of hand, and all of the sudden, it appears as if another ball has magically appeared in each of the other two glasses.  Psychologists call this inattentional blindness or, conversely, our attentional spotlight. Outside of the spotlight, we think we are paying attention, but really we are not, and this makes things that are placed in our midst seem to have appeared by magic even though they have not.

A paper in 1999 by Simons and Chabris (pdf) demonstrated this principle quite clearly by presenting the following video to a group of subjects.  They asked the subjects to pay attention and count how many times the ball is passed amongst the team members wearing white jerseys.  Go ahead and try it...

If you watched the video to the end, you may have fallen for the same illusion that most people do when taking this test...  That is, not being able to see someone in a gorilla suit walk directly in front of the camera.  Now, if most people miss that, when it is right in front of them, imagine what a magician can do when they really try to sneak something by you.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Truth About Santa Claus...

I'm sorry kids, but there comes a time in all of our lives when we are old enough to understand the truth about Santa Claus.  You knew this day would come, you brought it on yourself really as you started to ask the questions that demonstrated you were growing up and beginning to think critically:  "How can one man visit so many homes in just a single night?" you asked, "Even if he travels from east to west to take full advantage of time zones, it's just not possible!"  And of course, we told you it was magic, but you only bought that for a little while, hesitant to expose the lies and possibly miss out on the next year's presents.  But no more, it's time for you to know the truth, there is no magic, in fact, there is a very simple and logical explanation for how all those presents end up under all those Christmas trees... Santa uses science.  That's right, apparently in the off season, the elves, much like workers at Google, are given time to work on whatever projects they want to.  The result of this innovative management style has been that, for the past hundred years or so, North Pole Industries Inc., LLC. has developed technology so advanced that we are only now beginning to understand it.  At least, that's the claim of author Gregory Mone in his new book, The Truth About Santa: Wormholes, Robots, and What Really Happens on Christmas Eve.
According to Mone, our view of Santa has long been distorted by Arthur C. Clarke's third "law" which states: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  For example, Santa is able to travel to so many homes in one night by using wormholes and other means of bending spacetime, allowing him to travel around freely, while, to us, it seems that time is standing still.  Also, if you've ever wondered why you could never catch a glimpse of the jolly old elf no matter how late you stayed up, it's because Santa's suit possesses cloaking technology, making him all but invisible.  And, no branch of science appears to be off limits.  Wonder why lumps of coal stopped making appearances in "naughty" childrens' stockings?  Well because clearly the elves have been reading up on their psychology research and come to the realization that punishments are much less effective than positive reinforcement.  And the list goes on.  For more of Santa's gadgetry, check out the book, or this brief review and excerpt over at NPR, or here at Discover Magazine.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Does watching too much TV rot your brain?

Well, not really, but a study brought to attention by the newly designed Barking up the wrong tree blog suggests that watching too much TV is correlated with increased anxiety and decreased life satisfaction.  Of course maybe watching TV is soothing, or helps people to forget how unhappy they are, and so unhappy or anxious people are therefore more likely to watch too much TV.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Currently writing, just not here....

So one of the things you have to do as an academic is write grant proposals.  Usually, you get all of your data lined up, plan things out, and spend a few weeks, or maybe even a few months writing up the proposal (and then wait 6 months to a year to find out how you did).  Of course, sometimes, your boss tells you about a funding opportunity 5 days before the deadline and then asks you to write a proposal... from scratch.  This is what I have been doing over the past 4 days... that, and taking a "break" to run a half marathon.  Anyway, I sort of feel like this...

However, I should be back to normal and blogging again soon.