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Science writing: A neglected form of literature that needs focus

Science has more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could

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The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons
The scientists across various disciplines are dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else. Wikimedia Commons

Along with philosophers, tax lawyers and computer programmers, scientists are perceived as speaking in a language which is supposedly the same as that of common people, but scarcely intelligible to them. And then they use strange symbols, complicated equations, and considerable jargon to talk of “things” unlikely to affect an average person’s life or to be even seen without specialised equipment.

So can scientific writing in any way be even comparable to literature? Yes, for scientists, across various disciplines, are also dealing with the mysteries of life, the universe and everything else, and can express themselves on their subject in ways the most lyrical poet, the most imaginative novelist or the most incisive historian could well envy.

Be it those trying to discern the cosmos’ origin, matter’s structure, the bewildering development and processes of life, including by evolution (despite what some Indian ministers may think), the abundant marvels of nature (including, but beyond humans too), and so on, scientists have written about their work and findings in absorbing ways.

Also Read: Scientists Use Pocket-size Device to Map Human Genetic Code

And in this, they have more to teach us about ourselves, our past and future, than any preacher, politician or philosopher ever could.

Let us take a selection from the last century, which was full of developments across all spheres of science.

And since our existence in terms of our position in the world and the universe is key, we can start with an English physicist, astronomer and mathematician placing things in perspective.

“… we attempt to discover the nature and purpose of the universe which surrounds our home in time and space. Our first impression is something akin to terror. We find the universe terrifying because of its vast meaningless distances, terrifying because of its inconceivably long vistas of time which dwarf human history to the twinkling of an eye, terrifying because of our extreme loneliness, and because of the material insignificance of our home in space — a millionth part of a grain of sand out of all the sea-sand in the world.

Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution -- and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons
Coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Wikimedia Commons

But above all else, we find the universe terrifying because it appears to be indifferent to life like our own; emotion, ambition and achievement, art and religion seem equally foreign to its plan,” wrote Sir James Hopwood Jeans (1877-1946) in “The Mysterious Universe” (1930).

Also Read: Scientists Solve Mystery Of When Flowers Originated

Then, coming to humans, we cannot ignore evolution — and the contribution of Charles Darwin. Among the best to explain its significance is Helena Cronin (b. 1942), a philosopher of biology and co-director of the Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science and the Darwin Centre at the London School of Economics.

“We are all walking archives of ancestral wisdom. Our bodies and minds are live monuments to our forebears’ rare successes. This Darwin has taught us. The human eye, our brain, our instincts, are legacies of natural selection’s victories, embodiments of the cumulative experience of the past,” she says in the beginning of her “The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today” (1991), on one of science’s “foremost achievements” — the Darwinian theory.

Then there are those unravellers of life’s basic building block — DNA structure discoverers James Watson and Francis Crick.

About the moment of discovery, Crick, in his autobiography “What Mad Pursuit” (1988), says his research partner remembers he went into the pub across the road where they launched daily and told everyone they had discovered the secret of life. “Of that, I have no recollection, but I do recall going home and telling (wife) Odile that we seemed to have made a big discovery. Years later she told me that she hadn’t believed a word of it. ‘You were always coming home and saying things like that,’, she said, ‘so naturally, I thought nothing of it’…”

Also Read: Planets Beyond Milky Way Galaxy Discovered For First Time

Watson, after his “The Double Helix” (1968), followed up with “Avoid Boring People” (2007), which has each chapter ending with lessons such as “Never Be The Brightest Person In A Room”, “Avoid Gatherings Of More Two Nobel Prize Winners”, but also “Work On Sundays”, and “Put Lots Of Spin On Balls”.

Switching to the physical world, we cannot ignore possibly the 20th century’s most well-recognised scientist — Albert Einstein. Let’s take his insightful essay, “Religion and Science”, in which he eloquently pleads the case for new, better form of religious experience which will give rise to a new relationship between these two.

After discussing the need-based and the social impulse-based variants which have in common “the anthropomorphic character of their conception of God” and which is only surmounted by “individuals of exceptional endowment”, he comes to a third — “cosmic religious feeling”, which, according to Einstein, “is the strongest and noblest motive for scientific research”.

For “only those who realise the immense efforts and, above all, the devotion without which pioneer work in theoretical science cannot be achieved are able to grasp the strength of emotion out of which alone such work, remote as it is from the immediate realities of life, can issue…”.

Also Read: Is the moon’s surface evolving?

Can there any better exposition of science’s purpose? (IANS)

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in) 

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Scientists Find New Ways of Tracking Objects by Combining DNA of Dust Particles

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists

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Scientists say they have new ways of tracking where clothing, medicines and other items are made, making it harder for unscrupulous businesses to sell items that don't work or violate laws. VOA

Clothing, medicine and other items in one’s environment all have genetic markers, or fingerprints, that provide clues to where they came from, according to scientists.

Researchers are analyzing the microorganisms in dust particles that land on surfaces and are using artificial intelligence to read and classify the unique genetic codes of the microbes that vary from place to place.

“It is the collection of bacteria, fungi, viruses, protozoa that are present in any environment,” said Jessica Green, microbial systems expert and co-founder of Phylagen, a company that is building a microbial map of the world. Phylagen is collecting dust from different places and turning it into data by studying the DNA of the microscopic organisms in the particles.

DNA, dust particles
This digitally colorized microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) shows Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in yellow. Bacteria are part of the collection of microorganisms that tell scientists where an object has been. VOA

Exposing labor abuses

Phylagen says its findings will provide real world applications. The California-based company says one application involves companies that outsource the manufacturing of products, such as clothing.

According to Human Rights Watch, unauthorized subcontracting of facilities in the apparel industry occurs often, and it is in these places that some of the worse labor abuses happen.

Phylagen is digitizing the genome of different locations by working in more than 40 countries and sampling the dust in hundreds of factories. The goal is to create a database so the microbes on each product can be traced.

“We sample the DNA of the products, and then, we use machine learning algorithms to map what is on the product with the factory, and can therefore verify for brands that their goods are made by their trusted suppliers in factories where you have good labor conditions, good environmental conditions versus unauthorized facilities which can be really detrimental,” Green said.

Tracking diseases, ships

With a database of distinct microbial DNA, Green said other possible future uses could include predicting the outbreak of disease and helping law enforcement track the movement of ships, since shipping logs can be falsified. Even counterfeit medicines could be traced as the database of microbial information grows, she said.

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“We can sequence the DNA of seized counterfeit pills, cluster together pills that have similar microbial signatures and then use that to help both pharmaceutical companies and the government, the U.S. government, gain some intelligence about how many different sources of these manufacturing facilities are there,” Green said. (VOA)