On science blogs this week: Dissections

HM's brain being sectioned on webcam right freaking now!!!! Plus climate nerds, health care girds, counting birds, forbidden words.


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BRAIN DISSECTION, LIVE AND IN REAL TIME. "HM's brain being sectioned on webcam right freaking now!!!!" That from blogger DrugMonkey, and I couldn't have put it better myself.

Henry Molaison, known to us mostly as H.M., possessed the world's most-studied brain after he lost his ability to form short-term memories following epilepsy surgery in 1953. On Wednesday, neuroscientists at the University of California-San Diego began sectioning H.M.'s brain live in real time for all the world to see. (Let me be clear. It's the scientists who are live and in real time; H.M. has been dead for a year.)

The idea is startling but the reality a lot less dramatic. More like mesmerizing and even boring after a while as the microtome slides back and forth and back and forth, shaving 70-micron slices from Henry's brain as I watch and I write. The scientists are working their way toward the cerebellum right now. If you check in here soon after this is posted Friday, you'll be able to see it too.

Worth emphasizing that this first live webcast brain dissection is another 'Net miracle, an event like nothing science writers — or anyone else — has ever witnessed before: Scientists, in their technology-driven, unhurried, precise, even tedious way, doing something awe-inspiring and inviting us to be there. There's no audio, so when they take breaks, they write a note. "A little dry ice break . . . sections look good!" "Cutting will resume shortly . . . "

Bloggers and Twitterers are keeping watch too. The UCSD Project H.M. blog contains background on H.M. and the project. Anthony Risser was posting regular updates on progress at Brainblog. On Twitter, try #HM.

The Dana Foundation funded some of this project. On the Foundation blog, Nicky Penttila provided links to background but mostly took a low-key, low-profile approach to the H.M. event. I'm astounded at such modesty. My reaction was more like DrugMonkey's.

WE CARE ABOUT HEALTH CARE. Keep up with blogging on US health care legislation and policy debates by keeping up with Kate Steadman's Blog Watch at Kaiser Health News. Right now, she says, bloggers aren't riveted by the Senate legislative activity much, but instead are debating policy proposals.

Gary Schwitzer, a prof at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism & Mass Communication who blogs on health care journalism, this week announced what he called big changes in his HealthNewsReview blog. He has posted a list of MSM that he will review regularly, "accepting for review only those stories that include a claim of efficacy or safety in a treatment, test, product or procedure." The list includes 10 newspapers, 3 wires, and well-known online sites like National Public Radio, WebMD, magazines, and the health sites at MSNBC and CNN.

ONCE MORE, CLIMATEGATE. What with the 2-week Copenhagen climate conference beginning Monday, expect more about climate blogging here for the next couple weeks. Nor have we heard the last of ClimateGate, the email disclosure scandal described last time.

Last week Chris Mooney tried to persuade us "Why 'ClimateGate' Ain't Nothing." This week Sheril Kirshenbaum, his co-blogger at The Intersection, shot back with "Why 'ClimateGate' Is Something." Her point being that, once Jon Stewart picks you up in his teeth and shakes you around — as he did the East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU) folk — you have lost the PR war no matter how good your data. This post features a Stewart clip that helped me smile through my tears.

One bit of fallout from ClimateGate has been the accusation that climate scientists have restricted access to raw data. As RealClimate acknowledges, "This is a powerful meme." The climate scientist blog ripostes with links to a page of data and hundreds of comments, many with additional data links. Much, much more at this blog.

And of course heads have begun to roll. CRU's Phil Jones, the hero/villain of this tale, no longer runs the lab there but will remain on staff until an investigation concludes, says Dan Vergano of USAToday's Science Fair.

Finally, John Tierney at TierneyLab prods us all to hang on to our dispassion and skepticism while asking uncomfortable questions:

I'm not trying to suggest that climate change isn't a real threat, or that scientists are deliberately hyping it. But when they look at evidence of the threat, they may be subject to the confirmation bias — seeing trends that accord with their preconceptions and desires. Given the huge stakes in this debate — the trillions of dollars that might be spent to reduce greenhouse emissions — it's important to keep taking skeptical looks at the data. How open do you think climate scientists are to skeptical views, and to letting outsiders double-check their data and calculations?
For that task, RealClimate's new data page may be the place to start.

FOR THE BIRDS. Greg Laden's Blog notes that the longest-running citizen science survey in the world begins December 14. That's the annual Audubon Bird Count. Lots of history here, plus information about joining in.

INDEX OF BANNED WORDS. We now know that there are words and phrases science writers — all writers — should dump. These, for sure: Breakthrough, of course. Utilize. Paradigm Shift. Holy Grail. Impact (as a verb.)

Let me elucidate. Thanks to Carl Zimmer, we now know where to go to access a list of these and other terms consigned to what he calls The Index of Banned Words: His well-known blog, The Loom.

But what are the parameters? The Index approach is novel because it mixes at least two quite different kinds of banworthies. For instance, it includes scientists' terms. Some of these surely need defining when — or if — we use them. "Molecular systematists," for example. But others are perfectly clear, like "predator-prey relationships." If they are clear, why the virulence?

The bannables list also includes insults to English. These jumble the ungrammatical with the cliched, along with embarrassing instances of bungled word use. But I'm puzzled by some of his methodology there, too. What's wrong with "trivial," which we now know describes some of what we write about? Or "context?" Or "processes," as a noun at least? I am myself fond of "seminal," which I try hard to use whenever the topic is reproduction. (Surely punning and other wordplay is permissible? I think of it as a secret test. Is the editor paying attention? Is the reader?)

We now know also that some seemingly overused words and phrases can be a handy mechanism for science writing, which often involves cramming very complicated explanations into very small spaces. Blogging generates the illusion of unlimited geography to tell the tale. But when we're writing real articles, the editor is likely to say, "3,000 words" — or, sadly, "300 words" — and mean it. So some terms on the list, while not optimum, are a sort of abbreviation, ways of explaining things compactly. In short, proxies.

Since criteria for getting put on the Index are not always clear, perhaps we shouldn't expect a miracle cure. I'll be interested in your interaction with it. One thing is sure: We now know that further research is needed.

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