On science blogs this week: HIT & Hits

HEALTH INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY: HIT — OR MISS. One of the best aspects of writing about Health Information Technology is its acronym, HIT. (H)It offers some scope for plays on words, a pathetic attempt at livening up a subject that badly needs it.

That's because HIT is not an intrinsically fascinating topic for the likes of us. It's not about space flight. It's not about human origins. It's not about how the brain works. The details of HIT are intricate and technical all right, which is the science writer specialty. But they are also ... dull.

The topic is full of terms like "interoperability" and "data-sharing" and "universal exchange language" and "data element access service." Writing about it means wading through reports such as this one from the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. It means studying blog posts like this one from John Halamka at Life as a Healthcare CIO, which describes, somewhat ploddingly, a recent symposium: "The Role and Future of HIT in an Era of Health Care Transformation."

But it's not too much to say that the future of health reform — which is to say the future of US health care and medicine itself — depends on getting advanced HIT up and running despite the technical challenges, the human obstacles, and the money it will cost. It's also not too much to say that the livelihoods of many of us will depend on being able to explain HIT to people, which means understanding it ourselves.

I am hoping to persuade myself to take my own advice.

credit: NASA

SPEAKING OF HITS, CHINESE SCIENTISTS ARE PLANNING TO SAVE THE EARTH. The scientists propose trying to keep the asteroid Apophis from hitting Earth in 2036. If you can stick around for a quarter-century, and we haven't obliterated ourselves in other ways by then, check it out. The idea is to use a solar sail to place a small spacecraft into a retrograde orbit and on course to hit Apophis. The resulting collision should be large enough, the scientists say, to deflect the asteroid. [Nomenclatural Note: Apophis is named for the Egyptian god of all things evil, often portrayed as a snake, and, Golden Bough-wise, doesn't that have a familiar ring?]

Read all about it at KFC's Physics arXiv Blog. The spacecraft should use little fuel, KFC says, so would be relatively cheap and easy to deploy. But getting it where it's supposed to go will also be tricky.

There are all kinds of variations in the solar wind that could send such a spacecraft wildly off course. It also requires a huge sail that will be difficult to unfurl and also liable to damage during the course of the journey, which will itself take years.

MANY HAPPY RETURNS, arXiv. Speaking of arXiv, birthday greetings to that 20 year-old physics preprint server, which has only changed physics (and science publishing) forever. Founder Paul Ginsparg explains how and why here. The server now contains some 700,000 full texts, receives about 75,000 new ones each year, and experiences about 1 million downloads every week.

SPEAKING OF PHYSICS, IT'S POPULAR AGAIN, SORT OF. So says Margaret Harris at the Physics.com Blog. Her evidence comes from the increase in Brit students taking the physics A-level, the standardized university entrance exam. The number is up by more than 6% since 2010 and nearly 20% in the past 5 years.

There's some speculation that popular media have a lot to do with physics's new found sex appeal, for example the geeky TV comedy Big Bang Theory. It's a personal favorite and a hit with millions of others. but the physicists on display there are not what I would call hot guys, however you define "hot." It's hard to imagine Sheldon and Leonard as figures of hero worship and career inspiration, let alone the lecher Howard and tongue-tied Raj. (And I do mean let them alone.)

Harris doesn't think so either, but her proposed explanation seems even more improbable: patriotism. She speculates that young people are responding to calls for developing "the skills our country needs."

The UK needs physicists?

IS CHEMISTRY GETTING POPULAR TOO BECAUSE OF BREAKING BAD? I'm devoted to Breaking Bad, another big hit but also the finest TV series since The Wire, although just as dispiriting. It's maybe the most dazzling TV writing ever. In case you don't know — although how could you not, given the buzz about it? — Breaking Bad's central character is a high-school chemistry teacher who, on finding out he has lung cancer, begins making methamphetamine so he can assemble a nest egg for his family.

Walt is presented as a brilliant scientist (CalTech as I recall, and a contributor to Nobel-winning research), whose life took wrong turns that are hinted at but so far unexplained. Which is why he's teaching high-school chemistry. Thus his product is, of course, the purest, dandiest meth ever.

Walt's meth is also an immense commercial success. I would be surprised if that alone hasn't triggered chemical career aspirations — or at least chemical career fantasies — in some viewers who are otherwise unmoved by his moral decline into assorted evildoing, not excluding murder.

Cursory Googling brought me no data on the popularity of chemistry careers, but chemists find the show disconcerting. On the one hand, it presents chemistry as high art. Its practitioners are portrayed as obsessive about getting the science right but also entranced by chemistry's near-magical ability to transform matter.

Breaking Bad's writers obviously feel that way too; it's hard to imagine a more positive portrayal of a science. That it is potentially immensely lucrative doesn't hurt, either.

OTOH, Breaking Bad is a Frankenstein tale of brilliant science perverted to bad ends. The writers' Grand Guignol imaginations are eye-popping and fully worthy of the god Apophis [see above]. Both the story and the characters are very, very naughty.

So it is only proper that Breaking Bad makes some chemists squirm. A while back, Chemical & Engineering News editor Rudy Baum blogged about reader reactions to an article on the show:

C&EN received several letters to the editor after that story appeared criticizing the magazine for publishing it. C&EN shouldn’t have given any space to such a dark television program about a high school chemistry teacher involved in illegal activities, the letters concluded. I’m still dumbfounded that some ACS [American Chemical Society, C&EN's publisher] members don’t want to acknowledge anything but the bright side of chemistry.

It is, however, worrisome if chemists are concerned only because the show portrays one of them engaging in illegal activities. That these horrific actions are illegal seems almost beside the point.

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