Naturally Selected

By Sarah Greene Naturally Selected Ninety thousand ways to make you smarter. Can the molecular biologist afford to ignore developments in systems biology, bioinformatics, structural biology, and now even physics? Many thanks to readers who responded to my inaugural editorial (in the February issue), calling for feedback on the “next new thing.” To some, the thing was the t-shirt (we’re working on that), othe

By | May 1, 2010

Naturally Selected

Ninety thousand ways to make you smarter.

Can the molecular biologist afford to ignore developments in systems biology, bioinformatics, structural biology, and now even physics?

Many thanks to readers who responded to my inaugural editorial (in the February issue), calling for feedback on the “next new thing.” To some, the thing was the t-shirt (we’re working on that), others wanted hats, while the more persnickety called for a total revamp of scientific research, publishing, and reporting. Here ideas ran the gamut from ditching peer review, to mandating interdisciplinary-infused research, to less US-centricity, to investigative myth-busting, to crowd-sourced experimental design, to a “Journal of Fantastic Failures.” And there resonated a need for context and depth. Instead of, or in addition to, pouncing on what’s new and now, you said papers should be examined retrospectively—after weeks, months, and even years to reveal which hypotheses and experiments have shone light upon the dark and vast terrain of the unknown.

Every generation of scientists must keep the enlightenment flame alive, and much has been written about whether those weaned on the Internet will cause that flame to flicker and dim or to burn more brightly. Yet 150 years ago, certainly pre-Internet, Thoreau had premonitions:

I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for vistas wide as heaven’s scope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, “I know.”

Back to the future, in a stimulating debate on, based on Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (Jul/Aug 2008), W. Danny Hillis opined:

Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point.

There’s no doubt that as today’s science fragments into ever more specialization, the breadth required for smartness is overwhelming. Can the molecular biologist afford to ignore developments in systems biology, bioinformatics, structural biology, and now even physics? And can the stream of science news and commentaries in all their incarnations—including RSS feeds, blogs, and Twitter—fulfill this requirement and spark the leaps forward?

“It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure,” said Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008. For biomedical researchers, it turns out, Faculty of 1000 is the made-to-order filter, with depth to match its breadth. It’s a post-publication review service by 5,000 of the world’s top biomedical researchers, who select, rate and comment on the top 2 percent of papers (soon to reach 90,000!) in their specialties. In this issue of The Scientist, and appearing at, we introduce ourselves as the magazine of F1000, with the aim of spotlighting, de-jargonizing, and providing context for the Faculty’s highest-rated papers.

For instance, list lovers can check out the latest top-rated papers on Page 30, as well as a featured “Hidden Jewel”—this month, a description of biotechnologist Alex Shneider’s classification of four scientist-types, from innovator (Stage 1) to synthesizer (Stage 4). In the Literature section, Suzanne Pfeffer of the Stanford University School of Medicine, a cell biology Faculty Member (FM), describes intriguing findings about molecular events underlying protein transport in the Golgi complex. Additional “surprises” are revealed in three papers from the Faculties of molecular, structural, and developmental biology. Of course we’ll continue our brand of investigative journalism—see the feature on the FBI’s newfound and increasingly invasive interest in biology research—to provide a perspective on trends that individual top-rated papers cannot offer.

Our Web offerings are expanding, too. Introduced last month, “Naturally Selected: Biology’s Personal Best” at, provides a highly selective coverage of scientific news, evaluations, books, trends, and cultural events that will prompt those “Aha” connections. And with that, we may have the germ of an idea for a t-shirt.

Correction (April 29): When originally posted, the article listed the author of an article in Atlantic Monthly as David Carr. The author's name is Nicholas Carr. The Scientist regrets the error.


Avatar of: wayne smallwood

wayne smallwood

Posts: 2

May 27, 2010

who, rather than being strictly specialized in one of the disciplines (photo, signals, human), their expertise covered the full spectrum (and they knew how to find answers to questions that hadn't been asked, yet). They were called fusion analysts.\n\nThe scientific community needs that expertise, too, so that the occasional synergistic result of two, seemingly disparate disciplines coming together can become a common, highly beneficial event.\n\nWhether a candidate goes into physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, paleontology, etc., I think they all should receive (and pass go/no go) a grounding in both QED and QCD.
Avatar of: Rollie Cole

Rollie Cole

Posts: 1

May 27, 2010

One of the ways technology (largely applied science) helps is by leveraging the work of others for physical tasks. In the past, if we (as a ruler say) had 50,000 people to help us move from place to place, we were limited to using alternate teams of runners for our human-carried cart. Now we have them produce and operate an aviation system so we can fly.\nI have a similar hope/conviction that the same "leverage through technology" can (and at least sometimes does) apply to mental tasks. Take logarithms as an example (useful for many mental tasks). Originally, each one required elaborate hand calculation. Then "the system" produced books with tables of pre-calculated values. Then the system produced small devices that would do the calculation on demand. Now we have spreadsheet software that incorporates such calculation as just one function among dozens to be used.\nWe can outsource much of data collection, data analysis, even data presentation. Whether that ability to leverage is "smarter" or not I leave to the philosophers, but it does mean that many of us can now do mental tasks via leverage that we could never have done by ourselves.
Avatar of: douglas nusbaum

douglas nusbaum

Posts: 3

May 28, 2010

Having a degree in science does not make one a scientist. Since Sarah Greene is new here, I would like to suggest to her that she read this article\n, and possibly associated literature. \n\nShe might also wish to explore the field of psychology as related to psychopaths. I would suspect that many of those in the field of science who have been convicted of fraud have a lot of the traits of psychopaths.\n\nI would also like to suggest that she think on the idea that women are much better suited to leadership roles in science than in other areas, since science thrives in co-operative environments more than in hierarchical authoritarian structures. As a note, compare bonobo chimps with common chimp cultures.


Posts: 26

May 28, 2010

I take issue with Greene's ninety thou things ....\n\nFirst of all, I ad(mire)[ore] Sarah Greene's articles, but with half the letters in her last name being the fifth letter of the alphabet, one can't help feeling that devious motives are afoot; come clean!\n\nSecondly, the respondent's notion of grafting an interdisciplinary sensibility onto the established feudal/futile academic system has less a chance of success than convincing North Korea's Kim Il-jong to abdicate in favor of free elections.\n\nSixthly (with apologies to Shakespeare), have you noticed that we still have no estimable candidate theories uniting the workings of all the life-science subject matter (from molecular complexes to human social groups) even though the latter, and those intermediate, are (crudely) combinatorial aggregate clusters of their compositional and evolutionary predecessors?\n\nFifth of all the rest, academic disciplines will remain the structure because compartmentalization perpetuates control of the 'ground rules' for participating in the given discipline, inculcating in recruits its dogmas and, most importantly, suppressing ideas that may prove inconvenient to those who have gained professional precedence in the discipline's pecking order or rut. In short, defined disciplines maintain the integrity of the politically correct and rigidly enforced Disciplinary Ignorance (DI aka I exp.2).\n\nOur elves are still working on the other 89,996 items.

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