Closing Bell

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Was She, or Wasn't She?

By | April 7, 2003

Credit in science is not always distributed fairly. The losers are often graduate students or people otherwise in no position to protest. Among the most egregious examples, in my view, was the 1974 Nobel physics prize for the discovery of pulsars which was awarded to Anthony Hewish even though the radio-emitting objects had been first discovered, and their stellar nature verified, by his graduate student Jocelyn Bell Burnell.1 Feminists have made much of the case of Rosalind Franklin, whose


The Mythical Scientist Shortage

By | March 24, 2003

Does the United States face a shortage of scientists and engineers? Are drooping science enrollments undermining America's strength? You might conclude so from the anxious warnings that perennially occupy a prominent place in scientific establishment pronouncements. An American Scientist editorial, in its July-August 2001 issue, asserts, "We are not training enough American scientists and engineers to retain our prosperity ...." Former NASA head Dan Goldin wrote in the September 2001 Atlantic


Adding Style to Scientific Papers

By | March 10, 2003

It's a shame that most nonscientists probably would be bored silly by the fundamental unit of scientific communication: the paper describing original research. The content of such work is often anything but dull; yet even scientists have to admit that the quality of presentation can vary. That's why the standard format prevails of abstract, introduction, materials, methods, results, and discussion. This structure aims to ensure that the information will be organized in a rational and comprehe


Wriggling on a Pin

By | February 24, 2003

For young journalists, interviewing a scientific expert can be a queasy experience. This feeling doesn't arise directly from relative ignorance, to which the interviewer may be modestly resigned. It stems from uncertainty about how that ignorance might be perceived and tolerated. The patience of some scientists can be short, although many are receptive and responsive to the media. Those differences not only show the danger in generalizing about personalities, but also point out the real sourc


A No-Show in Politics

By | February 10, 2003

Whining and righteousness get you no place in politics. Nevertheless, those are the pop-gun responses of mainstream science to the Bush administration's persistent moves to stack federal science-advisory committees with appointees friendly to its conservative agenda. Here and there, a protesting letter to the editor, a bit of irate testimony on Capitol Hill, preachments to the faithful via an editorial in Science. But when it comes to real politics--raising money and running ads for friendly


Fraud Happens: What to Do About It

By | January 27, 2003

For many years physicists lagged way behind biologists in the perpetration of scientific fraud. But they have caught up in spectacular style with the ambitious opus of Jan Henrik Schon of Bell Labs, who placed seven of his fictive works in Nature and nine in Science. All those ad hoc explanations for biomedicine's leadership role in fraud--that entrance to medical school selected for corner-cutters, or that the mathematical structure of physics leaves little slack for fudging figures--must be


Science-Speak Goes Oulipo

By | January 13, 2003

Jargon, the cognoscenti's verbal equivalent of a secret handshake, is the bane of the science writer (SW). Confronted with the opacity of this linguistic shortcut, the mournful SW has two choices: ignore it or learn it; the former untenable, the latter distasteful, given the risk of becoming part of the problem. Hopefully, every nascent SW opts for the only honorable choice, on the grounds of knowing thine enemy. But the impossibility of really knowing jargon soon reveals itself. Irritatingly


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