Archive for the ‘specials’ Category

The Mothers of Science


Gina and Joseph CaputoHow much science has influenced my upbringing I don’t know. I’ve never asked what kinds of parenting books my mother read to prepare for her two children or what articles she found most interesting in the newspaper. I’ve never even understood what she does as a lab technician at Staten Island University Hospital. In fact, when a student reporter from the Staten Island Advance asked me what a day in my mother’s life is like, I couldn’t answer. What I do know, is that she taped my “I’m not sure what my mother does” response to the bulletin board at work.

As a science journalist, my job is to ask people about the role science plays in their lives. I question their motives, their choices and ask what is exciting and beautiful about their research. When I’m interviewing, I’m speaking to Dr. Carter the surgeon or Ms. Dunwoody the sociologist – not the mother, the wife, or the daughter.

Has science influenced my mother as a mother? Perhaps, but when she was microwaving dinner or driving my brother and I to school, she wasn’t thinking as a lab tech. Would it have been nice to see more than one part of her identity? Yes. I think I would have appreciated the kind of person she was when drawing blood or looking at malformed cells under the microscope, but she often kept that part of herself hidden.

There were times when it did show, however, especially science projects. My mother helped me put together an excellent exhibition of sink and float, barometers and p.h. during my elementary school years. Then there were the offers to analyze her children’s urine samples rather than doing it at the doctor’s office, which I would have none of.

Over the years, my mother has also expressed her regret for not going further with her education. She wished she could have been a doctor, but didn’t think she was smart enough. A career change as a high school biology teacher has also crossed her mind. Instead, she stayed loyal to the Hospital lab, a thankless and underpaid job, working night and double shifts.

Could this have been different? Science is still a paternal field, and history bears a lot of the blame. There are about a dozen fathers of science, but not one mother. Maybe it’s time for historians to take another look and find those women who did make a difference. Why isn’t Rosalind Franklin, Watson & Crick’s partner in the discovery of DNA, the mother of molecular biology? I’m sure, if we reframed our lenses, we could make their contributions more prominent.

Happy Mother’s Day. And thank you Mom.

Posted by Joseph, under specials  |  Date: May 11, 2008
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St. Patrick’s Day Special: Irish Scientists


Circa 1660, Irish physicist and chemist The Hon Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691), seventh son of Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork. Original Artwork: Engraving by W Holl. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) Robert Boyle.

In the spirit of St. Patrick’s Day, and the fact that over 24% of Massachusetts residents are of Irish ancestry, (compared to 12% of the nation as a whole), this Science Metropolis post is dedicated to the great men and women of Irish descent who’ve contributed to science and medicine over the centuries.

#1) Robert Boyle (1627-1691) – a.k.a. The Father of Chemistry. Changed the field by dismissing alchemy as pseudo-science and developing the concept of an element in his most famous work, The Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661. One year later, he determined that the pressure and volume of a gas are inversely related at constant temperature, which is known today as Boyle’s Law.

#2) Francis Rynd (1801-1861) – Invented the hypodermic needle and syringe in 1844 as a doctor at Dublin’s Meath Hospital. He used them to make subcutaneous injections on his neuralgia patients. Up to that point, drugs had only been taken orally.

#3) George Johnstone Stoney (1826-1911) – Coined the term “electron” after calculating the negative elementary particle’s magnitude. Author of of over 75 scientific papers, many on the study of spectra and the kinetic theory of gases.

#4) Ernest T.S. Walton (1903-1995) – The only Irish-born scientist to receive a scientific Nobel Prize. In 1951, Walton, along with colleague John Cockcroft, were awarded the honor in physics for building the first linear accelerator. They used it to smash protons into an atom of lithium to produce helium nuclei, thus artificially converting one element into another.

#5) Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943- ) – Discovered the first four pulsars – rapidly rotating neutron stars – as a postgraduate at Cambridge im 1967. She is currently Visiting Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Mansfield College

#6) Thomas Gernon (1983- ) – Won the Millennium Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition (Ireland) for his project “The Geography and Mathematics of Europe’s Urban Centres.” Currently mapping the underground architecture and structure of a kimberlite dyke system for his postdoc work.

Photo of Robert Boyle from iStockPhoto.

Posted by Joseph, under history, specials  |  Date: March 17, 2008

Flowers, Kissing and Ferret Attraction


Valentine’s Day 2008 is almost here and once again we await the exchange of chocolates, cards, and for the lucky ones, flowers. Actually, make that eco-friendly flowers, organic chocolates and electronic cards.As environmentally sound products creep into the market, this year’s holiday is offering new alternatives to traditional gifts. Recent articles in the New York Times and Boston Globe can tell you where to buy flowers especially for a canvas-bag toting partner or even heart-shaped candies with green sayings such as “Nature Lover” or “Wild Life.”

Another trend for Valentine’s 2008 are articles removing the romance from kissing. In “The Differences of Gender–Sealed with a Kiss,” Rob Stein of the Washington Post reports the results of research examining what men and women expect from a kiss. (Apparently men prefer more saliva.) “Affairs of the Lips: Why we Kiss,” this month’s Scientific American Mind cover story, explores the evolutionary benefits of kissing, from mate selection to feeding.

Scientists have been trying to understand human attraction for years, but since many of the most revealing studies would be invasive and thus unethical, a lot of what we do know comes, surprisingly, from ferrets. This evening, Coolidge Corner Theater, a not-for-profit independent theater in Brookline,
Body Heat
Mass., brought Michael Baum, a Boston University biologist, to explain some of these experiments as part of its Science On Screen series. Coolidge Corner Theater, New Scientist Magazine and the Museum of Science sponsor the screenings, which occur nine times throughout the academic year.

To go with the Valentine’s theme, Dr. Baum gave his presentation to coincide with the showing of the 1981 suspense/romance flick “Body Heat.” While the movie choice was a little less than scientific, his talk illuminated the importance of odor in mate choice. By blocking receptors that detect odor molecules a.k.a. pheromones ferrets no longer have a preference for the opposite sex, he explained.

Does smell apply to humans? Many researchers believe so, although the existence of human pheromones is controversial. Imaging studies looking at the brain’s reaction to androstadienone, a molecule found in male sweat, revealed certain areas of the female and gay male brain are activated that aren’t in straight men.

What is known about human attraction is that it activates the same pathway in the brain as the high from cocaine use and winning a lot of money. So whether your eyes, nose or brain stimulate the attraction, it is scientifically proven that it feels good.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews, specials  |  Date: February 11, 2008
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Superbowl Special: Drug Commercials


Superbowl Sunday is soon upon us and Bostonians are ready for a fight. (I can tell because of the drive-by heckling I receive for having New York-license plates). As a non-sports fan I’m nonpartisan. The victories I’m looking for are good commercials.

A Boston Globe editorial yesterday by Monique Doyle Spencer, a columnist and wife to a football fan breaks down the person these commercials aim for according to the drug advertisements – “A guy with high blood pressure, high cholesterol and hair loss.”

Pharmaceutical companies will be playing also this Sunday, says Spencer, and it will be to deceive viewers into buying their product. She humorously argues for drug ads to be banned from television, yearning for the good old days when she didn’t have to have to explain ED to her child.

In light of the recent controversy over cholesterol drugs, I thought it would be fun to examine how some drugs in the news are advertised. Harmless or harmful? In Fox fashion, you decide:

Vytorin – The biggest news maker, no mention of how the drug addresses both genetics and the environment:
Lipitor – The competitor. Interesting how he says we’re still learning about the drug.
Mirapex – For Restless Leg Syndrome. Some controversy over the condition’s medicalization.
Celebrex – An arthritis drug – I couldn’t stop laughing.

So enjoy the commercials, and hopefully for Boston, there will be a parade on Super Tuesday.

Posted by Joseph, under specials  |  Date: January 30, 2008
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