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Science Through Story: Needing to Evolve (Part One)

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(Science through story is an ongoing series in which I try to figure out how to make the rest of the world as interested in science as I am.)

Words matter. Since I’m both a scientist and a writer, they matter to me even more. So I never felt guilty taking my college freshmen to task when they misused words in their attempts to explain a scientific process. (Example: Molecules don’t “want” to move from an area of high concentration to low concentration. As non-sentient particles, molecules lack the ability to “want” anything.)

But to the point of this post: one of the moms at my kids’ bus stop was talking about antibiotics. Her daughter had been sick, and had been to see the pediatrician. The doctor told this mom that her daughter probably had a virus, and she needed to take care of her illness with bed rest and fluids.  I was thrilled, having heard too many stories of moms who shop around for doctors until they find one who will give them an antibiotic prescription they don’t need.

And then she said it. “What the doctor said was that when people don’t finish their antibiotics prescriptions, the bacteria learn to mutate and become resistant to the medicine.”

So close, yet so far.

It’s a great visual, isn’t it? Can’t you see a little circle of germs in a football huddle, heads together, saying, “Okay guys, it’s looking pretty bad out there for us right now…the kid’s resting up, mom’s got the fluids going, and now they’re bringing in the big guns, the medicine…so we’ve got no choice: it’s time to go nuclear on this thing. We have to learn to mutate, in order to survive.”

Actual cartoon from one of my college notebooks. I said I was a writer and a scientist, not an artist.

It’s one of the most common misconceptions in biology: that organisms adapt (or evolve) because they have to in order to survive. This misunderstanding robs the genetic basis of evolution of its magic, its randomness, its terror, really – that if something doesn’t happen by chance in a species’ genetic code, it’s going to vanish from existence.

How does that misconception spread? Here’s an example: Antibiotic MRSA in Livestock May Spread to Humans.

Here’s a few quotes from the article:

Livestock in the United States may be building resistance to deadly bacterial infections

‘Most of the ancestral human strains were sensitive to antibiotics, whereas the livestock strains had acquired resistance on several independent occasions…’

Once the strain infected livestock, the strain likely changed into several different types, some of which are resistant to various antibiotics, said Fitzgerald, and it is now a two-way street.

(Emphasis mine.)

Building. Acquired. Changed. These terms are very human. We build buildings, acquire new items, change clothes. It makes the bacteria seem like they will do what it takes to survive. After all, wouldn’t we? Wouldn’t we build a wall, acquire food sources, change our behavior if we knew a hurricane is coming?

When we hear a word, our brains fetch a definition for that word that matches our experience.  In science, that’s how we get from “species evolve because a random act gives them the ability to survive in their environment” to “species evolve because they need to adapt to their environment.”   It’s why I’d like to see news articles meant for a mainstream audience include a paragraph (even a sidebar) on the basics of how a process works to answer questions like:

“Why does it matter if I take antibiotics when I don’t need them?”

“How does finishing my prescription help drop the chances of adding to the problem?”

Time is precious – we are challenged as science writers to distill the essentials from a scientific process to create  concise and interesting ways to convey both the problem and a solution.

(Next post: a possible solution.)  

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 19, 2012 at 10:39 am

TL; DR or Why I Fear Not the Tumblr

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Lovecraft and Poe: would they have played well on Tumblr?

Look out writers, Tumblr is in tha’ house. Assuming the Mayans are wrong, and we make it to the end of 2012, “Tumblr” is set to overtake “blog” in Google searches by the end of 2012. Is this the end of blogging as we know it? Is even a 500 word post going to qualify for TL;DR (“too long, didn’t read”) status?

Ever since Nicholas Carr’s 2008’s hand wringing article on how Google is changing the way we think appeared in The Atlantic, we’ve worried about what is technology doing to us and whether  we are witnessing the death of communication as we know it. We fret that texting lingo and cramming thoughts into 140 characters on Twitter has irrevocably changed publishing. And blogging? Don’t get us started. Blogging takes too much work, says society. Social media is the way to go.

To make matters worse, in bursts Tumblr to kick writers while we’re down. For those of you who aren’t one of the approximately 65 million who run a Tumblr micro-blog, a big chunk of the content is visual. Photos, videos, are easily shared, and reblogged. Because of its social media aspect,  (blogged items from users you follow come into your view via a dashboard,) quotes, text, and links can be easily lost. But I say don’t throw flowers on my blog’s casket just yet.

Here’s why: I adore Tumblr. I admit it. I love the insane GIFs, the unfettered human emotion. The creativity (oh, the joyous celebration of creativity!) The chaos of some Tumblrs,  the focused nature of others. And I think “traditional” bloggers can learn from it. I think if I’m going to be serious about writing, I need to do as some of the microbloggers on Tumblr do. If you want to make an impact on Tumblr, you need to do it creatively, boldly, and in as few words as possible. So I write. And revise, trying to paint as visual as a picture as I can with as few words as possible. To be brave, creative. To accept feedback (even the less than flattering variety.) And live to blog another day.

What do you think? Do Tumblr and Twitter “count” as blogging (as some have suggested?) Do you have a Tumblr? If so, how do you use it – to promote your blog? Or to just be creative?


Written by Jen Szymanski

September 17, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Telepathy Not Required

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(Author’s note: trigger warning for quotes from Stephen King’s It concerning sexual abuse.)

Looking back on my childhood reading habits, I realize that I was a terrible “girl.” As a young lassie growing up in the 80s, I should have gone to Beverly Cleary Elementary, moved on to Judy Blume Middle School, and graduated with honors from Sweet Valley High. (Full disclosure: I did read these authors. I read just about everything I could get my hands on.) But none of them spoke to me, inspired me to write. When I grew up, I wanted to write like Stephen King.

Stephen King is not a purveyor of  fine “literature.” He’ll tell you so himself. Fancy prose and valuable life lessons are not the point (though there are some mini philosophy lessons woven into his tales if you’re paying attention.)

The reason I relate to his stories? Psychology. Inner voice. Often it’s more about what his characters don’t say than what they do. Thanks to italics, we’re privy to what they think: what’s motivating the girl chained to the bed, or the dad trying to save his son from the monsters that have overrun the supermarket. It’s why most Stephen King movies, honestly, kind of suck. Because what makes his books scary is about the insanity within.

I relate to this. When I can’t sleep at night, it’s the thoughts running through my head that keep me from dozing. During the daylight hours, it’s having to quell the impulse to do something utterly irrational that makes me wonder if I’m crazy. And it’s scary as hell.

An example, if you will indulge me.

Beverly Marsh, one of the characters in It, suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her father. He excuses his behavior by telling her he’s just “worried about her.” Bevvie’s mother is no fool – she knows something’s not quite right in her little domestic circle, but she’s not ready to confront it. In this excerpt, Beverly is also awakening to the fact that her father’s concern for her is more than just paternal love.

“Bevvie, does he ever touch you?”

“What” Beverly looked at her mother, totally perplexed. God, her father touched her every day. “I don’t get what you -”

“Never mind,” Elfrida said shortly. “Don’t forget the trash. And if those windows are streaked, you won’t need your father to give you blue devil.”

“I won’t

(does he ever touch you)


“And be in before dark.”

“I will.”

(does he)

(worry an awful lot)

(It, p. 403)

King could have written in agonizing detail about Beverly’s thoughts and motivations. He did not. Instead, we get to experience what she is thinking directly. In my opinion, it’s more visceral, more moving than a paragraph of prose. It just works.

And it’s influenced me. In my novel (don’t tell me that you’re a blogger and don’t have at least the inner workings of novel or potential novel on your hard drive, or you can add “liar” to your c.v.), my protagonist is a teacher who wakes up one day to find that overnight the world has changed. Early in the story, she’s not sure exactly how – but it’s beginning to dawn on her that she’s a little different than everyone else. Here’s a brief passage in which she realizes she’s not in charge of her classroom anymore:

“Sit down, Mr. Frye.” He didn’t appear to hear her, but just continued moving toward her, the look in his eyes intense, and…something else… fear?

“Biggie, PLEASE return to your seat.” The buzzing got even louder, roaring, crashing, her head pounding in rhythm to the throbbing of the noise. Blackness started to creep into her peripheral vision. Hal’s dry, reasonable voice fled.


The boy stopped as if frozen, and the buzzing cut off abruptly, switched off. That was when the laughter began.

There was no other way for me to write how Julia was feeling. Maybe it’s because of the way I read – quickly, pulling the gist from large description filled paragraphs in my haste to get to what happens next. Maybe it’s a reflection of my nature, impatient, mercurial. Or maybe it’s just mental release. Whatever it is, I’m heartened to know that it works.

Written by Jen Szymanski

September 13, 2012 at 9:59 am