All posts by Alun Salt

About Alun Salt

When he's not the web developer for AoB Blog, Alun Salt researches something that could be mistaken for the archaeology of science. His current research is about whether there's such a thing as scientific heritage and if there is how would you recognise it?

Summer* Reading

*Or winter reading for our followers in the better hemisphere.

In the northern hemisphere, the summer break is upon us. If you’re looking for some light reading to take with you on holiday, what would you recommend? Kirkus Reviews has a short article on recent ecological science fiction, Seeders by A.J. Colucci looks like it could be interesting, combining plant neurobiology with horror. io9 has their own list from 2011, which includes a few I haven’t read as does SF Signal from 2012. Alan Cann has read The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, which I realise is another book I haven’t read.

Is there a science fiction book you’d recommend that tackles plants in a credible way?

If you prefer your SF to feel like work, then you’re not limited just to moving from science to fiction. Recently a few have tried going the other way in the Science of Tatooine Blog Carnival. Matt Shipman explains Why a Bunch of Science Writers Are Writing About a Fictional Planet, including Malcolm Campbell’s speculative Tatooine’s tangled bank – plants evolve in a galaxy far, far away

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So what ARE the 7 most important plants?

A while back Annals Editor Pat Heslop-Harrison was asking what ten plants should botanists know about. I’ve taken it a bit further with a Buzzfeed post on the 7 Plants That Changed Your Life.

I’ve tried to pick seven plants with global consequences, but I’m not entirely happy with the list. The seven plant limit means I’ve missed out a lot of important plants. For example, there are no marine plants on the list. Nothing that really address important evolutionary steps that plants made, so no mosses or ferns,

So what plants would you add to the list and why? I’d be interested to see if our readers could compile another list of another seven plants that would be equally good, or better.

Leave your suggestions below, or at Buzzfeed or on our Facebook page.

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Tomorrow’s Table by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak

Tomorrow's Table cover

Quite a few people have recommended this book to me, but I hadn’t made time to read it. My loss, this is an excellent book. I was told it was a good explanation about the uses of Genetic Engineering in farming. It does tackle that, but it also has a much broader vision, also talking about the role of organic farming in the future.

The authors Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak are a husband and wife team. Pamela Ronald talks about genetic engineering, while Raoul Adamchak talks about the teaching he does on UC Santa Cruz’s organic farm. The third feature of the book is the recipes interspersed with the text. The recipes highlight one of the best features of the book, it’s very personal, which makes it very relatable. There is a danger with this in that you risk replacing facts with anecdata: genetic engineering is ok, because it worked for me. Fortunately they authors move from the specific, this is what we do on the farm, to the general, and this is what the science says about how it works.

The book opens with Pamela Ronald’s work with rice. She had been trying to make a breed of rice that can survive flooding. I’ve seen paddy fields and I thought all rice could survive flooding, but you can take it too far. It matters because rice is the staple food in a lot of the world. The climate is becoming more unpredictable and while drought might be a problem in some places, in others there’s a very real danger of catastrophic flooding. Rice can survive some flooding but not weeks.

Pamela Ronald found a gene in another form of rice that could help it survive longer and then used genetic engineering to transfer the gene to a rice people ate. It’s not the popular image of genetic engineering, but it is one that could make a lot of difference.
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Behind the scenes of a hundred journals

The Faculty of Medicine, University of Split

The venue of the EASE conference, the Faculty of Medicine, University of Split.

Last weekend the European Association of Science Editors had their conference in Split, Croatia. For me it was an opportunity to look behind the scenes of many journals at once to see what was coming up in other areas of science editing.

Social Media

AoB Blog sent me there for the social media session. I spoke with Sarah Linklater of The Lancet about social media for journals. It was a good example of a presentation leading on to discussion. For example, I’m keen on journals making things as shareable as possible. Possible is a difficult word, because Open Access journals, like AoB PLANTS can share more than Annals of Botany – which is subscription based. Even so, could we agree that images should be shareable? It turns out we couldn’t.

There is a good reason for this. Hannah Cagney, also at the Lancet, pointed out that patients might give consent for images to be used for medical research. However sharing is complicated because consent for images in a research paper isn’t the same allowing the gruesome results of your infection to go viral on Facebook.

Despite that, it seemed there was an appetite to share what people could. Buzzfeed, once a few people got their heads round it, seemed popular. I’m hoping this will lead to a few more journals expanding what they do on Social Media, including other plant science publishers.
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How important is gene flow?

There’s a handy article available from the American Journal of Botany that’s caught my eye: Is gene flow the most important evolutionary force in plants? by Norman C. Ellestrand. It opens with a strong statement.

Some scientists consider the word “evolution” to be more or less equivalent with “natural selection” or adaptation. They would, of course, be wrong.

DNA sequence on awall

DNA. Photo by John Goode / Flickr.

Ellestrand states that biological evolution is the change in allele frequencies in a population over time, and that this is due to four evolutionary forces: mutation, selection, drift, and gene flow. Gene flow is important because even low levels of gene flow can have a large impact, counteracting the other evolutionary forces.

So what is gene flow?
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Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking by Olson, Barton and Palermo

Connection Book cover Scientists want to communicate their findings and their work means they have a well of novel discoveries, but their language can be so specialised that no one outside their field understands what they’re doing. Therefore, says Randy Olson, scientists need to work out how to connect with other people. He thinks the answer is in Hollywood, so he’s teamed up with two actors to produce a book on storytelling for academics.

I liked Don’t be Such a Scientist, Randy Olson’s first book. Or at least I wanted to like it. It is a good book, and he makes a good case that to persuade people you have to move their emotions. Facts are not enough. But how do you do that? The title, basically saying “that thing you keep doing, stop doing that” isn’t helpful. If Don’t be Such a Scientist is about showing there’s a problem, then Connection: Hollywood Storytelling Meets Critical Thinking is a step towards working out what the solution is.

Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house. Poincaré.

A simple collection of facts aren’t enough for scientists, they have to be presented a certain way. and Olson argues the same is true of the public. Facts alone are not the answer, the solution is story telling, and in this era that means taking advice from Hollywood. This is depressing for me as I find a lot of Hollywood output tedious. There is a reason for that. But if you want to communicate with the public en masse there’s not a lot of mileage in complaining you have the wrong public.

Fortunately Connection doesn’t through me into a pit of despair, because there are useful practical guides in the book. Continue reading

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