Tag: Science (Page 2 of 4)

Mystery of Disappearing Teaspoons

Things I learn from Twitter!!

Someone in my rapidly-flowing Twitter-stream posted a link to this brilliant 2005 study from Australia; my apologies for not remembering who posted the link. If someone knows, do let me know and I shall correct the attribution here.

The study by Lim et al., of the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, in Melbourne, Australia, was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), and is freely accessible via PubMed Central: BMJ (2005) 331 (7531): 1498–1500.

The case of the disappearing teaspoons: longitudinal cohort study of the displacement of teaspoons in an Australian research institute

This group of epidemiologists decided to apply time-honored epidemiological tools to a seemingly intractable and mystifying problem – the disappearance of stainless steel teaspoons from the tea-room of the institute, framed elegantly by the authors in the paper as “Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?”.

The authors’ urge to do a systematic study to make some sense of the phenomenon of teaspoon loss was spurred on, it appears, by inexplicable betrayals by Google, Google Scholar, and Medline searches, all of which – probably in on the conspiracy – refused to reveal any pertinent information in response to the keywords “teaspoon”, “spoon”, “workplace”, “loss” and “attrition”. Aiming to answer two questions,

  1. To figure out the overall rate of loss (defined, rather sweetly, as ‘displacement’) of teaspoons at the institute, and
  2. To find if any possible correlation exists between the said displacement and the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom,

the authors designed a longitudinal (involving repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time) cohort study, employing 70 teaspoons, discreetly numbered and placed in tearooms around the institute, and observed weekly over a period of 20 weeks, a total of 5668 teaspoon days (teaspoon days = sum of all the days on which the teaspoons were observed). They proceeded with great planning – doing first a small pilot study to determine feasibility, followed by a main study with a larger cohort.

During the main study, half of the total teaspoons disappeared permanently (defined as the ‘half life of the teaspoons’) in 81 days. The type of tearoom setting (communal vs. isolated rooms linked to specific departmental programs) affected the rate of loss, with more spoons leaving the former than the latter. Surprisingly, the quality of the material (stainless steel) of the spoon was not a factor in the rate of loss – an observation which adequately allays my suspicion that this study was covertly funded by the Association of Cutlery Plasticware Manufacturers of Australia. (Not that I am aware of the existence of such an entity; nevertheless…)

The authors discovered that the incidence of teaspoon loss was high enough to warrant an annual purchase of estimated 250 teaspoons, in order to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons, and concluded that office teaspoons, in their institution, are under constant threat of disappearance. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that, in a follow-up questionnaire, 38% of respondents (from a pool of 90-odd employees) admitted to stealing a teaspoon at least once in their lifetime, and 17% disagreed that stealing teaspoons is wrong.

Attempting to explain the phenomenon of uncontrollable teaspoon displacement, the authors have drawn a parallel with noted ecologist Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, an instance of over-exploitation of shared resources by individuals, who – in spite of being aware that the depletion of shared resources is ultimately detrimental to all users – nevertheless persist in that behavior finding no harm in the fractional loss via their own agency. To me, this also hearkens back to the story (of uncertain provenance, heard during childhood) of a king who had urged his people to donate a jar of milk, one jar from each household, to the royal pond during the night. Everyone thought that one could simply pour, unnoticed, a jar of water in the pond, since everyone else was sure to bring milk. The following morning pond was only filled with water, since everyone was driven by the exact same thought of self-entitlement.

The authors have, as a result, recommended the development of effective control measures to deter the migration of teaspoons, ranging from designing (or renovating) tearooms – which, in my opinion, should probably be equipped with continuously monitored surveillance equipment – to tagging individual teaspoons via Microchips and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)-based tracking systems. Other intriguing possibilities, proffered subsequently by other distinguished researchers with experience of similar predicaments, include:

  • Immobilisation, or altogether non-provision of the teaspoons as alternative solutions to manage their disappearance [T Watts, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • The reappearance of truant teaspoons on their own following a day of complete unavailability of the said items, which may reduce the anticipated need for repurchase [K Darton, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • Inherent flexibility in the very definition of ‘teaspoons’ (given the various modes in which spoons may be utilized) which may invalidate the very premise of the study [D Silver, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
  • Potential confounding factors, which have not been considered in the design or analysis of the study, including the numbers of tea-bags, forks, and the ratio of tea-drinkers vs. instant coffee drinkers [A Woodall, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]

In a comment, B Herer, a physician from France, alerted to the possibility that this may be not an Australian or English, but a global, phenomenon, given the observation at his hospital near Paris that approximately 1800 spoons disappeared during lunchtime from the hospital cafeteria during first five months of 2001 [B Herer, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121].

The cynic in me can’t help feeling that this is a sad commentary on the greed and selfishness of human individuals – an idea reinforced by the revelation, in the article, that as many as five potentially lost teaspoons reappeared after the results were disclosed internally. Nevertheless, the authors have brought up two intriguing (albeit speculative) alternative possibilities in the discussion:

  1. Resistentialism, the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, driven by which the teaspoons are migrating and disappearing on their own, or
  2. Escape to a spoonoid planet; in their words:

Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.

Any scientific paper, which references the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the inestimable Douglas Adams (referred in the article in support of the spoonoid proposition), is an absolute winner in my book!

Or, perhaps, there is no spoon?

Oh, and fun stuff I learned from the paper: the word ‘flunky’ – for a research assistant – can be unabashedly incorporated in a scientific paper. Now I simply have to find a context to use it in my next paper.

So… it has come to this.

Nature Medicine (December 2012 Volume 18, Issue 12) Table of Contents, delivered to my inbox yesterday, immediately drew my attention to an interesting news item written by Elie Dolgin, a science-writer and news editor at Nature. Kudos to Mr. Dolgin and/or whoever came up with the eerily engaging headline; I was riveted by it: Biomedical grant awarded by ‘American Idol’-style public vote.1

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I Ponder the Mystery of Physics… And Physicists

As a species, physicists baffle me. To my meager understanding, Physics – the study of matter, energy and the relationship between them – is the most fundamental of the natural sciences. Physics elucidates the properties of matter at level of the most basic structural units, and therefore, must necessarily underlie our understanding of the other branches of the natural sciences, namely, chemistry and biology. Therefore, I have always assumed – perhaps naïvely – the physicists’ understanding of the natural world is firmly rooted in empiricism, in critical analysis of observed data – in other words, in the conscientious application of the Scientific Method.

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Politics of Science Policy: A Critical and Embarrassing Lacuna

For those who may not be aware, ScienceDebate dot org, founded by Shawn Otto and Matthew Chapman, is a US not-for-profit agency that engages elected officials, including presidential candidates, to talk about science and technology policy. Otto and Chapman are both screenwriters and authors, and Chapman has the added street-cred of being a great-great grandson of Charles Darwin (yes, that Darwin!). One of the major achievements of ScienceDebate in recent times has been to get President Obama and the Presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney, to present their answers to 14 top science policy-related questions, chosen from thousands of questions submitted by scientists, engineers and concerned citizens. The variety of topics covered in these questions ranged from innovation, research and economy, education, climate change, energy, biosecurity, public health, to conservation of natural resources, thereby underscoring the importance of science in all walks of life and the critical need to incorporate it in national policy-making. I invite you all, dear readers, to take a look at the answers by Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney. I, personally, thought that Mr. Obama had a better understanding of the situation and what needs to be done, whereas Mr. Romney was perhaps more interested in treating the answers as his stump speeches, big on rhetoric, short on solid policy, with a soupçon of climate change denial. But don’t take my word for it; as always, YMMV.

Unfortunately, the first presidential debate (October 3) and the vice presidential debate (October 11) ignored science and science-policy questions almost entirely, and the second presidential debate yesterday (October 16) paid lip-service to science policy in terms of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, and some rudimentary discussions of energy and innovation.

I hope science policy would get a little more screen time during the third debate (October 22); it is difficult to imagine why a presidential campaign would not want to address this important issue, particularly during a time when this country appears to be suffering from a slump in American students’ performance in the STEM topics and the nation has been accused of a growing wave of anti-intellectualism and an unhealthy disregard for scholarship (For a more in-depth analysis, see Paul Rosenberg’s opinion essay here).

It is perhaps a testament to the alleged anti-intellectualism that, when ScienceDebate, along with Scientific American, asked 33 leaders of science-oriented congressional committees to respond to the top American science questions (a subset of 8 from the above-mentioned 14), this is what happened:

Six of them declined outright, including Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner, who were asked to participate because of their overall responsibility for the flow of legislation through congress. Several more ignored numerous requests from ScienceDebate and Scientific American. Nine of the thirty-three responded.

“Americans should be concerned that only nine of the thirty-three key leaders on science-related congressional committees feel the need to let the public know their views on science,” said Shawn Otto, CEO of ScienceDebate.org. “As to the nine who did respond—members of both parties—their leadership should be applauded.”

The nine responders were comprised of seven Democrats and two Republicans, but that is beside the point. Science policy is supposed to be evidence-based, rooted in rational thinking, and therefore, not a matter of partisan haggling. This assumes fresh, and more critical, significance in the light of the events of recent times, in which more than one of the elected Republican members of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology have been caught on tape uttering embarrassingly meaningless and scientifically inaccurate tripe (video below).

As the Scientific American observed astutely:

… even the most science-savvy chief executive needs scientifically literate partners in Congress to implement sound initiatives. After all, the nation’s laws ultimately get debated and passed on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate. Because most of Congress’s legislative work occurs within committees, we thought it made sense to find out how the top-ranking members of those committees approach issues that have some sort of foundation in science.

It’s high time Americans who are professionally invested in the STEM disciplines, as well as sundry citizens, started asking their elected representatives to step up to the plate and come together to formulate an effective science policy capable of circumventing the top challenges of tomorrow, as embodied in the questions posed to the 2012 Presidential candidates. The long-term future of this nation is at stake.

Further reading:

  1. Shawn Otto, Antiscience Beliefs Jeopardize U.S. Democracy. Scientific American, November, 2012.
  2. The Science Agenda, U.S. Should Adopt Higher Standards for Science Education. Scientific American, August, 2012.
  3. The Science Agenda, Future Jobs Depend on a Science-Based Economy. Scientific American, November, 2012.

NextGen Voices 4 Results from Science

Just a quick brief note to announce that the results of the NextGen Voices 4 organized by Science, which I had mentioned a while back, are now declared. In a survey, Science asked young scientists to answer this question:

What one big idea in your field do you wish that every non-scientist understood? Why?

I had put my answer down in my blog-post also, in which I emphasized the importance of teaching of the Scientific Method to the general populace.

The online supplementary material section of today’s Science issue [Science 5 October 2012, 338(6103): 40-43; DOI: 10.1126/science.338.6103.40] contains full versions of 17 essays (in the order in which they appeared in the print journal issue), as well as the best (in alphabetical order) of the other submissions they received.

Do read the entries. They represent thoughts and ideas from young, enthusiastic, and enterprising scientists from various corners of the world.

And while you’re at it, do check out the NextGen Voices 5 survey, which asks:

You’ve just been elected to your nation’s highest office! In your inaugural address, announce the biggest challenge facing your country today and how you will use science to address it.

In 250 words or less, you can elucidate your ideas of governance, to be submitted by 16 November 2012. Science will publish, as usual, a selection of the best responses in the 4 January 2013 issue. Have at it!

Issue of Spin in the Communication of Scientific Research

Ada Ao, a cancer and stem cell biologist, and aspiring science communicator writing for Nature Education‘s SciTable blog, has an interesting post put up today. She cautions that it is a tirade (according to her, of course; pffft!) against a recently-published PLoS Medicine article by Amélie Yavchitz and associates, titled “Misrepresentation of randomized controlled trials in press releases and news coverage: a cohort study” (Yavchitz et al., PLoS Med., 9(9):e1001308, 2012).

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Bwahahahaha! ‘Peer’ review?!

A short post to express a bit of anguish and to vent. I apologize to my gentle readers in advance. The subject of the peer review system has been discussed elsewhere in greater detail (a notable example is an excellent post by Jonathan Eisen, blogger and Professor at UC Davis). I believe in it, because I firmly believe that serious, conscientious peer review can promote the cause of science and scientific progress.

A while back, I had received an invitation to review a manuscript for a fairly well-circulated journal, and agreed to do it, as the subject matter was well within my area of expertise. Upon reading the manuscript, I found that there were several lacunae in it, in terms of methodology, data interpretation and conclusion. I, however, didn’t recommend outright rejection, because there was scientific merit in the conception of the work, and I thought it necessary to have the information – of the kind embodied in the paper – out in the scientific literature. That, and also because I am painfully aware of the urgencies associated with publishing one’s work. I went through the manuscript assiduously, checking references, eventually pointing out line by line, page by page, where the problems lay, and suggesting how the authors could improve it. I sent it back with the recommendation to ‘Modify’.

It appears that the Editor for the article agreed with me, and returned a decision of ‘Modify’ to the authors. I received a notification to that effect. Initially, I had a quick case of warm fuzzies, because I thought I was able to help the authors; with some modification, their work could be published.

And then I saw something, scrolling down, which completely deflated me. The notification contained all the comments from all the reviewers. Following my detailed, eleven-paragraph response (as reviewer 1) to the authors, I found the responses from reviewer 2 and reviewer 3 – they wrote precisely ONE paragraph each, giving a very general and vague summary of the study, without making any recommendation as to the acceptability of the paper.

Several questions quickly coursed through my mind:

  • Is this the true face of peer review – one single hastily scribbled paragraph, determining the value of painstaking work by researchers spending time and money and effort?
  • Was I being unfair on the other reviewers, who may be so much more experienced than I am, that one look at the manuscript and they were able to visually separate the grain from the chaff?
  • Was I – a mere postdoc who didn’t know any better – an idiot, an irredeemable non compos mentis, to have spent time and effort and care to review this paper in a constructive way?
  • Would I want my own papers to be evaluated in this way?

Of course, like many other puzzling mysteries of life, these questions, too, leave me clueless.

Scientific Method for the Non-Scientist? Yes, please!

NextGen Voices is a feature of the premier science magazine, Science. It is designed as a series of surveys targeted towards young scientists, asking them questions on different aspects of life as a scientist that matters to them.(For some reason, it is not very well publicized, which is a pity – because I do think that NextGen Voices is offering young scientists an important platform to voice their opinions. I got to know about it only because my colleague in the lab, a subscriber to Science, showed it to me. This is partly the reason why I wanted to blog on this today – to raise awareness).

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Time for an “Occupy Science” in India?


Yes. Yes!! Oh, yes! — This was my reaction while reading a commentary in April 12’s Nature. In a policy commentary article titled Bold strategies for Indian Science (Nature 484, 159-160;12 April 2012), Gautam Desiraju, a professor of Chemistry in the prestigious Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and the current president of the International Union of Crystallography, held forth forcefully on what he thought were the bottlenecks that seem to be holding back the progress of Indian science. I found much to agree with.

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