Monday, July 29, 2013

Two years in The Trenches...

This Saturday (the 3rd of August) will be The Trenches of Discovery's 2nd birthday.

Ideally I should be writing a post on Saturday to celebrate this but for two reasons I've decided this year not to. The first is that this weekend I have some friends, one of whom is James, coincidentally enough, visiting me in Helsinki and so I probably won't have time to write anything. The second reason, is that I'm being sneaky/lazy. According to the schedule James and I have set each other I was meant to write a post last week and so far I haven't. The post I'd intended to write, on a paper I wrote recently with a PhD student here in Helsinki, is going to be a post where the line between "too technical" vs "not actually telling the truth" is incredibly fine (if not just completely non-existent).

So, partially to get something written for my scheduled post and partially because I really want to know, I'm going to canvass our audience's opinion (again).

Our initial aim, when we set up this blog, was to write about fundamental research, as it is happening, to an audience of the general public. This is obviously a very difficult task. The general public has no obligation to be interested in fundamental research, so in order to get you interested, we need to tell you the interesting stuff. The problem is that "the most interesting stuff" is not always the simplest stuff. We can really, really simplify things so that it all sounds understandable but if we do that, it is highly likely we will actually be telling you untruths (because it really isn't that simple) and also leaving out some of the coolest stuff (because the coolest stuff can be complicated at times). Alternatively, we can really get down in the trenches and fill in all the details, but then you need to also invest time trying to process what we write.

So, here are some questions for you, the reader:

  • Who are you?

That is, what's your background? Sometimes I fear that all our readers are just cosmologists, reading my posts, and biochemists reading James' posts. Most of my feedback definitely comes from other cosmologists, and while it's nice to hear from them that they read the blog and find it interesting, and I hope they continue to read it, it's also kind of annoying, because they aren't meant to be the target audience. I can't help but think that if I was writing posts that appealed to the target audience, cosmologists would tell me that my posts were a little boring. I love reading James' posts, they make me want to quit research and start a career writing allegorical novels about the human immune system, but I do have to sit down and read them carefully in order to get something out of them.

  • How did you discover the blog?

We can see from the stats what the various major sources of traffic to the blog are (google, facebook, reddit, other blogs, etc); however what we can't see is what types of readers these sources are bringing. Is google only bringing other cosmologists who will search for "mukhanov inflation planck" and biochemists who will type "central dogma of molecular biology" or do some of the people who type "cheats for jigsaw puzzles" actually end up sticking around?

  • Are we achieving our goal?

Are our posts too technical? Is a blog the right medium to use in order to achieve the goal of making fundamental research more understandable to the general public, or are YouTube channels such as Veritasium, Periodic Videos, etc, a much more effective method? We've been toying with the idea of starting a podcast, because it would allow one (or two) of us to sort of interview the other(s) and would really help with the interdisciplinary ambitions of Trenches. It wouldn't replace the blog, but it might free the blog up to be a little bit more technical without fear of alienating the target audience.

Is there a different niche, that I would imagine we're actually filling quite well, which is a niche for people who were already really interested in the stuff we write about and who probably even have science degrees, but might not be involved in research any more and don't have the time to sift through the primary literature and who really like having us digest this stuff in advance? You guys are also somewhat the target audience. If you exist and are reading the blog and liking it, let us know. If we changed to be less technical, would you be disappointed? If you came for the cosmology, do you read and enjoy the biochemistry? If you came for the biochemistry, do you read and enjoy the cosmology?

I would be interested in any opinions that any readers might have.

Finally, we've also been pretty keen right from the start to add a social science-ish-type-person to the blog to (sort of) allow it to cover the entire spectrum (physical science, life science, social science and arts). If you are such a person, or know of one, please get in touch with us. Those who are new to the blog might not be aware of the mysterious third blogger, Michelle, who is currently on sabbatical as she finishes thesis (at least, we hope it is only a sabbatical), who is also a critic, creator and now curator of art.

That's all from me. No competition to guess the most viewed post this year. It's the same one as last year.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The business of ignorance

Those of you who read this blog regularly may well be waiting on a post on the latest developments in stem cell therapy that I promised recently. I want to reassure you that this is coming, don't fret! However, a story has come to my attention of late that made me reconsider the topic of this post. The story has shocked, saddened, and angered me in equal measure and I felt that it needed sharing with you, dear reader, as it is a prime example of why the public engagement of science is a vitally important task. Given Shaun's heroic efforts last month to bring us the news from the latest  Cosmological Perturbations post-Planck conference, I thought it was fitting to exemplify just why this kind of science reporting is important.

I was first made aware of the story that shocked me so much by an excellent Panorama documentary that aired last month (UK readers can still watch the show online here). For those non-Brits amongst you, Panorama is a highly respected investigative documentary show produced by the BBC, not the kind of programme that bothers with unimportant issues. You can imagine, therefore, that my interest was piqued by the title "Cancer: hope for sale?". I had expected perhaps an exposé on some counterfeit medication ring, or maybe a look at a big pharmaceutical company pushing drugs through ahead of time in countries with lax regulation laws. I could not in my wildest dreams have imagined just how scandalous the actual story turned out to be, nor could I believe that this was the first I was hearing about it.

The main protagonist of this story is a Polish doctor called Stanislaw Burzynski - I had never heard of him before last week but he may be more familiar to those of you from the States. Dr Burzynski has been running a clinic out of Houston, Texas for over 30 years that offers treatment to cancer sufferers and has had thousands of patients through its doors. Burzynski's treatment is based on the notion that there exists a group of peptides (very short proteins) that exist within our bodies and have an immunoprotective effect against the development of cancer and other diseases, which he has given the reassuringly scientific-sounding name 'antineoplastons'. Cancer sufferers, it is claimed, can be treated by oral and intravenous administration of cocktails of various antineoplastons alongside a number of other components of the medication, such as steroids and anti-inflammatories. The antineoplastons used at the Burzynski clinic used to be purified from human urine but are now artificially synthesised from basic chemicals, and, it is claimed, are little short of a miracle weapon in the fight against cancer. The Burzynski clinic proudly asserts that not only do antineoplastons boost the immune response against cancer, but that the correct combination of antineoplastons can be used to generate therapies targeted against specific genes involved in different cancers and so allow for effective, personalised treatment.

This is close enough to real science to sound fairly convincing to the non-specialist. Some peptides are well known to have roles within the immune system (defensins, for example), and gene-targetted therapies represent a huge and promising area of oncology research. It all sounds pretty technical and reassuringly complex. That is enough for desperate individuals looking to cure themselves or loved ones when all else has failed; they're on the first plane to Texas.