A is for Average

On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess, Dr. Isis solicits hypotheses for the increase in the number of A’s awarded to students at American universities. In 1960’s, one out of six students got an A (and C used to be the most Common). Now an A is most common, and the number of C’s (and D’s) has fallen by half. Dr. Isis says, “It’s interesting that the real change in grading appears to have occurred in the period between 1962 and 1974, probably coinciding with the increase in conscription for the Vietnam War.” Mike the Mad Biologist offers, “I think it’s pretty obvious what happened: increased competition for graduate school slots put (and still puts) pressure on faculty to not give C’s and to give more A’s.” Chad Orzel has a different theory, saying “blame the Baby Boomers. First, as students, they got a gigantic bump in grades […] Then, as they entered the faculty ranks, they continued the upward trend.” Regardless of the cause, more students now get a passing grade than ever before, and close to half of them get an A. B is the new Below Average—and C the new Crappy.

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Celebrating Henrietta Lacks

i-76b237f631d6933435bd146644c8c804-helabuzz.jpgOn February 2, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by ScienceBlogger Rebecca Skloot was officially published. If you haven’t heard, everyone who has read this book has wonderful things to say. Dr. Isis on On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess declares it “the single best piece of non-fiction I have ever read. It is one of the most important stories of the last 100 years and should be required reading for every scientist and physician-in-training.” Henrietta Lacks was a poor Southern tobacco farmer whose cervical cancer cells gave rise to the first immortal human cell line. Long after she herself died, HeLa cells continued to multiply, playing a critical role in several scientific breakthroughs. But as Ed Yong describes on Not Exactly Rocket Science, Henrietta never consented to this use of her cells, and her family went 20 years without knowing that part of her was still alive. These days, HeLa is ubiquitous, as “50 million tonnes of these cells have been grown in churning vats of liquid all over the world.” Scicurious on Neurotopia calls the book “a labor of love:” “a love of science, a love of history, and over all things, a love of people.” PalMD on The White Coat Underground values the book for its insight into “the legal and ethical background of human tissue culture.” And Abel Pharmboy on Terra Sigillata emphasizes that “Skloot’s book is of far broader appeal than just the scientific community.” As much about humanity as it is about science, this is a story no one should miss.

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Sirius History & the Future of NASA

i-3c2c9451242aea5eb047e339dec192ca-rocketbuzz.jpgOn Starts With A Bang, Ethan Siegel presents us with an interstellar mystery. As the single brightest star in the sky, Sirius has been well-known since ancient times. But while Sirius is unmistakably blue, several historical records describe Sirius as red. Two thousand years is not enough time for a normal star to change color, so what could have happened? Simple human error? Changing atmospheric conditions? A roving Bok Globule? Or does Sirius’s companion dwarf star suggest an even more incredible explanation? In a separate post, Ethan says he won’t miss NASA’s Constellation program, a Bush-era plan to establish “an extended human presence on the Moon.” Ethan writes that returning to the moon “has no clear scientific merits,” and funding should go to more awe-inspiring pursuits such as “landing humans on other planets,” or “perhaps even reaching for another star system.” Meanwhile Matt Springer on Built on Facts finds that Constellation’s cancellation leaves NASA’s glass half-empty, with nowhere to go but down. Matt warns that NASA may soon be “strangled to death in bureaucracy,” stripped of “the inspiration that keeps the agency in the public eye.”

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Inspiring One Another

i-e6a35c505bbdd20a1ae1857ced98dd94-zinnbuzz.jpgWe inspire each other with our everyday actions and attitudes–monkey see, monkey do. On The Frontal Cortex, Jonah Lehrer describes an experiment in which individuals who observed their peers choosing carrots over cookies were more likely to make the same thoughtful choice themselves. Jonah explains that self-control “contains a large social component” and plays a very important role in our development. But what can you do when everyone beats their heads against the same wall? On Aardvarchaeology, Martin Rundkvist recounts the “tragicomical” history of bog reclamation, which has continued over the past three centuries despite peat proving uncompetitive and reclaimed bog infertile. Dried-out parcels would simply “sink back down into the lowered water table,” leaving nothing but destroying “the environment and the archaeological record.” Finally, on The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson honors the legacy of Howard Zinn, who died this week at 87. Zinn challenged the historical status quo with his view that history is driven by “a network of dedicated individuals,” and not merely the “Big Men” whose names are printed and remembered.

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Anything But Social Darwinism

i-62441fcfb6318d55d076629ead2c0d34-darbuzz.jpgOn The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson deconstructs “social Darwinism” in order to “raise some questions about the usefulness of [the term] and the way it has been applied.” The concept has little to do with Charles Darwin, but it has often been misapplied to his idea of natural selection. Instead, social Darwinism springs from the sociology of Herbert Spencer, the man who coined the term “survival of the fittest” and believed the poor should be left alone and not aided by the government. From there, things get even murkier–in the 20th century the term “social Darwinist” was applied not only to the laissez-faire Spencer, but also to the imperialist Teddy Roosevelt, the eugenicist Adolf Hitler, and a selection of other disparate individuals. As Johnson writes, social Darwinism “is a mere amalgamation of tenuously related ideas that do not form a unified structure,” a theory that has been retroactively concocted and applied. Take some time to read through the series, which Razib Khan on Gene Expression calls “blogging as scholarship at its best.”

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Galileo, Knowledge and Power

i-e82f1ec1f4938cdd9ac9a6a96a9f9aae-galbuzz.jpgGalileo transformed Western knowledge, but the Catholic Church vehemently opposed his “heretical” heliocentric observations. Inspired by author Thomas Dixon, ScienceBloggers debate whether the Church’s beef with Galileo was motivated by political power or by the competing principles of science and religion. On EvolutionBlog, Jason Rosenhouse writes that while the conflict was “played out in the political arena,” it was actually ideological in nature since it pitted the Pope’s “privileged relationship with God” against science’s popular means to knowledge. On The Questionable Authority, Mike Dunford warns that “the Galileo affair was almost irreducibly complex,” but adds that when one group tries to impose its worldview on another, it’s essentially a political action. Finally, Coturnix goes a step further on A Blog Around The Clock, asserting that “every conflict is a political conflict,” and “some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.” Power dynamics notwithstanding, one thing’s for sure: Galileo and his telescope changed the way even Popes look at the heavens.

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