The Lessons of Science Past—Learning about the History of Science

The logo of the Junto. It is a set of concentric circles labeled with the names of different states in the Midwest of the United States. It mirrors a geocentric cosmological diagram (with the earth at the center) in Peter Apian's Cosmographia, 1524.
Even though the geocentric model of our universe is outdated, it is still useful for illustrating the burdens facing many young scholars in the U.S. Midwest. Moving to a new location each year, the Junto makes it easier for historians of science to get out of the seemingly “outer orbit” of the Midwest by bringing the “center of the universe” to them. Logo modeled on a diagram in Peter Apian’s Cosmographia, 1524.

As a reader on this blog, you probably enjoy learning about science.  But how much do you know about its history?  If you’re a scientist, do you know where your field came from?  There are fascinating stories behind the instruments you use and the journals you read.  If you’re not a scientist, do you know about the connections between surgery and warfare?  Or how computers came to be both everywhere and invisible?  This is where historians of science come in.  We inform current-day scientists by tracing their present work to past discoveries and reflecting on the lessons from these successes and failures.  We can tell you how scientific knowledge has changed over time, the stories of the people who were behind it, and how it shaped and was shaped by society.   (more…)

Why is there no cure for cancer, and what are we doing about it?

Have you ever wondered why there is no “cure” for cancer? Conspiracy theories aside, a cure for cancer doesn’t exist because it is biologically impossible. The reason is simple: just as no two people are identical, no two cancers are the same. Each case of cancer may be genetically distinct, which means that the driver mutations that caused the cancer  can differ from patient to patient. For this reason, different treatments are required for each type of cancer, making it unfeasible to think that there will someday be a “one-size-fits-all” cure for cancer.

Given such diversity among cancers, what is the best strategy for scientists to target specific driver mutations? Treatments that are tailored to a specific mutational subtype of a disease are called precision medicines. Precision medicines are designed with consideration of a patient’s genetics, lifestyle, and environment in order to more effectively treat individual cancer cases.  In 2016, President Obama launched a $215 million Precision Medicine Initiative to fund advances in this area. (more…)

The Need of Our Times: Support for Fundamental Science Research

If you are an undergraduate student, you probably share some attributes with other readers of this blog. You are likely a millennial, meaning that you may not remember the fall of the Berlin wall, and to you, the space race is a distant past. It is also likely that you do not remember an era when scientists focused mainly on their work, instead of on how to secure the funding.

Graphic comparing federal funding shares and dollar amounts for science research and development (y-axis) by fiscal year, from 1960 to 2014 (x-axis).
Figure 1: Federal research and development (R&D) spending peaked in 1965, but has been decreasing since then. Though the total amount of federal spending (total outlays in federal budget) has increased dramatically, R&D spending has maintained a level below 5% for the majority of the last two decades. [click to enlarge]
Federal funding for “fundamental” or “basic” science research was at the all-time high in the 1960’s (see Figure 1). However, it has not increased in the recent past and, worse, has steadily declined. At a time when the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce is forecast to hit a new peak, this should be alarming. Consumers love 21st-century technologies, like smartphones and smart TVs, but what will 22nd-century technology look like with diminished federal funding? Because we regularly hear about budget cuts and are surrounded by economic uncertainty, we fail to recognize that science funding in the U.S. is not keeping up with that of other countries (see Figure 2 below). (more…)

Chemical Keys to Brain Function

According to both popular science and drug commercials, the brain is a mess of chemicals.  Imbalances in these chemicals are responsible for a variety of ailments from depression to addiction. However, there’s rarely any mention of how these chemicals are related to neural activity. For instance, why is dopamine often rewarding, and why is serotonin related to depression?

A molecule of glutamate depicted as differently colored spheres representing atoms connected by cylinders representing molecular bonds.
The molecular structure of glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter. Glutamate unlocks “doors” in many neurons that allow charged particles into the cell, making it more likely to fire. Image by SubDural12 / CC BY

To answer such questions, let’s back up a bit. The brain receives, processes, and sends information in the form of electrical signals sent to and from neurons. Like all cells, neurons have a membrane which separates the inside of the cell from the outside. They also have molecular machinery that keeps the inside of the cell more electrically negative than the outside of the cell by pumping out certain electrically charged particles and allowing others in. Like a wall in a building, the membrane is solid in most places but also contains tiny doors. When the right molecule fits into part of the door, like a key into a lock, the door opens and lets in particles which can make the inside more or less negative. (more…)

Hidden Figures, No More

This is the second installment of ScIU theme posts for Black History Month. The authors are ScIU guest writer Marvin Q. Jones, Jr., a graduate student in IU’s Department of Mathematics from Newport News, VA; and Steve Hussung, also a graduate student in IU’s Department of Mathematics. Check out our other Black History Month post here.

A photograph of Margot Lee Shetterly, who is elegantly dressed and standing in front of a backdrop that reads, “Hidden Figures”.
Margot Lee Shetterly celebrating the release of her film at the SVA Theatre in New York.

Hidden Figures, a recently-released movie that captures the pioneering contributions of black women to the space program, is both necessary and incredible — everyone should see this film.

We’re going to look at some of the mathematics (and physics) in the movie to talk about space flight. We will emphasize the magnitude of what black female scientists, formerly hidden figures, contributed to the space race and NASA’s space program. Along the way, there may be some spoilers. (more…)

A Short Interview with Dr. Jonathan Schlebach

a photo of Dr. SchlebachThis past August Indiana University welcomed a new addition to its chemical biology research faculty, Dr. Jonathan Schlebach. Dr. Schlebach came to IU following a post-doctoral position at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, to begin setting up his own research program and teaching graduate and undergraduate courses. He offers some insight on what his research program will cover, his career choice, and his advice to students interested in looking into scientific research. (more…)

A Black History Month for All of Us

This is a ScIU guest post by Brett Jefferson, a Ph.D. candidate in IU’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Department of Mathematics. 

From Mae Jemison, the first African American woman to travel in space, to Dr. Sylvester James Gates, a theoretical physicist who published the first comprehensive book on supersymmetry, to Marcellus Neal, the first African American graduate of Indiana University, African Americans have pioneered much of our nation’s scientific- as well as broader-history.

In February of 1926, historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History announced Negro History Week: a time to honor African Americans who have shaped the world as we know it. Carter expressed to Hampton Institute (now Hampton University, a historically black university in Virginia) that African Americans should both study their history and boast of it–that this very history is going to inspire us to greater achievements. Certainly it has! (more…)

“Freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds”[1]: Topic modeling Darwin’s reading at Indiana University.

February 12th is Darwin Day!

In our December 27th post  “On On the Origin of Species: An ode to science writers”Clara Boothby explored how clear, compelling science writing can increase circulation of scientists’ ideas among the general public. While our previous post saw the Origin of Species as a model for scientific writing, here we explore how researchers at IU are seeking to understand the formation of groundbreaking ideas, such as those seen in Darwin’s Origin, through the use of a new analytical method called ‘topic modeling.’ Topic modelling uses statistical models to identify common topics across various documents based on the occurrence of similar semantic structures.

A library full of books. New ideas in science inevitably stem from past ideas. We know that past discoveries guide future discoveries because Darwin had contemporaries working on evolution, such as Alfred Russell Wallace. Past knowledge came from fields like animal husbandry, where selection for certain genetic features was already applied to such crafts as pigeon breeding. That is, it was understood that breeding birds with specific physical characteristics increased the likelihood that their offspring would carry such traits. What was unknown at the time was the extent to which genetic selection occurred without human intervention. Darwin was also influenced by prominent theories in human ecology, such as political economist Thomas Malthus’ writings on the relationship between population growth and famine. (more…)

A moving target: How reliable are dementia assessments?

“We’re going to do a few tests to see whether your mother is showing typical signs of dementia.” The word conjures chilling images of loved ones’ lives reduced to confusion and fear as memories and independence slip away. While loss of physical independence is unfortunate, it can be more devastating to lose a loved one’s verbal companionship. Dementia reduces one’s ability to name objects, people, or recollect specific memories. As a result, dementia sufferers use language less and become removed from conversations happening around them.

As scientists, our goal is to ascertain what can be done to slow the progress of dementia and mitigate its symptoms. This takes the cooperation from many teams to break down the individual symptoms and see how these symptoms respond to treatment. In Speech and Hearing Sciences, our focus is on preserving language faculties in patients with dementia so that they can communicate effectively for as long as possible. Patients’ progress (or decline) is measured at various intervals to see how well selected treatments are working. For many years these assessments were primarily behavioral in nature. For example, therapists might count how many words a patient with dementia could name in one minute. Behavioral tests work well because they are inexpensive and easy to administer; however, patients’ performance may vary considerably from day to day based on fatigue, emotional state, or other factors. (more…)

Single Molecule Magnets: The Data Storage of the Future

USB drive and hard disk drive are shown.
USB drives and hard disk drives are two devices we use to store electronic data.

The storage capability of hard drives has been increasing exponentially over the past 60 years. The IBM 350 RAMAC disk released in 1956 was able to store 2000 bits (a unit used to measure storage ability) of information per square inch. In 2014, Seagate Technology released a hard drive that could store 1 billion bits in every square inch.  Now only two years later, there is talk of hard drives that can store 1.3 trillion bits per square inch!

To further improve our data storage capabilities, scientists today are working on the development of new materials to store information, such as single molecule magnets. A single molecule magnet is a molecule which can be magnetized using a magnetic field, yet still remains magnetized once the magnetic field is removed. This means that each molecule can contain 1 bit of information, allowing much more storage than the technology in computers today. (more…)