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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

American Society of Microbiologists Conference

Last week 8,000 microbiologists gathered under one roof (a big one) in San Diego. I was with them at an annual convention, carrying a 350-page schedule of events. Thumbing through that monster catalogue I found sessions with titles like this: Use of Luminescent Trypanosomes to Explore the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Chagas Disease and African Sleeping Sickness.

I didn’t make that one.

I did go to a forum on “Telling the Story of Science,” which (no surprise) resonated with me. This was the subject chosen by the president of the American Society of Microbiology, Roberto Kolter of Harvard Medical School, for his President’s Forum. (ASM has 42,000 members worldwide.)

Moselio Schaechter, from San Diego State, hyped the ASM blog (he’s in charge of it). If you have any interest in microbes, the little critters that outnumber us by zillions, that blog, called “Small Things Considered,” is worth a look.

Carl Zimmer spoke on science in the age of new media. Zimmer, who teaches science writing at Yale, often has articles in Science Times, which is included in each Tuesday’s edition of the New York Times (I never miss it). He has written a bunch of books on science and is very good at explaining complexities in simple terms. Why don’t more schools use books by terrific writers, like Zimmer, instead of using unintelligible turn-off texts? For no good reason: a few behemoth textbook houses, paralleling some Wall Street firms, knowingly producing mind-numbing garbage; and wax fat and rich in the process. It doesn’t have to be. It’s educational malpractice to spend good money on bad textbooks.

Back to Zimmer who, when I went to shake his hand after his talk, saw my name badge and insisted on taking my picture. Seems he is reading A History of US to his two daughters and wanted to show them he had met the author! (That’s part of the fun of what I do.)

Larry Bock, who is responsible for some terrific science festivals around the country spoke about the enthusiasm for the subject they bring, especially to children. Shock and aahh, is the way he described it.

I spent time with Ed Bassett, a teacher from the state of Washington. When I was in high school I was lucky enough to have a great English teacher; she changed my life. Ed is a science teacher who impacts young lives in ways they will never forget. He helped me understand a lot of what was going on at the conference.

The sessions were full of references to Carl Woese, a towering figure who, after checking their RNA, realized that all microbes are not bacteria. (That was back in 1977 and he has transformed the field.) Today the microbial story is more interesting, and complex, and important, than most people understand. Lynn Margulis, another celebrity in the field, doesn’t quite agree with Woese’s insights, and says so with gusto. Which was a bit of intrigue that added spice to the conference kettle.

I’m now writing about biology and find myself especially fascinated by those tiny creatures that we just became aware of a few hundred years ago.
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