The Body Scientific

Science and the English language

Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald, the former Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), announced that seven words should not be used in CDC budget requests. She was trying to help CDC staff escape the surveillance of budgeters. Dr. Fitzgerald just resigned because of a problem with her tobacco stock, but her greater sin was toying with the English language. Such comical censorship always summons the genie and genius of George Orwell. She should have read his 1950 essay “Politics and the English Language.”

The promises and perils of research on aging: Come grow old along with me

What does it mean to age? Is it some random accumulation of bodily damage that can’t be helped? Or does it involve an organized process that biologists can study and reverse? If you are thinking that the latter raises all sorts of social questions, you are right, but hold on while I tell you one story about the biology of aging. 

Microscopes in grade school: You can observe a lot just by looking

Part 2 of a series


What microscopes add: Evoking astonishment: teaching science

Part 1 of 2

Not so many years ago, as part of our writing program, I was advising PhD students at Columbia about essays for National Science Foundation (NSF) fellowships. These are generous fellowships, and hard to get, so the applications have to be carefully prepared. The NSF people had specific questions for applicants and one of them was, “What event, when you were young, helped to ignite your interest in science?” Five students remembered the baking powder plus vinegar-driven volcano in fourth grade.

Ebola, Ça suffit! (Ebola, that’s enough!): Progress has been made on Ebola and other diseases

Part 2 of 2


Ebola virus periodically leaps out of a reservoir in Africa and causes high mortality in humans and great apes. We do not know for sure where the virus hides in the interim, but speculation centers on fruit bats. 

Usually the epidemics are small and are contained by quarantine and isolation, but the large outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea in 2014 and 2015 caught the World Health Organization and other agencies unprepared. 

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations: Progress has been made on Ebola and other diseases

Part 1 of 2


In 2014 and 2015, Ebola virus infection killed 8,698 people in Sierra Leone, 3,337 in Guinea and 3,955 in Liberia. There were survivors, but the death rate was very high, and the threat of a new epidemic lingers. 

A traveler from west Africa brought the disease to Dallas, where a struggle to save him failed and accidentally infected two nurses. Both were moved to the National Institutes of Health and survived. 

Here’s to a good Bastille Day

We think that the election of Donald Trump was the most extraordinary of the recent past, perhaps followed by the Brexit vote, but I venture that the French elections have been the most consequential. 

The left and the right of French politics have been reduced to rubble, with some of their brightest drawn to President Macron’s centrist La Republique En Marche party. The parliamentary elections gave Mr. Macron an enormous majority, formed of many people who had never run for office before. 

The Trials of Denial: Science and the Trump administration

Part 2

Eppur si muove

‘And yet it moves!” These are the words of Galileo, after torture by Pope Urban VIII and the Inquisition forced him to recant the idea that Earth moves around the Sun. Scripture said otherwise, and the Pope had a vested interest in that fiction. Galileo was slammed into house arrest in 1633. 

The trials of denial

Part I


The newly appointed head of the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, does not accept the evidence for carbon-based climate change. Many members of Congress are climate skeptics, as is President-elect Trump, who called it a hoax. Against the podium pounders of climate denial, it may be a lonely quest, but let me ask: what is the evidence that the “hoax” is instead a real threat?

This is the untold story of the strange case of the child with three parents

The title of this column, which I paraphrased from a journalist who knew how to sell newspapers, is technically true, but does not tell the real story. The title should read: The Strange Case of the Healthy Child with 2.0002 Parents. If you were imagining an equal contribution by three people in a ménage à trois, you can relax. Take a deep breath!