Elsewhere in Science, 13 September 2013


Every week, Science publishes a few articles that are likely to be of interest to career-minded readers. But because those articles aren’t featured on Science Careers, our readers could easily overlook them.

To remedy that, every Friday we’re pointing readers toward articles appearing in Science—the print magazine as well as the other Science-family publications (ScienceInsider, ScienceNow, Science Translational Medicine—Sci. TM—and Science Signaling)—that hold some relevance or nuggets of advice for readers interested in furthering their careers in science. (Please note that while articles appearing in ScienceInsider and ScienceNow can be read by anyone, articles appearing in Sci. TM and Science may require AAAS membership/ subscription or a site license.)

“I never knew I was signing up for a lifetime. It’s a marvelous mission, but I’m doing succession planning.”—Voyager principal investigator Stamatios Krimigis

• Let’s start with this week’s monumental news: For the first time ever, a human-made object has exited the solar system. Or not.

It’s Official—Voyager Has Left the Solar System. “After 36 years of hurtling toward the edge of the solar system,” Richard Kerr writes, in Science’s News and Analysis section, “the Voyager 1 spacecraft—its sensors failing, its energy running low—has crossed into the abyss of interstellar space. At least, that is now the consensus view of Voyager mission team leaders.” Not everyone agrees with that conclusion—especially because one very important milestone—the change in direction of the magnetic field—has not yet been observed. ” ‘I don’t think it’s a certainty Voyager is outside now,’ says space physicist David McComas of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. ‘It may well have crossed,’ he says, but without a magnetic field direction change, ‘I don’t know what to make of it.’ ” Two other scientists are even more skeptical:

Heliophysicist Gloeckler and heliosphere theorist Lennard Fisk, both research professors at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, simply reject the Voyager team’s interpretation. “We have not crossed the heliopause,” Gloeckler says. “We’re way out there, by far a minority, but we can explain every Voyager result in a pretty natural way.” The jump in plasma density is merely the solar wind piling up just inside the heliopause, he says.

It’s an interesting story about the interplay of opinions and how scientific consensus is reached, especially when the most basic definitions aren’t exactly clear (in this case, the definition of “outside”).

The story also offers a taste of what it’s like to work on a project that lasts this long. ” ‘I never knew I was signing up for a lifetime,’ says Voyager principal investigator Stamatios Krimigis of the Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland. ‘It’s a marvelous mission, but I’m doing succession planning.’ “

• In ScienceInsider, Jocelyn Kaiser reports from Thursday’s Research!America forum, noting that, according to NIH Director Francis Collins, because of budget cuts including sequestration, research-grant success rates may fall as low 14-15% this year, considerably lower than the previously predicted 17%.

• I find most science prizes a bit boring—the Ig Nobel Prizes awarded yesterday being an obvious exception—partly because the people who win them are usually safe choices, obviously deserving but, well, obvious. In particular, younger scientists rarely win: When was the last time you saw a major science award go to someone in their 30s? (William Lawrence Bragg was 25 when he won his Nobel, but that was 98 years ago.)

As noted in the News of the Week section, last week the International Balzan Foundation announced the winners of the exceptionally rich Balzan Prize. One of the Balzan awards went to Alain Aspect, a physicist at the École Polytechnique in Palaiseau, France, for his experiments to confirm quantum theory and explore quantum entanglement. While Aspect is not particularly young, the award was partly for work he did as a Ph.D. student in the early 1980s, which confirmed that “spooky action at a distance” is real. Another Balzan prize went to Pascale Cossart of the Institut Pasteur in Paris. The third scientific Balzan award went to sociologist Manuel Castells of the University of Southern California for his theories about the social impact of the digital age and the global flow of information. (A fourth award went to André Vauchez for his studies of medieval spirituality and Western Christianity. With three winners out of four awards, it was a good year for the French.) Each of the four Balzan recipients received $800,000, half reserved for future research projects.

• In aeditorial, Eric J. Topol (who, for what it’s worth, was once an excellent panelist at a Science Careers career event I hosted) suggests that medical students should routinely be taught how to annotate whole-genome sequences (WGS) so that “future physicians will be capable of rendering routine genomic medicine.” The editorial includes some other provocative details, such as the fact that physician/anatomist William Harvey, who is known as the father of the circulatory system, dissected the bodies of his deceased father and sister, discovering that his father’s colon and his sister’s spleen were especially large. That’s probably something that every medical student knows, but I hadn’t heard it before.

“Many medical educators believe that the human face of dissection fosters professionalism by promoting respect for the human body,” Topol writes. He argues that familiarity with ones own genome may have a similar effect:

A student’s access to his or her DNA sequence would undoubtedly have a profound, lifelong impact. WGS is instructive about maternal and paternal ancestry, one’s proportion of Neandertal genome, carrier states for a wide variety of Mendelian conditions that become crucial when conceiving or screening children, drug interactions for efficacy and major side effects, and susceptibility to or protection from hundreds of diseases and medical conditions. Students will gain an understanding of the physiological importance, nuances, and complexities of the regulatory genome—the 98.5% that comprises the non–protein-coding DNA sequence. Perhaps most importantly, dealing with one’s own massive data set of 6 billion nucleotides and ~250 billion data points (assuming 40X coverage) will provide a student with an excellent grounding in the essential challenges in bioinformatics.

I asked Cohen to comment further. Here is his e-mailed response:

A WakeUp Call for Postdocs

Excessive Supply, Uncertain Demand