A Science Writer’s Public Service

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The famous forensic scientist Dr. Rama is dead – murdered – and suspicion has fallen on Ruby Rose’s father, the only family she has. Ruby is new to her school and is having enough trouble just making a friend; now she has far bigger problems. To save her father, she will have to solve the murder herself, relying for help on an elderly neighbor who used to be a toxicologist. But is this woman reliable? And is there enough time?

Benedict Carey is better known as a science reporter for the New York Times, but that is just his day job.  It certainly qualifies as public service, but in addition he moonlights on further public service. He explains his purpose:

Both books are adventures in which kids use science to save themselves and solve a mystery. It’s real science, accessible but not obvious, and builds understanding of some fairly advanced principles – transcendental numbers (among other things) in “Island of the Unknowns,” and mass chromatography in “Poison Most Vial.”

In a trailer park called Adjacent, next to the Folsom Energy Plant, people have started to vanish, and no one seems to care. At first Lady Di and her best friend, Tom Jones, barely notice the disappearances—until their beloved math tutor, Mrs. Clarke, is abducted, too. Mrs. Clarke has left them clues in the form of math equations that lead them and other kids all over the trailer park, through hidden tunnels under “Mount Trashmore,” and into the Folsom Energy Plant itself, where Lady Di and Tom Jones and a gang of other misfits uncover the sordid truth about what’s really happening there. That's Di on the left and Tom on the right.

In a trailer park called Adjacent, next to the Folsom Energy Plant, people have started to vanish, and no one seems to care. At first Lady Di and her best friend, Tom Jones, barely notice the disappearances—until their beloved math tutor, Mrs. Clarke, is abducted, too. Mrs. Clarke has left them clues in the form of math equations that lead them and other kids all over the trailer park, through hidden tunnels under “Mount Trashmore,” and into the Folsom Energy Plant itself, where Lady Di and Tom Jones and a gang of other misfits uncover the sordid truth about what’s really happening there. That’s Di on the left and Tom on the right.

Perfectly principled reality: if you had been restricted to Benedict Carey’s better known science reporting for the New York Times, that would be not such a bad thing. He also serves on the board of Edge, a non-profit which seeks to “arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” Again, not bad.

But we like in particular the effort to branch out further, reaching the next generation and aiding the mathematical and scientific efforts of educators who otherwise compete with entertainment of all sorts for the hearts and minds of youth.

That said, do not miss his reporting. He is a master at this trade, and improves the quality of conversation we are determined to engage in more often. His most recent article for the Times reviews the research into cognitive performance and aging and with humor and gravitas all at once he acknowledges why as we get older we tend not to be too interested in these findings:

…The story is grim, for one thing: Memory’s speed and accuracy begin to slip around age 25 and keep on slipping. The story is familiar, too, for anyone who is over 50 and, having finally learned to live fully in the moment, discovers it’s a senior moment. The finding that the brain slows with age is one of the strongest in all of psychology.

Over the years, some scientists have questioned this dotage curve. But these challenges have had an ornery-old-person slant: that the tests were biased toward the young, for example. Or that older people have learned not to care about clearly trivial things, like memory tests. Or that an older mind must organize information differently from one attached to some 22-year-old who records his every Ultimate Frisbee move on Instagram. Now comes a new kind of challenge to the evidence of a cognitive decline, from a decidedly digital quarter: data mining, based on theories of information processing. In a paper published in Topics in Cognitive Science, a team of linguistic researchers from the University of Tübingen in Germany used advanced learning models to search enormous databases of words and phrases. Since educated older people generally know more words than younger people, simply by virtue of having been around longer, the experiment simulates what an older brain has to do to retrieve a word. And when the researchers incorporated that difference into the models, the aging “deficits” largely disappeared. “What shocked me, to be honest, is that for the first half of the time we were doing this project, I totally bought into the idea of age-related cognitive decline in healthy adults,” the lead author, Michael Ramscar, said by email. But the simulations, he added, “fit so well to human data that it slowly forced me to entertain this idea that I didn’t need to invoke decline at all.”…

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