Monday, November 26, 2012


The U.S.’s rank in the Global Innovative Index dropped from 7th to 10th this year. The validity of the survey published by the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations, and INSEAD, a business school could be questioned (Education Week, J. Tomassini blog, July 9, 2012). Reports like this cause many to worry about science literacy of Americans and to wonder about the U.S.’s public and private investments in science education. Please forget politics and just keep reading please.

Making science interesting and fun for kids.
The National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Directorate on Education, Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), the National Academies of Sciences, NIH Office of Science Education, and dozens of museums and conservation groups have invested in science education programs for children and teens (K-12). Most of these programs have teamed scientists with educators to create innovative and fun science education modules and curriculum for students. These programs work but do not reach enough children, especially those in poor school districts. If you doubt these generalizations, Google any of these organizations.

What about making science interesting and fun for adults?
Fun depends on the eyes of the beholders. There are hundreds books on science topics (medicine, the environment, astronomy, etc) published for the general public every year. Obviously many adults enjoy these books.

A few of these “science books” read like action novels, particularly Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone and The Demon in the Freezer. If you like horror, it’s hard to beat Preston’s description of the symptoms of smallpox with the skin peeling from the live bodies. And John Barry really “develops the character” of several of the dedicated (but quirky) scientists, leading medicine at the time of The Great Influenza (the early 1900’s).

Okay, you say, but I really like novels better than non-fiction.
Try a novel with a science theme. These novels are not stodgy textbooks but real mysteries, thrillers and romances. The science in these novels adds credence and color to the novel but does not overwhelm the plot.

For example, one reader asked me why I didn’t mention cytokine storms in Coming Flu. I know many severe flu symptoms are due to a cytokine storm (an over reaction of the body’s immune system to the flu virus), but I’ve seen a glazed look in the eyes of too many college biology students when the cytokine storms were explained. Despite the “short cut,” you’ll learn a bit about vaccine development and immunology from Coming Flu. More importantly you’ll think about the wonders and limits of modern biology.

Fun books with tidbits of science written by scientists or physicians
My medical thriller Coming Flu is the point of view of an epidemiologist trapped in a quarantined community because of an unstoppable flu virus. My next novel Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight (due out in April) is from the point of view of an associate dean in a medical school investigating charges of scientific misconduct against a “diet” doctor. I was a professor in nutrition and toxicology.

Robin Cook, a physician, wrote more than twenty-five medical thrillers, the most famous being Coma.

Kathy Reichs, an anthropology professor, writes of modern forensic anthropological techniques in her Tempe Brennan series of crime novels.

Camille Minichino, a retired physicist, writes mysteries with titles based on the periodic table.

So why not borrow one of these books from the library or better still buy one. I think fans of mysteries and thrillers, will enjoy these books. They may even decide that science is fun.

J.L. Greger and Bug 

Monday, November 12, 2012


by J.L. Greger

 Oscar Wilde in The Picture of Dorian Gray said, “There is only thing worse in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” Was he right? Probably most writers and scientists would agree, perhaps not all politicians (or at least former politicians).

Is publicity just for the ego?
Scientists and writers want publicity for practical reasons. First the obvious reason – sales. Consider the plethora of books, which are written or at least 80% written by ghostwriters, but “authored” by celebrities. The publishers know the celebrity’s name and the attendant publicity (past and present) help sales and ghostwriters happily take the money to the bank. Everyone wins.

Generally, scientists believe a good image and publicity are essential to gain the support for scientific research by the electorate and policy makers and to attract talented students. In 2009, universities in the U.S. spent $55 billion on research and development; the federal government provided 59% and state and local government provided 7% of these funds (NSF/ Division of Science Resource Statistics. Survey of Research and Development at Universities and Colleges, FY 2009 In other words, scientists depend on public opinion for financial support of their research.

Is bad publicity really bad? What constitutes bad publicity?
It depends.

Lots of people complained about Dan Brown’s literary style and his use of historical information in The DaVinci Code. All the attendant bad publicity probably helped sales. The “tell-alls” of disgraced celebrities sell better than well-written memoirs of less famous, but often heroic, people.

Scientists found guilty of scientific misconduct are often barred from being a principal investigator on federal research grants for several years. Many quietly resume their careers afterwards. Those hit with a firestorm of publicity are often forced into a career change. The seriousness of the offenses does affect the level of publicity, at least sometimes. So there is such a thing as bad publicity for a scientist.

Perhaps some variables are more responsive to bad publicity. I suspect recruitment of students, particularly graduate students, to a major in the sciences is a variable sensitive to image and publicity. Between 1998 and 2008, the number of doctorates earned in the sciences grew by nearly 40% (Nature [April 20, 2011] 472:276-279).

Many factors influenced this growth, besides the job market (which was not that good for newly minted PhD scientists). One is the changing image of scientists, i.e.  positive publicity on scientists and science in fiction and in the press.

Before you say no, think of the scientists depicted in fiction and movies before 1980, i.e. Dr. Frankenstein and Dr. Strangelove. Christopher Frayling studied a thousand horror movies distributed in the United Kingdom between 1930 and 1980 (New Scientist [Sept. 24, 2005] 2518: 48). He found “scientific research” was a threat to mankind in 39% of these films. Since 2000, being a scientist has been “cool” in mainstream TV shows and movies. The 2011 movie Contagion grossed $130 million in theatres. Two popular network TV shows (CSI and Bones) feature quasi-realistic scientists as their heroes and heroines.

Bottom line?
Oscar Wilde was probably right, at least much of the time. Maybe that’s why so many authors, scientists, educators, etc. are writing blogs. The next questions are:
Does anyone read most blogs?
Are they worth reading?
What makes some worth reading?

Do you care to comment?
Or will these questions just remain my bugs (annoyances).

JL Greger
The medical thriller Coming Flu will have a sequel in April. It’s called Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Vote and other things to do in November


I always think November is a transition month - from fall to the winter holidays. However, there are some important things to do in November.

1. Vote
Everyone should vote. If you hate the lines, you can vote early in a number of states.

2. Update your vaccinations, including for flu.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests adults, get these vaccinations:
A flu shot every year. If you want an incentive for getting a flu shot, read my novel Coming Flu. It’s an extreme example, but will you make you think.

A booster shot for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (commonly called whooping cough) every ten years.

Two doses of vaccine against chickenpox sometime as an adult 

One vaccine shot against shingles sometime after sixty.

 If you have questions or are immunosuppressed, check with you health care provider. You may want to visit:

3. Be thankful 
Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday - quiet, no presents to buy, and a chance to make favorite recipes. Here’s how I add zip to my Thanksgiving stuffing. The limiting factor is me – when I get tired of chopping.

Zip for Your Thanksgiving Stuffing
 Add any or all of these to your traditional bread stuffing:
1/2 -1 cup of grated carrots
1 cup of sauted sliced mushrooms
4-8 ounces of fried ground sausage
1 cup of chopped, sauted onion
1 cup of chopped celery (If you like, saute the celery with the mushrooms, sausage, and/or onions before adding to your bread crumb mixture.)
         1/2 cup of chopped parsley or cilantro

How does this relate to my bugs?
Two ways. I’m thankful for my dog Bug. And it bugs me so many Americans can’t find time to vote, get vaccinated, or be thankful.

JL Greger

Which neighbor would you fear more: a friendly neighbor infected with a new flu virus or a not-so-friendly neighbor who runs drugs?
COMING FLU will challenge you to rethink your priorities.