Caught behind but not out!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

In the pursuit of truth

Its hard for people who don’t do science to really see the excitement hidden in it. Scientists usually turn out to be a usually stereoptypical man in white lab coats, hounding away with a test tube at hand and trying to resurrect a Frankensteinian like being. I recently was part of a community science outreach program called ‘Mad Scientists’- it stays true to the stereotype of what scientists are like! Well, we were crazy enough to cool a quick mix ice cream recipe with liquid nitrogen (a link to 1001 things one can do with liquid nitrogen whose temperature happens to be about -190 degrees Celsius!)

Apart from this, the practise of science has seen some amazing amount of drama over the years. One of the most famous cases in this respect is what they call in ethics class ‘The Baltimore case’ (yes! I had to fight my way through such a course where I heard some very interesting storeis - yawn, yawn) . Here is a very well written piece on the case.

In brief, the case started off with accusations by Margaret O Toole against her advisor at the MIT- Dr. Thereza Imanishi-Kari. It was related to her being unable to reproduce some results that had been previously published in the lab. Enter David Baltimore- if I am right in pulling this piece of data from the back of my head— one of the youngest reciepients of the Nobel prize for his discovery of an extraordinary enzyme called reverse transcriptase. At this point, O’ Toole had taken up the case with government and an investigation into the results began. Dr. Baltimore was quite frustrated with the involvement of the governement in testing the validity of scientific data. His argument was that science is self policing.

This is also reflected in the recent findings of fraud in the infamous case of Stem Cells cloned in a Korean lab. I have an earlier piece on this issue. Inspite of the claims to cloning the first stem cells, it was not long before some one sounded the sirens. Who would know science better than scientists themselves?

The Baltimore case was downhill from this point. Dr. Baltimore had recently assumed the presidentship of the Rockefeller university. He was now under severe criticism from several quarters for coming out in support of Dr. Imanishi-Kari. He was forced to resign from the position. Dr. Imanishi- Kari had her funding from the NIH suspended. It took three review committees of the governm,ent to finally exonerate her. She finally got a tenured position and Dr. Baltimore ended up as the president of Caltech.

Another extraordinary case where scientific integrity was under question was in the case of William Summerlin. In this case there wasn’t any exoneration. Scientific fraud was quite blatant! In trying to prove that he was able to successfully graft skin, he tried the transplanation of the skin of black mice to white mice. Summerlin actually used a black marker to colour the white mouse. The fraud was discovered when someone taking care of the mice used rubbing alcohol to remove the marks.

And if you thought that the scientific world was just starting to sound entertaining, here are two instances of books that write about scientific ethics.

A new entrant: Intuition- this is a book set in a scientific lab with a post doctoral researcher making an extra ordinary scientific claim about treating breast cancer using a virus.

An anxious, ambitious, down-on-his-luck postdoctoral researcher suddenly obtains results that look too good to be true — the virus he's injected into cancer-riddled mice appears to be melting away their tumors — and his girlfriend, another postdoc in the same lab, comes to suspect he's fudged his results. But she doesn't know for sure: there's no hard evidence, just some sloppy, discarded lab notes that seem to suggest it

Here is the link to the New York times book review. It seems like it might be worth the read!

I still remember what I heard in a class sometime back- if its too good to be true, its probably not true! This is not to nullify some extraordinary discoveries that do come by. Skepticism at first always helps to look beneath the surface.

This book is not the first of its kind. Carl Djerassi (who is very popular for his discovery of the pill!) had a book out some years ago called Cantor’s dilemma. Here is an excerpt taken from this link on what the book is about:

Professor Isidore Cantor, a brilliant molecular biologist who works at a thinly disguised University of Illinois at Urbana, comes up with a hypothesis about how tumors are formed. Cantor's colleagues at Harvard Medical School, where he first introduces the idea in a talk, immediately recognize the idea as brilliant.

Cantor's major competitor at Harvard is Kurt Krauss, a molecular biologist so famous he has a tumor named after him. "Not as ugly as Kaposi's, nor quite as famous as Rous', Krauss' sarcoma was distinguished by the fact that its discoverer, Harvard cancer doyen Kurt Krauss, was still very much alive," Djerassi writes. Djerassi understands how scientists become famous. Of named tumors is fame made.

What Cantor doesn't tell his audience is that he has an idea for confirming his hypothesis, which he is keeping to himself until he gets back to Urbana. He then assigns his best post-doc, Jeremiah Stafford, the job of doing the experiment.

They both know the call from Stockholm is at stake. But how far is Stafford willing to go to get the confirming result? After he gets a positive result, a group at Harvard is unable to confirm it. And someone slips a note under Cantor's door, suggesting that Stafford doctored the results.

To continue reading this extrmely well written review of this book, click click.

On second thought, I must admit, scientists are crazy indeed!


  • i have done that...and its cool...the liq nitrogen thing...and am hoping to make the icecream shortly with liq helium! it will be super cool!

    By Blogger Suhasni, at 6:44 AM  

  • kaushiki, what's with the dead space since march 23. write damnit, write!!

    By Anonymous preeti, at 8:10 AM  

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