Monthly Archives: March 2016



Getting scooped really can happen to scientists! (
Getting scooped really can happen to scientists!   (


Being a researcher is an adventure! You will never hear about experiments that don’t work, great results that cannot be duplicated, good manuscripts or patent applications that keep getting rejected, problems with jealous bosses, or, not being able to get adequate lab space! This article discusses one situation involving research publications that is always lurking around and ready to pounce on innocent hard-working professional researchers.

Publication of research reports in science journals!

All scientists want to be the first to report some new research discovery or new concept. Researchers at all levels always try to avoid getting scooped. This term is derived from the competition between daily newspapers, whose reporters always vigorously seek to be the very first to notify the public about something alarming, scandalous, or newsworthy.  For scientists, getting scooped means that some scientist publishes a research result just before the same new finding is independently published by another scientist; the first to publish scoops the second.

This situation of getting scooped typically occurs in science because it often is impossible to know whether some other scientist is working on the same research question (i.e., there is no database listing what global research studies are in progress). The act of scooping almost never is done on purpose, but rather simply happens as a coincidence. When 2 very similar research reports appear, both authors are very surprised to learn about this duplication. The authors of the report published first are delighted when a second scientist soon verifies their findings; such confirmation more usually takes months or years to appear in print, but in the case of scooping, the second report appears within a few days or weeks after the first report. Scientists authoring the second publication inevitably get upset!  Some journal editors receiving 2 manuscripts that are very similar will publish the pair side by side in one issue; in such cases, both authors equally get full credit for making a discovery.

This situation of being outrun in the race to publish first means that all research scientists are in a hurry to publish their research findings so as to decrease the chance of getting scooped. Those researchers working on very hot topics are especially paranoid about getting scooped. While rushing into print or publishing short limited aspects of a long study now is commonplace, that tactic can have its own negative consequence (i.e., decreased quality).

Scientists working at industrial labs face very analogous issues with obtaining patents.  Until a patent application is finally approved, everything must be kept totally secret in order to preclude simultaneous applications submitted by research groups in other companies. Getting the first patent is desired by everyone’s ego, and is deemed totally essential by their employer!

Can scoopage be avoided?

Getting scooped is a risk that really cannot be prevented! However, there is a common way to try to avoid it. This is done by publishing abstracts at the annual meetings of science societies. Abstracts are only one paragraph long and report only some limited portion of experimental results and preliminary conclusions. Nevertheless, publication of abstracts in a science journal usefully serves to establish priority. Of course, a more definitive way to avoid the problem of getting scooped is simply to publish first.

What are the consequences of getting scooped?

Getting scooped is unpleasant since that automatically reduces the credit given to the author-scientist issuing the second publication. With further research work, both authors try to rapidly turn out more publications, so as to raise their identification for being the leader with studying that research topic. The consequences of getting scooped can be much more severe for graduate students than for other scientists; if their thesis project is scooped, it is no longer new to science, and often then cannot be approved for an advanced degree without much additional research.

One of my fellow graduate students was finishing several years of research work on his thesis project. Upon completing the preparation of illustrations for a long manuscript to be submitted a few days later to the Journal of Cell Biology, the latest issue of this monthly journal arrived and he was truly shocked to see that there was a big article by a famous professor on the East Coast that was almost duplicating his own manuscript! Even some of the figures were nearly identical! Neither researcher knew that the other was working on exactly the same topic, and this coincidence was simply some very bad luck for my friend. Since he was a very hard worker, he fortunately also had a second major aspect in his thesis research, and so was able to successfully use those other results to rewrite and compose a doctoral thesis different from his original plans.

Concluding remarks!

Yes, some scientists really do get scooped! One of the hazards of working in scientific research is that nobody knows whether others are researching on the same topic until abstracts or full publications appear. The presently increasing number of research scientists and increasing pressure from the current research grant system undoubtedly raise the incidence of getting scooped!






Yes, some teens love science and already work on research! (
Yes, some teens love science and already work on research! (


Winning contestants for the annual Science Talent Search, a large competition for high school students in the United States (US), have just been announced.  Following a description of this activity sponsored by the Intel Corporation and conducted by the Society for Science & the Public, I will give a few comments about this program.

A brief history of the Science Talent Search and its sponsors [1-3]! 

This contest was originated in 1942 by the precursor of the Society for Science & the Public (see: ). Its chief aim is to promote education and interest in science.  This Society also runs 2 well-known websites devoted to public education about science: (1) Science News is for all the public (see: ), and, (2) Science News for Students serves many youths (see: ).

With financial sponsorship for many years by the Westinghouse Corporation, the participation by US students, their teachers, and others grew over the years.  In 1998, the Intel Corporation took over financial sponsorship, and initiated a second science competition for international youths, termed the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair; that involves many affiliated science fairs in over 75 countries.  A number of other businesses add to the total financial sponsorship.

The importance and success of these annual events are widely recognized by the public and all media.  For the latest 75th Intel Science Talent Search, awardees won prizes totaling over  $1,600,000!  After 2017, a new major sponsor must be found to replace Intel [4].

How is the Science Talent Search organized and conducted [1-4]? 

This large competition is for students in US high schools and home schools.  The ideas, plans, and conduct of the research project must come from the individual student.  In addition to the experimental work, each contestant must compose a document about their project, using a format similar to research reports published in professional science journals.  All contestants are judged by scientists working in the same area of research as the teenagers.

For the latest competition (2016), there were around 1,750 applicants.  From these, the reviewers selected 300 semi-finalists.  Further expert reviews looked for creativity, good design and conduct, valid conclusions, and evidence of innovation, resulting in 40 finalists.  For 2016, 3 levels of awards are given in 3 categories of science and research: (1) basic research, (2) (research for) global good, and (3) innovation.  The 3 first level awardees received $150,000 each, the 3 second level awardees received $75,000, and the 3 third level awardees received $25.000.  These substantial awards were presented at a banquet and celebration held in honor of all the finalists.

Which teens won the 2016 science contest [1-4]? 

The First Place Medals of Distinction went to Amol Punjabi (17 years old; Massachusetts) for his project in “Basic Research”, Paige Brown (17 years old; Maine) for her research in “Global Good”, and, Maya Varma (17 years old; California) for her engineering development displaying much “Innovation”.  Full details about their research investigations, and, about the second and third place medalists, are available in the official Press Release at: .

All these teen awardees from many different schools in many different states show energetic work with creativity, individualism, and innovation on research projects involving diverse aspects of science.  Their success in researching is very commendable, and, it is easy to predict that each can help advance science and improve the world!

Do Science Talent Search prizewinners later enter science and do well at researching [1-4]? 

Many winners in this science contest go on to become professional scientists.  Some have become presidents of universities or big bosses of large corporations.  Several even have received a Nobel Prize for their later outstanding research accomplishments.  Obviously, the many Nobel Laureates who did not win a Science Talent Search award indicate that the qualities and capabilities needed to excel with scientific research also can be found in non-winners and non-entrants.

What does the Intel Science Talent Search do that is very good? 

This annual competition, under dedicated organization by the Society for Science and the Public,  produces several results that are most valuable for modern US society.  It (1) very effectively counters the false portrayal by Hollywood that scientists are weird or mad creatures who are only good for laughs, (2) gives all teen contestants a chance to learn to think for themselves and to move ideas into concrete objects and activities, (3) builds general enthusiasm among teens that science is interesting and is not just dry facts and figures, (4) encourages young people to find out more about careers in science, and (5) focuses attention of the public on research activities.  All of these are immensely important and so very wonderful!

Some critical comments about the Science Talent Search!

Considering the usual overemphasis on sports and entertainment in schools, substitution of memory for understanding in classrooms, and, general ignorance of what scientific research is all about, it is amazing that so many teens commit to working on a research project for this contest.  The enthusiasm demonstrated for science by these young people strikingly contradicts the reluctance of many recent college graduates to enter a graduate school for training to become a professional scientist.

The current job environment for university scientists is extremely different from the pleasant experiences these teens have by working on high school research projects.  I predict that many contestants going on to become professional researchers will choose to find satisfying work in industries or science-related jobs, instead of in academia.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not note that someone badly mis-categorized the excellent software project in “Basic Science” conducted by the First Place winner, Amol Punjabi; it is not basic research, and clearly is applied research!

Concluding remarks!

It seems very obvious to me that the real winners of the annual Intel Science Talent Search competitions are all people in the public!  That includes you!


[1]  Brookshire, B.,  2016.  Teen scientists win big for health and environmental-cleanup research.  Available on the internet at: .

[2]  Society for Science & the Public, 2016.  Mission and history.  Available on the internet at: .

[3]  Intel Science Talent Search, 2016.  Frequently asked questions.  Available on the internet at: .

[4]  Hardy, Q., 2016.  Intel to end sponsorship of science talent search.  The New York Times (September 9), page B1 (Technology).  Available on the internet at: .





Metrology is the study of measurements, a very important topic for science, engineering, and communication! (
Metrology is the study of measurements, a very important topic for science, engineering, communication, and commerce!    (


We commonly think about languages as arising in different nations or cultures, and serving as the basis for communication.  A vocabulary of science has developed within each of the many small branches of biomedicine, chemistry, and physics; each terminology constitutes a distinctly different language.  Thus, a doctoral plant scientist and a PhD astrophysicist in the same country will find it almost impossible to converse with each other about their research work because each is not able to understand the other’s terminology.  This situation creates all kinds of difficulties for scientists to communicate with other researchers and scholars, and with persons in the public.

In this dispatch I first briefly discuss the role of language and terminology for science, and then I will introduce the standardized system of units used for scientific measurements.  This international system is used universally amongst different languages and all the different subdivisions of modern science, thereby greatly helping to overcome difficulties for communication.

Do different tongues cause problems for communication between scientists? 

Several factors fortunately make the presence of different national languages be only a minor  practical impediment for communication between scientists.  First, scientists in most countries have learned to read, write, and speak the English language; thus, English now is the common language for modern science.   Second, the special terms in each  subdivision of science usually are well-understood by scientists within different lands working on that discipline.  Third, standardized units for measurements have been defined, and now are universally understood by scientists.

However, when speaking with each other, scientists in different fields of research often will find a big lack of mutual understanding.  Use of English as the universal language of science helps, but problems still remain; these can be due to usage of new or very old terms, established local terms, non-standard units or symbols, etc.

Can scientists communicate readily with non-scientists? 

Even when both parties use the same national language, communication by scientists with the public remains limited due to the absence of understanding by non-scientists of all the special terms of science and research.  To get around this very general obstacle, scientists must give definitions of all special terms or translate those into other words or phrases that will be understood.  Use of images or diagrams often helps increase understanding of science terms by the public.  The task of communicating about science with non-scientists is widely recognized as being important, but any research scientist trying to do that rapidly finds that it is not so easy!

Making quantitative measurements is a major research activity by scientists! 

Scientists love to make measurements!  Making precise measurements is the basis of many, if not most, research experiments.  There are several common units existing for measuring temperature (oC versus oF),  length (inches, feet, and miles versus centimeters, meters, and kilometers), volumes (teaspoons and quarts versus milliliters and liters), etc.  How does one measure different atoms, and what units of length are used (i.e., inches and centimeters are much too large!)?  How is distance between our Sun and other stars measured, and what units of length are used  (i.e., miles and kilometers are much too small!)?  How is blood pressure measured, and what units are used?  How can radioactivity in the Pacific Ocean due to the disaster at Fukushima be measured, and what units are used?  How can the strength of binding of an antibody to its antigen be measured, and what units are used?  What is the price per liter of gasoline in Europe, and how does that compare to the price per gallon in the US?

Adoption of a convention to standardize measurements answers such questions and greatly facilitates communication between scientists.  This convention results in a uniform system of international units for measurements in science, technology, and commerce.  Metrology is the study of measurements.

The International System of Units (SI) greatly aids communications [1,2]! 

The International System of Units (SI) for scientific measurements [1,2] arose around the time of the French Revolution as a derivative of the Metric System for weights and measures.  It now is used by all scientists and engineers, and continues to be updated and extended.  Its symbols are recognized by all, its units can readily be subdivided or multiplied in a uniform simple manner, and it is good for all national languages.  Modern researchers anywhere in science find the SI to be essential for their work.

The SI utilizes 7 base units of measurement: (1) the meter (m) is used to measure length, (2) the kilogram (kg) is used to measure mass, (3) the second (s) is used to measure time, (4) the ampere (A) is used to measure electric current, (5) the candela (cd) is used to measure luminous intensity, (6) the kelvin (K) is used to measure thermodynamic temperature, and (7) the mole (mol) is used to measure the amount of a substance.  These base units are nicely presented at: .  This convention for base units is then utilized to define many derived units of measurement; one example is speed, which is defined in terms of the base units as length per unit time (i.e., meters per second, miles per hour, etc.).  This System is self-consistent and allows SI measures to be readily converted into other units by simple formulas.  This international convention of standardized units effectively solves most of the problems for communication between research scientists.

Ultimate authority for the SI is held by the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, located in France.  That body works with the International Committee for Weights and Measures, which coordinates many national and regional organizations.  In the US, the National Institute of Standards and Technology has a primary role (see:  “International Aspects of the SI” ).

Concluding remarks! 

Communication is a very important part of being a good research scientist!  Scientists in the US benefit both from English being accepted as the universal language of science, and from the standardized International System of Units now used by scientists in all countries.  These conventions are a great help for communicating research results both to other scientists and to non-scientists in the public.


[1] Jones, A. Z., 2016.  International system of measurement.  Available on the internet at: .

[2] Physical Measurement Laboratory, National Institute of Standards and Technology, 2000.  “International System of Units (SI)”  Available on the internet at: .





It is not so difficult for some people to understand science! (
It is not so difficult for some to understand science! (


Many people of all ages find it really hard to comprehend science and research!  Others even are afraid of science!  In this essay I will first present the causes and unfortunate consequences of this problem; then I will offer some ideas for countering its bad effects.

What causes the problem many adults have with reading and learning about science? 

This very widespread difficulty chiefly involves at least 4 different causes.

(1) POOR EDUCATION!  Most early instruction about science in schools only involves learning to regurgitate standard answers to standard questions.  Science courses in primary and secondary schools are largely superficial, descriptive, and mainly involve memorization.  Memory takes the place of learning and understanding, so interrelationships and reasoning are never presented.  Hence, schoolchildren don’t learn about research as the basis for knowledge, and mostly forget about science as soon as classes are over.

(2) THE STRANGE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE!  Most people are separated from research and scientists by the vocabulary of science.  All 3 main branches of science (biology, chemistry, and physics) and each of their subdisciplines use specialized terms.  Scientists do speak strange languages!

(3) SCIENCE AND RESEARCH ARE ENTERTAINMENTS!  “Science news” is presented by most TV media as “gee-whiz entertainment”.  Research is seen as being amusing, and scientists are considered by Hollywood to be weird and funny creatures.

(4) SCIENCE IS MUCH TOO DIFFICULT FOR ME TO EVER UNDERSTAND!  Understanding science topics is viewed by many people as being beyond their capabilities.  Science has nothing to do with their personal lives, so why waste any time trying to understand it!

Effects of these problems with understanding science! 

Each of the foregoing causes directly creates some bad consequences.

(1) POOR EDUCATION!  Students soon conclude that science has no role in their personal life.  Definitions of key science terms are de-emphasized in school classes, and concepts often remain fuzzy; this readily leads to mistaken beliefs and wrong assumptions.

(2) THE STRANGE LANGUAGE OF SCIENCE!  Only a handful of special terms needs to be learned for understanding any aspect of science, but this task often makes adults give up even trying to read an article about modern science.  This effort is essential, just as one cannot read a story written in a foreign language until some vocabulary first is acquired!

(3) SCIENCE AND RESEARCH ARE ENTERTAINMENTS!  This is a very common belief, but nothing could be further from the truth!  The fundamental reason why scientific research is so important is usually not explained.  Today’s media are badly misleading people!

(4) SCIENCE IS MUCH TOO DIFFICULT FOR ME TO EVER UNDERSTAND!  This false belief probably is part of the “dumbing down” of the US public, and serves to intimidate many adults.  Even simplified materials on the internet will give a general understanding about science; dealing with math equations and learning lots of new terms are not necessary!

All these consequences reinforce each other!  The end result is that science, research, and scientists are totally estranged from people (see:  “On the Public Disregard for Science and Research” ), and are viewed as being utterly unimportant by most individuals (see:  “What Does Science Matter to Me, an Ordinary Person?” ).

Is there any good analogy to this very general problem for science? 

The answer to this question is, “yes”!  All the difficulties described above also are found with learning a foreign language!  Modern methods and tools for learning languages now are widely available, using recordings, educational media, computer programs for independent study, visits by native speakers, immersion experiences, etc.  Some of these will be beneficial for adults trying to read and learn about science.  Vocabulary is the first basis for learning any language, including the strange terms in science.  Without learning some new words, the languages of science cannot be understood.

If children would be better educated about science, then adults will not see it as being incomprehensible.  I have addressed defects in current science education for children earlier (see:  “What is Wrong with Science Education for Children?” ).  For science classes in primary and secondary schools, a short (30 minutes) illustrated guest presentation by a real live scientist (i.e., a “foreign speaker”) will add much interest and give a more realistic picture of science and research than can any textbook.

Other ideas for dealing with this common problem! 

I offer 3 additional recommendations to individuals trying to deal with their problem of being afraid of science and technology.  (1) Read first about small aspects and topics.  It is not necessary to master some textbook for you to be able to understand brief media reports about science!   (2) When starting to read a newspaper article, look up a few definitions and diagrams on the internet; that is very easy and will aid your efforts to understand!  (3) Focus your efforts on current events in science, so you can jump beyond all the famous dead scientists and dry facts given in your earlier school textbooks and classes.  (4) Seek information about some topic in science and research that concerns you personally (e.g., your health, your wealth, your community (e.g., purity of water supply), your forthcoming vacation (e.g., ecology, plants and animals, local food, etc.), your shoes (e.g., nature of the improved materials used), your nutrition (e.g., good or bad, quantity, hidden chemical poisons), your automobile (e.g., electric cars, driverless vehicles, production of gasoline from oil), etc.

Concluding remarks! 

I believe the general problem that it is difficult to teach adults who find science too difficult can be made easier by copying some of the educational practices used to teach foreign languages.  Interactive teaching of both children and adults about how science is related to everyday life will help make the learning much easier.  Individuals must be encouraged to be courageous and overcome their fear of science; after success, most will agree that understanding science is not impossible, and even can be fun!

In conclusion, you are indeed capable of understanding science, and your life will become more interesting!  Give it a try!  Don’t put it off until later!  Try it today!  The very first step often can be the hardest (see: “How Can I Take the First Step to Learn About Science?” )!





The new Webb telescope will be a big eye in the sky! (
The new Webb telescope will be a big eye in the sky!  (


NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and its many partners now are building a giant new space telescope, with launch scheduled for October, 2018 (see: “James Webb Space Telescope” at the NASA website).  The construction phase of the Webb space telescope involves efforts by over 1,000 special workers in 14 nations, a total cost of 80 billion dollars, and, many industrial and academic organizations.  This huge science project is being conducted during about 10 years of time; it involves use of new technologies and building several special new research instruments.  Once the complex assembly is completed and fully tested, it will be transported by ship to the rocket launch site in South America, where it will be sent far into space.  This new mission for science will provide important new research data for astronomy, astrophysics, and space science; its research results will go far beyond the amazing images and data obtained by the orbiting Hubble space telescope launched in 1990.

What is the Webb space telescope [1-3]? 

The new space telescope will be as large as a moving van and will be placed into a specific region of space located about one million miles away from Earth.  It contains small rockets to provide for final adjustment of its position.  Data collected from its newly constructed high-tech mirror systems provide very high sensitivity, increased optical resolution, and longer wavelength coverage.  This space instrument is specialized to detect and measure near- and mid-infrared wavelengths, since those come from the  oldest stars.  Data will be transmitted back to the Webb Science and Operations Center at the  NASA Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, for analysis and distribution to research scientists and groups.  The new Webb space telescope is planned to operate in the cold vacuum of space for 5-10 years, starting in 2018.

What will the new space telescope do for scientific research [1-3]? 

At present, the Webb mission has 4 goals: (1) search for the first galaxies or luminous objects formed after the Big Bang, (2) determine how galaxies evolved from their formation until now, (3) observe the formation of stars and their planetary systems, and (4) examine the physical and chemical properties of extraterrestrial planetary systems, including investigations of their potential for life.  The Webb extends the capabilities of the Hubble space telescope by having much better detection sensitivity (10-100x), optical resolution, and telescopic spectroscopy.  By being able to look out to the far edges of the universe, the Webb can view and measure the very oldest stars and galaxies.

What are the chief worries about the new space telescope [1-3]? 

As with any very complex and multiyear building project, unforeseen problems can arise later.  The Hubble space telescope had an unanticipated problem that fortunately was able to be nicely repaired by visiting astronauts.  Since the new Webb telescope will be much further away from Earth than is Hubble, it will be impossible for astronauts to fix problems.  Thus, the preflight testing must be much more rigorous and extensive.  However, it is never certain that everything will work and last exactly as expected; extremely unusual events could occur (e.g., collision with a large meteorite, very high bursts of different radiations from our Sun, malfunction of communication systems, etc.) and might be beyond the capabilities of adjustments during its operation in space.

Many people will ask a very natural question, “Why do we humans need a new space telescope?”.  Technical answers that it will give results beyond those provided by the Hubble space telescope, will have a hollow ring to non-scientists asking this question.  A better answer is that all of us, whether scientists or ordinary people, deserve to have extended knowledge and understanding about our universe; dramatic new data provided by the Webb space telescope will do just that.

Will the new findings of this space telescope justify its immense cost [1-3]? 

This huge research project raises an interesting general question about scientific research.  Although the 80 billion dollar budget for the Webb is cut back from the initial plans, just about everyone must admit that this cost figure is gigantic.  It is reasonable to expect that the research by space scientists using data from the Webb will produce significant advances in understanding the formation and evolution of the oldest stars in our universe, the life cycles of stars, the environmental composition of different exoplanets, and possibilities for living systems on planets circling other stars.

Although accepting that answer, some scientists will ask the logical question, “How many research grants of ordinary cost and size could be made with the same 80 billion dollars?”.  Their follow-up question will be, “What would be the value of the new research results collected by all those numerous small projects?”.  Clearly, such questions are simply the latest in the ongoing controversy about the value of Big Science versus Small Science.  Answers cannot be provided at present because so much is unknown or theoretical.

Where can good information be found about the new Webb space telescope?  

There is an abundance of information available about the design, construction, and objectives of the Webb space telescope!  For starters, see websites about the Webb by NASA , the Canadian Space Agency , and, the European Space Agency .  These have loads of information, diagrams, videos, and the latest news about this giant research project; they are designed to be suitable and understandable for adults, students, teachers, children, and parents, as well as for scientists.

You also even can sign-up with NASA to receive e-mail newsletters with the latest updates for the Webb space research project !

For those curious about the efforts of all the numerous engineers,  scientists, and technologists working with this space project, I recommend the truly outstanding article by Daniel Clery, “The Next Big Eye”, within the February 19, 2016, issue of the journal, Science.  This well-illustrated piece includes a very good discussion about how these individuals are subject to increasingly large pressures as the assembly and testing advances.

Concluding remarks! 

The work of designing, fabricating, assembly, and testing the different components used for the Webb space telescope is an utterly fascinating story showing what humans are capable of doing!  After the final assembly is completed, its testing under conditions of space while still here on Earth also will be a wondrous story.  Much credit must go to the managers who coordinate all the different small and large groups working on this complex assembly project at diverse locations; they must ensure that everything fits together and functions reliably just as planned.  The Webb mission should produce much exciting new understanding about our Sun, our universe, and conditions on the planets of other stars!


[1]  “Explore James Webb New Space Telescope” is available on the internet at: .

[2]  “FAQ: General Questions About Webb” is available on the internet at: .

[3]  “Webb Telescope Science Themes” is available on the internet at: .