Science writers: You have great powers.

View Images

The news these days is grim for the science-minded. The governor of Texas, who’d also like to be your president, says that Texas schools teach creationism. (They don’t, although Perry–who appointed a creationist to chair the State Board of Education–may wish otherwise.) Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke passionately on HBO about the country’s retreat from dreams.

So I found some small comfort in an email I got from Patrick House, a Stanford graduate student, about my recent post on the cunning ways of the parasite Toxoplasma–Toxo to its friends and admirers.

I’m the first author on the new Toxo paper. I wanted to send you an email that hopefully cheers your day — I’m getting a Ph.D. now in Neuroscience at Stanford, working exclusively on Toxo — and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.

I did my undergrad work in Philosophy (with some neuroscience thrown in) and was perpetually fascinated by Toxo ever since your Discover article on Parasites a decade ago led me tangentially to it and then — of course — Parasite Rex. I met with Robert, spoke to him about free will, mind control, and the dissolution of the boundaries between the two and voilà — welcome to Stanford.

My previous blog post was about the evolution of whales, focusing on the work of Erich Fitzgerald, an Australian paleontologist. The first time I wrote about Fitzgerald’s work, in 2006, he sprang a similar surprise on me.

It is a great honour to know that you have written such an informative and articulate commentary about my research. I first heard of your work via a lecture given on whale evolution while I was an undergraduate zoology student at the University of Melbourne, and the class lecturer cited your book “At the Water’s Edge”. The topic of whale evolution, fired my imagination and curiosity, and I rushed out the next day to buy “At the Water’s Edge”. I have now read it twice, and it is undoubtedly one of the finest popular accounts of what we now know about cetacean evolution. Your book is at least partly responsible for leading me into the fascinating world of whale evolutionary biology and played no small role in leading me to my current research on the origins and evolution of baleen whales.

So, to you science writers out there: I don’t know how much of a difference we can make to the country as a whole. But you nevertheless have great powers: you can plant seeds, and grow scientists.