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Friday, February 12, 2016

Today I did something good.

This is me and the researcher Richard Lenski. Notice the giddy and intense smile on my face? That's because he's my own personal hero for the research he's been doing for 25 years. And also, something he wrote kinda changed my life. 

Back in 2008, when I was studying biology, I was just barely getting into thinking about creationism, pseudoscience and skepticism. Then I heard an episode of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe about a researcher (that's Lenski!) who had actually documented a new and useful trait. That's something creationists usually claim is impossible, since they believe that "mutations only remove information". He's been working on 12 populations (that is, simply 12 different flasks) of the popular bacterium E.coli. And he's kept a frozen family history so to speak, by taking samples from different points in the generations and freezing them at -80°C. 

Since Lenski also kept a frozen fossil record of all the bacterial evolution taking place, and he could actually go back in time by taking an ancestor out of the freezer, and start the experiment again, to see if traits would evolve in the same way. This echoes what Steven Jay Gould suggested in his famous thought experiment "Replaying the tape of life."

Lenski's discovery, that one of his strains of E.coli had a propensity to develop the ability to digest citrate (which has previously been unknown among E.coli), made som creationists quite angry, since this flies in the face of their "No new information from mutations"-idea. And they started pestering him for more details of his results, and finally for the original samples. This letter exchange was to me so delightful and well-written on Lenski's part, that I've had it bookmarked as a go-to smackdown of creationist logic for years. Let me also reiterate how awesome and painstaking the 25 years-and-counting his project is. Every day, bacteria are moved to a new flask (to simulate selection), and often, samples are frozen. Check out the image of his grad student with a fraction of the petri dishes used for a subproject. And the findings make it all worth it, showing us that sometimes, evolution needs a stepping stone to reach the ladder.

Image credit: Lenski's Lab as seen on Wikipedia

And I also thought his research and the letters were so fantastic that I started talking to my friends about it. I was surprised that none of them had heard of it, but I was happy to share. So I started a facebookgroup (which was something entirely different back then, before Pages even existed) called Marit' Science-News Klubb [club], where I posted the highlights of my massive news feed with comments and reflections. 

What I thought would be a small page where 5-8 of my friends could get pickings from my links so I could talk to them about it over lunch, got 60 members during the first day. That was a lot back then! (The "like"-button had just been launched!) And that got me thinking - somebody needs to communicate all these funny and wonderful things scientists are working on. And maybe there should be a level between the slightly nerdy podcasts I listened to, and the enormous feed of science blogs I followed. And Lenski's text showed me that the researchers were ready to put in their share.  

That got my appetite for writing and science communication going, so I started this blog and joined the Student magazine Argument. I also became more interested in science communication as a principle, and went to the skeptic's conference The Amaz!ng Meeting in London the fall of 2009. Soon after that, we established The Norwegian Conference on Science and Skepticism, Kritisk masse, we started a podcast, Saltklypa, I became the president of the Norwegian Skeptics, and I talked to my friends about other projects, such as starting our self-designed university course MNKOM3000 Forskningsformidling og -journalistikk (Science communication and science journalism), which has finally become a permanent member of the University's course lineup, after a three year pilot. And the writing has lead me to interviews with people like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Lawrence Krauss, James Randi, and conversations with Steven Pinker and Hans Rosling, among others.

All this made me gradually change my focus from evolutionary biology to science communication and the role of science in society, and has put me on a completely different track from the one I was on in 2008, when I thought I would become a biology professor. 

Of course, there may well have been other things along the way that could have changed my course if Lenski hadn't written these letters, but in this world, in this playing of the tape, it was his work that changed my course. 

And today, even though I didn't shake his hand because of my huge cold, I got to meet him, take a picture, and tell him about his impact. Isn't that nice?
I'm a bit touched, you guys. 

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