The Exporatorium: Science Communication Innovators



I'm back in DC after spending the previous two weeks in San Francisco as an Osher Fellow at The Exploratorium. It was my second visit this year to the world's greatest science center. Each time I go out there I tell my friends that I feel like Tom Friedman in The World is Flat, trading ideas with really smart and innovative people. (I'm not the only one to offer high praise for The Explo, check out this rave from Jennifer Oullette at Cocktail Physics.)

During my two weeks, I held several brown bag lunch discussions with staff on topics including science and the media; the effective use of science blogs; and the many meanings and definitions of science literacy. We also discussed public forum and outreach activities on nanotechnology as well as an innovative Exporatorium project on communicating to the public the nature of scientific reasoning and evidence. (My official liaison for the two weeks was Mary Miller, who is the Project Director for their Public Understanding of Science programs. Read her blog post about my visit here.)

The Exploratorium is on the cutting edge of science communication, not only in their approach to their exhibits but also in their powerful and creative use of the Web. The constant interest and openness among the staff in figuring out effective ways to engage the public follows in the tradition of Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer. In explaining his philosophy, Oppenheimer recognized the limitations of popular science media in reaching a wider public.


He believed that children and adults needed a social space to be able to explore and construct science on their own terms. (He even coined the term "adult play.") His goal was not so much the transfer of knowledge, but rather fostering interest and curiosity as the foundation for life long informal learning.

Several of the Web projects currently under way reflect this philosophy. For example:

-->Last year the Explo commissioned a survey study by Pew on Internet use and science information. As someone who conducts research in the area, I consider it one of the best national survey studies to date. As I reported earlier this year, one of the key findings was that most science information use online is incidental. Given almost infinite options about where to surf on the internet, the strongest predictor of whether or not an individual used online science-related information was if they stumbled across it when actually looking for something else. Indeed, even among college-graduates, those most likely to use online science content were the already scientifically knowledgeable. The bottom line is that the availability of scientific information does not mean people will use it.

With this in mind, The Exploratorium is actively building new Web products and programs that sponsor incidental exposure and that reach beyond the small audience of science enthusiasts:

-->One new initiative is the Science of Sports, a Web section that explores the physics behind a Barry Bonds home run or the engineering that goes into a Tour de France race bike.

-->The Exploratorium has also launched a series of new blogs with ambitious plans to expand the prominence and variety of their blogs.

-->As part of the International Polar Year, the Exploratorium has trained scientists to use digital technology to create "scientist generated media." These scientists use hand held video cameras to document their life and research in Antarctica. The Exploratorium will also be streaming live Web casts from the South Pole. At YouTube you can even watch a clip of what life is like at the South Pole Research Station.

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
  • Patients from low-income neighborhoods are most at risk of negative health impacts.
  • Thankfully, health care professionals are not alone. Upstreamism is increasingly part of our cultural consciousness.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student loan debt could lead to an economic boom

A plan to forgive almost a trillion dollars in debt would solve the student loan debt crisis, but can it work?

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Politics & Current Affairs
  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren has just proposed a bold education reform plan that would forgive billions in student debt.
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