K-tron and Slugnads do D.C.

This will be a “LIVE, recorded during an earlier broadcast” blog post. We will update as much as possible.

*NOTE: We have updated to the point of arrival back in California. We’ve added some flavorful text message exchanges and additional photos throughout. Enjoy!*


[in flight, time unknown because Keith is superstitious and refuses to look at a clock.]

Nadia: I’ll start. We’re on the plane. Keith is watching a movie. I’m doing…work.

This is Keith’s first time in DC.

What do you think he should try to see? Keith doesn’t know it yet, but he will photo-document his experience doing the winning answer…provided it’s possible. 

(PS — please post ‘other’ requests in comments!)

Keith: That guy from the conchords is brilliant in this movie, Dinner for Schmucks.

N: I love Flight of the Conchords. Any thoughts on our trip so far?

K: <<<SPOILER ALERT>>> There is very little science content in this movie, except for the taxidermy and vulture.

N: Lazy screenwriters.

An explainer graf: Keith and Nadia are heading to DC to attend the National Academies Communication Awards ceremony. The ceremony will be followed by a science and engineering fair on the National Mall. In D.C., they hope to see some former slugs.

“Yay!!” Keith said.

K: [puts dork hat on] I’ll also be doing interviews with people I could have talked to more easily in California. Fascinating research I’ll have to read more of soon. An investigation of spiritual and sacred culture and hunting practices. Does one constrain the other, or is hunting not so easily separated from the sacred in these communities? [takes hat off]

N: okey-doke. Speaking of slugs and sluggers — our captain is live blogging baseball scores during the flight…which inspired this thought: a plane load of people would be a perfectly captive audience for two slugs inclined to grab the mic and share awesome science facts. just sayin’.

Oh — let’s add some value to our post: (these are, like, copywritten)



K: I’m a bit concerned about the effects of meeting people deeply involved in policy and legislation production. It can have a deleterious effect on your language use. Nads, be sure to steer me toward the scientists and science writers in any cocktail party situation.

N: I love you, Fred. And, I will help us navigate the giant twitter-party. More later!

[1:17 a.m. EST]

N: This super shuttle ride is so awkward!

K/N (simultaneously): Are you lovin’ the contemporary Christian music?/Are we listening to God-rock?

K: Well turn it up!

N: Hive mind FTW.

[2:30 a.m. EST]

N: just getting settled at Hotel George.  This place is swank!

[12:15 p.m. EST]

N: …blah blah…Drake…blah…Sentinel…questions?…call me back….NOW.

K: In the lobby (is this the lobby?!), prepping for interviews with researcher who spent three years in the forests of Guyana. And paying bills once I head back upstairs.

[2 p.m. EST]

N: Back from a walk. Guess what’s around the corner?








[3:35 p.m. EST]

N: We are at the Keck center. Elizabeth Kolbert was walking behind us on the way over. I am star-struck.

Keck figurehead

K-tron is seeking admission.










We will be at the award ceremony, followed by a reception at the Marian Koshland Science Museum. (turns out, this place is kick-ass)

[a bit later]

K-tron posted about the award ceremony below, so I will add a bit about the reception.

We were in the company of giants — people like Joe Palca, Mitchell Waldrop, Nobel laureate John Mather, President of the National Academy of Sciences Ralph Cicerone…and the award winners! So much collective brain power.

And yes, I was still star-struck…

…and totally enamored with this exhibit detailing bacterial replication…

It works like this:

The column on the extreme right has one marble in it, which represents a bacterium (‘bug,’ like the kind that can make you sick). Each bacterium divides in half and produces two bacteria; those two will then divide, so after two rounds of division, you have four bacteria. After three rounds of division, you have eight.

They multiply exponentially.

The next column (moving left) represents bacterial numbers after two hours  of replication (16 marbles, or four rounds of division). Bonus question: what is the rate of replication? It’s worth 90% of your grade.

The next column represents bacterial numbers after four hours, and the last — on the extreme left — represents the amount of bacteria after eight hours of division. There are quite a few marbles in there!! <— a beautiful visual representation of a scientific concept.

Also note the yellow guy in that left column — he looks like a peanut M&M — which I’m guessing represents a mutant…a totally awesome thing to incorporate, especially because:

The exhibit next to this one discussed evolution and how random mutations are available for natural selection to act upon.

So, let’s say that a) some color-conscious antibiotic was selectively targeting bacteria it could readily see…and b) the exhibit background became yellow instead of blue. The yellow dude would blend in, while the blue guys would be toast. And, as you can see, that little yellow guy could produce a ton of of additional organisms in a very small amount of time!  Evolution in action.  Thank you, Darwin.

More cool stuff:

We got to meet Tia Ghose, UCSC SciCom ’10! Tia is working at the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, and she’ll also be at the Keck conference in November.

Keith, Tia, Nads

[8 p.m. EST]

K: We’re back from seeing $US 80,000 handed out in less than an hour.  Four winners were given awards by the National Academies of Science for fabulous science communications.  I’d actually been following most of the winners:

PBS finally aired “Naturally obsessed: The making of a scientist” so that it crossed my path this summer.  However, the filmmakers, Carole and Richard Rifkind, had been showing it to anyone who would watch for over two years before that.  They had camped out with cameras in a biology lab following four doctoral students for three years. A competitive field, lots of drama in that story. [N: RR on his motivation for the film: “Neither my kids nor my parents knew what the devil I was doing all day.” CR: “I realized how important it was to scientists — young scientists and their mentors — that somebody understood how hard they worked.” R’amen.]

Ed Yong, of the science blog “Not exactly rocket science” said “I’d like to thank the academy” just, well, because. He was very charming – with a good meta-narrative about Britishness and how success makes them socially awkward [N: “When faced with success, we react with stultifying social awkwardness”]. Yet, he disproved his point with a very warm and heartfelt speech about his relationship with his wife. [N: EY on why he blogs: “I do it because I genuinely love to write, I love science and the internet. So writing about science on the internet seemed fitting.”]

And Richard Holmes, author of the science history book “The age of wonder,” gave us a free book and spoke with us over a pretty slickly produced video from the library of the Royal Society (the graphic arts department at the academies and the Koshland Science Museum are top-notch) [N: no joke.].  I’ve always liked the Romantic British literary figures.  Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein plays a central role in Holmes’ book documenting the confluence of poets and scientists, who traded inspiration but also “played together,” according to Holmes. [N: RH on his work: “It’s about romantic science…which is a kind of paradox.” And he shared an anecdote from his book that ends with the punch line: “Sir, what’s the use of a newborn baby?” <– Pg. 125. This guy was ridiculously quotable.]

The final winner, Charles Duhigg, who writes for the New York Times, used over 300 Freedom of Information Act requests, netting over 2 million documents, to show the scary state of the American drinking water systems. A new fact for me:  more than 20 percent of water treatment systems have violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, and that act itself is hopelessly outdated.  Duhigg thanked the academies directly for their help in sorting out the science on arsenic in water. “No other institution can speak so independently and authoritatively on such controversial issues” [N: “without independent bodies like this doing research, the world would be a much scarier place.”] was the gist of his comments. [N: and, about the profession: “I realized I was more socially comfortable among groups of people who seemed to delight in saying things that are true.”]

[12 a.m.]

N: Took K-tron on an impromptu tour of D.C at night. Dudes — I seriously can’t wait for AAAS here!

art nouveau eagle-gargoyle

the c/Capito/al

...it looks huge...

...but it's snot...


















Good night!

[10a.m. EST]

N: mmm…coffee.


[10:57 a.m. EST]

N: K-diddy. You up, yo?

K: Huh? Whaaa

N: Ehhh. Just had a huge pot o’ coffee delivered. Still thinking noon? We got ground to cover!

K: Could still happen. Gonna need to find writing time later tho. Good café?

N: Yeah, writing later is good. I’d give it a 5/10.

K: Too bad bout the coffee. Life is too short…

N: Fo’shizzle.

N: Einstein and the insect zoo are the winners, btw. Congratulations – bugs and brains!

Today, we will be heading to the inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival — we saw them setting up stuff on the mall last night, complete with police escort — and it’s going to be huge.

On the website, President Obama says over a million people will be on the National Mall — and there are over 1500 activities and 50 performances to choose from!

And a star-gazing party! (in D.C….? I’m sure more brilliant minds than mine have figured out how this will work.)

What’s a science dork to do?! I need a plan of attack!

The Expo Exhibits fall under several tracks, with kick-ass themes like “The Tiny Animal Lover” (= a small lover of animals, or a lover of small animals?), “What Does it Mean to be Green?” (It’s not that easy being green! <— this song is beautifully poignant), “The Evolution Thought Trail” and “Nuclear to Stellar” (genius. imagine the endless possibilities for the integration of very large and very small scales…and all kinds of explosive energy.)

Color me excited!

Oh — and for those of you who remember our class discussion about selecting hashtags for conferences and events, the Fair specifies tags on their info flier (way to be organized!). So, if you want to follow sci-tweets, here’s the info:

“For expo updates from the festival, follow @USASCIENCEFEST. Follow #SCIFESTBOOTH for real time updates from expo booths. Tag #SCIFEST on your tweets and upload and tag pics to TWITPIC.COM.”

Sadly, my phone is ancient — “from the paleolithic,” as Mitch Waldrop would say — so I won’t be live-tweeting.

But maybe K-tron will?

[5 p.m. EST]

N: We have a few things to attend to.

1. The science expo was AWESOME. It was packed. So many interested people, so many interesting exhibits. I will post pics in a bit.

Smoke ring cannon.

See slideshow.







2. The insect (and related friends) zoo at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum was fabulous. Madagascar hissing cockroaches, bird-eating tarantulas, extremely camo leaf bugs.







3. We visited Einstein’s memorial outside the National Academy of Sciences (K: note how human his statue is — he looks tired, and he’s wearing sandals).








4. And did other fun stuff.







[6:15 a.m. EST]

N: We’re are about to bounce.  zzzzzz

See you soon, D.C.!

[6:46 a.m. EST]

K: The starbucks is closed.

N: F**kers.

K: Exactly!

[in flight, time again unknown]

N: Ok, K-tron. Any thoughts on our DC experience…?

K: I had somewhat the same reaction to DC as I did the first time I saw Los Angeles.  The mass media had given me a strange, fractured and distorted view of the place, which is really a lot more interesting and textured when you can pull back out of tight focus and clichéd portrayals. There needs to be a DC- (and NYC-) version of Thom Anderson’s “Los
Angeles plays itself.

(N: Our captain just warned of pretty ridiculous turbulence for the next 100 miles, and said there was “no way through it.” I’m hoping he means “no way around it.”)

Speaking of movies, some of the science policy infrastructure of our nation, like the Keck center (see image), triggered for me unexpected and unfortunate associations to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The architecture of power and bureaucracy and security-consciousness that Gilliam captured so well in that film could be seen in the approach to many of the DC buildings, and not just the Fifth Street offices of the NAS, IOM, and NAE.

N: Do mean the more recent buildings (like Keck) or the older ones? Or both? Most buildings near the Mall are constructed on a grand scale that isn’t always apparent until you’re right there…because everything is similarly large.  The buildings have presence. And lots of exploding-vehicle barriers.

K: Both, at times, even the old post office building on Pennsylvania at Twelfth. Nice elevators in that one, but even those were separated into security-controlled employee elevators and the glass Wonka ‘vater for tourists.

N: But no Oompa-loompas. 😦  Though if you think about it, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is like a colorful, edible homage to experimental science…with a healthy dose (ha) of art thrown in.

K: The Keck’s gallery of science-inspired art, including photos of Steven J. Gould’s personal collection of snail shells documenting one of his illustrative cases of evolution and this handsome portrait of a baboon mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx, see image and link) helped to humanize the place.

Mandrill portrait by Jill Greenberg

N: I think people can sometimes forget that science at its core is a human endeavor, subject to human foibles, insight, and daring…and they often view it as cold, untouchable, and remote – which it’s not.

K: Pretty awesome to see the crowds that the sci/eng festival turned out, and the always enthusiastic kids. I hope that math anxiety and gender roles don’t turn too many of them off a science path in the years to come.

N: And…I think we’re going to survive crossing the Rockies today. We should talk about flying sometime. Think about it: everyone bitches about airports and airlines and all that crap, but in the end…you’re still *flying*! And what a scientific achievement that is!


[12:17 p.m. PST]

N: We are back in the SF airport, stopping on the way to the car to take advantage of free wireless.

Let us know if you have any questions or would like us to elaborate on any parts of our DC experience, and we will gladly do so!

[1:37 p.m. PST]

K: My cat Geoffrey loooves me. Safe @ home. 🙂

[2:12 p.m. PST]

N: I have docked safely with the mother ship, aka Kresge Annex A.

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9 Responses to K-tron and Slugnads do D.C.

  1. amahl says:

    I suggested the Spy Museum for Keith to see! but I think I voted twice. Does that disqualify my vote? Maybe a trip to the Supreme Court is called for now since they are the experts on voting regularities/irregularities.

    And, oh, by the way, ‘swank’ is such a cool word. I like that hotel. Are you able to visit
    my old stomping grounds, the main Academy building a 2100 Constitution Avenue, or is it off limits due to remodeling? I think you should take Keith there and put him in the lap of Einstein and take his photo.

  2. SandeepR says:

    Sounds like you two are having a blast! Way to add value to your post 🙂

    I loved “The Age of Wonder”, I found it highly entertaining, I’d love to hear what you think. And I enjoy reading Ed Yong’s blog. I am definitely going to ask you two what Richard Holmes and Ed Yong were like in person.

    The Spy Museum is fun and unusual. Or you could always stop by my house.

  3. nadiadrake says:

    Hey hey! I will add some flavorful quotes in a sec 🙂

    Ed Yong was charming. Richard Holmes was overseas in London…so we didn’t get to see him in person.

    I would definitely endorse a spy museum visit!

  4. Pingback: Mini-Post: Science and Engineering Fair PHOTOZ | A Tale of Ten Slugs

  5. Pingback: Mini-post: Insect Zoo Pics | A Tale of Ten Slugs

  6. Pingback: Mini-post: D.C. Wanderings, a photo-blog | A Tale of Ten Slugs

  7. Charles Duhigg says:

    you guys should have come by to say hello …

  8. nadia drake says:

    /kicks self.


  9. Charles Duhigg says:

    I’ll be at the Keck awards (which, if I understand your website, some of you will be at as well? I don’t 100% understand this blog.) In any event, I hope you say hi.

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