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Niki Athanasiadou Explains How to Use Science Every Day – Even on the Subway - Lecture Recap

Report by Russ Dobler on November 21, 2015 event. Photos by Jonathan Nelson.
“The first step to thinking like a scientist is [to] be curious,” NYU research scientist Niki Athanasiadou told the crowded room of the Jefferson Market Library. “Don’t take things for granted and don’t settle for an unsatisfactory answer.”
At the November 21 New York City Skeptics lecture called “Science Everyday:  Simple Rules to Critical Thinking,” the molecular and cell biologist could have packed up and called it a day at that point. But while those two simple statements pretty much sum the whole package up, Athanasiadou had more details to describe how science came to be our best tool for evaluating the world, and how we might be able to use it in answering questions in our ordinary lives.
The second step to thinking like a scientist might be to realize that we don’t perceive the world as it truly is. “Our senses are really limited,” Athanasiadou said. Our vision serves us pretty well, for example, but we can’t see ultraviolet light, like a bee searching for a pollen, or infrared waves, like a snake on the hunt for prey.
“There is a whole unknown world out there on the cusp of our senses,” Athanasiadou said.
And like the old saying goes, a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous when we incorrectly assume we’re getting the whole picture. If people just relied on their senses, we’d never have figured out the world is round. “It all looks pretty flat,” Athanasiadou said. A group called the Flat Earth Society still thinks it is! 
“Some people need more than 700 years of proof,” Athanasiadou said.
Yes, this is a real thing.
Of course the knowledge of Earth’s (more or less) spherical shape goes back way more than 700 years, as Greek astronomer Eratosthenes made the first known calculation of the globe’s circumference around 240 BC. And that’s one of the hardest things about being a professional scientist today – playing catch-up with hundreds or thousands of years of prior work. While earning her PhD at Scotland’s University of Edinburgh, Athanasiadou said she spent 60% of her time studying what was already known, “just to be able to figure out what is the question you’re asking.”
“I didn’t have much time to appreciate the nice scenery,” Athanasiadou said. 
It’s still better than starting from scratch, though. “Science (knowledge) is a communal process,” read one of Athanasiadou’s slides. So maybe it’s actually not such a bad thing that Europe went through the medieval “dark” ages, because while not a lot of new work was being done, the people of the time were really good at maintaining the old records. We’d call that a literature search today, Athanasiadou said.
Since then, we’ve refined the scientific process by separating hypothesis from belief. “You can [then] change your mind without losing faith,” Athanasiadou said, adding that it also makes for better discussions at parties. And you don’t need to be tackling subjects with thousands of years of background material to use it, either. “The scientific method has a place outside the lab and in everyday life,” Athanasiadou said. 
Athanasiadou showed a slide providing three steps to create your own falsifiable hypothesis. The first is to make a general statement. Then make that statement directional – what is it you’re trying to test? Finally, you have to find a way to make that statement measureable. 
Athanasiadou provided an example in an experiment she and some colleagues conducted, asking an everyday question on the minds of many New Yorkers – what’s going on with the G train? If the general statement is “the G train is bad,” then an appropriate directional statement would be “the G train always arrives later than scheduled.” Well, it’s easy to measure if the the waiting times between trains are longer than scheduled. So she did it!
As it turns out, at the Hoyt/Schemerhorn G station from 4:00 to 5:00 pm on weekdays, the train is usually on time! That’s a counterintuitive result obtained with nothing more than a little thought, a couple of bucks and a few free afternoons. Of course more data should be taken at more times, and maybe it’s unfair to say your trip will usually be timely when the late trains can be really late, but that’s probably a lesson that’s equally as valuable as the first.
“Don’t dismiss errors, learn from them,” Athanasiadou said.

The Evolutionary Genesis Engine: An Evening with Lee Cronin - Lecture Recap

Report on “The Evolutionary Genesis Engine - An Evening with Lee Cronin” event, October 22, 2015 (by Russ Dobler). Photos by Jonathan Nelson.

“My ego knows no bounds,” said Lee Cronin as he spoke to a full room at the City University of New York’s Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC). “I want to be a creationist; I want to make a new lifeform.”

It’s no wonder that Rein Ulijn, director of the ASRC’s Nanoscience Initiative, was glad to see representation from the New York City Skeptics at the October 22 lecture, the first joint event between the two groups. “There’s certainly room for skepticism when Lee Cronin has the mic,” Ulijn said. “Heckling is encouraged, I would say.”

Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow, UK, had questions as powerful as his statements. “What is chemistry’s big question?” Cronin asked, noting that’s something easy to identify in other sciences. Cosmology wonders how the universe began; physics looks for a unified model.

“More money is spent on the origin of the universe and the origin of mass than the origin of life,” Cronin said. We’ve come to figure those things out at least a little bit, but on the subject of how we ourselves came to be, Cronin said, “We have no idea.”

Cronin thinks that question is best answered with another question. “Can we engineer or discover non-biological systems capable of evolution?” he asked. “I think that is the question.” If we could create life in a lab, we’d have a better understanding of how it might have happened in the wild, 3.5 billion years ago. 

To do that, we have to be able to recognize it when we see it. “What is life?” Cronin asked. He supplied a standard meaning of “a self-sustaining non-trivial trajectory in state space.” While that’s technically accurate, Cronin prefers a simpler definition. “Let me give you the one I like the most – stuff that moves with intent,” he said.

“Wouldn’t it be intriguing,” Cronin continued, “if we made something that when we fed it a fuel, moved with intent? I would give myself that Nobel Prize every October, even if you didn’t.”

If evolution is a fundamental property of the universe, as Cronin believes – basically, “whatever sticks, wins” – then we should be able to create some simple intending movers pretty easily. It doesn’t have to be as complicated as biology, with a giant genetic code that stores loads of information and takes millions of years to develop. Cronin thinks it can be done with just four simple chemicals.

And he might be on the way there. Using a few pieces of glassware and some parts from a 3D printer, Cronin has constructed what he calls a “recursive evolutionary engine,” a device that selects a behavior in a chemical droplet and tries to accentuate it over successive generations. Starting with a randomly made recipe, Cronin and the engine were able to produce different behaviors just by varying the ratio of the four chemicals. Each a result of increasingly refined recipes, three behaviors in particular – motion, vibration and replication – progressed the most after being run through the machine over and over.

“These are the first evolutionary behaviors done in a chemical system with no DNA,” Cronin said. Not everyone agrees. “When I sent this paper to Nature, they flushed it down the toilet,” Cronin said. “I cried a lot.”

He’ll keep at it, though, and even if he’s never recognized for creating life, Cronin might have a hand in discovering it elsewhere in the solar system. He’s currently working with NASA on a “universal biology detector” that quantifiably measures a molecule’s complexity, a device that may one day be sent to the likely ocean-covered Jovian moon of Europa. If the detector finds something that crosses a certain complexity threshold, we’ll have proven there’s life there, even if we don’t immediately find the life itself. Assuming Nature wouldn’t flush that paper, too.


Cronin considers a wine glass a “non-trivial trajectory,” even if it’s not self-sustaining. Translation: iIf you find a wine glass, you’ve found life, because there’s nothing else that could have produced it.

The Evolutionary Genesis Engine: An Evening with Lee Cronin - Lecture Recap


Public Lecture: Niki Athanasiadou - Science Everyday: Simple Rules to Critical Thinking

Niki Athanasiadou - Science Everyday: Simple Rules to Critical Thinking

When: November 21, 2015 @ 3PM

Where: Jefferson Market Library (425 Ave of the Americas at 10th Street)

Over centuries of experience, breakthroughs, and setbacks, science has developed an approach that aims to eliminate the proliferation of error in thought. Viewed this way, the (quest for the) scientific method has been a driving force in shaping human history.Today we seem at crossroads. New information is bombarding us daily, demanding from each of us to take a stance in order to secure our future. Is climate change really threatening us? Are vaccines more harmful than good? Using knowledge gained from science, we will attempt to codify this set of cognitive skills so that everyone has the tools to address these important questions..

Niki Athanasiadou (PhD), is a research scientist in NYU. Her work focuses on the molecular mechanisms that regulate the timing and amplitude with which specific genes pass their instructions to the cell. She combines classical molecular biology techniques, high-throughput DNA sequencing technology, and computational approaches to build a comprehensive model of how these mechanisms are orchestrated. Niki writes for the on-line magazine BiteSize Bio on issues relating to the latest DNA sequencing technologies and the discoveries they have facilitated in the recent years. She was a guest on the podcast “Data Skeptic” discussing how personalized medicine and big data have revolutionized bio-medical research. Niki graduated from the School of Biology in Aristotele’s University of Thessaloniki (Greece), has a Master of Research, awarded with distinction by the University of York (UK) and received her PhD in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Edinburgh (UK). Her work has been published in multiple scientific journals, and she has been awarded the Promega UK Young Scientist Award for Biochemistry, by the British Biochemical Society, alongside other fellowships and awards..

This event is free and open to the public.

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