We are told today that science and technology are progressing at an unprecedented rate, that researchers continue to shovel coal into the runaway train of scientific advancement, not seeing the cliff that looms near. In this hypothetical scenario there is a reality in which the unchecked exponential growth of science and technology ends in the extinction of the human race, and yet there exists another potential future in which a slight shift in tracks allows us to ride the edge of exploration and daunting innovation towards a better horizon. You may ask, “What then, pray tell is this miraculous force that will keep us from our impending doom?” And to this question I propose this simple one-word answer: communication.
In light of recent global events such as COVID-19, the development of genome editing technology like CRISPR-Cas9, and foreign cyber threats, it has never been more imperative for the scientific community to connect with the public. For some scientists, the ability to communicate comes naturally. To others, the gift of gab is more elusive than divining the molecular origins of life, but this doesn’t mean the ability to share our science can’t be learned. In this interview, popular science author and UCLA professor Dr. Dean Buonomano joins me to discuss the importance of science communication in graduate education and in today’s sociopolitical climate. Dr. Buonomano is a principal investigator at UCLA and leads a lab researching how the brain tells time. Specifically, Dr. Buonomano seeks to understand the neural circuit dynamics responsible for temporal processing that allow the human mind and body to perform complex actions. He is also the author of two books: Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape our Lives and Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time.
Could you describe your path to becoming a researcher and author?
I grew up in Brazil. My family moved there when I was seven for my father’s job and that gave me the privilege of growing up in a bicultural environment, which I believe is a really wonderful experience for children. My father was a mathematician and physicist and he worked at the University of Sao Paulo in Campinas which is where I also went to college. After college I came to the US to do my graduate work in Neuroscience at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. I knew from very early on that I wanted to work in Neuroscience, from high school or even before. Seeing my father do science and interact with all of his friends from the university was a very stimulating and enriching experience. After my graduate work I went to UCSF to do my postdoctoral work and then UCLA was my first job.
“[…] Our research focuses on how neurons perform computations, mostly, timing and temporal processing.”
What is the main goal of your research and what are the main questions you’re asking?
Broadly speaking our research focuses on how neurons perform computations, mostly, timing and temporal processing. The example I always give is “they gave her cat (pause) food” or “they gave her (pause) cat food”. In this example one can see how the ability for neurons to discern temporal patterns of speech is really important for semantics. Specifically, we look at how clocklike computations are performed by groups of neurons using computational methods, electrophysiological methods and human psychophysical methods.
What are the implications of your work? If we were to figure out exactly how the brain tells time across all brain regions, how would this impact not only our understanding of neuropsychiatric disease but also other fields such as artificial intelligence?
The work we do is certainly fundamental, meaning the applications are far from clear. I’ve made the argument that the brain’s main function is to predict the future both in the short term and the long term. The degree to which animals predict where their predators, prey, and mates are translates into the evolutionary currency of survival and reproduction. Timing is an incredibly complex and broad problem. I don’t think there are any diseases that specifically affect your ability to discriminate between 100ms and 200ms, but I think a lot of cognitive disorders reflect or have timing components that are altered. Any time you have a neural circuit that is not functioning in an optimal way, it probably affects timing in some way. In regard to AI, currently our machine learning approaches process time very differently compared to the human brain. The human brain has many different clocks that operate at different time scales. For example, we have the circadian clock that works in hours and other clocks that work on the scale of seconds. Our circadian clocks cannot help us play instruments and the clocks we use to play a tune do not know what hour of the day it is. Computers of course can use one clock to do all the different scales. For AI it’s an open question. If we endow machines with more humanlike ability to process time, will that be a good or a bad thing? I don’t know. It’s sort of arrogant for us to think that the way we process time is somehow better, that might not necessarily be the case. For example, understanding how humans perform numerical calculations is certainly not something that will improve the ways computers perform numerical calculations.
Do you think all research should be conducted? Do you think there is a point at which information can actually do more harm than good? There is a whole debate right now as to whether we are progressing too fast for our own good. For example, there was a moratorium put on gene editing after the China twin study because ethically we didn’t know how to deal with or regulate the implications yet.
I think there are certain disciplines, gene editing and CRISPR technology certainly fall within this realm, that require a purposeful slowdown in order to get the ethics in place. But realistically, we all know that there are always going to be some parties and some countries or companies that will not slow down, so in practice we need to do our best to make sure we know how to use these technologies in the most responsible way. Again, we have to remember that it’s not the technologies that are bad, it’s our use of the technologies. The science itself is not bad or dangerous; it’s only potentially dangerous in how it ends up being used. Information, in my mind, is always a positive and good thing, and the imperfections revolve around human nature, not the science itself.
Right, but human nature and information are so intrinsically linked. It’s hard to separate them because there will probably always be people that want to use information in a bad way. So, if we can’t trust ourselves should we even continue to conduct research in these areas?
I think that’s right. In some sense it’s possible that we can’t trust ourselves with some information, but of the same token I don’t believe we can trust ourselves to slow down a potentially promising area of research, as has been demonstrated. For example I don’t know if we can trust ourselves with gene editing and CRISPR technology, but I don’t think it’s realistic to say that everybody is going to stop studying it, so it’s a catch-22 there.
When did you start thinking about writing a book? Is that something you have always wanted to do?
I think a lot of academics are avid readers and they should be, so I always thought about writing a book and I always took notes while I was reading. I decided when I was a postdoc that I wanted to write a book, but I knew it would be best if I waited for later on in my career, so I waited until I was 10 years into my faculty position before I started to write. Because I had a lot of notes and an idea of how to put it together, my first book Brain Bugs was already planned out. Executing the book, however, was quite a bit of work and that is not something we get practice for in academia. First, I had to write a book proposal and then get an agent and finally write the rest of the book. It was a slow process.
How long did it take you to write the first book?
Because I had a lot of ideas already written down, it wasn’t long. One of the common ways to go about publishing a book is: You write a book proposal and a first chapter, then if you’re lucky you get an agent and a contract with a publisher. After that you set a certain date to have the book finished by. In my case I got a year and a half to write the book. Another thing about academia which is really great is you get the privilege of taking a sabbatical of 6 months or more. I only took a 2.5-month sabbatical for my book, but it was incredibly fruitful.
And what did that look like in terms of leaving your lab? How did you continue to run your lab?
I definitely had weekly meetings with everyone, but I didn’t have to do any teaching or any administrative work or writing grants.
What makes a good popular science author?
To write a book you have to believe that you have something to say that hasn’t been said, which is a bit arrogant, because a lot has been said. Hopefully you’ve read enough so that you have some impartial sense of whether or not you have something novel to say. In terms of what makes a good popular science book, take a look at books by Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Robert Sapolsky, or Stephen Jay Gould. All of those books have specific strengths and weaknesses as they do have different styles, but generally speaking those are great books. I don’t think there is a specific ingredient that makes good science writing, but clearly being able to find the correct level of simplification to explain complex phenomenon is critical. Having a sense of humor and being engaging is great as well. If you told one of my high school teachers that Dean Buonomano wrote a book they’d be confused because writing was very far from my skillset in school. For the people that are thinking of pursuing science communications it really is a skill that has to be practiced and developed and the best way to do that is through reading. I benefitted from a decade of scientific writing which is quite different, but it is still a form of writing which ultimately improved my ability. I think some people are naturally gifted at it, but I certainly wasn’t one of those people. So even if you feel that it isn’t in your normal set of skills that doesn’t mean you can’t develop it.
I agree. I think a lot of people think that there are certain talents you have to be born with in order to do something. For example, some people believe you have to be a genius to get a PhD. I really disagree with that way of thinking because I believe probably about 95% of the things people do in life are achievable through hard work not some innate characteristic or ability that sets them apart from other people. A lot of people involved in STEM fields consider themselves not to be creative or artistic or even be good writers and that is sad to hear for multiple reasons. One, because anyone can do anything it’s just about what you invest your time in and two, because it is so important, especially nowadays, to have good communicators in scientific fields so we can bridge the gap between science and the public.
Do you think science communication should be taught as a part of the STEM graduate curriculum?
I don’t think it’s any secret that the vast majority of PhD programs really don’t put much emphasis on that, but that being said when I was a graduate student, I don’t think I even knew what the term science communication was. There really was no emphasis on it, so I think things are really improving and there should be an emphasis on it, but I would honestly like to hear your perspective.
I think everyone in the STEM fields will have to write about science at some point, even if it is in the form of grants, papers, etc. So it would really benefit everyone to at least take one class on it. You can’t force anyone to play a role in science communications and outreach that they do not wish to fulfill, so I understand there are some people that really just want to stick to the science. But at least having one course somewhere in the back of their minds when an occasion does come up to try to explain their complex research to people from different less technical backgrounds would be helpful.
“[…] When we talk about science communication, I think what’s most important is to talk about rational decision-making and what’s known about topics that are directly relevant to the general public, like vaccines.”
I would support that. I think one course would be good. I think that some students will be so natural at it that they might feel they’re not getting much out of it, but I do think that it is important enough that an effort should be made so that all students can do their best to satisfy that role of science communicator or educator. However, I think because the level of detail of science is so overwhelming, not everything needs to be translated to the general public because it is too much information and too time consuming. The goal of science communications is not to impose what each of us works on and operate under the assumption that our work should be general knowledge, because it probably shouldn’t. It’s too specialized. So, when we talk about science communication, I think what’s most important is to talk about rational decision-making and what’s known about topics that are directly relevant to the general public, like vaccines.
But as we discover new things that shape our world and change it at a faster rate decade to decade, there’s going to be a point at which everyone is going to have to have a certain base of scientific knowledge. If we do not have enough people working to distill these ideas, then we might never be able to reach conclusions about how to deal with some of our new scientific knowledge ethically. We need to recruit more minds to help deal with some of these ethical dilemmas posed by our new technology.
Even in the context of scientists, scientists are not educated on all other scientific fields, there is just too much, so there is no way we can expect each of our labs to educate the general public because we can’t even follow or educate each other on the details of our work. So, the best thing we can do as scientists is help people think rationally because that is the most powerful weapon that we can deploy to make society better. Science communication is extremely valuable because humans are strange creatures – we didn’t evolve optimally to thrive in this world we have managed to build for ourselves. We have these strange phenomena like the anti-vaccination movement in which people are rebelling against the very thing that is keeping them alive; and that is not much of an exaggeration right? If it wasn’t for vaccinations, the human population would be half of what it is. We have really strange brain bugs that can be self-defeating. Certainly, education goes a long way in remediating some of those, but we have a lot of scientists that look down upon people that are anti-vaxxers, but we also have scientists that don’t trust GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) foods and to my mind those are equally irrational. There can be bad use of GMOs and bad use of vaccines, but these are some of the most promising technologies for combating world hunger and death. We need to be able to communicate our science effectively, focusing on the most important points, and to emphasize the scientific process and the concept of rationality more than the details of what each and every one of us does.
“If we want to improve society, we have to help people understand the brain’s flaws and why it might lead us to make bad decisions.”
“If we want to improve society, we have to help people understand the brain’s flaws and why it might lead us to make bad decisions.”
For example, I was reading today about the recall of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because there were some cases of potential vaccine induced blood clotting. That’s a very difficult thing to cope with because it’s very difficult for people to understand the concept of relative risk. If it turns out that some vaccines have a very low percentage of some serious side effects, it is probably the case that it will save more lives because the death rate of COVID is way higher than the potential for developing blood clots. I think the best thing we can do as science educators with science communication is to help teach people how to think through these important concepts like relative risk and rational thinking. For example, how does someone know if something is dangerous? That is not as trivial as it sounds. Dangerous in relation to what — not getting vaccinated? Or as to flying on a plane as opposed to driving. Flying on a plane is much safer than driving. On 9/11 3,000 people died. About 1,500 more people died because they were afraid of flying, as a consequence of 9/11, and instead decided to drive to their destinations and died in car accidents. Driving is safe but relatively it is riskier than flying. And if you have millions more people on the road, you are going to have a relative increase in deaths on the road, which was roughly half the number of people that actually died on the actual day of 9/11. In my opinion, neuroscientists should focus more on helping people understand the limits of the brain and its potential flaws. If we want to improve society, we have to help people understand the brain’s flaws and why it might lead us to make bad decisions.
I think that is really important and ties back to the question: Is writing a popular science book in some way writing a book about lies? In my opinion, people who think that are completely missing the point. The point isn’t to show every detail, it is to provide people with the information they need to make informed and rational decisions. And this is so important because public knowledge and opinion about science actually shapes the science we are able to perform. For example, if everyone were to believe that the COVID vaccine was actually more detrimental to our health than COVID itself, the next time we face a global health threat like polio or smallpox, people will not be willing to get vaccines and these diseases will be able to decimate the human population.
Some people say that if you’re writing a popular science book, you’re oversimplifying a complex problem. But to them I say, science is precisely about simplification. If I am trying to study how neural networks tell time maybe I’m simplifying by not paying attention to the potassium and sodium channels, and if you’re in cognitive neuroscience maybe you’re not paying attention to the details of the neurons. So overall science is a simplification. The trick of good science and good science communication is to find the appropriate level of simplification to transmit whatever your goal may be, and this is true of writing good scientific papers and writing good books for the general public.
Are you planning on writing another book?
Yes, but I’m not ready to talk about it yet.
What good science books would you recommend to people?
Until the End of Time – Brian Greene
The Big Picture – Sean B. Carroll
Anything by Steven Pinker or Richard Dawkins
If you could write any piece of fiction, what would it be about?
It would have to be about mental and actual time travel, wouldn’t it?
What advice would you give a grad student interested in your trajectory?
I am a scientist that happened to have written a book or two. My profession is clear cut — I’m a scientist first and foremost. So, I think for early career scientists or graduate students it’s important to focus on one of those things. One of the reasons I was able to write the book is because I was already an established PI. And being an established PI, even though I was not super well known outside of science, was important for credibility and the publication process. I would say be passionate about more than just one objective, but in all good conscience either of those paths is hard enough. It is okay to focus more on one or the other. So, PI first then author would be my suggestion. There is not much money involved in writing a book or two, so in most cases you shouldn’t see it as a profession.
Written by Arielle Hogan. Illustrated by Himani Arora.
Edited by Rebeka Popovic, Sean Noah, and Yuki Hebner.
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