NextGenVoices Results

NextGen VOICES: Results

We asked young scientists to answer this question:

What one big idea in your field do you wish that every non-scientist understood? Why?

In the 5 October 2012 issue, we ran excerpts from 17 of the many interesting responses we received. Below, you will find the full versions of those 17 essays (in the order they were printed) as well as the best (in alphabetical order) of the other submissions we received.

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Essays in print

Recently, at the London 2012 Olympic Games, a famous Austrian swimmer found a creative explanation for his moderate success: He argued that intelligent athletes have a disadvantage in competitions because they tend to think too much. In an attempt to prove his claim, he pointed to an intelligent alpine skier who only won four world cup races and an in his opinion rather unintelligent one who one more than 50. This might be an extreme example but we encounter causal oversimplification and faulty generalizations so often in our daily lives that we barely notice them anymore. What makes matters worse is that politicians throughout the world—be it intentional or not—use logical fallacies as tools to justify unmoral actions and gain votes, inciting racism, sexism, and fear as collateral damage along the way. Their success is based on the lack of a basic understanding of logical fallacies and critical thinking. Much more than from a specific scientific concept, our society would benefit from knowledge of (and training in) scientific reasoning. The Austrian swimmer—although apparently hindered by his intelligence—managed to win 34 medals at major events throughout his very successful career.
Rudolf Griss
Laboratory of Protein Engineering, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, Lausanne, CH-1015, Switzerland.
E-mail: rudolf.griss{at}

I wish every non-scientist understood the true validity and utility of carbon offsets for climate change mitigation. One of the main reasons why the international community has failed to make sufficient progress on climate change mitigation policy is that most non-scientists do not understand the true usefulness of carbon markets in the transition to a low carbon future. Carbon markets are our best climate policy alternative because they create options for lowest cost climate change mitigation. Carbon markets enable these options through the availability of carbon offsets. Twenty years ago the concept of carbon offsetting was heralded as a key enabler for climate change mitigation action. But as carbon markets grew and investment clustered around carbon offset types and locales that presented superior financial performance—but often dubious social and ecological outcomes—the validity of carbon offsetting was called into question. Moreover, firms that acquired offsets did so without changing the way they do business "at-home" and only minimal "real" emissions reductions occurred. Climate activists called for action and policy-makers responded, placing constraints and often contrived controls on offset authentication. The fact that carbon offsetting can be good seems to have been lost in an ideological debate about development justice, achieving emissions reductions in established industries, and the blind pursuit of governance rigor. Scientific perspectives have been largely overlooked. We need offsets that contribute to genuine sustainable outcomes, but we also need to make progress on climate change mitigation, and offsets enable a more economically palatable transition.
Paul Dargusch
School of Geography Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia.
E-mail: p.dargusch{at}

I am an environmental toxicologist, and I wish that people understood the concepts of hazard and risk and the differences between the two. Chemicals are hazardous—even things we might think of as benign or "natural"—but they only cause a problem when they reach a concentration that is associated with a hazard. Risk = Hazard AND Exposure. I am frustrated by news and social media outlets that insight fear of "hazardous chemicals" in the general public without ever considering the level to which exposure is occurring.
Katherine Coady
The Dow Chemical Company, Midland, MI 48674, USA.
E-mail: ktcoady05{at}

Evolution occurs on all time scales. Numerous recent examples of rapid phenotypic evolution in wild populations, occurring over the span of just a few generations, have taught modern biologists that evolutionary change is something we can often observe directly. Yet the average non-scientist (perhaps even the average non-biologist) sees evolution as an obtuse contrivance born out of a bizarre combination of old bones and some genetic code: evolution crawls through the millennia at a pace that is slower than anything humans can easily imagine. This mindset allows many to safely ignore evolution, or, worse, reject it entirely. Imagine, for example, how much stronger the argument for evolution would be in the mind of a young skeptic after seeing the evolutionary process unfold before their own eyes. Beyond education, the misunderstanding that evolution occurs primarily on a geologic time scale has impeded societal endeavors such as human medicine, harvest of natural resources, and conservation efforts. But times are changing. Physicians are updating antibiotic dosage suggestions to curb the evolution of drug-resistant pathogens. Fisheries management agencies are applying life history theory to effectively manage wild stock. Conservation groups are realizing the importance of conserving genetic variation in threatened species. As the next generation of teachers replaces the old guard, grade school students will observe evolution in action and carry these observations with them into adulthood. A public grasp of one of the biggest ideas in contemporary evolutionary biology is within reach.
Stephen P. De Lisle
Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON M5S 3B2, Canada.
E-mail: s.delisle{at}

The immunology underlying vaccines. It frustrates me to no end that available, effective inventions to combat disease aren't always used due to media reporting and mass hysteria. If the public and media networks fully understood the science behind vaccines, preventable deaths could be avoided.
Aditi Halder  
University of Queensland, St. Lucia, QLD 4067, Australia.
E-mail: aditi.halder{at}

I wish the public understood the endosymbiotic theory. In realizing that mitochondria have a radically different genome than what exists in our nuclear DNA, one has to grapple with a startling idea: life as we know it would not exist without these small organelles, once mere foreign bodies inside our single-celled ancestors. For all our arrogance, humans are not independent from other life on this planet; the story of the natural world is not only about the struggle of individual species but about the relationships between them. Understanding our interconnectedness provides plenty of food for thought—and thoughtful citizens make thoughtful stewards.
Jillian Walker
Department of Biological Sciences, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA 91768, USA.
E-mail: jswalker{at}

I work in the field of medical genetics and genetic counseling, an area where the contact with the non-scientific public is very intense. It would be great if we could better explain concepts related to risk of recurrence, recessive inheritance, and de novo mutations, among many others. Sometimes it is very difficult to alleviate the sense of guilt that parents of malformed children experience during a counseling session, or to make people understand that some diseases are more frequent in certain ethnic groups. It is relatively easier, in my opinion, to talk about the role the environment plays on the susceptibility for diseases, but patients tend to be more confused when it comes to intrinsic traits that are not modified by a simple change of habits. In this way, I believe that people would greatly benefit from a basic knowledge of the genetic basis of diseases.
Eduardo Preusser de Mattos
Department of Genetics, Genetics and Molecular Biology Graduate Program, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, 91501-970, Brazil.
E-mail: eduardo.mattos{at}

Most laymen think that the perceived increase in complexity in the course of evolution in the Animal Kingdom is mirrored by an increase in the number of genes encoded by the particular animal genomes. Today we know that this notion is inaccurate, yet not that long ago, before the first genome projects were completed, many scientists also shared this view. The idea of ever-increasing complexity is rooted in a strong adherence to the old Aristotelean world view of hierarchical classification of living things, which still permeates our everyday thinking. But in this case, it is time to let it go. The past two decades provided plenty of evidence that the endless variety of forms surrounding us is the product of just a handful of signaling pathways and gene regulatory modules, which are used iteratively over and over during development. Just as the imaginative combination of a limited number of Lego bricks can create a dazzling array of forms, so can changes in the regulation of key genes create new pigmentation patterns, new appendages or new behaviors. If people came to terms with this concept, most likely they would accept more readily our place in Nature as just one branch on the Tree of Life. But more important, a widespread acceptance of the idea that all living beings are organized modularly could spur innovative thinking, as already demonstrated by the more and more elaborate designs presented at the annual iGEM competitions.
Máté Varga
Department of Genetics, Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest H-1117, Hungary.
E-mail: m.varga{at}

The idea that one of the biggest threats to public health is the rise in the drug-resistant pathogens. Due to increased global trade and travels, these pathogens can spread easily. This is a truly global research system is necessary and timely. We never know when local problems and solutions may become global, and every part of the world has a contribution to make.
Patrick Kobina Arthur
Department of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Ghana, Legon-Accra, Ghana.
E-mail: parthur{at}

My field is fungal biology. I work with different species of fungi, many of which are pathogens. Apart from being an interesting subject to study, the fact that they are pathogenic will more readily get my research funded. I wish more people, non-scientists as well as some prominent scientists, understood that organisms that cause disease are defined as pathogens only in relation to the organisms they affect. The organisms, affected directly or indirectly that receive most attention are humans. Pests causing infestations and epidemics are usually an integral part of the ecosystem. Often, we overlook the fact that diseases occurring at a larger scale are caused by an ecosystem imbalance. We overlook the fact that, many times, imbalances are caused by anthropogenic factors and are indicators of our own shortsighted harmful activities that lead to medical and environmental catastrophes. So, we've come full circle. In general, if more people adopted a less anthropocentric perception of their existence they would be freer to plan a sustainable future in the long term with research efforts and funding perhaps shifting towards other areas of life sciences like biodiversity and conservation.
Ljerka Lah
Laboratory for Molecular Biology and Nanobiotechnology, National Institute of Chemistry, Ljubljana SI-1000, Slovenia.
E-mail: ljerka.lah{at}

I am in science policy and I wish everyone had a better understanding that science itself is not politicized or inherently supportive of one party or another. Too many people I think believe that science serves only a particular viewpoint or political argument. In reality, science is the underlying foundation on which to make policy decisions that may or may not hinge on the science itself. With a better understanding of that, I hope people would not be as quick to criticize scientific reports and the scientists who produce them based solely on the conclusions.
Anish Goel
Technology Policy and Geopolitical Affairs, The Boeing Company, Seattle, WA 98101, USA.
E-mail: anish.goel{at}

The completion of the human genome sequencing project in 2000, allowed the possibility of identifying patients who are likely to benefit from a particular drug, or even identify those at risk for developing serious adverse reactions. In particular, pharmacogenomics now offer the potential to tailor drug treatment in which efficacy and safety of medications is optimized for every patient. Through pharmacogenomics, the current paradigm of one-drug-fits-all approach is about to change because medicine will be personalized. A clear understanding of pharmacogenomics would lead to safer prescription, reduced risk of adverse side effects, minimize healthcare cost, and improved clinical outcomes. In addition, a better insight of this concept will encourage the public to participate in clinical trials in order to bridge the knowledge gap among clinicians, scientists, as well as the non-medical community. This will pave the way for the advancement of medicine and improvement of standard practice.
Michael O. Baclig
Research and Biotechnology Division, St. Luke's Medical Center, Quezon City, 1102, Philippines.
E-mail: mobaclig{at}

The concept of gene-environment interaction that could predispose us to the progression of certain diseases. Diseases are often multifaceted in nature and studying merely genetics or simple in vitro models are not sufficient in recapitulating the environmental factors which we are exposed to across the years that could have influenced our chances of contracting certain diseases. If everyone can take a small step to mitigate possible deleterious gene-environment interactions by altering their lifestyles, we can potentially reduce our healthcare costs even without discovering novel treatments to delay or reverse the progression of the diseases plaguing the developed world.
Bryce Tan
Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore, 119077, Singapore.
E-mail: brycetan03{at}

Uncertainty. It does not mean I don't know. It is quantifiable. It is understandable. Communication between non-scientists and scientists would improve greatly if non-scientists understood scientific uncertainty. I work between the fields of environmental engineering and ecology in interdisciplinary research. My work links to sensitive issues such as climate change and environmental pollution. We are scientists, not fortune-tellers or psychics reading into the future. No, we cannot predict every exact detail what will happen because of human impacts on the Earth system. But, using scientific observations combined with sophisticated models, we can determine a range what could happen and what most likely will happen. Our answers are not black and white, yes or no. We operate in the grey, but because we have uncertainty does not mean that we cannot act. The lack of inaction frustrates me. The haltingly slow pace of political action and the reluctance of public opinion tie back to different understandings of scientific and colloquial uncertainty. We know humans are changing the world; we have an understanding of the ramifications of these actions. Uncertainty is not a reason to do nothing, especially when it is a misunderstanding.
Sarah M. Anderson
Nitrogen Systems: Policy-Oriented Interdisciplinary Research and Education–IGERT and School of Biological Sciences, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164, USA.
E-mail: sarah.anderson2{at}

Stop overuse of antibiotics. The number of deaths due to bacterial infection exceeds that of any other reason in human history. Fortunately, the discovery of antibiotics is one of the important factors for tremendous increase in the population after World War II. Recommendation of antibiotics of any kind of abnormal physiological conditions is common practice in developing countries like Nepal. Even though we are not sick, we use antibiotics in our daily life, for example, cosmetics, shampoo, and meat from antibiotics-treated animals. Thus, direct or indirect and repeated use of antibiotics may deplete the effectiveness of all available antibiotics. Obviously, the number of bacterial strains acquiring resistance against the most of the antibiotics is being increased. Improper use and overuse of antibiotics are the major reasons of increasing multi-drug–resistant (MDR) bacterial strains. Bacteria may vanquish and gain sovereignty again over humankind unless everyone stops overuse and misuse of antibiotics.
Bishnu P. Marasini
Natural Product Research Laboratory, Nepal Academy of Science and Technology, Khumaltar, Lalitpur, Nepal.
E-mail: bishnu.marasini{at}

Unlocking extraordinary talent from the brain. Imagine you become able to communicate in 20 languages, draw perfect circles with bare hands, memorize music after listening once, or recognize the day of the week of any given date in a matter of seconds even without training! This may sound unbelievable to non-scientists, but these special abilities are really observed in "idiot savants," who are mentally disabled due to congenital brain abnormality. Rarely, healthy people miraculously acquire the talent following a brain injury. If the mechanisms are unraveled, anyone will have a chance to display amazing language, artistic, musical, or mathematical skills. With neurological techniques, scientists recently began to understand how savant talent works. The idea is that the origin of prodigious skills is actually buried deep in our mind! Brain damage releases them by triggering unusual signal rewiring through brain regions that normal people cannot access. Interestingly, Albert Einstein's brain showed similar vacancy of brain regions! By identifying and activating appropriate regions, we should possess profound brain capacity. Indeed, savant-like skills temporarily induced by brain stimulations were demonstrated in ordinary people. Hopefully, the discovery can help develop therapeutic strategy that revitalizes brain function in patients with neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease. As a neuroscientist working on learning and memory, I wish every non-scientist could appreciate the beauty of our sophisticated neural circuits and understand that dramatic enhancement of human intelligence is optimistically possible. One day, when the mystery is fully revealed by scientists, we can acquire knowledge and skills more effectively, thereby enjoying a very wonderful world!
Chun-Wai Ma
Department of Physiology, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China.
E-mail: cwma2010{at}

My wish for every non-scientist is that they understood the big idea that scientific research is not only a justified and important undertaking, but integral to every aspect of our lives. To quote a recent article, "just about every challenge that America faces today has a scientific component, from revitalizing the economy to dealing with climate change to managing health care." To me, the lack of understanding of the role of science in our lives represents a failure of society to prioritize scientific research and education. It marginalizes the role observational and experimental design, coupled with rigorous hypothesis testing, have in our daily lives. Our relationships with friends and family, our food, our health, the environment, governmental agencies and social groups are all informed by scientific research. As a PhD student, one of the most challenging—and sometimes discouraging—things for me to explain to a non-scientist is why I chose to be a scientist, and why my research matters. The satisfaction and joy I have when accomplishing a hard-earned research project, adding valuable data to a long-term study, or discovering a new question to explore can be intangible to a non-scientist. I don't expect non-scientists to fully understand why I chose my career path, but the notion that science is a critical component to understanding our world, now more than ever, seems lost on many. My passion for science will never wane; my wish is that support of science and scientists doesn't either.
Elizabeth M. Phillips
School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.
E-mail: emp11{at}

Top Online Essays

Evolution. Besides being the answer to the big question "where do we come from," understanding of the concept of natural selection and evolution would lead to rejection of irrational beliefs and religious blindness, eventually eliminating cultural barriers and many conflicts.
Hugo Alonso
Department of Plant Sciences, Research School of Biology, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 200, Australia.
E-mail: hugo.alonso{at}

This big idea is not unique to my field (epidemiology), but it is too often ignored despite its compelling simplicity: chance is always a valid explanation for any research finding. Your P-value, which indicates the probability of observing a statistical association that is at least as strong as the one in your experiment given that the null hypothesis of "no effect" is actually true, can be infinitesimally small, but it is never zero! In plain English, that means that if we test enough hypotheses (i.e., conduct enough studies), we are likely to find a statistically significant relationship simply by chance—and that will not bring us any closer to uncovering true causes of diseases or any other phenomena. So what is the answer? In my field, combining statistical data with biologically plausible mechanisms is a good first step (after all, that is how we got to the relationship between lung cancer and smoking). But for all of us, it is important to stay vigilant and skeptical in the face of seemingly striking, almost miraculous results. Because very often, miracles in science simply go by another name: chance.
Stella Aslibekyan
Department of Epidemiology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL 35294, USA.
E-mail: saslibek{at}

Nuclear fusion as an energy source.  If given the funding it needs, fusion can be the energy of the future, but many don't understand what it really is and how close we are.  Some are even scared of it.  If the general public understood nuclear fusion, maybe the funding would show up in places like NIF and PPPL and we can begin to solve the world energy problems.
Adam Corey Benoit
Lincolnton, NC 28092, USA.
E-mail: abeno4480{at}

Entropy. Because everybody knows that water boils at 100 degrees and that it freezes at 0 degrees, but only a few can understand the reason why it is at those particular temperatures (at normal pressure) and not any other. I think it is a beautiful mathematical concept that explains the behavior of systems of nature. I also think it makes us realize that no principle drives nature to occupy a certain state; this state is only observed because it is the most probable. This gives a great argument for the importance of randomness in the arrangement of all the molecules and atoms that surround us.
Andre Pierre Blanchard-Dionne
Department of Engineering Physics, Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, Montreal, QC H2T2V2, Canada.
E-mail: andre-pierre.blanchard-Dionne{at}

When I got deep into biology I found that no matter how simple or complex the biologic process, deep down, is was all about affinity. The most amazing reactions in the cell are based on molecules "liking" molecules and specially preferring one over the other. Something as complex as gene transcription depends on changes in the charges of histones that enables other proteins to reach DNA and put into action their own affinity for it. The metabolic processes that allow us to convert food into energy depend on certain molecules called "enzymes," these enzymes have high affinity for their "substrates," and it is this affinity that enables us to obtain energy in an efficient and orderly fashion. Even bugs depend on their affinity for the cells they infect, because their structure might resemble certain proteins in our body that bind to the receptor the bug is now using to enter the cell (kind of like an evil twin stealing your boyfriend). In the same way we girls put on makeup and our best dress and hope that the environment at the bar where we are meeting a great guy unravels our best features to attract him, the environment the molecules are immersed in can modify their structure and make them more attractive to their cognate receptor which in turn, can also change their "look" to make the "match" possible. So, I guess that what I would like non-scientist to understand is that inside and out, all we need is "love."
Ada Gabriela Blidner
Angel H. Roffo Institute of Oncology, University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, C1417DTB, Argentina.
E-mail: adablidner{at}

I wish that non-scientists understood the general concept of basic research, let alone a big idea from my field specifically. I have often heard non-scientists wondering why the government wastes so much money studying frogs, flies, or other seemingly random topics. When Eric Hunter started his career studying obscure retroviruses, or so the story I've been told goes, many wondered why so much money should be spent studying these particular viruses. Then, in the early 1980s a novel retro virus was discovered to be causing illness and was called HIV. The similarities between the retroviruses and HIV led Eric to apply his experience and knowledge to studying HIV. Today we still know HIV as one of the greatest threats to public health. Now I would like to ask the non-scientist, was the money spent supporting Eric Hunter's research on retroviruses a good use of public funds?
Matthew Boersma
Departments of Neurology and Neurobiology, Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA 02115, USA.
E-mail: matthew.boersma{at}

How is it possible that a same entity (let's call it a hormone) produces different effects depending on where it acts? In fact, does not a flame of fire always increase temperature of an object? This issue frequently visited me during the beginning of my career. There are several studies showing that a same hormone produces different effects depending on its target cell. It took me numerous nights (and readings of course) to figure it out. The answer lies in the environment in which such entity acts. But then, how does the environment affect the transduction of this signal? It's widely accepted that the environment determines cell state (levels of receptors, second messengers' availability, signal transduction protein complexes configuration, etc.). So, even though the entity operating may be the same, the initial condition of the cell is singular (determined by the environment) and thereby, the mechanism of action differs, giving different responses as a result. Actually, we won't get the same outcome if we flame a glass of water in the Sahara desert or in the windy cold coasts of Antarctica: initial conditions of each glass are different. In summary, the big idea to share is that a same entity may differentially act depending on the environment. In my opinion, realizing this is really an eye-opener, and this notion goes beyond the field of natural sciences: A social behavior may be affected by the environment, an economic measure may be positive or negative depending on the environment, and so on…
Juan Jose Bonfiglio
Laboratorio de Fisiologia y Biologia Molecular y Celular, University of Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires C1428EGA, Argentina.

For nearly a decade, the general public has heard about a master clock deep in the brain that serves as an alarm clock; telling us when to sleep, wake-up, and when the body should initiate a cascade of other events important for health and survival. This internal clock, known as the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), does not act alone, however. Recently, peripheral clocks that lie in a host of highly metabolic tissues, including the heart, lung, pancreas, liver, adipose, and elsewhere in the brain, have begun and are continuing to be discovered. Further, it has been shown that these peripheral, or extra-SCN, clocks coordinate with the master clock to ensure that robust, daily rhythms of behavioral, physiological, and cellular events are appropriately timed and maintained. The general public, however, has little awareness about these peripheral clocks, and more importantly, how misalignment of peripheral pacemaking with the master clock can have serious consequences on health by doing something as common and as frequent as pulling an all-nighter, doing shift work, or traveling across several time-zones. Beyond their discovery, the tissue-specific functions of these peripheral clocks are being identified. To date, biologically important functions such as rest/activity rhythms, body weight, and glucose homeostasis are specifically regulated by peripheral clocks in the brain, skeletal muscle, and pancreas in transgenic mice. This makes public knowledge of these tissue-specific clock functions all the more imperative because, again, environmental-induced misalignment can dramatically increase risks for a host of metabolic, cardiovascular, and skeletomuscular disease states.
Allison Joy Brager
Department of Neurobiology, Morehouse School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA 30310, USA.
E-mail: allison.brager{at}

I wish that people understood the creativity that scientists have to have. It's not just following protocols and mechanically pipetting; you have to think of experiments that no one else has done and try to figure out the best questions to answer. This aspect of creativity isn't addressed enough in our science education.
Lindsay Carpp
Seattle BioMed, Seattle, WA 98109, USA.
E-mail: lindsay.carpp{at}

Imagine going to a clinic and the medical doctor offers you a banana. You consume the banana, pay the bill, and then go home. No need for a needle injection, but you are now well protected from a deadly disease. This is neither fairy tale nor science fiction, but a possible future with the development of plant-made vaccines. The idea is to use a plant, such as banana or tomato, as a bioreactor to produce the desired antigenic ingredients and to consume the plant as a vaccine with minimal processing involved. This eliminates the expansive procedures of fermentation, purification, cold storage, and sterile delivery as with the current vaccine production method. Conventional laboratory settings can be replaced by greenhouses, while electricity and culture media will be substituted by natural photosynthesis. Technologies for downstream processing of plant-made vaccines can be readily adapted from the food industry where such technologies have long been developed. This will significantly reduce the cost of vaccine production and allow greater accessibility of the vaccine, particularly in third world countries. Although there is yet to be a plant-made vaccine available for human consumption, many are currently undergoing phase I clinical trials. Public awareness of such technology is, therefore, important to gain wider acceptance and to pave the way for regulatory approval. This rather ambitious goal may at first seem to be far-reaching, but so was the idea of vaccination a century ago. Nonetheless, the outcome would be revolutionary to our approach to vaccination.
Tiong Sun Chia
Western Australian Institute for Medical Research, University of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, 6000, Australia.
E-mail: tiongsun{at}

A great infant neurologist, Claudine Amiel-Tisson titled a book: "Un cerveaux pour la vie" [A brain for a lifetime]. If everyone could understand the depth and width of this five-word statement our human race would be better cared for. A complex, self organized biological system, made for continuous change, with the remarkable ability to process and transfer internal and external info, and to integrate it in what defines us as humans, the human experience (cognition, emotion, and behavior), is called the brain. A simple motor experience in a baby, such as hand-to-mouth, induces neural signals that activate gene expression in the motor cortex, preceding synapse formation, and leading to motor map reorganization, which results in learning a sucking behavior. These changes are part of a mechanism (neuroplasticity) by which the brain encodes experience and learning, in response to what we feel, do, think, or even imagine. Neuroscience research has yielded a great deal of information on how abnormalities in these mechanisms contribute to the pathogenesis of neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's disease, as well as on the experience-dependent brain plasticity, which can be capitalized by those working in rehabilitation. We need to take care of our own brains, and those involved with children, such as parents, teachers, doctors, nurses, should realize that they are shaping the brains of tomorrow. Even you are ending up with a brain a little different from that you had when starting reading these 244 words. Isn't that amazing?
María Lucrecia Cúneo Libarona
Metodología de la Investigación, Universidad del Salvador, Hospital Sarda, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
E-mail: maria.libarona{at}

There are escalating rates of alarm on one of the leading health care problems today: obesity. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of developing many health conditions. Obesity is merely not just having too much weight in the body nor simply about the high fat and sugar levels in many bulk-produced instant food as well as super-size portions. Every non-scientist should be able to understand that there are also molecular mechanisms involved in this phenomenon. Recently, researchers have discovered Bsx, the molecule that links continuous physical activity and nutrient intake in mice. Results show that mice lacking Bsx manifest fewer continuous physical activities, sense hunger signals differently and have a lower concentration of feeding hormones in their brain as compared to normal mice. Through these insights, it might serve as a basis for new methodologies to prevent obesity and resulting diseases such as cardiovascular conditions and diabetes in humans. Upon understanding the molecular mechanisms involved, we can formulate specific personalized medicines that would be able to manage or prevent the occurrence of such disease.
Emmanuel Castillo Damian
Research and Biotechnology Division, St. Luke's College of Medicine, William H. Quasha Memorial, Quezon City, 1112, Philippines.
E-mail: damian_emman{at}

That science is about relationships, you might gain in one area but you sacrifice in another, a balance must always be found. Particularly in nanosciences, it is when we play with the relationship between different properties that we get the most interesting results. For example, smaller is not always better. If we change the relation of surface area to interior molecules we may change the activity of the particles, for example in catalyzers, yet make them too small and they are no longer stable. Change the aspect ratios of nanorods and their interaction with light changes, an interaction that also depends on the relation between the wavelength of light and the size of the nanoparticle. Medication may be effective but also be too toxic to utilize. Balance is hard to achieve, be it in life, society, or science, yet the best results are found when one walks that fine line.
Sebastián Andrés Díaz
Laboratory for Cellular Dynamics, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Göttingen, Niedersachsen, 37077, Germany.
E-mail: sdiaz{at}

The main big issue I'm concerning with and wish everyone—especially non-scientists—could understand is the degradation of our environment and natural resources on our Earth! As I'm working in an environmental field, specifically climate change mitigation and adaptation, I could say that few people fully understand the gravity of the threat, or its immediacy. Unfortunately, most of our natural resources are considered non-renewable. However, the human greed to consume and waste all the resources of the environment in very short time without caring about future sustainability and insistence to pollute the surroundings could be considered immeasurable! Furthermore, the biggest industrial countries, which are the biggest CO2 emitters, usually blame each other or less industrial countries without taking serious actions or enforcing penalties on themselves to compensate what has been squandering already and ensure more effective usage of resources in the future that isn't inconsistent with human development and civilization. It's our Earth, so we have to save it as well as we can and put aside our conflict. We have to make a good and fair connection between science and political decisions and not deal with ecosystem services as a business case!
Sara Hamdy El Adham
Crisis Management, Arab Academy for Science, Technology, and Maritime Transport (AASTMT), Alexandria, Egypt.
E-mail: hamdy.sara{at}

I wish that every non-scientist appreciated the universality of energy transformation, particularly as it applies to the advanced forms of energy generation that are making headlines today. Whether they realize it or not, nearly every layperson already grasps energy conversion in terms of fundamental thermodynamics: Your bicycle brakes warming up as you slow to a stop at the bottom of a steep hill, or your automobile burning gasoline as you motor down the freeway. These concepts are very familiar. But what about a solar cell? Or a thermoelectric device? For most non-scientists, the idea of getting electricity from light or heat is exceedingly foreign—magical, even—despite these being simply other forms of energy transformation. But there must be ways to shed light on these technologies for non-scientists. For example, while the intricacies of semiconductor physics might be lost on the non-scientist, I feel that analogy to everyday phenomena, such as gravity, could be used to explain the idea of, say, photoexcited charge separation in an electric field, which would serve to demystify the solar cell. Armed with a basic understanding of the science behind these alternative forms of energy generation, the non-scientist would be better equipped to make educated, rational judgments about these technologies, be it in their private lives or in energy policy.
Matthew Scott Faber
Department of Chemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Madison, WI 53706, USA.
E-mail: mfaber{at}

I wish every non-scientist better understood the limits of science, that there are questions that science cannot answer. The non-scientific questions I hear most often fall into two camps, untestable and normative. In the untestable camp, I'll be asked about something meta-physical in nature, unobservable and untestable; therefore, outside of the realm of the scientific method. In the normative camp, I'll be asked something about what should or shouldn't be done. Science makes positive statements. It is a valuable tool in determining what was, what is, and in predicting what will be. Science cannot address normative statements; for example, whether or not a city should implement a needle exchange program is not a question directly addressable by science. It is fairly well established that needle exchange programs reduce the spread of HIV, and probably other preventable blood-borne diseases, a positive statement. Whether or not the city should implement a needle exchange program is a matter of policy, not science. Furthermore, I find it troubling when policy decisions are made referencing science in a normative manner; that is, policy X should be implemented because the evidence is interpreted as demonstrating Y—a classic is-ought problem. Science can inform policy; science cannot make policy.
Ryan M. Harrison
Wolfson College, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, OX2 6UD, UK.
E-mail: ryan.harrison{at}

I believe that, in the field of psychology, knowledge about cognitive biases is needed. Most of our decisions, although somewhat rational, may not be made with the most accurate tools. This is due to our heuristics and biases. Since we all want our scientists and non-scientist to think critically and make decisions rationally, we first have to let everyone know what are the most commons mistakes we make in order to avoid them.
David Hernández
Tibás, San José, 1100-Tibás, Costa Rica.
E-mail: dada.burro{at}

It is very interesting why some people develop severe inflammatory reactions to harmless substances whereas others tolerate them. It is known that allergies are strongly familiar, showing that genetics play an important role in developing allergies. But what many people do not know is that environmental factors or the contact with pathogens and parasites in early childhood are also very important factors for developing allergic diseases. The known treatments for allergies merely lead to a reduction in the severity of symptoms and show only a small chance of curing the disease. In the past, a lot of efficient vaccines against various pathogens have been developed, but no long-term protection for allergies has been established. Many non-scientists cannot understand why it is so complicated to develop similar vaccines for allergies. But it is important to inform people about limitations, perspectives, and also risks of new approaches of allergic treatments. As regulatory T cells (Treg) are known to control allergic reactions, therapies focusing on inducing Treg in vivo could be a helpful approach to gain long-term amelioration of the allergic symptoms. So far, the safest way is to avoid the allergen in order to circumvent an allergic reaction.
Christina Hesse
Institute of Infection Immunology, Hannover, D-30625, Germany.
E-mail: christina-hesse{at}

Our bodies' ability to perform the functions we rely on every day is dependent on the food we give it. Cells have a remarkable capacity to survive sub-optimal conditions and work with what they are given, but if you don't eat it, your body doesn't get it. All of those microscopic processes you heard about in school or on the news—white blood cells fighting infection, mitochondria producing usable energy, genes being expressed, muscles being built—they all need starting materials, many of which need to be eaten! Why do we prioritize what we wear and what we drive and how we look, the things that go outside our body, over what goes into our bodies? Why do we get mad at our bodies for falling ill or hurting or getting tired when we don't give them the tools to avoid it? Look at what you choose to eat over the course of a day and consider how reasonable it is to expect the complex carnival that is your body to run off of what you've provided. Nutrition is complicated, and advice is abundant, both good and bad. This isn't about getting exactly the right formula, it's about the first step of recognizing that your body is dependent on what you feed it.
Lin Huffman
College of Natural Sciences, The University of Texas, Austin, TX 78712, USA.
E-mail: lhuffman{at}

The idea of rational drug use is one of the most important ideas in drug therapy. If it were understood by everyone (including non-scientists), it could improve the fight against microbes' drug resistance. The use of antimicrobials for any infection, in any dose and over any time period, causes a "selective pressure" on the microbial population. The majority of microbes will be killed and the body's immune system can deal with the rest. Treatment will fail if a few resistant mutants exist in the population under selective pressure and treatment is insufficient or the patient is immunocompromised. The emergence of resistance to drugs is a natural biological phenomenon but can be accelerated and amplified by other factors like pollution, environmental degradation, changing weather pattern, and inappropriate drug use (irrational drug use). Inappropriate drug use is the most important cause of resistance and it occurs when drugs are taken for too short period, at low a dose, at inadequate potency, or for wrong disease and overuses. Although some causes of irrational drug use are difficult to control, such as economic hardship, some are merely due to lack of understanding that drugs are to be taken strictly as prescribed; for example, patients should not stop taking an antimicrobial as soon as they feel better. The microbes that have accumulated resistance genes to virtually all currently available drugs have the potential to cause untreatable infections. Therefore it is the duty of everyone, scientist and non-scientist, to fight drug resistance by practicing rational drug use.
Morgan David Kamanga
College of Medicine, University of Malawi, Blantyre 360, Malawi.
E-mail: mdkamanga{at}

Code biology. The idea that life—cells—have their own language based on signs, meanings, and codes to relate the two, much like a real language. That information is an entity indispensable to understanding life. I hope that this would open up people's minds to the elegance, the beauty of life, and that biology seeks to reveal the underlying poetry of it all.
Stefan Kühn
Department of Biochemistry, University of Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch, Western Cape, 7602 Matieland, South Africa.
E-mail: stefank{at}

The phosphorus cycle. Phosphorus, along with carbon and nitrogen, is an important component of the life molecules: DNA, RNA, and ATP. Phosphorus is the limiting agent in the growth of plants and hence key to modern agriculture and food security. The heavy and sometimes ill-advised use of synthetic fertilizers in farming adversely affects the phosphorus cycle. The limited phosphorous deposits and the costs involved in conversion of the phosphate rock into a fertilizer product calls for judicious use of phosphorus-based fertilizers. In this regard, a broad public awareness on the phosphorus cycle is essential. Such awareness leads to political action to safeguard this critical and dwindling resource.
Hari Krishna Reddy Kurre
Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, Karnataka, 560012, India.
E-mail: khkreddy.iisc{at}

The symbiotic relationship between human society and nature. So that we would be quickly able to make the necessary changes to our social operations and could stop acting like parasites eating away our own future. This means that an average non-scientist would not have to know a lot of details about a lot of fields, but rather have a change in the way of looking and understanding the world around us, to question more and think in terms of absolute sustainability. So to sum it up I would say a change in social conscience is need the most and the best way to bring it about is to awaken the inner scientist in all of us.
Sten Leima
Tallinn University of Technology, Tallinn, Estonia.
E-mail: stenleima{at}

The human brain is so vastly complex that we're still largely ignorant of how it works. It's tempting to take the shortcut of reverse inference, believing that if part X of the brain has been shown to be active during process Y, then any time that part X is active means that the brain is engaged in process Y. For example, if the insula has been shown to be active when viewing images of our romantic partners, then insula activity when viewing images of iPhones means that we love our iPhones. Such reasoning may generate headlines but neglects the fact that the insula is also active in studies of pain, disgust, hunger, and more. Surely no one would believe that we want to eat our iPhones! Unscrupulous reverse inference can lead to cherry-picking of results that are sexy or seem plausible, but it doesn't get us closer to the truth of how our brains work. Even worse, it cheats the brain of its true complexity!
Rosa Li
Department of Cognitive Neuroscience, Duke University, Durham, NC 27701, USA.
E-mail: rosa.lI{at}

As humans, we normally consider ourselves as a uniform whole. We are one body, one mind and one organism. We have our human genetic blueprint in form of the DNA we inherit from our parents, and this creates what we consider an individual. This is not, however, the complete sum of the genetic material that influences us as an organism. In the field of symbiosis, this notion is questioned as more and more studies report the effects symbionts have on its host. Millions and millions of symbionts, from all three domains of life, affect our whole being, from helping us with digestion, to influencing our behavior. In fact, there are more non-human cells then there are human cells, in a single person. If you want to take it even further, you can start to question where the extent of the multi-cellular being we call Homo sapiens ends, and where the multitudes of beings that inhabit our bodies, begin. Are bacteria that help prevent infections a part of the immune system? Are archaea that help digest nutrients part of our metabolism? The classic notion of the sum being greater than its parts is very much true when it comes to the human body and its symbionts.
Anders Erik Lind
Department of Cell and Developmental Biology, Medical University of Vienna, Vienna 1090, Austria.
E-mail: anders.lind{at}

As an undergraduate student, I am surrounded by professors trying to convey the most important concepts, the big ideas of their field, to students. At the beginning of my introductory biology class, our professor asked us how many people were considering a future in medicine. The lecture hall became a sea of raised hands. He proceeded to tell us that life is incredibly complex, that things were going wrong in our bodies that very second. He said that if we didn't take a moment every once in a while to be in awe of our existence, the fact that we were functioning, that we were in the wrong field. That is what I wish every non-scientist understood: the complexity of life. How genuinely incredible and amazing it is that we are here, surviving. I believe that if everyone knew how much work their bodies put into even the simplest of tasks, they would appreciate their bodies more, treat them better. I think we would treat each other, our fellow animals, and all other creatures on the Earth with more respect. I believe we would be kinder to our world if everyone recognized how hard it is to live, that the struggle for survival is very real for everyone, especially on the cellular level.
Hannah Miller
Beacon, NY 12508, USA.
E-mail: hannah.miller1524{at}

Almost a century and a half ago, two scientists in different places of the world were studying to understand key issues of life. Gregor Mendel was trying to understand what was responsible for variations within species with his famous pea experiments in a monastery's garden. At the same time, Charles Darwin was ready to publish his astonishing idea to explain variations among species. Mendel's studies were ignored for years and Darwin's theory was debated. But not very much later, both of the scientists earned respect of the others with their revolutionary studies. The resulting idea of these two studies and other contributing ones was that life has a "source code" which is shared by every life form and transferred to new generations and it can change over time to bore variations and even new life forms. Nature utilizes this phenomenon so that variations in and among species guarantees survival of life on Earth by enabling adaptation to different conditions. I wish that this big idea was understood by every non-scientist because this enlightenment could hopefully lead people to tolerate and respect other humans and life forms. If people stay unaware of this fact and insist on selfish attitudes, this ignorance will eventually collapse the biosphere, like a cancer cell killing its bearing body.
Gürkan Mollaoğlu
Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics, Koc University, Istanbul 34450, Turkey.
E-mail: gmollaoglu{at}

Atoms. I would like everyone to understand that everything on Earth is made of atoms and just the atoms on the periodic table. The only difference between the atoms of an explosive and an orange is their arrangement. An atom has no memory of its history. The only thing that matters is how the atoms are currently arranged. The possible arrangements are grouped as chemicals and thus everything is made of chemicals. There is no such thing as truly chemical-free sunscreen or organic table salt. While contaminants and side effects give legitimate cause for concern about new products and technologies, it is not their unnatural origin that makes them inherently unsafe. Likewise, natural products like snake venom are not inherently safe just for being natural. All of these things differ only in the arrangement of their basic building blocks: atoms.
Neilson Nguyen
Department of Chemistry, University of Toronto, Mississauga, ON, L5L 1C6, Canada.
E-mail: neilson.nguyen{at}

A-C-T-G: These four nitrogenous bases form the backbone of DNA in all life on this planet. If the concept of universality of the genetic code were widely understood, it would be remarkable. All living creatures, from past dinosaurs to current apes and mosquitoes, from Sequoia trees to microscopic algae, bacteria, fungi, and viruses; these all share the same molecular background with every single human that ever lived or will live on the earth. Besides the personal theoretical scientific increment, this would help everyone, scientist or not, to develop a feeling of connection, respect and brotherhood with the whole of nature. Doing so would help fostering understanding on the importance of environmental preservation, deference and respect between rival human groups, or even to contribute to a better comprehension of evolution theory, our genetic heritage, and life perpetuation. Public museums, TV shows, and Web sites could be a great resource to mediate the acquisition of this concept, starting from kids but also focusing in adults that would be generally intrigued and astonished with such beautiful and meaningful idea. A-C-T-G.
João Ricardo Mendes Oliveira
Department of Neuropsychiatry, Federal University of Pernambuco, Recife, Pernambuco, 50670901, Brazil.

I usually get the question: "How is your science getting our world better?" So what I wish for everyone to understand is how valuable astronomy and astrophysics are to society in general. Contributions from astro- and space sciences to the world range from technological advancements and applications to answering fundamental questions such as where do we come from, what is our place in the Universe, where are we going as a species and whether or not we are alone as intelligent life-forms in the vastness of this Universe. Our contributions include the search for possible new worlds for us to live in and the understanding of how our Universe works as a whole, as the Universe's biggest, greatest lab is itself. As we even offer comfort from everyday troubles with stunning images from astronomical objects, I do wish everyone understood how significant our job is, and why regarding us as unimportant is a detriment to all.
René Alberto Ortega-Minakata
Department of Astronomy, University of Guanajuato, Guanajuato 36240, Mexico.
E-mail: rene{at}

As small children we are taught that bears and bats, ground squirrels and marmots, sleep the winter away in hibernation. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Hibernation is a highly regulated, dynamic state completely distinct from sleep composed of several diverse phenotypes. Hibernators spend much of the hibernation season in a depressed metabolic state and lowered body temperature known as torpor (which provides substantial energy savings). Torpor is not a steady state, but frequently interrupted by essential, periodic arousals to high metabolism and normothermia. While some animals are obligate hibernators, with strong circannual rhythms that dictate when they begin and end hibernation, others are facultative hibernators, able to induce hibernation whenever environmental conditions become unfavorable. Amazingly, the 13-lined ground squirrel (Ictidomys tridecemlineatus), which I study, feeds and fattens during the active season and completely fasts during six months of hibernation! There is great potential to apply the mechanisms underlying the dramatic phenotypic plasticity characteristic of mammalian hibernators to biomedicine. I anxiously await the day that research stemming from these fascinating creatures improves organ transplant success and treatment for obesity and type II diabetes.
Jessica P. Otis
Department of Embryology, Carnegie Institution, Baltimore, MD 21218, USA.
E-mail: otis{at}

It is almost always true that what you do not know will not harm you; however, ignorance will most certainly lead to your inconvenience. Hence, knowledge acquired from observation is a necessity toward every human aspect. The global idea within my field of work is closely related to an attempt of answering the question "Why do humans chase after time all the time?" Irrespective of whether an individual is a scientist or not, efficiently using time and being able to know what to expect in future is quite an attractive quality. Computer simulations as forms of scientific observation continue to complement this quality. They are used to resourcefully study phenomena over time. One essentially tries to observe as well as comprehend activities of the surrounding past and future during a present time. The art of using simulations should not necessarily be seen as a discipline for the interested few, but as observation in practice. Observation permits us to realize and understand various things including abstract concepts such as the idea that randomness is a form of order, energy can be made portable, and the possibility for a human heart to retain cellular memory and consequently allow a patient to experience emotions once felt by the donor can be evaluated. Abstract as it may seem, I do believe if people understood that the key ingredient within the success for any form of desired result is observation, then many challenges would be easier to resolve.
Katlego William Phoshoko
Department of Physics and Geology, University of Limpopo, Materials Modelling Centre, Polokwane, Limpopo, 727, South Africa.
E-mail: otis{at}

We all know of feelings of belonging among living species. Higher mammals protect their young, look after the old and frail and share resources amongst the group or herd even in times of scarcity. In smaller species, particularly arthropods, the feeling of helping one another through cross-social order assistance, mutual benevolence, and cumulative effort akin to crowdsource maximization is very common. In plants, a parent species would quicken its maturity and flower before time if there arises a moment of stress or survival scarcity. It shortens its own life-span to make sure the next generation (in the form of seeds) is borne and dispersed. Merriam-Webster defines this act of unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others as altruism. As cell biologists, we have often encountered the compelling question as to how single-cell experiments qualify in comparison to whole organisms in behavioral physiology and philosophy. In other words, if single cells express the exact same genes and physiological parameters as a whole organism, would they express such selfless behavior toward their social comrades? In fact, they do. Altruistic behavior has been found in bacterial, mammalian, as well as stem cells. In situations of stress like environment conditions and resources they counter their own survival making sure the surrounding same (clonal), related (transgenic) or distant (co-culture) species survive. For a 25 micrometer entity that probably lives no more than 28 days, there is perhaps more of social behavior and camaraderie that we humans, scientists and non-scientist should understand, realize, and learn.
Kingshuk Poddar
National University of Singapore Graduate School for Integrative Science and Engineering (NGS), Centre for Life Sciences, 117456, Singapore; and Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (IMCB), Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR), Proteos, 138673, Singapore.
E-mail: kingshukpoddar{at}

I work in a field of astronomy called cosmology, where we try to understand the origin and evolution of the Universe. I really want to convey to everyone, scientist or non-scientist, that we still do not know how the universe originated in the first place and what it is made of (we still do not know much about the 95% stuff of the universe, called dark matter and dark energy) but we have no doubt that the universe is pretty old (13.7 billion years), big, expanding, and cooling. We also know that gravity is the main force behind the formation of structure in the Universe. We not only know how the Universe was in its past, up to some extent we can predict its future also, credit for which goes to particle physicists and observational astronomers.
Jayanti Prasad
T16, IUCAA, Ganeshkhind, Pune University Campus, Pune, Maharashtra, 411007, India.

The big idea in education research is that learning is complex and cannot be understood in isolation. This basic insight is grounded in several interconnected ideas. First, students should not be seen as "blank slates" whose minds need to be filled through memorization. Students enter the classroom with a rich set of ideas which often contradict normative knowledge. Second, contradicting alternative ideas can co-exist and can get activated in different situations. Third, learning is not a solitary activity but takes place in complex socio-cultural contexts. Fourth, learning technologies can make otherwise inaccessible phenomena visible and manipulable. Fifth, learning is not only about explicit content knowledge but also about the implicit traditions in communities of practice through cognitive apprenticeships. Learning deeply requires sustained long-term effort and requires a lot of support. Sixth, learning needs to shift from teacher/content-centered to student/activity-centered, without ignoring the importance of teachers. Seventh, learning should not focus on consuming existing knowledge but on supporting learners to build new knowledge. Eighth, knowledge changes ever more rapidly. Everyone needs to continue learning life-long to fully participate in the workforce and citizenry. My field of research, the learning sciences, studies learning in real world settings by combining constructs and methods from a variety of fields, such as cognitive science, computer science, educational psychology, anthropology, science education research, and linguistics. Education research and education reforms need to be carefully orchestrated on multiple levels.
Beat Adrian Schwendimann
Centre for Research on Computer-Supported Learning and Cognition, University of Sydney, Sydney, NSW 2006, Australia.
E-mail: beat.schwendimann{at}

I study DNA repair mechanisms. From time to time, I talk with my friends outside of academia about my work. They somehow intuitively think that such mechanisms should be 100 % efficient. However, had DNA repair mechanism been 100 % accurate, we would not have evolved. Simply, there would not have been mutations, the source of variability. So, even though the repair mechanisms are indeed terrifically effective, they are not 100 % accurate. It is thanks to this tiny margin that some mutations do occur. I think this discrepancy, between what people not trained in science intuitively expect and what is actually beneficiary from an evolutionary point of view, speaks of a more general phenomenon: Biology, as every science, is seldom intuitive.
Marek Sebesta
National Centre for Biomolecular Research, Masaryk University, Brno, 625 00, Czech Republic.
E-mail: mareksebesta{at}

As a PhD student of evolutionary biology, "evolution" is the idea that I wish every non-scientist understood. Although Charles Darwin's book, On the Origin of Species, has been published for more than 150 years, the idea of evolution is still not generally accepted by the public. In the scientific area, the debate was already settled. Despite the essential role of evolution in biology, it also contributes to other fields like medical science (influenza), social sciences (human behavior), and information sciences (evolutionary algorithms). The understanding gap between scientist and non-scientist about evolution is arisen by many reasons, like religious and political issues. I think scientists, educators, and governments should try their best to improve the public understanding of evolution. Why? As Michael Shermer said in 2006: "Evolution matters because science matters. Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going."
Longfei Shu
Institute of Integrative Biology and Department of Aquatic Ecology, ETH-Zurich/Eawag, Duebendorf, Zurich, CH-8600, Switzerland.
E-mail: longfei.shu{at}

Understanding what "P < 0.05" means would make general public comprehend scientific methodology and research results as a step by step approaching the truth and not publicly demanded black and white statements which are easier to accept, although distant from the truth. Wouldn't it be great and easier for both scientist and non-scientist?
Matus Sotak
Department of Epithelial Physiology, Institute of Physiology, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague 4, 14220, Czech Republic.
E-mail: sotak{at}

In my opinion, metabolism and health should be understood by every non-scientist. It is important for every individual to understand the repercussions of lack of exercise, specifically the risks of CHD and other related diseases. Many have been told by parents or teachers that "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," but many do not understand the scientific reasons behind this. In addition, the media have publicized many various kinds of diets, more commonly known as fads. Some are known to be unaware of the risks of not having a balanced diet, or even fasting for a long time, so educating non-scientists on metabolism will be beneficial to them. Therefore, by understanding the underlying mechanisms behind exercise, having a balanced diet and eating the appropriate amount of food, one can change their lifestyle for the better.
Ushani Srenathan
London, UB6 7QS, UK.
E-mail: ushani_s{at}

To me, one of the most important concepts of nature is the similarities of life. It's quite startling in concept to think that everything in our universe (as far as we know) is composed of a fairly small subset of distinct atom types that are connected or combined in different manners to yield the wonderful complexity all around us. Moving up from the atomic level, with a emphasis on life, it is also quite amazing to consider that for the most part, the essential components for the propagation and sustainability of all life are composed of a fairly small subset of common chemical structures, including nucleic acid and amino acid monomers, that are rearranged or linked together in different patterns to yield the amazing diversity of life. Although on the periphery, a tree, a human, a bacterium, and an endangered tortoise obviously look quite different, in truth they share many molecular features at the DNA, protein, and metabolite levels. Even more similar, of course, are humans of different races and ethnic backgrounds, often having in common greater than 99% genomic similarity. By emphasizing and learning about the commonalities of life, particularly at the molecular and genetic levels, we begin to gain a greater respect and appreciation for both the diversity and similarities of life around us. In the end, I believe this knowledge helps us to better appreciate the world and individuals around us, and gives us renewed stimulation to respect and protect life as best we can.
Michael Strong
Center for Genes, Environment, and Health, National Jewish Health/University of Colorado, Denver, Denver, CO 80206, USA.
E-mail: StrongM{at}

It's not a big idea particular to my field, but one that spans all the sciences: the idea that matter moves and changes. Although it should be elementary to most scientists, this simple idea, which took thousands of years to refine, is still poorly understood by many. In fact, since many of the processes we work hard to describe are "hidden" in chemical and biological reactions, not understanding this idea leads to misconceptions (e.g., where the mass of a tree comes from in "Minds of our Own—Lessons from Thin Air"). Yet so many of society's problems can be fairly easily framed in terms of the movement and change of matter and the accompanying changes in energy.  A broader public understanding of this idea would have a cascading effect, making it easier to explain the more discipline-specific problems within and among all of our fields.  In a sense, this is the big idea that unifies scientists: everything is connected.
David W. Szymanski
Department of Natural and Applied Sciences, Bentley University, Waltham, MA 02452, USA.
E-mail: dszymanski{at}

This is a time of unprecedented change for humanity. We face extraordinary challenges from climate change, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, population and migration pressures, and security of food and water. Coming decades will see significant changes not only in technology and infrastructure but also in many of our basic assumptions. We must abandon fossil fuel energy generation and re-imagine international governance. Perhaps most important, we must learn to understand wealth in new ways, reforming our relationship with the natural world. Scientists working in the field of ecological economics and the valuation of ecosystems are doing much more than merely putting dollar figures on the goods and services provided by nature. Most people outside these disciplines, however, tend to think of payments for ecosystem services as purely reductionist financial exercises. Understanding the value of nature includes realizing the true wealth of social-ecological systems, which is in many ways intangible, and qualitative. Carbon has become the currency standard of environmental accounting, as we grapple with the challenges of deforestation, land degradation, and climate change mitigation. Yet carbon is a proxy for so much more: clean water and air, pollination and thus food, habitat for species, the opportunity to take your children camping. The valuation of ecosystems is not about putting a price on nature to inform our investment analyses. Rather, it is the foundation of a new way for humanity to think about what is valuable, what is important, and how we relate to our planet, and to each other.
Sebastian Thomas
School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, QLD 4072, Australia.
E-mail: seth.thomas{at}

The one thing in my field that I wish everyone understood is the notion that our perception of the world is actually a reconstruction. Our perceptions do not necessarily correspond to reality. Of course, brains do the best they can to reconstruct the outside world—millions of years of evolutionary pressures made sure of that. But it is dark in the brain. All it has to go by in order to reconstruct the conditions in the outside world are its own activity patterns. This big idea has widespread ramifications for understanding the behavior of our fellow man and beast. Put simply, not every brain reconstructs the outside world in the same fashion. If a tree falls in the forest, an elephant might hear it, but a mouse might not. If two people see the same physical object but disagree about what they see, neither of them is necessarily wrong. They could be reconstructing the very same object in the very same way, but from different perspectives. Many other concepts in neuroscience derive from this understanding of the input level; if perception is a reconstruction, one wouldn't for instance expect two people to have the same recollection of an event. Perceptual neuroscience is an attempt to elucidate the mechanisms by which this reconstruction happens, as it does on a daily basis, automatically and covertly. Putting the focus on these processes and bringing them to greater cultural awareness could do much to foster mutual understanding.
Pascal Wallisch
Center for Neural Science, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.
E-mail: pascal.wallisch{at}

In my field, "safety is the dignity of life" is the big idea that I wish that every non-scientist understood. My major is safety engineering and management, so I especially focus on work safety and production accidents prevention and control. Life is unique and noble, and if lost never gotten back. Every year, there are so many people who die from all kinds of production accidents. And while I am writing this article, lots of people are being or to be injured or killed by these accidents. Even though it is difficult to eliminate these accidents thoroughly, we can reduce them and minimize the loss by enhancing people's safety awareness and perfecting safety technology. Every time, when I think of the sorrowful and helpless eyes from the family members of the dead, I want to call for everyone to pay attention to work safety and form a healthy and harmonious concept that life safety is everything and it deserves this big idea—safety is the dignity of life, instead of the indifference to life because of GDP worship.
Jian Zhang
School of Mechanical and Automotive Engineering, South China University of Technology, Guangzhou, Guangdong, 510641, China.
E-mail: zhangjian3954{at}

During the past 4 years, robotics has engaged much of my time, especially flight robotics. Every time I see a postman carrying express delivery of packages, I would like to help him with the unmanned air vehicle in my laboratory. How about replacing the postmen by deploying swarms of robots? In the 21st century, ground robots have become increasingly ubiquitous in industry and service, while flight robots have a promising future in military applications. It is so terrible to develop flight robot weapons like unmanned combat air vehicles that a set of ethical issues have been raised. Why not taking advantage of flight robots to make our life more convenient and colorful in a peaceful way? In China, the rapid development of logistics has shown potential demands for the widespread availability of flight robots. The progress of artificial intelligence, sensing, and human-robot interaction has made flight robots competent for the express mail service, home delivery of fast food, and online shopping transportation. Seeking to establish technical regulations will greatly provide efficiency for the civil applications of flight robots. What's more? We also need a set of safety standards to guide and restrain the behavior of flight robots. I have every confidence in the successful use of flight robots in our daily life and will constantly apply myself to the study of robotics.
Jiang Zhao
School of Automation Science and Electrical Engineering, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing 100191, China.