Mohamed Noor: Con vs. Con

Mohamed Noor, taking a break from academic conferences with a trip to DragonCon.

My public presentations span two universes, both figuratively and sometimes semi-literally. I speak at scientific conferences almost every year about my work as a professor, studying the evolutionary genetic changes that cause new species to form. As a Star Trek fan and someone who enjoys teaching scientific principles through the use of science fiction, I also speak at sci-fi conventions most years. As one might imagine, these two speaking venues share some attributes but also differ. Below, I describe the similarities and differences using the venues at which I speak the most often for each area: the annual Evolution conference (location and timing vary though usually in the United States and often late June) and DragonCon (annually on Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, USA).

For context, the Evolution conference typically hosts 1500-2500 evolutionary biologists, and probably between one-third and half of those attending give some sort of presentation, whether that be an oral slideshow on their research or standing beside a poster and discussing the science presented on it. Meanwhile, DragonCon is a broad popular-culture convention allowing roughly 80,000 people to attend various “tracks”, with presentations in each track by actors, artists, gamers, scientists, authors, and many more.

For each of these outlets, the mechanics are similar. Attendee registration starts months in advance, and fees often increase as the date approaches. Each outlet invites “headliner” speakers who have some or all of their expenses paid for attending. Attendees are very eager to see the final schedules, and always whine on social media about how close to the event the schedules are released. Some events are anticipated to be more popular than others and receive larger rooms, and sometimes the organizers anticipate incorrectly, resulting in a cavernous empty room for one event and people packed into chairs and across the floor in another. Both feature vendor areas for purchasing items related to the outlet’s topic (e.g., books and software vs. artwork and memorabilia). And generally speaking, in both venues, the most rewarding and memorable features are rarely the presentations, but instead fun or fruitful interactions with other attendees. Few attendees in either venue go talk-to-talk for the entire duration, but much time is spent in hallways or off-site for eager discussions or other interactions.

Noor’s book, Live Long and Evolve, is an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

However, the similarity in mechanics belies the difference in purpose which becomes more apparent when one looks at the presentations. For the Evolution conference, oral presentations are given because the scientist presenting wants to disseminate a very specific research result to the broader group of scientists in the audience. At DragonCon, oral presentations are delivered to entertain an audience or to educate them in a fairly general area. The former is primarily directed by the presenter’s intention, though audience members attend particular sessions when they feel that they may learn something interesting and/or relevant to their own research. The latter is aimed at giving the audience what they want. For example, when the cast of CW’s Arrow comes on stage at a session in DragonCon, they have no particular message that they seek to convey. Even in DragonCon’s science track, the intended message of any panel is quite general, such as “a better understanding of genetics”, and presenters are eager to answer questions, even those only marginally related to the stated topic. As a result, virtually every oral session at the Evolution conference comes as a single-person PowerPoint presentation that fills most of the allotted period, while at DragonCon, presentations are typically multi-presenter open question-and-answer sessions on a topic following a very brief introduction.

Lest one think that science fiction conventions are therefore more pure in intention than scientific conferences, I stress the financial model is very different. The top media guests at science fiction conventions receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for their time, in addition to having all of their expenses covered. Since attendees are subsidizing these media guests’ travel and income as well as potentially providing a profit for the convention organizers, it makes sense to tailor things for the attendees. In contrast, the president of the non-profit Society for the Study of Evolution, who delivers a plenary address at the Evolution conference, only gets part of their travel expenses paid (no meals or per diem, partial housing) and reaps no honorarium, stipend, or other compensation from the society or conference. Most speakers at the Evolution conference get no financial compensation. Interestingly, science guests at science fiction conventions also get rather small compensation. For a recent other science fiction convention I attended, most of my travel expenses were paid, but for DragonCon each year, I only receive a waiver of the registration fee and that of a guest. Realistically, most of the 80,000 people who come to DragonCon don’t come to see me or the other scientists, but we’re happy to catch their attention and teach them some science when they’re not ogling Stephen Amell.

What do I love about each? I’m a researcher in evolutionary genetics, and I love telling my fellow scientists about our recent results as well as learning what they have discovered recently. It’s extremely intellectually stimulating and rejuvenating to go to scientific conferences. But I’m also a teacher, and I love getting people excited about geeky biology concepts and facts when perhaps they have not had much training in biology. My last talk at DragonCon earlier this month was on why there are so many humanoids in Star Trek, but sneakily, it was also a primer on many evolutionary biology concepts and recent results. Someone walking out of the room at the end commented to their friend, “I learned A LOT.” I could wish for no greater outcome than that.

 

Mohamed A. F. Noor, besides being a Trekkie, is a professor in the Biology Department at Duke University. He is the editor in chief of the journal Evolution and author of You’re Hired! Now What?: A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Mohamed Noor on Live Long and Evolve

Live Long and Evolve CoverIn Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

You teach courses introducing genetics and evolution, yet rather than writing a book that simply presented the science from your courses, you wrote this book that uses examples from a fictional TV show. Why?

My aim is to try to reach people who may be less inclined to read something that seems like a textbook, but who may consider a different “entry-point” to learning about science and evolution in particular. Science fiction is popular and often quite approachable, so leveraging interest in science fiction may be a means for getting people excited about learning the scientific truths (or fallacies) underlying in what’s presented. Reading or watching science fiction is often what inspired people to become scientists, so why not use its popularity to have people learn more science?

But why Star Trek? Isn’t that about space travel in the far future? Do they really cover much genetics and evolution?

Part of the stated mission of the spaceship in many Star Trek series is “to seek out new life”. You may be surprised at how much genetics and evolution crop up across the series given this emphasis: for example, roughly one quarter of the episodes of the 2001-2005 series Star Trek Enterprise had the word “DNA” in the script, and an episode of the current series Star Trek: Discovery references results from a 2015 genome sequencing study. Importantly,Star Trek tries to explain observations in the context of science rather than falling back on magic or “the Force.” More generally, Star Trek offers a very large and mostly internally consistent volume from which to draw examples. Over 700 non-animated Star Trek episodes and 13 movies have aired so far (with one series continuing). That’s a lot of material, making it possible to find examples of almost anything you could want to explain! Of course, while what I’ve told you above is all true, a big added reason for me is that I just love Star Trek, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

How do you approach the science in your book?

The book follows the structure and topics of an introductory biology course at Duke University, where I teach. Each chapter is devoted to a broader idea, like “common ancestry of species” or “microevolutionary processes”. Within each chapter, I start sections by describing a scene from a Trek episode or movie that is relevant. The scene is described in enough detail that someone who hasn’t seen the episode gets the gist of what happened. I then talk about the underlying science that was described using real examples and analogies, and I try to mention recent research in these areas when appropriate. Finally, I return to the focal scene as well as other depictions in Star Trek and assess the accuracy of what was shown and/ or speculate on what may not have been shown (or suggest a tweak to what was shown) that would make it more precise. I follow this approach for several specific topics within each broader chapter idea to help the reader learn the underlying biology.

But how good is the science in Star Trek? Presumably it often gets things quite wrong in terms of biology, like showing hybrids between alien species. Don’t these errors make it hard to teach people your science if you’re using flawed material as your source of examples?

Trek definitely takes some liberties with the biology. There are also times when it gets things quite wrong. However, these errors often reflect broader misunderstandings the public (and sometimes scientists as well) have about genetics and evolution, and thus they provide teachable moments. For example, there’s an episode in which the cast are infected with a virus that caused them to “de-evolve” into various other life-forms (e.g., a spider), due to activating the introns within genes. This example is ludicrous, but it then opens the door to discussing misconceptions about evolution and ancestry and why they are wrong. For instance, humans share a common ancestor with spiders, but none of our direct ancestors were spiders. This is analogous to how we share a common ancestor with our second-cousins, but none of our second-cousins was a direct ancestor of ours. I discuss the evidence for evolution and common ancestry in some detail to try to combat these misconceptions. Later in the book, I also discuss what introns are and why they do not retain instructions for earlier evolutionary states.

How has your background in genetics and evolution informed this book?

While my intent is to cover some basics principles of evolution, one cannot understand evolution without a grasp of genetics, so I present a lot of genetics in the book as well. Genetics and genetics-related terms also seem to crop up in the public eye frequently: DNA sequencing, cloning, personal genotypes, epigenetics, CRISPR, etc. Even beyond explaining evolution, I am eager to have readers learn some basic genetics so they understand what is and what is not possible in real life.

If you wanted people to learn just one thing about evolution, what would it be, and is that one thing covered in your book?

The most basic evolutionary concept is the truth of all species on Earth sharing a common ancestor. We are related to other animals, to plants, and even to bacteria, and the evidence for these relationships is overwhelming. I cover this at some length in the book. However, another idea which I personally have found fascinating since college is how evolution by natural selection is a “mathematical inevitability” if a species has three simple features: heredity (offspring typically resemble parents more than random other individuals), variation (offspring vary in their traits), and differences in survival or reproduction associated with the varying traits. This concept, too, is covered in the book using examples from reproducing “nanites” in an episode of Star Trek.

I apologize— that’s TWO things about evolution rather than one, but there’s so much fascinating science in this field that it is hard to pick a single example. To quote the last line of Darwin’s most famous book, “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; … from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

 

Mohamed Noor is a professor and former department chair of the Biology Department at Duke University. He previously wrote the book You’re Hired! Now What? A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

Browse Our New Biology 2018-2019 Catalog

In our Biology 2018-2019 catalog you will find a host of new books, from a look at how genes are not the only basis of heredity, a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotions in humans and animals, and an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

If you will be at ESA in New Orleans, we will be in booth 303. Stop by any time to check out our full range of titles in biology and related fields.

For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes–and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.

 

The Neuroscience of Emotion presents a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotion across species. Written by Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson, two leading authorities on the study of emotion, this accessible and original book recasts the discipline and demonstrates that in order to understand emotion, we need to examine its biological roots in humans and animals. Only through a comparative approach that encompasses work at the molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive levels will we be able to comprehend what emotions do, how they evolved, how the brain shapes their development, and even how we might engineer them into robots in the future.

In Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.