Perspiration is important, but inspiration is fun(damental)

eva headshotHow much of science is inspiration versus perspiration? Obviously, that creative spark, that new insight, that aha! moment is often crucial to producing new ideas and advancing knowledge. But, as both feature stories in this issue demonstrate, the real work comes after.

Biologist Colleen Farmer had her aha! in the form of a question about how alligators breathe — with an in-out stream like humans (as long believed) or a one-way flow like birds. As Susan Milius describes, Farmer has spent years testing her idea, eventually showing that alligators and at least a few species of reptiles do have a one-way flow. Her work also raises bigger questions about lung evolution. If the often-languorous reptiles evolved the same breathing strategy as zippy birds, perhaps biologists need to rethink their interpretation of one-way flow as key to birds’ energy-demanding lifestyle.

A candy’s lingering sweet dust sparked environmental engineer Paul Westerhoff’s new line of investigation, Susan Gaidos writes. Seeing his son’s face sprinkled white from a jawbreaker led him to take a closer look at what candymakers put in their products. A trip to the grocery store followed by extensive lab analysis and high-tech microscopy ensued. He found that nano-sized food additives show up in a surprising variety of processed foods. Since nano-sized versions of traditional food additives do not have to be labeled, it’s unclear (without doing your own experiments) which products contain them and in what quantities. Studies of how nanoparticles behave in the body, and whether they adversely affect health, are still ongoing. Many scientists are putting in long hours to answer the relevant questions.

Science, like genius, may be 99 percent perspiration, and it’s valuable to recognize that. But game-changing flashes of insight give thrills, not just to scientists but also to the rest of us — and are fun to read about. So don’t sweat it, dear readers, and enjoy learning about lungs and nanoparticles, as well as cometary crop circles, the nonstop grazing of humans and the Nobel Prizes’ recognition of science’s best ideas/efforts.

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