Purdue – insights from Indiana

A visit to Purdue, a state university in the cornfields of Indiana almost three hours drive from Chicago, shows the strength in depth of the US academic system.

I’m just back from my third visit, courtesy of Purdue’s imaginative Science Journalism Laureates programme. On each occasion I have been struck by the intellectual quality of the academic staff – faculty, as they are known in America – and the curiosity of the students.

For research as a whole, Purdue is not in the same league as Harvard or Stanford but in some fields it is world class. One is palaeoclimatology, the study of past climate and what it can tell us about the likely course of global warming in future.

Matt Huber left me fascinated but deeply depressed by his latest conclusions about the climate’s response to rising and falling levels of carbon dioxide over the past 50m years. He and his Purdue colleagues have discovered that climate is more sensitive to CO2 than previously suspected – which is of course extremely bad news for efforts to control manmade global warming. I’ll use his insights soon for an FT article on climate history.

Another Purdue scientist with thought-provoking views is David Waters. He showed us how misguided some of the big clinical trials of vitamins and nutritional supplements have been – particularly the $175m US trial to see whether selenium pills can cut men’s risk of prostate cancer, which was stopped last year because it was, if anything, increasing the incidence of disease.

The problem, according to Waters, was that the trial took all comers in the chosen age group, rather than focussing on those – a minority in the US – who are actually deficient in selenium. From that base he built a devastating critique of the “either-or-ness” of public health medicine, and the search for things that are “good for you”.

Part of the rationale for the laureates programme is to interact with Purdue people – and part to discuss issues in science journalism. This year’s set-piece theme was “science journalism in the age of Twitter” in the form of what Americans call a “town hall meeting” with Purdue staff.

Each of the 12 journalists present had to kick off proceedings with a 100-word statement. One managed to do so within the 140-character (about 25 words) Twitter limit.

Opinions about the future of science journalism varied from optimism through “we’ve seen it all before” to utter gloom.

My favourite contribution was from US freelance technology writer Kevin Maney:

Science writing in the age of Twitter? Check out science writing in the age of the telegram.

George Everson, backer of Philo T Farnsworth, after the first TV transmission: “The damn thing works!”

Jane Goodall after she discovered a chimp using tools: “Now we must redefine tool, redefine man, or accept chimpanzees as human.”

Edward Teller to colleagues after first H-bomb detonation: “It’s a boy.”

Jonas Salk about whether to push his vaccine to the public: “Data from these experiments have not yet cooled off. But it is said to await certainty is to await eternity.”

The world of research

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Clive Cookson, the FT's science editor, picks out the research that everyone should know about, in fields from astronomy to zoology. He also discusses key policy issues, from R&D funding to science education. He'll cover the weird and wonderful, as well as the serious side of science.

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