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August 4, 2005

The Leadership of Sigma Xi

Excerpts from the following essay by 2005-2006 Sigma Xi President Lynn Margulis appear in the September-October issue of American Scientist magazine. Margulis is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She developed the serial endosymbiosis theory, which proposes that undulipodia, mitochondria and chloroplasts originally evolved as bacteria. Her book, Acquiring Genomes: A Theory of the Origins of Species, written with Dorion Sagan, provides evidence that new species arise by symbiotic merger of genomes rather than only by random mutation. Her many honors include the National Medal of Science and Sigma Xiís William Procter Prize for Scientific Achievement. Margulis has been a Sigma Xi member since 1963.

Science is the only news. Everything else is "he said, she said," one of my favorite dicta, is attributed to counterculture hero Stewart Brand. Like our splendid organization, Sigma Xi, and its responsible yet never-boring magazine American Scientist, Brand supports science in ways far more important than any gift of money.

As founder of two responsible publications, Whole Earth Catalogue and Whole Earth Review, Brand and colleagues have brought important results of scientific research to thousands of interested non-specialists. Even if only as magazine readers, most of us cherish scientific description (especially when written comprehensibly).

Research scientists, and therefore Sigma Xi members, are even more grateful and critical: we value rigorous data collection, thoughtful analyses and accurate detail. We trust science and, to a greater extent than the public at large, we depend on its accuracy for our myriad judgments and opinions. More than other readers we researchers try to resist pressures of persuasion and innuendo.

Our scientific documentation work sensitizes us to hype, half-truths and lies: advertisement disguised as news, careless analysis and the other daily assaults on our integrity dismay and often infuriate us. Research intrinsically requires authentic description of science itself by scientists.

But ponder this: What generates the crucial original scientific evidence?

Sigma Xi members, all 65,000 of them, know that science begins with evidence and evidence is gathered by research. Good research is slow; it is expensive and idiosyncratic. All scientific research starts with an esoteric observation or an arcane activity. All science is specialized and, at first, obscure.

Only the dedicated labor of single or a very few investigators make possible the research enterprise. All the sciences and even the new technologies upon which our healthy lives and social organization thrive began as a hunch or as a glimmer in the eye of a curious investigator. Any scientific fact before it was established began as a flurry of imagination made tangible.

Science properly carries on by activity in this order: exploration precedes reconnaissance and reconnaissance precedes detailed study. All three phases of investigation require careful documentation. Researchers have both illustrious and humble, methodical predecessors.

The glory of Sigma Xi is its unambiguous dedication to its primary goal: to foster research. Any full member has demonstrated research achievement. It is simply not enough to have been elected to high office or performed diligent public service. Any associate member has shown potential to participate in the global research effort. It is not enough to have attended a prestigious summer program or an expensive college.

Sigma Xi members are drawn from government labs, industrial research centers or their own homes. The criterion of importance is that they join fervently in research and practice science as a way of knowing. Sigma Xi members share the belief that science is a valid way of learning about the world.

To me science is not only a way of knowing, but it is the best way to find out anything with confidence. To do science of any kind requires certain social interactions, but science is not primarily "he said, she said." Rather it usually requires gentle inquiry of Nature herself.

Scientists must be critical. To cajole Nature into yielding a new scientific finding the researcher often has to criticize authority. But to accomplish anything at all the criticism must be constructive. Although a scientist must think for herself, she must also seek "companionship in zealous research."

Without the annual Sigma Xi dinners and initiation ceremonies, certain research scientists, students and faculty on my campuses would never even have become acquainted.

Without the Sigma Xi Grants-in-Aid of Research program, my former students would not have been able to dive in Bahamian caves or collect microbes at Yellowstone's lacustrine deep hot vents. Without Grants-in-Aid several master's theses would not have been written.

The policy to give small grants to many deserving research students is laudable. I believe it has improved the way in which young potential investigators describe the methods and significance of their research.

The Sigma Xi presidency appeals to me primarily as a means to further the fundamental priority of the organization: to foster the results of original scientific research and to communicate them. I will evaluate any potential action of the Society on the basis of its relation to this goal.

I see Sigma Xi as means to strengthen the voices of young honest scientists in today's despairing world. American Scientist magazine is a crucial, perhaps the most crucial, activity of the Society. In it important issues should be debated.

Among these I easily identify a few: The degradation of the environment correlated with human overpopulation and loss of non-human lives and the diminishment of cultural diversity (both planetary and human). I see as a serious problem the proliferation of dangerous unstated assumptions in many scientific activities especially in the reconstruction of cosmic, evolutionary and climate history. I deplore the all-too-human tendency toward dichotomization and our knee-jerk responsiveness to symbols.

The deprecation and misunderstanding of the importance of museums and their collections deserves far more discussion, as does the education of both the young scientist and the student who will never become a scientist.

Scientific publishing, so crucial to the research enterprise, poses current problems: the domination of scientific journals by greedy publishers, the excessive control of the marketplace over the science and math textbooks, the proliferation of irresponsible popular science books and the increasing reluctance of publishers, even university and other academic presses, to invest in quality primary science books.

I suspect that as university scientists increasingly accept industrial, product-oriented research the quality and quantity of basic science diminishes.

My experience with the Planetary Biology Internship program of NASA, the Space Science Board of the National Academy of Sciences, the Elementary Science Study and its film program, as well as extensive field work in Latin America and Europe, have made me acutely aware of the difficulties for researchers who happen not to be United States citizens. The increasing imperative of at least broken, American English as the lingua franca of world science is a burden to many.

I welcome the opportunity to help Sigma Xi and American Scientist lead and, with congeniality, extend the core values of research science throughout the world.

—Lynn Margulis

 

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