NASA, Bacteria, Verbs, and Breast Cancer

How I wish I could tell you that breast cancer has been cured. And how nifty it would be to tell you that NASA cured it. Nevertheless, I can pass along encouraging news. NASA technology has contributed to new understanding about the nature of breast cancer. This will supplement further research and—perhaps—lead to the desired cure.

With the above paragraph, the question of certainty is all in the verb phrasing. Could vs would vs can vs has vs will. My two dictionary apps refer to these words as auxiliary verbs. They support action verbs like tell, contributed, and lead. Auxiliary verbs indicate the relative gravity of their action verb counterparts. What do I mean? “NASA could contribute,” has less gravity than, “NASA will contribute.”


NASA’s Role in Medical Research

Good news for us Earth-bound folk. When it comes to diseases like breast cancer, NASA’s ability to contribute is not a question of can or could. NASA’s contribution is a matter of has and will.

In 2011, NASA personnel prepared the Juno spacecraft for launch in a clean room setting to avoid contaminating the spacecraft with bacteria. This significantly reduces the risk of contaminating Jupiter’s moons, potential carriers of life, when Juno arrives next month. Image Credit: NASA, Kim Shiflett

The above image shows a common scene at NASA: scientists and engineers dressed like surgeons. Just like surgeons, they zealously try to avoid depositing bacteria on their subject. We want our robotic explorers spick-and-span when they reach potentially life-harboring destinations. What does that have to do with breast cancer research?

The same technology used to study bacterial contamination of spacecraft has now been used to evaluate the role of bacteria in breast cancer. I’ll spare you my crude summations and encourage you to read the following story:

NASA Technology Applied in Breast Cancer Study

I went through the above story and pulled out a bunch of verbs and verb phrases, specifically ones tied to sentence subjects. Here they are laid out in the order in which they appear in the story. For fun, let’s pretend what follows is an award-winning contemporary poem. I’ll even give it a title. SPOILER ALERT: the poem’s conclusion is quite strong:


The Choice Verbs of Breast Cancer Research

have more to do with
were designed
was led by
have previously documented
contains … and … secretes
don’t yet know
was then analyzed
will continue to propel
could contribute to
is needed
have known for
can trigger


The Verbal Path to Discovery

As I isolated the above verb phrases from NASA’s story, my mind was drawn to the auxiliary verbs. They play a pivotal role, in effect measuring the confidence of the medical research’s findings.

In the writing of scientists and scientific communicators, discovery is a wonderful and desirable noun that seems to wait expectantly beyond a fleet of purposeful verbs. Some of these verbs hedge. Some speak with absoluteness. At their most responsible, these verbs remind us that science is a process. No one study is a complete conversation. In fact, each individual scientific study is somewhat like a verb, providing direction and measured strength to the ongoing quest for knowledge.

Poe Sonnet Spins Science as a Buzzkill

“Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art! / Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes. / Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart, / Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?”

Edgar Allan Poe, “Sonnet—To Science”

Edgar Allan Poe, sculpted by Zolnay, NYPL

When I look up at the stars, I am generally enlivened and inspired. Even in apparent stillness, the constellations elevate my thoughts and mood. Except when I suddenly remember that the universe is fatally expanding, its luminous contents sliding elsewhere faster and faster, fleeing toward coldness and demise. In such moments I feel pangs, not pleasure.

Perhaps my fits of science-based melancholy are akin to the one which spurred Poe to write the above verse. This quatrain explicitly announces the thesis of the poem. Science preys upon the poet’s heart. Identifying science as Old Time’s daughter is no compliment, given Time’s frequent role as antagonist in poetry. The sonnet goes on to dramatize science assailing Greek and Roman literary figures. Science displaces their woodland homes and dreams, violently.

I encourage you to take a few moments to read Poe’s sonnet. The full text is available for free on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

“Sonnet–To Science” by Edgar Allan Poe

Especially in the science enthusiasm circles I move in—space exploration and NASA in particular—we focus on the positives of research, development, academia, and industry. We evangelize for science. We see it as a key to the progress of humanity. Nevertheless, science can be a downer.

The best example that comes to mind is the heat death of the universe, which I described earlier in this post. The likely fate of all matter—the very death of energy even—is a gloomy and grave subject. Yet some scientists I’ve encountered suggest we grin and bear it. Inasmuch as the heat death theory is good science, I do suggest we bear it. Yet, I think grinning in the process smacks of denial and suppression.

Has science never made you sad? Never? Well, then perhaps you weren’t paying careful attention. From celebrity scientists like Brian Cox, in his documentary series Wonders of the Universe, I have in effect been told to chin up. Hey, at least we get to exist during an age of abundant life and knowledge on Earth. And bonus, we live during the Stelliferous Era, a time of countless galaxies and flourishing star nurseries. Ain’t it cool?

Perhaps some physicists are as right about their chin-up mentality as they are about their science. Nevertheless, I believe sorrow has a validity equal, and in some contexts much greater than, happiness. Brushing it aside could be a mistake. For instance, brushing sadness aside might have resulted in Poe failing to write his “Sonnet—To Science.”

Since at least the time of Galileo, science has sparked discoveries that displace or ruin cherished beliefs and dreams. Resulting grief is understandable. Granted, even if its proofs prove disquieting, science nonetheless merits respect. We ought to graciously take the sour with the sweet. It is only absolutist optimism I am speaking against. Let sorrow have its place and its poetry.

Has a scientific discovery ever left you sad or troubled? Why? How did you mitigate that sadness?

The ‘Iron Angels’ of the Poet’s Nature

Iron AngelsIron Angels by Geoff Landis

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given Shakespeare sonnet that harps on marriage. Again, keep most of the words. Change only the object of the poet’s affection. Science poetry, as I’ve encountered it recently, is like any other poetry. The only difference is the wellspring of metaphor.

Geoff Landis may be best known in literary circles as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Mars Crossing. In the scientific community he is a highly accomplished researcher at NASA. But along the way he has written poetry. Or, as he quips on his website, “OK, I admit it: I also sometimes commit acts of poetry…”

The published result is a wonderful short volume of verse titled Iron Angels. Similar to Landis’s career, this collection straddles science and sci-fi. Some of the early poems, like “Earthrise, Viewed from Meridiani, Sol 687”, invoke distinctly Sagan-esque motifs, like Earth as a pale blue dot. The poetry links life together, both human generations and alien life separated by lightyears of space. In the age of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, such cosmic effusing counts as proverbial. And if these were the only poems Iron Angels contained, it would be a heartfelt but tiresome collection.

Iron Angels clears the launch tower, as it were, with a clever and crisply written piece titled “Christmas (When We All Get Time Machines).” Hint, if such a thing ever happens it may prove most unfortunate for the holiday. The poem gave me a chuckle even as it took me aback and made me truly think about the consequences of cheating Time.

Within the book’s trim 55 pages, there is at least one shape poem, a smattering of haiku, a bit of rhyming, but mostly free verse—accessible and engrossing. At least a couple of poems blur whatever boundary might exist between flash fiction and poetry. I did not love every piece, nor find them all masterful. Yet, everywhere the verse smacked of deliberateness, of orchestrated word choice that does with text what talented painters do with oil on canvas.

Many of the poems are thoroughly grounded in everyday human experience. It is probably outright wrong to call it all science poetry. Some of the verse, including a few amusing cat poems (at least as amusing as anything on YouTube), seems like it may have been written as a diversion after a long day at the lab. Some of it is wonderfully romantic. And some of it, like “Snapshots,” is wonderfully haunting:

“I wonder, sometimes, about those people in the picture / so like us, and yet so strange. / If they were not trapped in the slippery squares of paper…”

I read contemporary poetry with suspicion. Is it truly poetry? Or is it just lazy prose slapped on the page with forced enjambments to appear poetic? Iron Angels is poetry. Moreover, Landis’s collection avoids the trap of being esoteric, intelligible only to scientists. These angels, steeped both in science and humanity, are worth invoking … and reading for enjoyment.

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Don’t Nibble: Science is Food for Thought

Seven out of ten people on Facebook are malnourished. Intellectually that is. It turns out many folks comment on science stories after only reading the headline. Headlines may be delicious but they are not nourishing. So … Yum, yum! Food for thought. I dare you to go further!

Comment on That Shared Science Story – and Maybe Read it, Too!

Andrew C. Revkin, writer of The New York Times’ Dot Earth opinion blog, wrote the above piece. Did you make it past the headline? How carefully do you consider science coverage before commenting on it? Let me know … if you actually read the article.