The structure of scientific awesomeness
June 3, 2010 2:34 PM   Subscribe

What are the most Earth-shatteringly awesome scientific journal article(s) you have read in the last five years?

You know what it's like when the sun breaks through storm clouds and the whole landscape is illuminated? Like that, or approaching that, but in journal-article form.

I have a particular interest in review articles, in the life sciences, and in stuff of relatively recent vintage, but recommendations of papers from other areas and eras are welcome too.
posted by killdevil to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have a specific article, but the Best American Scientific Writing editions are consistently great.
posted by zoomorphic at 3:00 PM on June 3, 2010

The problem is that such illumination, at least in the fields I've been involved in (neurology, psychiatry, experimental psychology) often doesn't come with a single journal article. Modern scientific articles tend to be published to relay building-block sorts of findings.

You might say that incentives in scientific research are screwed up; the above practice is followed so that the article gets seen, built upon, and most importantly, cited by other scientists. The breakthroughs are few and far between, but someone who can put forth a really fundamental (but low-level) idea, method, or concept will probably be cited more than someone putting together a really solid conceptual paper. In my field, people who assemble or collect really massive datasets (on, say, dynamics of free recall) tend to be the most often-cited, even if they're not doing much in-depth exploration of what's going on. Someone else may come along, see something fascinating in the data, and come up with an amazing mathematical model of memory based on that. Who's to say which paper is the "breakthrough"?

That's my rant on incentivizing science, even though I don't think it's a bad system. But that absolutely doesn't answer your question. At one point, I considered subscribing to the two big journals-- Science and Nature. Those are where "sun breaks through storm clouds" papers go, but they're still usually written in the style of the field, sub-field, or sub-sub-field. That is, they're mostly indecipherable to someone who isn't already immersed in that field's literature. Still, that's the source for amazing, if raw, papers.

Maybe I'm a dilettante dunce, but I've found that the better place to go is Popular Science, or Scientific American. Writers there see the breakthroughs and distill them in such a way that anyone with a vaguely scientific background, or at least slightly intelligent, can get the gist of what's going on. Better yet, they usually compile findings from multiple publications from the authors/field. And the articles still cite the original journal articles, so if you're that interested, and you have a feel for what's going on, you can PubMed the journals and see the original methods, results, discussion, etc.

But that's me.
posted by supercres at 3:07 PM on June 3, 2010

And to throw a bone for a specific article recommendation, even though it's almost 15 years old--
V.S. Ramachandran, "Synaesthesia in phantom limbs induced with mirrors."

That invention was my favorite part of my favorite science book, the one that turned me towards neuroscience at a young age. (Rama also has an invited review in Brain on phantom limbs that is really stellar.)
posted by supercres at 3:15 PM on June 3, 2010

I cant tell you which journals or anything but a good science site that links to them is
posted by majortom1981 at 3:18 PM on June 3, 2010

For one article that blew my mind, I'd have to go with:

Art, J.J., and Fettiplace, R. (1987). Variation of membrane properties in hair cells isolated from the turtle cochlea. J Physiol 385, 207-242.

This paper is dry as a bone, and 33 years old.

It has little to do with what I actually study in a direct way, but truly understanding it (and I had to work at it for about 30 hours) allowed me to understand how the action potential happens (a lot of people think they know, but even after this paper, I know there's more to it. Truly dissecting this paper, however, left me with a sense of confidence about my approximation of what's really going on).

For a constellation of papers that summarize the findings that have led to my current perspective (like supercres mentions), here is a brief bibliography. These are mostly reviews, and, taken in concert, the empirical work described forms the both the basis of my understanding of the mind as it relates to others and the framework with with I approach the world.

Adolphs, R. (2003). Cognitive neuroscience of human social behaviour. Nat Rev Neurosci 4, 165-178.

Aleman, A., Swart, M., and van Rijn, S. (2008). Brain imaging, genetics and emotion. Biol Psychol 79, 58-69.

Canli, T., and Lesch, K.P. (2007). Long story short: the serotonin transporter in emotion regulation and social cognition. Nat Neurosci 10, 1103-09.

Gallese, V., Keysers, C., and Rizzolatti, G. (2004). A unifying view of the basis of social cognition. Trends Cogn Sci 8, 396-403.

Glimcher, P.W., Dorris, M.C., and Bayer, H.M. (2005). Physiological utility theory and the neuroeconomics of choice. Games Econ Behav 52, 213-256.

Lee, D. (2008). Game theory and neural basis of social decision making. Nat Neurosci 11, 404-09.

Mitchell, J.P. (2009). Social psychology as a natural kind. Trends Cogn Sci 13, 246-251.
Olsson, A., and Ochsner, K.N. (2008). The role of social cognition in emotion. Trends Cogn Sci 12, 65-71.

Rizzolatti, G., and Craighero, L. (2004). The mirror-neuron system. Annu Rev Neurosci 27, 169-192.

Uddin, L.Q., Iacoboni, M., Lange, C., and Keenan, J.P. (2007). The self and social cognition: the role of cortical midline structures and mirror neurons. Trends Cogn Sci 11, 153-57.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:36 PM on June 3, 2010 [4 favorites]

left me with a sense of confidence about my approximation of what's really going on

and also a strong, visceral/affective sensation of awe at the natural beauty of the world. I love sunsets and mountains and all, but I have never been so moved by nature as the first time I could visualize this process.

posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:38 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

In a completely different research area from what you're looking for, this article sort of changed my life: Place-based policing. It's based around the idea that instead of focusing on the criminality of individuals, police should identify places where crime is very concentrated within a city and develop strategies to address the underlying causes for that concentration of crime (which include, but are not limited to, traditional law enforcement strategies).

The idea of focusing interventions on problem places, instead of trying to alter behavior on the individual level, is really exciting when you think about it, and has huge implications for issues disparity and injustice in the criminal justice sytem. And really, there are a lot of different applications for place-based intervention across different types of social control agencies.

This article is a summary of a lot of research on policing and crime that took place from around the mid-1990s to the 2000s.

(full disclosure-I work for the author. But it was because of this article that I wanted to work for him)
posted by _cave at 3:48 PM on June 3, 2010

Hands down winner for me: Neumann, Wang et al from Nature, earlier this year. Awesome, awesome potential - although if you're being strict it's a massive technological achievement rather than one which illuminates.
posted by cromagnon at 4:26 PM on June 3, 2010

I did my graduate work on polymers and biophysics, and I definitely think ten years of tension is a great paper. DNA overstretching is pretty awesome. And who doesn't love viral encapsulation? (free via NIH). If you like math, I think the mean field model for wormlike chains is a ton of fun to play with (disclosure: authored by my graduate advisor).

I've been tinkering with networks more recently, and I think it's hilarious that your friends have more friends than you. And I'm currently very blown away by ideas in compressed sensing (particularly matrix completion). I'm still not convinced it's magic.

Sorry if it's math heavy, but they're all awesome. Most everything has a free pdf on google scholar if you search for the title.

On preview, cromagnon's paper is awesome too :)
posted by bessel functions seem unnecessarily complicated at 4:44 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

This was hands down the most useful and illuminating paper I read throughout my whole thesis (and my endnote library is at 806 entries and steadily climbing). It's the one paper I've sent to my friends and had them be excited by it too. It's the first time this issue made any sense to me (even after quite a lot of research experience) and I've gone back to it several times when analysing and understanding my data.

May not be illuminating to others but man, really opened my eyes to what I was actually trying to acheive.
posted by shelleycat at 4:46 PM on June 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It took me at least a month of study to get familiar enough with Peter Sollich's "Rheological constitutive equation for a model of soft glassy materials," Phys Rev E (1998) to begin to extend it. Although designed to explain inanimate material such as slurries, there's growing evidence that this model applies to tissue cells as well (in fact, it describes certain universal cell properties -- such as power-law rheology -- arguably better than any other existing model).

It may explain the fundamental mechanical behavior of most living matter.
posted by Mapes at 4:52 PM on June 3, 2010

As a lay person, I had to read this article several times for understanding. But then enlightenment, followed by months of imposing the article on friends and family.

This is a review of Daniel Wegner's "Illusion of Conscious Will" wherein he seems to have resolved the problem of "free will." I also bought the book, but appreciated the review more as it got right to the heart of the matter.

Go here.
posted by Kevin S at 6:13 PM on June 3, 2010

This one is a game changer for stem cell research. It reveals the fundamental requirements of the pluripotent state in embryonic stem cell like cells and has revolutionized the prospects of cell based therapies and drug discovery for disease and patient specific diseases. Yamanaka is a very good bet for a Nobel in the next few years....
posted by SueDenim at 6:22 PM on June 3, 2010

Vul et al's "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" caused a huge stir questioning the underlying logic of the statistical analyses in Social Cognitive Neuroscience. The paper, originally titled 'Voodoo Correlations' made the rounds in pre-print form and presents a pretty bold attack on the way that science was being practiced.

"Multimodal fast optical interrogation of neural circuitry" was a "holy shit, that's awesome!" paper that opened up possibilities for controlling single neurons almost real time. Reading it, it became immediately apparent that it was going to have a huge impact on neuroscience.
posted by i love cheese at 7:08 PM on June 3, 2010

This is one of my favorite articles in evolutionary biology in recent times Genetic and developmental basis of evolutionary pelvic reduction in threespine sticklebacks.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 9:31 PM on June 3, 2010

Hands down winner for me: Neumann, Wang et al from Nature, earlier this year. Awesome, awesome potential - although if you're being strict it's a massive technological achievement rather than one which illuminates.

I was just going to post that.

The in vivo, genetically programmed incorporation of designer amino acids allows the properties of proteins to be tailored with molecular precision1. The Methanococcus jannaschii tyrosyl-transfer-RNA synthetase–tRNACUA (MjTyrRS–tRNACUA)2, 3 and the Methanosarcina barkeri pyrrolysyl-tRNA synthetase–tRNACUA (MbPylRS–tRNACUA)4, 5, 6 orthogonal pairs have been evolved to incorporate a range of unnatural amino acids in response to the amber codon in Escherichia coli1, 6, 7. However, the potential of synthetic genetic code expansion is generally limited to the low efficiency incorporation of a single type of unnatural amino acid at a time, because every triplet codon in the universal genetic code is used in encoding the synthesis of the proteome. To encode efficiently many distinct unnatural amino acids into proteins we require blank codons and mutually orthogonal aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase–tRNA pairs that recognize unnatural amino acids and decode the new codons. Here we synthetically evolve an orthogonal ribosome8, 9 (ribo-Q1) that efficiently decodes a series of quadruplet codons and the amber codon, providing several blank codons on an orthogonal messenger RNA, which it specifically translates8. By creating mutually orthogonal aminoacyl-tRNA synthetase–tRNA pairs and combining them with ribo-Q1 we direct the incorporation of distinct unnatural amino acids in response to two of the new blank codons on the orthogonal mRNA. Using this code, we genetically direct the formation of a specific, redox-insensitive, nanoscale protein cross-link by the bio-orthogonal cycloaddition of encoded azide- and alkyne-containing amino acids10. Because the synthetase–tRNA pairs used have been evolved to incorporate numerous unnatural amino acids1, 6, 7, it will be possible to encode more than 200 unnatural amino acid combinations using this approach. As ribo-Q1 independently decodes a series of quadruplet codons, this work provides foundational technologies for the encoded synthesis and synthetic evolution of unnatural polymers in cells.

We're in the future now.
posted by atrazine at 11:24 PM on June 3, 2010

Emphasis mine, obviously.
posted by atrazine at 11:25 PM on June 3, 2010

Vul et al's "Puzzlingly High Correlations in fMRI Studies of Emotion, Personality, and Social Cognition" caused a huge stir questioning the underlying logic of the statistical analyses in Social Cognitive Neuroscience. The paper, originally titled 'Voodoo Correlations' made the rounds in pre-print form and presents a pretty bold attack on the way that science was being practiced.

The problem with this paper wasn't that it failed point out legitimate concerns with making inferences in fMRI research, but the way it went about doing so. It was disseminated before being peer reviewed, and much of the 'data' was collected by a considerably biased multiple choice test circulated to various social neuroscientists.

While there is, unfortunately, some truly awful neuroimaging research that gets published, Vul's paper spoke to problems endemic to fMRI and also demonstrated a fundamental misunderstanding about the effects of correction for multiple comparisons. What's more, the exact same problems have been plaguing imaging research for years, and are certainly not some special feature of that touchy-feely, half-assed, "can't hack it with the vision boyz" sohhhcial neuroscience.

The papers he attacked are not the sort of double-dipping sloppy science bullshit that someone honestly invested in correcting problems would cite as poor examples. Many of them are well regarded, highly cited papers, and while I understand that true condemnation of a particular subfield must engage its champions as well as its unfortunate cousins, Vul's approach smacks much more of someone looking to make a splash than someone interested in raising legitimate concerns in a measured way.

If you want to go down as the person who tossed a hand-grenade into the room, ain't nobody there to stop you, but the point of peer review is that a panel of people most concerned about the the room decide whether it stands on scientific merit rather than sensationalist appeal.

Is it important to subvert the dominant paradigm? Hell yes.

That gets done through the execution of incrementally distinct but tight experimentation with well-replicated findings.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 3:16 AM on June 4, 2010

A bit further afield from what you were looking for, but if you'll take a math recommendation, I would have to go with

Vaes, Stefaan Rigidity results for Bernoulli actions and their von Neumann algebras (after Sorin Popa). Séminaire Bourbaki. Vol. 2005/2006. Astérisque No. 311 (2007), Exp. No. 961, viii, 237--294. ISBN: 978-2-85629-230-3

It is an excellent overview of Popa's deformation/rigidity marchinery which has had numerous notable applications to the theory of von Neumann algebras; the bulk of the theory has been developed within the last decade. This survey focuses particularly on the relationship between ergodic theory, group representation theory (in the form of Kazhdan's property (T)), and crossed products of von Neumann algebras, a noncommnutative analogue of a dynamical system.

I'm still working through all of the implications of the content of this paper in the context of my thesis research.
posted by MidsizeBlowfish at 12:16 PM on June 4, 2010

« Older Wal-Mart or Target?   |   How can I mirror a remote web page on my local... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.