Be Wary of Ideology

Although rare, the act of sharing science with the public will embolden certain people who are not amused with the information presented and choose to express their views.  When this happens, such as the cases of climate change, evolution and vaccines, resolution may never come.  The reason stems not from an argument of evidence vs. evidence.  Rather, these are perfect examples of the intrusion of ideology into the debate.

In the political context, such debates are easy to identify using something called Goodwin’s Law. It explains a phenomenon resulting from an argument leaving evidence and heading towards ideology – or, if you wish, gets more heated.  Eventually. one side, usually the one losing, will analogize the opposing side to the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, which ruled Germany from 1933-1945.  At that point, the argument is effectively over and there will be no winner.

In scientific debate, this link is usually left untouched although there are other ways in which ideology can invade and take over the discussion.  Usually, it’s accompanied by a sentence many of us have probably heard:

thats_a_fact_wide (2)

The utterance of these three words or similar phrases is a means to suggest there is no further argument to be had and then debate has been won.  From the numerous debates I’ve experienced over the years, there is only one valid response.

2c0c8_ORIG-oh_really_now_tell_me_more (2)

Interestingly, when that happens, the fact chucker can do very little but to realize this isn’t the end and must choose to give up the goose or head down a path of personal attacks.  I’ve had an equal share of both and have to admit my skin is quite a bit tougher than it used to be.

Yet, thanks to sciPOP, there exists a third way to approach this unfortunate issue of evidence vs ideology.  It involves not engaging in a more heated debate.  Instead, the goal is to dispel antagonism through analogy.

One of the key issues with ideology is the base upon which it is built.  There may only be a few ways to explain the ‘fact’ because it is limited in its scope.  Moreover, many of the facts are cherry-picked in order to maintain a certain mindset.  Although this may seem inexcusable, it is actually a very good thing.

At its heart, sciPOP is story re-telling; the base is a compilation of mechanisms, statistics, observations, and future questions from continually asking, “Why?”  This set of fundamentals are the tenets to any human interaction, whether science, sports, cooking, auto mechanics, music, or literature.  By making the story and re-telling it in another context, the discussion can be shifted to demonstrate its applicability in another realm.

While analogy is an excellent way to drive a debate – and perhaps even win it – the exercise should be done cautiously and conscientiously.  Far too often ideologists have used analogy to their benefit by taking an extreme example unlikely to be seen in regular human culture.  However, in most cases, the links are ludicrous and lead not only to mockery of the analogy but also dismantling of the debate altogether.  Though there may be no winner, they at least can claim they did not lose.  It’s a strategy of leaving the door open and making sure it cannot be closed.

This realization brings up a very important point about sciPOP.  It is not about winning debates; it’s about increasing the knowledge of the community about the wonders of science.  Human behaviour cannot be controlled unless repressed and of all the vocations, science should understand that best.  It would quite simply be wrong to make an attempt to force anyone to follow a certain path simply because ‘we told you so.’  Ironically, that approach is no different than ideology.

Instead, use sciPOP to get the audience educated, enriched, engaged and entertained. With each new nugget of information shared, the robustness of the evidence increases.  As the number of voices amplifies, the value strengthens. But most of all, as the momentum grows, the mainstream will find validity in what you share and turn to you as a trusted resource.

As this happens, ideology will falter and those championing it will lose the spotlight. The group will find themselves in the minority and will struggle to be heard.  Eventually, they will have no other option than to express their discontent and demand to have ‘equal time’ to express their views.  As we’ve seen in the most recent case involving creationism and the television show, Cosmos, headlines may get written but that time may never come.

There’s an added bonus.  When the evidence becomes so strong, even the strongest opponents may begin to change their tune.  Just last week, Jenny McCarthy, hailed as the leader of the anti-vaccine movement, wrote an article stating that she is in fact, not anti-vaccine.  If anything, that is a reason for celebration of evidence over ideology.

On that note, one of the reasons for writing this piece is the rise in measles in Canada. We’ve known for decades vaccination is the key to prevention.  Yet there are some who conscientiously choose against this route and their actions have helped to bring a resurgence of this infection.  Although these individuals may never change their ideology, sciPOP can keep the rest of the public in the know about why this is important and how to stay safe. Yet, sciPOP should not be used to discriminate against these objectors, but instead ensure their message stays in the minority and their actions are met with the best evidence-based measures possible.

If you’ve encountered ideology in your efforts, let us know here.  I’m sure you will be shown nothing but respect and support.

(This is the 5th article in the sciPOP series on how to share science in the public)









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Never Stop Asking Why

The curiosity of children is endless and so are their questions.  Amid all the attempts to assess and analyze the world around them, none is as confounding as the incessant interrogation of a single question…


No matter how convincing the answer, one can be sure there will be a subsequent query. The respondent is thus required to come up with yet another answer to satisfy the request and hopefully – but not likely – end the discussion. But as many a person has learned – and my parents would certainly agree -there is really only one option guaranteed to quell the inquiry:  “I don’t know.”

Although this may seem to be an inconvenient episode of dealing with the younger generation, the insistence to know as much as possible reveals the ambition of the child and the hope to be a success later in life.  Not surprisingly, “Why?” is also the core of scientific thought and acts as a fundamental base for sciPOP.

In the process of scientific story re-telling, the outward goal is to share relevant information in an interesting and meaningful way.  Yet looking inwards, the objective should be to learn as much as possible about the back story.  This not only invigorates the interest in the subject, but also adds a critical component to sciPOP: depth.

Here’s why:

Take any idea that you find interesting.  Now, ask the following questions…

  • What about it makes you interested?
  • When did it first interest you?
  • Who was influential in making it interesting?
  • How does it interest you?

I would say the answer to most of these questions is short, taking up little to no time.

Now ask yourself this question: Why does it interest you?

Perhaps this answer will be a little longer; a sentence or two.  Now take a moment and re-examine the reasons.  If the subject fulfills a need, why do you have that need?  If the topic satisfies a want, why do you have that want? If there is a passion fostered by the concept, why do you have that passion?

When you’ve answered those questions, continue the cycle, asking why and offering a response.  Eventually, you will hit a point where the answer will be, I don’t know.  When you’ve reached that point, work back to the topic of interest and see just how much you have learned about yourself in the context of the subject.

You have just conducted sciPOP research.  Inasmuch as the topic is the forefront of the discussion, the back story is what gives it POP.  You can use as much or as little of that information as you feel necessary in your initial offering.  But don’t feel the information you’ve gained will be lost.  Questions will undoubtedly come and most will deal with aspects relating to the back story.  You’ll be well prepared to respond and engage.

There is another reason asking, “Why?” works:  it filters out the noise.  Far too often, especially in science, a flood of information can confound a message and hurt any attempt to share.  “Why?” allows you to focus on the scope of the topic and stick to what matters. Although this may seem unnecessary, when your sciPOP work is challenged, this exercise is a perfect way to be prepared.

The most relevant example is the change of subject in which questions or concerns appear to be moving the topic away from your point or message.  This is a strategy used in many a political pundit argument and can effectively kill any chance at ensuring the public are education, enriched, engaged and entertained.

However, with the “Why?” exercise completed, you have the ability to point out the lack of appropriate scope and the attempt to move the conversation away from the topic.  This probably only happens when controversial subjects are discussed but one never knows when someone will make this attempt.

Personally, I go through this process for every sciPOP action.  As soon as I see a subject I feel would be of interest to the public, I head straight to the scientific literature (education) to learn as much as I can about why the subject has been published and its relevance to the public (enrichment).  Then I head into the world of the internet to read personal accounts, blogs and news to get a handle on why this topic might bring action (engagement) int he community.  I finally attempt to find a good link in the cultural world (entertainment) to find out why this subject is not merely academic but already a part of our world.

I admit this is rather time-consuming at the start.  I would take a day or two just to get to the point where I felt comfortable writing.  Other sciPOP-ers seem to be having the same timelines as they establish their journeys.  Yet, as you find your groove, the time will lessen and you will soon find yourself enjoying the process.

My hope is eventually, as you become comfortable, you will find asking “Why?” second nature.  Whenever you are faced with something – anything – new, you’ll ask and answer and ask again incessantly.  Although “I don’t know,” is inevitable, the journey of learning will provide a combination of information for the present as well as contentment for the future…until the next interesting thing comes around.

Much like those amazing, endearing and curious children.

(This is the fourth installment of the sciPOP series of articles which I hope you are enjoying.  If you wish, leave me a comment to tell me what childhood curiosity still brings you joy…) 






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A Tremendous Honour For The Germ Code

Hey everyone,

This is a short post and I promise I’ll get back to the series on #sciPOP soon.  Right now, I just wanted to share some news I received today.

The Canadian Science Writers’ Association is a national organization made up of professional science communicators who strive to bring science to the Canadian public. The CSWA was founded in 1971 and has since grown to be one of the leading institutions in the world.


Every year, the CSWA celebrates science communication in many ways, including a Book Award for outstanding general audience book published.  Last year, the winner was Fatal Flaws, written by Jay Ingram, who used to host Discovery Channel’s Daily Planet.

This year, along with five other fantastic tomes, The Germ Code has been placed on the short list for the 2013 award.  Wow.

While I had always hoped the book would relate to the general public, I never expected this level of accolade. I am truly honoured by the selection and the inclusion to this acclaimed list of authors who have put their heart, souls and expertise to paper.  I can attest that making the jump from short pieces, academic papers and other media to the incredibly difficult book format is laudable in and of itself.

Personally, this mention is not only exciting, but humbling.  Inasmuch as I might be the person up for the award, without all of you out there supporting me, I would only be a voice and an apparently well written book.  The sentiment may seem cliché but it is the truth: I succeed as long as you let me and I am and will be thankful for every moment.

As always I would love to know your thoughts.

P.S. You can read more about the award here:


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Rescued by a Dark Knight on my Island Escape

Jason "Germ Guy" Tetro:

I’ve written quite a bit about the benefits of chocolate over the last few months. But never had I dreamed the perspective my friend and colleague Barbara Bussey would share in her blog, Pharmistice.

Please give this a read and let her know your thoughts.

BTW, her first post is also incredibly compelling. She is a fantastic human writer…

Originally posted on Pharmistice:

I stand in the middle of my own island while the lens through which I view the world zooms out, rising upward into the expanse of the grey-blue sky above me until I am but a small existence within time and space. This is my island of safety, where the drone of the waves creep slowly around me until I am comfortably numb and closed off from all excitation. I come to this island to find shelter from the storm that rages around and within me.

This snapshot in time has been a regular part of my life, particularly through the circumstantial challenges over the last decade. I thought I was alone in this escape but learned years ago I was in good company; although I would never have expected it to be Sir Winston Churchill.

Few do not know of this great man who served his country in the…

View original 1,424 more words

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For Pleasure or For Pay…

Last week, I was given one of the greatest honours an author in Canada can have.  I was invited to the headquarters of Canada’s largest bookseller, Chapters/Indigo, to talk about The Germ Code and to sign the wall of fame.

Bhk4kejCUAAm9yt (3)

I also received some more good news regarding the book.  It seems that the demand has been so great that there may be a second printing in the works.  The news may be bittersweet; the book will continue to be promoted internationally yet this could mean more time before I begin writing my next tome.  That being said, there are so many other projects ongoing and in the works, I’ll be busy for quite some time.

In light of how busy I am, it’s no surprise to me that when I’m met in the street or subway by someone who recognizes me, I’m asked one particular question.  It’s simple enough and yet can alter the atmosphere dramatically depending on how I answer.

“Are you making a lot of money?”

I have a prepared answer:  “I’m not starving nor am I driving a Lamborghini.”

It seems to be effective enough.  Of course, it is a lame response but I feel necessary to keep the always contentious issue of writing for pay out of the spotlight. But this week, I gained another answer that might work and also highlight the nature of sciPOP. It came thanks to an incredible lecture by the incredible Erica Ehm.


For those of you who don’t know her by name, she has been a staple in Canadian media for over twenty years, particularly in music.  However, a number of years ago, she started one of the most popular blogging sites in the world:  The Yummy Mummy Club or as it’s called now, YMC (no A or eh?).

Over the years, Erica has done for motherhood what I am trying to do for science through sciPOP.  She has taken the entire world out of the shadows of domesticity and put it straight into the fast lane of the information superhighway. In the process, she has gained an entourage made up of skilled professionals who blog about everything from food, to family, to culture, and to pregnancy.  She has an incredible following and her experience has made her a regular on the stages of conferences.

At her most recent talk, Erica spoke to the topic of pay and introduced me to an analogy that I had not even given thought albeit had been right in front of my nose.

When I’m giving my talks, particularly to academic audiences, I refer to myself as a microbiologist taking a sabbatical to become a rock star.  It always goes well with the crowd.  It actually stemmed from an online conversation in which a colleague in the UK referred to me as a burgeoning rock star and I jokingly suggested that from now on he call me “Jason Bon Germy.”

Although I enjoy the comparison, the idea that I could be viewed or even perceived as an artist such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or the namesake of my alternate ego, Jon Bon Jovi, was ludicrous.  After all, I was writing, not composing.  I was getting people to read, not to sing and dance.  My heroes were Douglas Adams, Robertson Davies and Clive Barker.  The schism between the two roles wasn’t just a gap, it was an impassable chasm.

Yet Erica changed that.  She showed me that blogging is indeed creativity and each blog post is akin to composing a piece of music.  Even more importantly, the first post, no matter how brilliant, will almost never get the attention it rightly deserves.  Blogging success is a ladder that starts at the first rung and then slowly climbs upwards.  You also need a good base, whether it be a record company or in my case media organization, to ensure the rise is steady.

If you are aware of the ladder and can find a good base, you can then climb.  Using your passion, your conviction, your skill and your creativity, the rise will come.  It may take weeks, months or years but eventually you will get noticed.  Instead of playing the clubs (small websites), where only a handful of people will see you, you’ll make it to the big time (large corporate websites) where you will have thousands of people admiring your art.

This leads me back to the title of this article and my new answer to the question.  There is no doubt that we all want to get paid for what we do, whether prose, poetry or sciPOP. I’m the same way.  But in order to get to that place, we must all travel a similar path.  As with any vocation, there will have to be sacrifices and as I’ve learned, that sometimes means giving up a paycheck.

For years, I was in the public eye never making a cent.  Yet that enabled me to experiment and hone my skills.  Much like the house band in the small bar, I had the opportunity to mix it up a little and find out what works and what doesn’t.  The stakes were smaller and failures would not be as costly. Consider what would happen now if I tried a new joke or analogy in front of a giant audience made up of influential people…and it bombed.  I’d go from rock star to has-been in a heartbeat.

It’s part of the double-edged sword that is popularity.  The more you gain, the less likely you will have a chance to go outside of your expected box.  Think about how many times you’ve been to a big name concert and only want to hear the hits.  It’s no different.  Today, I have a writing style that is expected and if I don’t deliver, for whatever reasons, there will be disappointment.

So, there exists a dichotomy.  With pay comes a price; without pay comes pleasure.  The question then becomes which is more important to you?  I cannot answer that nor can I offer a direction.  But what I can say is that as sciPOP grows, it will expand and include an influx of indelible ideas to illustrate science to the public.

Admittedly, there’s little – well, no – money at the moment in sciPOP and many of my own ventures are without remuneration.  But as Erica Ehm has shown, that reality can be changed.  Today, she has a successful business, she’s developed her own brand of rock star and her bloggers are also rising the ladder.

There’s every reason to believe the same will occur for sciPOP.  It will take time and I’m sure many hundreds of thousands of words but eventually, there will be acceptance and demand.  If it all goes well, we may all have the opportunity to not only take pleasure from our work, but get paid for it as well.

As for that answer,  I’m thinking: “I may be a rock star but I’m still no Bowie.”
(that one’s for you Tim)

Would love to know your thoughts.

(this is the third post in the sciPOP series which I hope is helping to change your perspective on presenting science in the public)

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On the Tenor of Titles

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that in the academic world – and many other worlds – reliability and trust is dependent not on your abilities, but your title.

Are you:

A doctor?
A lawyer?
A specialist?
A manager?
An associate?
A representative?

Depending on the answer, you may find yourself being lauded obsequiously, disregarded as obsolete, or worse, shunned as an outcast.

It’s all been rather odd to me as throughout my academic career, I never really had a title.  In the eyes of my official employer, I was simply a research associate, an obeisant position.  But to offer more credibility to my outlandish style - and to obfuscate the fact that I didn’t have an academic PhD – I was given other professional designations.  Many were obtuse and some simply obscure but they always seemed to work to keep those with whom I interacted sated.

Then, one day about five years ago, I was anointed with a title that opened up a new vocational avenue.  Instead of an academic accolade, this attention-grabbing name was meant solely for public.  Even then, unlike familiar titles such as expert, consultant, and advisor, this was so outside-the-box that there was little hope for optimism.

“The Germ Guy”

There was no mention of a job description, no obvious association with an institution or organization, and certainly little to no sense of what my function would be other than perhaps something to do with germs. It was a cute name that nicely rolled off the tongue.

Somehow, it worked and set me off on this strange path which has enriched me in ways I could never have imagined.

Since the dawn of The Germ Guy, I’ve acquired several other titles, such as Germevangelist, Germs Relationship Therapist, Germs Correspondent and perhaps my favorite, Germs Pundit.  Yet regardless of the actual designation, there is one thing that remains constant:  me.

I hadn’t given it much thought until a few weeks ago when I was asked to talk about my work in the public to a group of academically trained experts in the field of infection prevention and control.  At first I was concerned that there might not be any interest.  After all, why would academics be interested in listening to a guy without a doctorate whose claim to fame was a book about a dysfunctional relationship with germs?

As I reflected about what to offer in terms of educational development, I realized that there was something that needed to be shared.  This wasn’t a scientific finding or a new direction for research.  This was instead a call to all in attendance to find a way to share the message of keeping patients safe in a way that was familiar to me but was completely unknown to them.  Quite simply, they needed to find a way to communicate with the public using sciPOP.

But before they could do that, they needed to learn more about how to find a new title – a public one – that represented each individual as well as his or her vocation.

The talk went so well that it occurred to me that we all need to undergo a similar exercise.  Instead of being defined based on job identify and professional expertise, we all have another title inside us.  For me, it was The Germ Guy.  For you…what might it be?

To start, look in the mirror.  What do you see (other than 10% human and 90% germs)? What makes you…well…you?  It’s an entirely scary psychological task and admittedly, took me many years before I was ready to do it.  Yet, when you start to actually analyze yourself, you begin to realize what traits are specific to you and how they work together.  All put together, the result is a description of who you are and what you can offer to the world.

In short, it’s your brand.

In my previous sciPOP post, I discussed the fundamental concept of story re-telling.  Yet I didn’t explain how to accomplish this…with good reason.  It’s all based on your brand.  Depending on its nature, you will share the same information in a completely different manner.  If you have several brands, then you might have a number of options to display your skill, style, and savvy…even if it is sardonically laced with alliteration.

Once you have the traits that make up your brand, list them and then lay them out in front of you.  You’ll see a number of different nouns and adjectives that offer an brand overview.  Now, using this collection of words, come up with a name that fits everything.

This is your title.

It can be serious or comedic; quaint or quirky; overt or sublime.  Whatever best describes that brand in a way that resonates with you and the public.  It may require a few tries and you may not be happy with the most effective name (I personally would have preferred The Microbial Maven over The Germ Guy).  Eventually, you will find the one that is right for you.

As for whether this works, here are a few ideas I’ve idealized with colleagues over the years.  I’m sure you will be able to quickly identify with these titles and their brand.

The Observant Ornithologist
The Captain of Carburetors
The Tort Teller
The Pedagogic Poet

Once you have your brand and title in place, you can start the story re-telling and enjoy the ride.  Admittedly, it will be slow at first but as you gain a following, you will find the journey will become a pleasurable experience.  And as I have found out over the last year, you will not only bring more to the public, but you may also make a difference as well.

Normally, I want to know your thoughts.  This time, however, I’d just like to know one thing:  what is your title?

(This is the second post of the sciPOP series and hope that it continues to keep you interested and engaged)

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On Scientific Story Re-telling

It’s been close to three months since the release of The Germ Code and I continue to be overwhelmed by the positive reaction to the tome.  It’s been an incredible experience and I am truly grateful.

Admittedly, the attention to the book – along with the commitments to Huffington Post, Popular Science, Globe and Mail, and other writing endeavours – has taken me away from this blog. That being said, I feel safe to now devote this site to more personal insights and perspective on this journey that would not have a place anywhere else.

Over the weekend, I was in the lovely city of Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory.

Whitehorse at dawn

It was my first time to venture so far north in Canada and I was amazed at the cordial nature of the people and the incredible spirit each of them possesses.

WP_20140126_060The White Pass in the Yukon

I gave talks to both the general public – thanks to the Yukon Science Institute – and to a group of students at a local elementary school.  It was yet another first for me; I had never talked to such a young group of people.  Both audiences were not only excited, but also engaged.

At one moment during the first talk, a person happened to ask me a very simple question:

“How do you make something so scientific so interesting?”

My response was equally as simple:

“I don’t talk about germs, I talk about relationships.”

The facial expression was that suggested there was another question about to be posed.  Sure enough, it came out:  “How?”

“I tell stories.”

The answer was pithy yet seemed to suffice as the individual went on with an inscribed book and a smile.

On the trip home, I had 12 hours to think about my response.  Why was telling these stories so effective?  It was an interesting retrospective both on my career as a researcher as well as my current direction in scientific storytelling.

Throughout our history, humans have told stories as it is the basis for the majority of our entertainment.  Depending on the format, there is a particular protocol involved.  Music has a score, dramatic arts have a script, novels use prose and reality programs including documentaries use human challenges and other situations.

Could storytelling also be the common denominator for science?  I’m sure that for many, that answer would have to be certainly no.

But I’ve learned it is actually quite the opposite.  In fact, of all the genres of expression that exists in the human realm, science is in itself devoted to storytelling.  The problem is that over the years, the format has changed so much that one need to be trained to appreciate these purely ‘academic’ tales.

The standard story structure is as follows:

Intro - Conflict – Action -
Climax – Resolution

In science, the format is as follows:

Intro – Hypothesis – Methods -
Results – Discussion/Conclusions

There is one additional element in science and indeed in most academic literature:  the citations section.  This is where the two genres diverge.

In a standard story, unless it is part of a series, everything needed to understand the plot, its arcs, its characters and its environment is presented within the structure.  In science, one can cite a previous paper – another scientific story – to provide context.  While at one time, citations were few and only offered perspective with the majority of information contained within the text; today, there may be dozens to prevent the research findings from turning into novellas.

Underneath the complex and jargon-filled offerings and citations, the narrative can be rather dramatic and indeed fascinating.  What’s more is that many of them can be directly related to the concerns and needs of the general public.  But much like an incredible story told in a different language, it’s almost impossible for the majority to understand.

That’s where scientific storytelling – or perhaps, re-telling – comes into play.

Just think about the following.

A researcher comes up with a question. He or she spends countless hours assembling a team, developing grant proposals, optimizing experimental procedures and focusing the work to ensure the results provide a meaningful answer.  There will be heartbreak with failing results and elation when experiments work.

Over the coming months and years, the question may become dynamic, changing slightly to accommodate the observations.  Eventually, when the decision is made that there is enough data to make a valid conclusion – which is never a given – the attempt to publish begins.  Rejections, modifications, requests for more work will undoubtedly happen.  Then there is the risk of the completely devastating realization that someone else already did your work and published it first.

Finally, after what may seem an eternity, the story can finally be told on paper, at presentations, and hopefully in the media.

This is what researchers must face and in my view, it is an honour to share their vocations to an audience far wider than the readers of the journal or the participants of a conference.  But rather than develop an entirely new story, I choose to re-tell the work, just in a different format. Think of it as a public-friendly remix of what has been done in the lab.

Or, if you wish…this:

Granted, my contributions are somewhat different than many expect from traditional science communication.  But my ramblings, like many other remixes, go beyond traditional borders to open up new paths for broader thinking and possibly, collaboration. In essence, I may be painting outside the lines but I always strive to bring those who read and watch me some…well…glee.

Feel free to groan…then let me know your thoughts.


P.S. This is the first in a series of posts on the topic of SciPOP – a new concept whereby the goal is not only communicating science, but also making it the talk of the day – at the water cooler, the dinner table, the gym, the dance hall and perhaps most importantly, the bedroom – okay, maybe not there but you get the point. 

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