If the hamster had been more ambitious, and less careful, she could have beaten me

D hamsterIn an earlier post, I pointed out that, according to one metric used to assess how good a scientist is, I am twice as good as a hamster. One way of assessing not a scientist, but a single scientific paper, is how many other scientific papers reference (cite) it. This is certainly a measure of a paper’s impact.

But it is not always a good measure of how good a paper is. A 2011 paper by Wolfe-Simon et al. has been cited 165 times in the year and a bit since it came out. A phenomenal performance. My most cited paper is not cited that many times, and it has been out for more than 10 years.

However, if you look at these 165 scientific papers, you will see that many of them consider problems in Wolfe-Simon et al.’s paper. I discussed that paper, and the response to it, in an earlier post. The paper claims (almost certainly wrongly) that a kind of bacteria has DNA in which the usual phosphorous bits are replaced by arsenic.

As an example of the citing papers, Fekry et al.’s paper shows that replacing phosphorous by arsenic reduces the lifetime of a relevant chemical bond from 30,000 years to around 0.1s. 30,000 years is a very stable bond –  very handy for DNA as a stable genetic information storage medium. Obviously, 0.1 s is just nowhere near long enough for storing the genetic information a living organism requires.

This would be a bit like replacing a robust durable flash drive with a memory stick that could only store information for a tenth of a second – not a good idea.

Anyway, it is good to see science working: good data is being collected, and being used to show that the controversial paper is almost certainly wrong. So the error in the scientific literatures is being fixed, and the work to do this is helping us learn about what are the requirements for life.

From a more personal point of view, I am a bit relieved that Tisha the hamster was not on such a paper. If she was, I would be reduced to writing blog posts saying I am an eighth as good as a hamster.