April 6, 2017

Mokyr Credits the Great Enrichment to a Culture That Values Scientific Inquiry

(p. A13) Life is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" Thomas Hobbes proclaimed in 1651, and it had been that way ever since humans had inhabited the Earth. At the time Hobbes wrote those words, life expectancy averaged about 30 years old in his native England and income per person typically was around $5 a day (in 2016 dollars). Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment that followed, the typical subject of Queen Elizabeth II lives to almost 80 and has an income of over $100 a day. Perhaps more impressively, most people in the world today face the prospect of living at least that well within a generation or two.

What brought about the Great Enrichment? And why did it all start in England? Joel Mokyr, in his fine book, attributes it to the unique and productive culture that evolved there. It was a culture that welcomed change and favored scientific inquiry that spurred radical technological improvements.

. . .

According to Mr. Mokyr, three factors led to the ultimate triumph of the new modern search for scientific truth over the largely inaccurate "science" of the ancients. First, Europe's fractured political environment was a blessing: Scientists who were banned or ostracized in one political jurisdiction fled to other locales more tolerant of their views. The controversial Franciscan monk, Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564), for example, was often in trouble and moving to evade authorities, leading him to flee from Italy to Switzerland and later, England, Poland and Moravia. Second, the invention of Gutenberg's printing press around 1440 enormously lowered the cost of widely disseminating knowledge over large areas. Third, an extraordinary intellectual community evolved--Voltaire and others called the Republic of Letters--that made the dissemination of new information (through letters to fellow scientists) obligatory for anyone who wanted to gain respect in the growing international community of scientists.

For the full review, see:

RICHARD VEDDER. "BOOKSHELF; The Genesis of Prosperity; What brought about the Great Enrichment? And why did it start in England? It had a culture that embraced change and scientific inquiry." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 11, 2016): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 10, 2016.)

The book under review, is:

Mokyr, Joel. A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Graz Schumpeter Lectures. New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2016..

March 26, 2017

Musk Unveils Bold Private Enterprise Plan to Colonize Mars

(p. B3) Entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled his contrarian vision for sending humans to Mars in roughly the next decade, and ultimately setting up colonies there, relying on bold moves by private enterprise, instead of more-gradual steps previously proposed by Washington.

Mr. Musk--who in 14 years transformed his closely held rocket company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., into a global presence--envisions hosts of giant, reusable rockets standing more than 300 feet tall eventually launching fleets of carbon-fiber spacecraft into orbit.

The boosters would return to Earth, blast off again into the heavens with "tanker" spaceships capable of refueling the initial vehicles, and then send those serviced spacecraft on their way to the Red Planet. The rockets would be twice as powerful as the Saturn 5 boosters that sent U.S. astronauts to the Moon. Each fully developed spacecraft likely would carry between 100 and 200 passengers, Mr. Musk said.

For the full story, see:

ANDY PASZTOR. "Musk Offers Vision of Mars Flights." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Sept. 28, 2016): B3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 27, 2016, and has the title "Elon Musk Outlines Plans for Missions to Mars.")

February 21, 2017

NASA Funding Depends on "Pure Pork-Barrel Politics"

(p. A15) "Beyond Earth" is delightfully different from any other book I've ever read by human-spaceflight cheerleaders. The authors have put their thinking caps on and broken out of the usual orthodoxy by presenting cogent ideas on why humans should go into space, including their lovely idea of going to and living on obscure (to most folks) Titan. We go, they say, because we need to go, not just to explore and study but to find another place to live and, if we want to, screw it up just as much as we have screwed up Earth, because that's what we do, that's what makes us human. We may make mistakes but, by God, we also produce great civilizations and art and, yes, science in the process. We've done Earth, so let's now go wherever our abilities take us and physics allow.

. . .

The one great truth I always tell people wanting to understand the American space program is this: The federal government doesn't give a flip about human spaceflight. That's why Apollo was canceled just as it hit its stride, why the shuttle program was underfunded from its inception, and why, after the shuttle was retired, NASA had nothing to replace it with. No one who holds the purse strings for NASA really cares whether American astronauts ever go anywhere. It's just not that important to a country beset with a vast array of pressing problems.

What keeps the current space program going at all is pure pork-barrel politics. That's why President Obama didn't blink an eye when he signed NASA budgets that provided funds to build a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, which has no well-defined purpose, as well as a crewed capsule called Orion, which has no specifically assigned places to go. As proof that spending money isn't evidence of support, there wasn't one dime in those budgets to procure and deliver the accouterments needed for true human space endeavors--no space suits, no planetary landers, no rovers, no habitats, nothing but the bottom and top of a big, expensive rocket that will require a vast marching army to operate for no apparent reason.

For the full review, see:

HOMER HICKAM. "BOOKSHELF; Forget Mars, Aim for Titan." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., December 16, 2016): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 15, 2016,)

The book under review, is:

Wohlforth, Charles, and Hendrix. Amanda R. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. New York: Pantheon, 2016.

March 3, 2016

To Get the High-Hanging Fruit, Grow Shorter Trees

Dr. Gennaro Fazio, a plant breeder and geneticist with the USDA's Agricultural Resource Service tells us . . . :

"In taller apple trees, the fruit that is high up, exposed to the sun, ripens the fastest. Low-hanging fruit doesn't get much sun, and it's not as ripe -- not so delectable, you could say -- as the higher fruit. You want to pick the low-hanging fruit last, so it has more time to develop."

But according to Fazio none of this ultimately matters: the idiom "low-hanging fruit" has been rendered totally and utterly irrelevant by the changing nature of apple tree genetics.

When "low-hanging fruit" became a metaphor in the late 1960s, the majority of apple trees in the U.S. were 25- to 30-foot tall goliaths--and the only fruits within reach were those that lingered on lower branches. Today, however, the majority of apple trees are what arborists refer to as "dwarfs."

. . .

Once hesitant that the smaller trees wouldn't produce as much fruit, apple growers realized dwarf trees were actually far more profitable. "Farmers get a higher yield per acre," says Heather Faubert, of the Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association. "With the taller trees, you could only plant about 20 trees per acre; now, you can get as many as 2,000 in the same space."

The result of these smaller trees is that the lowest-hanging fruits are actually no longer the easiest to pick. In fact, picking them requires repeatedly bending over to knee-level, a maneuver that can prove incredibly straining on the lower back.

"The ergonomics of picking apples have completely changed," says Fazio. "It really no longer makes sense to go for the low-hanging fruit. The phrase is irrelevant."

For the full story, see:, "Should You Literally Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit?," Feb. 5, 2016, URL:

(Note: ellipses added.)

The web page was excerpted in:

"Notable & Quotable: 'Low-Hanging Fruit'." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Feb. 10, 2016): A11.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 9, 2016.)

January 24, 2016

"Hey You, Get Busy" Bolted in Place

(p. D8) Most scientists rely on grants from the federal government and private foundations to finance their work. Michael W. Davidson turned to neckties.

Mr. Davidson, who died on Dec. 24 [2015] at 65, used sophisticated microscopes to create stunning, psychedelic images of crystallized substances like DNA and hormones, and he contributed to Nobel Prize-honored research about the inner workings of cells. His images were on the covers of scientific journals and, as unlikely as it might seem, on neckwear.

They found their way into men's apparel in the early 1990s, when Mr. Davidson called Irwin Sternberg, the president of the necktie company Stonehenge Ltd., proposing a series of ties using his ultramagnified, wildly colorful images of vitamins. Mr. Sternberg, though skeptical, agreed to take a look.

"When I saw Michael's work, I started to think I couldn't get a designer more talented," Mr. Sternberg said in an interview.

Stonehenge released a line of "vitamin ties" in September 1993. A year later, neckties with Mr. Davidson's images of moon rocks were released on the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned lunar mission. Ties with images of cocktails, beer and wine followed. Millions of ties were sold, and a slice of the profits -- millions of dollars -- went to charity. Mr. Davidson's share went to his laboratory work at Florida State University in Tallahassee.

. . .

Mr. Davidson started college at Georgia Southern University, then attended Oglethorpe University in Georgia before earning a chemistry degree at Georgia State.

He arrived at Florida State in the early 1980s as a graduate student. He quit to start a business chrome-plating auto parts.

A few years later, Mr. Davidson returned to Florida State as a microscopy technician for a materials research laboratory. "He just came in and said, 'I think there are things we can do,' and he got hired," said Kirby Kemper, a retired Florida State physics professor who was then associate chairman of the physics department.

To produce his work, Mr. Davidson hired an army of assistants. Some were undergraduates. Others were out of school with no credentials in the field. But the work helped propel many of them to successful jobs in academia and industry.

Eric Clark had been a nurse when Mr. Davidson hired him as an assistant in 1999. Now, as an application developer, he is continuing Mr. Davidson's educational website and scientific illustration operations. (The molecular biology laboratory was disbanded.)

Mr. Davidson worked seven days a week, and he expected the same of the people who worked with him. On his door was a large metal sign that said, "Hey you, get busy." MagLab officials told him to take it down. Mr. Davidson bolted it in place, and it is still there.

For the full obituary, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Michael W. Davidson, 65, a Scientist Who Had an Artist's Eye for Detail." The New York Times (Sat., JAN. 16, 2016): D8.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JAN. 12, 2016, and has the title "Michael W. Davidson, a Success in Microscopes and Neckwear, Dies at 65.")

January 22, 2016

Regulations Slow Eradication of Cancer

(p. D3) . . . the triumph of chemotherapy for Hodgkin's and then for many other tumors opened an interlocking series of dilemmas. In the clinic and the hospital, the new protocols demanded that doctors muster the courage to make their patients very sick in order to make them well. But how sick was too sick? The risks and benefits of the powerful treatments now needed careful, deliberate assessment at every stage of the disease.

Similar questions dogged those who developed, evaluated and regulated the drugs. How poisonous could these agents safely be? How assiduously should desperate patients be saved by their government from pharmaceutical risk?

Dr. DeVita stands firmly among those affirming cancer patients' right to aggressive treatment. One particular exchange summarizes his philosophy: "Do your patients speak to you after you do this to them?" one skeptic asked him early on. "The answer is yes," he replied, "and for a lot longer."

The regulatory caution of the Food and Drug Administration has been a thorn in his side for decades: "I'd like to be able to say that as cancer drugs have become increasingly more complex and sophisticated, the F.D.A. has as well. But it has not." In fact, he writes, "the rate-limiting step in eradicating cancer today is not the science but the regulatory environment we work in."

For the full review, see:

ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. "An Unbowed Warrior." The New York Times (Tues., Dec.. 1, 2015): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date NOV. 30, 2015, and has the title "Review: Science and Politics Collide in 'The Death of Cancer'.")

The book under review, is:

DeVita, Vincent T., and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable--and How We Can Get There. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.

January 19, 2016

Private Start-Ups Pursue Fusion Approaches Ignored by Government

(p. B5) Fusion reactions release no carbon dioxide. Their fuel, derived from water, is abundant. Compared with contemporary nuclear reactors, which produce energy by splitting atoms apart, a fusion plant would produce little radioactive waste.

The possibilities have attracted Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of He has invested in General Fusion, a start-up in British Columbia, through Bezos Expeditions, the firm that manages his venture capital investments. Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is betting on another fusion company, Tri Alpha Energy, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., an hour south of Los Angeles, through his venture arm, Vulcan Capital.

Peter Thiel -- the co-founder of PayPal, who once lamented the superficiality of the technology sector by saying, "We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters" -- has invested in a third fusion start-up, Helion Energy, based near Seattle, through Mithril Capital Management.

Government money fueled a surge in fusion research in the 1970s, but the fusion budget was cut nearly in half over the next decade. Federal research narrowed on what scientists saw as the most promising prototype -- a machine called a tokamak, which uses magnets to contain and fuse a spinning, doughnut-shape cloud of hydrogen.

Today's start-ups are trying to perfect some of the ideas that the government left by the wayside.

After earning his doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, in the mid-1990s, Michl Binderbauer had trouble securing federal funds to research an alternative approach to fusion that the American government briefly explored -- one that adds the element boron into the hydrogen fuel. The advantage of the mixture is that the reaction does not fling off neutrons that, like shrapnel, can wear down machine parts and make them radioactive.

Mr. Binderbauer, along with his Ph.D. adviser, Norman Rostoker, founded Tri Alpha Energy, eventually raising money from the venture capital arms of Mr. Allen and the Rockefeller family. The company has raised over $200 million.

For the full story, see:

DINO GRANDONI. "Start-Ups Take on Challenge of Fusion." The New York Times (Mon., OCT. 26, 2015): B1 & B5.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 25, 2015, and has the title "Start-Ups Take On Challenge of Nuclear Fusion.")

December 29, 2015

FDA Forces Child to Go to London to Get Drug to Fight His Cancer

(p. A15) How far would you go to get a drug that could save your child's life? Across an ocean? That is exactly what the federal government is forcing some American families with dying children to do.

In 2012, when Diego Morris was 11 years old, he was diagnosed with a deadly cancer in his leg called osteosarcoma. Doctors at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., removed the tumor, but the prognosis was poor. There was a significant risk that even extensive chemotherapy after surgery would not prevent the cancer from returning.

Fortunately, a team of doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City had developed a revolutionary new drug, mifamurtide (MTP), that can prevent osteosarcoma from coming back. A study by Dr. Eugenie Kleinerman of MD Anderson and Dr. Paul Meyers of Sloan Kettering showed the drug resulted in a 30% reduction in the osteosarcoma mortality rate at eight years after diagnosis.

The drug was approved in 2009 by the European Medicines Agency and is currently the standard of care in Europe, Israel and many other countries. In 2012 it received the prestigious Prix Galien Award, the gold medal for pharmaceutical research and development in the United Kingdom.

MPT was exactly what Diego needed. But there was one problem: The drug was not available in America because the Food and Drug Administration had rejected it, demanding additional studies. That meant that Diego had to travel from Phoenix to London to get the drug he needed to save his life--a drug that was available in almost every industrialized nation and should have been available in the U.S.

For the full commentary, see:

DARCY OLSEN. "Winning the Right to Save Your Own Life; As the FDA dawdles, 24 states pass 'right-to-try' laws giving terminally ill patients access to drugs." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 27, 2015): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 26, 2015.)

Olsen's commentary is related to her book:

Olsen, Darcy. The Right to Try: How the Federal Government Prevents Americans from Getting the Lifesaving Treatments They Need. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

December 8, 2015

Climate Change Likely to Be Slower and Less Harmful than Feared

(p. A11) . . . , we are often told by journalists that the science is "settled" and there is no debate. But scientists disagree: They say there is great uncertainty, and they reflected this uncertainty in their fifth and latest assessment for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It projects that temperatures are likely to be anything from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by the latter part of the century--that is, anything from mildly beneficial to significantly harmful.

As for the impact of that future warming, a new study by a leading climate economist, Richard Tol of the University of Sussex, concludes that warming may well bring gains, because carbon dioxide causes crops and wild ecosystems to grow greener and more drought-resistant. In the long run, the negatives may outweigh these benefits, says Mr. Tol, but "the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming."

Mr. Tol's study summarizes the effect we are to expect during this century: "The welfare change caused by climate change is equivalent to the welfare change caused by an income change of a few percent. That is, a century of climate change is about as good/bad for welfare as a year of economic growth. Statements that climate change is the biggest problem of humankind are unfounded: We can readily think of bigger problems." No justification for prioritizing climate change over terrorism there.

. . .

To put it bluntly, climate change and its likely impact are proving slower and less harmful than we feared, while decarbonization of the economy is proving more painful and costly than we hoped. The mood in Paris will be one of furious pessimism among the well-funded NGOs that will attend the summit in large numbers: Decarbonization, on which they have set their hearts, is not happening, and they dare not mention the reassuring news from science lest it threaten their budgets.

Casting around for somebody to blame, they have fastened on foot-dragging fossil-fuel companies and those who make skeptical observations, however well-founded, about the likelihood of dangerous climate change. Scientific skeptics are now routinely censored, or threatened with prosecution. One recent survey by Rasmussen Reports shows that 27% of Democrats in the U.S. are in favor of prosecuting climate skeptics. This is the mentality of religious fanaticism, not scientific debate.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY And BENNY PEISER. "Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate; At the Paris conference, expect an agreement that is sufficiently vague and noncommittal for all countries to claim victory." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 28, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 27, 2015.)

The Tol working paper mentioned above, is:

Tol, Richard S. J. "Economic Impacts of Climate Change." University of Sussex Economics Working Paper No. 75-2015.

August 31, 2015

Marie Curie Opposed Patents Because Women Could Not Own Property in France

(p. C6) Ms. Wirtén, a professor at Linköping University in Sweden, pays special attention to the decision not to patent and how it was treated in the founding texts of the Curie legend: Curie's 1923 biography of her husband, "Pierre Curie," and their daughter Eve's 1937 biography of her mother, "Madame Curie." The books each recount a conversation in which husband and wife agree that patenting their radium method would be contrary to the spirit of science.

It is not quite that simple. As Ms. Wirtén points out, the Curies derived a significant portion of their income from Pierre's patents on instruments. Various factors besides beneficence could have affected their decision not to extend this approach to their radium process. Intriguingly, the author suggests that the ineligibility of women to own property under French law might have shaped Curie's perspective. "Because the law excluded her from the status of person upon which these intellectual property rights depend," Ms. Wirtén writes, "the 'property' road was closed to Marie Curie. The persona road was not."

For the full review, see:

EVAN HEPLER-SMITH. "Scientific Saint; After scandals in France, Curie was embraced by American women as an intellectual icon." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C6.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Wirtén, Eva Hemmungs. Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

August 4, 2015

A Critical Mass Need to Be Motivated by the Telos of a Practice

(p. 227) The fact that some people are led into a practice in pursuit of goals that are external to the practice-- money, fame, or what have you-- need pose no threat to the integrity of the practice itself. So long as those goals do not penetrate the practice at all levels, those in pursuit of external goals will eventually drop out or be left behind or change their goals or be discredited by those in pursuit of a practice's proper goals. However, if external goals do penetrate the practice at all levels, it becomes vulnerable to corruption. Practices are always developing and changing, and the direction that development takes will be determined by participants in the practice. Good practices encourage wise practitioners who in turn will care for the future of the practice.


Schwartz, Barry, and Kenneth Sharpe. Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

A somewhat similar point is made in:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "How Institutional Incentives and Constraints Affect the Progress of Science." Prometheus 26, no. 3 (Sept. 2008): 231-239.

February 17, 2015

Congress Appropriates Funds to Test Concussion Theory of Rain

(p. 190) the first century A.D., when the Greek moralist Plutarch came up with the notion that rain followed military battles. Napoleon believed as much and fired cannons and guns at the sky to muddy up the ground between him and his attackers. Civil War veterans who wallowed in cold slop believed that ceaseless, close-range artillery fire had opened up the skies. In the late 1890s, as the first nesters started to dig their toeholds on the dry side of the one hundredth meridian, Congress had appropriated money to test the concussion theory in Texas. The tests were done by a man named Dyrenforth. He tried mightily, with government auditors looking over (p. 191) his shoulder, but Dyrenforth could not force a drop from the hot skies of Texas. From then on, he was called "Dry-Henceforth."

Government-sponsored failure didn't stop others from trying. A man who called himself "the moisture accelerator," Charles M. Hatfield, roamed the plains around the turn of the century. A Colonel Sanders of rainmaking, Hatfield had a secret mixture of ingredients that could be sent to the sky by machine. In the age before the widespread use of the telephone, it was hard to catch up with the moisture accelerator after he had fleeced a town and moved on.


Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006.

November 29, 2014

Einthoven Tried to Share Prize Money with His Assistant

(p. 194) One event that occurred after Einthoven received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1924 speaks volumes about his integrity. In the construction of his string galvanometer and laboratory experiments over many years, Einthoven was rather clumsy with his hands and relied very much on the collaboration of his chief assistant K. F. L. van der Woerdt. Years later, when he received the $40,000 in Nobel Prize money, Einthoven wished to share it with his assistant but soon learned that the man had died. He sought out the man's two surviving sisters, who were living in genteel poverty in a kind of almshouse. He journeyed there by train and gave them half of the award money.


Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

March 18, 2014

Nasaw Claims Carnegie Believed in Importance of Basic Scientific Research

But notice that the two main examples of what Carnegie himself chose to fund (the Wilson Observatory and the yacht to collect geophysical data), were empirically oriented, not theoretically oriented.

(p. 480) Carnegie was, as Harvard President James Bryant Conant would comment in 1935 on the centenary of his birth, "more than a generation ahead of most business men of this country [in understanding] the importance of science to industry." He recognized far better than his peers how vital basic scientific research was to the applied research that industry fed off. George Ellery Hale, an astronomer and astrophysicist, later to be the chief architect of the National Research Council, was astounded when he learned of Carnegie's commitment to pure research. "The provision of a large endowment solely for scientific research seemed almost too good to be true.... Knowing as I did the difficulties of obtaining money for this purpose and (p. 481) devoted as I was to research rather than teaching, I could appreciate some of the possibilities of such an endowment." Hale applied for funds to build an observatory on Mount Wilson in California, and got what he asked for. It would take until 1909 to build and install a 60-inch reflecting telescope in the observatory; in 1917, a second 100-inch telescope, the largest in the world, was added.

The Mount Wilson Observatory-- and the work of its astronomers and astrophysicists-- was only one of the projects funded in the early years of the new institution. Another, of which Carnegie was equally proud, was the outfitting of the Carnegie, an oceangoing yacht with auxiliary engine, built of wood and bronze so that it could collect geophysical data without the errors inflicted on compass readings by iron and steel. The ship was launched in 1909; by 1911, Carnegie could claim that the scientists on board had already been able to correct several significant errors on navigational maps.


Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: ellipsis, and italics, in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)

February 17, 2014

Would Science Progress Faster If It Were Less Academic and More Entrepreneurial?


Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D5) There is Big Science, defined as science that gets the big bucks. There is tried and true science, which, from an adventurous dissident's point of view, is boldly going where others have gone before but extending the prevailing knowledge by a couple of decimal places (a safe approach for dissertation writers and grant seekers).

Then there is bootstrap science, personified by Gene Shinn, who retired in 2006 after 31 years with the United States Geological Survey and 15 years with a research arm of the Shell Oil Company.

. . .

Without a Ph.D. and often without much financing, Mr. Shinn published more than 120 peer-reviewed papers that helped change many experts' views on subjects like how coral reefs expand and the underwater formation of limestone. Some of his papers, at odds with established scientific views, were initially rejected, only to be seen later as visionary.

His bootstrap ingredients included boundless curiosity, big ideas -- "gee-whiz science," he calls it -- persistence, a sure hand at underwater demolition (dynamite was comparatively easy to come by in those remarkably innocent days) and versatility at improvising core-sampling equipment on tight budgets. The ability to enlist the talents of other scientists, many with doctorates, who shared his love of hands-on field work and his impatience with official rules and permits added to the mix.

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL POLLAK. "BOOKS; Science on His Own Terms." The New York Times (Tues., November 5, 2013): D5.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 4, 2013.)

Book under review:

Shinn, Eugene A. Bootstrap Geologist: My Life in Science. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2013.

January 23, 2013

David Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research

LangerRobertResearchLab2013-01-12.jpg "Dr. Robert Langer's research lab is at the forefront of moving academic discoveries into the marketplace." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) HOW do you take particles in a test tube, or components in a tiny chip, and turn them into a $100 million company?

Dr. Robert Langer, 64, knows how. Since the 1980s, his Langer Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has spun out companies whose products treat cancer, diabetes, heart disease and schizophrenia, among other diseases, and even thicken hair.

The Langer Lab is on the front lines of turning discoveries made in the lab into a range of drugs and drug delivery systems. Without this kind of technology transfer, the thinking goes, scientific discoveries might well sit on the shelf, stifling innovation.

A chemical engineer by training, Dr. Langer has helped start 25 companies and has 811 patents, issued or pending, to his name. More than 250 companies have licensed or sublicensed Langer Lab patents.

Polaris Venture Partners, a Boston venture capital firm, has invested $220 million in 18 Langer Lab-inspired businesses. Combined, these businesses have improved the health of many millions of people, says Terry McGuire, co-founder of Polaris.

. . .

(p. 7) Operating from the sixth floor of the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research on the M.I.T. campus in Cambridge, Mass., Dr. Langer's lab has a research budget of more than $10 million for 2012, coming mostly from federal sources.

. . .

David H. Koch, executive vice president of Koch Industries, the conglomerate based in Wichita, Kan., wrote in an e-mail that "innovation and education have long fueled the world's most powerful economies, so I can't think of a better or more natural synergy than the one between academia and industry." Mr. Koch endowed Dr. Langer's professorship at M.I.T. and is a graduate of the university.

For the full story, see:

HANNAH SELIGSON. "Hatching Ideas, and Companies, by the Dozens at M.I.T." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., November 25, 2012): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 24, 2012.)

October 3, 2012

Big Science Done Privately at Great Risk


Source of book image:

(p. 23) Next time you find yourself grousing when the passenger in front reclines his seat a smidge too far, consider the astronomers of the Enlightenment. In 1761 and 1769, dozens and dozens of stargazers traveled thousands of miserable miles to observe a rare and awesome celestial phenomenon. They went by sailing ship and open dinghy, by carriage, by sledge and on foot. They endured discomfort that in our own flabby century would generate years of litigation. And they did it all for science: the men in powdered wigs and knee britches were determined to measure the transit of Venus.

. . .

The British astronomer Edmond Halley had realized that precise measurement of a transit might give astronomers armed with a clock and a telescope the data they needed to calculate how far Earth is from the Sun. With that distance in hand, they could work out the actual size of the solar system, the great astronomical problem of the era. The catch was that it would take multiple measurements from carefully chosen locations all over the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. But that was somebody else's problem. Halley knew he wouldn't live to see the transit of 1761.

That challenge fell to the French astronomer Joseph-Nicolas Delisle, who managed to energize and rally his colleagues in the years leading up to the transit, then coordinate the enormous effort that would ultimately involve scientists and adventurers from France, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Sweden and the American colonies. When you think about how hard it is to arrange a simple dinner with a few friends who live in the same city and use the same language when e-mailing, it's enough to take your breath away.

. . .

Sea travel was so risky in 1761 that observers took separate ships to the same destination to increase the chances some of them would make it alive. The Seven Years' War was on, and getting caught in the cross-fire was a constant concern. One French scientist carried a passport arranged by the Royal Society in London advising the British military "not to molest his person or Effects upon any account." Others were shelled by the French or caught in border troubles with the Russians. An observer en route to Tobolsk, in Siberia, found himself floating in ice up to his waist when his carriage fell through the frozen river they were traveling in lieu of a road. He made it to his destination. Another, heading toward eastern Finland via the iced-over Gulf of Bothnia, was repeatedly catapulted out of his sledge as the runners caught on the crests of frozen waves. He made it too.

For the full review, see:

JoANN C. GUTIN. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 20, 2012): 19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 18, 2012.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Wulf, Andrea. Chasing Venus: The Race to Measure the Heavens. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.

ApparatusTransitVenus2012-09-01.jpg Source of image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 6, 2012

Michael Milken Provided "Access to Capital for Growing Companies"

(p. 163) Although [high yield] . . . bonds eventually became known as a favored tool for leveraged--buyout specialists in the 1980s, Mike's original goal was different. He wanted to provide access to capital for growing companies that needed financing to expand and create jobs. Most of these companies lacked the investment grade" bond ratings required before the big financial institutions would back them. Mike knew that non-investment-grade (a k a "junk") companies create virtually all new jobs, and he believed that helping these companies grow strengthened the American economy and created good jobs for American workers.

It was by studying credit history at Berkeley in the 1960s that Mike developed his first great insight. He found that while there could be significant risk in any one high-yield bond, a carefully constructed portfolio of these assets produced a consistently better return over the long run than supposedly "safe" investment-grade debt. This was proved during the two decades of the 1970s and '80s when returns on high-yield bonds topped all other asset classes. Mike saw a great opportunity when he realized that the perception of default risk far exceeded the reality. In fact, these bonds had a surprisingly low-risk profile when adjusted for the potential returns.

After twenty years of superior gains, the high-yield bond market finally fell in 1990. Actually, it didn't fall--it was pushed by unwise government regulation that forced institutions to sell their bonds. The dip only lasted a year, however, with the market roaring back 46 percent in 1991.

Mike's competitors--Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Credit Suisse First Boston, the old oligopolies of the syndication (p. 164) business--labeled them "junk bonds" to disparage Mike's brainchild. He was not a member of their white-shoe club and they were not going to take his act lying down.


Wyly, Sam. 1,000 Dollars and an Idea: Entrepreneur to Billionaire. New York: Newmarket Press, 2008.

(Note: bracketed words and ellipsis added.)

March 2, 2012

Amateurs Can Advance Science

(p. C4) The more specialized and sophisticated scientific research becomes, the farther it recedes from everyday experience. The clergymen-amateurs who made 19th-century scientific breakthroughs are a distant memory. Or are they? Paradoxically, in an increasing variety of fields, computers are coming to the rescue of the amateur, through crowd-sourced science.

Last month, computer gamers working from home redesigned an enzyme. Last year, a gene-testing company used its customers to find mutations that increase or decrease the risk of Parkinson's disease. Astronomers are drawing amateurs into searching for galaxies and signs of extraterrestrial intelligence. The modern equivalent of the Victorian scientific vicar is an ordinary person who volunteers his or her time to solving a small piece of a big scientific puzzle.

Crowd-sourced science is not a recent invention. In the U.S., tens of thousands of people record the number and species of birds that they see during the Christmas season, a practice that dates back more than a century. What's new is having amateurs contribute in highly technical areas.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Following the Crowd to Citizen Science." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., FEBRUARY 11, 2012): C4.

October 23, 2011

Obama Regulations Are "Choking Off Innovation"

From 2007 to 2010 Nina V. Fedoroff was the science and technology adviser to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the Obama administration. Fedoroff is currently a Professor of Biology at Penn State. The passages quoted below are from her courageous commentary in The New York Times op-ed section:

(p. A21) . . . even as the Obama administration says it wants to stimulate innovation by eliminating unnecessary regulations, the Environmental Protection Agency wants to require even more data on genetically modified crops, which have been improved using technology with great promise and a track record of safety. The process for approving these crops has become so costly and burdensome that it is choking off innovation.

Civilization depends on our expanding ability to produce food efficiently, which has markedly accelerated thanks to science and technology. The use of chemicals for fertilization and for pest and disease control, the induction of beneficial mutations in plants with chemicals or radiation to improve yields, and the mechanization of agriculture have all increased the amount of food that can be grown on each acre of land by as much as 10 times in the last 100 years.

These extraordinary increases must be doubled by 2050 if we are to continue to feed an expanding population. . . .

. . .

Myths about the dire effects of genetically modified foods on health and the environment abound, but they have not held up to scientific scrutiny. And, although many concerns have been expressed about the potential for unexpected consequences, the unexpected effects that have been observed so far have been benign. Contamination by carcinogenic fungal toxins, for example, is as much as 90 percent lower in insect-resistant genetically modified corn than in nonmodified corn. This is because the fungi that make the toxins follow insects boring into the plants. No insect holes, no fungi, no toxins.

. . .

Only big companies can muster the money necessary to navigate the regulatory thicket woven by the government's three oversight agencies: the E.P.A., the Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration.

. . .

. . . the evidence is in. These crop modification methods are not dangerous. The European Union has spent more than $425 million studying the safety of genetically modified crops over the past 25 years. Its recent, lengthy report on the matter can be summarized in one sentence: Crop modification by molecular methods is no more dangerous than crop modification by other methods. Serious scientific bodies that have analyzed the issue, including the National Academy of Sciences and the British Royal Society, have come to the same conclusion.

For the full commentary, see:

NINA V. FEDOROFF. "Engineering Food for All." The New York Times (Fri., August 19, 2011): A21.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was dated August 18, 2011.)

October 7, 2011

Another Nod to Planck's "Cynical View of Science"

The Max Planck view expressed in the quote below, has been called "Planck's Principle" and has been empirically tested in three papers cited at the end of the entry.

(p. 12) How's this for a cynical view of science? "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.

And yet a large body of psychological data supports Planck's view: we humans quickly develop an irrational loyalty to our beliefs, and work hard to find evidence that supports those opinions and to discredit, discount or avoid information that does not.

For the full commentary, see:

CORDELIA FINE. "GRAY MATTER; Biased but Brilliant." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., July 31, 2011): 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 30, 2011.)

Three of my papers that present evidence on Planck's Principle, are:

"Age and the Acceptance of Cliometrics." The Journal of Economic History 40, no. 4 (December 1980): 838-841.

"Planck's Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?" Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723 (with David L. Hull and Peter D. Tessner).

"The Polywater Episode and the Appraisal of Theories." In A. Donovan, L. Laudan and R. Laudan, eds., Scrutinizing Science: Empirical Studies of Scientific Change. Dordrecht, Holland: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1988, 181-198.

June 9, 2011

"Progress Depended on the Empirical Habit of Thought"

In the passage below from 1984 Orwell presents an underground rebel's account of why the authoritarian socialist dystopia cannot advance in science and technology.

(p. 155) The world of today is a bare, hungry, dilapidated place compared with the world that existed before 1914, and still more so if compared with the imaginary future to which the people of that period looked forward. In the early twentieth century, the vision of a future society unbelievably rich, leisured, orderly, and efficient--a glittering (p. 156) antiseptic world of glass and steel and snow-white concrete--was part of the consciousness of nearly every literate person. Science and technology were developing at a prodigious speed, and it seemed natural to assume that they would go on developing. This failed to happen, partly because of the impoverishment caused by a long series of wars and revolutions, partly because scientific and technical progress depended on the empirical habit of thought, which could not survive in a strictly regimented society.


Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. New York: The New American Library, 1961 [1949].

By Canadian law, 1984 is no longer under copyright. The text has been posted on the following Canadian web site:

December 17, 2009

"Every Physicist Wants Two Things: Glory and Money"

(p. 54) . . . in 1950, Shockley published his book Electrons and Holes in Semiconductors, which stood for many years as the definitive work in the field and confirmed his credentials for the Nobel Prize that he shared with Brattain and Bardeen in 1956. The fact was that for his theory of the field effect transistor that later dominated the industry and for the junction transistor that was dominating it at the time, Shockley deserved the prize alone. He had at last made his point.

Yet Shockley was not satisfied. "Every physicist," he said at the time, "wants two things: glory and money. I have won the glory. Now I want the money."


Gilder, George. Microcosm: The Quantum Revolution in Economics and Technology. Paperback ed. New York: Touchstone, 1990.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 23, 2009

Increase in Prizes to Advance Innovation

SciencePrizes2009-06-20.jpgSource of graphic on past prizes: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) Are we impatient with NASA? Google offers $30 million in prizes for a better lunar lander. Do we like solving practical puzzles? InnoCentive Inc. has posted hundreds of lucrative research contests, offering cash prizes up to $1 million for problems in industrial chemistry, remote sensing, plant genetics and dozens of other technical disciplines. Perhaps we crave guilt-free fried chicken. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals offers a $1 million prize for the first to create test-tube poultry tissue that can be safely served for dinner.

Call it crowd-sourcing; call it open innovation; call it behavioral economics and applied psychology; it's a prescription for progress that is transforming philanthropy. In fields from manned spaceflight to the genetics of aging, prizes may soon rival traditional research grants as a spur to innovation. "We see a renaissance in the use of prizes to solve problems," says Tony Goland, a partner at McKinsey & Co. which recently analyzed trends in prize philanthropy.

. . .

Since 2000, private foundations and corporations have launched more than 60 major prizes, totaling $250 million in new award money, most of it focused on science, medicine, environment and technology, the McKinsey study found.

. . .

In growing numbers, corporate sponsors are embracing the prize challenge as a safe, inexpensive way to farm out product research, at a time when tight credit and business cutbacks have slowed innovation. Venture-capital investments have dropped by almost half since last year, reaching the lowest level since 1997, the National Venture Capital Association recently reported. "Here is a mechanism for off-balance-sheet risk-taking," says Peter Diamandis, founder of the X Prize Foundation. "A corporation can put up a prize that is bold and audacious with very little downside. You only pay the winner. It is a fixed-price innovation."

For the full article, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "SCIENCE JOURNAL; The Science Prize: Innovation or Stealth Advertising? Rewards for Advancing Knowledge Have Blossomed Recently, but Some Say They Don't Help Solve Big Problems." Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 8, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The McKinsey study mentioned in the quotes above, was funded by the Templeton Foundation, and can be downloaded from:

McKinsey&Company. ""And the Winner Is ..." Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes." McKinsey & Company, 2009.

(Note: ellipsis in study title is in the original.)

July 19, 2009

Individual Independent "Biohackers" Hope to Advance Science


"Katherine's Aull's closet laboratory in her apartment." Source of photo and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

The individual independent scientist used to play an important role in the advance of science, but over time mainly disappeared as the academic scientist, supported by large institutions, became dominant. The dominance of funding from incumbent institutions may constrain major innovations, and so I have speculated that it might be beneficial to find ways for it again to be possible for independent individual scholars to play important roles in science.

Astronomy is one area in which this still happens. The article quoted below points to another domain in which individual scholars might be able to make contributions.

(p. A1) In Massachusetts, a young woman makes genetically modified E. coli in a closet she converted into a home lab. A part-time DJ in Berkeley, Calif., works in his attic to cultivate viruses extracted from sewage. In Seattle, a grad-school dropout wants to breed algae in a personal biology lab.

These hobbyists represent a growing strain of geekdom known as biohacking, in which do-it-yourselfers tinker with the building blocks of life in the comfort of their own homes. Some of them buy DNA online, then fiddle with it in hopes of curing diseases or finding new biofuels.

. . .

Ms. Aull, 23 years old, is designing a customized E. coli in the closet of her Cambridge, Mass., apartment, hoping to help with cancer research.

She's got a DNA "thermocycler" bought on eBay for $59, and an incubator made by combining a styrofoam box with a heating device meant for an iguana cage. A few months ago, she talked about her hobby on DIY Bio, a Web site frequented by biohackers, and her work was noted in New Scientist magazine.

. . .

(p. A14) Phil Holtzman, a college student and part-time DJ at dance parties in Berkeley, Calif., is growing viruses in his attic that he thinks could be useful in medicine someday. Using pipettes and other equipment borrowed from his community college, he extracts viruses called bacteriophage from sewage and grows them in petri dishes. Mr. Holtzman's goal: Breed them to survive the high temperatures of the human body, where he thinks they might be useful in killing bad bacteria.

He collects partly treated sewage water from a network of underground tunnels in the Berkeley area, jumping a chain-link fence to get to the source. But Mr. Holtzman says his roommates are "really uncomfortable" with him working with sewage water, so he's trying to find another source of bacteriophage.

For the full story, see:

JEANNE WHALEN. "In Attics and Closets, 'Biohackers' Discover Their Inner Frankenstein; Using Mail-Order DNA and Iguana Heaters, Hobbyists Brew New Life Forms; Is It Risky?" Wall Street Journal (Tues., May 12, 2009): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

February 10, 2009

Leeuwenhoek's Great Discovery Was at First Rejected by the "Experts"

In the passage quoted below, Hager discusses the reception that Leeuwenhoeck received to his first report of the "animalcules" seen under his microscope:

(p. 42) He hired a local artist to draw what he saw and sent his findings to the greatest scientific body of the day, the Royal Society of London.

(p. 43) Van Leeuwenhoek's raising of the curtain on a new world was greeted with what might kindly be called a degree of skepticism. Three centuries later a twentieth-century wit wrote a lampoon of what the Royal Society's secretary might well have responded:

Dear Mr. Anthony van Leeuwenhoek,

Your letter of October 10th has been received here with amusement. Your account of myriad "little animals" seen swimming in rainwater, with the aid of your so-called "microscope," caused the members of the society considerable merriment when read at our most recent meeting. Your novel descriptions of the sundry anatomies and occupations of these invisible creatures led one member to imagine that your "rainwater" might have contained an ample portion of distilled spirits---imbibed by the investigator. Another member raised a glass of clear water and exclaimed, "Behold, the Africk of Leeuwenhoek." For myself, I withhold judgement as to the sobriety of your observations and the veracity of your instrument. However, a vote having been taken among the members---accompanied, I regret to inform you, by considerable giggling---it has been decided not to publish your communication in the Proceedings of this esteemed society. However, all here wish your "little animals" health, prodigality and good husbandry by their ingenious "discoverer."

The satire was not far from the truth. Although very interested in the Dutchman's discoveries, so many English scientists were doubtful about his reports that van Leeuwenhoek had to enlist an English vicar and several jurists to attest to his findings. Then Hooke himself confirmed them. All doubt was dispelled.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

January 9, 2009

French Entrepreneur Fourneau Was Against Law, But Used It

The existence and details of patent laws can matter for creating incentives for invention and innovation. The patent laws in Germany and France in the 1930s reduced the incentives for inventing new drugs.

(p. 141) German chemical patents were often small masterpieces of mumbo jumbo. It was a market necessity. Patents in Germany were issued to protect processes used to make a new chemical, not, as in America, the new chemical itself; German law protected the means, not the end.   . . .

. . .

(p. 166) Fourneau decided that if the French were going to compete, the nation's scientists would either have to discover their own new drugs and get them into production before the Germans could or find ways to make French versions of German compounds before the Germans had earned back their research and production costs---in other words, get French versions of new German drugs into the market before the Germans could lower their prices. French patent laws, like those in Germany, did not protect the final product. "I was always against the French law and I thought it was shocking that one could not patent one's invention," Fourneau said, "but the law was what it was, and there was no reasons not to use it."


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)

January 8, 2009

Kantrowitz Failed at Fusion for Lack of Funding

KantrowitzArthur.jpg "Arthur Kantrowitz, the "father" of laser propulsion, with a cone-shaped model in 1989, first suggested the use of ground based lasers to launch vehicles into orbit." Source of the caption and photo: the online version of the somewhat different December 9th version of the obituary at

(p. B13) Arthur R. Kantrowitz, a physicist and engineer whose research on the behavior of superhot gases and fluid dynamics led to nose cones for rockets, heart-assist pumps and the idea of nuclear fusion in magnetic bottles, among many other things, died in Manhattan on Nov. 29. He was 95.

. . .

After receiving bachelor's and master's degrees in physics from Columbia in 1936, he went to work for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, or NACA, the precursor to NASA, at Langley Field in Virginia. It was there, in 1938, that he and Eastman N. Jacobs, his boss, did an experiment that might have changed the world, had they succeeded.

The idea was to harness the energy source that powers the sun, the thermonuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium, by heating hydrogen with radio waves while squeezing the gas with a magnetic field. At the time, nobody had tried to produce a fusion reaction; the Manhattan Project and other attempts to create nuclear fission were still in their infancy.

Knowing that their superiors would disapprove of anything as outlandish as atomic energy, they labeled their machine the Diffusion Inhibitor, and worked on it only at night. The experiment failed, and before the experimenters could figure out why, their director found out about the project and canceled it. Physicists unaware of the Langley experiment later reinvented the idea of thermonuclear fusion in a magnetic bottle, and they are still trying to make it work.

''It was a heartbreaking experience,'' Dr. Kantrowitz recalled. ''I had just built a whole future around this; I wanted to make it a career.''

For the full obituary, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. "Arthur R. Kantrowitz, 95, Is Dead; Physicist Who Helped Space Program." The New York Times (Weds., December 10, 2008): B13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

January 7, 2009

In Geology, Economic Growth Caused Scientific Progress

(p. 130) . . . , the major problem inhibiting England's industrial development was the state of the roads. So the introduction of waterborne transportation on the new canals triggered massive economic expansion because these waterways transported coal (and other raw materials) much faster and cheaper than by packhorse or wagon. In 1793 a surveyor called William Smith was taking the first measurements in preparation for a canal that was to be built in the English county of Somerset, when he noticed something odd. (p. 131) Certain types of rock seemed to lie in levels that reappeared, from time to time, as the rock layer dipped below the surface and then re-emerged across a stretch of countryside. During a journey to the north of England (to collect more information about canal-construction techniques), Smith saw this phenomenon happening everywhere. There were obviously regular layers of rock beneath the surface which were revealed as strata where a cliff face of a valley cut into them. In 1796 Smith discovered that the same strata always had the same fossils embedded in them. In 1815, after ten years of work, he compiled all that he had learned about stratification in the first proper colored geological map, showing twenty-one sedimentary layers. Smith's map galvanized the world of fossil-hunting.


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

January 3, 2009

Vulcanized Rubber Due to Serendipitous Entrepreneurial Alertness

(p. 46) The problem with rubber was that it wasn't a very versatile material. Macintosh found, for example, that in very hot weather his raincoats would "sweat," and in freezing conditions they would crack. The solution to this particular problem came, as ever with innovation, by accident. In 1839 a young American working in the Roxbury India Rubber Company in Roxbury, Massachusetts, was experimenting with his raw materials one day when he accidentally let a mixture of rubber and sulfur drop onto a hot stove. The next morning he saw that the rubber had charred, like leather, instead of melting. He correctly inferred that if he could stop the charring at the right point, he'd have rubber that might behave like waterproof leather. The sulfur had vulcanized (he coined the word) the rubber in such a way that it would retain its shape and elasticity over a wide range of temperatures. So now rubber could be hard or elastic, as required.


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

(Note: italics in original.)

January 1, 2009

Industrialist Duisberg Made Domagk's Sulfa Discovery Possible

(p. 65) . . . Domagk's future would be determined not only by his desire to stop disease but also by his own ambition, his family needs, and the plans of a small group of businessmen he had never met. He probably had heard of their leader, however, one of the preeminent figures in German business, a man the London Times would later eulogize as "the greatest industrialist the world has yet had." His name was Carl Duisberg.

Duisberg was a German version of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and John D. Rockefeller rolled into one. He had built an empire of science in Germany, leveraging the discoveries of dozens of chemists he employed into one of the most profitable businesses on earth. He knew how industrial science worked: He was himself a chemist. At least he had been long ago. Now, in the mid-1920s, in the twilight of his years, his fortunes made, his reputation assured, he often walked in his private park alone---still solidly built, with his shaved head and a bristling white mustache, still a commanding presence in his top hat and black overcoat---through acres of forest, fountains, classical statuary, around the pond in his full-scale Japanese garden by the lacquered teahouse, over his steams, and across his lawns.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

December 24, 2008

Most Scientists' Lives Are "Like Those of Anxious Middle Managers"

(p. 64) The truth is that scientists come in all types, just like everyone else. They are people, not pop paradigms. They worry about how they are going to pay their bills, and they get envious of the researchers who got the credit they should have gotten. They compete for grants and complain when those grants are awarded to someone else. They focus on prestige and work for advancement and usually do what their bosses (or, less directly, granting agencies) say. Most scientists, as the great British molecular biologist J. D. Bernal noted back in the 1930s, live lives more like those of anxious middle managers than great visionaries.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 21, 2008

James Burke (and Art Diamond) on the Importance of Serendipity


Source of book image:

Like other James Burke books, The Pinball Effect is a good source of interesting and thought-provoking stories and examples, usually related to science and technology. One of his themes in the book is the importance of serendipity in making unanticipated connections.

My (and not Burkes') musings on serendipity:

Serendipity might be an example of Hayek's local knowledge, that the free market encourages the entrepreneur to take advantage of. Serendipity is an occurrence of one person in a particular time and place, with a mind prepared to be alert for it. As such it could not be planned by a central authority, and would usually be vetoed by a committee decision process. To maximally benefit from serendipity, we need a system that allows the motivated individual to pursue their discoveries.

Burke's musings on serendipity:

(p. 3) In every case, the journeys presented here follow unexpected paths, because that's how life happens. We strike out on a course only to find it altered by the action of another person, somewhere else in time and space. As a result, the world in which we live today is the end-product of millions of these kinds of serendipitous interactions, happening over thousands of years.


Burke, James. The Pinball Effect: How Renaissance Water Gardens Made the Carburetor Possible - and Other Journeys. Boston: Back Bay Books, 1997.

December 16, 2008

Doctors Rejected Pasteur's Work

Whether in science, or in entrepreneurship, at the initial stages of an important new idea, the majority of experts will reject the idea. So a key for the advance of science, or for innovation in the economy, is to allow scientists and entrepreneurs to accumulate sufficient resources so that they can make informed bets based on their conjectures, and on their tacit knowledge.

A few entries ago, Hager recounted how Leeuwenhoek faced initial skepticism from the experts. In the passage below, Hager recounts how Pasteur also faced initial skepticism from the experts:

(p. 44) If bacteria could rot meat, Pasteur reasoned, they could cause diseases, and he spent years proving the point. Two major problems hindered the acceptance of his work within the medical community: First, Pasteur, regardless of his ingenuity, was a brewing chemist, not a physician, so what could he possibly know about disease? And second, his work was both incomplete and imprecise. He had inferred that bacteria caused disease, but it was impossible for him to definitively prove the point. In order to prove that a type of bacterium could cause a specific disease, precisely and to the satisfaction of the scientific world, it would be necessary to isolate that one type of bacterium for study, to create a pure culture, and then test the disease-causing abilities of this pure culture.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

December 8, 2008

Amateur Leeuwenhoek Made Huge Contribution to Science

(p. 40) Antoni van Leeuwenhoek was a scientific superstar. The greats of Europe traveled from afar to see him and witness his wonders. It was (p. 41) not just the leading minds of the era---Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz, and Christopher Wren---but also royalty, the prince of Liechtenstein and Queen Mary, wife of William III of Orange. Peter the great of Russia took van Leeuwenhoek for an afternoon sail on his yacht. Emperor Charles of Spain planned to visit as well but was prevented by a strong eastern storm.

It was nothing that the Dutch businessman had ever expected. He came from an unknown family, had scant education, earned no university degrees, never traveled far from Delft, and knew no language other than Dutch. At age twelve he had been apprenticed to a linen draper, learned the trade, then started his own business as a fabric merchant when he came of age, making ends meet by taking on additional work as a surveyor, wine assayer, and minor city official. He picked up a skill at lens grinding along the way, a sort of hobby he used to make magnifying glasses so he could better see the quality of fabrics he bought and sold. At some point he got hold of a copy of Micrographia, a curious and very popular book by the British scientist Robert Hooke. Filled with illustrations, Micrographia showed what Hooke had sen through a novel instrument made of two properly ground and arranged lenses, called a "microscope."  . . .   Micrographia was an international bestseller in its day. Samuel Pepys stayed up until 2:00 A.M. one night poring over it, then told his friends it was "the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life."

Van Leeuwenhoek, too was fascinated. He tried making his own microscopes and, as it turned out, had talent as a lens grinder. His lens were better than anyone's in Delft; better than any Hooke had access to; better, it seemed, than any in the world.  . . .  

(p. 42) Then, in the summer of 1675, he looked deep within a drop of water from a barrel outside and became the first human to see an entirely new world. In that drop he could make out a living menagerie of heretofore invisible animals darting, squirming, and spinning.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The example above is consistent with Baumol's hypotheses about formal education mattering less, in the initial stages of great discoveries. (And maybe even being a hindrance).


Baumol, William J. "Education for Innovation: Entrepreneurial Breakthroughs Versus Corporate Incremental Improvements." In Innovation Policy and the Economy, edited by Adam B. Jaffe, Josh Lerner and Scott Stern, 33-56. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005.

The example is also consistent with Terence Kealey's claim that important science can often arise as a side-effect of the pursuit of business activity.


Kealey, Terence. The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.

December 4, 2008

The Benefits from the Discovery of Sulfa, the First Antibiotic

I quoted a review of The Demon Under the Microscope in an entry from October 12, 2006. I finally managed to read the book, last month.

I don't always agree with Hager's interpretation of events, and his policy advice, but he writes well, and he has much to say of interest about how the first anti-bacterial antibiotic, sulfa, was developed.

In the coming weeks, I'll be highlighting a few key passages of special interest. In today's entry, below, Hager nicely summarizes the importance of the discovery of antibiotics for his (and my) baby boom generation.

(p. 3) I am part of that great demographic bulge, the World War II "Baby Boom" generation, which was the first in history to benefit from birth from the discovery of antibiotics. The impact of this discovery is difficult to overstate. If my parents came down with an ear infection as babies, they were treated with bed rest, painkillers, and sympathy. If I came down with an ear infection as a baby, I got antibiotics. If a cold turned into bronchitis, my parents got more bed rest and anxious vigilance; I got antibiotics. People in my parents' generation, as children, could and all too often did die from strep throats, infected cuts, scarlet fever, meningitis, pneumonia, or any number of infectious diseases. I and my classmates survived because of antibiotics. My parents as children, and their parents before them, lost friends and relatives, often at very early ages, to bacterial epidemics that swept through American cities every fall and winter, killing tens of thousands. The suddenness and inevitability of these epidemic deaths, facts of life before the 1930s, were for me historical curiosities, artifacts of another age. Antibiotics virtually eliminated them. In many cases, much-feared diseases of my grandparents' day---erysipelas, childbed fever, cellulitis---had become so rare they were nearly extinct. I never heard the names.


Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.

November 30, 2008

Einstein on What Counts

"Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."


Albert Einstein, as quoted in Koch, Charles G. The Science of Success: How Market-Based Management Built the World's Largest Private Company. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2007.

September 16, 2008

When Embracing Science is a Matter of Life and Death


Source of graph: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C1) The salad days of organic salad are wilting in favor of high-tech tomatoes.

As global food shortages threaten to ignite social and economic instability from Nigeria to India, the popular aversion to genetically modified foods is turning into more of a luxury for the wealthy than a practical option for the masses.

This trend is evident in the share price and earnings growth of Monsanto, the world leader in agricultural biotechnology by market share. Its stock has soared 22% this year, trading at a breathless 37 times estimated 2008 per-share earnings.

For the full story, see:

KAREN RICHARDSON. "AHEAD OF THE TAPE; Food Shortage Recasts Image of 'Organic'." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., June 25, 2008): C1.

September 7, 2008

Venter's Use of ESTs "Leapfrogged" his X-Chromosome Proposal

(p. 82) Venter dubbed the fragments "expressed sequence tags," or ESTs for short.

. . .

Venter was ecstatic. He had veered wildly off course from his approved plan of research, but the risk had paid off. While the Human Genome Project grant committee was still dragging its feet over his X-chromosome proposal, he had already leapfrogged ahead of that idea and found a way to go forward even faster, using his ESTs. Venter wrote Watson to let him know what he was up to, hoping to win his approval and some funding to continue the EST project.

Reference to book:

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 1, 2008

Schumpeter Saw that the "Demand for Teaching Produces Teaching and Not Necessarily Scientific Achievement"

From McCraw's summary of Schumpeter's History of Economic Analysis:

(p. 453) During the mid-nineteenth century, universities were beginning to teach economics, but "the demand for courses and textbooks produced courses and textbooks and not much else. Does this not show that there is something to one of the theses of this book, namely, that need is not the necessary and sufficient condition of analytic advance and that demand for teaching produces teaching and not necessarily scientific achievement?"


McCraw, Thomas K. Prophet of Innovation: Joseph Schumpeter and Creative Destruction. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2007.

August 29, 2008

NASA Suffers From "Utterly Dysfunctional Funding and Management System"


Source of book image:

(p. A13) The space shuttle Discovery arrived safely home over the weekend, and I suppose we are all rather relieved - that is, those of us who were aware that the shuttle had blasted off a couple of weeks ago on yet another mission. Space exploration is attracting a lot of excitement these days, but the excitement seems to have less to do with the shuttle and more to do with private space ventures, like Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic or Robert Bigelow's plans for space hotels or Space Adventures Ltd., whose latest customer for a private space trip is Google co-founder Sergey Brin. He bought a ticket only last week.

Robert Zimmerman's "The Universe in the Mirror" serves to remind us that NASA, too, can do exciting things in space. Yet the career of the Hubble Space Telescope has been both triumphant and troubled, bringing into focus the strengths and the weaknesses of doing things the NASA way.

. . .

In addition to telling a thrilling tale, Mr. Zimmerman provides a number of lessons. One, he says, is the importance of having human beings in space: Had Hubble not been designed for servicing by astronauts, it would have been an epic failure and a disaster for a generation of astronomers and astrophysicists. Though robots have their uses, he notes, "humans can fix things, something no unmanned probe can do." . . .

But the biggest lesson of "The Universe in a Mirror" comes from the utterly dysfunctional funding and management system that Mr. Zimmerman portrays. Hubble was a triumph, but a system that requires people to sacrifice careers and personal lives, and to engage in "courageous and illegal" acts, in order to see it succeed is a system that is badly in need of repair. Alas, fixing Hubble turned out to be easier than fixing the system that lay behind its problems.

For the full review, see:

GLENN HARLAN REYNOLDS. "Bookshelf; We Can See Clearly Now." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., June 16, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The revised edition of the book under review (including an afterword added by the author) is:

Zimmerman, Robert. The Universe in a Mirror: The Saga of the Hubble Space Telescope and the Visionaries Who Built It. revised pb ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010.

August 13, 2008

High Prices Provide Incentive to Innovate


"A Monsanto researcher, Mohammadreza Ghaffarzadeh, monitored drought-resistant corn technology in Davis, Calif." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 4) CORN prices are at record high levels. Costs for other agricultural essentials, from wheat to coffee to rice, have surged, too. And many people are stunned, even frightened, by all the increases.

But some entrepreneurs and analysts -- recognizing that relative price increases in specific goods always encourage innovators to find ways around the problem -- say they see an opportunity for creative solutions.

"When something becomes dear, you invent around it as much as you can," says David Warsh, editor of, a newsletter on trends in economic thinking.

Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University, adds, "All of a sudden, some things that didn't look profitable now do."

. . .

A study in the 1950s by the economist Zvi Griliches of American farmers' adoption of more productive varieties of corn showed how higher prices reduced the cost of adopting new technologies.

. . .

Ultimately, higher food prices give innovators room to cover the cost of protecting human health. But prices are a democratic signal: when all innovators see them, their ability to sneak up on an opportunity, while others nap, vanishes.

"The bigger the prize people are chasing, the more people go after it," says Paul Romer, a theorist on sources of economic growth. "As people pile into an area, the expected return to any one innovator goes down."

Yet, fortunately, the return to society goes up.

For the full commentary, see:

G. PASCAL ZACHARY. "Ping; A Brighter Side of High Prices." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., May 18, 2008): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

For more on Zvi Griliches's contributions to the economics of innovation, see:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Zvi Griliches's Contributions to the Economics of Technology and Growth." Economics of Innovation and New Technology 13, no. 4 (June 2004): 365-397.

July 13, 2008

"Theory" Said Gene Sequencing Technique Was "Impossible"

In the book The Genome War, the story is told about how the leading theorist proved the impossibility of the gene sequencing technique. It was the Venter group that gave it a try and proved it could work. This story is similar to the one about theory saying that what Marconi was trying, was impossible. (See: Larson, 2006.)

Rosenberg and Birdzell (1986) discuss the case that theory had proven how solid objects fall. But Galileo's experiments proved them wrong. This established the primacy of experiment and evidence, over theory.

When governments decide, they usually do what is safe, which is to follow current theory (or in rare cases, they pick Lysenko).

The entrepreneurial system, takes advantage of the tacit individual knowledge that is out there, but not yet theoretically defensible, and allows it to percolate to success.


Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

July 4, 2008

The Role of Private Enterprise in Sequencing the Human Genome


Source of book image:

The race to decode the genome always seemed like an appealing test case of the relative efficiency of government versus private enterprise. But the results seem muddy because sometimes in the media the outcome has been described as a win for Craig Venter's private Celera corporation, and other times, as a tie.

For years I have wanted to learn more, and now I have finally done so by reading James Shreeve's fascinating The Genome War.

It is clear from the book that the entrance of Celera, greatly accelerated the government's own efforts to sequence the human genome. So one important lesson is that, no matter who "won the race, the consumer benefited from the entrance of a private competitor.

Also clear, is that Venter's group took advantage of public resources and results. Their primary zeal was for sequencing the genome, rather than for promoting private enterprise.

Regrettably, this is a common case: many entrepreneurs take the institutions of their economy as given, and make use of government when it suits their short-run objectives.

Officially the results were announced as a tie. But the main bone of contention had been over Celera's advocacy and use of the "whole genome shotgun" technique for sequencing the gene. The government group had attacked the method as impractical and unreliable.

The proof of who "won" in a deeper sense, was that after the contest was over, everyone, including the government, was using the "whole genome shotgun" technique.

Another lesson is that the usual scientific goal of immediately releasing findings, may actually reduce the information available to the public. If, as with the genome, the information is costly to obtain, allowing a period of proprietary ownership of the information, provides private entrepreneurs with the incentive to discover the information in the first place. Another case of unintended consequences: if we fully follow the alleged idealism of academic scientists, we will end up with less scientific knowledge, not more.

Reference to book:

Shreeve, James. The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

(Note: My comments are based on the whole book. A paragraph on pp. 366-367 is especially important.)

June 9, 2008

How Chemists Improved the Rails

The following passage provides some evidence of the importance of information from science (viz., chemistry) in process improvement. Speaking of chemists:

(p. 247) . . ., with their aid, the life of a rail increased from two years to ten, and the car weight it could bear from eight tons to seventy in the forty years between the Civil War and 1905. Only a very few new technologies have had equal significance.


Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

June 7, 2008

Andrew Carnegie on the Value of a Chemist in Making Steel

(p. 246) We found . . . a learned German, Dr. Fricke, and great secrets did the doctor open up to us. [Ore] from mines that had a high reputation was now found to contain ten, fifteen, and even twenty per cent less iron than it had been credited with. Mines that hitherto had a poor reputation we found to be now yielding superior ore. The good was bad and the bad was good, and everything was topsy-turvy. Nine-tenths of all the uncertainties of pig iron making were dispelled under the burning sun of chemical knowledge.

What fools we had been! But there was this consolation: we were not as great fools as our competitors . . . Years after we had taken chemistry to guide (p. 247) us [they] said they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known they could not afford to be without one.

Andrew Carnegie as quoted in:

Rosenberg, Nathan, and L.E. Birdzell, Jr. How the West Grew Rich: The Economic Transformation of the Industrial World. New York: Basic Books, 1986.

(Note: brackets and ellipses were in the original.)

June 6, 2008

Economist of Science Babbage Invented a Computer


"Modern construction, Difference Engine No. 2, 2005"   Source of caption and photo:

Charles Babbage is best known as the inventor of an early computer, but he also made some early, stimulating contributions to the economics of science.

(p. C6) The oldest computer has landed in Silicon Valley, where they design the newest computers.

The Science Museum in London has built two replicas from Charles Babbage's original design for the Difference Engine No. 2. Planned from 1847 to 1849, the five-ton, 8,000-part system for calculating the mathematical expressions known as polynomials was finally built in 2002 by a team of engineers that took 17 years to complete the entire project. The machine includes a remarkable printing component that almost certainly would have been the world's first automated typesetter had Babbage built one from his original design during his lifetime.

The all-mechanical Difference Engine can handle numbers to 31 digits of accuracy. The printer produces an ink printout but also has the capability of making a mold for a printing plate. It automatically typesets results in columns and employs two separate font sizes.

For the full story, see:

JOHN MARKOFF. "BITS; 1800s-Style Computer Comes to U.S." The New York Times (Mon., May 5, 2008): C6.

May 30, 2008

"Economics of Science" Published Today in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics (2nd ed.)


Source of image of the books:

Today (May 30, 2008) is the publication date of the second edition of The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, which includes my "Economics of Science" article. The article surveys the history and current status of research on the economics of science, and the relationship of the economics of science to the economics of technology.

For a much earlier, and much longer, take on some of the same issues, see "The Economics of Science."

References to both articles:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "Economics of Science." In The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics, 2nd Edition, edited by Steven N. Durlauf and Lawrence E.Blume. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr. "The Economics of Science." Knowledge and Policy 9, no. 2 & 3 (1996): 6-49.

March 25, 2008

Government Post-Doc Funding Creates "Glut" of Scientists

The quotes below from a WSJ summary of a Nov. 16, 2007 The Chronicle of Higher Education article, suggests that we do not need to worry about the sometimes-alleged "shortage" of scientists and engineers:

(p. B14) The federal dollars pumped into university science departments has created more scientists and engineers than the market wants, said Michael S. Teitelbaum, vice president of Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which sponsors research, at a hearing in Congress last week. Mr. Teitelbaum said the federal government should find a way to adjust how it funds university research so that university departments don't end up using the extra money to add graduate students and postdoctoral fellows

For the full summary, see:

"The Informed Reader; Science; U.S. Faces a Glut (Really) of Scientists, Engineers." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 13, 2007): B14.

February 15, 2008

Private Money Supports Quest for Dinosaur DNA


   Source of graphic: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A1)  JORDAN, Mont. -- Prospecting in Montana's badlands, rock ax in hand, paleontologist Jack Horner picks up a piece of the jawbone of a dinosaur. He examines the splinter, then puts it back and moves on. It isn't the kind of bone he is looking for.

Prof. Horner is searching for something that many scientists believe no longer exists: dinosaur bones that harbor blood cells, protein and, perhaps, even DNA.

"Most people looking for dinosaurs are looking for beautiful skeletons," he says. "We are looking for information."

. . .  

Prof. Horner, a curator at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, is among the world's most influential and offbeat paleontologists. He pioneered studies of dinosaur parent-(p. A12)ing behavior, species variation and bone cells. He is dyslexic, a former Special Forces operative of the Vietnam War era, a MacArthur Foundation "genius" fellow, and a chaired professor of Montana State University who never finished a formal college degree.

"The lenses that people normally use to look at stuff are broken in Jack," says Mary Schweitzer, an assistant professor of paleontology at North Carolina State University, who has worked with him for years. "That's what makes Jack such a good scientist. Every now and then, every field should get a renegade weirdo in it who challenges assumptions."

. . .  

"The chances of finding any [dinosaur] DNA are pretty low," Prof. Horner acknowledges. "I am still hopeful."

In a field mostly outside the mainstream of federal research funding, Prof. Horner has a knack for attracting private grants. Star Wars producer George Lucas, Qualcomm co-founder Klein Gilhousen and Wade Dokken, a developer of Montana real estate, have contributed toward his research, the university says. Nathan Myhrvold, formerly chief technology officer at Microsoft Corp. and co-founder of Intellectual Ventures LLC, is helping to underwrite this season's fieldwork.

This summer, in Montana's Hell Creek Formation, Prof. Horner is searching the last landscape inhabited by dinosaurs. More than 65 million years ago, this plain was a wetland where herds of horned Triceratops watered. Today, it is an arid outwash of boulders, cactus and sage. The red and gray soil is littered with white shards of petrified wood that ring like bone china when tapped together and countless crumbs of dinosaur bone.

. . .

"As long as you are not bound by preconceived ideas of what you can find," Prof. Horner says, "there are an awful lot of things you can discover."


For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Dinosaur Hunter Seeks More Than Just Bare Bones; Prof. Horner Searches For Traces of Blood, DNA; Lucky Break From T. Rex."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., August 24, 2007):  A1 & A12.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


     At top, Prof. Horner; at bottom: "Sarah Keenan, 21, an undergraduate at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is working this summer for Prof. Horner, covers the fossilized triceratops frill in a protective jacket of plaster."  Source of caption and photos: the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.


January 29, 2008

Marconi Matters


    Source of book image:


Larson's book plays off a murder mystery against Marconi as the innovator who brought us communication through the air. 

I'm most enthused about hte Marconi part.  It shows how he proceeded against the theorists of the day, whose theories told them that what he was trying to do was impossible.  He was more entrepreneur, than scientist.  And it turned out that it was a good thing that the theoretical scientists did not rule, as they might if all decisions about technology were made by the government.

What happened here is an example of what Taleb would call a Black Swan.



Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.


Marconi Matters


    Source of book image:


Larson's book plays off a murder mystery against Marconi as the innovator who brought us communication through the air. 

I'm most enthused about hte Marconi part.  It shows how he proceeded against the theorists of the day, whose theories told them that what he was trying to do was impossible.  He was more entrepreneur, than scientist.  And it turned out that it was a good thing that the theoretical scientists did not rule, as they might if all decisions about technology were made by the government.

What happened here is an example of what Taleb would call a Black Swan.



Larson, Erik. Thunderstruck. New York: Crown, 2006.


January 17, 2008

Scientists at Private Firms Publish More Research Than Expected


KealeyTerence.jpg   Dr. Terence Kealey is currently Vice-Chancellor at England's only private university, the University of Buckingham.  Source of photo:


Terence Kealey argues that science would be better done if it were all privately done, without government support.  As you might expect, Kealey has not won any popularity contests among those receiving government support. 

At the January American Economic Association (AEA) meetings in New Orleans, I heard a paper by Belenzon and Patacconi that presented evidence that scientists at private firms publish more research than Belenzon and Patacconi had expected to find.

Sounds like a bit of grist for Kealey's mill?


The reference to the AEA paper is:

Belenzon, Sharon, and Andrea Patacconi. "Firm Size and Innovation: Evidence from European Panel Data." Presented at meetings of the American Economic Association. New Orleans, Jan., 4, 2008.


The reference to Kealey's book is:

Kealey, Terence. The Economic Laws of Scientific Research. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.


October 27, 2007

Academic Entrepreneurs in a Toxic Wasteland


   The Berkeley Pit was once a copper mine, and now holds a lake of toxic waste.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Here are a few paragraphs from a fascinating story about a couple of people who seem to be practicing what Taleb is preaching in The Black Swan:


BUTTE, Mont. — Death sits on the east side of this city, a 40-billion-gallon pit filled with corrosive water the color of a scab. On the opposite side sits the small laboratory of Don and Andrea Stierle, whose stacks of plastic Petri dishes are smeared with organisms pulled from the pit. Early tests indicate that some of those organisms may help produce the next generation of cancer drugs.

From death’s soup, the Stierles hope to coax life.

“I love the idea of looking at toxic waste and finding something of value,” said Ms. Stierle, 52, a chemistry researcher at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.

For decades, scientists assumed that nothing could live in the Berkeley Pit, a hole 1,780 feet deep and a mile and a half wide that was one of the world’s largest copper mines until 1982, when the Atlantic Richfield Company suspended work there. The pit filled with water that turned as acidic as vinegar, laced with high concentrations of arsenic, aluminum, cadmium and zinc.

. . .

Mr. Stierle is a tenured professor at Montana Tech, but his wife gets paid only for teaching an occasional class or if there is a grant to finance her research. From 1996 to 2001 they applied for dozens of grants, but received only rejection letters. So they financed their own research, using personal savings and $12,000 in annual patent royalty payments. In 2001, they won a six-year, $800,000 grant from the United States Geological Survey.

“Their work is considered a very high-risk approach,” said Matthew D. Kane, a program director at the National Science Foundation. “It takes a long time to get funding, and some luck to find active compounds.”

Unlike scientists at large research universities, who commonly teach only one class a year and employ graduate students to run their laboratories, Mr. Stierle teaches four classes each semester at a college with 2,000 undergraduates and no major research presence.

. . .

The couple said they were negotiating privately with a pharmaceutical company to test some of the compounds they have discovered and possibly turn them into drugs. As they wait, they open another Mason jar filled with murky pit water, draw a sample and return to work.

“The pit very easily could have been a complete waste of time,” Mr. Stierle said. “We just had luck and worked our butts off. We take that first walk into the dark.”


For the full story, see:

CHRISTOPHER MAAG.  "In the Battle Against Cancer, Researchers Find Hope in a Toxic Wasteland."   The New York Times  (Tues., October 9, 2007):  A21.

(Note:  ellipses added.)


BerkeleyPitMap.gif   In the photo immediately above, Don and Andrea Steirle work in their lab.  The map to the left shows the location of the Berkeley Pit.  Source of the photo and map:  online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.


October 7, 2007

Thales of Miletus Lives


   Source of book image:


This is part entertaining rant and part serious epistemology.  I've finished 9 of 19 chapters so far--almost all of my reading time spent smiling. 

Historians of Greek philosophy used to tell the story of one of the first philosophers, Thales of Miletus, that he once was watching the stars, and fell into a well.  The citizens of Miletus made fun of him being an impractical philosopher.  To prove them wrong, he used his knowledge to corner the market in something, and made a fortune. 

Not a very plausible story, but appealing to us philosophers.  (Like Thales, we like to think we could all be rich, if we didn't have higher goals.)

Well apparently Taleb is the real Thales.  He wanted to be a philosopher, got rich on Wall Street using his epistemological insights, and is now using his wealth to finance his musings on whatever he cares to muse on.



Here's an amusing sentence that broadened my grin.  (It was even more amusing, and profound, in context, but I don't have time to type in the context for you.)

(p. 87)  If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in "prestigious" publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences.


Reference for the book:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.


September 28, 2007

"We're Not Looking to Achieve Incremental Advances"


LevinsonArthurGenentechCEO.jpg   Genentech CEO Dr. Arthur D. Levinson.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


(p. B1)  WSJ: You have multiple blockbuster biotech drugs on the market and more on the way. In such an uncertain business, how do you manage scientists to achieve that kind of success?

Dr. Levinson: We are first and foremost committed to doing great science. If a drug can't be the first in class or the best in class, we're just not interested. We're not looking to achieve incremental advances or extend patents or do X, Y, Z unless it is going to really matter for patients. That allows us to bring in phenomenal scientists and encourage them to do the basic and translational research.

We decided 15 years ago that we would be committing (p. B2) to oncology, which at the time for us was new. We are now the leading producer of anticancer drugs in the United States. We took a lot of risks. In many cases, those risks paid off. We are now also in immunology. Again, the role of management here is to set the broad direction and then hire absolutely the best scientists and bring them in and say, 'Do your stuff.'


For the full interview, see:

MARILYN CHASE. The Wall Street Journal "How Genentech Wins At Blockbuster Drugs CEO to Critics of Prices: 'Give Me a Break'."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  B1 & B2.


 GenentechStockPrices.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.


July 17, 2007

Nonprofits Often Fund Risky, but Useful, Research that is Shunned by Government


The following excerpt from a summary of a May 17th Nature article, has a message that complements what I found in a paper published a couple of years ago (see the reference at the bottom of this entry).


Do charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation produce better medical research than institutions supported by the government?

. . .

. . . , some scientists believe philanthropies make better use of that $5 billion than corporations or governments, says Nature's Meredith Wadman. Many researchers have stories about nonprofits who rescued risky but useful projects that had been shunned by government-backed institutions. Charities can make decisions more quickly and can take bigger risks. Philanthropists also tend to closely monitor their investments and want the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.


For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; PHILANTHROPY; Do Charities Outdo Research By Federal-Backed Agencies?"  The Wall Street Journal  (May 18, 2007):  B6. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

The reference to the Nature article is: 

Meredith Wadman.  "Biomedical philanthropy: State of the donation."  Nature  447, (May 17, 2007):  248 - 250. 


My related paper is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr.  "The Relative Success of Private Funders and Government Funders in Funding Important Science."  The European Journal of Law and Economics 21, no. 2 (April 2006): 149-61.


November 7, 2006

Medical Cures Going First to the Dogs

Bazell_melanoma_dog.jpg  One of the dogs cured of melanoma by a new vaccine.  Source of photo:  screen capture from NBC news report.


Melanoma has taken many human lives, including my father's on April 15, 2000.  Government licensing and regulations reduce competition in medicine and slow the pace of medical innovation.  Animal health care is less regulated.  Is it an accident that dogs are being cured for melanoma before humans?  


Vet Philip Bergman remembers the first time he tried the vaccine in a dog.

"That was a dog that thankfully underwent complete disappearance of his tumor," says Bergman.  "It was remarkable, obviously, to us."

Since then, more than 100 dogs have been treated, including Lawana Hart's Lucky, who last June appeared to have only a few months to live.


For the full report, see:

Robert Bazell.  "Treatment for canines with cancer raises hopes; Researchers encouraged by melanoma vaccine's success on dogs."  NBC Evening News Report; online print version updated: 6:36 p.m. CT Oct 26, 2006.


For the video version, go to:

October 12, 2006

Sulfa: First Antibiotic Was Pursued for Profit

  Source of the book image:


Economists have debated whether patents mainly provide incentives, or obstacles, to innovation.  In the story of the development of sulfa, the first powerful antibiotic, the desire for profit, through patents, was one motive that drove an important part of the development process; this, even though, in the end, sulfa turned out not to be patentable:

(p. P9) Mr. Hager follows a group of doctors into postwar German industry -- specifically into the dye conglomerate IG Farben.  These men, having witnessed horrible deaths by infection on the battlefield, picked up on Ehrlich's hypothesis by trying to synthesize a dye that specifically stained and killed bacteria.  Led by the physician-scientist Gerhard Domagk, they brought German know-how, regimentation and industry to the enterprise.

Year after year the team infected mice with streptococci, the bacteria responsible for so many deadly infections in humans.  The researchers then treated the mice with various dyes but had to watch as thousands upon thousands of them died despite such treatment.  Nothing seemed to work.  The 1920s turned into the '30s, and still Domagk and his team held to Ehrlich's idea.  There was simply no better idea around.

Then one of the old hands at IG Farben mentioned that he could get dyes to stick to wool and to fade less by attaching molecular side-chains containing sulfur to them.  Maybe what worked for wool would work for bacteria by making the dye adhere to the bacteria long enough to kill it.

. . .

The IG Farben conglomerate expected huge profits from Prontosil.  But then French scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris dashed these dreams.  The German scientists -- all of them Ehrlich disciples -- thought that the power to cure infection rested in the dye, with the sulfa side-chain merely holding the killer dye to the bacteria.  The scientists at the Pasteur Institute, though, showed that the sulfa side-chain alone worked against infection just as well as the Prontosil compound.  In fact, the dye fraction of the compound was useless.  You could have Ehrlich's magic bullet without Ehrlich's big idea!  This bombshell rendered the German patents worthless.  The life-saver "drug" turned out to be a simple, unpatentable chemical available in bulk everywhere.


For the full review, see: 

PAUL MCHUGH.  "BOOKS; Medicine's First Miracle Drug."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 30, 2006):  P9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


The reference for the book is: 

Thomas Hager.  The Demon Under The Microscope.  Harmony, 340 pages, $24.95

October 11, 2006

Maybe Fewer Women Engineers Because Fewer Women Want to Be Engineers?

I’ve slogged through enough reports from the National Academy of Sciences to know they’re often not shining examples of the scientific method.  But — call me naïve — I never thought the academy was cynical enough to publish a political tract like “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” the new report on discrimination against female scientists and engineers.

. . .

I consulted half a dozen of these experts about the report, and they all dismissed it as a triumph of politics over science.  It’s classic rent-seeking by a special-interest group that stands to get more money and jobs if the recommendations are adopted.

“I am embarrassed,” said Linda Gottfredson of the University of Delaware, “that this female-dominated panel of scientists would ignore decades of scientific evidence to justify an already disproved conclusion, namely, that the sexes do not differ in career-relevant interests and abilities.”

. . .

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it’s insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests.  As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering:  they don’t want to.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said.  “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”


For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY.  "Academy of P.C. Science."  The New York Times   (Tues., September 26, 2006):  A23.


(Note:  the title of the online version was "Academy of P.C. Sciences.")

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

February 15, 2006

"Growing Recognition of Economic Costs" of Koyoto Protocol

Commentary on the Kyoto Protocol:

(p. 3) . . . the current stalemate is not just because of the inadequacies of the protocol. It is also a response to the world's ballooning energy appetite, which, largely because of economic growth in China, has exceeded almost everyone's expectations. And there are still no viable alternatives to fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gases.

Then, too, there is a growing recognition of the economic costs incurred by signing on to the Kyoto Protocol.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, a proponent of emissions targets, said in a statement on Nov. 1: ''The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.''

This is as true, in different ways, in developed nations with high unemployment, like Germany and France, as it is in Russia, which said last week that it may have spot energy shortages this winter.

. . .

The only real answer at the moment is still far out on the horizon: nonpolluting energy sources. But the amount of money being devoted to research and develop such technologies, much less install them, is nowhere near the scale of the problem, many experts on energy technology said.

Enormous investments in basic research have to be made promptly, even with the knowledge that most of the research is likely to fail, if there is to be any chance of creating options for the world's vastly increased energy thirst in a few decades, said Richard G. Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit center for energy and environment research.

''The train is not leaving the station, and it needs to leave the station,'' Mr. Richels said. ''If we don't have the technologies available at that time, it's going to be a mess.''

For the full commentary, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN. "THE WORLD; On Climate Change, a Change of Thinking." The New York Times, Section 4 (Sun., December 4, 2005): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)



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