June 2, 2017

Since 1880 North America Is Warmer by One and a Half Degrees Fahrenheit

(p. A23) Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That's especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn't to deny science. It's to acknowledge it honestly.

For the full commentary, see:

Stephens, Bret. "Climate of Complete Certainty." The New York Times (Sat., APRIL 29, 2017): A23.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 28, 2017.)

May 30, 2017

Justified Species Extinction

(p. A1) The death toll from diseases carried by mosquitoes is so huge that scientists are working on a radical idea. Why not eradicate them?

Mosquitoes kill more humans than any other animal and were linked to roughly 500,000 deaths in 2015, mostly from malaria. For more than a century, humans have used bed nets, screens and insecticides as weapons, but mosquitoes keep coming back. They are now carrying viruses like Zika and dengue to new parts of the world.

Powerful new gene-editing technologies could allow scientists to program mosquito populations to gradually shrink and die off. Some efforts have gained enough momentum that the possibility of mosquito-species eradication seems tantalizingly real.

"I think it is our moral duty to eliminate this mosquito," entomologist Zach Adelman says about Aedes aegypti, a species carried afar over centuries by ships from sub-Saharan Africa.

. . .

(p. A8) Purposely engineering a species into extinction--or just diminishing it--is fraught with quandaries. Scientists must weigh the potential impact of removing a species on the environment and food chain. It will take years of more research, testing and regulatory scrutiny before most genetically altered mosquitoes can be released into the wild. And the strategy might not work.

Wiping a species off the face of the earth is "an unfortunate thing to have to do," says Gregory Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Garrison, N.Y.

He says humans shouldn't force a species into extinction to meet their own preferences. "We ought to try not to do it," says Mr. Kaebnick. One justification, he says, would be to avert a serious public-health threat.

For the full story, see:

BETSY MCKAY. "A World with No Mosquitoes." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 3, 2016): A1 & A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 2, 2016, and has the title "Mosquitoes Are Deadly, So Why Not Kill Them All?")

May 28, 2017

Under Communism Inventiveness Did Not Yield Economic Benefits

(p. A17) The Soviet Union may have pioneered in space with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, but today Russia has less than 1% of the world commercial market in space telecommunications, the most successful commercial product so far stemming from space exploration. Russians may have won Nobel Prizes for developing the laser, but Russia today is insignificant in the production of lasers for the world market. Russians may have developed the first digital computer in continental Europe, but who today buys a Russian computer? By missing out on the multi-billion-dollar markets for lasers, computers and space-based telecommunications, Russia has suffered a grievous economic loss.

Accompanying this technical and economic failure was a human tragedy. Russian achievements in science and technology occurred in an environment of political terror. The father of the Russian hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, wrote in his memoirs that the research facility in which he worked was built by political prisoners, and each morning he looked out the window of his office to see them marching under armed guard to their construction sites. The "chief designer" of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, was long a prisoner who worked in a special prison laboratory, or sharashka. The dean of Soviet airplane designers, A.N. Tupolev, also labored for years as a prisoner in a special laboratory. Three of the Soviet Union's Nobel Prize-winning physicists were arrested for alleged political disloyalty. Probably half of the engineers in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s were eventually arrested. In 1928 alone 648 members of the staff of the Soviet Academy of Sciences were purged.

When one looks at these statistics and at the genuine achievements of Soviet science, one is forced to ask basic questions about the relation of freedom to scientific progress.

. . .

Mr. Ings admirable effort to reach nonspecialized readers sometimes leads him to make exaggerated statements. He claims that we have "good agricultural and climate data for Russia going back over a thousand years" when in fact the data is incomplete and unreliable.

. . .

The claim that the Soviet Union was a scientific state brings Mr. Ings close, in his conclusion, to condemning science itself. He sees science and technology as causing a coming global ecological collapse, and he thinks that in some ways the demise of the Soviet Union was a preview of what we will all soon face. In one of his final sentences he says: "We are all little Stalinists now, convinced of the efficacy of science to bail us out of any and every crisis." "Stalin and the Scientists" deserves attention, but a very critical form of attention. It is based on an impressive amount of study, and most readers will learn a great deal. It is, however, incomplete and overdrawn.

For the full review, see:

LOREN GRAHAM. "BOOKSHELF; No Good Deed Went Unpunished." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Feb. 21, 2017): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 20, 2017, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Science Under Stalin.")

The book under review, is:

Ings, Simon. Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

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..

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.

February 4, 2017

Double-Blind Trials Are Not the Only Source of Sound Knowledge

(p. 1) . . . while all doctors agree about the importance of gauging the quality of evidence, many feel that a hierarchy of methods is simplistic. As the doctor Mark Tonelli has argued, distinct forms of knowledge can't be judged by the same standards: what a patient prefers on the basis of personal experience; what a doctor thinks on the basis of clinical experience; and what clinical research has discovered -- each of these is valuable in its own way. While scientists concur that randomized trials are ideal for evaluating the average effects of treatments, such precision isn't necessary when the benefits are obvious or clear from other data.

Clinical expertise and rigorous evaluation also differ in their utility at different stages of scientific inquiry. For discovery and explanation, as the clinical epidemiologist Jan Vandenbroucke has argued, practitioners' instincts, observations and case studies are most useful, whereas randomized controlled trials are least useful. Expertise and systematic evaluation are partners, not rivals.

Distrusting expertise makes it easy to confuse an absence of randomized evaluations with an absence of knowledge. And this leads to the false belief that knowledge of what works in social policy, education or fighting terrorism can come only from randomized evaluations. But by that logic (as a spoof scientific article claimed), we don't know if parachutes really work because we have no randomized controlled trials of them.

For the full commentary, see:

PAGAN KENNEDY. "The Thin Gene." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 27, 2016): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 25, 2016.)

The academic article calling for double-blind randomized trials to establish the efficacy of parachutes, is:

Smith, Gordon C. S., and Jill P. Pell. "Parachute Use to Prevent Death and Major Trauma Related to Gravitational Challenge: Systematic Review of Randomised Controlled Trials." BMJ 327, no. 7429 (Dec. 18, 2003): 1459-61.

February 2, 2017

Science Can Learn Much from Outliers "Who Are Naturally Different"

(p. 1) Abby Solomon suffers from a one-in-a-billion genetic syndrome: After just about an hour without food, she begins to starve. She sleeps in snatches. In her dreams she gorges on French fries. But as soon as she wakes up and nibbles a few bites, she feels full, so she ends up consuming very few calories. At 5 feet 10 inches tall, she weighs 99 pounds.

Now 21 years old, she is one of the few people in the world to survive into adulthood with neonatal progeroid syndrome, a condition that results from damage to the FBN1 gene.

. . .

(p. 6) Dr. Chopra told me that, as far as medical science is concerned, Abby Solomon is worth thousands of the rest of us.

. . .

"Nothing comes close to starting with people who are naturally different," he said. This is why he searches out patients at the extreme ends of the spectrum -- those who are wired to weigh 80 pounds or 380 pounds. He said, "We have the opportunity to help a bigger swath of humanity when we learn from these outliers."

In 2013, after hearing about Ms. Solomon's unusual condition from another patient, he asked her to visit his clinic. Ms. Solomon warned him that she would be able to carry on a conversation for only 15 minutes before she needed to snack on chips or a cookie. That remark inspired a revelation. Dr. Chopra realized that "she had to eat small, sugary meals all day to stay alive, because her body was constantly running out of glucose," he said.

The clue led Dr. Chopra and his colleagues to their discovery of the blood-sugar-regulating hormone, which they named asprosin. Ms. Solomon's natural asprosin deficiency keeps her on the brink of starvation, but Dr. Chopra's hope is that an artificial compound that blocks asprosin could be used as a treatment for obesity. He and his team have already tested such a compound on mice, and found that it can reverse insulin resistance and weight gain.

For the full commentary, see:

PAGAN KENNEDY. "The Thin Gene." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., NOV. 27, 2016): 1 & 6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 25, 2016.)

February 1, 2017

Not All Old Ideas Should Be Recycled

(p. C16) "What is true in the consumer tech industry is true in science and other fields of thinking," Mr. Poole elaborates. "The story of human understanding is not a gradual, stately accumulation of facts" but rather "a wild roller-coaster ride full of loops and switchbacks."

Horses, for example, are once again being used in warfare in the Middle East. Vinyl records are back after losing out to digital CDs and internet streaming. Leeches, whose use was once considered a barbaric medieval practice, are now an FDA-approved "medical device" for cleaning wounds. Bicycles are making a comeback as a popular and efficient means of moving about in large, crowded cities. Blimps are starting to compete with helicopters for moving heavy cargo.

. . .

To understand this process of rediscovery--"old is the new new"--we need to abandon the myth of progress as something that results from a rejection of all that is old.

Still, not all old ideas will return reconfigured into new and useful ones, and it is here where readers may find room for disagreement, despite Mr. Poole's many caveats.

. . .

That there are many unsolved mysteries in science does not always mean that we should turn to the past for insight. Sometimes--usually, in fact--the bad ideas rejected by science belong in the graveyard. Phlogiston, miasma, spontaneous generation, the luminiferous aether--wrong, wrong, wrong and wrong.

Nevertheless, those notions--and many others that Mr. Poole surveys in this thought-provoking book--were wrong in ways that led scientists toward a better understanding, and the middle chapters of "Rethink" elegantly recount these stories. Going forward, Mr. Poole ends by suggesting that we adopt a "view from tomorrow" in which we "try to consider an idea free of the moral weight that attaches to it in particular historical circumstances" and that "we could try to get into the habit of deferring judgments about ideas more generally" in order to keep an open mind. On the flip side, skeptics should not rush to dismiss a consensus idea as wrong just because consensus science is not always right. Most of today's ideas gained consensus in the first place for a very good reason: evidence. Do you know what we call alternative science with evidence? Science.

For the full review, see:

MICHAEL SHERMER. "Everything Old Is New Again." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 10, 2016): C16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 9, 2016, and has the title "Electric Cars Are Old News.")

The book under review, is:

Poole, Steven. Rethink: The Surprising History of New Ideas. New York: Scribner, 2016.

January 2, 2017

"Celebration of Big Data" Becomes "Funeral"

(p. B8) DENVER -- At the governor's mansion here on Friday [November 11, 2016], past the columned entryway and the French chandeliers, Emmy Ruiz placed a hand on the shoulder of a fellow Hillary Clinton operative. "It's like we're at a funeral," said Ms. Ruiz, dressed -- perhaps coincidentally -- in black.

Just days after Donald J. Trump's surprise presidential victory, the nation's professional political forecasters and persuaders -- the pollsters, the ad creators, the campaign strategists -- gathered in Denver for their annual convention. It was supposed to be a celebration of big data and strategic wizardry for a multibillion-dollar industry that has spent nearly a century packaging political candidates.

Instead, the conference of the International Association of Political Consultants felt like a therapy session for a business in psychological free fall.

For the full story, see:

JULIE TURKEWITZ. "At Conference, Political Consultants Wonder Where They Went Wrong." The New York Times (Tues., NOV. 15, 2016): B8.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 14, 2016.)

December 31, 2016

Most Novels Portray Businessmen as Either Foolish or Evil

(p. 8) The last book that made you furious?

Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth." It uses all the tricks of a fire-and-brimstone preacher to sell a message of despair and pessimism based on a really shaky, selective and biased understanding of the science of climate change.

Your favorite antihero or villain?

Harry Potter's uncle, Vernon Dursley -- a much misunderstood man who stands for all the businessmen that novelists have denigrated, while living off the wealth they created. I am being a bit facetious, but I did use to enjoy pointing out to my children that businessmen only ever appear in fiction as foolish or evil or both, when clearly they generally do the world enormous good.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

The prime minister? "The Hockey Stick Illusion," by Andrew Montford. It's a great piece of detective work on a key scientific blunder, based around the work of Steve McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, and it forensically dismantles the mistakes that led to people believing they had at last found evidence that current climate change is unprecedented in rate or scale in this millennium. It may yet prove to be so in the future, but it is not so yet.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn't?

Easy. The Bible. Not even the fine translations of William Tyndale, largely adopted by King James's committee without sufficient acknowledgment, can conceal the grim tedium of this messy compilation of second-rate tribal legends and outrageous bigotry.

For the full interview, see:

SIMON PARKIN. "By the Book: Matt Ridley." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., OCT. 18, 2015): 8.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date OCT. 15, 2015, and has the title "Matt Ridley: By the Book." The online version has added questions and answers, that were left out of the published version. The passages quoted above, were in both versions, except for those on recommended presidential reading, which only appeared in the online version.)

Ridley has a courageous and illuminating discussion of environmental issues, in:

Ridley, Matt. The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves. New York: Harper, 2010.

December 13, 2016

Gates Foundation Funding "Second Green Revolution"

(p. A12) URBANA, Ill. -- A decade ago, agricultural scientists at the University of Illinois suggested a bold approach to improve the food supply: tinker with photosynthesis, the chemical reaction powering nearly all life on Earth.

The idea was greeted skeptically in scientific circles and ignored by funding agencies. But one outfit with deep pockets, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, eventually paid attention, hoping the research might help alleviate global poverty.

Now, after several years of work funded by the foundation, the scientists are reporting a remarkable result.

Using genetic engineering techniques to alter photosynthesis, they increased the productivity of a test plant -- tobacco -- by as much as 20 percent, they said Thursday[November 17, 2016] in a study published by the journal Science. That is a huge number, given that plant breeders struggle to eke out gains of 1 or 2 percent with more conventional approaches.

The scientists have no interest in increasing the production of tobacco; their plan is to try the same alterations in food crops, and one of the leaders of the work believes production gains of 50 percent or more may ultimately be achievable. If that prediction is borne out in further research -- it could take a decade, if not longer, to know for sure -- the result might be nothing less than a transformation of global agriculture.

. . .

"We're here because we want to alleviate poverty," said Katherine Kahn, the officer at the Gates Foundation overseeing the grant for the Illinois research. "What is it (p. A24) the farmers need, and how can we help them get there?"

One of the leaders of the research, Stephen P. Long, a crop scientist who holds appointments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Lancaster University in England, emphasized in an interview that a long road lay ahead before any results from the work might reach farmers' fields.

But Dr. Long is also convinced that genetic engineering could ultimately lead to what he called a "second Green Revolution" that would produce huge gains in food production, like the original Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, which transferred advanced agricultural techniques to some developing countries and led to reductions in world hunger.

. . .

The work is, in part, an effort to secure the food supply against the possible effects of future climate change. If rising global temperatures cut the production of food, human society could be destabilized, but more efficient crop plants could potentially make the food system more resilient, Dr. Long said.

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "Taking Aim at Hunger, By Altering Plant Genes." The New York Times (Fri., NOV. 18, 2016): A12 & A24.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 17, 2016, and has the title "With an Eye on Hunger, Scientists See Promise in Genetic Tinkering of Plants.")

The Science article co-authored by Long, that is mentioned above, is:

Kromdijk, Johannes, Katarzyna Głowacka, Lauriebeth Leonelli, Stéphane T. Gabilly, Masakazu Iwai, Krishna K. Niyogi, and Stephen P. Long. "Improving Photosynthesis and Crop Productivity by Accelerating Recovery from Photoprotection." Science 354, no. 6314 (Nov. 18, 2016): 857-61.

December 6, 2016

Rat Ticklers Find Ticklishness Has Deep Evolutionary Roots

(p. A12) As Michael Brecht and Shimpei Ishiyama of the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin point out in their report, tickling raises many questions. We don't know why it evolved, what purpose it might serve and why only certain body parts are ticklish. And what about that disappointing and confounding truth that all children and scientists must grapple with: You can't tickle yourself.

The researchers were also inspired by earlier studies. " 'Laughing' Rats and the Evolutionary Antecedents of Human Joy?" published in 2003 in Physiology & Behavior, reported that rats would emit ultrasonic calls when tickled. Ultrasound is too high for humans to pick up.

. . .

The scientists found that tickling and play, which involved chasing a researcher's hand, both caused the same ultrasonic calls and the same brain cells to be active. The scientists also stimulated those cells electrically, without any tickling or play, and got the same calls.

And they found that you can't tickle rats when they are not in a good mood, something that is also true of people.

. . .

And the similarity of tickling in rats and humans is, Dr. Brecht said, "amazing." They even have similar areas that are susceptible for unknown reasons, including the soles of their hind feet, but not of their forepaws.

That similarity suggests that tickling is evolutionarily very ancient, going back to the roots of touch as a way to form social bonds in the ancestors of rats and humans.

"Maybe," Dr. Brecht speculated, "ticklishness is a trick of the brain to make animals or humans play or interact in a fun way."

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "When Tickled, Rats Giggle and Leap, Researchers Find." The New York Times (Fri., NOV. 11, 2016): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 10, 2016, and has the title "Oh, for the Joy of a Tickled Rat.")

Ishiyama and Becht's recent report, discussed above, is:

Ishiyama, S., and M. Brecht. "Neural Correlates of Ticklishness in the Rat Somatosensory Cortex." Science 354, no. 6313 (Nov. 11, 2016): 757-60.

The earlier paper mentioned above, is:

Panksepp, Jaak, and Jeff Burgdorf. ""Laughing" Rats and the Evolutionary Antecedents of Human Joy?" Physiology & Behavior 79, no. 3 (Aug. 2003): 533-47.

Another paper in this line of research, is:

Rygula, Rafal, Helena Pluta, and Piotr Popik. "Laughing Rats Are Optimistic." PLoS ONE 7, no. 12 (Dec. 2012): 1-6.

December 4, 2016

Never Say Die

(p. A7) LONDON -- During the last months of her life, a terminally ill 14-year-old British girl made a final wish. Instead of being buried, she asked to be frozen so that she could be "woken up" in the future when a cure was found -- even if that was hundreds of years later.

"I want to have this chance," the teenager wrote in a letter to a judge asking that she be cryogenically preserved. She died on Oct. 17 from a rare form of cancer. "I don't want to be buried underground," she wrote.

The girl's parents, who are divorced, disagreed about the procedure. The teenager had asked the court to designate that her mother, who supported her daughter's wishes, should decide how to handle her remains.

The judge, Peter Jackson, ruled in her favor. Local news reports said he was impressed by the "valiant way in which she was facing her predicament." He said she had chosen the most basic preservation option, which costs about £37,000, or nearly $46,000, an amount reportedly raised by her grandparents.

"I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up," the teenager wrote in her letter to the judge. Local reports said she had told a relative: "I'm dying, but I'm going to come back again in 200 years."

. . .

"The scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial, and there is considerable debate about its ethical implications," the judge said in a statement.

"On the other hand, cryopreservation, the preservation of cells and tissues by freezing, is now a well-known process in certain branches of medicine, for example the preservation of sperm and embryos as part of fertility treatment," the statement said. "Cryonics is cryopreservation taken to its extreme."

Zoe Fleetwood, the girl's lawyer, said her client had called Judge Jackson a "hero" after being told of the court's decision shortly before her death. "By Oct. 6, the girl knew that her wishes were going to be followed," Ms. Fleetwood told BBC Radio 4. "That gave her great comfort."

For the full story, see:

KIMIKO DE FREYTAS-TAMURA. "Wish of Girl, 14, to Be Frozen, Is Granted by British Judge." The New York Times (Sat., NOV. 19, 2016): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 18, 2016, and has the title "Last Wish of Dying Girl, 14, to Be Frozen, Is Granted by Judge.")

October 30, 2016

Laws to Protect "Endangered" Species "Lag Far Behind Scientific Research"

(p. A19) The first large study of North American wolf genomes has found that there is only one species on the continent: the gray wolf. Two other purported species, the Eastern wolf and the red wolf, are mixes of gray wolf and coyote DNA, the scientists behind the study concluded.

The finding, announced Wednesday, highlights the shortcomings of laws intended to protect endangered species, as such laws lag far behind scientific research into the evolution of species.

The gray wolf and red wolf were listed as endangered in the lower 48 states under the Endangered Species Act in the 1970s and remain protected today, to the periodic consternation of ranchers and agricultural interests.

For the full story, see:

Zimmer, Carl. "The One and Only Wolf Species of North America." The New York Times (Thurs., JULY 28, 2016): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JULY 27, 2016, and has the title "MATTER; DNA Study Reveals the One and Only Wolf Species in North America.")

October 12, 2016

"Giving Peas a Chance"

(p. C1) Thank heavens Gregor Mendel was a lousy priest. Had he shown even the faintest aptitude for oratory or ministering to the poor, he might never have determined the basic laws of heredity. But bumbling he was, and he made a rotten university student to boot; his failures drove him straight to his room, where he bred mice in secret. The experiment scandalized his superiors.

"A monk coaxing mice to (p. C4) mate to understand heredity was a little too risqué, even for the Augustinians," writes Siddhartha Mukherjee in "The Gene: An Intimate History." So Mendel switched -- auspiciously, historically -- to pea plants. The abbot in charge, writes the author, acquiesced this time, "giving peas a chance."

Love Dr. Mukherjee, love his puns. They're everywhere. I warn you now.

. . .

Many of the same qualities that made "The Emperor of All Maladies" so pleasurable are in full bloom in "The Gene." The book is compassionate, tautly synthesized, packed with unfamiliar details about familiar people.

. . .

But there are also crucial differences. Cancer is the troll that scratches and thumps beneath the floorboards of our consciousness, if it hasn't already beaten its way into the room. The subject immediately commands our attention; it's almost impossible to deny, and not to hear, the emotional clang of its appeal. In Dr. Mukherjee's skilled hands, the story of this frightening disease became a page-turner. He explained its history, politics and cunning biological underpinnings; he traced the evolving and often gruesome logic underlying cancer treatment.

And in the middle of it all, agonizing over treatment protocols and watching his patients struggle with tremendous existential and physical pain, was the author himself.

There are far fewer psychological stakes in reading about the history of genetics. "The Gene" is more pedagogical than dramatic; as often as not, the stars of this story are molecules, not humans.

. . .

But any book about the history of something as elemental and miraculous as the gene is bound, at least indirectly, to tell the story of innovation itself. "The Gene" is filled with scientists who dreamed in breathtakingly lateral leaps.

Erwin Schrödinger in particular was one visionary cat: In 1944, he hazarded a guess about the molecular nature of the gene and decided it had to be a strand of code scribbled along the chromosome -- which pretty much sums up the essence of DNA.

For the full review, see:

JENNIFER SENIOR. "Books of The Times; In Molecular Pursuit of the Genetic Code." The New York Times (Mon., MAY 9, 2016): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MAY 8, 2016, and has the title "Books of The Times; Review: Siddhartha Mukherjee's 'The Gene,' a Molecular Pursuit of the Self.")

The book under review, is:

Mukherjee, Siddhartha. The Gene: An Intimate History. New York: Scribner, 2016.

September 28, 2016

Dogs Know More than We Knew

(p. A14) Dr. Andics, who studies language and behavior in dogs and humans, along with Adam Miklosi and several other colleagues, reported in a paper to be published in this week's issue of the journal Science that different parts of dogs' brains respond to the meaning of a word, and to how the word is said, much as human brains do.

. . .

A trainer spoke words in Hungarian -- common words of praise used by dog owners like "good boy," "super" and "well done." The trainer also tried neutral words like "however" and "nevertheless." Both the praise words and neutral words were offered in positive and neutral tones.

The positive words spoken in a positive tone prompted strong activity in the brain's reward centers. All the other conditions resulted in significantly less action, and all at the same level.

. . .

In terms of evolution of language, the results suggest that the capacity to process meaning and emotion in different parts of the brain and tie them together is not uniquely human. This ability had already evolved in non-primates long before humans began to talk.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "For Dogs, It's What You Say and Also How You Say It." The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 30, 2016): A14.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date AUG. 29, 2016, and has the title "With Dogs, It's What You Say -- and How You Say It.")

The scientific article on canine cognition, mentioned above, is:

Andics, A., A. Gábor, M. Gácsi, T. Faragó, D. Szabó, and Á Miklósi. "Neural Mechanisms for Lexical Processing in Dogs." Science 353, no. 6303 (Sept. 2, 2016): 1030-32.

September 16, 2016

Greenland Shark Likely to Have Lived to at Least 272 Years Old

(p. A11) The mysterious Greenland shark lives at extreme depths in dark, icy waters, which have long protected it from scientists' prying eyes.

But now, an international group of researchers has estimated the dark brown cartilaginous fish may live as long as 500 years--which would make it the longest-living vertebrate on the planet.

The work, published Thursday [Aug. 11, 2016] in the journal Science, "offers the first hard evidence of how long-lived this poorly understood shark species can be," said Steve Campana, a shark expert at the University of Iceland in Reykjavik, who wasn't involved in the study.

. . .

. . . the 11-person team of researchers turned to math models and radiocarbon dating, a technique typically used to date fossils. They focused their work on the eye lens nucleus of each shark, a structure that stops developing at birth and therefore serves as a rough proxy of birth date. They measured the levels of carbon-14 in the tissue, which animals stop accumulating when they die.

The oldest shark in the study, which measured more than 16 feet, lived an estimated 392 years, according to the scientists. Because the study had a margin of error of 120 years for that fish, the researchers concluded the sharks could live up to about 500 years.

For the full story, see:

DANIELA HERNANDEZ. "Enigmatic Shark Can Live for Centuries, Study Says." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Aug. 12, 2016): A12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 11, 2016, and has the title "Mysterious Greenland Shark May Live Hundreds of Years, Scientists Say." The online version included several additional sentences, interspersed through the article, that were not included in the print version. The sentences quoted above, appeared in both versions, but the formatting of the quotes above, most closely follow the print version.)

The research article reporting findings discussed above, is:

Nielsen, Julius, Rasmus B. Hedeholm, Jan Heinemeier, Peter G. Bushnell, Jørgen S. Christiansen, Jesper Olsen, Christopher Bronk Ramsey, Richard W. Brill, Malene Simon, Kirstine F. Steffensen, and John F. Steffensen. "Eye Lens Radiocarbon Reveals Centuries of Longevity in the Greenland Shark (Somniosus microcephalus)." Science 353, no. 6300 (Aug. 12, 2016): 702-04.

September 12, 2016

Colorful Coral Reef Is Thriving in Hot Water

(p. D1) In 2003, researchers declared Coral Castles dead.

On the floor of a remote island lagoon halfway between Hawaii and Fiji, the giant reef site had been devastated by unusually warm water. Its remains looked like a pile of drab dinner plates tossed into the sea. Research dives in 2009 and 2012 had shown little improvement in the coral colonies.

Then in 2015, a team of marine biologists was stunned and overjoyed to find Coral Castles, genus Acropora, once again teeming with life. But the rebound came with a big question: Could the enormous and presumably still fragile coral survive what would be the hottest year on record?

This month, the Massachusetts-based research team finished a new exploration of the reefs in the secluded Phoenix Islands, a tiny Pacific archipelago, and were thrilled by what they saw. When they splashed out of an inflatable dinghy to examine Coral Castles closely, they were greeted with a vista of bright greens and purples -- unmistakable signs of life.

"Everything looked just magnificent," said Jan Witting, the expedition's chief scientist and a researcher at Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, Mass.

. . .

(p. D6) If Coral Castles can continue to revive after years of apparent lifelessness, even as water temperatures rise, there might be hope for other reefs with similar damage, said another team member, Randi Rotjan, a research scientist who led and tracked the Phoenix Islands expedition from her base at the New England Aquarium in Boston.

No one actually knows what drives reef resilience or even what a coral reef looks like as it is rebounding. In remote, hard-to-get-to places, our understanding of coral is roughly akin to a doctor's knowing only what a patient looks like in perfect health and after death, Dr. Rotjan said.

For the full story, see:

KAREN WEINTRAUB. "In Splash of Colors, Signs of Hope for Coral Reefs." The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 16, 2016): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 15, 2016, and has the title "Giant Coral Reef in Protected Area Shows New Signs of Life." The print version gave incorrect affiliation for Jan Witting. The version above is the online version.)

September 2, 2016

Mather and Boylston Risked Much to Fight Smallpox

I enjoyed reading the book reviewed below. From the title, and from reviews, I had the impression that it would mostly be about the smallpox epidemic and the innoculation conflict. I was surprised that of equal, or greater, importance in the book is the role of James Franklin's newspaper in laying the intellectual groundwork for the American Revolution. I learned from that part of the book too, but some might feel misled from the title about what the book was mainly about. (I think "fever" in the title is intended as a double entendre, referring both to a fever from smallpox, and a fever from the ideas of liberty.)

(p. A11) Inoculation was proposed by Cotton Mather, a figure much diminished in the 30 years since Salem. He had suffered a terrible sequence of tragedies, losing his wife and 10 of his children to accidents and epidemic disease. He had also been marginalized within the religious community by quarrels and scandals. But he had become an assiduous student of science, corresponding with the Royal Society in London and learning from its "Transactions" that inoculation against smallpox had long been practiced in Constantinople. Mr. Coss shows how Mather's investigations led him to consult a source closer to home. His slave Onesimus, when asked whether he had ever had smallpox, replied "both Yes, and No": He had been inoculated as a child in Africa, receiving a mild infection and subsequent immunity.

Inoculation was commonplace across swaths of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, Mr. Coss explains, but this inclined the doctors of Enlightenment-era Europe to regard it as a primitive superstition. Such was the view of William Douglass, the only man in Boston with the letters "M.D." after his name, who was convinced that "infusing such malignant filth" in a healthy subject was lethal folly. The only person Mather could persuade to perform the operation was a surgeon, Zabdiel Boylston, whose frontier upbringing made him sympathetic to native medicine and who was already pockmarked from a near-fatal case of the disease.

"Given that attempting inoculation constituted an almost complete leap of faith for Boylston," Mr. Coss writes, "he spent surprisingly little time agonizing over it." He knew personally just how savage the toll could be. On June 26, 1721, just as the epidemic began to rage in earnest, Boyston filled a quill with the fluid from an infected blister and scratched it into the skin of two family slaves and his own young son.

News of the experiment was greeted with public fury and terror that it would spread the contagion. A town-hall meeting was convened, at Dr. Douglass's instigation, at which inoculation was condemned and banned. Mather's house was firebombed with an incendiary device to which a note was attached: "I will inoculate you with this."

For the full review, see:

MIKE JAY. "'BOOKSHELF; An Ounce of Prevention; When Cotton Mather advocated inoculation during a smallpox outbreak, young Benjamin Franklin helped foment outrage against him." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., March 3, 2016): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 2, 2016, and has the title "'BOOKSHELF; When Ben Franklin Was Against Vaccines; When Cotton Mather advocated inoculation during a smallpox outbreak, young Benjamin Franklin helped foment outrage against him.")

The book under review, is:

Coss, Stephen. The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

August 20, 2016

Iowa State Students Go Bananas to Save (or Harm?) African Children

(p. A11) Student activists at Iowa State University are up in arms after researchers offered to pay them almost a thousand bucks to eat some genetically modified banana. The bananas, created by an Australian scientist, contain high levels of beta carotene, which converts to vitamin A when eaten.

. . .

"Those students are acting out of ignorance," Jerome Kubiriba, the head of the National Banana Research Program in Uganda, tells me. "It's one thing to read about malnutrition; it's another to have a child who is constantly falling sick yet, due to limited resources, the child cannot get immediate and constant medical care. If they knew the truth about the need for vitamin A and other nutrients for children in Uganda and Africa, they'd get a change of heart."

For the full commentary, see:

JULIE KELLY. "Anti-GMO Students Bruise a Superbanana." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 15, 2016): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date March 14, 2016.)

August 8, 2016

Many Discoveries Take a Long Time Because "No One Really Looked"

Periods are a strange phenomenon. We don't know why humans have them, or, to look at it another way, why most other animals don't. Scientists say only 1.5 percent of mammal species have periods, and most of those are primates like us. The ranks of the menstrually afflicted grew a little bit recently, as researchers learned that female spiny mice have periods, too. They shared their findings on the bioRxiv preprint server.

. . .

Why did it take scientists so long to notice that these curious creatures were part of the period posse? "The answer, as with many discoveries in science, is that no one really looked," said Hayley Dickinson, a reproductive physiologist and long-time spiny rat researcher at the University of Monash. "Everyone knew that rodents didn't menstruate."

For the full story, see:

Nowogrodzki, Anna. "First Rodent Found with a Humanlike Menstrual Cycle." Nature (Fri., June 10, 2016).

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The preprint of the research mentioned above is:

Bellofiore, Nadia, Stacey J. Ellery, Jared Mamrot, David W. Walker, Peter Temple-Smith, and Hayley Dickinson. "First Evidence of a Menstruating Rodent: The Spiny Mouse (Acomys Cahirinus)." bioRxiv (June 3, 2016).

August 7, 2016

Scientists Reviving Extinct Tortoise Species

(p. D1) . . . the story of extinct Galápagos tortoises has taken a strange, (p. D5) and hopeful, twist.

More than a century ago, it turns out, sailors dumped saddlebacked tortoises they did not need into Banks Bay, near Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. Luckily, tortoises can extend their necks above water and float on their backs. Many of them made it to shore, lumbered across the lava fields and interbred with Isabela's native domed tortoises.

In 2008, scientists tagged and collected blood samples from more than 1,600 tortoises living on the flanks of the volcano. Back in the laboratory, there was a genetic eureka: Eighty-nine of the animals were part Floreana, whose full genetic profile DNA had been obtained from museum samples.

Some had genes indicating their parents were living purebred Floreana tortoises, hinting that the species may not be extinct after all.

Seventeen tortoises were shown to have high levels of Pinta DNA. Tortoises can live for more than 150 years, so some of them may well be George's immediate next of kin.

Last month, scientists went back to find them. Their plan was to capture and separate tortoises with high levels of Pinta and Floreana DNA, and then breed animals that are genetically closest to the original species.

In just a few generations, it should be possible to obtain tortoises with 95 percent of their "lost" ancestral genes, the scientists said.

For the full story, see:

SANDRA BLAKESLEE. "A Lost Species Crawls Back to Life." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 15, 2015): D1 & D5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date DEC. 14, 2015, and has the title "Scientists Hope to Bring a Galápagos Tortoise Species Back to Life.")

July 22, 2016

Iceland Project Turns 95% of Carbon Dioxide into Calcite Rock

(p. A6) For years, scientists and others concerned about climate change have been talking about the need for carbon capture and sequestration.

. . .

Among the concerns about sequestration is that carbon dioxide in gaseous or liquid form that is pumped underground might escape back to the atmosphere. So storage sites would have to be monitored, potentially for decades or centuries.

But scientists at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University and other institutions have come up with a different way to store CO2 that might eliminate that problem. Their approach involves dissolving the gas with water and pumping the resulting mixture -- soda water, essentially -- down into certain kinds of rocks, where the CO2 reacts with the rock to form a mineral called calcite. By turning the gas into stone, scientists can lock it away permanently.

One key to the approach is to find the right kind of rocks. Volcanic rocks called basalts are excellent for this process, because they are rich in calcium, magnesium and iron, which react with CO2.

Iceland is practically all basalt, so for several years the researchers and an Icelandic utility have been testing the technology on the island. The project, called CarbFix, uses carbon dioxide that bubbles up naturally with the hot magma that powers a geothermal electrical generating plant 15 miles east of the capital, Reykjavik.

. . .

Early signs were encouraging: . . .

. . .

The scientists found that about 95 percent of the carbon dioxide was converted into calcite. And even more important, they wrote, the conversion happened relatively quickly -- in less than two years.

"It's beyond all our expectations," said Edda Aradottir, who manages the project for the utility, Reykjavik Energy.

. . .

. . . the researchers say that there is enough porous basaltic rock around, including in the ocean floors and along the margins of continents.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Project in Iceland for Storing Carbon Shows Promise." The New York Times (Fri., June 10, 2016): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 9, 2016, and has the title "Iceland Carbon Dioxide Storage Project Locks Away Gas, and Fast.")

The research mentioned above was detailed in an academic paper in Science:

Matter, Juerg M., Martin Stute, Sandra Ó Snæbjörnsdottir, Eric H. Oelkers, Sigurdur R. Gislason, Edda S. Aradottir, Bergur Sigfusson, Ingvi Gunnarsson, Holmfridur Sigurdardottir, Einar Gunnlaugsson, Gudni Axelsson, Helgi A. Alfredsson, Domenik Wolff-Boenisch, Kiflom Mesfin, Diana Fernandez de la Reguera Taya, Jennifer Hall, Knud Dideriksen, and Wallace S. Broecker. "Rapid Carbon Mineralization for Permanent Disposal of Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide Emissions." Science 352, no. 6291 (June 10, 2016): 1312-14.

July 17, 2016

New Technology Reveals Huge Helium Supplies

(p. A8) Helium's role in superconductivity and other applications has grown so much that there have been occasional shortages. The gas forms in nature through radioactive decay of uranium and thorium, but exceedingly slowly; in practical terms, all the helium we will ever have already exists. And because it does not react with anything and is light, it can easily escape to the atmosphere.

. . .

But now scientists have figured out a way to explore specifically for helium. Using their techniques, they say, they have found a significant reserve of the gas in Tanzania that could help ease concerns about supplies.

. . .

Working with scientists from the University of Oxford and a small Norwegian start-up company called Helium One, the researchers prospected in a part of Tanzania where studies from the 1960s suggested helium might be seeping from the ground. The area is within the East African Rift, a region where one of Earth's tectonic plates is splitting. The rifting has created many volcanoes.

Dr. Gluyas said the gas discovered in Tanzania may be as much as 10 percent helium, a huge proportion compared with most other sources. The researchers say the reservoir might contain as much as 54 billion cubic feet of the gas, or more than twice the amount currently in the Federal Helium Reserve, near Amarillo, Tex., which supplies about 40 percent of the helium used in the United States and is being drawn down.

The next step would be for Helium One or one of the major helium suppliers around the world to exploit the find.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "A New Way to Search Out Elusive Helium." The New York Times (Weds., JUNE 29, 2016): A8.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 28, 2016, and has the title "Scientists Devise New Way to Find an Elusive Element: Helium.")

July 15, 2016

Majerus Did Not Need a Randomized Trial to Know that Aspirin Prevents Heart Attacks

(p. A21) Philip W. Majerus, a biochemist who was credited as being the first to theorize that taking small doses of aspirin regularly can prevent heart attacks and strokes in vulnerable patients, died last Wednesday [June 8, 2016] at his home in St. Louis. . . .

. . .

Even before his findings were confirmed in a study by other researchers a decade later, Dr. Majerus was taking aspirin daily.

"I was already convinced that aspirin prevented heart attacks," he recalled in the journal Advances in Biological Regulation in 2014. "I was unwilling to be randomized into a trial where I might end up with the placebo. I refused to participate."

Dr. Majerus recommended that "all adults should take an aspirin daily unless they are among the few percent of the population that cannot tolerate the drug." The cardiovascular benefit of aspirin was fully achieved by 50 to 75 milligrams daily, he said, and "there is no evidence that branded aspirin, which is much more expensive, is in any way superior to the generic version."

Later studies found that for people in their 50s who are vulnerable to heart disease, taking daily doses of aspirin reduces the risk of heart disease.

. . .

Investigating how aspirin inhibited clotting, Dr. Majerus concluded that the medicine modified an enzyme that leads to the formation of a platelet-made molecule that constricts blood vessels and aggregates platelets. The pills' effect lasts for the platelets' life span, typically about two weeks.

"Phil Majerus, more than any other individual, has produced the most original body of work on biochemistry of platelets as it relates to thrombosis," Prof. Joseph L. Goldstein, a Nobel laureate at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, said when the Bristol-Myers Squibb Award was announced.

For the full obituary, see:

SAM ROBERTS. "Dr. Philip Majerus, Who Recognized Heart Benefits of Aspirin, Is Dead at 79." The New York Times (Weds., JUNE 15, 2016): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JUNE 14, 2016, and has the title "Dr. Philip Majerus, Who Discerned Aspirin's Heart Benefits, Dies at 79.")

July 5, 2016

Details of a Case of Gene Transfer Between Species

(p. A7) . . . in recent years, scientists have pinpointed many instances of horizontal gene transfer--genes being ferried from one species into an entirely unrelated species that happens to live in the same environment.

For example, a gene from a species of bacteria has been discovered in the genome of the coffee berry borer beetle, where it enables the beetle to feed exclusively on coffee beans. It is through horizontal gene transfer that bacteria typically develop antibiotic resistance.

A few months ago, a team of U.K. researchers concluded that the "jumping gene" method enabled humans to acquire more than 145 foreign genes from bacteria, viruses and fungi over the course of our evolution.

The big mystery is: How does this happen? In the latest study, researchers suggest a possible route whereby the genes of parasitic wasps jump into the genomes of butterflies and moths.

For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "Scientists Find How Genes Jump Species." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Sept. 18, 2015): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 17, 2016, and has the title "Scientists Learn How Genes Can Jump Between Species.")

The academic paper reporting the possible details of a process of horizontal gene transfer, is:

Gasmi, Laila, Helene Boulain, Jeremy Gauthier, Aurelie Hua-Van, Karine Musset, Agata K. Jakubowska, Jean-Marc Aury, Anne-Nathalie Volkoff, Elisabeth Huguet, Salvador Herrero, and Jean-Michel Drezen. "Recurrent Domestication by Lepidoptera of Genes from Their Parasites Mediated by Bracoviruses." PLoS Genetics 11, no. 9 (Sept. 17, 2015): e1005470.

June 28, 2016

If Rapamycin Works in Humans as in Mice, We Gain 20 Years in Good Health

KaeberleinMattWithDogDobby2016-05 -26.jpg"Dr. Matt Kaeberlein, a biology of aging researcher, with his dog Dobby in North Bend, Wash. He helped fund a drug study using his own money." Source of caption: p. A12 of print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A12) But scientists who champion the study of aging's basic biology -- they call it "geroscience" -- say their field has received short shrift from the biomedical establishment. And it was not lost on the University of Washington researchers that exposing dog lovers to the idea that aging could be delayed might generate popular support in addition to new data.

"Many of us in the biology of aging field feel like it is underfunded relative to the potential impact on human health this could have," said Dr. Kaeberlein, who helped pay for the study with funds he received from the university for turning down a competing job offer. "If the average pet owner sees there's a way to significantly delay aging in their pet, maybe it will begin to impact policy decisions."

The idea that resources might be better spent trying to delay aging rather than to cure diseases flies in the face of most disease-related philanthropy and the Obama administration's proposal to spend $1 billion on a "cancer moonshot." And many scientists say it is still too unproven to merit more investment.

The National Institutes of Health has long been organized around particular diseases, including the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. There is the National Institute on Aging, but about a third of its budget last year was directed exclusively to research on Alzheimer's disease, and its Division of Aging Biology represents a tiny fraction of the N.I.H.'s $30 billion annual budget. That is, in part, because the field is in its infancy, said the N.I.H. director, Dr. Francis Collins.

. . .

"The squirrels in my neighborhood have a 25-year life span, but they look like rats that live two years," said Gary Ruvkun, a pioneer in aging biology at Harvard Medical School. "If you look at what nature has selected for and allowed, it suggests that you might be able to get your hands on the various levers that change things."

. . .

Over 1,500 dog owners applied to participate in the trial of rapamycin, which has its roots in a series of studies in mice, the first of which was published in 2009. Made by a type of soil bacterium, rapamycin has extended the life spans of yeast, flies and worms by about 25 percent.

But in what proved a fortuitous accident, the researchers who set out to test it in mice had trouble formulating it for easy consumption. As a result, the mice were 20 months old -- the equivalent of about 60 human years -- when the trial began. That the longest-lived mice survived about 12 percent longer than the control groups was the first indication that the drug could be given later in life and still be effective.

Dr. Kaeberlein said he had since achieved similar benefits by giving 20-month-old mice the drug for only three months. (The National Institute on Aging rejected his request for funding to further test that treatment.) Younger mice, given higher doses, have lived about 25 percent longer than those not given the drug, and mice of varying ages and genetic backgrounds have been slower to develop some cancers, kidney disease, obesity and symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. In one study, their hearts functioned better for longer.

"If you do the extrapolation for people, we're probably talking a couple of decades, with the expectation that those years are going to be spent in relatively good health," Dr. Kaeberlein said.

. . .

. . . what dog lovers have long considered the sad fact that their pets age about seven times as fast as they do, Dr. Kaeberlein knew, would be a boon for a study of rapamycin that would have implications for both species. An owner of two dogs himself, he was determined to scrounge up the money for the pilot phase of what he and Dr. Promislow called the Dog Aging Project.

Last month, he reported at a scientific meeting that no significant side effects had been observed in the dogs, even at the highest of three doses. And compared with the hearts of dogs in the control group, the hearts of those taking the drug pumped blood more efficiently at the end. The researchers would like to enroll 450 dogs for a more comprehensive five-year study, but do not yet have the money.

Even if the study provided positive results on all fronts, a human trial would carry risks.

Dr. Kaeberlein, for one, said they would be worth it.

"I would argue we should be willing to tolerate some level of risk if the payoff is 20 to 30 percent increase in healthy longevity," he said. "If we don't do anything, we know what the outcome is going to be. You're going to get sick, and you're going to die."

For the full story, see:

AMY HARMON. "CHASING IMMORTALITY; Dogs Test Drug Aimed at Humans' Biggest Killer: Age." The New York Times (Tues., MAY 17, 2016): A1 & A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 16, 2016, and has the title "CHASING IMMORTALITY; Dogs Test Drug Aimed at Slowing Aging Process.")

An academic paper that discusses the wide variability in life span of different species in the order Rodentia (which includes short-lived rats and long-lived squirrels), is:

Gorbunova, Vera, Michael J. Bozzella, and Andrei Seluanov. "Rodents for Comparative Aging Studies: From Mice to Beavers." Age 30, no. 2-3 (June 25, 2008): 111-19.

June 18, 2016

Some "Rescue" Groups "Kidnap and Mutilate" Street Dogs

(p. D1) MONTAGUE, Mass. -- Think of all the dogs out there: labradors and poodles and labradoodles; huskies and westies and dogues de Bordeaux; pit bulls and spaniels and lovable mutts that go to doggy day care.

Add them up, all the pet dogs on the planet, and you get about 250 million.

But there are about a billion dogs on Earth, according to some estimates. The other 750 million don't have flea collars. And they certainly don't have humans who take them for walks and pick up their feces. They are called village dogs, street dogs and free-breeding dogs, among other things, and they haunt the garbage dumps and neighborhoods of most of the world.

In their new book, "What Is a Dog?," Raymond and Lorna Coppinger argue that if you really want to understand the nature of dogs, you need to know these other animals. The vast majority are not strays or lost pets, the Coppingers say, but rather superbly adapted scavengers -- the closest living things to the dogs that first emerged thousands of years ago.

. . .

(p. D6) In 2001, their book "Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution" challenged the way scientists thought about the beginnings of dogs.

They argued against the widely held view that one day a hunter-gatherer grabbed a wolf pup from a den and started a breeding program. Instead, they argued, dogs domesticated themselves.

Some wild canines started hanging around humans for their leftovers and gradually evolved into scavengers dependent on humans. Not everyone in canine science shares that view today, but many researchers think it is the most plausible route to domestication.

. . .

Although the Coppingers recognize the social cost of animals that are unvaccinated and running free, they argue that killing the dogs, as some countries do during rabies epidemics, does not help. It's impossible to kill them all, and because they breed rapidly, the population quickly rebounds.

Nor do the Coppingers have any sympathy for rescue groups that, as Dr. Coppinger puts it, "kidnap and mutilate" street dogs from the Caribbean and elsewhere to bring them to American shelters to live as pets, "where they are made totally dependent and entirely restricted." This is supposed to benefit the dogs, but Dr. Coppinger argues that they are taken from a rich social environment, with many dogs, to lives of relative isolation.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "Don't Call them Strays." The New York Times (Tues., APRIL 19, 2016): D1 & D6.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 18, 2016, and has the title "The World Is Full of Dogs Without Collars.")

The dog books mentioned above, are:

Coppinger, Raymond, and Lorna Coppinger. What Is a Dog? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Coppinger, Raymond, and Lorna Coppinger. Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution. New York: Scribner, 2001.

May 29, 2016

Scientific Knowledge Matters More than Myth Because of Its Practical Effectiveness

(p. C6) Stories matter; knowledge matters more.

"When we talk about the big bang or the fabric of space," . . . [Carlo Rovelli] writes, "what we are doing is not a continuation of the free and fantastic stories that humans have told nightly around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years." You might tell a great campfire story about an antelope, he comments. Knowing how to track and kill one is more relevant to survival.

"Myths nourish science, and science nourishes myth," Mr. Rovelli says. "But the value of knowledge remains. If we can find the antelope, we can eat."

For the full review, see:

DWIGHT GARNER. "Books of The Times; A Vast Cosmos, Made Bite-Size and Delectable." The New York Times (Weds., MARCH 23, 2016): C1 & C6.

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

(Note: the online version of the review has the date MARCH 22, 2016, and has the title "Books of The Times; Review: 'Seven Brief Lessons on Physics' Is Long on Knowledge.")

The book under review, is:

Rovelli, Carlo. Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. New York: Riverhead Books, 2016.

May 16, 2016

Global Warming Is Producing More Pleasant Weather in United States

(p. 9) CHRISTMAS in New York was lovely this year -- especially for those who prefer to spend the day working on their tans. It was the city's warmest ever, with temperatures peaking at 66 degrees.

Record-breaking temperatures are occurring with alarming frequency in the United States, but Americans are reacting with a collective shrug. In a poll taken in January, after the country's warmest December on record, the Pew Research Center found that climate change ranked close to last on a list of the public's policy priorities. Why?

In a paper published on Wednesday [April 20, 2016] in the journal Nature, we provide one possible explanation: For a vast majority of Americans, the weather is simply becoming more pleasant. Over the past four decades, winter temperatures have risen substantially throughout the United States, but summers have not become markedly more uncomfortable.

Of course, people's preferences about weather vary widely. Some want a snowfall every winter, while others would rather wear sandals year-round. So we sought to develop a measure of the average American's weather preferences. To do this, we made use of research by economists who study local population growth in the United States. They have found that Americans have been moving to places with warm winters and cool, less humid summers. We made the inference (not true in every case, but reasonable to assume in general) that Americans prefer such conditions.

Then we evaluated the changes in weather conditions that Americans have experienced over the past four decades (i.e., roughly since climate change emerged as an issue in the public sphere). Climatologists customarily report weather changes averaged over the land surface -- an approach that counts changes in sparse Montana just as heavily as shifts in populous California. But because we were interested in the typical American's exposure to weather, we took a different tack, calculating changes over time on a county-by-county basis, weighted by population.

Our findings are striking: 80 percent of Americans now find themselves living in counties where the weather is more pleasant than it was four decades ago.

For the full commentary, see:

PATRICK J. EGAN and MEGAN MULLIN. "Gray Matter; Global Warming Feels Quite Pleasant." The New York Times (Sun., APRIL 24, 2016): 9.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 21, 2016.)

The Nature article mentioned above, is:

Egan, Patrick J., and Megan Mullin. "Recent Improvement and Projected Worsening of Weather in the United States." Nature 532, no. 7599 (April 21, 2016): 357-60.

May 8, 2016

Many Empirical Research Results Are False

(p. B7) Research on 100 studies in psychology found in 2015 that more than 60% couldn't be replicated. Similar results have been found in medicine and economics. Campbell Harvey, a professor at Duke University and president of the American Finance Association, estimates that at least half of all "discoveries" in investment research, and financial products based on them, are false.

. . .

Brian Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Center for Open Science, a nonprofit seeking to improve research practices, has spent much of the last decade analyzing why so many studies don't stand up over time.

Because researchers have an incentive to come up with results that are "positive and clean and novel," he says, they often test a plethora of ideas, throwing out those that don't appear to work and pursuing those that confirm their own hunches.

If the researchers test enough possibilities, they may find positive results by chance alone -- and may fool themselves into believing that luck didn't determine the outcomes.

For the full commentary, see:

JASON ZWEIG. "Chasing Hot Returns in 'Smart-Beta' Can Be Dumb." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Feb 13, 2016): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb 12, 2016, and has the title "Chasing Hot Returns in 'Smart-Beta' Funds Can Be a Dumb Idea.")

May 6, 2016

Indian Government Scientists Fight Global Warming by Reducing Cow Belches

(p. A10) Let no one say that India isn't doing its bit to fight global climate change: Government scientists are working hard to reduce carbon emissions by making cows less flatulent.

Consider the numbers: India is home to more than 280 million cows, and 200 million more ruminant animals like sheep, goats, yaks and buffalo. According to an analysis of satellite data from the country's space program, all those digestive tracts send 13 million tons of methane into the atmosphere every year -- and pound for pound, methane traps 25 times as much heat as carbon dioxide does.

. . .

Scientists at the Cow Research Institute in Mathura, around 100 miles south of New Delhi, are tinkering with cattle feed, seeking a formula that will create less gas for the cows to belch out. (That is how most of it is released, by the way; scientists say much less comes from farting.)

But a team of researchers in the southern state of Kerala is working on a long-term answer.

. . .

. . . dwarf animals, which are about one-quarter the weight of crossbred cows, produce only one-seventh as much manure and one-tenth as much methane.

For the full story, see:

ELLEN BARRY. "What in the World; Cows: India's Reply to Global Warming." The New York Times (Thurs., MAY 5, 2016): A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 3, 2016, and has the title "What in the World; India's Answer to Global Warming; Cows That Belch Less.")

April 11, 2016

Skepticism of Science Is Incompatible with Communist Dogma

(p. A11) On June 6, 1989, the physicist Fang Lizhi took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing at the invitation of President George H.W. Bush, who told Fang, then being hunted by the Communist Party, that he could stay as long as necessary. Two days earlier, troops from the People's Liberation Army had crushed the democracy protests in central Beijing and other cities that had riveted China--and the world. Fang did not participate directly in the Tiananmen Square protests, but his campus talks and writings on democracy during the 1980s had made him a hero to the students and an archenemy of the authorities. He and his wife, Li Shuxian, also a physicist, were No.1 and No. 2 on an arrest list after the massacre.

Fang and his wife stayed at the embassy for 13 months. During that time he wrote "The Most Wanted Man in China," a thoughtful, funny and still relevant memoir that recalls those tense days and the years leading up to them, during which Fang openly challenged China's Communist Party in a battle of ideas.

. . .

Fang has been called the "Chinese Sakharov" and not only because of his brilliance. "For Fang as for [Andrei] Sakharov," as Perry Link, a scholar of Chinese language and dissent, writes in the book's foreword, "rights were implied by science." Its axioms of "skepticism, freedom of inquiry, respect for evidence, the equality of inquiring minds, and the universality of truth . . . led Fang toward human rights and to reject dogma of every kind, including, eventually, the dogma of the Chinese communism that he had idealistically embraced."

For the full review, see:

ELLEN BORK. "BOOKSHELF; He Made the Great Leap; Fang Lizhi's name is banned in China. But everyone there who continues to push for democratic rights owes a debt to the dissident." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Feb. 17, 2016): A11.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs, added; ellipsis internal to paragraph, in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 16, 2016,)

The book discussed in the review, is:

Fang, Lizhi. The Most Wanted Man in China: My Journey from Scientist to Enemy of the State. New York: Henry Holt and Co., LLC, 2016.

March 24, 2016

Locally Sourced Chipotle's Swift, Severe and Surprising Fall from Grace

(p. B1) Chipotle emphasizes fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It was the first major chain to reject genetically modified food. Chipotle has embodied the notion of doing well by doing good.

So it may not be too surprising that its fall from grace has been swift and severe.

Since July, when five customers became ill with the E. coli bacterium after eating at a Chipotle restaurant in Seattle -- the first food-borne illness connected to the chain since 2009 -- Chipotle has been confronted by a rash of outbreaks. At least six incidents have occurred over the last six months.

"I've been involved in every food-borne illness outbreak, small and large, since 1993," said Bill Marler, a Seattle-based lawyer who specializes in representing victims of food-borne illnesses and has filed several recent cases against Chipotle. "I can't think of any chain, restaurant or food manufacturer who's ever reported that many outbreaks in just six months. Underlying that has to be a lack of controls."

For the full story, see:

JAMES B. STEWART. "Common Sense; New Chipotle Mantra: Safe (and Fresh) Food." The New York Times (Fri., JAN. 15, 2016): B1 & B4.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 14, 2016, and has the title "Common Sense; Chipotle's New Mantra: Safe Food, Not Just Fresh.")

March 14, 2016

"Science Is Not a Body of Infallible Work, of Immutable Laws"

(p. 1) . . . , "Failure: Why Science Is So Successful" is a breath of contemplative fresh air. Stuart ­Fire­stein, a professor in the department of biological sciences at Columbia University, is best known for his work on ignorance, including inviting scientists to speak to his students about what they don't know. In a tone reminiscent of Lewis Thomas's "The Lives of a Cell," the book is a collection of loosely interwoven meditations on failure and scientific method.

. . .

If we succeed by failing, then we should be freed from the monolithic road to academic tenure; science should be taught as an adventure in failure. With a delightful combination of feigned naïveté and keen eye for the messy ways that great discoveries occur, he goes so far as to suggest writing a grant proposal in which you promise to fail better. He knows this isn't how the world works, but nevertheless argues that change will take place "when we cease, or at least reduce, our devotion to facts and collections of them, when we decide that science education is not a memorization marathon, when we -- scientists and nonscientists -- recognize that science is not a body of infallible work, of immutable laws of facts. . . . And that most of what there is to know is still unknown."

For the full review, see:

ROBERT A. BURTON. "Error Messages."The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., Jan. 3, 2016): 8.

(Note: first two ellipses added; third ellipsis in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date DEC. 29, 2015, and has the title "'Black Box Thinking' and 'Failure: Why Science Is So Successful'.")

The book under review, is:

Firestein, Stuart. Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

January 28, 2016

Frustrating Failure to Cure Cancer

PiersonEmmaAndGrandfather2016-01-20.jpg"Emma Pierson as a child playing chess with her grandfather, whose cancer she is trying to fight." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D4) . . . in the four years since I learned I carried a BRCA mutation, I have watched my attempts to do something about it repeatedly miss the mark. I joined a laboratory to do cancer research, but the paper we wrote had little to do with cancer; I joined a company that offered the cheapest BRCA tests on the market, and its service was shut down a month after I arrived. I am 24 years old; at 25, I will have to choose between aggressive screening and prophylactic mastectomy. I had hoped to use my brain to protect my body, but I am running out of time.

If life's complexities confound a 20-year-old's desperate idealism, cancer's do as well. The more I learn, the more I worry that we may never find a singular cure for cancer: that each cancer's unique biological filigree necessitates a brutal and byzantine combination of treatments.

I also worry that the end goal is so far away that we sometimes lose sight of its importance, and view biological research as a competitive game rather than a means of saving lives. I feared being the worst student in my first cancer class, even though a roomful of researchers better than I am is exactly what I should want. Since then, I've seen many indications of the competitiveness in cancer research -- a teacher who made us promise not to steal other students' final projects, scientists who snipe at one another or falsify work -- that make me think I am not the only one who sometimes forgets what is at stake.

. . .

I am not going to cure cancer, not even the BRCA cancers. And I am going to watch the people I love die from diseases I cannot understand or prevent. I would be lying if I told you I have made my peace with that. It gives me hope only to fight, as my grandfather did, for futures unseen: to strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.

For the full commentary, see:

EMMA PIERSON. "Leaving No Move Untried." The New York Times (Tues., Dec.. 1, 2015): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date NOV. 30, 2015, and has the title "Seeking a Cancer-Free World." The last words in Pierson's commentary quote the final line of Alfred Lord Tennyson's great poem "Ulysses.")

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 16, 2016

Parents Set Up For-Profit Companies for Quicker Cures

(p. B1) Karen Aiach was working as a management consultant when she learned that her first daughter, Ornella, had Sanfilippo syndrome, a rare disease in which a missing enzyme causes toxic substances to build up in the body.

Ornella was 6 months old, and the prognosis was grim: She would develop mentally and physically to between ages 2 and 4, plateau and then lose whatever she had learned. She would become extremely hyperactive and develop sleeping disorders. Most likely she would not live past 15.

Within two years of the diagnosis, Ms. Aiach, who lives in a Paris suburb, had quit her consulting job to learn everything she could about the disease. She hired a neurobiologist to guide her in the world of medical research. And when she learned that few treatments were in the works, she founded a company called Lysogene to focus on genetic therapy.

Instead of raising money and awareness by setting up a nonprofit foundation, a more typical route, she opted to start a for-profit company to seek treatments, if not a cure. Far from common, what Ms. Aiach and other parents like her are trying is to leverage their wealth, contacts and the hope of sophisticated investors to jump-start research into rare diseases.

. . .

(p. B4) . . . with some rare diseases, where minimal research has been done, a little effort goes a long way.

Nicole Boice, who founded Global Genes, one of the leading rare-disease patient advocacy organizations, said even small investments can have meaningful impacts.

"You can start moving the needle with $3,500," she said. "That leads you to the next $25,000, and then to innovation grants and funding at $100,000. That starts the interest from biotech."

Gradually, parents like Matt Wilsey, a technology entrepreneur, have made headway. First, his family spent the better part of four years trying to figure out what afflicted his daughter, Grace, now 6. Even after her genome was sequenced, the first diagnosis turned out to be wrong. Grace, it finally was determined, was the second person in the world known to have a deficiency in the gene known as NGLY1.

"We went around the country," Mr. Wilsey said. "We were just trying to find one doctor who had seen another patient with these symptoms." After years of efforts, several dozen children have been found to have the same deficiency.

"Our goal is to find a cure," said Mr. Wilsey, who lives in the San Francisco area.

"A lot of people in science dismiss that because cures are rare. But when I say cures, they're not going to be astronauts. They're going to be leading some sort of independent life. They're going to be able to eat without choking. They're going to be able to take a bath without drowning. They're going to be able to communicate, whether with some assistive device or not."

These parents also had a successful model to follow. In 1998, John Crowley left his job at Bristol-Myers Squibb to start a biotechnology company to search for a treatment for Pompe disease, a neuromuscular disorder that two of his children had. Within four years, the company, Novazyme Pharmaceuticals, had devised a treatment that he credits with saving their lives. His story was immortalized in the 2010 film "Extraordinary Measures," starring Harrison Ford. And his company was bought by the pharmaceutical giant Genzyme for $137.5 million in 2001.

For the full story, see:

PAUL SULLIVAN. "Wealth Matters; Parents of Children With Rare Diseases Find Hope in For-Profit Companies." The New York Times (Sat., DEC. 26, 2015): B1 & B4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 25, 2015, and has the title "Wealth Matters; Building a Company to Treat a Rare Disease.")

January 3, 2016

Affirmative Action Reduces Number of Black Scientists

Malcolm Gladwell, in chapter three of David and Goliath, persuasively argues that science students who would thrive at a solid public university, may be at the bottom of their class at Harvard, and in discouragement switch to an easier non-science major. Gladwell's argument has implications for affirmative action, as noted by Gail Heriot in the passages quoted below.

(p. A13) . . . , numerous studies--as I explain in a recent report for the Heritage Foundation--show that the supposed beneficiaries of affirmative action are less likely to go on to high-prestige careers than otherwise-identical students who attend schools where their entering academic credentials put them in the middle of the class or higher. In other words, encouraging black students to attend schools where their entering credentials place them near the bottom of the class has resulted in fewer black physicians, engineers, scientists, lawyers and professors than would otherwise be the case.

But university administrators don't want to hear that their support for affirmative action has left many intended beneficiaries worse off, and they refuse to take the evidence seriously.

The mainstream media support them on this. The Washington Post, for instance, recently featured a story lamenting that black students are less likely to major in science and engineering than their Asian or white counterparts. Left unstated was why. As my report shows, while black students tend to be a little more interested in majoring in science and engineering than whites when they first enter college, they transfer into softer majors in much larger numbers and so end up with fewer science or engineering degrees.

This is not because they don't have the right stuff. Many do--as demonstrated by the fact that students with identical entering academic credentials attending somewhat less competitive schools persevere in their quest for a science or engineering degree and ultimately succeed. Rather, for many, it is because they took on too much, too soon given their level of academic preparation.

For the full commentary, see:

GAIL HERIOT. "Why Aren't There More Black Scientists? The evidence suggests that one reason is the perverse impact of university racial preferences." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 22, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on Oct. 21, 2015.)

Heriot's report for the Heritage Foundation, is:

Heriot, Gail. "A "Dubious Expediency": How Race-Preferential Admissions Policies on Campus Hurt Minority Students." Heritage Foundation Special Report #167, Aug. 31, 2015.

Gladwell's book, mentioned above, is:

Gladwell, Malcolm. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

December 15, 2015

Spontaneous Mummification in San Bernardo Is Unexplained

Some claim that science has gone about as far as it can go. The claim is often a step in an argument for pessimism on the future of technological progress. But that claim has been made many times in the past, and so far has always proven wrong. There's plenty of phenomena for which we have no scientific explanation, implying that there is plenty of room for the advance of science. Mostly we ignore or forget these phenomena, because it causes cognitive dissonance for us to carry around facts that do not fit into our current theories. Add spontaneous mummification in San Bernardo to the list.

(p. A14) Locals and mummification experts agree San Bernardo is a somewhat unlikely place for what's known as spontaneous mummification, a phenomenon that occurs naturally, without embalming fluids and other techniques. The climate here is neither excessively dry, like in Northern Africa, nor freezing, like the Alpine environment that preserved Otzi the Iceman, a prehistoric body found in 1991.

San Bernardo's temperature hovers around 70 degrees during the day, with enough rainfall to support crops like corn, onions, and green beans.

Cemetery workers here began noticing the mummification phenomenon in the mid-1960s, after a new graveyard was built. In Colombia, due to both tradition and earth that is often too soggy for proper burial, it is typical to inter loved ones in aboveground cement vaults, called bovedas. The bodies are generally removed after about five years because of space constraints and regulations.

Bodies in such vaults usually deteriorate significantly after a year or two, but that hasn't been the case in San Bernardo--where it is believed that most of those buried in vaults are at least partially mummified.

"Hmmm," said Ronn Wade, a member of the World Congress on Mummy Studies, an international organization, when asked about San Bernardo's spontaneous mummification. "It could be dietary, environmental, or even the concrete of the vaults where they are stored."

"It would be nice to have an explanation," added Mr. Wade, who directs the anatomical services department of the University of Maryland.

. . .

"Whatever it is, it's very local," said Gonzalo Correal, a professor at Bogota's Academy of Natural Sciences, who has studied San Bernardo's mummies.

For the full story, see:

SARA SCHAEFER MUÑOZ. "In Small Colombian Town, People Love Their Mummies; Preserved bodies attract tourists, but remain a mystery; something in the diet?" The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., Oct. 1, 2015): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated on Sept. 30, 2015, and has the title "In This Small Colombian Town, People Love Their Mummies; Preserved bodies of people born in roughly the last hundred years become tourist attraction.")

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.

November 19, 2015

Scientific Insight Requires Hard Work More than Easy Epiphany

(p. A21) The myth of the finches obscures the qualities that were really responsible for Darwin's success: the grit to formulate his theory and gather evidence for it; the creativity to seek signs of evolution in existing animals, rather than, as others did, in the fossil record; and the open-mindedness to drop his belief in creationism when the evidence against it piled up.

The mythical stories we tell about our heroes are always more romantic and often more palatable than the truth. But in science, at least, they are destructive, in that they promote false conceptions of the evolution of scientific thought.

Of the tale of Newton and the apple, the historian Richard S. Westfall wrote, "The story vulgarizes universal gravitation by treating it as a bright idea ... A bright idea cannot shape a scientific tradition." Science is just not that simple and it is not that easy.

. . .

Even if we are not scientists, every day we are challenged to make judgments and decisions about technical matters like vaccinations, financial investments, diet supplements and, of course, global warming. If our discourse on such topics is to be intelligent and productive, we need to dip below the surface and grapple with the complex underlying issues. The myths can seduce one into believing there is an easier path, one that doesn't require such hard work.

But even beyond issues of science, there is a broader lesson to learn, . . . . We all run into difficult problems in life, and we will be happier and more successful if we appreciate that the answers often aren't quick, or easy.

For the full commentary, see:

LEONARD MLODINOW. "It Is, in Fact, Rocket Science." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., MAY 16, 2015): A21.

(Note: ellipsis internal to third quoted paragraph, in original; other ellipses, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary was updated on MAY 15, 2015.)

Mlodinow's book, related to the commentary quoted above, is:

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. New York: Pantheon Books, 2015.

November 17, 2015

Inflation of the Co-Authorship Bubble

CoauthorInflationGraph2015-10-30.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) . . . , there has been a notable spike since 2009 in the number of technical reports whose author (p. A10) counts exceeded 1,000 people, according to the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, which analyzed citation data. In the ever-expanding universe of credit where credit is apparently due, the practice has become so widespread that some scientists now joke that they measure their collaborators in bulk--by the "kilo-author."

Earlier this year, a paper on rare particle decay published in Nature listed so many co-authors--about 2,700--that the journal announced it wouldn't have room for them all in its print editions. And it isn't just physics. In 2003, it took 272 scientists to write up the findings of the first complete human genome--a milestone in biology--but this past June, it took 1,014 co-authors to document a minor gene sequence called the Muller F element in the fruit fly.

. . .

More than vanity is at stake. Credit on a peer-reviewed research article weighs heavily in hiring, promotion and tenure decisions. "Authorship has become such a big issue because evaluations are performed based on the number of papers people have authored," said Dr. Larivière.

. . .

Michigan State University mathematician Jack Hetherington published a paper in 1975 on low temperature physics in Physical Review Letters with F.D.C. Willard. His colleagues only discovered that his co-author was a siamese cat several years later when Dr. Hetherington started handing out copies of the paper signed with a paw print.

In the same spirit, Shalosh B. Ekhad at Rutgers University so far has published 32 peer-reviewed papers in scientific journals with his co-author Doron Zeilberger. It turns out that Shalosh B. Ekhad is Hebrew for the model number of a personal computer used by Dr. Zeilberger. "The computer helps so much and so often," Dr. Zeilberger said.

Not everyone takes such pranks lightly.

Immunologist Polly Matzinger at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases named her dog, Galadriel Mirkwood, as a co-author on a paper she submitted to the Journal of Experimental Medicine. "What amazed me was that the paper went through the entire editorial process and nobody noticed," Dr. Matzinger said. When the journal editor realized he had published work crediting an Afghan hound, he was furious, she recalled.

Physicists may be more open-minded. Sir Andre Geim, winner of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, credited H.A.M.S. ter Tisha as his co-author of a 2001 paper published in the journal Physica B. Those journal editors didn't bat an eye when his co-author was unmasked as a pet hamster. "Not a harmful joke," said Physica editor Reyer Jochemsen at the Leiden University in the Netherlands.

"Physicists apparently, even journal editors, have a better sense of humor than the life sciences," said Dr. Geim at the U.K.'s University of Manchester.

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Scientists Observe Odd Phenomenon of Multiplying Co-Authors."The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 10, 2015): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the title "How Many Scientists Does It Take to Write a Paper? Apparently, Thousands.")

November 6, 2015

Lives Lost Due to Peer Review Delays

(p. A25) In this age of instant information, medicine remains anchored in the practice of releasing new knowledge at a deliberate pace. It's time for medical scientists to think differently about how quickly they alert the public to breakthrough findings.

Last week the National Institutes of Health announced that it had prematurely ended a large national study of how best to treat people with high blood pressure because of its exceptional results.

In this trial of more than 9,000 people age 50 and older with high blood pressure, an aggressive treatment strategy to keep systolic blood pressure below 120 was compared with a conventional one aimed at keeping it below 140. The subjects all had a high risk of heart attacks, stroke and heart failure. The N.I.H. concluded, six years into a planned eight-year study, that for these patients, pushing blood pressure down far below currently recommended levels was very beneficial.

. . .

The new information may justify a more vigorous strategy for treating blood pressure, but for now doctors and patients have been left with incomplete results, some headlines and considerable uncertainty about whether to modify current treatments.

Medicine needs to change its approach to releasing new, important information. Throughout science we are seeing more rapid modes of communication. The traditional approach was not to publish until everything was finalized and ready to be chiseled in stone. But these sorts of delays are unnecessary with the Internet. Moreover, although all the trial data has yet to be tabulated, an analysis was considered sufficiently definitive to lead independent experts to stop the multimillion-dollar study.

We believe that when there is such strong evidence for a major public health condition, there should be rapid release of the information that led to the decision to stop the trial. This approach could easily be accomplished by placing the data on the N.I.H. website or publishing the data on such platforms as, which enables fast, open review by the medical community.

. . .

Kudos to the scientists who conducted such a large, complex and important study with what will be likely to have lifesaving consequences for a condition that can be treated easily in most patients. Now the medical community needs to adopt a new approach in situations like this one to disseminate lifesaving results in a timely, comprehensive and transparent way. Lives depend on it.

For the full commentary, see:

ERIC J. TOPOL and HARLAN M. KRUMHOLZ. "Don't Sit on Medical Breakthroughs." The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 17, 2015): A25.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 17, 2015, and the title "Don't Delay News of Medical Breakthroughs.")

November 5, 2015

Newly Found, Early Human Species, Respected Their Dead

(p. A1) [A] . . . new hominin species was announced on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] by an international team of more than 60 scientists led by Lee R. Berger, an American paleoanthropologist who is a professor of human evolution studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. The species name, H. naledi, refers to the cave where the bones lay undisturbed for so long; "naledi" means "star" in the local Sesotho language.

In two papers published this week in the open-access journal eLife, the researchers said that the more than 1,550 fossil elements documenting the discovery constituted the largest sample for any hominin species in a single African site, and one of the largest anywhere in the world.

. . .

The finding, like so many others in science, was the result of pure luck followed by considerable effort.

Two local cavers, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker, found the narrow entrance to the chamber, measuring no more than seven and a half inches wide. They were skinny enough to squeeze through, and in the light of their headlamps they saw the bones all around them. When they showed the fossil pictures to Pedro Boshoff, a caver who is also a geologist, he alerted Dr. Berger, who organized an investigation.

. . .

(p. A3) Besides introducing a new member of the prehuman family, the discovery suggests that some early hominins intentionally deposited bodies of their dead in a remote and largely inaccessible cave chamber, a behavior previously considered limited to modern humans. Some of the scientists referred to the practice as a ritualized treatment of their dead, but by "ritual" they said they meant a deliberate and repeated practice, not necessarily a kind of religious rite.

. . .

At the news conference in South Africa on Thursday, [September 10, 2015] announcing the findings, Dr. Berger said: "I do believe that the field of paleoanthropology had convinced itself, as much as 15 years ago, that we had found everything, that we were not going to make major discoveries and had this story of our origins figured out. I think many people quit exploring, thought it was safer to conduct science inside a lab or behind a computer." What the new species Naledi says, Dr. Berger concluded, "is that there is no substitute for exploration."

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Cave Yields Addition to Human Family Tree."The New York Times (Fri., SEPT. 11, 2015): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word and date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 10, 2015, and has the title "Homo Naledi, New Species in Human Lineage, Is Found in South African Cave,")

October 27, 2015

Those Who Use "Consensus" Argument on Global Warming, Should Endorse Genetically Modified Food

(p. B3) NAIROBI, Kenya -- Mohammed Rahman doesn't know it yet, but his small farm in central Bangladesh is globally significant. Mr. Rahman, a smallholder farmer in Krishnapur, about 60 miles northwest of the capital, Dhaka, grows eggplant on his meager acre of waterlogged land.

As we squatted in the muddy field, examining the lush green foliage and shiny purple fruits, he explained how, for the first time this season, he had been able to stop using pesticides. This was thanks to a new pest-resistant variety of eggplant supplied by the government-run Bangladesh Agricultural Research Institute.

Despite a recent hailstorm, the weather had been kind, and the new crop flourished. Productivity nearly doubled. Mr. Rahman had already harvested the small plot 10 times, he said, and sold the brinjal (eggplant's name in the region) labeled "insecticide free" at a small premium in the local market. Now, with increased profits, he looked forward to being able to lift his family further out of poverty. I could see why this was so urgent: Half a dozen shirtless kids gathered around, clamoring for attention. They all looked stunted by malnutrition.

. . .

I, . . . , was once in [the] . . . activist camp. A lifelong environmentalist, I opposed genetically modified foods in the past. Fifteen years ago, I even participated in vandalizing field trials in Britain. Then I changed my mind.

After writing two books on the science of climate change, I decided I could no longer continue taking a pro-science position on global warming and an anti-science position on G.M.O.s.

There is an equivalent level of scientific consensus on both issues, I realized, that climate change is real and genetically modified foods are safe. I could not defend the expert consensus on one issue while opposing it on the other.

For the full commentary, see:

MARK LYNAS. "How I Got Converted to G.M.O. Food." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., APRIL 26, 2015): 5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date APRIL 24, 2015.)

October 23, 2015

"Strong-Willed Scientists Overstated the Significance of Their Studies"

The New York Times seems open to the idea that strong-willed scientists might overstate their results in science food studies. I wonder if The New York Times would be open to the same possibility in science climate studies?

(p. A19) For two generations, Americans ate fewer eggs and other animal products because policy makers told them that fat and cholesterol were bad for their health. Now both dogmas have been debunked in quick succession.

. . .

Epidemiological data can be used to suggest hypotheses but not to prove them.

Instead of accepting that this evidence was inadequate to give sound advice, strong-willed scientists overstated the significance of their studies.

Much of the epidemiological data underpinning the government's dietary advice comes from studies run by Harvard's school of public health. In 2011, directors of the National Institute of Statistical Sciences analyzed many of Harvard's most important findings and found that they could not be reproduced in clinical trials.

It's no surprise that longstanding nutritional guidelines are now being challenged.

In 2013, government advice to reduce salt intake (which remains in the current report) was contradicted by an authoritative Institute of Medicine study. And several recent meta-analyses have cast serious doubt on whether saturated fats are linked to heart disease, as the dietary guidelines continue to assert.

Uncertain science should no longer guide our nutrition policy. Indeed, cutting fat and cholesterol, as Americans have conscientiously done, may have even worsened our health.

For the full commentary, see:

NINA TEICHOLZ. "The Government's Bad Diet Advice." The New York Times (Sat., FEB. 21, 2015): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 20, 2015.)

October 15, 2015

Entrepreneurs Creating Healthy, Tasty Meat, Without Killing Animals

(p. B2) "The next couple of years will be exciting ones," says Joseph D. Puglisi, a Stanford University professor of structural biology who is working on meat alternatives. "We can use a broad range of plant protein sources and create a palette of textures and tastes -- for example, jerky, cured meats, sausage, pork."

"The true challenge will be to recreate more complex pieces of meat that are the pinnacle of the meat industry," he added. "I believe that plausible, good-tasting steaks and pork loins are only a matter of time."

Puglisi is advising Beyond Meat, a start-up that is a leader in the field, with investments from Bill Gates and both Biz Stone and Ev Williams of Twitter fame, not to mention Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture capital firm that backed Google and Amazon. Beyond Meat says its sales are doubling each year.

"We're really focused on the mainstream," said Ethan Brown, the founder of Beyond Meat, over a lunch of fake chili, meatballs and hamburgers.

. . .

"We want to create the next great American meat company," Brown says. "That's the dream."

. . .

The mainstream food industry isn't saying much publicly. But recently released documents from the American Egg Board, a quasi-governmental body, show it regarded Hampton Creek's egg-free "Just Mayo" spread as a "major threat." In one internal email, an Egg Board executive jokingly suggests hiring a hit man to deal with Hampton Creek.

. . .

. . . if I can still enjoy a juicy burger now and then, while boosting my health, helping the environment and avoiding the brutalizing of farm animals, hey, I'm in!

For the full commentary, see:

Nicholas Kristof. "The (Fake) Meat Revolution." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., SEPT. 20, 2015): 11.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date SEPT. 19, 2015.)

October 4, 2015

New Evidence Says Scientists Must "Start from Scratch" on Computer Weather Models

PlutoArmosphere2015-08-16.jpg"An image of Pluto's atmosphere, backlit by the sun, captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it zipped past the planet." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) Confounding expectations, Pluto's atmosphere has actually thickened over the last 26 years, and many planetary scientists changed their minds. Maybe the atmosphere would persist throughout Pluto's 248-year orbit, they speculated.

Now the story appears to be changing again. New Horizons obtained a snapshot of the structure of the atmosphere by looking at distortions in radio signals sent from Earth passing through Pluto's atmosphere.

What the new measurement "seems to have detected is a potential for the first stages of that collapse just as New Horizons arrived," Dr. Stern said. "It would be an amazing coincidence, but there are some on our team who would say, 'I told you so.' "

Even if the atmosphere is collapsing, though, the view from the night side of Pluto is, at present, spectacularly hazy. A photograph showing a silhouette of Pluto surrounded by a ring of sunlight "almost brought tears" to the atmospheric scientists, Dr. Summers said, showing sunlight scattered by small particles of haze up to 100 miles above the surface.

"This is our first peek at weather in Pluto's atmosphere," he said.

Computer models had suggested that the haze would float within 20 miles of the surface, where temperatures are about minus 390 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead, the haze particles formed higher, 30 to 50 miles up, where temperatures are balmier, around minus 270.

"We're having to start from scratch to understand what we thought we knew about the atmosphere," Dr. Summers said.

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Pluto's Atmosphere Is Thinner Than Expected, but Still Looks Hazy." The New York Times (Sat., JULY 25, 2015): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date JULY 24, 2015.)

October 2, 2015

Experts Are Paid "to Sound Cocksure" Even When They Do Not Know

(p. B1) I think Philip Tetlock's "Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction," co-written with the journalist Dan Gardner, is the most important book on decision making since Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow." (I helped write and edit the Kahneman book but receive no royalties from it.) Prof. Kahneman agrees. "It's a manual to systematic thinking in the real world," he told me. "This book shows that under the right conditions regular people are capable of improving their judgment enough to beat the professionals at their own game."

The book is so powerful because Prof. Tetlock, a psychologist and professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, has a remarkable trove of data. He has just concluded the first stage of what he calls the Good Judgment Project, which pitted some 20,000 amateur forecasters against some of the most knowledgeable experts in the world.

The amateurs won--hands down.

. . .

(p. B7) The most careful, curious, open-minded, persistent and self-critical--as measured by a battery of psychological tests--did the best.

. . .

Most experts--like most people--"are too quick to make up their minds and too slow to change them," he says. And experts are paid not just to be right, but to sound right: cocksure even when the evidence is sparse or ambiguous.

For the full review, see:

JASON ZWEIG. "The Trick to Making Better Forecasts." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 26, 2015): B1 & B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 25, 2015.)

The book under review, is:

Tetlock, Philip E., and Dan Gardner. Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction. New York: Crown, 2015.

September 30, 2015

"Stunned" Geophysicists Are Headed "Back to the Drawing Board"

(p. A3) Bringing the blur of a distant world into sharp focus, NASA unveiled its first intimate images of Pluto on Wednesday [July 15, 2015], revealing with startling clarity an eerie realm where frozen water rises in mountains up to 11,000 feet high.

. . .

At a briefing held Wednesday [July 15, 2015] at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., mission scientists said they were stunned by what the images reveal.

"It is going to send a lot of geophysicists back to the drawing board," said Alan Stern, the New Horizons project's principal investigator, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Across 3 Billion Miles of Space, NASA Probe Sends Close-Ups of Pluto's Icy Mountains." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JULY 16, 2015): A3.

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

(Note: the online version of the article has the date JULY 15, 2015, has the title "NASA Releases Close-Up Pictures of Pluto and Its Largest Moon, Charon," and has some different wording than the print version. The quote above follows the online version.)

September 26, 2015

112 Years of Spectacular Progress Started With Wilbur Wright

"New close-up images of a region near Pluto's equator reveal a giant surprise: a range of youthful mountains." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) LAUREL, Md. -- The first close-up image of Pluto has revealed mountains as tall as the Rockies, and an absence of craters -- discoveries that, to their delight, baffled scientists working on NASA's New Horizons mission and provided punctuation for a journey nine and a half years in the making.

Only 112 years after the Wright Brothers were barely able to get their airplane off the ground, a machine from Earth has crossed the solar system to a small, icy world three billion miles away. The flyby on Tuesday, when New Horizons buzzed within 7,800 miles of the former ninth planet, came 50 years to the day after NASA's Mariner 4 spacecraft made a similar first pass by Mars.

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Pluto's Portrait From New Horizons: Ice Mountains and No Craters." The New York Times (Thurs., JULY 16, 2015): A1 & A17.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date JULY 15, 2015.)

September 17, 2015

Fire Cooked Carbohydrates Fed Bigger Brains

(p. D5) Scientists have long recognized that the diets of our ancestors went through a profound shift with the addition of meat. But in the September issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers argue that another item added to the menu was just as important: carbohydrates, bane of today's paleo diet enthusiasts. In fact, the scientists propose, by incorporating cooked starches into their diet, our ancestors were able to fuel the evolution of our oversize brains.

. . .

Cooked meat provided increased protein, fat and energy, helping hominins grow and thrive. But Mark G. Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London, and his colleagues argue that there was another important food sizzling on the ancient hearth: tubers and other starchy plants.

Our bodies convert starch into glucose, the body's fuel. The process begins as soon as we start chewing: Saliva contains an enzyme called amylase, which begins to break down starchy foods.

Amylase doesn't work all that well on raw starches, however; it is much more effective on cooked foods. Cooking makes the average potato about 20 times as digestible, Dr. Thomas said: "It's really profound."

. . .

Dr. Thomas and his colleagues propose that the invention of fire, not farming, gave rise to the need for more amylase. Once early humans started cooking starchy foods, they needed more amylase to unlock the precious supply of glucose.

Mutations that gave people extra amylase helped them survive, and those mutations spread because of natural selection. That glucose, Dr. Thomas and his colleagues argue, provided the fuel for bigger brains.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. "MATTER; For Evolving Brains, a 'Paleo' Diet of Carbs." The New York Times (Tues., AUG. 18, 2015): D5.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date AUG. 13, 2015.)

The academic article summarized in the passages above, is:

Hardy, Karen, Jennie Brand-Miller, Katherine D. Brown, Mark G. Thomas, and Les Copeland. "The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution." The Quarterly Review of Biology 90, no. 3 (Sept. 2015): 251-68.

September 5, 2015

Science Is a Process, Not a Set of Settled Conclusions

(p. A11) Are there any phrases in today's political lexicon more obnoxious than "the science is settled" and "climate-change deniers"?

The first is an oxymoron. By definition, science is never settled. It is always subject to change in the light of new evidence. The second phrase is nothing but an ad hominem attack, meant to evoke "Holocaust deniers," those people who maintain that the Nazi Holocaust is a fiction, ignoring the overwhelming, incontestable evidence that it is a historical fact.

. . .

. . . , the release of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit in 2009 showed climate scientists concerned with the lack of recent warming and how to "hide the decline." The communications showed that whatever the emailers were engaged in, it was not the disinterested pursuit of science.

Another batch of 5,000 emails written by top climate scientists came out in 2011, discussing, among other public-relations matters, how to deal with skeptical editors and how to suppress unfavorable data. It is a measure of the intellectual corruption of the mainstream media that this wasn't the scandal of the century. But then again I forget, "the science is settled."

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "The Unsettling, Anti-Science Certitude on Global Warming; Climate-change 'deniers' are accused of heresy by true believers; That doesn't sound like science to me." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 31, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 30, 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 29, 2015

From Self-Funding, and Sony, Khanna Builds PlayStation Supercomputer to Advance Science

KhannaGauravPlaystationSupercomputer2015-07-05.jpg"Gaurav Khanna with a supercomputer he built at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department using 200 Playstation 3 consoles that are housed in a refrigerated shipping container." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) This spring, Gaurav Khanna noticed that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department was more crowded than usual. Why, he wondered, were so many students suddenly so interested in science?"

It wasn't a thirst for knowledge, it turns out. News of Dr. Khanna's success in building a supercomputer using only PlayStation 3 video game consoles had spread quickly; the students, a lot of them gamers, just wanted to gape at the sight of nearly 200 consoles stacked on one another.

. . .

Making a supercomputer requires a large number of processors -- standard desktops, laptops or the like -- and a way to network them. Dr. Khanna picked the PlayStation 3 for its viability and cost, currently, $250 to $300 in stores. Unlike other game consoles, the PlayStation 3 allows users to install a preferred operating system, making it attractive to programmers and developers. (The latest model, the PlayStation 4, does not have this feature.)

"Gaming had grown into a huge market," Dr. Khanna said. "There's a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted."

That is just what Dr. Khanna did, though on a smaller scale. Because the National Science Foundation, which funds much of Dr. Khanna's research, might not have viewed the bulk buying of video game consoles as a responsible use of grant money, he reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment America, the company behind the PlayStation 3. Sony donated four consoles to the experiment; Dr. Khanna's university paid for eight more, and Dr. Khanna bought another four. He then installed the Linux operating system on all 16 consoles, plugged them into the Internet and booted up the supercomputer.

Lior Burko, an associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and a past collaborator with Dr. Khanna, praised the idea as an "ingenious" way to get the function of a supercomputer without the prohibitive expense.

"Dr. Khanna was able to combine his two fields of expertise, namely general relativity and computer science, to invent something new that allowed for not just a neat new machine, but also scientific progress that otherwise might have taken many more years to achieve," Dr. Burko said.

. . .

His team linked the consoles, housing them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to carry milk. The resulting supercomputer, Dr. Khanna said, had the computational power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, and cost only $75,000 to make -- about a tenth the cost of a comparable supercomputer made using traditional parts.

For the full story, see:

LAURA PARKER "An Economical Way to Save Progress." The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014, and has the title "That Old PlayStation Can Aid Science.")

August 22, 2015

Rather than Debate Global Warming Skeptics, Some Label them "Denialists" to "Link Them to Holocaust Denial"

(p. D2) The contrarian scientists like to present these upbeat scenarios as the only plausible outcomes from runaway emissions growth. Mainstream scientists see them as being the low end of a range of possible outcomes that includes an alarming high end, and they say the only way to reduce the risks is to reduce emissions.

The dissenting scientists have been called "lukewarmers" by some, for their view that Earth will warm only a little. That is a term Dr. Michaels embraces. "I think it's wonderful!" he said. He is working on a book, "The Lukewarmers' Manifesto."

When they publish in scientific journals, presenting data and arguments to support their views, these contrarians are practicing science, and perhaps the "skeptic" label is applicable. But not all of them are eager to embrace it.

"As far as I can tell, skepticism involves doubts about a plausible proposition," another of these scientists, Richard S. Lindzen, told an audience a few years ago. "I think current global warming alarm does not represent a plausible proposition."

. . .

It is perhaps no surprise that many environmentalists have started to call them deniers.

The scientific dissenters object to that word, claiming it is a deliberate attempt to link them to Holocaust denial. Some academics sharply dispute having any such intention, but others have started using the slightly softer word "denialist" to make the same point without stirring complaints about evoking the Holocaust.

For the full commentary, see:

Justin Gillis. "BY DEGREES; Verbal Warming: Labels in the Climate Debate." The New York Times (Tues., FEB. 17, 2015): D1-D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date FEB. 12 (sic), 2015.)

August 16, 2015

"Big Data" Does Not Tell Us What to Measure, and Ignores What Cannot Be Measured

(p. 6) BIG data will save the world. How often have we heard that over the past couple of years? We're pretty sure both of us have said something similar dozens of times in the past few months.

If you're trying to build a self-driving car or detect whether a picture has a cat in it, big data is amazing. But here's a secret: If you're trying to make important decisions about your health, wealth or happiness, big data is not enough.

The problem is this: The things we can measure are never exactly what we care about. Just trying to get a single, easy-to-measure number higher and higher (or lower and lower) doesn't actually help us make the right choice. For this reason, the key question isn't "What did I measure?" but "What did I miss?"

. . .

So what can big data do to help us make big decisions? One of us, Alex, is a data scientist at Facebook. The other, Seth, is a former data scientist at Google. There is a special sauce necessary to making big data work: surveys and the judgment of humans -- two seemingly old-fashioned approaches that we will call small data.

Facebook has tons of data on how people use its site. It's easy to see whether a particular news feed story was liked, clicked, commented on or shared. But not one of these is a perfect proxy for more important questions: What was the experience like? Did the story connect you with your friends? Did it inform you about the world? Did it make you laugh?

(p. 7) To get to these measures, Facebook has to take an old-fashioned approach: asking. Every day, hundreds of individuals load their news feed and answer questions about the stories they see there. Big data (likes, clicks, comments) is supplemented by small data ("Do you want to see this post in your News Feed?") and contextualized ("Why?").

Big data in the form of behaviors and small data in the form of surveys complement each other and produce insights rather than simple metrics.

. . .

Because of this need for small data, Facebook's data teams look different than you would guess. Facebook employs social psychologists, anthropologists and sociologists precisely to find what simple measures miss.

And it's not just Silicon Valley firms that employ the power of small data. Baseball is often used as the quintessential story of data geeks, crunching huge data sets, replacing fallible human experts, like scouts. This story was made famous in both the book and the movie "Moneyball."

But the true story is not that simple. For one thing, many teams ended up going overboard on data. It was easy to measure offense and pitching, so some organizations ended up underestimating the importance of defense, which is harder to measure. In fact, in his book "The Signal and the Noise," Nate Silver of estimates that the Oakland A's were giving up 8 to 10 wins per year in the mid-1990s because of their lousy defense.

. . .

Human experts can also help data analysts figure out what to look for. For decades, scouts have judged catchers based on their ability to frame pitches -- to make the pitch appear more like a strike to a watching umpire. Thanks to improved data on pitch location, analysts have recently checked this hypothesis and confirmed that catchers differ significantly in this skill.

For the full commentary, see:

ALEX PEYSAKHOVICH and SETH STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ. "How Not to Drown in Numbers." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 6-7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date MAY 2, 2015.)

August 12, 2015

Babies "Have a Positive Hunger for the Unexpected"

(p. C2) In an amazingly clever new paper in the journal Science, Aimee Stahl and Lisa Feigenson at Johns Hopkins University show systematically that 11-month-old babies, like scientists, pay special attention when their predictions are violated, learn especially well as a result, and even do experiments to figure out just what happened.

They took off from some classic research showing that babies will look at something longer when it is unexpected. The babies in the new study either saw impossible events, like the apparent passage of a ball through a solid brick wall, or straightforward events, like the same ball simply moving through an empty space.

. . .

The babies explored objects more when they behaved unexpectedly. They also explored them differently depending on just how they behaved unexpectedly. If the ball had vanished through the wall, the babies banged the ball against a surface; if it had hovered in thin air, they dropped it. It was as if they were testing to see if the ball really was solid, or really did defy gravity, much like Georgie testing the fake eggs in the Easter basket.

In fact, these experiments suggest that babies may be even better scientists than grown-ups often are. Adults suffer from "confirmation bias"--we pay attention to the events that fit what we already know and ignore things that might shake up our preconceptions. Charles Darwin famously kept a special list of all the facts that were at odds with his theory, because he knew he'd otherwise be tempted to ignore or forget them.

Babies, on the other hand, seem to have a positive hunger for the unexpected. Like the ideal scientists proposed by the philosopher of science Karl Popper, babies are always on the lookout for a fact that falsifies their theories.

For the full commentary, see:

ALISON GOPNIK. "MIND AND MATTER; How 1-Year-Olds Figure Out the World." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 15, 2015): C2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date April 15, 2015, and has the title "MIND AND MATTER; How 1-Year-Olds Figure Out the World.")

The scientific article mentioned in the passages quoted, is:

Stahl, Aimee E., and Lisa Feigenson. "Observing the Unexpected Enhances Infants' Learning and Exploration." Science 348, no. 6230 (April 3, 2015): 91-94.

August 10, 2015

We Often "See" What We Expect to See

(p. 9) The Justice Department recently analyzed eight years of shootings by Philadelphia police officers. Its report contained two sobering statistics: Fifteen percent of those shot were unarmed; and in half of these cases, an officer reportedly misidentified a "nonthreatening object (e.g., a cellphone) or movement (e.g., tugging at the waistband)" as a weapon.

Many factors presumably contribute to such shootings, ranging from carelessness to unconscious bias to explicit racism, all of which have received considerable attention of late, and deservedly so.

But there is a lesser-known psychological phenomenon that might also explain some of these shootings. It's called "affective realism": the tendency of your feelings to influence what you see -- not what you think you see, but the actual content of your perceptual experience.

. . .

The brain is a predictive organ. A majority of your brain activity consists of predictions about the world -- thousands of them at a time -- based on your past experience. These predictions are not deliberate prognostications like "the Red Sox will win the World Series," but unconscious anticipations of every sight, sound and other sensation you might encounter in every instant. These neural "guesses" largely shape what you see, hear and otherwise perceive.

. . .

. . . , our lab at Northeastern University has conducted experiments to document affective realism. For example, in one study we showed an affectively neutral face to our test subjects, and using special equipment, we secretly accompanied it with a smiling or scowling face that the subjects could not consciously see. (The technique is called "continuous flash suppression.") We found that the unseen faces influenced the subjects' bodily activity (e.g., how fast their hearts beat) and their feelings. These in turn influenced their perceptions: In the presence of an unseen scowling face, our subjects felt unpleasant and perceived the neutral face as less likable, less trustworthy, less competent, less attractive and more likely to commit a crime than when we paired it with an unseen smiling face.

These weren't just impressions; they were actual visual changes. The test subjects saw the neutral faces as having a more furrowed brow, a more surly mouth and so on. (Some of these findings were published in Emotion in 2012.)

. . .

. . . the brain is wired for prediction, and you predict most of the sights, sounds and other sensations in your life. You are, in large measure, the architect of your own experience.

For the full commentary, see:

Feldman Barrett, Lisa, and Jolie Wormwood. "When a Gun Is Not a Gun." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., April 19, 2015): 9.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is APRIL 17, 2015.)

The academic article mentioned in the passage quoted above, is:

Anderson, Eric, Erika Siegel, Dominique White, and Lisa Feldman Barrett. "Out of Sight but Not out of Mind: Unseen Affective Faces Influence Evaluations and Social Impressions." Emotion 12, no. 6 (Dec. 2012): 1210-21.

August 9, 2015

NOAA New Estimates Show Increase Since 1880 of Only 1.65 Degrees Fahrenheit

(p. A10) Scientists have long labored to explain what appeared to be a slowdown in global warming that began at the start of this century as, at the same time, heat-trapping emissions of carbon dioxide were soaring. The slowdown, sometimes inaccurately described as a halt or hiatus, became a major talking point for people critical of climate science.

Now, new research suggests the whole thing may have been based on incorrect data.

When adjustments are made to compensate for recently discovered problems in the way global temperatures were measured, the slowdown largely disappears, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared in a scientific paper published Thursday. And when the particularly warm temperatures of 2013 and 2014 are averaged in, the slowdown goes away entirely, the agency said.

. . .

The Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington that is critical of climate science, issued a statement condemning the changes and questioning the agency's methodology.

"The main claim by the authors that they have uncovered a significant recent warming trend is dubious," said the statement, attributed to three contrarian climate scientists: Richard S. Lindzen, Patrick J. Michaels and Paul C. Knappenberger.

However, Russell S. Vose, chief of the climate science division at NOAA's Asheville center, pointed out in an interview that while the corrections do eliminate the recent warming slowdown, the overall effect of the agency's adjustments has long been to raise the reported global temperatures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by a substantial margin. That makes the temperature increase of the past century appear less severe than it does in the raw data.

"If you just wanted to release to the American public our uncorrected data set, it would say that the world has warmed up about 2.071 degrees Fahrenheit since 1880," Dr. Vose said. "Our corrected data set says things have warmed up about 1.65 degrees Fahrenheit. Our corrections lower the rate of warming on a global scale."

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "Global Warming 'Hiatus' Challenged by NOAA Research." The New York Times (Fri., JUNE 5, 2015): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JUNE 4, 2015.)

The scientific article mentioned in the passages quoted above, is:

Karl, Thomas R., Anthony Arguez, Boyin Huang, Jay H. Lawrimore, James R. McMahon, Matthew J. Menne, Thomas C. Peterson, Russell S. Vose, and Zhang Huai-Min. "Possible Artifacts of Data Biases in the Recent Global Surface Warming Hiatus." Science 348, no. 6242 (June 26, 2015): 1469-72.

August 6, 2015

Chimps Are Willing to Delay Gratification in Order to Receive Cooked Food

This is a big deal because cooking food allows us humans to spend a lot less energy digesting our food, which allows a lot more energy to be used by the brain. So one theory is that the cooking technology allowed humans to eventually develop cognitive abilities superior to other primates.

(p. A3) . . . scientists from Harvard and Yale found that chimps have the patience and foresight to resist eating raw food and to place it in a device meant to appear, at least to the chimps, to cook it.

. . .

But they found that chimps would give up a raw slice of sweet potato in the hand for the prospect of a cooked slice of sweet potato a bit later. That kind of foresight and self-control is something any cook who has eaten too much raw cookie dough can admire.

The research grew out of the idea that cooking itself may have driven changes in human evolution, a hypothesis put forth by Richard Wrangham, an anthropologist at Harvard and several colleagues about 15 years ago in an article in Current Anthropology, and more recently in his book, "Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human."

He argued that cooking may have begun something like two million years ago, even though hard evidence only dates back about one million years. For that to be true, some early ancestors, perhaps not much more advanced than chimps, had to grasp the whole concept of transforming the raw into the cooked.

Felix Warneken at Harvard and Alexandra G. Rosati, who is about to move from Yale to Harvard, both of whom study cognition, wanted to see if chimpanzees, which often serve as stand-ins for human ancestors, had the cognitive foundation that would prepare them to cook.

. . .

Dr. Rosati said the experiments showed not only that chimps had the patience for cooking, but that they had the "minimal causal understanding they would need" to make the leap to cooking.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "Chimpanzees Would Cook if Given Chance, Research Says." The New York Times (Weds., JUNE 3, 2015): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the story is JUNE 2, 2015, and has the title "Chimpanzees Would Cook if Given the Chance, Research Says.")

The academic article discussed in the passages quoted above, is:

Warneken, Felix, and Alexandra G. Rosati. "Cognitive Capacities for Cooking in Chimpanzees." Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences 282, no. 1809 (June 22, 2015).

August 5, 2015

Plant Breeders Use Old Sloppy "Natural" Process to Avoid Regulatory Stasis

(p. A11) What's in a name?

A lot, if the name is genetically modified organism, or G.M.O., which many people are dead set against. But what if scientists used the precise techniques of today's molecular biology to give back to plants genes that had long ago been bred out of them? And what if that process were called "rewilding?"

That is the idea being floated by a group at the University of Copenhagen, which is proposing the name for the process that would result if scientists took a gene or two from an ancient plant variety and melded it with more modern species to promote greater resistant to drought, for example.

"I consider this something worth discussing," said Michael B. Palmgren, a plant biologist at the Danish university who headed a group, including scientists, ethicists and lawyers, that is funded by the university and the Danish National Research Foundation.

They pondered the problem of fragile plants in organic farming, came up with the rewilding idea, and published their proposal Thursday in the journal Trends in Plant Science.

. . .

The idea of restoring long-lost genes to plants is not new, said Julian I. Schroeder, a plant researcher at the University of California, Davis. But, wary of the taint of genetic engineering, scientists have used traditional breeding methods to cross modern plants with ancient ones until they have the gene they want in a crop plant that needs it. The tedious process inevitably drags other genes along with the one that is targeted. But the older process is "natural," Dr. Schroeder said.

. . .

Researchers have previously crossbred wheat plants with traits found in ancient varieties, noted Maarten Van Ginkel, who headed such a program in Mexico at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center.

"We selected for disease resistance, drought tolerance," he said. "This method works but it has drawbacks. You prefer to move only the genes you want."

When Dr. Van Ginkel crossbred for traits, he did not look for the specific genes conferring those traits. But with the flood-resistant rice plants, researchers knew exactly which gene they wanted. Nonetheless, they crossbred and did not use precision breeding to alter the plants.

Asked why not, Dr. Schroeder had a simple answer -- a complex maze of regulations governing genetically engineered crops. With crossbreeding, he said, "the first varieties hit the fields in a couple of years."

And if the researchers had used precision breeding to get the gene into the rice?

"They would still be stuck in the regulatory process," Dr. Schroeder said.

For the full story, see:

GINA KOLATA. "A Proposal to Modify Plants Gives G.M.O. Debate New Life." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 29, 2015): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 28, 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.

July 9, 2015

Physicists Accepting Theories Based on Elegance Rather than Evidence

(p. 5) Do physicists need empirical evidence to confirm their theories?

. . .

A few months ago in the journal Nature, two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, published a controversial piece called "Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics." They criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today's most ambitious cosmic theories -- so long as those theories are "sufficiently elegant and explanatory." Despite working at the cutting edge of knowledge, such scientists are, for Professors Ellis and Silk, "breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical."

Whether or not you agree with them, the professors have identified a mounting concern in fundamental physics: Today, our most ambitious science can seem at odds with the empirical methodology that has historically given the field its credibility.

For the full commentary, see:

ADAM FRANK and MARCELO GLEISER. "Gray Matter; A Crisis at the Edge of Physics." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., JUNE 7, 2015): 5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is JUNE 5, 2015, and has the title "A Crisis at the Edge of Physics.")

The controversial Nature article, mentioned above, is:

Ellis, George, and Joe Silk. "Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics." Nature 516, no. 7531 (Dec. 18, 2014): 321-23.

June 17, 2015

Mathematician Says Mathematical Models Failed

The author of the commentary quoted below is a professor of mathematics at the Baltimore County campus of the University of Maryland.

(p. 4) . . . , in a fishery, the maximum proportion of a population earmarked each year for harvest must be set so that the population remains sustainable.

The math behind these formulas may be elegant, but applying them is more complicated. This is especially true for the Chesapeake blue crabs, which have mostly been in the doldrums for the past two decades. Harvest restrictions, even when scientifically calculated, are often vociferously opposed by fishermen. Fecundity and survival rates -- so innocuous as algebraic symbols -- can be difficult to estimate. For instance, it was long believed that a blue crab's maximum life expectancy was eight years. This estimate was used, indirectly, to calculate crab mortality from fishing. Derided by watermen, the life expectancy turned out to be much too high; this had resulted in too many crab deaths being attributed to harvesting, thereby supporting charges of overfishing.

In fact, no aspect of the model is sacrosanct -- tweaking its parameters is an essential part of the process. Dr. Thomas Miller, director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, did just that. He found that the most important factor for raising sustainability was the survival rate of pre-reproductive-age females. This was one reason, in 2008, after years of failed measures to increase the crab population, regulatory agencies switched to imposing restrictions primarily on the harvest of females.    . . .

The results were encouraging: The estimated population rose to 396 million in 2009, from 293 million in 2008. By 2012, the population had jumped to 765 million, and the figure was announced at a popular crab house by Maryland's former governor, Martin O'Malley, himself.

Unfortunately, the triumph was short-lived -- the numbers plunged to 300 million the next year and then hit 297 million in 2014. Some blamed a fish called red drum for eating young crabs; others ascribed the crash to unusual weather patterns, or the loss of eel grass habitat. Although a definitive cause has yet to be identified, one thing is clear: Mathematical models failed to predict it.

For the full commentary, see:

Manil Suri. "Mathematicians and Blue Crabs." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., MAY 3, 2015): 4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the date of the online version of the commentary is MAY 2, 2015.)

June 2, 2015

Hamburger Grown in Lab from Cow Stem Cells

(p. D5) A hamburger made from cow muscle grown in a laboratory was fried, served and eaten in London on Monday in an odd demonstration of one view of the future of food.

. . .

The two-year project to make the one burger, plus extra tissue for testing, cost $325,000. On Monday it was revealed that Sergey Brin, one of the founders of Google, paid for the project. Dr. Post said Mr. Brin got involved because "he basically shares the same concerns about the sustainability of meat production and animal welfare."

The meat was produced using stem cells -- basic cells that can turn into tissue-specific cells -- from cow shoulder muscle from a slaughterhouse. The cells were multiplied in a nutrient solution and put into small petri dishes, where they became muscle cells and formed tiny strips of muscle fiber. About 20,000 strips were used to make the five-ounce burger, which contained breadcrumbs, salt, and some natural colorings as well.

For the full story, see:

Fountain, Henry. "Frying up a Lab-Grown Hamburger." The New York Times (Tues., Aug. 6, 2013): D5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 5, 2013, and has the title "A Lab-Grown Burger Gets a Taste Test.")

May 27, 2015

Books that Paved Way to Darwinian Evolution

(p. C6) "Visions of Science" is, as Mr. Secord acknowledges, "a book about books." We learn more about typeface size, bindery material, print runs and sales figures of the books than about the authors. We would not glean from this account, for example, how intertwined their lives were: They attended the same parties, discussed science together and reviewed one another's works. Taken together, the books Mr. Secord features tell a fascinating story, and they paved the way to another that is not featured in Mr. Secord's account but hovers over the others like Davy's spirit guide.

In "Origin of Species" (1859), Charles Darwin took the central ideas in these books--that there is a connection between the sciences, that the Earth is much older than previously thought, that God created the world to work by uniform natural law, and that He built lawful change into his original creation--and used them to frame his theory of evolution by natural selection in terms his readers could accept. The success of Darwin--and the books that influenced him--is evidenced by the fact that within two decades of its publication most British scientists and much of the public accepted that species evolved.

For the full review, see:

LAURA J. SNYDER. "Reading from the Book of Life; Darwin's radical ideas were accepted surprisingly quickly by an English public already steeped in science." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 11, 2015): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 10, 2015, and has the title "Science Books That Made Modernity; Darwin's radical ideas were accepted surprisingly quickly by an English public already steeped in science.")

The book under review is:

Secord, James A. Visions of Science: Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

May 2, 2015

Fongoli Chimps, Where Prey Is Scarce, Show "Respect of Ownership"

(p. A10) The Fongoli chimpanzees live in a mix of savanna and woodlands where prey is not as abundant as in rain forests. There are no red colobus monkeys, and although the chimps do hunt young vervet monkeys and baboons, the much smaller bush babies are their main prey.

Dr. Pruetz argues that less food may have prompted both technological and social innovation, resulting in new ways to hunt and new social interactions as well. Humans evolved in a similar environment, and, as she and her colleagues write in Royal Society Open Science, "tool-assisted hunting could have similarly been important for early hominins."

. . .

By and large, said Dr. Pruetz, the adult males, which could take away a kill, show a "respect of ownership." Theft rates are only about 5 percent. The chimps she studies also have more mixed-sex social groups than chimp bands in East Africa.

Travis Pickering, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, said that with less food available it seems that the Fongoli chimps, "have to be more inventive" and that "these hunting weapons even the playing field for non-adults and females."

Early hominins may have been in a similar situation, he said.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "Hunter Chimps Offer New View on Evolution." The New York Times (Fri., APRIL 15, 2015): A10.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date APRIL 14, 2015, and has the title "Chimps That Hunt Offer a New View on Evolution.")

The academic article discussed above is:

Pruetz, Jill D., Paco Bertolani, K. Boyer Ontl, S. Lindshield, M. Shelley, and E. G. Wessling. "New Evidence on the Tool-Assisted Hunting Exhibited by Chimpanzees (Pan Troglodytes Verus) in a Savannah Habitat at Fongoli, Sénégal." Royal Society Open Science 2, no. 4 (Weds., April 15, 2015), URL: .

April 23, 2015

Climate Skeptic Vilified by Mainstream Establishment

ChristyJohnClimateSkeptic2015-03-15.jpg"John Christy, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, with the weather data he recorded daily while growing up in Fresno, Calif., in the 1960s." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A14) "I detest words like 'contrarian' and 'denier,' " he said. "I'm a data-driven climate scientist. Every time I hear that phrase, 'The science is settled,' I say I can easily demonstrate that that is false, because this is the climate -- right here. The science is not settled."

Dr. Christy was pointing to a chart comparing seven computer projections of global atmospheric temperatures based on measurements taken by satellites and weather balloons. The projections traced a sharp upward slope; the actual measurements, however, ticked up only slightly.

Such charts -- there are others, sometimes less dramatic but more or less accepted by the large majority of climate scientists -- are the essence of the divide between that group on one side and Dr. Christy and a handful of other respected scientists on the other.

"Almost anyone would say the temperature rise seen over the last 35 years is less than the latest round of models suggests should have happened," said Carl Mears, the senior research scientist at Remote Sensing Systems, a California firm that analyzes satellite climate readings.

"Where the disagreement comes is that Dr. Christy says the climate models are worthless and that there must be something wrong with the basic model, whereas there are actually a lot of other possibilities," Dr. Mears said. Among them, he said, are natural variations in the climate and rising trade winds that have helped funnel atmospheric heat into the ocean.

. . .

. . . , Dr. Christy argues that reining in carbon emissions is both futile and unnecessary, and that money is better spent adapting to what he says will be moderately higher temperatures.

. . .

. . . while his work has been widely published, he has often been vilified by his peers.

. . .

He says he worries that his climate stances are affecting his chances of publishing future research and winning grants. The largest of them, a four-year Department of Energy stipend to investigate discrepancies between climate models and real-world data, expires in September.

"There's a climate establishment," Dr. Christy said. "And I'm not in it."

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL WINES. "Though Scorned by Colleagues, a Climate-Change Skeptic Is Unbowed." The New York Times (Weds., JULY 16, 2014): A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JULY 15, 2014.)

April 19, 2015

Successful Billionaire Mathematician Would Have Lost Math Contests, But Was Good at Slow Pondering

(p. D1) James H. Simons likes to play against type. He is a billionaire star of mathematics and private investment who often wins praise for his financial gifts to scientific research and programs to get children hooked on math.

But in his Manhattan office, high atop a Fifth Avenue building in the Flatiron district, he's quick to tell of his career failings.

He was forgetful. He was demoted. He found out the hard way that he was terrible at programming computers. "I'd keep forgetting the notation," Dr. Simons said. "I couldn't write programs to save my life."

After that, he was fired.

His message is clearly aimed at young people: If I can do it, so can you.

. . .

(p. D2) "I wasn't the fastest guy in the world," Dr. Simons said of his youthful math enthusiasms. "I wouldn't have done well in an Olympiad or a math contest. But I like to ponder. And pondering things, just sort of thinking about it and thinking about it, turns out to be a pretty good approach."

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM J. BROAD. "Seeker, Doer, Giver, Ponderer; A Billionaire Mathematician's Life of Ferocious Curiosity." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 8, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JULY 7, 2014.)

March 26, 2015

"If You Want to Find Something New, Look for Something New!"

(p. D8) Yves Chauvin, who shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for deciphering a "green chemistry" reaction now used to make pharmaceuticals and plastics more efficiently while generating less hazardous waste, died on Tuesday [January 27, 2015] in Tours, France.

. . .

He confessed that he was not a brilliant student, even in chemistry. "I chose chemistry rather by chance," he wrote, "because I firmly believed (and still do) that you can become passionately involved in your work, whatever it is."

Mr. Chauvin graduated from the Lyon School of Industrial Chemistry in 1954. Military service and other circumstances prevented him from pursuing a doctoral degree, which he said he regretted. "I had no training in research as such and as a consequence I am in a sense self-taught," he wrote in his Nobel Prize lecture.

He worked in industry for a few years before quitting, frustrated by an inability to pursue new ideas. "My motto is more, 'If you want to find something new, look for something new!' " Mr. Chauvin wrote. "There is a certain amount of risk in this attitude, as even the slightest failure tends to be resounding, but you are so happy when you succeed that it is worth taking the risk."

He found the freedom to choose his research when he joined the French Petroleum Institute in 1960, and it led to his breakthrough on metathesis.

"Like all sciences, chemistry is marked by magic moments," Mr. Chauvin wrote. "For someone fortunate enough to live such a moment, it is an instant of intense emotion: an immense field of investigation suddenly opens up before you."

For the full obituary, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Yves Chauvin, Chemist Sharing Nobel Prize, Dies at 84." The New York Times (Sat., JAN. 31, 2015): D8.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JAN. 30, 2015.)

January 26, 2015

Double-Blind Clinical Trials Are NOT the Only Source of Good Evidence

(p. 16) Back in her office, . . . [rheumatologist Jennifer Frankovich] found that the scientific literature had no studies on patients like this to guide her. So she did something unusual: She searched a database of all the lupus patients the hospital had seen over the previous five years, singling out those whose symptoms matched her patient's, and ran an analysis to see whether they had developed blood clots. "I did some very simple statistics and brought the data to everybody that I had met with that morning," she says. The change in attitude was striking. "It was very clear, based on the database, that she could be at an increased risk for a clot."

The girl was given the drug, and she did not develop a clot. "At the end of the day, we don't know whether it was the right decision," says Chris Longhurst, a pediatrician and the chief medical information officer at Stanford Children's Health, who is a colleague of Frankovich's. But they felt that it was the best they could do with the limited information they had.

A large, costly and time-consuming clinical trial with proper controls might someday prove Frankovich's hypothesis correct. But large, costly and time-consuming clinical trials are rarely carried out for uncommon complications of this sort. In the absence of such focused research, doctors and scientists are increasingly dipping into enormous troves of data that already exist -- namely the aggregated medical records of thousands or even millions of patients to uncover patterns that might help steer care.

. . .

(p. 17) . . . , developing a "learning health system" -- one that can incorporate lessons from its own activities in real time -- remains tantalizing to researchers. Stefan Thurner, a professor of complexity studies at the Medical University of Vienna, and his researcher, Peter Klimek, are working with a database of millions of people's health-insurance claims, building networks of relationships among diseases. As they fill in the network with known connections and new ones mined from the data, Thurner and Klimek hope to be able to predict the health of individuals or of a population over time. On the clinical side, Longhurst has been advocating for a button in electronic medical-record software that would allow doctors to run automated searches for patients like theirs when no other sources of information are available.

With time, and with some crucial refinements, this kind of medicine may eventually become mainstream. Frankovich recalls a conversation with an older colleague. "She told me, 'Research this decade benefits the next decade,' " Frankovich says. "That was how it was. But I feel like it doesn't have to be that way anymore."

For the full story, see:

VERONIQUE GREENWOOD. "Eureka; Dr. DATA; Can Statistical Analysis Tell Us What Clinical Trials Cannot?" The New York Times Magazine (Sun., OCT. 5, 2014): 16-17.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 3, 2014, and has the title "Eureka; Can Big Data Tell Us What Clinical Trials Don't?")

January 25, 2015

26 Different Drugs Lengthen Healthy Life Span in Mice

(p. F5) For thousands of years, people have sought to escape or outrun their mortality with potions, pills and elixirs, often blended with heavy doses of hope and will.

In the "Epic of Gilgamesh," a Mesopotamian king searched for the secret of immortality after the death of his best friend. At least three Chinese emperors in the Tang dynasty died after consuming treatments containing lead and mercury that they hoped would make them immortal. In the late 19th century, a French-American physiologist seemed to have found the elixir of life by injecting the elderly and himself with extracts from animal testicles.

. . .

"By targeting fundamental aging processes, we might be able to delay the major age-related chronic diseases instead of picking them off one at time," said Dr. James Kirkland, a professor of aging research and head of the Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging at the Mayo Clinic. "For example, we don't want to have situation where we, say, cure cancer and then people die six months later of Alzheimer's disease or a stroke. It would be better to delay all of these things together."

This is where the field known as the biology of aging is moving -- to develop drugs that will increase life span and what researchers refer to as health span, the period of life when people are able to live independently and free from disease.

Dr. Kirkland said that at least six drugs had been written up in peer-reviewed journals and that he knew of about 20 others that appear to affect life span or health span in mice. The goal is to see if those benefits can be translated into humans to increase their longevity, "to find interventions that we can use in people that might, say, make a person who's 90 feel like they're 60 or a person who's 70 feel like they're 40 or 50."

Other researchers are studying centenarians, seeking to understand whether certain genes have carried them past 100 years old and kept them in good health.

For the full story, see:

TRACEY SAMUELSON. "Science (and Quacks) vs. the Aging Process." The New York Times (Weds., Nov. 19, 2014): F5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 18, 2014.)

January 24, 2015

"You Don't Reach Serendip by Plotting a Course for It"

(p. 320) As John Barth wrote in The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, "You don't reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously."28 The challenge for educational institutions, government policy, research centers, funding agencies, and, by extension, all modern medicine, will be how to encourage scientists to lose their bearings creatively. What they discover may just save our lives!


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

(Note: italics in original.)

January 16, 2015

Successful Discoverers "Follow the Evidence Wherever It Leads"

(p. 314) Why are particular people able to seize on such opportunities and say, "I've stumbled upon a solution. What's the problem?" Typically, such people are not constrained by an overly focused or dogmatic mindset. In contrast, those with a firmly held set of preconceptions are less likely to be distracted by an unexpected or contradictory observation, and yet it is exactly such things that lead to the blessing of serendipitous discovery.

Serendipitous discoverers have certain traits in common. They have a passionate intensity. They insist on trying to see beyond their own and others' expectations and resist any pressure that would close off investigation. Successful medical discoverers let nothing stand in their way. They break through, sidestep, or ignore any obstacle or objection to their chosen course, which is simply to follow the evidence wherever it leads. They have no patience with dogma of any kind.

The only things successful discoverers do not dismiss out of hand are contradictory--and perhaps serendipitously valuable--facts. They painstakingly examine every aspect of uncomfortable facts until they understand how they fit with other facts. Far from being cavalier about method, serendipitous discoverers subject their evidence and suppositions to the most rigorous methods they can find. They do not run from uncertainty, but see it as the raw material from which new scientific and medical certainties can be wrought.


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

January 13, 2015

While Looking for Spotted Fever, He Found the Cause of Lyme Disease

(p. A25) Willy Burgdorfer, a medical entomologist who in 1982 identified the cause of what had been a mysterious affliction, Lyme disease, died on Monday [November 17, 2014] at a hospital in Hamilton, Mont. He was 89.

. . .

In the early 1980s, Dr. Burgdorfer was analyzing deer ticks from Long Island that were suspected to have caused spotted fever when he stumbled on something unexpected under his microscope: spirochetes, disease-causing bacteria shaped like corkscrews. They were located in only one section of the ticks, the so-called midguts. He had studied spirochetes in graduate school.

"Once my eyes focused on these long, snakelike organisms, I recognized what I had seen a million times before: spirochetes," he said in a 2001 oral history for the National Institutes of Health, which include the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

He had not been working on Lyme disease, but he had spoken with the doctor who helped discover it, Dr. Allen Steere of Yale. After he saw the spirochetes in the Long Island ticks, he quickly realized that the bacteria might also be in the deer ticks believed to be playing a role in Lyme disease in Connecticut and elsewhere, including Long Island.

For the full obituary, see:

WILLIAM YARDLEY. "Willy Burgdorfer, Who Found Bacteria That Cause Lyme Disease, Is Dead at 89." The New York Times (Thurs., NOV. 20, 2014): A25.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date NOV. 19, 2014.)

January 12, 2015

"Peer Review Institutionalizes Dogmatism by Promoting Orthodoxy"

(p. 305) Peer review institutionalizes dogmatism by promoting orthodoxy. Reviewers prefer applications that mesh with their own perspective on how an issue should be conceptualized, and they favor individuals whom they know or whose reputations have already been established, making it harder for new people to break into the system.6 Indeed, the basic process of peer review demands conformity of thinking and disdains a maverick's approach. "We can hardly expect a committee," said the biologist and historian of science, Garrett Hardin, "to acquiesce in the dethronement of tradition. Only an individual can do that."7 Young investigators get the message loud and clear: Do not challenge existing beliefs and practices.

So enmeshed in the conventional wisdoms of the day, so-called "peers" have again and again failed to appreciate major breakthroughs even when they were staring them in the face. This reality is evidenced by the fact that so many pioneering researchers were inappropriately scheduled to present their findings at undesirable times when few people were in the audience to hear about them.


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

January 8, 2015

With Targeted Research, Scientists Not Allowed to Pursue Serendipitous Discoveries

(p. 303) When scientists were allowed to pursue whatever they found, serendipitous discovery flourished.

Today, targeted research is pretty much all there is. Yet, as Richard Feynman put it in his typical rough-hewn but insightful manner, giving more money "just increases the number of guys following the comet head."2 Money doesn't foster new ideas, ideas that drive science; it only fosters applications of old ideas, most often enabling improvements but not discoveries.


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

December 31, 2014

Government Funding Not Conducive to Serendipity

(p. 301) Even in the early twentieth century, the climate was more conducive to serendipitous discovery. In the United States, for example, scientific research was funded by private foundations, notably the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in New York (established 1901) and the Rockefeller Foundation (1913). The Rockefeller Institute modeled itself on prestigious European organizations such as the Pasteur Institute in France and the Koch Institute in Germany, recruiting the world's best scientists and providing them with comfortable stipends, well-equipped laboratories, and freedom from teaching obligations and university politics, so that they could devote their energies to research. The Rockefeller Foundation, which was the most expansive supporter of basic research, especially in biology, between the two world wars, relied on successful programs to seek promising scientists to identify and accelerate burgeoning fields of interest. In Britain, too, the Medical Research Council believed in "picking the man, not the project," and nurturing successful results with progressive grants.

After World War II, everything about scientific research changed. The U.S. government--which previously had had little to do with funding research except for some agricultural projects--took on a major role. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) grew out of feeble beginnings in 1930 but became foremost among the granting agencies in the early 1940s at around the time they moved to Bethesda, Maryland. The government then established the National Science Foundation (NSF) in 1950 to promote progress in science and engineering. Research in the United States became centralized and therefore suffused with bureaucracy. The lone scientist working independently was now a rarity. Research came to be characterized by large teams drawing upon multiple scientific disciplines and using highly technical methods in an environment that promoted the not-very-creative phenomenon known as "groupthink." Under this new regime, the competition (p. 302) among researchers for grant approvals fostered a kind of conformity with existing dogma. As the bureaucracy of granting agencies expanded, planning and justification became the order of the day, thwarting the climate in which imaginative thought and creative ideas flourish.


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

December 27, 2014

Eisenhower Warned that "a Government Contract Becomes Virtually a Substitute for Intellectual Curiosity"

(p. 300) In his farewell address on January 17, 1961, President Dwight Eisenhower famously cautioned the nation about the influence of the "military-industrial complex," coining a phrase that became part of the political vernacular. However, in the same speech, he presciently warned that scientific and academic research might become too dependent on, and thus shaped by, government grants. He foresaw a situation in which "a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity."


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

December 19, 2014

Much Knowledge Results from Mistaken Hypotheses

(p. 239) If we were to eliminate from science all the great discoveries that had come about as the result of mistaken hypotheses or fluky experimental data, we would be lacking half of what we now know (or think we know). --NATHAN KLINE, AMERICAN PSYCHIATRIST


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

December 12, 2014

Scientists Seriously Discuss Geoengineering Solutions to Global Warming

(p. A1) UTRECHT, the Netherlands -- The solution to global warming, Olaf Schuiling says, lies beneath our feet.

For Dr. Schuiling, a retired geochemist, climate salvation would come in the form of olivine, a green-tinted mineral found in abundance around the world. When exposed to the elements, it slowly takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Olivine has been doing this naturally for billions of years, but Dr. Schuiling wants to speed up the process by spreading it on fields and beaches and using it for dikes, pathways, even sandboxes. Sprinkle enough of the crushed rock around, he says, and it will eventually remove enough CO2 to slow the rise in global temperatures.

"Let the earth help us to save the earth," said Dr. Schuiling, who has been pursuing the idea single-mindedly for several decades and at 82 is still writing papers on the subject from his cluttered office at the University of Utrecht.

Once considered the stuff of wild-eyed fantasies, such ideas for countering climate change -- known as geoengineering solutions, because they intentionally manipulate nature -- are now being discussed seriously by scientists.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Climate Cures Seeking to Tap Nature's Power." The New York Times (Mon., NOV. 10, 2014): A1 & A6.

(Note: italics in original; ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 9, 2014, and has the title "Climate Tools Seek to Bend Nature's Path.")

December 11, 2014

Alertness to What Problem Can Be Solved with Unexpected Results

(p. 208) "Every scientist must occasionally turn around and ask not merely, 'How can I solve this problem?' but, 'Now that I have come to a result, what problem have I solved?" This use of reverse questions is of tremendous value precisely at the deepest parts of science."--NORBERT WIENER, INVENTION:THE CARE AND FEEDING OF IDEAS


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

December 5, 2014

Simplot's Company Keeps Innovating with Potatoes

(p. B1) A potato genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in French fries and potato chips has been approved for commercial planting, the Department of Agriculture announced on Friday [November 7, 2014].

The potato's DNA has been altered so that less of a chemical called acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried.

The new potato also resists bruising, a characteristic long sought by potato growers and processors for financial reasons. Potatoes bruised during harvesting, shipping or storage can lose value or become unusable.

The biotech tubers were developed by the J. R. Simplot Company, a privately held company based in Boise, Idaho, which was the initial supplier of frozen French fries to McDonald's in the 1960s and is still a major supplier. The company's founder, Mr. Simplot, who died in 2008, became a billionaire.

The potato is one of a new wave of genetically modified crops that aim to provide benefits to consumers, not just to farmers as the widely grown biotech crops like herbicide-tolerant soybeans and corn do. The nonbruising aspect of the potato is similar to that of genetically engineered nonbrowning apples, developed by Okanagan Specialty Fruits, which are awaiting regulatory approval.

. . .

The question now is whether the potatoes -- which come in the Russet Burbank, Ranger Russet and Atlantic varieties -- will be adopted by food companies and restaurant chains. At least one group opposed to such crops has already pressed McDonald's to reject them.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "New Potato, Hot Potato: U.S. Approves Modified Crop. Next Up: French-Fry Fans." The New York Times (Sat., NOV. 8, 2014): B1-B2.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date NOV. 7, 2014, and has the title "U.S.D.A. Approves Modified Potato. Next Up: French Fry Fans.")

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.

November 13, 2014

In 1971 Nixon "Launched an All-Out War on Cancer"

(p. 173) In 1971 the U.S. government finally launched an all-out "war on cancer." In his State of the Union address in January 1971, President Richard Nixon declared: "The time has come in America when the same kind of concerted effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease. Let us make a total national commitment to achieve this goal."

As the country debated a bill known as the National Cancer Act, the air was filled with feverish excitement and heady optimism. Popular magazines again trumpeted the imminent conquest of cancer. However, some members of the committee of the Institute of Medicine, a part of the National Academy of Sciences, which was asked by the NCI to review the cancer plan envisioned by the act, expressed concern regarding the centralization of planning of research and that "the lines of research... could turn out to be the wrong leads." The plan fails, the reviewers said in their confidential report, because

It leaves the impression that all shots can be called from a national headquarters; that all, or nearly all, of the really important ideas are already in hand, and that given the right kind of administration and organization, the hard problems can be solved. It fails to allow for the surprises which must surely lie ahead if we are really going to gain an understanding of cancer.


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

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

November 11, 2014

Model Flaws Result in No Useful Climate Consensus

At the end of the first page of the commentary quoted below, the following biographical credentials were provided for the author of the commentary:

(p. C1) Dr. Koonin was undersecretary for science in the Energy Department during President Barack Obama's first term and is currently director of the Center for Urban Science and Progress at New York University. His previous positions include professor of theoretical physics and provost at Caltech, as well as chief scientist of where his work focused on renewable and low-carbon energy technologies.

(p. C1) The idea that "Climate science is settled" runs through today's popular and policy discussions. Unfortunately, that claim is misguided. It has not only distorted our public and policy debates on issues related to energy, greenhouse-gas emissions and the environment. But it also has inhibited the scientific and policy discussions that we need to have about our climate future.

. . .

(p. C2) We often hear that there is a "scientific consensus" about climate change. But as far as the computer models go, there isn't a useful consensus at the level of detail relevant to assessing human influences.

. . .

• Although the Earth's average surface temperature rose sharply by 0.9 degree Fahrenheit during the last quarter of the 20th century, it has increased much more slowly for the past 16 years, even as the human contribution to atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by some 25%. This surprising fact demonstrates directly that natural influences and variability are powerful enough to counteract the present warming influence exerted by human activity.

Yet the models famously fail to capture this slowing in the temperature rise. Several dozen different explanations for this failure have been offered, with ocean variability most likely playing a major role. But the whole episode continues to highlight the limits of our modeling.

. . .

• A crucial measure of our knowledge of feedbacks is climate sensitivity--that is, the warming induced by a hypothetical doubling of carbon-dioxide concentration. Today's best estimate of the sensitivity (between 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit and 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) is no different, and no more certain, than it was 30 years ago. And this is despite an heroic research effort costing billions of dollars.

These and many other open questions are in fact described in the IPCC research reports, although a detailed and knowledgeable reading is sometimes required to discern them. They are not "minor" issues to be "cleaned up" by further research. Rather, they are deficiencies that erode confidence in the computer projections. Work to resolve these shortcomings in climate models should be among the top priorities for climate research.

Yet a public official reading only the IPCC's "Summary for Policy Makers" would gain little sense of the extent or implications of these deficiencies. These are fundamental challenges to our understanding of human impacts on the climate, and they should not be dismissed with the mantra that "climate science is settled."

For the full commentary, see:

STEVEN E. KOONIN. "Climate Science Is Not Settled." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 20, 2014): C1-C2.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 19, 2014.)

November 9, 2014

"Discovery Cannot Be Achieved by Directive"

(p. 170) As early as 1945 the medical advisory committee reporting to the committee reporting to the federal government on a postwar program for scientific research emphasized the frequently unexpected nature of discoveries:

Discoveries in medicine have often come from the most remote and unexpected fields of science in the past; and it is probable that this will be equally true in the future. It is not unlikely that significant progress in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, cancer, and other refractory conditions will be made, perhaps unexpectedly, as the result of fundamental discoveries in fields unrelated to these diseases.... Discovery cannot be achieved by directive. Further progress requires that the entire field of medicine and the underlying sciences of biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, bacteriology, pathology, parasitology, etc., be developed impartially.

Their statement "discovery cannot be achieved by directive" would prove to be sadly prophetic.


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

(Note: italics in original.)

November 6, 2014

Moss Revived After 1,500 Years

(p. D3) Typically, plants break down into organic matter as they become permafrost. Looking at the ancient moss from Signy Island, however, Dr. Convey and his colleagues wondered if, after centuries of frozen darkness, it could grow again.

It was an unlikely idea. Scientists had not managed to revive moss that had been frozen for more than 20 years. Still, Dr. Convey thought it would be interesting to try. "It was just kite-flying," he said.

The scientists put a core of Signy permafrost under a lamp in a lab in Britain and misted it from time to time with water. After a few weeks, the moss was sending up new green growth.

The deepest layer in which the resuscitated moss grew was three and a half feet below the surface. Based on radiocarbon tests, as they report in the journal Current Biology, the revived moss turned out to be more than 1,500 years old. It's been in a state of suspended animation, in other words, since the age of King Arthur.

. . .

In some cases, organisms may naturally revive after thousands of years without scientists' help. And it's possible that they play an important role in their ecosystems.

At the end of each ice age, for example, retreating glaciers leave behind bare ground that develops into new ecosystems. Dr. Convey wonders if moss, and perhaps other species, may survive under the ice for thousands of years and revive when the glaciers melt. "That gives you a very different way of understanding the biodiversity of a region," he said.

While cloning mammoths remains speculative, reviving dormant organisms is now passing out of its proof-of-concept stage. The research could lead to using revival to help bolster endangered species.

"You could use whatever is stored in ice or sediment as a sort of backup for biodiversity," said Luisa Orsini of the University of Birmingham in England. But, she said, "one has to be really, really careful introducing something from the past."

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. "MATTER; A Growth Spurt at 1,500 Years Old." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 18, 2014): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 17, 2014.)

The academic paper reporting the research summarized above, is:

Roads, Esme, Royce E. Longton, and Peter Convey. "Millennial Timescale Regeneration in a Moss from Antarctica." Current Biology 24, no. 6 (March 17, 2014): R222-R223.

November 5, 2014

"Folkman Persisted in His Genuinely Original Thinking"

(p. 141) As detailed by Robert Cooke in his 2001 book Dr. Folkman's War, the successful answers to these basic questions took Folkman through diligent investigations punctuated by an astonishing series of chance observations and circumstances. Over decades, Folkman persisted in his genuinely original thinking. His concept was far in advance of technological and other scientific advances that would provide the methodology and basic knowledge essential to its proof, forcing him to await verification and to withstand ridicule, scorn, and vicious competition for grants. Looking back three decades later, Folkman would ruefully reflect: "I was too young to realize how much trouble was in store for a theory that could not be tested immediately."


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

(Note: italics in original.)

November 3, 2014

Evidence Some Flies Can Adapt to Climate Change

(p. D7) In the early 2000s, Ary A. Hoffmann, a biologist then at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, wondered how the many species in tropical rain forests would cope when their humid environment dried out.

. . .

. . . at the end of the experiment, the flies were no more resistant to dry air than their forebears. The flies seemed to lack the genetic potential to evolve. Those results suggested that if the rain forest home of Drosophilia birchii loses its high humidity, the flies will die off.

. . .

Recently, two of Dr. Hoffmann's collaborators -- Belinda van Heerwaarden and Carla M. Sgrò of Monash University -- decided to rerun the experiment, but with a crucial twist.

Rather than expose the flies to 10 percent relative humidity, Dr. van Heerwaarden and Dr. Sgrò tried 35 percent. That's still far drier than the moist air of rain forests, but it's not the aridity one might encounter on a summer day in Death Valley.

"It's a humidity that's more relevant to the predictions for how dry the environment would become in the next 30 to 50 years," Dr. Sgrò said.

. . .

Unlike the flies in the earlier studies, it didn't take long for these to start evolving. After just five generations, one species was able to survive 23 percent longer in 35 humidity.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer. "MATTER; Study Gives Hope of Adaptation to Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., JULY 29, 2014): D7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JULY 24, 2014.)

The recent paper discussed above, is:

van Heerwaarden, Belinda, and Carla M. Sgrò. "Is Adaptation to Climate Change Really Constrained in Niche Specialists?" Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 281, no. 1790 (2014): 1-1.

October 28, 2014

In Finding Cure for Ulcers, Marshall Was Not Constrained by the Need to Obtain Approval or Funding

(p. 113) Marshall was a youthful maverick, not bound by traditional theory and not professionally invested in a widely held set of beliefs. There is such a thing as being too much of an insider. Marshall viewed the problem with fresh eyes and was not constrained by the requirement to obtain approval or funding for his pursuits. It is also noteworthy that his work was accomplished not at a high-powered academic ivory tower with teams of investigators but instead far from the prestigious research centers in the Western Hemisphere.

The delay in acceptance of Marshall's revolutionary hypothesis reflects the tenacity with which long-held concepts are maintained. Vested interests--intellectual, financial, commercial, status--keep these entrenched. Dogmatic believers find themselves under siege by a new set of explanations.


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

October 26, 2014

Warming of Northwest Is Due to Waves, Not Human Activity

(p. A19) Scientists have long known that sea surface temperatures are lower when strong winds whip up ocean waves, and higher when the seas are calm. Researchers generally have assumed that the phenomenon was but one factor in that warming, and that increased levels of carbon dioxide from human activity play a major role in driving rising temperatures.

But the new analysis, which relies on wind, barometric pressure and temperature data recorded from 1900 to 2012, concludes that human activity has little impact.

"The concept of winds controlling or affecting ocean temperature in that very way is not controversial, but the strength of that relationship was quite amazing" in the northwestern Pacific, said James Johnstone, a climatologist and the study's lead author. "It explains practically every wiggle in the ocean temperature variations. It's a phenomenal correlation."

For the full story, see:

MICHAEL WINES. "Human Role in Warming of Northwest Played Down." The New York Times (Tues., SEPT. 23, 2014): A19.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date SEPT. 22, 2014.)

The Johnstone paper, summarized above, is:

Johnstone, James A., and Nathan J. Mantua. "Atmospheric Controls on Northeast Pacific Temperature Variability and Change, 1900-2012." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online before print, September 22, 2014, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1318371111.

October 24, 2014

Ideas Should Not Be Rejected Just Because They Disagree with Reigning Theory

(p. 107) . . . Claude Bernard, the nineteenth-century founder of experimental medicine, . . . famously said, "If an idea presents itself to us, we must not reject it simply because it does not agree with the logical deductions of a reigning theory."


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

(Note: ellipses added.)

October 20, 2014

Needed Revolutionary Ideas Often Come From Outsiders

(p. 103) . . . where knowledge is no longer growing and the field has been worked out, a revolutionary new approach is required and this is more likely to come from the outsider. The skepticism with which the experts nearly always greet these revolutionary ideas confirms that the available knowledge has been a handicap."


W. I. B. Beveridge as quoted in Meyers, Morton A. Happy Accidents: Serendipity in Modern Medical Breakthroughs. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2007.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

October 18, 2014

The Ants Answer to Global Warming

(p. C4) While experts search for ways to cope with excessive atmospheric carbon, the world's ants may have had a solution all along.

A new paper reports that ants radically accelerate the breakdown of some important minerals into chemicals that suck carbon dioxide--a byproduct of burning fossil fuels--out of the atmosphere to form new rocks.

. . .

Ants are so effective at promoting this process that they might have played an unheralded role in cooling the planet over millions of years, the author writes, adding that if we can figure out how they do it, we could investigate how to emulate them to sequester atmospheric carbon ourselves.

For the full story, see:

DANIEL AKST. "R AND D; Are Ants Cooling the World?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 16, 2014): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Aug. 15, 2014.)

The paper on the ant solution to global warming is:

Dorn, Ronald I. "Ants as a Powerful Biotic Agent of Olivine and Plagioclase Dissolution." Geology 42, no. 9 (Sept. 2014): 771-74.

October 16, 2014

Medical Innovator "Maintained a Healthy Skepticism Toward Accepted Wisdom"

(p. 103) Barry Marshall, a lanky twenty-nine-year-old resident in internal medicine at Warren's hospital, was assigned to was assigned to gastroenterology for six months as part of his training and was looking for a research project. The eldest son of a welder and a nurse, Marshall grew up in a remote area of Western Australia where self-sufficiency and common sense were essential characteristics. His personal qualities of intelligence, tenacity, open-mindedness, and self-confidence would serve him and Warren well in bringing about a conceptual revolution. Relatively new to gastroenterology, he did not hold a set of well-entrenched beliefs. Marshall could maintain a healthy skepticism toward accepted wisdom. Indeed, the concept that bacteria caused stomach inflammation, and even ulcers, was less alien to him than to most gastroenterologists.


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

October 8, 2014

Why Did Waksman Not Pursue the Streptomycin Antibiotic?

What did Waksman lack to pursue the streptomycin antibiotic sooner? Enough independent funding? Alertness? Enough desire to make a ding in the universe? Enough unhappiness about unnecessary death? Willingness to embrace the hard work of embracing dissonant facts?

(p. 83) Waksman missed several opportunities to make the great discovery earlier in his career, but his single-mindedness did not allow for, in Salvador Luria's phrase, "the chance observation falling on the receptive eye." In 1975 Waksman recalled that he first brushed past an antibiotic as early as 1923 when he observed that "certain actinomycetes produce substances toxic to bacteria" since it can be noted at times that "around an actinomycetes colony upon a plate a zone is formed free from fungous and bacterial growth." In 1935 Chester Rhines, a graduate student of Waksman's, noticed that tubercle bacilli would not grow in the presence of a soil organism, but Waksman did not think that this lead was worth pursuing: "In the scientific climate of the time, the result did not suggest any practical application for treatment of tuberculosis." The same year, Waksman's friend Fred Beau-dette, the poultry pathologist at Rutgers, brought him an agar tube with a culture of tubercle bacilli killed by a contaminant fungus growing on top of them. Again, Waksman was not interested: "I was not moved to jump to the logical conclusion and direct my efforts accordingly.... My major interest at that time was the subject of organic matter decomposition and the interrelationships among soil micro-organisms responsible for this process."


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

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

October 4, 2014

Cancer Will Likely Be Cured by "Lone Wolves, Awkward Individualists, Nonconformists"

Morton Meyers quotes Ernst Chain, who received the Nobel Prize in 1945, along with Fleming and Florey, for developing penicillin:

(p. 81) But do not let us fall victims of the naive illusion that problems like cancer, mental illness, degeneration or old age... can be solved by bulldozer organizational methods, such as were used in the Manhattan Project. In the latter, we had the geniuses whose basic discoveries made its development possible, the Curies, the Rutherfords, the Einsteins, the Niels Bohrs and many others; in the biologic field... these geniuses have not yet appeared.... No mass attack will replace them.... When they do appear, it is our job to recognize them and give them the opportunities to develop their talents, which is not an easy task, for they are bound to be lone wolves, awkward individualists, nonconformists, and they will not very well fit into any established organization.


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

(Note: ellipses in original.)

September 30, 2014

"Seeing What Everybody Has Seen and Thinking What Nobody Has Thought"

Szent-Györgyi is onto something important below. But I think it would be more accurate to say that we all experience dissonant events (but usually not the same dissonant events, as Szent-Györgyi implies), and that most of us let the events pass without noticing, or remembering, or making use of them. What is rare is to notice the events, remember them and make use of them. Those who carry around with them the burden of unsolved problems, and unfixed frustrations, are more likely to see in unexpected events solutions to those problems and fixes for the frustrations. This all takes the effort of our better self (what Kahneman calls our System 2). It takes effort to carry around the problems, to bear the dissonant observations, and to suffer the indifference of friends and the ridicule of experts. But it is through such effort that we better understand the world and, most importantly, that we improve the world.

(p. 12) "Discovery (p. 13) consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought," according to Nobelist Albert Szent-Györgyi.14

. . .

(p. 324) 14. Albert Szent-Györgyi, Bioenergetics (New York: Academic Press, 1957), 57.


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

(Note: italics in original.)

September 28, 2014

Pause in Global Warming Invalidates Climate-Change Models

(p. A13) When the climate scientist and geologist Bob Carter of James Cook University in Australia wrote an article in 2006 saying that there had been no global warming since 1998 according to the most widely used measure of average global air temperatures, there was an outcry. A year later, when David Whitehouse of the Global Warming Policy Foundation in London made the same point, the environmentalist and journalist Mark Lynas said in the New Statesman that Mr. Whitehouse was "wrong, completely wrong," and was "deliberately, or otherwise, misleading the public."

We know now that it was Mr. Lynas who was wrong. Two years before Mr. Whitehouse's article, climate scientists were already admitting in emails among themselves that there had been no warming since the late 1990s. "The scientific community would come down on me in no uncertain terms if I said the world had cooled from 1998," wrote Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia in Britain in 2005. He went on: "Okay it has but it is only seven years of data and it isn't statistically significant."

If the pause lasted 15 years, they conceded, then it would be so significant that it would invalidate the climate-change models upon which policy was being built. A report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) written in 2008 made this clear: "The simulations rule out (at the 95% level) zero trends for intervals of 15 yr or more."

Well, the pause has now lasted for 16, 19 or 26 years--depending on whether you choose the surface temperature record or one of two satellite records of the lower atmosphere. That's according to a new statistical calculation by Ross McKitrick, a professor of economics at the University of Guelph in Canada.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "OPINION; Whatever Happened to Global Warming? Now come climate scientists' implausible explanations for why the 'hiatus' has passed the 15-year mark." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Sept. 5, 2014): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Sept. 4, 2014.)

The article mentioned above by economist McKitrick is:

McKitrick, Ross R. "HAC-Robust Measurement of the Duration of a Trendless Subsample in a Global Climate Time Series." Open Journal of Statistics 4 (2014): 527-35.

For a possible deeper explanation of the McKitrick results, you may consult:

McMillan, David G., and Mark E. Wohar. "The Relationship between Temperature and CO2 Emissions: Evidence from a Short and Very Long Dataset." Applied Economics 45, no. 26 (2013): 3683-90.

September 27, 2014

Theory Said Giant Bird Could Not Fly, But It Flew Anyway

(p. A3) Scientists have identified the largest flying bird ever found--an ungainly glider with a wingspan of 21 feet or more that likely soared above ancient seas 25 million years ago.

Until now, though, it was a bird that few experts believed could get off the ground. By the conventional formulas of flight, the extinct sea bird--twice the size of an albatross, the largest flying bird today--was just too heavy to fly on its long, fragile wings.

But a new computer analysis reported Monday [July 7, 2014] in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that the bird apparently could ride efficiently on rising air currents, staying aloft for a week or more at a stretch.

. . .

"You have to conclude that this animal was capable of flapping its wings and taking off, even though it is much heavier than the theoretical maximum weight of a flapping flying bird," said Luis Chiappe, an expert on flight evolution at the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, who wasn't involved in the project. "Our modern perspective on the diversity of flight is rather narrow," he said. "These were very unique birds."

. . .

"This was a pretty impressive creature," said avian paleontologist Daniel T. Ksepka at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., who conducted the analysis of the bird's biomechanics. "Science had made a rule about flight, and life found a way around it."

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "U.S. NEWS; Giant Bird Was Able to Fly, Scientists Find; Computer Analysis Shows Ancient Glider Could Get Off the Ground, Defying Conventional Theories of Flight." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., July 8, 2014): A3.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date July 7, 2014.)

September 26, 2014

Serendipitous Discoveries Are Made by "Accidents and Sagacity"

(p. 6) "Accident" is not really the best word to describe such fortuitous discoveries. Accident implies mindlessness. Christopher Columbus's discovery of the American continent was pure accident--he was looking for something else (the Orient) and stumbled upon this, and never knew, not even on his dying day, that he had discovered a new continent. A better name for the phenomenon we will be looking at in the pages to follow is "serendipity," a word that came into the English language in 1754 by way of the writer Horace Walpole. The key point of the phenomenon of serendipity is illustrated in Walpole's telling of an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip (set in the land of Serendip, now known as Sri Lanka): "As their highnesses traveled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of."

Accidents and sagacity. Sagacity--defined as penetrating intelligence, keen perception, and sound judgment--is essential to serendipity. The men and women who seized on lucky accidents that happened to them were anything but mindless. In fact, their minds typically had special qualities that enabled them to break out of established paradigms, imagine new possibilities, and see that they had found a solution, often to some problem other than the one they were working on. Accidental discoveries would be nothing without keen, creative minds knowing what to do with them.


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

(Note: italics in original.)

September 20, 2014

Modelers Can Often Obtain the Desired Result

(p. A13) After earning a master's degree in environmental engineering in 1982, I spent most of the next 10 years building large-scale environmental computer models. My first job was as a consultant to the Environmental Protection Agency. I was hired to build a model to assess the impact of its Construction Grants Program, a nationwide effort in the 1970s and 1980s to upgrade sewer-treatment plants.

The computer model was huge--it analyzed every river, sewer treatment plant and drinking-water intake (the places in rivers where municipalities draw their water) in the country. I'll spare you the details, but the model showed huge gains from the program as water quality improved dramatically. By the late 1980s, however, any gains from upgrading sewer treatments would be offset by the additional pollution load coming from people who moved from on-site septic tanks to public sewers, which dump the waste into rivers. Basically the model said we had hit the point of diminishing returns.

When I presented the results to the EPA official in charge, he said that I should go back and "sharpen my pencil." I did. I reviewed assumptions, tweaked coefficients and recalibrated data. But when I reran everything the numbers didn't change much. At our next meeting he told me to run the numbers again.

After three iterations I finally blurted out, "What number are you looking for?" He didn't miss a beat: He told me that he needed to show $2 billion of benefits to get the program renewed. I finally turned enough knobs to get the answer he wanted, and everyone was happy.

. . .

There are no exact values for the coefficients in models such as these. There are only ranges of potential values. By moving a bunch of these parameters to one side or the other you can usually get very different results, often (surprise) in line with your initial beliefs.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT J. CAPRARA. "OPINION; Confessions of a Computer Modeler; Any model, including those predicting climate doom, can be tweaked to yield a desired result. I should know." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 9, 2014): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date July 8, 2014.)

September 14, 2014

Similarities Between Lucretius and Galileo

(p. 254) Like Lucretius, Galileo defended the oneness of the celestial and terrestrial world: there was no essential difference, he claimed, between the nature of the sun and the planets and the nature of the earth and its inhabitants. Like Lucretius, he believed that everything in the universe could be understood through the same disciplined use of observation and reason. Like Lucretius, he insisted on the testimony of the senses, against, if necessary, the orthodox claims of authority. Like Lucretius, he sought to work through this testimony toward a rational comprehension of the hidden structures of all things. And like Lucretius, he was convinced that these structures were by nature constituted by what he called "minims" or minimal particles, that is, constituted by a limited repertory of atoms combined in innumerable ways.


Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

September 1, 2014

"The Metric System Can Be Our Operating System Without Being Our Interface"

(p. C6) The outcome was perhaps foreshadowed, as Mr. Marciano points out, when President Ford, using a customary unit, noted that American industries were "miles ahead" when it came to adopting the metric system.

Mr. Marciano tells his story more or less without editorializing, until the end. Surveying the centuries of fights over measurement, he finishes on a rather intriguing point: Standardization no longer matters that much.

. . .

. . . , with the computerization of life, we don't have to worry about converting from one measurement to another; our software does this for us. We can still speak in pounds or feet, even if everything in the world of manufacturing and technology is really, at bottom, done in the metric system. In the evocative terminology of Mr. Marciano, "the metric system can be our operating system without being our interface."

For the full review, see:

SAMUEL ARBESMAN. "Liters and Followers; Gerald Ford once proudly declared the country was 'miles ahead' in converting to the metric system." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Aug. 2, 2014): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 1, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Whatever Happened to the Metric System?' by John Bemelmans Marciano; Gerald Ford once proudly declared the country was 'miles ahead' in converting to the metric system." )

The book being reviewed is:

Marciano, John Bemelmans. Whatever Happened to the Metric System?: How America Kept Its Feet. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2014.

August 2, 2014

Climate Models Allow "the Modeler to Obtain Almost Any Desired Result"

Integrated assessment models (IAMs) are the commonly-used models that attempt to integrate climate science models with economic effect models. In the passage quoted below, "SCC" stands for "social cost of carbon."

(p. 870) I have argued that IAMs are of little or no value for evaluating alternative climate change policies and estimating the SCC. On the contrary, an IAM-based analysis suggests a level of knowledge and precision that is nonexistent, and allows the modeler to obtain almost any desired result because key inputs can be chosen arbitrarily.

As I have explained, the physical mechanisms that determine climate sensitivity involve crucial feedback loops, and the parameter values that determine the strength of those feedback loops are largely unknown. When it comes to the impact of climate change, we know even less. IAM damage functions are completely made up, with no theoretical or empirical foundation. They simply reflect common beliefs (which might be wrong) regarding the impact of 2º C or 3º C of warming, and can tell us nothing about what might happen if the temperature increases by 5º C or more. And yet those damage functions are taken seriously when IAMs are used to analyze climate policy. Finally, IAMs tell us nothing about the likelihood and nature of catastrophic outcomes, but it is just such outcomes that matter most for climate change policy. Probably the best we can do at this point is come up with plausible estimates for probabilities and possible impacts of catastrophic outcomes. Doing otherwise is to delude ourselves.

For the full article, see:

Pindyck, Robert S. "Climate Change Policy: What Do the Models Tell Us?" Journal of Economic Literature 51, no. 3 (Sept. 2013): 860-72.

July 11, 2014

Catholic Church Banned Infinitesimals from European Classrooms Taught by Jesuits


Source of book image:

(p. C9) Mr. Alexander's narrative opens in the early 17th century, when Catholic Church administrators in Rome, following a campaign by Euclidean stalwart Christopher Clavius, banned the infinitesimal from the classrooms of Jesuit schools throughout Europe. Instructors' teachings and writings were monitored to enforce strict adherence to the classical Euclidean geometrical tradition. Mr. Alexander portrays the church's reactionary stance not as a huff over mathematical philosophy but as a desperate counterattack against existential threats: Euclid's rules-based structure offered the church a model with which it hoped to rein in a restive flock, roiled by economic and political currents and by an ascendant Protestantism. Martial metaphors abound in the author's telling: "war against disorder," "enemies of the infinitely small," "forces of hierarchy and order." This was no friendly debate.

For the full review, see:

ALAN HIRSHFELD. "The Limit of Reason; In the 1700s, the idea of an infinitely tiny quantity was so unsettling that the Church banned it from classrooms." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 3, 2014): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 2, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Infinitesimal' by Amir Alexander; The idea of an infinitely tiny quantity--the foundation of calculus--was so unsettling that in the 17th century the Church banned it from classrooms.")

The book under review is:

Alexander, Amir. Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

June 28, 2014

Global Warming Tipping Point Models Are "Overblown"

(p. C3) Climate models for north Africa often come to contradictory conclusions. Nonetheless, mainstream science holds that global warming will typically make wet places wetter and dry places drier--and at a rapid clip. That is because increased greenhouse gases trigger feedback mechanisms that push the climate system beyond various "tipping points." In north Africa, this view suggests an expanding Sahara, the potential displacement of millions of people on the great desert's borders and increased conflict over scarce resources.

One scientist, however, is challenging this dire view, with evidence chiefly drawn from the Sahara's prehistoric past. Stefan Kröpelin, a geologist at the University of Cologne, has collected samples of ancient pollen and other material that suggest that the earlier episode of natural climate change, which created the Sahara, happened gradually over millennia--not over a mere century or two, as the prevailing view holds. That is why, he says, the various "tipping point" scenarios for the future of the Sahara are overblown.

The 62-year-old Dr. Kröpelin, one of the pre-eminent explorers of the Sahara, has traveled into its forbidding interior for more than four decades. Along the way he has endured weeklong dust storms, a car chase by armed troops and a parasitic disease, bilharzia, that nearly killed him.

. . .

. . . Dr. Kröpelin's analysis of the Lake Yoa samples suggests that there was no tipping point and that the change was gradual. He says that his argument is also supported by archaeological evidence. Digs in the Sahara, conducted by various archaeologists over the years, indicate that the people of the region migrated south over millennia, not just in a few desperate decades. "Humans are very sensitive climate indicators because we can't live without water," he says. If the Sahara had turned to desert quickly, the human migration pattern "would have been completely different."

For the full commentary, see:

Naik, Gautam. "Climate Clues in the Sahara's Past; A Geologist's Findings in Africa Challenge the Way Scientists Think about the Threat of Desertification." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., May 31, 2014): C3.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 30, 2014, and has the title "How Will Climate Change Affect the Sahara?; A geologist's findings in Africa challenge the way scientists think about the threat of desertification.")

One of the more recent Kröpelin papers arguing against the tipping point account is:

Francus, Pierre, Hans von Suchodoletz, Michael Dietze, Reik V. Donner, Frédéric Bouchard, Ann-Julie Roy, Maureen Fagot, Dirk Verschuren, Stefan Kröpelin, and Daniel Ariztegui. "Varved Sediments of Lake Yoa (Ounianga Kebir, Chad) Reveal Progressive Drying of the Sahara During the Last 6100 Years." Sedimentology 60, no. 4 (June 2013): 911-34.

June 3, 2014

Public Cannot Go into Space Because of Government Run Space Programs

BransonRichard2014-04-25.jpg "'You don't have to be a rocket scientist to be able to run a spaceship company,' says Richard Branson." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C11) Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, is just months away from launching what he considers "the biggest Virgin company we've ever built." At 63, he's already founded multiple businesses worth billions, including a record label and a mobile company. But it's his foray into outer space with Virgin Galactic that has Mr. Branson excited.

. . .

Safety has been one of the biggest challenges in building Virgin Galactic. In 2007, two workers died after a tank explosion during a rocket test, and three were seriously wounded. The accident, which occurred at a partner company's facility, delayed the program for an estimated 18 months.

Risk factors weigh on the minds of potential customers as well, especially after NASA's 1986 Challenger disaster, in which seven crew members, including a schoolteacher, died. Mr. Branson thinks that today most people would want to go into space if they could be guaranteed a safe return trip. "Sadly, I think because the space program was run by governments, there was never any real interest in enabling members of the public to go to space after they tried once" with the Challenger, he explains. "After that, they decided not to take any risks whatsoever." He adds, "I would say 90% of people my age thought they would go to space because they saw the moon landing."

For the full story, see:

ALEXANDRA WOLFE. "WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Richard Branson; The Virgin Group founder on his out-of-this world venture: space travel." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 2, 2013): C11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 1, 2013, and has the title "WEEKEND CONFIDENTIAL; Richard Branson on Space Travel; The Virgin Group founder on his latest out-of-this world venture, Virgin Galactic'.")

May 26, 2014

Crispr Molecular System Allows Scientists to Edit Genes

CrisprEditsGenes2014-04-28.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) In the late 1980s, scientists at Osaka University in Japan noticed unusual repeated DNA sequences next to a gene they were studying in a common bacterium. They mentioned them in the final paragraph of a paper: "The biological significance of these sequences is not known."

Now their significance is known, and it has set off a scientific frenzy.

The sequences, it turns out, are part of a sophisticated immune system that bacteria use to fight viruses. And that system, whose very existence was unknown until about seven years ago, may provide scientists with unprecedented power to rewrite the code of life.

In the past year or so, researchers have discovered that the bacterial system can be harnessed to make precise changes to the DNA of humans, as well as other animals and plants.

This means a genome can be edited, much as a writer might change words or fix spelling errors. It allows "customizing the genome of any cell or any species at will," said Charles Gersbach, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Duke University.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "A Powerful New Way to Edit DNA." The New York Times (Tues., MARCH 4, 2014): D1 & D5.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MARCH 3, 2014.)

March 24, 2014

Environmentalists Seek to Silence Those Who Dare to Disagree

(p. A13) Surely, some kind of ending is upon us. Last week climate protesters demanded the silencing of Charles Krauthammer for a Washington Post column that notices uncertainties in the global warming hypothesis. In coming weeks a libel trial gets under way brought by Penn State's Michael Mann, author of the famed hockey stick, against National Review, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, writer Rand Simberg and roving commentator Mark Steyn for making wisecracks about his climate work. The New York Times runs a cartoon of a climate "denier" being stabbed with an icicle.

These are indications of a political movement turned to defending its self-image as its cause goes down the drain.

For the full commentary, see:

HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR. "BUSINESS WORLD; Personal Score-Settling Is the New Climate Agenda; The cause of global carbon regulation may be lost, but enemies still can be punished." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2014): A13.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 28, 2014, and has the title "BUSINESS WORLD; Jenkins: Personal Score-Settling Is the New Climate Agenda; The cause of global carbon regulation may be lost, but enemies still can be punished.")

The Krauthammer column that the environmentalists do not want you to read:

Krauthammer, Charles. "The Myth of 'Settled Science'." The Washington Post (Fri., Feb. 21, 2014): A19.

March 22, 2014

Carnegie Wanted Institution to Fund "Exceptional" Scientists "Whenever and Where Found"

So was Carnegie suggesting that we should be open to the exceptional appearing in unexpected locations?

(p. 614) In his deed of trust, Carnegie declared that his research institution in Washington should "discover the exceptional man in every department of study whenever and where found... and enable him to make the work for which he seems specially designed his life work." That notion would remain the driving philosophy behind the institution over the next century. Some of those "exceptional" scientists, supported by Carnegie money were the astronomer Edwin Hubble, who "revolutionized astronomy with his discovery that the universe is expanding," and Barbara McClintock, whose work on patterns of genetic inheritance in corn won her a Nobel Prize.


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

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

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

March 21, 2014

Hope for "a Morality that Maximizes Human Flourishing"


Source of book image:

Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker discusses a favorite book of 2013:

(p. C11) "Moral Tribes," by Joshua Greene, explains the fascinating new field of moral neuroscience: what happens in our brains when we make moral judgments and how ancient impulses can warp our ethical intuitions. With the help of the parts of the brain that can engage in careful reasoning, the world's peoples can find common ethical ground in a morality that maximizes human flourishing and minimizes suffering.

For the full article, see:

"12 Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends--from April Bloomfield to Mike Tyson--to name their favorite books of 2013." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 14, 2013): C6 & C9-C12.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Dec. 13, 2013.)

The book that Pinker praises is:

Greene, Joshua. Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them. New York: The Penguin Press, 2013.

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.)

March 16, 2014

Many Important Medical Articles Cannot Be Replicated

The standard scientific method is more fallible, and less logically rigorous, than is generally admitted. One implication is to strengthen the case for allowing patients considerable freedom in choosing their own treatments.

(p. D1) It has been jarring to learn in recent years that a reproducible result may actually be the rarest of birds. Replication, the ability of another lab to reproduce a finding, is the gold standard of science, reassurance that you have discovered something true. But that is getting harder all the time. With the most accessible truths already discovered, what remains are often subtle effects, some so delicate that they can be conjured up only under ideal circumstances, using highly specialized techniques.

Fears that this is resulting in some questionable findings began to emerge in 2005, when Dr. John P. A. Ioannidis, a kind of meta-scientist who researches research, wrote a paper pointedly titled "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False."

. . .

. . . he published another blockbuster, examining more than a decade's worth of highly regarded papers -- the effect of a daily aspirin on cardiac disease, for example, or the risks of hormone replacement therapy for older women. He found that a large proportion of the conclusions were undermined or contradicted by later studies.

His work was just the beginning. Concern about the problem has reached the point that the journal Nature has assembled an archive, filled with reports and analyses, called Challenges in Irreproducible Research.

Among them is a paper in which C. Glenn Begley, who is chief scientific officer at TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals, described an experience he had while at Amgen, another drug company. He and his colleagues could not replicate 47 of 53 landmark papers about cancer. Some of the results could not be reproduced even with the help of the original scientists working in their own labs.

For the full commentary, see:

GEORGE JOHNSON. "Raw Data; New Truths That Only One Can See." The New York Times (Tues., JAN. 21, 2014): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date JAN. 20, 2014.)

The first Ioannidis article mentioned above is:

Ioannidis, John P. A. "Why Most Published Research Findings Are False." PLoS Medicine 2, no. 8 (August 2005): 696-701.

The second Ioannidis article mentioned above is:

Ioannidis, John P. A. "Contradicted and Initially Stronger Effects in Highly Cited Clinical Research." JAMA 294, no. 2 (July 13, 2005): 218-28.

The Begley article mentioned above is:

Begley, C. Glenn, and Lee M. Ellis. "Drug Development: Raise Standards for Preclinical Cancer Research." Nature 483, no. 7391 (March 29, 2012): 531-33.

March 4, 2014

Better Wheat Is "Mired in Excessive, Expensive and Unscientific Regulation"

(p. A19) Monsanto recently said that it had made significant progress in the development of herbicide-tolerant wheat. It will enable farmers to use more environmentally benign herbicides and could be ready for commercial use in the next few years. But the federal government must first approve it, a process that has become mired in excessive, expensive and unscientific regulation that discriminates against this kind of genetic engineering.

The scientific consensus is that existing genetically engineered crops are as safe as the non-genetically engineered hybrid plants that are a mainstay of our diet.

. . .

Much of the nation's wheat crop comes from a section of the central plains that sits atop the Ogallala Aquifer, which is rapidly being depleted.

. . .

New crop varieties that grow under conditions of low moisture or temporary drought could increase yields and lengthen the time farmland is productive. Varieties that grow with lower-quality water have also been developed.

. . .

Given the importance of wheat and the confluence of tightening water supplies, drought, a growing world population and competition from other crops, we need to regain the lost momentum. To do that, we need to acquire more technological ingenuity and to end unscientific, excessive and discriminatory government regulation.

For the full commentary, see:

JAYSON LUSK and HENRY I. MILLER. "We Need G.M.O. Wheat." The New York Times (Mon., Feb. 3, 2014): A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Feb. 2, 2014.)

March 1, 2014

Better to Fail at Solving a Big Problem, than to Succeed at a Minor One?


Source of book image:

Francis Collins, head of the NIH, discusses a favorite book of 2013:

(p. C6) Taking risks is part of genius, and genius is not immune to bloopers. Mario Livio's "Brilliant Blunders" leads us through the circumstances that surrounded famous gaffes.   . . .   Mr. Livio helps us see that such spectacular errors are opportunities rather than setbacks. There's a lesson for young scientists here. Boldly attacking problems of fundamental significance can have more impact than pursuing precise solutions to minor questions--even if there are a few bungles along the way.

For the full article, see:

"12 Months of Reading; We asked 50 of our friends--from April Bloomfield to Mike Tyson--to name their favorite books of 2013." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Dec. 14, 2013): C6 & C9-C12.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Dec. 13, 2013.)

The book that Collins praises is:

Livio, Mario. Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein - Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013.

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.

February 15, 2014

Big Island of Hawaii Bans G.M.O.s Despite Papaya Saved from Disease

IlaganGreggorDefenderOfGMOs2014-01-19.jpg "Greggor Ilagan initially thought a ban on genetically modified organisms was a good idea." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) KONA, Hawaii -- From the moment the bill to ban genetically engineered crops on the island of Hawaii was introduced in May 2013, it garnered more vocal support than any the County Council here had ever considered, even the perennially popular bids to decriminalize marijuana.

Public hearings were dominated by recitations of the ills often attributed to genetically modified organisms, or G.M.O.s: cancer in rats, a rise in childhood allergies, out-of-control superweeds, genetic contamination, overuse of pesticides, the disappearance of butterflies and bees.

Like some others on the nine-member Council, Greggor Ilagan was not even sure at the outset of the debate exactly what genetically modified organisms were: living things whose DNA has been altered, often with the addition of a gene from a distant species, to produce a desired trait. But he could see why almost all of his colleagues had been persuaded of the virtue of turning the island into what the bill's proponents called a "G.M.O.-free oasis."

"You just type 'G.M.O.' and everything you see is negative," he told his staff. Opposing the ban also seemed likely to ruin anyone's re-election prospects.

Yet doubts nagged at the councilman, who was serving his first two-year term. The island's papaya farmers said that an engineered variety had saved their fruit from a devastating disease. A study reporting that a diet of G.M.O. corn caused tumors in rats, mentioned often by the ban's supporters, turned out to have been thoroughly debunked.

And University of Hawaii biologists urged the Council to consider the global scientific consensus, which holds that existing genetically engineered crops are no riskier than others, and have provided some tangible benefits.

"Are we going to just ignore them?" Mr. Ilagan wondered.

Urged on by Margaret Wille, the ban's sponsor, who spoke passionately of the need to "act before it's too late," the Council declined to form a task force to look into such questions before its November vote. But Mr. Ilagan, 27, sought answers on his own. In the process, he found himself, like so many public and business leaders worldwide, wrestling with a subject in which popular beliefs often do not reflect scientific evidence.

. . .

(p. 19) Ms. Wille urged a vote for the ban. "To do otherwise," she said, "would be to ignore the cries from round the world and on the mainland."

"Mr. Ilagan?" the Council member leading the meeting asked when it came time for the final vote.

"No," he replied.

The ban was approved, 6 to 3.

The mayor signed the bill on Dec. 5.

For the full story, see:

Amy Harmon. "On Hawaii, a Lonely Quest for Fact." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., Jan. 5, 2014): 1 & 18-19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date JAN. 4, 2014, and has the title "A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops.")


"Papaya genetically modified to resist a virus became one part of a controversy." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 11, 2014

Global Warming Might Help Mangrove Forests Thrive in Florida

MangroveForest2014-01-19.jpg "Mangrove forests, like in the Everglades, serve as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and as habitat for a wide array of organisms. But salt marshes are also ecologically valuable." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A14) Much of the Florida shoreline was once too cold for the tropical trees called mangroves, but the plants are now spreading northward at a rapid clip, scientists reported Monday [December 30, 2013]. That finding is the latest indication that global warming, though still in its early stages, is already leading to ecological changes so large they can be seen from space.

. . .

The mangrove forests that fringe shorelines in the tropics are among the earth's environmental treasures, serving as spawning grounds and nurseries for fish and as habitat for a wide array of organisms. Yet in many places, mangroves are critically endangered by shoreline development and other human activities.

So a climatic change that allows mangroves to thrive in new areas might well be seen as a happy development.

. . .

For years, scientists working in Florida had been noticing that mangroves seemed to be creeping northward along the coast. The new study is the first to offer a precise quantification of the change, using imagery from a satellite called Landsat, and to link it to shifts in the climate.

Patrick Gillespie, a spokesman for Florida's Department of Environmental Protection, offered no specific comment on the new paper. By email, he said the agency had indeed "seen an increase in mangrove habitats to the north and inward along the Atlantic coast. It's difficult to determine whether this is good or bad for the ecosystem because it's happened over a relatively short period (p. A16) of time and may be a result of many factors."

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "Spared Winter Freeze, Florida's Mangroves Are Marching North." The New York Times (Tues., December 31, 2013): A14 & A16.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 30, 2013.)

The academic article on Florida's thriving mangrove forests, is:

Cavanaugh, Kyle C., James R. Kellner, Alexander J. Forde, Daniel S. Gruner, John D. Parker, Wilfrid Rodriguez, and Ilka C. Feller. "Poleward Expansion of Mangroves Is a Threshold Response to Decreased Frequency of Extreme Cold Events." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) 111, no. 2 (January 14, 2014): 723-27.


Source of Florida map graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 8, 2014

Organic and Kosher Chicken Have as Much Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Regular Chicken

(p. D3) . . . after a trip to Israel for his sister's bat mitzvah, Jack Millman came back to New York wondering whether the higher costs of kosher foods were justified.

"Most consumers perceive of kosher foods as being healthier or cleaner or somehow more valuable than conventional foods, and I was interested in whether they were in fact getting what they were paying for," said Mr. Millman, 18 and a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City.

That question started him on a yearlong research project to compare the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria on four types of chickens: those raised conventionally; organically; without antibiotics, and those slaughtered under kosher rules. "Every other week for 10 weeks, I would go and spend the entire Saturday buying chicken," he said. "We had it specifically mapped out, and we would buy it and put it on ice in industrial-strength coolers given to us by the lab, and ship it out."

All told, Mr. Millman and his mother, Ann Marks, gathered 213 samples of chicken drumsticks from supermarkets, butcher shops and specialty stores in the New York area.

Now they and several scientists have published a study based on the project in the journal F1000 Research. The results were surprising.

Kosher chicken samples that tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli had nearly twice as much of the bacteria as the samples from conventionally raised birds did. And even the samples from organically raised chickens and those raised without antibiotics did not significantly differ from the conventional ones.

For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE STROM. "A Science Project With Legs." The New York Times (Tues., November 5, 2013): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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

The academic article on E. coli in different types of chicken, is:

Millman, Jack M., Kara Waits, Heidi Grande, Ann R. Marks, Jane C. Marks, Lance B. Price, and Bruce A. Hungate. "Prevalence of Antibiotic-Resistant E. Coli in Retail Chicken: Comparing Conventional, Organic, Kosher, and Raised without Antibiotics." F1000Research 2 (2013).

January 10, 2014

"Pretty Cool" Cochlear Implant: "It Helps Me Hear"

CochlearImplant2013-11-15.jpg "The cochlear implant." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) . . . , three pioneering researchers-- Graeme Clark, Ingeborg Hochmair and Blake Wilson --shared the prestigious Lasker-DeBakey Award for Clinical Medical Research for their work in developing the [cochlear] implant. . . . The award citation says the devices have "for the first time, substantially restored a human sense with medical intervention" and directly transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands.

I've seen this up close. My 10-year-old son, Alex, is one of the 320,000 people with a cochlear implant.

, , ,

"What's that thing on your head?" I heard a new friend ask Alex recently.

"It helps me hear," he replied, then added: "I think it's pretty cool."

"If you took it off, would you hear me?" she asked.

"Nope," he said. "I'm deaf."

"Cool," she agreed. Then they talked about something else.

Moments like that make me deeply grateful for the technology that allows Alex to have such a conversation, but also for the hard-won aplomb that lets him do it so matter-of-factly.

For the full commentary, see:

Denworth, Lydia. "OPINION; What Cochlear Implants Did for My Son; Researchers who were just awarded the 'American Nobel' have opened up the world of sound to the deaf." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Sept. 20, 2013): A15.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed word, added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date Sept. 19, 2013.)

October 20, 2013

Hubel and Wiesel Are an Example that 'Luck Favors the Prepared Mind'


"Dr. David Hubel, right, celebrating with his longtime collaborator, Dr. Torsten Wiesel, after they won the Nobel Prize in 1981." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. A25) Dr. Hubel and Dr. Wiesel liked to recall that their initial discovery about how vision works resulted from luck. Working in a tiny basement laboratory at Johns Hopkins, the pair struggled for days to coax brain cells in cats to respond to images of dark and light spots. Becoming increasingly frustrated, they waved their arms, jumped around, and, in a moment of levity, displayed images of glamorous women from magazines.

Then, as they shifted a slide in the opthalmoscope, a cell in the cat's visual cortex suddenly started to fire. The edge of the slide had cast a straight, dark line on the animal's retina. "It was what the cell wanted, and it wanted it, moreover, in just one narrow range of orientations," Dr. Hubel said in his Nobel lecture.

They studied the cell for nine hours, and then, Dr. Wiesel recalled, ran down the hall screaming with joy.

For the full obituary, see:

DENISE GELLENE. "David Hubel, Nobel-Winning Scientist, Dies at 87." The New York Times (Weds., September 25, 2013): A4.

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date September 24, 2013.)

October 10, 2013

Gene-Altered Mice Live 20% Longer

MouseGeneAltertedLivesLonger2013-09-27.jpg "NIH researchers found that lowering the expression of a single gene helped extend the life of mice by about 20%. A mouse with a manipulated gene on the right and an unchanged mouse on the left." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) By reducing the activity of one type of gene, scientists said they increased the average life span of mice by about 20%, a feat that in human terms is akin to extending life by about 15 years.

Moreover, the researchers at the National Institutes of Health found that memory, cognition and some other important traits were better preserved in the mice as they aged, compared with a control group of mice that had normal levels of a protein put out by the gene.

The findings, published Thursday [August 29, 2013] in the journal Cell Reports, strengthen the case that the gene, called mTOR, is a major regulator of the aging process.

. . .

The results . . . build on a growing body of research challenging the belief that aging is an intractable biological process, prompting scientists to think of slowing aging as a possible way to prevent disease.

"What we need right now is for scientists and the public to wake up to the concept that you can slow aging," said Brian Kennedy, president of the Buck Institute for Aging Research in Novato, Calif., who wasn't involved in the new study. "If you do, you prevent many of the diseases that we're so scared of and that are associated with aging." They include cardiovascular disease, cancer and Alzheimer's disease.

For the full story, see:

RON WINSLOW. "Altered Gene Points Toward Longer Life Spans; Successful Experiment With Mice May One Day Play Role in Slowing Human Aging; Side Effects Could Be Problematic." The Wall Street Journal (Fri, August 30, 2013): A3.

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

(Note: the online version of the story has the date August 29, 2013, and has the title "Genetic Manipulation Extends Life of Mice 20%; But Translating Findings to Humans Faces Many Hurdles.")

The scientific article being discussed above, is:

Wu, J.  Julie, Jie Liu, Edmund B Chen, Jennifer J Wang, Liu Cao, Nisha Narayan, Marie M Fergusson, Ilsa I Rovira, Michele Allen, Danielle A Springer, Cory U Lago, Shuling Zhang, Wendy DuBois, Theresa Ward, Rafael deCabo, Oksana Gavrilova, Beverly Mock, and Toren Finkel. "Increased Mammalian Lifespan and a Segmental and Tissue-Specific Slowing of Aging after Genetic Reduction of mTor Expression." Cell Reports 4, no. 5 (Aug. 29, 2013): 913-20.

September 8, 2013

How to Win the Nobel Prize with Dyslexia

GreiderCarolDyslexicNobelPrizeWinner2013-08-10.jpg "HER TURN; Dr. Carol W. Greider is a researcher at Johns Hopkins." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) Q. Did you always want to be a biologist?

A. My parents were scientists. But I wasn't the sort of child who did science fairs. One of the things I was thinking about today is that as a kid I had dyslexia. I had a lot of trouble in school and was put into remedial classes. I thought that I was stupid.

Q. That must have hurt.

A. Sure. Yes. It was hard to overcome (p. D3) that. I kept thinking of ways to compensate. I learned to memorize things very well because I just couldn't spell words. So later when I got to take classes like chemistry and anatomy where I had to memorize things, it turned out I was very good at that.

I never planned a career. I had these blinders on that got me through a lot of things that might have been obstacles. I just went forward. It's a skill that I had early on that must have been adaptive. I enjoyed biology in high school and that brought me to a research lab at U.C. Santa Barbara. I loved doing experiments and I had fun with them. I realized this kind of problem-solving fit my intellectual style. So in order to continue having fun, I decided to go to graduate school at Berkeley. It was there that I went to Liz Blackburn's lab, where telomeres were being studied.

For the full interview, see:

CLAUDIA DREIFUS. "A CONVERSATION WITH CAROL W. GREIDER; On Winning a Nobel Prize in Science." The New York Times (Tues., October 13, 2009): D1 & D3.

(Note: bold in original; questions capitalized as in print version.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date October 12, 2009.)

August 31, 2013

Science Discovers New Six-Foot Lizard

MonitorLizardLuzonIsland2013-08-10.jpg "A 6-foot monitor lizard discovered on Luzon Island in the Philippines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) The number of lizard species in the world -- by most counts, around 4,000 -- has just increased by one, with the announcement of a new species found on Luzon island in the Philippines.

But this is not a reptile you'd want in a home terrarium. It's a 6-foot monitor lizard, gray with a spectacular pattern of colorful dots and other markings on its scales.

How did a species of lizard the size of a human remain undetected all these centuries? The answer is it didn't. "It's only new to science," said Rafe M. Brown, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas and senior author of a paper describing the new species, Varanus bitatawa, in Biology Letters.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "OBSERVATORY; A New Lizard? Well, New to Science." The New York Times (Tues., April 13, 2010): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 12, 2010.)

August 24, 2013

A Path to Bringing Back the Extinct Woolly Mammoth

(p. D3) For the first time in 43,000 years, a woolly mammoth has breathed again on earth.

Well, not the mammoth itself but its hemoglobin, the stuff in red blood cells that takes on oxygen in the lungs and offloads it in the tissues. By reconstructing the mammoth's hemoglobin, a team led by Kevin L. Campbell of the University of Manitoba in Canada has discovered how the once-tropical species adapted to living in arctic temperatures.

Dr. Campbell's work raises a somewhat astonishing possibility: that much of the physiology of extinct animals may one day be recoverable from the DNA extracted from their remains.

. . .

Two years ago, scientists at Penn State University sequenced a large part of the mammoth's genome from a clump of hair. They published the sequence along with the arresting suggestion that for just $10 million it might be possible to complete the sequence and use it to generate a living mammoth.

The suggestion was not as wild as it might seem, given that the idea came from George Church, a leading genome technologist at the Harvard Medical School. The mammoth's genome differs at about 400,000 sites from that of the African elephant. Dr. Church has been developing a method for altering 50,000 sites at a time, though he is not at present applying it to mammoths. In converting four sites on the elephant genome to the mammoth version, Dr. Campbell has resurrected at least one tiny part of the mammoth.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Mammoth Hemoglobin Offers More Clues to Its Arctic Evolution." The New York Times (Tues., May 4, 2010): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 3, 2010.)

July 29, 2013

Biofuels Are Bad for the Planet

(p. A13) Biofuels are under siege from critics who say they crowd out food production. Now these fuels made from grass and grain, long touted as green, are being criticized as bad for the planet.

At issue is whether oil alternatives -- such as ethanol distilled from corn and fuels made from inedible stuff like switch grass -- actually make global warming worse through their indirect impact on land use around the world.

For example, if farmers in Brazil burn and clear more rainforest to grow food because farmers in the U.S. are using their land to grow grain for fuel, that could mean a net increase in emissions of carbon dioxide, the main "greenhouse gas" linked to climate change.

. . .

A study published in February [2008] in the journal Science found that U.S. production of corn-based ethanol increases emissions by 93%, compared with using gasoline, when expected world-wide land-use changes are taken into account. Applying the same methodology to biofuels made from switch grass grown on soil diverted from raising corn, the study found that greenhouse-gas emissions would rise by 50%.

Previous studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline reduces greenhouse gases. Those studies generally didn't account for the carbon emissions that occur as farmers world-wide respond to higher food prices and convert forest and grassland to cropland.

For the full story, see:

STEPHEN POWER. "If a Tree Falls in the Forest, Are Biofuels To Blame? It's Not Easy Being Green." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., November 11, 2008): A13.

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

Two relevant articles appeared in Science in the Feb. 29, 2008 issue:

Fargione, Joseph, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Peter Hawthorne. "Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt." Science 319, no. 5867 (Feb. 29, 2008): 1235-38.

Searchinger, Timothy, Ralph Heimlich, R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, and Tun-Hsiang Yu. "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases through Emissions from Land-Use Change." Science 319, no. 5867 (Feb. 29, 2008): 1238-40.

July 18, 2013

Ignoring Einstein's Mistakes by Deifying Him, Makes Us Forget His Struggles


Source of book image:

(p. A13) Mr. Ohanian finds that four out of five of the seminal papers that Einstein produced in the so-called "miracle year" of 1905, when he was working as a patent inspector in Zurich, were "infested with flaws."

. . .

. . . he notes Einstein's errors for a purpose, showing us why his achievement was all the greater for them.

In this Mr. Ohanian provides a useful corrective, for there is a tendency, even today, to deify Einstein and other men of genius, treating them as if they were immortal gods. Einstein himself objected to the practice even as he reveled in his fame. "It is not fair," he once observed, "to select a few individuals for boundless admiration and to attribute superhuman powers of mind and of character to them." In doing so, ironically, we make less of the person, not more, forgetting and simplifying their struggle.

. . .

. . . Einstein's ability to make use of his mistakes as "stepping stones and shortcuts" was central to his success, in Mr. Ohanian's view. To see Einstein's wanderings not as the strides of a god-like genius but as the steps and missteps of a man -- fallible and imperfect -- does not diminish our respect for him but rather enhances it.

For the full review, see:

McMahon, Darrin M. "BOOKSHELF; Great and Imperfect." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., September 5, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The book under review is:

Ohanian, Hans C. Einstein's Mistakes: The Human Failings of Genius. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.

July 6, 2013

In the England of the Late 1600s, Coffeehouses Were "Crucibles of Creativity"


Source of book image:

(p. 8) Like coffee itself, coffeehouses were an import from the Arab world.

. . .

Patrons were not merely permitted but encouraged to strike up conversations with strangers from entirely different walks of life. As the poet Samuel Butler put it, "gentleman, mechanic, lord, and scoundrel mix, and are all of a piece."

. . .

. . . , coffeehouses were in fact crucibles of creativity, because of the way in which they facilitated the mixing of both people and ideas. Members of the Royal Society, England's pioneering scientific society, frequently retired to coffeehouses to extend their discussions. Scientists often conducted experiments and gave lectures in coffeehouses, and because admission cost just a penny (the price of a single cup), coffeehouses were sometimes referred to as "penny universities." It was a coffeehouse argument among several fellow scientists that spurred Isaac Newton to write his "Principia Mathematica," one of the foundational works of modern science.

Coffeehouses were platforms for innovation in the world of business, too. Merchants used coffeehouses as meeting rooms, which gave rise to new companies and new business models. A London coffeehouse called Jonathan's, where merchants kept particular tables at which they would transact their business, turned into the London Stock Exchange. Edward Lloyd's coffeehouse, a popular meeting place for ship captains, shipowners and traders, became the famous insurance market Lloyd's.

And the economist Adam Smith wrote much of his masterpiece "The Wealth of Nations" in the British Coffee House, a popular meeting place for Scottish intellectuals, among whom he circulated early drafts of his book for discussion.

For the full commentary, see:

TOM STANDAGE. "OPINION; Social Networking in the 1600s." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 23, 2013): 8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 22, 2013.)

The author of the commentary is also the author of a related book:

Standage, Tom. A History of the World in Six Glasses. New York: Walker & Company, 2005.

July 1, 2013

Mainstream Climatologists Lower Best Guess Estimates of Global Warming (and Find High End Estimates "Pretty Implausible")

(p. D1) Since 1896, scientists have been trying to answer a deceptively simple question: What will happen to the temperature of the earth if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles?

Some recent scientific papers have made a splash by claiming that the answer might not be as bad as previously feared. This work -- if it holds up -- offers the tantalizing possibility that climate change might be slow and limited enough that human society could adapt to it without major trauma.

. . .

In 1979, after two decades of meticulous measurements had made it clear that the carbon dioxide level was indeed rising, scientists used computers and a much deeper understanding of the climate to calculate a likely range of warming. They found that the response to a doubling of carbon dioxide would not be much below three degrees Fahrenheit, nor was it likely to exceed eight degrees.

In the years since, scientists have been (p. D6) pushing and pulling within that range, trying to settle on a most likely value. Most of those who are expert in climatology subscribe to a best-estimate figure of just over five degrees Fahrenheit.

. . .

What's new is that several recent papers have offered best estimates for climate sensitivity that are below four degrees Fahrenheit, rather than the previous best estimate of just above five degrees, and they have also suggested that the highest estimates are pretty implausible.

Notice that these recent calculations fall well within the long-accepted range -- just on the lower end of it.

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "BY DEGREES; A Change in Temperature." The New York Times (Tues., May 14, 2013): D1 & D6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 13, 2013.)

June 24, 2013

We Should Disenthrall Ourselves of False Scientific Certainties

An Optimists Tour of the Future CoverBK2013-06-21.jpg

Source of book image:

(p. C4) Among the scientific certainties I have had to unlearn: that upbringing strongly shapes your personality; that nurture is the opposite of nature; that dietary fat causes obesity more than dietary carbohydrate; that carbon dioxide has been the main driver of climate change in the past.

I came across a rather good word for this kind of unlearning--"disenthrall"--in Mark Stevenson's book "An Optimist's Tour of the Future," published just this week. Mr. Stevenson borrows it from Abraham Lincoln, whose 1862 message to Congress speaks of disenthralling ourselves of "the dogmas of the quiet past" in order to "think anew."

Mr. Stevenson's disenthrallment comes in the course of a series of sharp and fascinating interviews with technological innovators and scientific visionaries. This disenthralls him of the pessimism about the future and nostalgia about the past that he barely realized he had and whose "fingers reach deep into [his] soul." It eventually turns him into an optimist almost as ludicrously sanguine about the 21st century as I am: "I steadfastly refuse to believe that human society can't grow, improve and learn; that it can't embrace change and remake the world better."

Along the way, Mr. Stevenson is struck by other examples of how the way he thinks and reasons is "in thrall to a world that is passing." The first of these bad habits is linear thinking about the future. . . .

We expect to see changes coming gradually, but because things like computing power or the cheapness of genome sequencing change exponentially, technologies can go from impossible to cheap quite suddenly and with little warning.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; A Key Lesson of Adulthood: The Need to Unlearn." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 5, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The book praised by Ridley, in the passages quoted above, is:

Stevenson, Mark. An Optimist's Tour of the Future: One Curious Man Sets out to Answer "What's Next?". New York: Avery, 2011.

June 22, 2013

Self-Taught Ovshinsky Created New Field in Physics and Licensed His Patents


"Stanford Ovshinsky helped to establish a new field of physics." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. B5) Inspired by the structure of the brain, Stanford Ovshinsky created a new class of semiconductors that helped lead to flat-panel displays, solar cells and nickel-metal hydride batteries for cars, laptops and cameras.

Mr. Ovshinsky, who died Wednesday [October 17, 2012] at age 89, was an industrialist and self-taught scientific prodigy who helped found a new field of physics that studies the electronics of amorphous materials resembling glass.

. . .

"It was like discovering a new continent, like discovering America," said Hellmut Fritzsche, former chairman of physics department at the University of Chicago who worked with Mr. Ovshinsky. "Nobody in the past 50-60 years has created such a revolution in science."

The new materials--dubbed ovonics--were switches like transistors but worked better for many applications.

Mr. Ovshinsky used his discovery to fund a publicly traded research laboratory that teamed up with companies such as 3M Co., Atlantic Richfield Oil Corp. and General Motors, for which he developed the battery that powered the EV1, GM's electric car.

Companies around the world license his patents.

What made Mr. Ovshinsky's work particularly remarkable was that he had little connection to mainstream physics.

His education stopped after high school, . . .

For the full obituary, see:

STEPHEN MILLER. "Stanford Ovshinsky 1922-2012; An Inventor of Chips and Batteries." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., October 19, 2012): B5.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date October 18, 2012.)

June 5, 2013

Early Societies Were Violent, Superstitious and Unfair

(p. 89) Human nature is malleable. We use our minds to change our values, expectations, and definition of ourselves. We have changed our nature since our hominin days, and once changed, we will continue to change ourselves even more. Our inventions, such as language, writing, law, and science, have ignited a level of progress that is so fundamental and embedded in the present that we now naively expect to see similar good things in the past as well. But much of what we consider "civil" or even "humane" was absent long ago. Early societies were not peaceful but rife with warfare. One of the most common causes of adult death in tribal societies was to be declared a witch or evil spirit. No rational evidence was needed for these superstitious accusations. Lethal atrocities for infractions within a clan were the norm; fairness, as we might think of it, did not extend outside the immediate tribe. Rampant inequality among genders and physical advantage for the strong guided a type of justice few modern people would want applied to them.


Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

May 27, 2013

How Electricity Matters for Life


Source of book image:

(p. C9) Top-drawer scientists always are excited about their field, but many have difficulty conveying this to a general audience. Not so Frances Ashcroft. She is a distinguished physiologist at Oxford University whose work has provided crucial insight into how insulin secretion is connected to electrical activity in cells. Her research has meant that children born with one form of diabetes can control it using oral medication instead of regular and painful insulin injections.

After Ms. Ashcroft made her breakthrough in 1984, she felt as if she were "dancing in the air, shot high into the sky on the rocket of excitement with the stars exploding in vivid colours all around me," she writes in her engaging and informative "The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body." Even today, thinking of it "sends excitement fizzing through my veins."

Like so much else in our bodies, insulin secretion depends on crucial proteins in the cell walls that regulate the flow of ions (electrically charged atoms or molecules) between the interior of the cell and the fluids that surround it. The ions, mostly sodium, potassium and calcium, literally provide "the spark of life." Ms. Ashcroft uses her research into cellular "ion channels" as an overture to a rich and stimulating account of how electricity and the varied ways in which animals and plants produce it explain so much of evolutionary biology.

. . .

. . . all of Ms. Ashcroft's themes and variations represent facets of the same underlying ionic mechanism. In describing its wonders, she has produced a gem that sparkles.

For the full review, see:

WILLIAM BYNUM. "Singing the Body Electric." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., September 29, 2012): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date September 28, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Ashcroft, Frances. The Spark of Life: Electricity in the Human Body. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012.

April 15, 2013

Scientists May Bring Back Extinct Woolly Mammoths to Help Fight Global Warming


"The Southern gastric brooding frog, extinct for a quarter-century. Scientists made early embryos of the frog but they died." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Last week at a conference in Washington, scientists from Australia reported on their attempt to bring back a weird frog, the Southern gastric brooding frog, that went extinct about a quarter century ago. So far they have only made early embryos, which have died.

It is the early days for this new endeavor -- it could be years before scientists succeed in bringing species back from extinction. But many species are now gleams in scientists' eyes as they think of ways to bring them back. Woolly mammoths. A 70,000-year-old horse that used to live in the Yukon. Passenger pigeons, a species that obsessed Dr. Church's former student.

. . .

(p. A16) Before humans killed them, the nation had three billion to five billion passenger pigeons. They would take days to cross a city, noted Hank Greely, the director of the Stanford Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University. "They left cities covered in an inch of guano," he said.

. . .

But there could be some unexpected advantages to bringing back certain species, or even to adding their DNA to that of today's species, Dr. Church said. For example, suppose elephants could live again in the Arctic. When woolly mammoths lived in the Arctic they would knock down trees and enable Artic grasses to flourish. Without trees, more sunlight was reflected and the ground was cooler. In winter, they would tramp down snow into the permafrost, enhancing it.

"Permafrost has two to three times more carbon than all the rain forests put together," Dr. Church said. "All you have to do to release carbon dioxide and methane is to melt it. With rain forests you have to burn it."

. . .

Mr. Greely cited another argument in favor of bringing back extinct species. He did not quite buy it, he said, but for him it had "a visceral appeal."

It is an argument about justice. Take the passenger pigeon. "We are the murderers," Mr. Greely said. "We killed them off. Shouldn't we bring them back?"

For the full story, see:

GINA KOLATA. "So You're Extinct? Scientists Have Gleam in Eye." The New York Times (Tues., March 19, 2013): A1 & A16.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date March 18, 2013.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

April 11, 2013

Global Warming Causes Trees to Grow Faster and Absorb More CO2

CentralParkTrees2013-03-08.jpg "CITY TREE, COUNTRY TREE; Scientists have been looking more closely at urban plant growth in places like Central Park." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) . . . , some . . . scientists have moved beyond political questions to explore how rising levels of heat and emissions might provide at least some benefits for the planet.

. . .

Lewis H. Ziska, a plant physiologist for the Department of Agriculture, . . . [said] . . . , "we need to think about the tools we have at hand, and how we can use them to make climate change work for us."

Among the tools are cities, which have conditions that can mimic what life may be like in the temperate zone of a heated planet.

"The city is our baseline for what might happen in future decades, and with all the negative effects global warming may have, there may be a bit of a silver lining," said Stephanie Searle, a plant physiologist who led a Columbia University research project on tree growth, and now works as a biofuels researcher at the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation. "Higher nighttime temperatures, at least, may boost plant growth." Robust growth takes more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

. . .

The effects of higher, mostly urban emissions are what prompted Dr. Ziska to reappraise global warming as a potential benefit to humanity. In an essay last summer in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Dr. Ziska and a group of colleagues from across the world argued that an expected increase in world population to 9 billion people from 7 billion by 2050 necessitated a "green revolution" to enhance yields of basic grains. Carbon dioxide, the group suggested, could be the answer.

Since 1960, world atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have risen by 24 percent to 392 parts per million and could reach 1,000 parts per million by the end of this century.

. . .

In New York, the Columbia researchers studied for eight years the growth of red oak seedlings at four locations, including an "urban" site near the northeastern edge of Central Park at 105th Street and a "remote" site in the Catskills 100 miles north of Manhattan near the Ashokan Reservoir.

. . .

The Columbia team's first red oak experiments ended in 2006, and average minimum temperatures in August were 71.6 degrees at the city site, but 63.5 degrees in the Catskills. Researchers also noticed that the city oaks had elevated levels of leaf nitrogen, a plant nutrient.

The team did two more rounds of experiments, then in 2008 made a final outdoor test using fertilized rural soil everywhere so all the seedlings got plenty of nitrogen. The urban oaks, harvested in August 2008, weighed eight times as much as their rural cousins, mostly because of increased foliage.

"On warm nights, the tree respires more," Dr. Griffin said. "It invests its carbon sugars to build tissue." By morning, the tree's sugars are depleted, and it has to photosynthesize more during the day, he continued. The tree grows more leaves and gets bigger.

For the full story, see:

GUY GUGLIOTTA. "Looking to Cities, in Search of Global Warming's Silver Lining." The New York Times (Tues., November 27, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses and bracketed "said" added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 26, 2012.)

The Ziska article mentioned above, is:

Ziska, Lewis H., James A. Bunce, Hiroyuki Shimono, David R. Gealy, Jeffrey T. Baker, Paul C. D. Newton, Matthew P. Reynolds, Krishna S. V. Jagadish, Chunwu Zhu, Mark Howden, and Lloyd T. Wilson. "Food Security and Climate Change: On the Potential to Adapt Global Crop Production by Active Selection to Rising Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide." Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 279, no. 1745 (Oct. 22, 2012): 4097-105.

The article co-authored by Searle and Griffin, and mentioned above, is:

Searle, Stephanie Y., Danielle S. Bitterman, Samuel Thomas, Kevin L. Griffin, Owen K. Atkin, and Matthew H. Turnbull. "Respiratory Alternative Oxidase Responds to Both Low- and High-Temperature Stress in Quercus Rubra Leaves Along an Urban-Rural Gradient in New York." Functional Ecology 25, no. 5 (Oct. 2011): 1007-17.

March 25, 2013

Scientist Sees Benefits in Plan to Increase Global Warming

(p. D2) Plants are . . . part of one theoretical plan for turning Mars into a suitable environment for human beings, a process called terraforming.

. . .

Chris McKay, a Mars expert at the NASA Ames Research Center, theorizes that engineers would first have to encourage the kind of global warming they want to avoid on Earth. This could be done by releasing greenhouse gases, like chlorofluorocarbons or perfluorocarbons, into the atmosphere. The goal would be to increase the surface temperature of Mars by a total of about 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit.

. . .

With the rise in temperature, heat-trapping carbon dioxide would eventually be released from the planet's south polar ice cap, producing a further average temperature rise of even greater magnitude, perhaps as much as 70 degrees Celsius, or 126 degrees Fahrenheit.

These high temperatures would melt ice to produce the water needed for living things.

For the full story, see:

C. CLAIBORNE RAY. "Q & A; At Home on Mars." The New York Times (Tues., December 11, 2012): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 10, 2012.)

McKay wrote up some of his ideas in:

McKay, Christopher P. "Bringing Life to Mars." Scientific American Presents: The Future of Space Exploration (1999): 52-57.

March 17, 2013

NYT Climate Blogger Sees Evidence "Trending" Toward Less Global Warming

"Worse than we thought" has been one of the most durable phrases lately among those pushing for urgent action to stem the buildup of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

But on one critically important metric -- how hot the planet will get from a doubling of the pre-industrial concentration of greenhouse gases, a k a "climate sensitivity" -- some climate researchers with substantial publication records are shifting toward the lower end of the warming spectrum.

There's still plenty of global warming and centuries of coastal retreats in the pipeline, so this is hardly a "benign" situation, as some have cast it.

But while plenty of other climate scientists hold firm to the idea that the full range of possible outcomes, including a disruptively dangerous warming of more than 4.5 degrees C. (8 degrees F.), remain in play, it's getting harder to see why the high-end projections are given much weight.

. . .

In fact, there is an accumulating body of reviewed, published research shaving away the high end of the range of possible warming estimates from doubled carbon dioxide levels.

. . .

(. . . recent work is trending toward the published low sensitivity findings from a decade ago from climate scientists best known for their relationships with libertarian groups.)

Nonetheless, the science is what the science is.

Revkin, Andrew C. "CLIMATE CHANGE; A Closer Look at Moderating Views of Climate Sensitivity." Dot Earth: New York Times Opinion Pages Climate Blog. (posted February 4, 2013).

(Note: ellipses added.)

March 12, 2013

Resveratrol Activates Sirtuins to Switch on Energy Producing Mitochondria

A new study, just published in the prestigious journal Science, appears to substantially vindicate the recently beleaguered resveratrol longevity research of David Sinclair:

. . . a new study led by David Sinclair of the Harvard Medical School, who in 2003 was a discoverer resveratrol's role in activating sirtuins, found that resveratrol did indeed influence sirtuin directly, though in a more complicated way than previously thought.    . . .    . . . activated, the sirtuins do several things, one of which is to switch on a second protein that spurs production of the mitochondria, which provide the cell's energy. This would explain why mice treated with resveratrol ran twice as far on a treadmill before collapsing from exhaustion as untreated mice.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "New Optimism on Resveratrol." New York Times "Well" Blog    Posted on MARCH 11, 2013. URL:

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Sinclair article (see last-listed co-author) is:

Hubbard, Basil P., Ana P. Gomes, Han Dai, Jun Li, April W. Case, Thomas Considine, Thomas V. Riera, Jessica E. Lee, Sook Yen E (sic), Dudley W. Lamming, Bradley L. Pentelute, Eli R. Schuman, Linda A. Stevens, Alvin J. Y. Ling, Sean M. Armour, Shaday Michan, Huizhen Zhao, Yong Jiang, Sharon M. Sweitzer, Charles A. Blum, Jeremy S. Disch, Pui Yee Ng, Konrad T. Howitz, Anabela P. Rolo, Yoshitomo Hamuro, Joel Moss, Robert B. Perni, James L. Ellis, George P. Vlasuk, and David A. Sinclair. "Evidence for a Common Mechanism of Sirt1 Regulation by Allosteric Activators." Science 339, no. 6124 (March 8, 2013): 1216-19.

March 4, 2013

Stanford Meta-Study Finds Organic Food Is No More Nutritious than Much Cheaper Non-organic Food

StrawberriesNonorganicWatsonvilleCalifornia2013-02-23.jpg "Conventional strawberries in Watsonville, California. Researchers say organic foods are no more nutritious and no less likely to be contaminated." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A20) Does an organic strawberry contain more vitamin C than a conventional one?

Maybe -- or maybe not.

Stanford University scientists have weighed in on the "maybe not" side of the debate after an extensive examination of four decades of research comparing organic and conventional foods.

They concluded that fruits and vegetables labeled organic were, on average, no more nutritious than their conventional counterparts, which tend to be far less expensive. Nor were they any less likely to be contaminated by dangerous bacteria like E. coli.

The researchers also found no obvious health advantages to organic meats.

. . .

The conclusions will almost certainly fuel the debate over whether organic foods are a smart choice for healthier living or a marketing tool that gulls people into overpaying. The production of organic food is governed by a raft of regulations that generally prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, hormones and additives.

The organic produce market in the United States has grown quickly, up 12 percent last year, to $12.4 billion, compared with 2010, according to the Organic Trade Association. Organic meat has a smaller share of the American market, at $538 million last year, the trade group said.

. . .

In the study -- known as a meta-analysis, in which previous findings are aggregated but no new laboratory work is conducted -- researchers combined data from 237 studies, examining a wide variety of fruits, vegetables and meats. For four years, they performed statistical analyses looking for signs of health benefits from adding organic foods to the diet.

The researchers did not use any outside financing for their research. "I really wanted us to have no perception of bias," Dr. Bravata said.

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Stanford Scientists Cast Doubt on Advantages of Organic Meat and Produce." The New York Times (Tues., September 4, 2012): A20.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date September 3, 2012.)

March 2, 2013

Organic Food May Be Less Healthy than Non-Organic Food

Schwarcz, Joe - The Right Chemistry BK 2013-01-12.jpeg

Source of book image:,%20Joe%20-%20The%20Right%20Chemistry%20Cover.jpeg

(p. D7) . . . , when did "chemical" become a dirty word? That's a question raised by one of Canada's brightest scientific minds: Joe Schwarcz, director of the Office for Science and Society at McGill University in Montreal. Dr. Schwarcz, who has received high honors from Canadian and American scientific societies, is the author of several best-selling books that attempt to set the record straight on a host of issues that commonly concern health-conscious people.

I've read two of his books, "Science, Sense and Nonsense" (published in 2009) and "The Right Chemistry" (2012), and recently attended a symposium on the science of food that Dr. Schwarcz organized at McGill.

What follows are tips from his books and the symposium that can help you make wiser choices about what does, and does not, pass your lips in 2013.

. . .

ORGANIC OR NOT? Wherever I shop for food these days, I find an ever-widening array of food products labeled "organic" and "natural." But are consumers getting the health benefits they pay a premium for?

Until the 20th century, Dr. Schwarcz wrote, all farming was "organic," with manure and compost used as fertilizer and "natural" compounds of arsenic, mercury and lead used as pesticides.

Might manure used today on organic farms contain disease-causing micro-organisms? Might organic produce unprotected by insecticides harbor cancer-causing molds? It's a possibility, Dr. Schwarcz said. But consumers aren't looking beyond the organic sales pitch.

Also questionable is whether organic foods, which are certainly kinder to the environment, are more nutritious. Though some may contain slightly higher levels of essential micronutrients, like vitamin C, the difference between them and conventionally grown crops may depend more on where they are produced than how.

A further concern: Organic producers disavow genetic modification, which can be used to improve a crop's nutritional content, enhance resistance to pests and diminish its need for water. A genetically modified tomato developed at the University of Exeter, for example, contains nearly 80 times the antioxidants of conventional tomatoes. Healthier, yes -- but it can't be called organic.

For the full story, see:

JANE E. BRODY. "PERSONAL HEALTH; What You Think You Know (but Don't) About Wise Eating." The New York Times (Tues., January 1, 2013): D7.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date DECEMBER 31, 2012.)

The Schwarcz books mentioned above, are:

Schwarcz, Joe. The Right Chemistry: 108 Enlightening, Nutritious, Health-Conscious and Occasionally Bizarre Inquiries into the Science of Daily Life. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada, 2012.

Schwarcz, Joe. Science, Sense & Nonsense. Toronto, Ontario: Doubleday Canada, 2009.

February 22, 2013

Darwin Shared His Thought Processes Without Condescension


"SAGE OF AGES; Portrait of Charles Darwin in 1881, by Julia Margaret Cameron." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. C14) . . . Mr. Johnson observes:

No scientific innovator has ever taken more trouble to smooth the way for lay readers without descending into vulgarity. What is almost miraculous about the book is Darwin's generosity in sharing his thought processes, his lack of condescension. There is no talking down, but no hauteur, either. It is a gentlemanly book.

In both style and substance, this passage is classic Paul Johnson.

. . .

What makes Darwin good, in the biographer's estimation, is the scientist's democratic dissemination of knowledge. Darwin triumphed with "The Origin of Species," Mr. Johnson contends, not only because of his ability to portray the theory of evolution as the inescapable outcome of his decades of study and the work of fellow scientists, whom he was careful to praise, but because he was acutely aware that he had to present his notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest so as not to stir up public controversy. To an extraordinary degree, Darwin deflected attacks by couching his discoveries in terms of the plants he liked to examine and cultivate. He had relatively little to say about human evolution.

For the full review, see:

CARL ROLLYSON. "Studies of the Moral Animal." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)

The book under review is:

Johnson, Paul M. Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. New York: Viking Adult, 2012.

February 8, 2013

Lichen Fungi May Never Age

PringleAnneLichenResearch2013-01-12.jpg "ANNUAL VISITOR; For the last eight years, Anne Pringle of Harvard has been collecting data about the lichens on the gravestones at a cemetary in Petersham, Mass." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) PETERSHAM, Mass. -- On a sparkling New England afternoon, as hawks coasted overhead and yellow leaves drifted to the ground, Anne Pringle stood before a large granite obelisk that marked the graves of a family called French.

. . .

For eight years, Dr. Pringle, 42, has been returning to this cemetery each fall, to measure, sketch and scrutinize the lichens, which belong to the genus Xanthoparmelia. She wants to know whether they deteriorate with the passage of time, leaving them more susceptible to death.

. . .

Lichens are not individuals but tiny ecosystems, composed of one main fungus, a group of algae and an assortment of smaller fungi and bacteria.

. . .

While lichens are communities, Dr. Pringle is largely interested in the fungi. Mycologists, the scientists who study fungi -- not the most glamorous corridor of biology -- have long assumed that many of these organisms don't age.

. . .

"What you know is based on the organisms you study," she said. "What would you say about the evolution of senescence if instead of working with insects, you worked with modular organisms, which is what lichen are?"

Daniel Doak, a University of Colorado ecologist, agrees that the question is worth asking. Research like Dr. Pringle's -- along with other studies of species including the bristlecone pine tree and the wandering albatross, a bird, both of which may avoid senescence -- suggests another possible path.

"It's saying something fundamental," Dr. Doak said, "that senescence is not an inevitable part of life. Which means there might be ways to prevent it." That idea could eventually have implications for human medicine.

. . .

Dr. Pringle's preliminary results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die. "If you made me answer the question now," she said, "I'd say there can be senescence of parts of an individual. But I don't think an individual ever senesces."

For the full story, see:

HILLARY ROSNER. "In a Place for the Dead, Studying a Seemingly Immortal Species." The New York Times (Tues., January 1, 2013): D3.

(note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date December 31, 2012.)

LichenCommunity2013-01-12.jpg"THRIVING; Dr. Pringle's initial results show that as a lichen grows older and larger, it is less likely to die." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

February 4, 2013

Social Scientists Prefer Articles that Contain Bogus Math

MathBiasGraphic2013-01-12.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A2) . . . research has shown that even those who should be especially clear-sighted about numbers--scientific researchers, for example, and those who review their work for publication--are often uncomfortable with, and credulous about, mathematical material. As a result, some research that finds its way into respected journals--and ends up being reported in the popular press--is flawed.

In the latest study, Kimmo Eriksson, a mathematician and researcher of social psychology at Sweden's Mälardalen University, chose two abstracts from papers published in research journals, one in evolutionary anthropology and one in sociology. He gave them to 200 people to rate for quality--with one twist. At random, one of the two abstracts received an additional sentence, the one above with the math equation, which he pulled from an unrelated paper in psychology. The study's 200 participants all had master's or doctoral degrees. Those with degrees in math, science or technology rated the abstract with the tacked-on sentence as slightly lower-quality than the other. But participants with degrees in humanities, social science or other fields preferred the one with the bogus math, with some rating it much more highly on a scale of 0 to 100.

"Math makes a research paper look solid, but the real science lies not in math but in trying one's utmost to understand the real workings of the world," Prof. Eriksson said.

For the full story, see:

CARL BIALIK. "THE NUMBERS GUY; Don't Let Math Pull the Wool Over Your Eyes." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 5, 2013): A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date January 4, 2013,)

A pdf of Eriksson's published article can be downloaded from:

Eriksson, Kimmo. "The Nonsense Math Effect." Judgment and Decision Making 7, no. 6 (November 2012): 746-49.

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.)

January 21, 2013

The Creation of Consistent, Predictable Dyes and Paints


Source of book image:

(p. C12) Few things seem as eternal as color. Yet as Regina Lee Blaszczyk argues, color has a history, a history largely created by business. In "The Color Revolution," Ms. Blaszczyk shows how the invention of synthetic organic chemistry in the 1850s allowed chemists to create consistent, predictable colors in dyes and paints. Once a chemical company's magenta was reliable, manufacturers could select it from a color card, order it by mail, and use it to produce dresses and dishware in exactly the promised hue.

For the full review essay, see:

Marc Levinson. "Boardroom Reading of 2012." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., December 15, 2012): C12.

(Note: the online version of the review essay has the date December 14, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Blaszczyk, Regina Lee. The Color Revolution, Lemelson Center Studies in Invention and Innovation. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2012.

January 13, 2013

Harvard University Press Dropped Watson's "The Double Helix" as Too Controversial


"Partners; James D. Watson, left, with Francis Crick and their model of part of a DNA molecule in 1953. Crick did not like Dr. Watson's book at first." Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D2) Anyone seeking to understand modern biology and genomics could do much worse than start with the discovery of the structure of DNA, on which almost everything else is based. The classic account of the discovery, "The Double Helix," by James D. Watson, was first published in 1968 and has now been reissued in an annotated and illustrated edition.

. . .

An appendix makes it clear how close "The Double Helix" came to being suppressed. Dr. Watson sent the manuscript to many of the central players, inviting their comments on its accuracy. Harvard University Press had accepted it for publication, but the Harvard authorities came to feel it was too hot a potato and dropped it.

Atheneum Publishers, which picked it up, requested a blander title -- previous versions had included "Honest Jim" and "Base Pairs." The latter -- referring to the paired sets of chemical bases that form the steps in the double helix, and by extension to the two discoverers -- gave particular offense to Crick, who failed to see why he should be considered base. Atheneum's lawyers then tried to make the text inoffensive to the many possible litigants.

But Dr. Watson was able to resist many changes. He had cannily persuaded Bragg to write a foreword, and this endorsement from an establishment figure provided sufficient protection for the book to be published. It proceeded to sell more than a million copies.

For the full review, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "BOOKS ON SCIENCE; Twists in the Tale of the Great DNA Discovery." The New York Times (Tues., November 13, 2012): D2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 12, 2012.)

The annotated version of the Watson book is:

Watson, James D. The Annotated and Illustrated Double Helix. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012.

December 23, 2012

Internet Posting May Be Replacing Peer Reviewed Publishing

The article quoted below provides additional signs that institutions of knowledge production and dissemination may be changing in important ways. (Wikipedia is another, even bigger, sign.)

(p. 635) Over the past decade, there has been a decline in the fraction of papers in top economics journals written by economists from the highest-ranked economics departments. This paper documents this fact and uses additional data on publications and citations to assess various potential explanations. Several observations are consistent with the hypothesis that the Internet improves the ability of high-profile authors to disseminate their research without going through the traditional peer-review process.


Ellison, Glenn. "Is Peer Review in Decline?" Economic Inquiry 49, no. 3 (July 2011): 635-57.

December 8, 2012

"It Isn't What You Know that Counts--It Is How Efficiently You Can Refresh"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) Knowledge, then, is less a canon than a consensus in a state of constant disruption. Part of the disruption has to do with error and its correction, but another part with simple newness--outright discoveries or new modes of classification and analysis, often enabled by technology.

. . .

In some cases, the facts themselves are variable.  . . .

. . .

More commonly, however, changes in scientific facts reflect the way that science is done. Mr. Arbesman describes the "Decline Effect"--the tendency of an original scientific publication to present results that seem far more compelling than those of later studies. Such a tendency has been documented in the medical literature over the past decade by John Ioannidis, a researcher at Stanford, in areas as diverse as HIV therapy, angioplasty and stroke treatment. The cause of the decline may well be a potent combination of random chance (generating an excessively impressive result) and publication bias (leading positive results to get preferentially published).

If shaky claims enter the realm of science too quickly, firmer ones often meet resistance. As Mr. Arbesman notes, scientists struggle to let go of long-held beliefs, something that Daniel Kahneman has described as "theory-induced blindness." Had the Austrian medical community in the 1840s accepted the controversial conclusions of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis that physicians were responsible for the spread of childbed fever--and heeded his hand-washing recommendations--a devastating outbreak of the disease might have been averted.

Science, Mr. Arbesman observes, is a "terribly human endeavor." Knowledge grows but carries with it uncertainty and error; today's scientific doctrine may become tomorrow's cautionary tale. What is to be done? The right response, according to Mr. Arbesman, is to embrace change rather than fight it. "Far better than learning facts is learning how to adapt to changing facts," he says. "Stop memorizing things . . . memories can be outsourced to the cloud." In other words: In a world of information flux, it isn't what you know that counts--it is how efficiently you can refresh.

For the full review, see:

DAVID A. SHAYWITZ. "BOOKSHELF; The Scientific Blind Spot." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 19, 2012): A17.

(Note: ellipses added, except for the one internal to the last paragraph, which was in the original.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated November 18, 2012.)

The book under review, is:

Arbesman, Samuel. The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date. New York: Current, 2012.

October 25, 2012

Reality Is Not Always "Elegant"


Source of book image:

(p. C9) In the summer of 1953, while visiting Berkeley, Gamow was shown a copy of the article in Nature where Watson and Crick spelled out some of the genetic implications of their discovery that DNA is structured as a double helix. He immediately realized what was missing. Each helix is a linear sequence of four molecules known as bases. The sequence contains all the information that guides the manufacture of the proteins from which living things are made. Proteins are assembled from 20 different amino acids. What is the code that takes you from the string of bases to the amino acids? Gamow seems to have been the first to look at the problem in quite this way.

But he made a physicist's mistake: He thought that the code would be "elegant"--that each amino acid would be specified by only one string of bases. (These strings were dubbed "codons.") He produced a wonderfully clever code in which each codon consisted of three bases. That was the only part that was right. In the actual code sometimes three different codons correspond to the same amino acid, while some codons do not code for an amino acid at all. These irregularities are the results of evolutionary stops and starts, and no amount of cleverness could predict them.

For the full review, see:

JEREMY BERNSTEIN. "The Inelegant Universe." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., August 13, 2011): C9.

The book under review is:

Segrè, Gino. Ordinary Geniuses: Max Delbruck, George Gamow, and the Origins of Genomics and Big Bang Cosmology. New York: Viking, 2011.

October 20, 2012

Much Innovation Has "Nothing to Do with Science--It's Just Creative Mankind Chipping Away at Things"

(p. 122) VANE and MULHEARN: The prize rewards specific discoveries, achievements, or breakthroughs in economic science. Your pioneering contributions have opened up a rich seam of research for others to mine. Does academic knowledge largely progress through the lead taken by a small number of creative innovators?
PHELPS: That's such a good question. It resonates with a subject in the area of innovation theory. The old guys like Arthur Spiethoff thought that progress was due to the great discoveries of the scientists and navigators. Schumpeter (1934) (p. 123) didn't depart altogether from that, he simply said, well, that's right but you've got to have some entrepreneur to actually implement it. But don't think there's much creativity there--everybody knows what's in the air. And it's very rare that anything new really gets created in the course of this development work. But now we don't think about innovation in that way so much. We recognize that once in a while there is a big leap which creates the ground for a surge of innovations to follow. Nowadays we realize that an awful lot of innovation just comes from business people operating at the grass roots having ideas on the basis of what they see around them. Nothing to do with science--it's just creative mankind chipping away at things. I know that the Sens and the Mundells and the Lucases are towering figures, but they couldn't have become so if they hadn't read a lot of papers by, well, pretty average people who are just doing a good job of exploring a question and giving inspiration. I guess the towering figures are people with just a little more drive, a little more imagination, just a little cleverer in putting some things together. In other words, I don't know the answer to the question [laughter].

For the full interview, from which the above is quoted, see:

Vane, Howard R., and Chris Mulhearn, interviewers. "Interview with Edmund S. Phelps." Journal of Economic Perspectives 23, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 109-24.

October 9, 2012

"Extinct" Snail Found Alive

RocksnailAlabama2012-09-03.jpg "The oblong rocksnail in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) A freshwater snail has been rediscovered on the Cahaba River in Alabama, 12 years after it was declared extinct.

Nathan Whelan, a graduate student in biology at the University of Alabama, spotted the snail -- called the oblong rocksnail, or Leptoxis compacta -- on a small stretch of the river.

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Snails Appear Reborn, or Were Overlooked." The New York Times (Tues., August 14, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date August 13, 2012.)

Whelan and co-authors report their findings in:

Whelan NV, Johnson PD, Harris PM (2012) Rediscovery of Leptoxis compacta (Anthony, 1854) (Gastropoda: Cerithioidea: Pleuroceridae). PLoS ONE 7(8): e42499. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042499

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.

October 1, 2012

Global Warming Expands Range of Brown Argus Butterfly

BrownArgusButterfly2012-09-03.jpg "The brown argus butterfly has expanded its range in England." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) A butterfly species in England is expanding its range, thanks to climate change.

In the current issue of Science, researchers at the University of York report that the brown argus butterfly has spread its reach in England northward by about 50 miles over 20 years as a warmer climate allows its caterpillars to feed off wild geranium plants, which are widespread in the countryside.

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; A Butterfly Takes Wing on Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., May 29, 2012): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 24, 2012.)

The results summarized above are reported to the scientific community in:

Chen, Ching, Jane K. Hill, Ralf Ohlemüller, David B. Roy, and Chris D. Thomas. "Report; Rapid Range Shifts of Species Associated with High Levels of Climate Warming." Science 333, no. 6045 (August 19, 2011): 1024-1026.

September 29, 2012

How a Group of "Natural Philosophers" Created Science in a London "Full of Thieves, Murderers and Human Waste"


Source of book image:

(p. 19) London before the mid-1600s was a general calamity. The streets were full of thieves, murderers and human waste. Death was everywhere: doctors were hapless, adults lived to about age 30, children died like flies. In 1665, plague moved into the city, killing sometimes 6,000 people a week. In 1666, an unstoppable fire burned the city to the ground; the bells of St. Paul's melted. Londoners thought that the terrible voice of God was "roaring in the City," one witness wrote, and they would do best to accept the horror, calculate their sins, pray for guidance and await retribution.

In the midst of it all, a group of men whose names we still learn in school formed the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. They thought that God, while an unforgiving judge, was also a mathematician. As such, he had organized the universe according to discernible, mathematical law, which, if they tried, they could figure out. They called themselves "natural philosophers," and their motto was "Nullius in verba": roughly, take no one's word for anything. You have an idea? Demonstrate it, do an experiment, prove it. The ideas behind the Royal Society would flower into the Enlightenment, the political, cultural, scientific and educational revolution that gave rise to the modern West.

This little history begins Edward Dolnick's "Clockwork Universe," so the reader might think the book is about the Royal Society and its effects. But the Royal Society is dispatched in the first third of the book, and thereafter, the subject is how the attempt to find the mathematics governing the universe played out in the life of Isaac Newton.

. . .

To go from sinful "curiositas" to productive "curiosity," from blind acceptance to open-eyed inquiry, from asking, "Why?" to answering, "How?" -- this change, of all the world's revolutions, must surely be the most remarkable.

For the full review, see:

ANN FINKBEINER. "Masters of the Universe." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., March 27, 2011): 19.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 25, 2011, and had the title "What Newton Gave Us.")

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Dolnick, Edward. The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2011.

September 27, 2012

The Mockingjay as Symbol and Reality


A burning Mockingjay symbol appears on this movie poster for "The Hunger Games." Source of poster: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D4) "They're funny birds and something of a slap in the face to the Capitol," Katniss explains in the first book. And the nature of that slap in face is a new twist on the great fear about genetic engineering, that modified organisms or their genes will escape into the wild and wreak havoc. The mockingjay is just such an unintended consequence, resulting from a failed creation of the government, what Katniss means when she refers to "the Capitol." But rather than being a disaster, the bird is a much-loved reminder of the limits of totalitarian control.

. . .

I asked Joan Slonczewski, a microbiologist and science fiction writer at Kenyon College in Ohio, about her take on the mockingjay. Dr. Slonczewski, whose recent books include a text and a novel, "The Highest Frontier," teaches a course called "Biology in Science Fiction." The tools needed to modify organisms are already widely dispersed in industry and beyond. "Now anybody can do a start-up," she said.

That's no exaggeration. Do-it-yourself biology is growing. The technology to copy pieces of DNA can be bought on eBay for a few hundred dollars, as Carl Zimmer reported in The New York Times in March. As to where D.I.Y. biology may lead, Freeman Dyson, a thinker at the Institute for Advanced Study known for his provocative ideas, presented one view in 2007 in The New York Review of Books. He envisioned the tools of biotechnology spreading to everyone, including pet breeders and children, and leading to "an explosion of diversity of new living creatures."

Eventually, he wrote, the mixing of genes by humans will initiate a new stage in evolution. Along the way, if he is right, the world may have more than its share of do-it-yourself mockingjays.

For the full story, see:

JAMES GORMAN. "SIDE EFFECTS; D.I.Y. Biology, on the Wings of the Mockingjay." The New York Times (Tues., May 15, 2012): D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date May 10, 2012.)

September 25, 2012

"Science Is Weakest in the Lands of Islam"


Source of book image:

(p. 18) The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of "lost" knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book's subtitle.

The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during "the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece." Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that ­al-Mamun stands as "the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers."

Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.

But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. "Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam," Salam said in despair. "The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."

By recounting Arabic science's luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will "propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society."

For the full review, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "The Muslim Art of Science." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 22, 2011): 18.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2011.)

The full reference for the book under review, is:

al-Khalili, Jim. The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.

September 21, 2012

Models Often "Ignore the Messiness of Reality"


Source of book image:

(p. 18) Nowak is one of the most exciting modelers working in the field of mathematical biology today. But a model, of course, is only as good as its assumptions, and biology is much messier than physics or chemistry. Nowak tells a joke about a man who approaches a shepherd and asks, ''If I tell you how many sheep you have, can I have one?'' The shepherd agrees and is astonished when the stranger answers, ''Eighty-three.'' As he turns to leave, the shepherd retorts: ''If I guess your profession, can I have the animal back?'' The stranger agrees. ''You must be a mathematical biologist.'' How did he know? ''Because you picked up my dog.''

. . .

Near the end of the book, Nowak describes Gustav Mahler's efforts, in his grandiloquent Third Symphony, to create an all-encompassing structure in which ''nature in its totality may ring and resound,'' adding, ''In my own way, I would like to think I have helped to give nature her voice too.'' But there remains a telling gap between the precision of the models and the generality of the advice Nowak offers for turning us all into supercooperators. We humans really are infinitely more complex than falling apples, metastasizing colons, even ant colonies. Idealized accounts of the world often need to ignore the messiness of reality. Mahler understood this. In 1896 he invited Bruno Walter to Lake Attersee to glimpse the score of the Third. As they walked beneath the mountains, Walter admonished Mahler to look at the vista, to which he replied, ''No use staring up there -- I've already composed it all away into my symphony!''

For the full review, see:

OREN HARMAN. "A Little Help from Your Friends." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., April 10, 2011): 18.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 8, 2011, and has the title "How Evolution Explains Altruism.")

The full reference for the book under review, is:

Nowak, Martin A., and Roger Highfield. Supercooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed. New York: Free Press, 2011.

September 15, 2012

Where Credit Is Due

SchatzWaksmanStreptomycinLab2012-09-02.jpg "EVIDENCE; A lab notebook belonging to Albert Schatz, left, with his supervisor, Selman A. Waksman, and discovered at Rutgers helps puts to rest a 70-year argument over credit for the Nobel-winning discovery of streptomycin." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- For as long as archivists at Rutgers University could remember, a small cardboard box marked with the letter W in black ink had sat unopened in a dusty corner of the special collections of the Alexander Library. Next to it were 60 sturdy archive boxes of papers, a legacy of the university's most famous scientist: Selman A. Waksman, who won a Nobel Prize in 1952 for the discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic to cure tuberculosis.

The 60 boxes contained details of how streptomycin was found -- and also of the murky story behind it, a vicious legal battle between Dr. Waksman and his graduate student Albert Schatz over who deserved credit.

Dr. Waksman died in 1973; after Dr. Schatz's death in 2005, the papers were much in demand by researchers trying to piece together what really happened between the professor and his student. But nobody looked in the small cardboard box.

. . .

Thomas J. Frusciano, the head archivist of the Alexander Library special collections, recalled that the Waksman papers had been acquired in 1983, 10 years after the professor's death, and had even included a vial of streptomycin. He asked a member of his team, Erika Gorder, to search the stacks.

She remembered seeing the small box next to Dr. Waksman's papers. "I must have passed by it a million times," she said, "but I always thought it must contain miscellaneous material from the Waksman papers when they were cataloged."

When she pulled down the box and carefully opened it, however, there, loosely piled inside, were five clothbound notebooks -- just like Dr. Waksman's, but marked "Albert Schatz."

In the notebook for 1943, on Page 32, Dr. Schatz had started Experiment 11. In meticulous cursive, he had written the date, Aug. 23, and the title, "Exp. 11 Antagonistic Actinomycetes," a reference to the strange threadlike microbes found in the soil that produce antibiotics. Underneath the title he recorded where he had found the microbes in "leaf compost, straw compost and stable manure" on the Rutgers College farm, outside his laboratory.

The following pages detailed his experiments and his discovery of two strains of a gray-green actinomycete named Streptomyces griseus, Latin for gray. Each strain produced an antibiotic that destroyed germs of E. coli in a petri dish -- and, he was to find out later, also destroyed the TB germ. The notebook shows that the moment of discovery belongs to Dr. Schatz.

One of the pages in Experiment 11 had indeed been cut out, but the page was toward the end of the experiment, after Dr. Schatz had made his discovery. There was no evidence of a break in the experiment to suggest that Dr. Schatz might have removed the page to conceal something he didn't want the rest of the world to know.

And in Dr. Waksman's own papers -- in the 60 boxes -- there was confirmation that the professor knew the missing page was not a real issue. His legal advisers had told him bluntly that it was a distraction. As one lawyer wrote, the missing page was "insignificant."

As for the professor's story that Dr. Schatz's uncle had carried off the key 1943 notebook, Dr. Waksman's own documents make clear it could not have been true. At the time the key notebook was not at Rutgers; it was with university-appointed agents who were preparing the streptomycin patent application. Here, indeed, was evidence that Dr. Waksman had deliberately spread doubt and confusion about Dr. Schatz's Experiment 11 in a campaign to belittle the work of his student.

For the full story, see:

PETER PRINGLE. "Notebooks Shed Light on an Antibiotic's Contested Discovery." The New York Times (Tues., June 12, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 11, 2012.)

The issues treated above are discussed in more detail in Pringle's book:

Pringle, Peter. Experiment Eleven: Dark Secrets Behind the Discovery of a Wonder Drug. New York: Walker & Company, 2012.

August 21, 2012

Global Warming Heretic Svensmark May Be the Next Shechtman

(p. C) The list of scientific heretics who were persecuted for their radical ideas but eventually proved right keeps getting longer. Last month, Daniel Shechtman won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of quasicrystals, having spent much of his career being told he was wrong.

"I was thrown out of my research group. They said I brought shame on them with what I was saying," he recalled, adding that the doyen of chemistry, the late Linus Pauling, had denounced the theory with the words: "There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists."

The Australian medical scientist Barry Marshall, who hypothesized that a bacterial infection causes stomach ulcers, received similar treatment and was taken seriously only when he deliberately infected himself, then cured himself with antibiotics in 1984. Eventually, he too won the Nobel Prize.

. . .

Perhaps it's at least worth guessing which of today's heretics will eventually win a Nobel Prize. How about the Dane Henrik Svensmark? In 1997, he suggested that the sun's magnetic field affects the earth's climate--by shielding the atmosphere against cosmic rays, which would otherwise create or thicken clouds and thereby cool the surface. So, he reasoned, a large part of the natural fluctuations in the climate over recent millennia might reflect variation in solar activity.

Dr. Svensmark is treated as a heretic mainly because his theory is thought to hinder the effort to convince people that recent climatic variation is largely manmade, not natural, so there is a bias toward resisting his idea. That does not make it right, but some promising recent experiments at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) raise the probability that Dr. Svensmark might yet prove to be a Shechtman.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Is That Scientific Heretic a Genius--or a Loon?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 12, 2011): C4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

August 1, 2012

Take U.S.D.A. and C.D.C. Advice with a Grain of Salt

(p. 8) When I spent the better part of a year researching the state of the salt science back in 1998 -- already a quarter century into the eat-less-salt recommendations -- journal editors and public health administrators were still remarkably candid in their assessment of how flimsy the evidence was implicating salt as the cause of hypertension.

"You can say without any shadow of a doubt," as I was told then by Drummond Rennie, an editor for The Journal of the American Medical Association, that the authorities pushing the eat-less-salt message had "made a commitment to salt education that goes way beyond the scientific facts."

While, back then, the evidence merely failed to demonstrate that salt was harmful, the evidence from studies published over the past two years actually suggests that restricting how much salt we eat can increase our likelihood of dying prematurely. Put simply, the possibility has been raised that if we were to eat as little salt as the U.S.D.A. and the C.D.C. recommend, we'd be harming rather than helping ourselves.

. . .

When researchers have looked at all the relevant trials and tried to make sense of them, they've continued to support Dr. Stamler's "inconsistent and contradictory" assessment. Last year, two such "meta-analyses" were published by the Cochrane Collaboration, an international nonprofit organization founded to conduct unbiased reviews of medical evidence. The first of the two reviews concluded that cutting back "the amount of salt eaten reduces blood pressure, but there is insufficient evidence to confirm the predicted reductions in people dying prematurely or suffering cardiovascular disease." The second concluded that "we do not know if low salt diets improve or worsen health outcomes."

. . .

(p. 9) A 1972 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine reported that the less salt people ate, the higher their levels of a substance secreted by the kidneys, called renin, which set off a physiological cascade of events that seemed to end with an increased risk of heart disease. In this scenario: eat less salt, secrete more renin, get heart disease, die prematurely.

With nearly everyone focused on the supposed benefits of salt restriction, little research was done to look at the potential dangers. But four years ago, Italian researchers began publishing the results from a series of clinical trials, all of which reported that, among patients with heart failure, reducing salt consumption increased the risk of death.

Those trials have been followed by a slew of studies suggesting that reducing sodium to anything like what government policy refers to as a "safe upper limit" is likely to do more harm than good. These covered some 100,000 people in more than 30 countries and showed that salt consumption is remarkably stable among populations over time.

. . .

One could still argue that all these people should reduce their salt intake to prevent hypertension, except for the fact that four of these studies -- involving Type 1 diabetics, Type 2 diabetics, healthy Europeans and patients with chronic heart failure -- reported that the people eating salt at the lower limit of normal were more likely to have heart disease than those eating smack in the middle of the normal range. Effectively what the 1972 paper would have predicted.

. . .

Maybe now the prevailing beliefs should be changed. The British scientist and educator Thomas Huxley, known as Darwin's bulldog for his advocacy of evolution, may have put it best back in 1860. "My business," he wrote, "is to teach my aspirations to conform themselves to fact, not to try and make facts harmonize with my aspirations."

For the full commentary, see:

GARY TAUBES. "OPINION; Salt, We Misjudged You." The New York Times, SundayReview Section (Sun., June 3, 2012): 8-9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date June 2, 2012.)

July 18, 2012

Neglecting Valid Stereotypes Has Costs

(p. 169) The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible.


Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011.

June 25, 2012

Coal Mines Help Paleontologists Learn about Environmental Change

DiMicheleWilliamSpringfieldCoal2012-06-12.jpg "SUBTERRANEAN; William A. DiMichele in the Springfield Coal. The dark mass is a coal seam; the lighter shale above is interrupted by a fossil tree stump." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) In the clammy depths of a southern Illinois coal mine lies the largest fossil forest ever discovered, at least 50 times as extensive as the previous contender.

. . .

"Effectively you've got a lost world," said Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, who has explored the site. "It's the closest thing you'll find to time travel," he added.

. . .

The reach of the Springfield forest should allow scientists to undertake ecosystem-wide analyses in a way never before possible in landscapes so ancient, and such studies may help them predict the effects of global warming today.

"With our own CO2 rises and changes in climate," said Scott D. Elrick, a team member from the Illinois State Geological Survey, "we can look at the past here and say, 'It's happened before.' "

Today, we burn the scale trees of the Carboniferous by the billions: they have all turned to coal. Newly discovered, the Springfield forest is already crumbling to bits, as coal-mine ceilings quickly do after exposure. But with continued mining, more ceilings are being revealed every day.

"You have to dig to find fossils, going inside the anatomy of the planet," Dr. Johnson said. "Bill DiMichele realizes he has an entire industry digging for him, creating a tunnel into an ancient world."

For the full story, see:

W. BARKSDALE MAYNARD. "An Underground Fossil Forest Offers Clues on Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., May 1, 2012): D3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 30, 2012.)

AncientRiverbedMap2012-06-12.jpgSource of map graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

May 19, 2012

Observed Climate "Not in Good Agreement with Model Predictions"

The author of the following commentary is a Princeton physics professor:

(p. A13) What is happening to global temperatures in reality? The answer is: almost nothing for more than 10 years. Monthly values of the global temperature anomaly of the lower atmosphere, compiled at the University of Alabama from NASA satellite data, can be found at the website The latest (February 2012) monthly global temperature anomaly for the lower atmosphere was minus 0.12 degrees Celsius, slightly less than the average since the satellite record of temperatures began in 1979.

The lack of any statistically significant warming for over a decade has made it more difficult for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its supporters to demonize the atmospheric gas CO2 which is released when fossil fuels are burned.

. . .

Frustrated by the lack of computer-predicted warming over the past decade, some IPCC supporters have been claiming that "extreme weather" has become more common because of more CO2. But there is no hard evidence this is true.

. . .

Large fluctuations from warm to cold winters have been the rule for the U.S., as one can see from records kept by the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. For example, the winters of 1932 and 1934 were as warm as or warmer than the 2011-2012 one and the winter of 1936 was much colder.

. . .

It is easy to be confused about climate, because we are constantly being warned about the horrible things that will happen or are already happening as a result of mankind's use of fossil fuels. But these ominous predictions are based on computer models. It is important to distinguish between what the climate is actually doing and what computer models predict. The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with model predictions.

. . .

. . . we should . . . remember the description of how science works by the late, great physicist, Richard Feynman:

"In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed is right. Then we compare the result of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience; compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong."

For the full commentary, see:

WILLIAM HAPPER. "Global Warming Models Are Wrong Again; The observed response of the climate to more CO2 is not in good agreement with predictions." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 27, 2012): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

May 18, 2012

Asteroid-Mining Start-Up Hopes to Launch First Spacecraft within Two Years


"A computer image shows a rendering of a spacecraft preparing to capture a water-rich, near-Earth asteroid." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) SEATTLE--A start-up with high-profile backers on Tuesday unveiled its plan to send robotic spacecraft to remotely mine asteroids, a highly ambitious effort aimed at opening up a new frontier in space exploration.

At an event at the Seattle Museum of Flight, a group that included former National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials unveiled Planetary Resources Inc. and said it is developing a "low-cost" series of spacecraft to prospect and mine "near-Earth" asteroids for water and metals, and thus bring "the natural resources of space within humanity's economic sphere of influence."

The solar system is "full of resources, and we can bring that back to humanity," said Planetary Resources co-founder Peter Diamandis, who helped start the X-Prize competition to spur nongovernmental space flight.

The company said it expects to launch its first spacecraft to low-Earth orbit--between 100 and 1,000 miles above the Earth's surface--within two years, in what would be a prelude to sending spacecraft to prospect and mine asteroids.

The company, which was founded three years ago but remained secret until last week, said it could take a decade to finish prospecting, or identifying the best candidates for mining.

For the full story, see:

AMIR EFRATI. "Asteroid-Mining Strategy Is Outlined by a Start-Up." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., April 25, 2012): B3.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated April 24, 2012, and has the title "Start-Up Outlines Asteroid-Mining Strategy.")

May 14, 2012

Warming Planet May Cause Fewer High Clouds in Tropics, Allowing Heat to Escape into Space

CloudWeatherBalloon2012-05-03.jpg "A technician at a Department of Energy site in Oklahoma launching a weather balloon to help scientists analyze clouds." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Richard S. Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the leading proponent of the view that clouds will save the day. His stature in the field -- he has been making seminal contributions to climate science since the 1960s -- has amplified his influence.

Dr. Lindzen says the earth is not especially sensitive to greenhouse gases because clouds will react to counter them, and he believes he has identified a specific mechanism. On a warming planet, he says, less coverage by high clouds in the tropics will allow more heat to escape to space, (p. A14) countering the temperature increase.

. . .

Dr. Lindzen accepts the elementary tenets of climate science. He agrees that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, calling people who dispute that point "nutty." He agrees that the level of it is rising because of human activity and that this should warm the climate.

But for more than a decade, Dr. Lindzen has said that when surface temperature increases, the columns of moist air rising in the tropics will rain out more of their moisture, leaving less available to be thrown off as ice, which forms the thin, high clouds known as cirrus. Just like greenhouse gases, these cirrus clouds act to reduce the cooling of the earth, and a decrease of them would counteract the increase of greenhouse gases.

Dr. Lindzen calls his mechanism the iris effect, after the iris of the eye, which opens at night to let in more light. In this case, the earth's "iris" of high clouds would be opening to let more heat escape.

. . .

"If I'm right, we'll have saved money" by avoiding measures to limit emissions, Dr. Lindzen said in the interview. "If I'm wrong, we'll know it in 50 years and can do something."

. . .

"You have politicians who are being told if they question this, they are anti-science," Dr. Lindzen said. "We are trying to tell them, no, questioning is never anti-science."

For the full story, see:

JUSTIN GILLIS. "TEMPERATURE RISING; Clouds' Effect on Climate Change Is Last Bastion for Dissenters." The New York Times (Tues., May 1, 2012): A1 & A14.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated April 30, 2012.)

April 30, 2012

Physicist Says "Financial Models Are Only Mediocre Metaphors"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A19) Trained as a physicist, Emanuel Derman once served as the head of quantitative analysis at Goldman Sachs and is currently a professor of industrial engineering and operations research at Columbia University. With "Models Behaving Badly" he offers a readable, even eloquent combination of personal history, philosophical musing and honest confession concerning the dangers of relying on numerical models not only on Wall Street but also in life.

Mr. Derman's particular thesis can be stated simply: Although financial models employ the mathematics and style of physics, they are fundamentally different from the models that science produces. Physical models can provide an accurate description of reality. Financial models, despite their mathematical sophistication, can at best provide a vast oversimplification of reality. In the universe of finance, the behavior of individuals determines value--and, as he says, "people change their minds."

In short, beware of physics envy. When we make models involving human beings, Mr. Derman notes, "we are trying to force the ugly stepsister's foot into Cinderella's pretty glass slipper. It doesn't fit without cutting off some of the essential parts." As the collapse of the subprime collateralized debt market in 2008 made clear, it is a terrible mistake to put too much faith in models purporting to value financial instruments. "In crises," Mr. Derman writes, "the behavior of people changes and normal models fail. While quantum electrodynamics is a genuine theory of all reality, financial models are only mediocre metaphors for a part of it."

For the full review, see:

BURTON G. MALKIEL. "BOOKSHELF; Physics Envy; Creating financial models involving human behavior is like forcing 'the ugly stepsister's foot into Cinderella's pretty glass slipper.'" The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 14, 2011): A19.

The book under review is:

Derman, Emanuel. Models.Behaving.Badly: Why Confusing Illusion with Reality Can Lead to Disaster, on Wall Street and in Life. New York: Free Press, 2011.

April 27, 2012

Climate Scientists "Conspiring to Bully and Silence Opponents"

(p. A15) [In November 2011], 5,000 files of private email correspondence among several of the world's top climate scientists were anonymously leaked onto the Internet. Like the first "climategate" leak of 2009, the latest release shows top scientists in the field fudging data, conspiring to bully and silence opponents, and displaying far less certainty about the reliability of anthropogenic global warming theory in private than they ever admit in public.

The scientists include men like Michael Mann of Penn State University and Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia, both of whose reports inform what President Obama has called "the gold standard" of international climate science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

. . .

Consider an email written by Mr. Mann in August 2007. "I have been talking w/ folks in the states about finding an investigative journalist to investigate and expose McIntyre, and his thus far unexplored connections with fossil fuel interests. Perhaps the same needs to be done w/ this Keenan guy." Doug Keenan is a skeptic and gadfly of the climate-change establishment. Steve McIntyre is the tenacious Canadian ex-mining engineer whose dogged research helped expose flaws in Mr. Mann's "hockey stick" graph of global temperatures.

For the full commentary, see:

JAMES DELINGPOLE. "OPINION; Climategate 2.0; A new batch of leaked emails again shows some leading scientists trying to smear opponents." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 28, 2011): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

April 24, 2012

Campion Plant Sprouts from 32,000 Year-Old Seed


"OLD DNA; A plant has been generated from the fruit of the narrow-leafed campion. It is the oldest plant by far to be grown from ancient tissue." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) Living plants have been generated from the fruit of a little arctic flower, the narrow-leafed campion, that died 32,000 years ago, a team of Russian scientists reports. The fruit was stored by an arctic ground squirrel in its burrow on the tundra of northeastern Siberia and lay permanently frozen until excavated by scientists a few years ago.

This would be the oldest plant by far that has ever been grown from ancient tissue. The present record is held by a date palm grown from a seed some 2,000 years old that was recovered from the ancient fortress of Masada in Israel.

Seeds and certain cells can last a long term under the right conditions, but many claims of extreme longevity have failed on closer examination, and biologists are likely to greet this claim, too, with reserve until it can be independently confirmed. Tales of wheat grown from seeds in the tombs of the pharaohs have long been discredited. Lupines were germinated from seeds in a 10,000-year-old lemming burrow found by a gold miner in the Yukon. But the seeds, later dated by the radiocarbon method, turned out to be modern contaminants.

. . .

The new report is by a team led by Svetlana Yashina and David Gilichinsky of the Russian Academy of Sciences research center at Pushchino, near Moscow, and appears in Tuesday's issue of The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

"This is an amazing breakthrough," said Grant Zazula of the Yukon Paleontology Program at Whitehorse in Yukon Territory, Canada. "I have no (p. D4) doubt in my mind that this is a legitimate claim." It was Dr. Zazula who showed that the apparently ancient lupine seeds found by the Yukon gold miner were in fact modern.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Dead for 32,000 Years, an Arctic Plant Is Revived." The New York Times (Tues., February 21, 2012): D1 & D4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated February 20, 2012.)

April 13, 2012

Myhrvold Left Work with Hawking for the Excitement of Entrepreneurship

(p. 139) Microsoft was represented ¡n the discussion by its senior vice president for advanced technology, a thirty-five-year-old Nathan Myhrvold. After finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton at age twenty-three, Myhrvold had worked for a year as a postdoctoral fellow with the physicist Stephen Hawking at Cambridge, tackling theories of (p. 140) gravitation and curved space-time, before taking a three-month leave of absence to help some friends in the Bay Area with a software project. He became caught up in the excitement of personal computer software and entrepreneurship and never went back. In Berkeley, he co-founded a company called Dynamical Systems to develop operating system for personal computers, which struggled for two years until Microsoft bought it in 1986. At Microsoft, he persuaded Bill Gates to let him establish a corporate research center, Microsoft Research, with Myhrvold himself in charge.


Price, David A. The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

(Note: italics in original.)

(Note: my strong impression is that the pagination is the same for the 2008 hardback and the 2009 paperback editions, except for part of the epilogue, which is revised and expanded in the paperback. I believe the passage above has the same page number in both editions.)

April 7, 2012

Most Articles in Top Two Economics Journals Receive Zero Citations in First Five Years

Journal quality is often used, or suggested, as a proxy for the quality of articles. It is a very poor proxy.

Economist Robert H. Frank writes that:

(p. 3) The economist Philip Cook and I found, . . . , that in the first five years after publication, many fewer than half of all papers in the two most selective economics journals had ever been cited by other scholars.

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT H. FRANK. "ECONOMIC VIEW; The Prestige Chase Is Raising College Costs." The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sun., March 11, 2012): 3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated March 10, 2012.)

I assume, but have not verified, that the above finding is reported in:

Frank, Robert, and Philip J. Cook. The Winner-Take-All Society: Why the Few at the Top Get So Much More Than the Rest of Us. New York: The Free Press, 1995.

March 23, 2012

Faraday and Einstein Were Visual and Physical Thinkers, Not Mathematicians


Source of book image:

(p. C6) Michael Faraday is one of the most beguiling and lovable figures in the history of science. Though he could not understand a single equation, he deduced the essential structure of the laws of electromagnetism through visualization and physical intuition. (James Clerk Maxwell would later give them mathematical form.) Albert Einstein kept a picture of Faraday over his desk, for Einstein also thought of himself primarily as a visual and physical thinker, not an abstract mathematician.

. . .

Faraday's text is still charming and rich, a judgment that few popular works on science could sustain after so many years. Though he addresses himself to an "auditory of juveniles," he calls for his audience to follow a close chain of reasoning presented through a series of experiments and deductions.

. . .

. . . : "In every one of us there is a living process of combustion going on very similar to that of a candle," as Faraday illustrates in his experiments.

In his closing, he turns from our metabolic resemblance to a candle to his deeper wish that "you may, like it, shine as lights to those about you."

For the full review, see:

PETER PESIC. "BOOKSHELF; Keeper of the Flame." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Book under review:

Faraday, Michael. The Chemical History of a Candle. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press 2011.

March 21, 2012

In History, Documenting Your Sources Matters More than Your Credentials


George Dyson. Source of photo: online version of the NYT interview quoted and cited below.

(p. D11) BELLINGHAM, Wash. -- More than most of us, the science historian George Dyson spends his days thinking about technologies, old and very new.

. . .

Though this 58-year-old author's works are centered on technology, they often have an autobiographical subtext. Freeman Dyson, the physicist and mathematician who was a protagonist of Project Orion, is his father. Esther Dyson, the Internet philosopher and high-tech investor, is his sister. We spoke for three hours at his cottage here, and later by telephone. A condensed and edited version of the conversations follows.

. . .

. . . today you make your living as a historian of science and technology. How does a high school dropout get to do that?

Hey, this is America. You can do what you want! I love this idea that someone who didn't finish high school can write books that get taken seriously. History is one of the only fields where contributions by amateurs are taken seriously, providing you follow the rules and document your sources. In history, it's what you write, not what your credentials are.

For the full interview, see:

CLAUDIA DREIFUS, interviewer. "Looking Backward to Put New Technologies in Focus." The New York Times (Tues., December 6, 2011): D11.

(Note: question bolded in original; ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview is dated December 5, 2011.)

Dyson's most recent book is:

Dyson, George. Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe. New York: Pantheon Books, 2012.

March 14, 2012

Majority of Marine Creatures Thrive in Greater Acidity

(p. C4) The effect of acidification, according to J.E.N. Veron, an Australian coral scientist, will be "nothing less than catastrophic.... What were once thriving coral gardens that supported the greatest biodiversity of the marine realm will become red-black bacterial slime, and they will stay that way."

This is a common view. The Natural Resources Defense Council has called ocean acidification "the scariest environmental problem you've never heard of." Sigourney Weaver, who narrated a film about the issue, said that "the scientists are freaked out." The head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls it global warming's "equally evil twin."

. . .

If the average pH of the ocean drops to 7.8 from 8.1 by 2100 as predicted, it will still be well above seven, the neutral point where alkalinity becomes acidity.

. . .

In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to lower pH sites, where they proved "able to calcify and grow at even faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide] levels projected for the next 300 years." In any case, freshwater mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.

Laboratory experiments find that more marine creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to 7.8. This is because the carbon dioxide dissolves mainly as bicarbonate, which many calcifiers use as raw material for carbonate.

For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; Taking Fears of Acid Oceans With a Grain of Salt." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., January 7, 2012): C4.

(Note: ellipsis in first paragraph in original; ellipses between paragraphs 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.

February 27, 2012

Big Data Opportunity for Economics and Business

(p. 7) Data is not only becoming more available but also more understandable to computers. Most of the Big Data surge is data in the wild -- unruly stuff like words, images and video on the Web and those streams of sensor data. It is called unstructured data and is not typically grist for traditional databases.

But the computer tools for gleaning knowledge and insights from the Internet era's vast trove of unstructured data are fast gaining ground. At the forefront are the rapidly advancing techniques of artificial intelligence like natural-language processing, pattern recognition and machine learning.

Those artificial-intelligence technologies can be applied in many fields. For example, Google's search and ad business and its experimental robot cars, which have navigated thousands of miles of California roads, both use a bundle of artificial-intelligence tricks. Both are daunting Big Data challenges, parsing vast quantities of data and making decisions instantaneously.

. . .

To grasp the potential impact of Big Data, look to the microscope, says Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management. The microscope, invented four centuries ago, allowed people to see and measure things as never before -- at the cellular level. It was a revolution in measurement.

Data measurement, Professor Brynjolfsson explains, is the modern equivalent of the microscope. Google searches, Facebook posts and Twitter messages, for example, make it possible to measure behavior and sentiment in fine detail and as it happens.

In business, economics and other fields, Professor Brynjolfsson says, decisions will increasingly be based on data and analysis rather than on experience and intuition. "We can start being a lot more scientific," he observes.

. . .

Research by Professor Brynjolfsson and two other colleagues, published last year, suggests that data-guided management is spreading across corporate America and starting to pay off. They studied 179 large companies and found that those adopting "data-driven decision making" achieved productivity gains that were 5 percent to 6 percent higher than other factors could explain.

The predictive power of Big Data is being explored -- and shows promise -- in fields like public health, economic development and economic forecasting. Researchers have found a spike in Google search requests for terms like "flu symptoms" and "flu treatments" a couple of weeks before there is an increase in flu patients coming to hospital emergency rooms in a region (and emergency room reports usually lag behind visits by two weeks or so).

. . .

In economic forecasting, research has shown that trends in increasing or decreasing volumes of housing-related search queries in Google are a more accurate predictor of house sales in the next quarter than the forecasts of real estate economists. The Federal Reserve, among others, has taken notice. In July, the National Bureau of Economic Research is holding a workshop on "Opportunities in Big Data" and its implications for the economics profession.

For the full story, see:

STEVE LOHR. "NEWS ANALYSIS; The Age of Big Data." The New York Times, SundayReview (Sun., February 12, 2012): 1 & 7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated February 11, 2012.)

February 8, 2012

Stem Cell Therapy for Dry Macular Degeneration


"Dr. Steven Schwartz, a retina specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles, conducted the trial with two patients." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B7) LOS ANGELES -- A treatment for eye diseases that is derived from human embryonic stem cells might have improved the vision of two patients, bolstering the beleaguered field, researchers reported Monday.

The report, published online in the medical journal The Lancet, is the first to describe the effect on patients of a therapy involving human embryonic stem cells.

. . ..

Both patients, who were legally blind, said in interviews that they had gains in eyesight that were meaningful for them. One said she could see colors better and was able to thread a needle and sew on a button for the first time in years. The other said she was able to navigate a shopping mall by herself.

. . .

. . . , researchers at Advanced Cell Technology turned embryonic stem cells into retinal pigment epithelial cells. Deterioration of these retinal cells can lead to damage to the macula, the central part of the retina, and to loss of the straight-ahead vision necessary to recognize faces, watch television or read.

Some 50,000 of the cells were implanted last July under the retinas in one eye of each woman in operations that took about 30 minutes.

One woman, Sue Freeman, who is in her 70s, suffered from the dry form of age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of severe vision loss in the elderly.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Stem Cell Treatment for Eye Diseases Shows Promise." The New York Times (Thurs., January 26, 2012): B7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated January 25, 2012.)


"Sue Freeman said her vision improved in a meaningful way after the treatment, which used embryonic stem cells." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

January 21, 2012

"Just What Ailments Are Pylos Tablets Supposed to Alleviate?"


"Professor Bennett's work opened a window to deciphering tablets written in Linear B, a Bronze Age Aegean script." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. 22) Deciphering an ancient script is like cracking a secret code from the past, and the unraveling of Linear B is widely considered one of the most challenging archaeological decipherments of all time, if not the most challenging.

. . .

Linear B recorded the administrative workings of Mycenaean palatial centers on Crete and the Greek mainland 3,000 years ago: accounts of crops harvested, flocks tended, goods manufactured (including furniture, chariots and perfume), preparations for religious feasts and preparations for war.

It was deciphered at last in 1952, not by a scholar but by an obsessed amateur, a young English architect named Michael Ventris. The decipherment made him world famous before his death in an automobile accident in 1956.

As Mr. Ventris had acknowledged, he was deeply guided by Professor Bennett's work, which helped impose much-needed order on the roiling mass of strange, ancient symbols.

In his seminal monograph "The Pylos Tablets" (1951), Professor Bennett published the first definitive list of the signs of Linear B. Compiling such a list is the essential first step in deciphering any unknown script, and it is no mean feat.

. . .

"We know how much Ventris admired Bennett, because he immediately adopted Bennett's sign list of Linear B for his own work before the decipherment," said Mr. Robinson, whose book "The Man Who Deciphered Linear B" (2002) is a biography of Mr. Ventris. "He openly said, 'This is a wonderful piece of work.' "

. . .

As meticulous as Professor Bennett's work was, it once engendered great confusion. In 1951, after he sent Mr. Ventris a copy of his monograph, a grateful Ventris went to the post office to pick it up. As Mr. Robinson's biography recounts, a suspicious official, eyeing the package, asked him: "I see the contents are listed as Pylos Tablets. Now, just what ailments are pylos tablets supposed to alleviate?"

For the full obituary, see:

MARGALIT FOX. "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Ancient Script Expert, Dies at 93." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., January 1, 2012,): 22.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated December 31, 2011, and has the title: "Emmett L. Bennett Jr., Expert on Ancient Script, Dies at 93.")

The book on the amateur, uncredentialed Ventris is:

Robinson, Andrew. The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris. London, UK: Thames & Hudson, 2002.


"Emmett L. Bennett Jr." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited above.

December 23, 2011

When a Graph Is a Matter of Life and Death

(p. 72) In her authoritative book The Challenger Launch Decision, sociologist Diane Vaughan demolishes the myth that NASA managers ignored unassailable data and launched a mission absolutely known to be unsafe. In fact, the conversations on the evening before launch reflected the confusion and shifting views of the participants. At one point, a NASA manager blurted, "My God, Thiokol, when do you want me to launch, next April?" But at another point on the same evening, NASA managers expressed reservations about the launch; a lead NASA engineer pleaded with his people not to let him make a mistake and stated, "I will not agree to launch against the contractor's recommendation." The deliberations lasted for nearly three hours. If the data had been clear, would they have needed a three-hour discussion? Data analyst extraordinaire Edward Tufte shows in his book Visual Explanations that if the engineers had plotted the data points in a compelling graphic, they might have seen a clear trend line: every launch below 66 degrees showed evidence of (p. 73) O-ring damage. But no one laid out the data in a clear and convincing visual manner, and the trend toward increased danger in colder temperatures remained obscured throughout the late-night teleconference debate. Summing up, the O-Ring Task Force chair noted, "We just didn't have enough conclusive data to convince anyone."


Collins, Jim. How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)

December 9, 2011

Science Not Accurate at Predicting Storm Intensity

(p. D1) For scientists who specialize in hurricanes, Irene, which roared up the Eastern Seaboard over the weekend, has shone an uncomfortable light on their profession. They acknowledge that while they have become adept at gauging the track a hurricane will take, their predictions of a storm's intensity leave much to be desired.

Officials with NOAA's National Hurricane Center had accurately forecast that Irene would hit North Carolina, and then churn up the mid-Atlantic coast into New York. But they thought the storm would be more powerful, its winds increasing in intensity after it passed through the Bahamas on Thursday.

Instead, the storm lost strength. By the time it made landfall in North Carolina two days later, its winds were about 10 percent lighter than predicted.

It's not a new problem. "With intensity, we just haven't moved off square zero," Dr. Marks said. Forecasting a storm's strength requires knowing the fine details of its structure -- the internal organization and movement that can affect whether it gains energy or loses it -- and then plugging those details into an accurate computer model.

Scientists have struggled to do that. They often overestimate strength, which can lead to griping about overpreparedness, as it has with Irene. But they have sometimes underestimated a storm's power, too, as with (p. D3) Hurricane Charley in 2004. And it is far worse to be underprepared for a major storm.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Intensity of Hurricanes Still Bedevils Scientists." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D1 & D3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 29, 2011.)

December 2, 2011

Global Temperatures May Have Flattened, Justifying Global Warming Scepticism

TucumcariWeatherStation2011-11-10.jpgTucsonParkingLotWeatherStation2011-11-10.jpg"Well-sited weather stations, like the one at top in Tucumcari, N.M., are more reliable than others, such as one in a Tuscon, Ariz., parking lot." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photos: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A2) "Before us, there was a huge barrier to entry" in the field of analyzing temperature numbers, says Richard Muller, scientific director of the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature team and a physicist at the University of California, Berkeley.

Many scientists are giving the Berkeley Earth team kudos for creating the unified database.

. . .

"I'm inclined to give [satellite] data more weight than reconstructions from surface-station data," says Stephen McIntyre, a Canadian mathematician who writes about climate, often critically of studies that find warming, at his website Climate Audit. Satellites show about half the amount of warming as that of land-based readings in the past three decades, when the relevant data were collected from space, he says.

Such disputes demonstrate the statistical and uncertain nature of tracking global temperature. Even with tens of thousands of weather stations, most of the Earth's surface isn't monitored. Some stations are more reliable than others. Calculating a global average temperature requires extrapolating from these readings to the whole globe, adjusting for data lapses and suspect stations. And no two groups do this identically.

. . .

Calculating a global temperature is necessary to track climate trends because, as your TV meteorologist might warn, local conditions can differ. Much of the U.S. and Northern Europe has cooled in the last 70 years, Berkeley Earth found. So did one-third of all weather stations world-wide, while two-thirds warmed. The project cites this as evidence of overall warming; skeptics aren't convinced because it depends how concentrated those warming sites are. If they happen to be bunched up while the cooling sites are in sparsely measured areas, then more places could be cooling.

. . .

Any statistical model produces results with some level of uncertainty. The Berkeley Earth project is no different. That uncertainty is large enough to dwarf some trends in temperature. For instance, fluctuations in the land temperature for the past 13 years make it extremely difficult to say whether the Earth has been continuing to warm during that time.

This possible halting of the temperature rise led to a dispute between members of the Berkeley Earth team. Judith Curry, Mr. Muller's co-author and a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told a reporter for the Daily Mail she questioned Mr. Muller's claim, which he published in an opinion column in The Wall Street Journal, that "you should not be a skeptic, at least not any longer." She said that if the global temperature has flattened out, that would raise new questions, and scientific skepticism would remain warranted.

For the full story, see:

CARL BIALIK. "THE NUMBERS GUY; Global Temperatures: All Over the Map." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., November 5, 2011): A2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

November 26, 2011

Crows Use Tools Too


"A captive New Caledonian crow forages for food using a stick tool." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) New Caledonian crows, found in the South Pacific, are among nature's most robust nonhuman tool users. They are well known for using twigs to dislodge beetle larvae from tree trunks.

And there's a good reason. By foraging for just a few larvae, a crow can satisfy its daily nutritional needs, which explains the evolutionary advantage of learning how to use tools, researchers report in the journal Science.

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; Crows Put Tools to Use to Access a Nutritious Diet." The New York Times (Tues., September 21, 2010): D3.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 20, 2010.)

November 17, 2011

Huge Variance in Estimates of Number of Species

(p. D3) Scientists have named and cataloged 1.3 million species. How many more species there are left to discover is a question that has hovered like a cloud over the heads of taxonomists for two centuries.

"It's astounding that we don't know the most basic thing about life," said Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

On Tuesday, Dr. Worm, Dr. Mora and their colleagues presented the latest estimate of how many species there are, based on a new method they have developed. They estimate there are 8.7 million species on the planet, plus or minus 1.3 million.

. . .

In recent decades, scientists have looked for better ways to determine how many species are left to find. In 1988, Robert May, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Oxford, observed that the diversity of land animals increases as they get smaller. He reasoned that we probably have found most of the species of big animals, like mammals and birds, so he used their diversity to calculate the diversity of smaller animals. He ended up with an estimate 10 to 50 million species of land animals.

Other estimates have ranged from as few as 3 million to as many as 100 million. Dr. Mora and his colleagues believed that all of these estimates were flawed in one way or another. Most seriously, there was no way to validate the methods used, to be sure they were reliable.

For the full story, see:

CARL ZIMMER. "How Many Species? A Study Says 8.7 Million, but It's Tricky." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 23 (sic), 2011.)

November 16, 2011

Fossil Shows Placental Mammals 35 Million Years Earlier


"The earliest known eutherian from the Jurassic of China." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) The split between placental mammals and marsupials may have occurred 35 million years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

. . .

The newly identified mammal was small, weighing less than a chipmunk. Based on its claws, it appears to have been an active climber. "This was a skinny little animal, eating insects," said Dr. Luo. "We imagine it was active in the night and capable of going up and down trees."

Its discovery helps reconcile fossil evidence and molecular analysis. Modern molecular studies, which use DNA to estimate dates of evolution, also put the emergence of placentals at about 160 million years ago.

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "OBSERVATORY; A Small Mammal Fossil Tells a Jurassic Tale." The New York Times (Tues., August 30, 2011): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 24 (sic), 2011.)

October 30, 2011

Innovative Entrepreneurs Finance Basic Research in Mariana Trench

OceanDepthGraphic2011-08-10.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) A new generation of daredevils is seeking to plunge through nearly seven miles of seawater to the bottom of a rocky chasm in the western Pacific that is veiled in perpetual darkness. It is the ocean's deepest spot. The forbidding place, known as the Challenger Deep, is so far removed from the warming rays of the sun that its temperature hovers near freezing.

"When I was a kid, I loved not only amazing ocean exploration but space, too," James Cameron, the director of "Avatar," "Titanic" and "The Abyss," said in an interview. "I can think of no greater fantasy than to be an explorer and see what no human eye has seen before."

The would-be explorers can afford to live their dreams because of their extraordinarily deep pockets. Significantly, their ambitions far exceed those of the world's seafaring nations, which have no plans to send people so deep.

The billionaires and millionaires include Mr. Cameron, the airline mogul Richard Branson and the Internet guru Eric E. Schmidt. Each is building, planning to build or financing the construction of minisubmarines meant to transport them, their friends and scientists into the depths. Entrepreneurs talk of taking tourists down as well.

The vehicles, meant to hold one to three people, are estimated to cost anywhere from $7 million to $40 million.

For the full story, see:

WILLIAM J. BROAD. "Ambitions as Deep as Their Pockets." The New York Times (Tues., August 2, 2011): D1 & D4.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated August 1, 2011.)

October 28, 2011

"A Landmark Achievement for Regenerative Medicine"

TracheaMadeInLab2011-08-09.jpg "A lab-made windpipe was implanted June 9 into a 36-year-old patient whose own windpipe was obstructed by a tumor." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) Doctors have replaced the cancer-stricken windpipe of a patient with an organ made in a lab, a landmark achievement for regenerative medicine. The patient no longer has cancer and is expected to have a normal life expectancy, doctors said.

"He was condemned to die," said Paolo Macchiarini, a professor of regenerative surgery who carried out the procedure at Sweden's Karolinska University Hospital. "We now plan to discharge him [Friday]."

The transplantation of an entirely synthetic and permanent windpipe had never been successfully done before the June 9 procedure. The researchers haven't yet published the details in a scientific journal.

For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "Lab-Made Trachea Saves Man; Tumor-Blocked Windpipe Replaced Using Synthetic Materials, Patient's Own Cells." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., July 8, 2011): C8.

October 25, 2011

The Huge Value of Exposing Ourselves to Unexpected Evidence

Bill Bryson tells how much we learned from the remains of a man from the neolithic age, who has been called Ötzi:

(p. 377) His equipment employed eighteen different types of wood - a remarkable variety. The most surprising of all his tools was the axe. It was copper-bladed and of a type known as a Remedello axe, after a site in Italy where they were first found. But Ötzi's axe was hundreds of years older than the oldest Remedello axe. 'It was,' in the words of one observer, 'as if the tomb of a medieval warrior had yielded a modern rifle.' The axe changed the timeframe for the copper age in Europe by no less than a thousand years.

But the real revelation and excitement were the clothes. Before Ötzi we had no idea - or, to be more precise, nothing but ideas - of how stone age people dressed. Such materials as survived existed only as fragments. Here was a complete outfit and it was full of surprises. His clothes were made from the skins and furs of an impressive range of animals - red deer, bear, chamois, goat and cattle. He also had with him a woven grass rectangle that was three feet long. This might have been a kind of rain cape, but it might equally have been a sleeping mat. Again, nothing like it had ever been seen or imagined.

Ötzi wore fur leggings held up with leather strips attached to a waist strap that made them look uncannily - almost comically - like the kind of nylon stockings and garter sets that Hollywood pin-ups wore in the Second World War. Nobody had remotely foreseen such a get-up. He wore a loincloth of goatskin and a hat made from the fur of a brown bear - probably a kind of hunting trophy. It would have been very warm and covetably stylish. The rest of his outfit was mostly made from the skin and fur of red deer. Hardly any came from domesticated animals, the opposite of what was expected.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

October 17, 2011

The Lancet Accused Snow of Being "in the Pocket of Business Interests"

(p. 365) It is hard now to appreciate just how radical and unwelcome Snow's views were. Many authorities actively detested him for them. The Lancet concluded that he was in the pocket of business interests which wished to continue to fill the air with 'pestilent vapours, miasms and loathsome abominations of every kind' and make themselves rich by poisoning their neighbours. 'After careful enquiry,' the parliamentary inquiry concluded, 'we see no reason to adopt this belief.'


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

October 13, 2011

Only John Snow Saw Flaw in Miasma Theory

(p. 362) The miasma theory had just one serious flaw: it was entirely without foundation. Unfortunately only one man saw this, and he couldn't get others to see it with him. His name was John Snow.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

September 28, 2011

We Tend to Ignore Information that Contradicts Our Beliefs


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

We learn the most when our priors are contradicted. But the dissonance between evidence and beliefs is painful. So we often do not see, or soon forget, evidence that does not fit with our beliefs.

The innovative entrepreneur is often a person who sees and forces herself to remember, the dissonant fact, storing it away to make sense of, or make use of, later. At the start, she may be alone in what she sees and what she remembers. So if we are to benefit from her ability and willingness to bear the pain of dissonance, she must have the freedom to differ, and she must have the financial wherewith-all to support herself until her vision is more widely shared, better understood, and more fruitfully applied.

(p. A13) Beliefs come first; reasons second. That's the insightful message of "The Believing Brain," by Michael Shermer, the founder of Skeptic magazine. In the book, he brilliantly lays out what modern cognitive research has to tell us about his subject--namely, that our brains are "belief engines" that naturally "look for and find patterns" and then infuse them with meaning. These meaningful patterns form beliefs that shape our understanding of reality. Our brains tend to seek out information that confirms our beliefs, ignoring information that contradicts them. Mr. Shermer calls this "belief-dependent reality." The well-worn phrase "seeing is believing" has it backward: Our believing dictates what we're seeing.

. . .

One of the book's most enjoyable discussions concerns the politics of belief. Mr. Shermer takes an entertaining look at academic research claiming to prove that conservative beliefs largely result from psychopathologies. He drolly cites survey results showing that 80% of professors in the humanities and social sciences describe themselves as liberals. Could these findings about psychopathological conservative political beliefs possibly be the result of the researchers' confirmation bias?

As for his own political bias, Mr. Shermer says that he's "a fiscally conservative civil libertarian." He is a fan of old-style liberalism, as in liberality of outlook, and cites "The Science of Liberty" author Timothy Ferris's splendid formulation: "Liberalism and science are methods, not ideologies." The "scientific solution to the political problem of oppressive governments," Mr. Shermer says, "is the tried-and-true method of spreading liberal democracy and market capitalism through the open exchange of information, products, and services across porous economic borders."

But it is science itself that Mr. Shermer most heartily embraces. "The Believing Brain" ends with an engaging history of astronomy that illustrates how the scientific method developed as the only reliable way for us to discover true patterns and true agents at work. Seeing through a telescope, it seems, is believing of the best kind.

For the full review, see:

RONALD BAILEY. "A Trick Of the Mind; Looking for patterns in life and then infusing them with meaning, from alien intervention to federal conspiracy." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., July 27, 2011): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

Book reviewed:

Shermer, Michael. The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths. New York: Times Books, 2011.

September 25, 2011

Lunar Entrepreneurs

(p. A1) Now that the last space shuttle has landed back on Earth, a new generation of space entrepreneurs would like to whip up excitement about the prospect of returning to the Moon.

. . .

(p. A3) "It's probably the biggest wealth creation opportunity in modern history," said Barney Pell, a former NASA computer scientist turned entrepreneur and now a co-founder of Moon Express. While Moon Express might initially make money by sending small payloads, the big fortune would come from bringing back platinum and other rare metals, Dr. Pell said.

"Long term, the market is massive, no doubt," he said. "This is not a question of if. It's a question of who and when. We hope it's us and soon."

Like the aviation prizes that jump-started airplane technology a century ago, the Google Lunar X Prize is meant to rally technologists and entrepreneurs. It is administered by the X Prize Foundation, which handed out $10 million in 2004 to the first private team to build a spacecraft that could carry people 60 miles above the Earth's surface. (The winner, SpaceShipOne, was built by the aerospace designer Burt Rutan with backing from Paul Allen, the software magnate.)

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "In a Private Race to the Moon, Flights of Fancy Are in the Air." The New York Times (Fri., July 22, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: the online version of the story is dated July 21, 2011 and has the title "Race to the Moon Heats Up for Private Firms.")

September 19, 2011

John Crandon Proved Scurvy Caused by Lack of Vitamin C

(p. 167) . . . , in 1939 a Harvard Medical School surgeon named John Crandon decided to settle matters once and for all by the age-old method of withholding Vitamin C from his diet for as long as it took to make himself really ill. It took a surprisingly long time. For the first eighteen weeks, his only symptom was extreme fatigue. (Remarkably, he continued to operate on patients throughout this period.) But in the nineteenth week he took an abrupt turn for the worse - so much so that he would almost certainly have died had he not been under close medical supervision. He was injected with 1,000 milligrams of Vitamin C and was restored to life (p. 168) almost at once. Interestingly, he had never acquired the one set of symptoms that everyone associates with scurvy: the falling out of teeth and bleeding of gums.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

September 15, 2011

Obstacles to Curing Scurvy: A Deadly Experiment and Putting Theory Before Evidence

(p. 165) What was needed was some kind of distilled essence - an antiscorbutic, as the medical men termed it - that would be effective against scurvy but portable too. In the 1760s, a Scottish doctor named William Stark, evidently encouraged by Benjamin Franklin, conducted a series of patently foolhardy experiments in which he tried (p. 166) to identify the active agent by, somewhat bizarrely, depriving himself of it. For weeks he lived on only the most basic of foods - bread and water chiefly - to see what would happen. What happened was that in just over six months he killed himself, from scurvy, without coming to any helpful conclusions at all.

In roughly the same period, James Lind, a naval surgeon, conducted a more scientifically rigorous (and personally less risky) experiment by finding twelve sailors who had scurvy already, dividing them into pairs, and giving each pair a different putative elixir - vinegar to one, garlic and mustard to another, oranges and lemons to a third, and so on. Five of the groups showed no improvement, but the pair given oranges and lemons made a swift and total recovery. Amazingly, Lind decided to ignore the significance of the result and doggedly stuck with his personal belief that scurvy was caused by incompletely digested food building up toxins within the body.


Bryson, Bill. At Home: A Short History of Private Life. New York: Doubleday, 2010.

August 25, 2011

Drug from David Sinclair's Sirtris Start-Up Lengthens Life of Obese Mice

MiceLiveLonger2011-08-19.jpg"An obese mouse given the drug SRT-1720, center, and one not given the drug, right." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Sustaining the flickering hope that human aging might somehow be decelerated, researchers have found they can substantially extend the average life span of obese mice with a specially designed drug.

The drug, SRT-1720, protects the mice from the usual diseases of obesity by reducing the amount of fat in the liver and increasing sensitivity to insulin. These and other positive health effects enable the obese mice to live 44 percent longer, on average, than obese mice that did not receive the drug, according to a team of researchers led by Rafael de Cabo, a gerontologist at the National Institute on Aging.

Drugs closely related to SRT-1720 are now undergoing clinical trials in humans.

The findings "demonstrate for the first time the feasibility of designing novel molecules that are safe and effective in promoting longevity and preventing multiple age-related diseases in mammals," Dr. de Cabo and colleagues write in Thursday's issue of the new journal Scientific Reports. Their conclusion supports claims that had been thrown in doubt by an earlier study that was critical of SRT-1720.

A drug that makes it cost-free to be obese may seem more a moral hazard than an incentive to good health. But the rationale behind the research is somewhat different: the researchers are trying to capture the benefits that allow mice on very low-calorie diets to live longer. It just so happens that such benefits are much easier to demonstrate in mice under physiological stress like obesity than in normal mice.

. . .

. . . , a small pharmaceutical concern in Cambridge, Mass., designed SRT-1720 and a set of similar drugs to mimic resveratrol -- the trace ingredient of red wine that is thought to activate protective proteins called sirtuins.

The sirtuins help bring about the 30 percent extension of life span enjoyed by mice and rats that are kept on very low-calorie diets.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Longer Lives for Obese Mice, With Hope for Humans of All Sizes." The New York Times (Fri., August 19, 2011): A1 & A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

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

August 19, 2011

"A Brilliant and Exhilarating and Profoundly Eccentric Book"


"David Deutsch." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. 16) David Deutsch's "Beginning of Infinity" is a brilliant and exhilarating and profoundly eccentric book. It's about everything: art, science, philosophy, history, politics, evil, death, the future, infinity, bugs, thumbs, what have you. And the business of giving it anything like the attention it deserves, in the small space allotted here, is out of the question. But I will do what I can.

. . .

The thought to which Deutsch's conversation most often returns is that the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, or something like it, may turn out to have been the pivotal event not merely of the history of the West, or of human beings, or of the earth, but (literally, physically) of the universe as a whole.

. . .

(p. 17) Deutsch's enthusiasm for the scientific and technological transformation of the totality of existence naturally brings with it a radical impatience with the pieties of environmentalism, and cultural relativism, and even procedural democracy -- and this is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes creepy. He attacks these pieties, with spectacular clarity and intelligence, as small-­minded and cowardly and boring. The metaphor of the earth as a spaceship or life-­support system, he writes, "is quite perverse. . . . To the extent that we are on a 'spaceship,' we have never merely been its passengers, nor (as is often said) its stewards, nor even its maintenance crew: we are its designers and builders. Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heap of dangerous raw materials." But it's hard to get to the end of this book without feeling that Deutsch is too little moved by actual contemporary human suffering. What moves him is the grand Darwinian competition among ideas. What he adores, what he is convinced contains the salvation of the world, is, in every sense of the word, The Market.

For the full review, see:

DAVID ALBERT. "Explaining it All: David Deutsch Offers Views on Everything from Subatomic Particles to the Shaping of the Universe Itself." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., August 14, 2011): 16-17.

(Note: ellipses between paragraphs added; ellipsis in Deutsch quote in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated August 12, 2011 and has the title "Explaining it All: How We Became the Center of the Universe.")

Book under review:

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.

August 17, 2011

A Case for Epistemic and Technological Optimism


Source of book image:

Horgan is well-known for writing a pessimistic book about the future of science. For him to write such a positive review of a book that reaches the opposite conclusion, is impressive (both about him and the book he is reviewing).

From Horgan's review and the reviews on Amazon as of 8/7/11, I view the Deutsch book as potentially important and profound. (I will write more when I have read it.)

(p. 17) . . . Mr. Deutsch knocks my 1996 book, "The End of Science," for proposing that the glory days of science--especially pure science, the effort to map out and understand reality--may be over. Mr. Deutsch equates my thesis with "dogmatism, stagnation and tyranny," all of which, for the record, I oppose. But he makes the case for infinite progress with such passion, imagination and quirky brilliance that I couldn't help enjoying his argument. More often than not I found myself agreeing with him--or at least hoping that he is right.

. . .

If we acknowledge our imperfections, Mr. Deutsch observes, then, paradoxically, there is no problem that we cannot tackle. Death, for instance. Or the apparent incompatibility between the two pillars of modern physics, quantum theory and general relativity. Or global warming, which Mr. Deutsch believes we can overcome through innovation rather than drastic cutbacks in consumption. He gores the sacred cow of "sustainability": Societies are healthiest, he declares, not when they achieve equilibrium but when they are rapidly evolving.

For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. "BOOKSHELF; To Err Is Progress; How to foster the growth of scientific knowledge: accept that it is limited no matter how definitive it may seem." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., JULY 20, 2011): A17.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Source information on book under review:

Deutsch, David. The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World. New York: Viking Adult, 2011.

July 27, 2011

Cow Burps and Farts Cause 28% of Methane Release "Due to Human Activity"

(p. 6A) LOS ANGELES -- Scientists have isolated a bacterium from the gut of Australian Tam­mar wallabies that allows the animals to consume and digest grasses, leaves and other plant material without producing co­pious amounts of methane, as cattle do.

The microbe was discovered through a process described in a report published online recently by the journal Science.

Ultimately, the microbe might be put to use to reduce the car­bon footprint of cows and other ruminants, said report co-author Mark Morrison, a microbial bi­ologist in St. Lucia, Queensland.

. . .

The methane-rich burps and flatulence of cattle have been blamed for 28 percent of that greenhouse gas's global emis­sions due to human activity. Like other cud-chewing mammals, they produce methane as their systems work to break down and ferment the plant matter they eat.

For the full story, see:

THE LOS ANGELES TIMES. "Wallaby microbe may one day help cut cows' methane footprint." Omaha World-Herald (Monday, July 4, 2011): 6A.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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:

June 2, 2011

"When There Is a Massive Release of Methane, the Ocean Can Compensate"

KesslerJohnBiologist2011-05-19.jpg "Dr. John Kessler, lead author of the study, examining a water sample." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) Bacteria made quick work of the tons of methane that billowed into the Gulf of Mexico along with oil from the Deepwater Horizon blowout, clearing the natural gas from the waterway within months of its release, researchers reported Friday.

The federally funded field study, published online in the journal Science, offers peer-reviewed evidence that naturally occurring microbes in the Gulf devoured significant amounts of toxic chemicals in natural gas and oil spewing from the seafloor, which researchers had thought would persist in the region's water chemistry for years.

"Within a matter of months, the bacteria completely removed that methane,"said microbiologist David Valentine at the University of California at Santa Barbara. "The bacteria kicked on more effectively than we expected," he said.

. . .

"We were shocked," said chemical oceanographer John Kessler at Texas A&M, who was the lead author of the Science study. "We thought the methane would be around for years."

. . .

"They showed that, even when there is a massive release of methane, the ocean can compensate," said federal microbiologist Terry Hazen at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who has long championed the use of methane-oxidizing microbes to biodegrade oil spills.

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Microbes Mopped Up After Spill; Bacteria Swiftly Devoured Methane Unleashed Into the Gulf of Mexico, Study Says." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., January 7, 2011): A3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The Science article mentioned above, is:

Kessler, John D., David L. Valentine, Molly C. Redmond, Mengran Du, Eric W. Chan, Stephanie D. Mendes, Erik W. Quiroz, Christie J. Villanueva, Stephani S. Shusta, Lindsay M. Werra, Shari A. Yvon-Lewis, and Thomas C. Weber. "A Persistent Oxygen Anomaly Reveals the Fate of Spilled Methane in the Deep Gulf of Mexico." Science (Jan. 6, 2011).


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

March 26, 2011

Kilimanjaro Snow Has "Come and Gone Over Centuries"

KilimanjaroSnow2011-03-09.jpg "Mount Kilimanjaro's top, shown in June, has lost 26 percent of its ice since 2000, a study says." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A6) The ice atop Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania has continued to retreat rapidly, declining 26 percent since 2000, scientists say in a new report.

Yet the authors of the study, to be published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reached no consensus on whether the melting could be attributed mainly to humanity's role in warming the global climate.

Eighty-five percent of the ice cover that was present in 1912 has vanished, the scientists said.

To measure the recent pace of the retreat, researchers relied on data from aerial photographs taken of Kilimanjaro over time and from stakes and instruments installed on the mountaintop in 2000, said Douglas R. Hardy, a geologist at the University of Massachusetts and one of the study's authors.

. . .

. . . Georg Kaser, a glaciologist at the Institute for Geography of the University of Innsbruck in Austria, said that the ice measured was only a few hundred years old and that it had come and gone over centuries.

What is more, he suggested that the recent melting had more to do with a decline in moisture levels than with a warming atmosphere.

"Our understanding is that it is due to the slow drying out of ice," Dr. Kaser said. "It's about moisture fluctuation."

For the full story, see:

SINDYA N. BHANOO. "Mt. Kilimanjaro's Ice Cap Continues Its Rapid Retreat, but the Cause Is Debated." The New York Times (Tues., November 3, 2009): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 2, 2009 and has the title "Mt. Kilimanjaro Ice Cap Continues Rapid Retreat.")

March 14, 2011

"The Information in a Message Is Inversely Proportional to Its Probability"


Source of book image:

(p. A13) What, exactly, is information? Prior to Shannon, Mr. Gleick notes, the term seemed as hopelessly subjective as "beauty" or "truth." But in 1948 Shannon, then working for Bell Laboratories, gave information an almost magically precise, quantitative definition: The information in a message is inversely proportional to its probability. Random "noise" is quite uniform; the more surprising a message, the more information it contains. Shannon reduced information to a basic unit called a "bit," short for binary digit. A bit is a message that represents one of two choices: yes or no, heads or tails, one or zero.

For the full review, see:

JOHN HORGAN. "Little Bits Go a Long Way; The more surprising a message, the more information it contains." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., March 1, 2011): A13.

Book being reviewed:

Gleick, James. The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. New York: Pantheon Books, 2011.

March 12, 2011

The Dangers from Disease Are Much Greater than the Dangers from Vaccines


Source of book image:

Sometime during the weekend of Feb. 26-27, 2011, I saw several minutes of a C-Span book TV presentation by Paul Offit on his Deadly Choices book. He made a strong case that based on casual and unsound evidence, many parents are putting their children at risk by delaying or even foregoing having their children vaccinated.

As a result children are dying from diseases that they easily could have been protected against.

Book discussed:

Offit, Paul A. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. New York: Basic Books, 2011.

February 12, 2011

"Powerful Pressure for Scientists to Conform"


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) In "Hyping Health Risks," Geoffrey Kabat, an epidemiologist himself, shows how activists, regulators and scientists distort or magnify minuscule environmental risks. He duly notes the accomplishments of epidemiology, such as uncovering the risks of tobacco smoking and the dangers of exposure to vinyl chloride and asbestos. And he acknowledges that industry has attempted to manipulate science. But he is concerned about a less reported problem: "The highly charged climate surrounding environmental health risks can create powerful pressure for scientists to conform and to fall into line with a particular position."

Mr. Kabat looks at four claims -- those trying to link cancer to man-made chemicals, electromagnetic fields and radon and to link cancer and heart disease to passive smoking. In each, he finds more bias than biology -- until further research, years later, corrects exaggeration or error.

. . .

I know whereof Mr. Kabat speaks. In 1992, as the producer of a PBS program, I interviewed an epidemiologist who was on the EPA's passive-smoking scientific advisory board. He admitted to me that the EPA had put its thumb on the evidentiary scales to come to its conclusion. He had lent his name to this process because, he said, he wanted "to remain relevant to the policy process." Naturally, he didn't want to appear on TV contradicting the EPA.

For the full review, see:

RONALD BAILEY. "Bookshelf; Scared Senseless." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., AUGUST 11, 2008): A13.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the first paragraph quoted above has slightly different wording in the online version than the print version; the second paragraph quoted is the same in both.)

The book under review is:

Kabat, Geoffrey C. Hyping Health Risks: Environmental Hazards in Daily Life and the Science of Epidemiology. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

December 28, 2010

Environmentalist Antiglobalization "Vandals" Destroy Giorgio's Corn

FidenatoGiorgioItalianFarmer2010-12-21.jpg "Last week, Giorgio Fidenato, who had planted genetically modified corn, stood amid stalks that had been trampled by antiglobalization activists." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A4) VIVARO, Italy -- Giorgio Fidenato declared war on the Italian government and environmental groups in April with a news conference and a YouTube video, which showed him poking six genetically modified corn seeds into Italian soil.

In fact, said Mr. Fidenato, 49, an agronomist, he planted two fields of genetically modified corn. But since "corn looks like corn," as he put it, it took his opponents weeks to find his crop.

The seeds, known as MON810, are modified so that the corn produces a chemical that kills the larvae of the corn borer, a devastating pest. Yet while European Union rules allow this particular seed to be planted, Italy requires farmers to get special permission for any genetically modified, or G.M., crop -- and the Agriculture Ministry never said yes.

"We had no choice but to engage in civil disobedience -- these seeds are legal in Europe," said Mr. Fidenato, who has repeatedly applied for permission, adding that he drew more inspiration from Ron Paul than Gandhi.

. . .

After Mr. Fidenato's provocation, investigators did genetic testing to identify the locations of the offending stalks in the sea of cornfields that surround this tiny town. Officials seized two suspect fields -- about 12 acres -- and declared the plantings illegal. Greenpeace activists surreptitiously snipped off the stalks' tassels in the hope of preventing pollen from being disseminated.

On Aug. 9, 100 machete-wielding environmental activists from an antiglobalization group called Ya Basta descended on Vivaro and trampled the field before local police officers could intervene. They left behind placards with a skull and crossbones reading: "Danger -- Contaminated -- G.M.O."

Giancarlo Galan, who became agriculture minister in April, called the protesters "vandals," although he did not say he would allow genetically modified crops. But Luca Zaia, the previous agriculture minister and president of the nearby Veneto region, applauded the rampage, saying: "There is a need to show multinationals that they can't introduce Frankenstein crops into our country without authorization."

Over the past decade, genetically modified crops have been a major (p. A8) source of trade friction between Europe and the United States.

Both the United States Food and Drug Administration and the European Food Safety Agency say that there is no scientific evidence that eating MON810 corn is dangerous.

. . .

. . . it is not clear that the battle of Vivaro will have a quick victor. Jail time or at least fines are expected for Mr. Fidenato (illegal planting) and Mr. Tornatore (trespassing and destroying private property).

For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "In the Fields of Italy, a Conflict Over Corn." The New York Times (Tues., August 24, 2010): A4 & A8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 23, 2010.)

CornBorer2010-12-21.jpg"An ear of corn infested with corn borers. A modified variety is meant to counteract the pest." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

December 26, 2010

Alex Was No Birdbrain: "Wanna Go Back"

AlexAndPepperberg2010-12-20.jpgAlex on left, Irene Pepperberg on right. Source of photo: online version of the NYT review quoted and cited below.

(p. 8) "Alex & Me," Irene Pepperberg's memoir of her 30-year scientific collaboration with an African gray parrot, was written for the legions of Alex's fans, the (probably) millions whose lives he and she touched with their groundbreaking work on nonhuman communication.

. . .

Alex, . . . , is a delight -- a one-pound, three-dimensional force of nature. Mischievous and cocky, he also gets bored and frustrated. (And who wouldn't, when asked to repeat tasks 60 times to ensure statistical significance?) He shouts out correct answers when his colleagues (other birds) fail to produce them. If Pepperberg inadvertently greets another bird first in the morning, Alex sulks all day and refuses to cooperate. He demands food, toys, showers, a transfer to his gym.

This ornery reviewer tried to resist Alex's charms on principle (the principle that says any author who keeps telling us how remarkable her subject is cannot possibly be right). But his achievements got the better of me. During one training session, Alex repeatedly asked for a nut, a request that Pepperberg refused (work comes first). Finally, Alex looked at her and said, slowly, "Want a nut. Nnn . . . uh . . . tuh."

"I was stunned," Pepperberg writes. "It was as if he were saying, 'Hey, stupid, do I have to spell it out for you?' " Alex had leaped from phonemes to sound out a complete word -- a major leap in cognitive processing. Perching near a harried accountant, Alex asks over and over if she wants a nut, wants corn, wants water. Frustrated by the noes, he asks, "Well, what do you want?" Mimicry? Maybe. Still, it made me laugh.

After performing major surgery on Alex, a doctor hands him, wrapped in a towel, to an overwrought Pepperberg. Alex "opened an eye, blinked, and said in a tremulous voice, 'Wanna go back.' " It's a phrase Alex routinely used to mean "I'm done with this, take me back to my cage." The scene is both wrenching -- Alex had been near death -- and creepy, evoking the talking bundle in "Eraserhead."

Pepperberg frames her story with Alex's death: the sudden shock of it, and the emotional abyss into which she fell. Ever the scientist, she wonders why she felt so strongly. The answer she comes up with is both simple -- her friend was dead -- and complex. At long last, and buoyed by the outpouring of support from people around the world, she could express the emotions she'd kept in check for 30 years, the better to convince the scientific establishment that she was a serious researcher generating valid and groundbreaking data (some had called her claims about animal minds "vacuous"). When Alex died, that weight lifted.

For the full review, see:

ELIZABETH ROYTE. "The Caged Bird Speaks." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., November 9, 2008): 8.

(Note: first two ellipses added; last two in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date November 7, 2010.)

(p. A21) Even up through last week, Alex was working with Dr. Pepperberg on compound words and hard-to-pronounce words. As she put him into his cage for the night last Thursday, she recalled, Alex looked at her and said: "You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you."

He was found dead in his cage the next morning, Dr. Pepperberg said.

For the full obituary, see:

BENEDICT CAREY. "Brainy Parrot Dies, Emotive to the End." The New York Times (Tues., September 11, 2007): A23.

A reporter questions Oxford professor Alex Kacelnik:

I asked him why more researchers weren't working with African grays, trying to replicate Pepperberg's achievements with Alex. "The problem with these animals is that they are the opposite of fruit flies," he said, meaning that parrots live a long time--often, fifty to sixty years in captivity. "Alex was still learning when he died, and he was thirty." He later elaborated: "Irene's work could not really have been planned ahead, as nobody knew what was possible. . . . Alex's development as a unique animal accompanied Irene's as a unique scientist. Hers is not a career trajectory one would advise to young scientists--it's too risky."

For the full story, see:

Margaret Talbot. "Birdbrain." The New Yorker (May 12, 2008).

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

The book on Alex by Pepperberg, is:

Pepperberg, Irene M. Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence--and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.

December 9, 2010

Science Can Contribute "Diligent Experimental Habits" to Technology

(p. 101) Nothing is more common in the history of science than independent discovery of the same phenomenon, unless it is a fight over priority. To this day, historians debate how much prior awareness of the theory of latent heat was in Watt's possession, but they miss Black's real contribution, which anyone can see by examining the columns of neat script that attest to Watt's careful recording of experimental results. Watt didn't discover the existence of latent heat from Black, at least not directly; but he rediscovered it entirely through exposure to the diligent experimental habits of professors such as Black, John Robison, and Robert Dick.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

December 8, 2010

After Being "Nasty and Unruly for Decades" Henry Becomes a Father at Age 111


"TUATARA. The tuatara, scientists have learned, is in some ways a so-called living fossil." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D1) . . . the animal that may well be New Zealand's most bizarrely instructive species at first glance looks surprisingly humdrum: the tuatara. A reptile about 16 inches long with bumpy, khaki-colored skin and a lizardly profile, the tuatara could easily be mistaken for an iguana. Appearances in this case are wildly deceptive. The tuatara -- whose name comes from the Maori language and means "peaks on the back" -- is not an iguana, is not a lizard, is not like any other reptile alive today.

In fact, as a series of recent studies suggest, it is not like any other vertebrate alive today. The tuatara, scientists have learned, is in some ways a so-called living fossil, its basic skeletal layout and skull shape almost identical to that of tuatara fossils dating back hundreds of millions of years, to before the rise of the dinosaurs. Cer-(p. D2)tain tuatara organs and traits also display the hallmarks of being, if not quite primitive, at least closer to evolutionary baseline than comparable structures in other animals.

. . .

Tuataras are living fossils in more than one sense of the term. Through long-term capture, tag and recapture studies that were begun right after World War II, researchers have found that tuataras match and possibly exceed in attainable life span that other Methuselah of the animal kingdom, the giant tortoise. "Tuataras routinely live to 100, and I couldn't tell you they don't live to 150, 200 years or even more," said Dr. Daugherty.

They live, and live it up. "We know there are females that are still reproducing in their 80s," said Dr. Daugherty. At the Southland Museum and Art Gallery in Invercargill, New Zealand, a captive male tuatara named Henry, a local celebrity that had been nasty and unruly for decades until a malignancy was removed from his genitals, mated with an 80-year-old female named Mildred, and last year became a first-time father -- at the age of 111.

For the full story, see:

NATALIE ANGIER. "Basics; Reptile's Pet-Store Looks Belie Its Triassic Appeal." The New York Times (Tues., November 23, 2010): D1 & D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated November 22, 2010.)

December 6, 2010

Telomerase Can Reverse Aging Ills in Mice

MiceInTelomeraseExperiment2010-12-05.jpg"Two mice involved in an experiment on age-related degeneration. Mice whose telomerase gene was activated, left, showed notable improvements." Source of caption: print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A3) Scientists have partially reversed age-related degeneration in mice, an achievement that suggests a new approach for tackling similar disorders in people.

By tweaking a gene, the researchers reversed brain disease and restored the sense of smell and fertility in prematurely aged mice. Previous experiments with calorie restriction and other methods have shown that aspects of aging can be slowed. This appears to be the first time that some age-related problems in animals have actually been reversed.

The study was published online Sunday in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

"These mice were equivalent to 80-year-old humans and were about to pass away," says Ronald DePinho, co-author of the paper and a scientist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. After the experiment, "they were the physiological equivalent of young adults."

For the full story, see:

GAUTAM NAIK. "Aging Ills Reversed in Mice; Scientists Tweak a Gene and Rejuvenate Cells, Raising Hopes for Uses in Humans." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 29, 2010): A3.

(Note: online version of the article is dated NOVEMBER 28, 2010.)


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

December 5, 2010

A Key to Scientific Truth: Nullius in Verba ("On No One's Word")

(p. 68) . . . scientific understanding didn't progress by looking for truth; it did so by looking for mistakes.

This was new. In the cartoon version of the Scientific Revolution, science made its great advances in opposition to a heavy-handed Roman Catholic Church; but an even larger obstacle to progress in the understanding and manipulation of nature was the belief that Aristotle had already figured out all of physics and had observed all that biology had to offer, or that Galen was the last word in medicine. By this standard, the real revolutionary manifesto of the day was written not by Descartes, or Galileo, but by the seventeenth-century Italian poet and physician Francesco Redi, in his Experiments on the Generation of Insects, who wrote (as one of a hundred examples), "Aristotle asserts that cabbages produce caterpillars daily, but I have not been able to witness this remarkable reproduction, though I have seen many eggs laid by butterflies on the cabbage-stalks. . . ." Not for nothing was the motto of the Royal Society nullius in verba: "on no one's word."


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: first ellipsis added; italics and second ellipsis, in original.)

December 4, 2010

"A Really Nice Story about Adaptability of Our Life Form"

WolfeSimonFelisaArsenicBacterium2010-12-03.jpg"Felisa Wolfe-Simon takes samples from a sediment core she pulled up from the remote shores of 10 Mile Beach at Mono Lake in California." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Scientists said Thursday that they had trained a bacterium to eat and grow on a diet of arsenic, in place of phosphorus -- one of six elements considered essential for life -- opening up the possibility that organisms could exist elsewhere in the universe or even here on Earth using biochemical powers we have not yet dared to dream about.

The bacterium, scraped from the bottom of Mono Lake in California and grown for months in a lab mixture containing arsenic, gradually swapped out atoms of phosphorus in its little body for atoms of arsenic.

Scientists said the results, if confirmed, would expand the notion of what life could be and where it could be. "There is basic mystery, when you look at life," said Dimitar Sasselov, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and director of an institute on the origins of life there, who was not involved in the work. "Nature only uses a restrictive set of molecules and chemical reactions out of many thousands available. This is our first glimmer that maybe there are other options."

Felisa Wolfe-Simon, a NASA astrobiology fellow at the United States Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif., who led the experiment, said, "This is a microbe that has solved the problem of how to live in a different way."

This story is not about Mono Lake or arsenic, she said, but about "cracking open the door and finding that what we think are fixed constants of life are not."

. . .

(p. A4) Caleb Scharf, an astrobiologist at Columbia University who was not part of the research, said he was amazed. "It's like if you or I morphed into fully functioning cyborgs after being thrown into a room of electronic scrap with nothing to eat," he said.

Gerald Joyce, a chemist and molecular biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif., said the work "shows in principle that you could have a different form of life," but noted that even these bacteria are affixed to the same tree of life as the rest of us, like the extremophiles that exist in ocean vents.

"It's a really nice story about adaptability of our life form," he said. "It gives food for thought about what might be possible in another world."

For the full story, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. "Microbe Finds Arsenic Tasty; Redefines Life." The New York Times (Fri., December 3, 2010): A1 & A4.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 2, 2010.)

December 1, 2010

"The Steam Engine Has Done Much More for Science than Science Has Done for the Steam Engine"

(p. 67) The great scientist and engineer William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, made his reputation on discoveries in basic physics. electricity, and thermodynamics, but he may be remembered just as well for his talent for aphorism. Among the best known of Kelvin's quotations is the assertion that "all science is either physics or stamp collecting (while one probably best forgotten is the confident "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"). But the most relevant for a history of the Industrial Revolution is this: "the steam engine has done much more for science than science has done for the steam engine."


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

November 24, 2010

"It Can Be Hard to Tell a Crank from an Unfamiliar Gear"


"Leigh Van Valen." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 33) His beard, it was said, was longer than God's but not as long as Charles Darwin's. Thousands of books teetered perilously in his office, and a motion-sensitive door startled visitors with cricket chirps. He took notes on his own thoughts while conversing with others.

The evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen's eccentricities were legend far beyond the University of Chicago, where brilliant and idiosyncratic professors rule. He named 20 fossil mammals he had discovered after characters in J. R. R. Tolkien's fiction, and his most famous hypothesis -- among the most cited in the literature of evolution -- was named for the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll's "Through the Looking Glass."

That hypothesis helped explain why organisms, competing for survival, developed two sexes. It did not explain why Professor Van Valen gave better grades to students who disagreed with him -- provoking an instant evolutionary adaptation in the tone of student essays -- much less why he wrote songs about the sex lives of dinosaurs and paramecia.

. . .

After his Red Queen paper was initially, and repeatedly, rejected, Dr. Van Valen started his own journal, Evolutionary Theory, to publish it. As its longtime editor, he treated all submissions seriously. "It can be hard to tell a crank from an unfamiliar gear," he wrote.

For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Leigh Van Valen, a Revolutionary in the Study of Evolution, Dies at 76." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., October 31, 2010): 33.

(Note: ellipsIs added.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated October 30, 2010 and has the title "Leigh Van Valen, Evolution Revolutionary, Dies at 76.")

November 15, 2010

If the Uncredentialed Succeed, It Must Be Luck

(p. 33) Newcomen and Calley had, in broad strokes, the design for a working engine. They had enjoyed some luck, though it was anything but dumb luck. This didn't seem to convince the self-named (p. 34) experimental philosopher J. T. Desaguliers, a Huguenot refugee Like Papin, who became one of Isaac Newton's assistants and (later) a priest in the Church of England. Desaguliers wrote, just before his death in 1744, that the two men had made their engine work, but "not being either philosophers to understand the reason, or mathematicians enough to calculate the powers and to proportion the parts, very luckily by accident found what they sought for."

The notion of' Newcomen's scientific ignorance persists to this day. One of its expressions is the legend that the original engine was made to cycle automatically by the insight of a boy named Humphrey Potter, who built a mazelike network of catches and strings from the plug rod to open the valves and close them. It is almost as if a Dartmouth ironmonger simply had to have an inordinate amount of luck to succeed where so many had failed.

The discovery of the power of injected water was luck; understanding and exploiting it was anything but. Newcomen and CalIey replaced the accidental hole in the cylinder with an injection valve, and, ingeniously, attached it to the piston itself. When the piston reached the bottom of the cylinder, it automatically closed the injection valve and opened another valve, permitting the water to flow out.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

November 11, 2010

Toricelli Experiment Dispoved Aristotlelian Theory that a Vacuum Was Impossible

(p. 8) Florence, in the year 1641, had been essentially the private fief of the Medici family for two centuries. The city, ground zero for both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, was also where Galileo Galilei had chosen to live out the sentence imposed by the Inquisition for his heretical writings that argued that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was seventy years old and living in a villa in Arcetri, in the hills above the city, (p. 9) when he read a book on the physics of movement titled De motu (sometimes Trattato del Moto) and summoned its author, Evangelista Torricelli, a mathematician then living in Rome. Torricelli, whose admiration for Galileo was practically without limit, decamped in time not only to spend the last three months of the great man's life at his side, but to succeed him as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.

. . .

(p. 9) . . . , Torricelli used a tool even more powerful than his well--cultivated talent for mathematical logic: He did experiments. At the behest of one of his patrons, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose engineers were unable to build a sufficiently powerful pump, Torricelli designed a series of apparatuses to test the limits of the action of contemporary water pumps. In spring of 1644, Torricelli filled a narrow, four-foot-long glass tube with mercury--a far heavier fluid than water--inverted it in a basin of mercury, sealing the tube's top. and documented that while the mercury did not pour out, it did leave a space at the closed top of the tube. He reasoned that since nothing could have slipped past the mercury in the tube, what occupied the top of the tube must, therefore, be nothing: a vacuum.

. . .

(p. 10) Torricelli was not, even by the standards of his day, a terribly ambitious inventor. When faced with hostility from religious authorities and other traditionalists who believed, correctly, that his discovery was a direct shot at the Aristotelian world, he happily returned to his beloved cycloids, the latest traveler to find himself on the wrong side of the boundary line between science and technology

But by then it no longer mattered if Torricelli was willing to leave the messiness of physics for the perfection of mathematics: vacuum would keep mercury in the bottle, hut the genie was already out. Nature might have found vacuum repugnant for two thousand years, but Europe was about to embrace it.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)

November 7, 2010

How Scientific Progress Was Slowed By Too Much Respect for Aristotelian Theory

William Rosen has a wonderful early example of how too much respect for theory can keep us from making the observations that would eventually prove the theory to be wrong:

(p. 7) Aristotle argued against the existence of a vacuum with unerring, though curiously inelegant, logic. His primary argument ran something like this:

1. If empty space can be measured, then it must have dimension.
2. If it has dimension, then it must be a body (this is something of a tautology: by Aristotelian definition, bodies are things that have dimension).
3. Therefore, anything moving into such a previously empty space would he occupying the same space simultaneously, and two bodies cannot do so.

More persuasive was the argument that a void is unnecessary, that since the fundamental character of an object consists of those measurable dimensions, then a void with the same dimensions as the cup, or horse, or ship occupying it is no different from the object. One, therefore, is redundant, and since the object cannot be superfluous, the void must be.

It takes millennia to recover from that sort of unassailable logic, temptingly similar to that used in Monty Python and the Holy GraiI to demonstrate that if a woman weighs as much as a duck, she is a witch. Aristotle's blind spot regarding the existence of a void would be inherited by a hundred generations of his adherents. Those who read the work of Heron did so through an Aristotelian scrim on which was printed, in metaphorical letters twenty feet high: NATURE ABHORS A VACUUM.


Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)

November 2, 2010

William Rosen's "The Most Powerful Idea in the World"


Source of book image:

The range of William Rosen's fascinating and useful book is very broad indeed. He is interested in THE question: why did the singular improvement in living standards known as the industrial revolution happen where and when it did?

The question is not just of historical interest---if we can figure out what caused the improvement then and there, we have a better shot at continuing to improve in the here and now.

I especially enjoyed and learned from William Rosen's discussion, examples and quotations on the difficult issue of whether patents are on balance a good or bad institution.

Deirdre McCloskey taught me that the most important part of a sentence is the last word, and the most important part of a paragraph is the last sentence, and the most important part of a chapter is the last paragraph.

Here are the last couple of sentences of Rosen's book:

(p. 324) Incised in the stone over the Herbert C. Hoover Building's north entrance is the legend that, with Lincoln's characteristic brevity, sums up the single most important idea in the world:




In the next few weeks I will occasionally quote a few of the more illuminating passages from Rosen's well-written account.

Book discussed:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

September 25, 2010

"A Very Clear-Thinking Heretic" Doubted Big Bang Theory

BurbidgeGeoffrey2010-09-02.jpg "Geoffrey Burbidge's work in astronomy changed the field." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

(p. 26) Geoffrey Burbidge, an English physicist who became a towering figure in astronomy by helping to explain how people and everything else are made of stardust, died on Jan. 26 in San Diego. He was 84.

. . .

Dr. Burbidge's skepticism extended to cosmology. In 1990, he and four other astronomers, including Drs. Arp and Hoyle, published a broadside in the journal Nature listing arguments against the Big Bang.

Dr. Burbidge preferred instead a version of Dr. Hoyle's Steady State theory of an eternal universe. In the new version, small, local big bangs originating in the nuclei of galaxies every 20 billion years or so kept the universe boiling. To his annoyance, most other astronomers ignored this view.

In a memoir in 2007, Dr. Burbidge wrote that this quasi-steady state theory was probably closer to the truth than the Big Bang. But he added that "there is such a heavy bias against any minority point of view in cosmology that it may take a very long time for this to occur."

Despite his contrarian ways, Dr. Burbidge maintained his credibility in the astronomical establishment, serving as director of Kitt Peak from 1978 to 1984 and editing the prestigious Annual Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics for more than 30 years. He was "a very clear-thinking heretic," Dr. Strittmatter said.

For the full obituary, see:

DENNIS OVERBYE. "Geoffrey Burbidge, Who Traced Life to Stardust, Is Dead at 84 " The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 7, 2010 ): A7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary is dated February 6, 2010.)

September 12, 2010

More than a Quarter of Weathercasters Believe "Global Warming is a Scam"

(p. A1) Joe Bastardi, . . . , a senior forecaster and meteorologist with AccuWeather, maintains that it is more likely that the planet is cooling, and he distrusts the data put forward by climate scientists as evidence for rising global temperatures.

"There is a great deal of consternation among a lot of us over the readjustment of data that is going on and some of the portrayals that we are seeing," Mr. Bastardi said in a video segment posted recently on AccuWeather's Web site.

Such skepticism appears to be widespread among TV forecasters, about half of whom have a degree in meteorology. A study released on Monday by researchers at George Mason University and the University of Texas at Austin found that only about half of the 571 television weathercasters surveyed believed that global warming was occurring and fewer than a third believed that climate change was "caused mostly by human activities."

More than a quarter of the weathercasters in the survey agreed with the statement "Global warming is a scam," the researchers found.

For the full story, see:

LESLIE KAUFMAN. "Scientists and Weathercasters at Odds over Climate Change." The New York Times (Tues., March 30, 2010): A1 & A16.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated March 29, 2010 and had the title "Among Weathercasters, Doubt on Warming.")

September 11, 2010

Vatican Made Bellarmine a Saint in 1930, but Still Says Galileo Erred

GalileoBust2010-09-01.jpg "A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence's cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist's remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.

According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo's body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, "symmetrical to a beatification," said Mr. Galluzzi.

After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo's remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence's Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany's powers that they were outside the Vatican's control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo's permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.

. . .

Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope's theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)

Pope John Paul II reopened the Galileo case in 1981, and in 1992 issued his committee's findings: that the judges who condemned Galileo had erred but that the scientist had also erred in his arrogance in thinking that his theory would be accepted with no physical evidence.

. . .

. . . as recently as last fall, at a news conference introducing an exhibition of historic telescopic instruments at the Vatican Museums, the director of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, referred without blinking to "the errors committed by both sides" -- indicating both the church and Galileo.

For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO. "Florence Journal; A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel." The New York Times (Fri., July 23, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 22, 2010.)

August 18, 2010

Carbon Dioxide Increased After the Globe Warmed, Not Before

The passages quoted below are from an opinion piece by retired physicist Jack Kasher who was a colleague of mine at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

I was pleased to see that the Millard school district pulled Laurie David's book, "The Down-to-Earth Guide to Global Warming," due to "a major factual error" in a chart that shows rising temperatures and carbon dioxide levels dating back 650,000 years. The chart claims to show that global warming is caused by increases in carbon dioxide levels, but the facts show that this is not the case.

In May, I attended an international conference on global warming in Chicago, with 73 speakers from 23 countries. The book and its erroneous chart were discussed there. (Go online to and click on "proceedings" to see most of the talks and PowerPoint presentations.)

When the error is corrected, the chart will show that in every single case over this time span the Earth warmed up first, followed by a later increase in carbon dioxide. This is clear proof that in the past global warming was not caused by an increase in CO2. If anything, it is the other way around. In each instance, something other than CO2 caused the temperature increase, which then might have made the CO2 rise. This chart shows that past history actually contradicts David's main assumption in her book -- namely that man-made carbon dioxide is causing global warming.

For the full commentary, see:

Dr. Jack Kasher. "Midlands Voices: Let's include uncertainties in global-warming lessons." Omaha World-Herald (Wednesday June 30, 2010): ??.

August 9, 2010

Scientific Opinion Shifts to Galambos Who Was Fired for His Theory


"Robert Galambos, . . . , studied the inaudible sounds that allow bats to fly in the dark." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 20) Dr. Robert Galambos, a neuroscientist whose work included helping to prove how bats navigate in total darkness and deciphering the codes by which nerves transmit sounds to the brain, died June 18 at his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He was 96.

. . .

In 1960, while on an airplane, Dr. Galambos wrote that he had an inspiring thought: that the tiny cells that make up 40 percent of the brain, called glia, are as crucial to mental functioning as neurons.

"I know how the brain works!" he exclaimed to his companion.

But his superiors at Walter Reed found the theory so radical that he was soon job-hunting. The view at the time was that glia existed mainly to support neurons, considered the structural and functional unit of the nervous system. But Dr. Galambos clung to his belief, despite the failure of three experiments he performed in the 1960s.

Since then, scientific opinion has been shifting in his direction. In 2008, Ben A. Barres of the Stanford University School of Medicine wrote glowingly in the journal Neuron about the powerful role glia are now seen to play. He concluded, "Quite possibly the most important roles of glia have yet to be imagined."

For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Robert Galambos, 96, Dies; Studied Nerves and Sound." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., July 18, 2010): 20.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated July 15, 2010 and has the title "Robert Galambos, Neuroscientist Who Showed How Bats Navigate, Dies at 96.")

(Note: ellipses added.)

August 1, 2010

Jefferson "Was Experimental and Had a Lot of Failures"

JeffersonianGardeningA2010-07-12.jpg"In the vegetable garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sowed seeds from around the world and shared them with farmers. He was not afraid of failure, which happened often." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

Steven Johnson has written an intriguing argument that the intellectual foundation of the founding fathers was based as much on experimental science as on religion. The article quoted below provides a small bit of additional evidence in support of Johnson's argument.

(p. D1) NEW gardeners smitten with the experience of growing their own food -- amazed at the miracle of harvesting figs on a Brooklyn rooftop, horrified by the flea beetles devouring the eggplants -- might be both inspired and comforted by the highs and lows recorded by Thomas Jefferson from the sun-baked terraces of his two-acre kitchen garden 200 years ago.

And they could learn a thing or two from the 19th-century techniques still being used at Monticello today.

"He was experimental and had a lot of failures," Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds, said on a recent afternoon, as we stood under a scorching sun in the terraced garden that took seven slaves three years to cut into the hill. "But Jefferson always believed that 'the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.' "

After he left the White House in 1809 and moved to Monticello, his Palladian estate here, Jefferson grew 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, until his death in 1826.

As we walked along the geometric beds -- many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern -- I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown. Sea kale, with its great, ruffled blue-green leaves, now full of little round seed pods. Egyptian onions, whose tall green stalks bore quirky hats of tiny seeds and wavy green sprouts. A pre-Columbian tomato called Purple Calabash, whose energetic vines would soon be trained up a cedar trellis made of posts cut from the woods.

"Purple Calabash is one of my favorites," Mr. Hatch said. "It's an acidic, al-(p. D7)most black tomato, with a convoluted, heavily lobed shape."

Mr. Hatch, who has directed the restoration of the gardens here since 1979, has pored over Jefferson's garden notes and correspondence. He has distilled that knowledge in "Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden," to be published by Yale University Press.

For the full story, see:

ANNE RAVER. "A Revolutionary With Seeds, Too." The New York Times (Thurs., July 1, 2010): D1 & D7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated June 30, 2010 and has the title "In the Garden; At Monticello, Jefferson's Methods Endure.")

June 19, 2010

Economics Is More Like Biology than Physics

(p. A13) If economics is a science, it is more like biology than physics. Biologists try to understand the relationships in a complex system. That's hard enough. But they can't tell you what will happen with any precision to the population of a particular species of frog if rainfall goes up this year in a particular rain forest. They might not even be able to count the number of frogs right now with any exactness.

We have the same problems in economics. The economy is a complex system, our data are imperfect and our models inevitably fail to account for all the interactions.

The bottom line is that we should expect less of economists. Economics is a powerful tool, a lens for organizing one's thinking about the complexity of the world around us. That should be enough. We should be honest about what we know, what we don't know and what we may never know. Admitting that publicly is the first step toward respectability.

For the full commentary, see:

RUSS ROBERTS. "Is the Dismal Science Really a Science? Some macroeconomists say if we just study the numbers long enough we'll be able to design better policy. That's like the sign in the bar: Free Beer Tomorrow." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., FEBRUARY 26, 2010): A13.

June 12, 2010

Finding the Neanderthal in Us

VindijaCaveCroatiaNeanderthalBones2010-05-19.jpg"The Vindija cave in Croatia where three small Neanderthal bones were found." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article cited below.

(p. A3) The burly Ice Age hunters known as Neanderthals, a long-extinct species, survive today in the genes of almost everyone outside Africa, according to an international research team who offer the first molecular evidence that early humans mated and produced children in liaisons with Neanderthals.

In a significant advance, the researchers mapped most of the Neanderthal genome--the first time that the heredity of such an ancient human species has been reliably reconstructed. The researchers, able for the first time to compare the relatively complete genetic coding of modern and prehistoric human species, found the Neanderthal legacy accounts for up to 4% of the human genome among people in much of the world today.

By comparing the Neanderthal genetic information to the modern human genome, the scientists were able to home in on hints of subtle differences between the ancient and modern DNA affecting skin, stature, fertility and brain power that may have given Homo sapiens an edge over their predecessors.

"It is tantalizing to think that the Neanderthal is not totally extinct," said geneticist Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who pioneered the $3.8 million research project. "A bit of them lives on in us today."

. . .

For their analysis, Dr. Pääbo and his colleagues extracted DNA mostly from the fossil remains of three Neanderthal women who lived and died in Croatia between 38,000 and 45,000 years ago. From thimblefuls of powdered bone, the researchers pieced together about three billion base pairs of DNA, covering about two-thirds of the Neanderthal genome. The researchers checked those samples against fragments of genetic code extracted from three other Neanderthal specimens.

"It is a tour de force to get a genome's worth," said genetic database expert Ewan Birney at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Cambridge, England.

In research published Thursday in Science, the researchers compared the Neanderthal DNA to the genomes drawn from five people from around the world: a San tribesman from South Africa; a Yoruba from West Africa; a Han Chinese; a West European; and a Pacific islander from Papua, New Guinea. They also checked it against the recently published genome of bio-entrepreneur Craig Venter. Traces of Neanderthal heredity turned up in all but the two African representatives.

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Most People Carry Neanderthal Genes; Team Finds up to 4% of Human Genome Comes From Extinct Species, the First Evidence It Mated With Homo Sapiens." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., MAY 7, 2010): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review is dated MAY 6, 2010.)

A related article, the online version of which is the source for the caption and photo above, is:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Analysis of Neanderthal Genome Points to Interbreeding with Modern Humans." The New York Times (Fri., May 7, 2010): A9.

(Note: the online version of the review is dated May 6, 2010 and has the title "Signs of Neanderthals Mating With Humans.")

VindijaCaveBone2010-05-19.jpg"A close-up of the bone Vindija 33.16 from Vindija cave, Croatia." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

April 21, 2010

Genetically Modified Crops Provide Benefits, Scientists Say

GeneticallyModifiedCornSeed2010-04-19.jpg"A Missouri corn and soybean farmer with a sample of BioTech seed corn." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. B3) The report is described as the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of genetically modified crops on American farmers, who have rapidly adopted them since their introduction in 1996. The study was issued by the National Research Council, which is affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences and provides advice to the nation under a Congressional charter.

The report found that the crops allowed farmers to either reduce chemical spraying or to use less harmful chemicals. The crops also had lower production costs, higher output or extra convenience, benefits that generally outweighed the higher costs of the engineered seeds.

"That's a long and impressive list of benefits these crops can provide, and have provided to adopting farmers," David E. Ervin, the chairman of the committee that wrote the report, said on Tuesday during a webcast news conference from Washington.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW POLLACK. "Study Finds Benefits of Genetically Modified Crops But Warns of Overuse." The New York Times (Thurs., April 14, 2010): B3.

(Note: the online version of the article was dated April 13, 2010 and has the very different title "Study Says Overuse Threatens Gains From Modified Crops.")

April 14, 2010

Highly Reputed Academic Science Journal Found Similar Error Rates in Britannica and Wikipedia

(p. 208) Wikipedia was already highly regarded, anecdotally, but it got a glowing evaluation from the prestigious Nature magazine in December 2005, when it concluded that Wikipedia "comes close" to Britannica in the quality of its science articles. "Our reviewers identified an average of four errors in each Wikipedia article, and three in each Britannica article."

The news came as a bit of a surprise. Many folks felt Wikipedia did better than they'd have thought, and Britannica did, well, worse than they expected. The result of the study was hotly debated between Nature and Britannica, but to most Wikipedians it was a vindication. They knew that Wikipedia was a minefield of errors, but to be in such close proximity in quality to a traditionally edited encyclopedia, while using such a grassroots process, was the external validation they had been waiting for.

Britannica wasn't pleased with the methodology, and posted a rebuttal with this criticism: "Almost everything about the journal's investigation, from the criteria for identifying inaccuracies to the discrepancy between the article text and its headline, was wrong and misleading." Nature and Britannica exchanged barbs and rebuttals, but in the end, the overall result seemed clear.

"The Nature (sic) article showed that we are on the right track with our current methods. We just need better ways to prevent the display of obvious vandalism at any time," wrote longtime Wikipedian Daniel Mayer on the mailing list.


Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)

April 2, 2010

"Expert Scholarship" Versus "People of Dubious Background"

(p. 71) The acknowledgment, by name, of volunteers in the preface sections of the OED is akin to Wikipedia's edit history, where one can inspect who contributed to each article. Some Oxford contributors were professors, some royalty, but most were ordinary folks who answered the call. Winchester, in The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, tells the story of the "madman" William Chester Minor, a U.S. Civil War survivor whose "strange and erratic behavior" resulted in him shooting an "innocent working man" to death in the street in Lambeth. He was sent to Broadmoor asylum for criminal lunatics. He discovered the OED as a project around 1881, when he saw the "Appeal for Readers" in the library, and worked for the next twenty-one years contributing to the project, receiving notoriety as a contributor "second only to the contributions of Dr. Fitzedward Hall in enhancing our illustration of the literary history of individual words, phrases and constructions." Minor did something unusual in not just sending submissions, but having his own cataloging system such that the dictionary editors could send a postcard and "out the details flowed, in abundance and always with unerring accuracy." Until Minor and Murray met in January 1891, no one working with (p. 72) the OED knew their prolific contributor was a madman and murderer housed at Broadmoor.

As we will see in later chapters, a common question of the wiki method is whether one can trust information created by strangers and people of dubious background. But the example of the OED shows that using contributors rather than original expert scholarship is not a new phenomenon, and that projects built as a compendium of primary sources are well suited for harnessing the power of distributed volunteers.


Lih, Andrew. The Wikipedia Revolution: How a Bunch of Nobodies Created the World's Greatest Encyclopedia. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

(Note: italics in original.)

March 10, 2010

Briffa's Tree Ring Evidence Undermines "Hockey Stick" Global Warming Graph

(p. A12) The problem: Using Mr. Briffa's tree-ring techniques, researchers in the '90s built charts suggesting temperatures in the late 20th century were the highest in a millennium. The charts were dubbed "hockey sticks" because they showed temperatures relatively flat for centuries, then angling higher recently.

But Mr. Briffa fretted about a potential issue. Thermometers show temperatures have risen since the '60s, but tree-ring data don't move in tandem, and sometimes show the opposite. (Average annual temperatures reached the highest on record in 2005, according to U.S. government data. They fell the next three years, and rose in 2009. All those years remain among the warmest on record.)

In his same 1999 email, Mr. Briffa said tree-ring data overall did show "unusually warm" conditions in recent decades. But, he added, "I believe that the recent warmth was probably matched about 1,000 years ago."

In other words, maybe the chart shouldn't resemble a hockey stick.

The data were the subject of heated back-and-forth before the IPCC's 2001 report. John Christy, one of the section's lead authors, said at the time that he tried in vain to make sure the report reflected the uncertainty.

Mr. Christy said in an interview that some of the pressure to downplay the uncertainty came from Michael Mann, a fellow lead author of that chapter, a scientist at Pennsylvania State University, and a developer of the original hockey-stick chart.

The "very prominent" use of the hockey-stick chart "overrules what tentativeness some of us actually intended," Mr. Christy wrote to the National Research Council in the U.S. a month after the report was published. Mr. Christy, a climate scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, provided that email.

"I was suspicious of the hockey stick," Mr. Christy said in an interview. Had Mr. Briffa's concerns been more widely known, "The story coming out of the [report] may have been different in tone and confidence."

For the full story, see:

JEFFREY BALL And KEITH JOHNSON. "Push to Oversimplify at Climate Panel." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., February 26, 2010): A1 & A12.


Hockey stick graph is on top; more accurate, but much less publicized graph, is on bottom. Source of graphs: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

March 4, 2010

Doubts on Sainthood for U.N.'s Global Warming Nobel Prize Winning Pachauri

GorePachauriNobelPrizes2010-02-28.jpg "Rajendra K. Pachauri, right, the United Nations climate panel's leader, at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony with Al Gore in 2007." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Just over two years ago, Rajendra K. Pachauri seemed destined for a scientist's version of sainthood: A vegetarian economist-engineer who leads the United Nations' climate change panel, he accepted the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the panel, sharing the honor with former Vice President Al Gore.

Critics, writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and elsewhere, have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus Capital Advisors, a New York investment firm -- a claim he denies.

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics -- including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms -- in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.

But Dr. Pachauri and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are now under intense scrutiny, facing accusations of scientific sloppiness and potential financial conflicts of interest from climate skeptics, right-leaning politicians and even some mainstream scientists. Senator John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, called for Dr. Pachauri's resignation last week.

Critics, writing in Britain's Sunday Telegraph and elsewhere, have accused Dr. Pachauri of profiting from his work as an adviser to businesses, including Deutsche Bank and Pegasus Capital Advisors, a New York investment firm -- a claim he denies.

They have also unearthed and publicized problems with the intergovernmental panel's landmark 2007 report on climate change, which concluded that the planet was warming and that humans were likely to blame.

The report, they contend, misrepresents the state of scientific knowledge about diverse topics -- including the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers and the rise in severe storms -- in a way that exaggerates the evidence for climate change.

For the full story, see:

ELISABETH ROSENTHAL. "U.N. Climate Panel and Its Chief Face a Siege on Their Credibility." The New York Times (Tues., February 9, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: The online version of the article is dated February 8, 2010, and has the title "Skeptics Find Fault With U.N. Climate Panel.")

February 15, 2010

Scientist Helped Kroc Learn Secret of McDonald's French Fries

One recurring puzzle is the role, if any, for science in innovative entrepreneurship. The episode chronicled below provides one piece of evidence:

(p. 71) I had explained to Ed MacLuckie with great (p. 72) pride the McDonald's secret for making french fries. I showed him how to peel the potatoes, leaving just a bit of the skin to add flavor. Then I cut them into shoestring strips and dumped them into a sink of cold water. The ritual captivated me. I rolled my sleeves to the elbows and, after scrubbing down in proper hospital fashion, I immersed my arms and gently stirred the potatoes until the water went white with starch. Then I rinsed them thoroughly and put them into a basket for deep frying in fresh oil. The result was a perfectly fine looking, golden brown potato that snuggled up against the palate with a taste like . . . well, like mush. I was aghast. What the hell could I have done wrong? I went back over the steps in my mind, trying to determine whether I had left something out. I hadn't. I had memorized the procedure when I watched the McDonald's operation in San Bernardino, and I had done it exactly the same way. I went through the whole thing once more. The result was the same--bland, mushy french fries. They were as good, actually, as the french fries you could buy at other places. But that was not what I wanted. They were not the wonderful french fries I had discovered in California. I got on the telephone and talked it over with the McDonald brothers. They couldn't figure it out either.

This was a tremendously frustrating situation. My whole idea depended on carrying out the McDonald's standard of taste and quality in hundreds of stores, and here I couldn't even do it in the first one!

I contacted the experts at the Potato & Onion Association and explained my problem to them. They were baffled too, at first, but then one of their laboratory men asked me to describe the McDonald's San Bernardino procedure step-by-step from the time they bought the potatoes from the grower up in Idaho. I detailed it all, and when I got to the point where they stored them in the shaded chicken-wire bins, he said, "That's it!" He went on to explain that when potatoes are dug, they are mostly water. They improve in taste as they dry out and the sugars change to starch. The McDonald brothers had, without knowing it, a natural curing process in their open bins, which allowed the desert breeze to blow over the potatoes.

With the help of the potato people, I devised a curing system of my own.


Kroc, Ray. Grinding It Out: The Making of McDonald's. Chicago: Henry Regnary Company, 1977.

(Note: ellipsis in original.)

January 20, 2010

Global Warming "Consensus" Achieved by Suppressing Skeptical Research

(p. A25) When scientists make putative compendia of that literature, such as is done by the U.N. climate change panel every six years, the writers assume that the peer-reviewed literature is a true and unbiased sample of the state of climate science.

That can no longer be the case. The alliance of scientists at East Anglia, Penn State and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (in Boulder, Colo.) has done its best to bias it.

A refereed journal, Climate Research, published two particular papers that offended Michael Mann of Penn State and Tom Wigley of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. One of the papers, published in 2003 by Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas (of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), was a meta-analysis of dozens of "paleoclimate" studies that extended back 1,000 years. They concluded that 20th-century temperatures could not confidently be considered to be warmer than those indicated at the beginning of the last millennium.

In fact, that period, known as the "Medieval Warm Period" (MWP), was generally considered warmer than the 20th century in climate textbooks and climate compendia, including those in the 1990s from the IPCC.

Then, in 1999, Mr. Mann published his famous "hockey stick" article in Geophysical Research Letters (GRL), which, through the magic of multivariate statistics and questionable data weighting, wiped out both the Medieval Warm Period and the subsequent "Little Ice Age" (a cold period from the late 16th century to the mid-19th century), leaving only the 20th-century warming as an anomaly of note.

Messrs. Mann and Wigley also didn't like a paper I published in Climate Research in 2002. It said human activity was warming surface temperatures, and that this was consistent with the mathematical form (but not the size) of projections from computer models. Why? The magnitude of the warming in CRU's own data was not as great as in the models, so therefore the models merely were a bit enthusiastic about the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Mr. Mann called upon his colleagues to try and put Climate Research out of business. "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal," he wrote in one of the emails. "We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board."

After Messrs. Jones and Mann threatened a boycott of publications and reviews, half the editorial board of Climate Research resigned. People who didn't toe Messrs. Wigley, Mann and Jones's line began to experience increasing difficulty in publishing their results.

For the full commentary, see:

PATRICK J. MICHAELS. "OPINION; How to Manufacture a Climate Consensus; The East Anglia emails are just the tip of the iceberg." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., DECEMBER 18, 2009): A25.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated DECEMBER 17, 2009.)

January 18, 2010

Establishments Assume New Methods Are Unsound Methods

(p. 188) For the next two years, Conway coordinated her efforts under Sutherland at PARC with Mead's ongoing work at Caltech. But she was frustrated with the pace of progress. There was no shortage of innovative design ideas; computerized design tools had advanced dramatically since Mead's first efforts several years before. Yet the industry as a whole continued in the old rut. As Conway put it later, the problem was "How can you take methods that are new, methods that are not in common use and therefore perhaps considered unsound methods, and turn them into sound methods?" [Conway's italics].

She saw the challenge in the terms described in Thomas Kuhn's popular book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. it was the problem that took Boltzmann to his grave. It was the problem of innovation depicted by economist Joseph Schumpeter in his essays on entrepreneurship: new systems lay waste to the systems of the past. Creativity is a solution for the creator and the new ventures he launches. But it wreaks dissolution--"creative destruction," in Schumpeter's words-- for the defenders of old methods. In fact, no matter how persuasive the advocates of change, it is very rare that an entrenched establishment will reform its ways. Establishments die or retire or fall in revolution; they only rarely transform themselves.


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

(Note: italics in original.)

January 14, 2010

For 30 Years "Poincaré's Elegant Math Prevailed Over Boltzmann's Practical Findings"

(p. 182) . . . , Poincaré's elegant math prevailed over Boltzrnann's practical findings. For some thirty years, Boltzmann struggled to get his ideas across. But he failed. He had the word, but he could not find a way to gain its acceptance in the world. For long decades, the establishment held firm.

So in the year 1906, Poincaré became president of the French (p. 183) Académie des Sciences and Boltzmann committed suicide. As Mead debatably puts it, "Boltzmann died because of Poincaré." At least, as Boltzmann's friends attest, this pioneer of the modem era killed himself in an apparent fit of despair, deepened by the widespread official resistance to his views.

He died, however, at the very historic moment when all over Europe physicists were preparing to vindicate the Boltzmann vision. He died just before the findings of Max Planck, largely derived from Boltzmann's probability concepts, finally gained widespread acceptance. He died several months after an obscure twenty-one-year-old student in Geneva named Albert Einstein used his theories in proving the existence of the atom and demonstrating the particle nature of light. In retrospect, Boltzmann can be seen as a near-tragic protagonist in the greatest intellectual drama of the twentieth century: the overthrow of matter.


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

(Note: ellipsis added.)

January 11, 2010

NSF Study Shows Many Himalayan Glaciers Growing Larger

HimalayasWesternIce2010-01-07.jpg"This photo taken from the International Space Station in 2004 shows the abundance of ice in the Himalayas, upon which much of the continent of Asia relies for water." Source of caption and photo: online version of the Omaha World-Herald article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1A) Two UNO professors have discovered that some glaciers in Pakistan are growing in size -- a discovery that could toss them into the center of a climate-change controversy.

. . .

(p. 2A) News of the research is beginning to leak into science publications. "Science" magazine, for instance, mentioned the as-yet unpublished University of Nebraska at Omaha research in a November story about the debate over Himalayan glaciers.

The UNO research team will attract more attention Friday, when Shroder and Bishop give their presentation at the American Geophysical Union's annual conference.

What they'll present is decades in the making: Shroder first received federal funding to study Afghanistan's geography and geology in 1977, and he has taken 20 research trips to Pakistan since then.

Using a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Shroder and Bishop and a team of graduate students trekked to a group of glaciers clustered around K2, the second-highest mountain in the world, in 2005.

What they found was startling: Their on-the-ground research and satellite images show that many of the glaciers are growing in the rugged, mostly uninhabited region on the Pakistani-Chinese border.

. . .

Shroder achieved brief fame in intelligence circles when he snuck from Kabul to the Salang Pass in northern Afghanistan in the 1980s. There, he took photos of North Korean troops who had crossed the border to support the Red Army -- knowledge that American intelligence agencies didn't have until Shroder handed over the photos.

Now the veteran professor is bracing himself for a potential backlash when the UNO team's research paper comes out in the next few weeks.

For the full story, see:

Matthew Hansen. "UNO Scientists Pinpoint Global Warming Oddity in Himalayas." Omaha World-Herald (Thurs., December 17, 2009): 1A-2A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article had the title "These glaciers are growing.")


Regents Professor Jack Shroder. Source of photo:

January 6, 2010

Replication Easier than "Sweat and Anguish" of First Discovery

(p. 137) No one will deny that Japan's triumph in semiconductors depended on American inventions. But many analysts rush on to a further theory that the Japanese remained far behind the United States until the mid- 1970s and caught up only through a massive government program of industrial targeting of American inventions by MITI.

Perhaps the leading expert on the subject is Makoto Kikuchi, a twenty-six-year veteran of MITI laboratories, now director of the Sony Research Center. The creator of the first transistor made in Japan, he readily acknowledges the key role of American successes in fueling the advances in his own country: "Replicating someone else's experiment, no matter how much painful effort it might take, is nothing compared with the sweat and anguish of the men who first made the discovery."

Kikuchi explains: "No matter how many failures I had, I knew that somewhere in the world people had already succeeded in making a transistor. The first discoverers . . . had to continue their work, their long succession of failures, face-to-face with the despairing possibility that in the end they might never succeed. . . . As I fought my own battle with the transistor, I felt this lesson in my very bones." Working at MITI's labs, Kikuchi was deeply grateful for the technological targets offered by American inventors.


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

(Note: ellipses in original.)

January 4, 2010

"Claims that Climate Change Is Accelerating Are Bizarre"

The author quoted below on global warming is a Professor of Meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

(p. A19) Is there a reason to be alarmed by the prospect of global warming? Consider that the measurement used, the globally averaged temperature anomaly (GATA), is always changing. Sometimes it goes up, sometimes down, and occasionally--such as for the last dozen years or so--it does little that can be discerned.

Claims that climate change is accelerating are bizarre. There is general support for the assertion that GATA has increased about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the middle of the 19th century. The quality of the data is poor, though, and because the changes are small, it is easy to nudge such data a few tenths of a degree in any direction. Several of the emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) that have caused such a public ruckus dealt with how to do this so as to maximize apparent changes.

The general support for warming is based not so much on the quality of the data, but rather on the fact that there was a little ice age from about the 15th to the 19th century. Thus it is not surprising that temperatures should increase as we emerged from this episode.

For the full commentary, see:

RICHARD S. LINDZEN. "The Climate Science Isn't Settled; Confident predictions of catastrophe are unwarranted." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., December 1, 2009): A19.

(Note: the online version of the commentary is dated NOVEMBER 30, 2009.)

December 31, 2009

Global Warming Climatologist Leaves Post Due to His "Efforts to Keep the Work of Skeptical Scientists Out of Major Journals"

(p. A6) The head of the British research unit at the center of a controversy over the disclosure of thousands of e-mail messages among climate-change scientists has stepped down pending the outcome of an investigation.

Phil Jones, the director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England, said that he would leave his post while the university conducted a review of the release of the e-mail messages. The university has called the release and publication of the messages a "criminal breach" of the school's computer systems.

The e-mail exchanges among several prominent American and British climate-change scientists appear to reveal efforts to keep the work of skeptical scientists out of major journals and the possible hoarding and manipulation of data to overstate the case for human-caused climate change.

In a related announcement, Pennsylvania State University said it would review the work of a faculty member who is cited prominently in the e-mail messages, Michael Mann, to assure that it meets proper academic standards.

For the full story, see:

JOHN M. BRODER. "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over Leaks." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., December 2, 2009): A6.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated December 1, 2009 and has the slightly different title "Climatologist Leaves Post in Inquiry Over E-Mail Leaks.")

December 27, 2009

Emails Vindicate Skeptics Who Questioned Scientific Basis of Global Warming

(p. A1) Just two years ago, a United Nations panel that synthesizes the work of hundreds of climatologists around the world called the evidence for global warming "unequivocal."

But as representatives of about 200 nations converge in Copenhagen on Monday to begin talks on a new international climate accord, they do so against a background of renewed attacks on the basic science of climate change.

The debate, set off by the circulation of several thousand files and e-mail messages stolen from one of the world's foremost climate research institutes, has led some who oppose limits on greenhouse gas emissions, and at least one influential country, Saudi Arabia, to question the scientific basis for the Copenhagen talks.

The uproar has threatened to complicate a multiyear diplomatic effort already ensnared in difficult political, technical and financial disputes that have caused leaders to abandon hopes of hammering out a binding international climate treaty this year.

. . .

(p. A8) On dozens of Web sites and blogs, skeptics and foes of greenhouse gas restrictions take daily aim at the scientific arguments for human-driven climate change. The stolen material was quickly seized upon for the questions it raised about the accessibility of raw data to outsiders and whether some data had been manipulated.

An investigation into the stolen files is being conducted by the University of East Anglia, in England, where the computer breach occurred. Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has also said he will look into the matter. At the same time, polls in the United States and Britain suggest that the number of people who doubt that global warming is dangerous or caused by humans has grown in recent years.

. . .

Science is about probability, not certainty. And the persisting uncertainties in climate science leave room for argument. What is a realistic estimate of how much temperatures will rise? How severe will the effects be? Are there tipping points beyond which the changes are uncontrollable?

Even climate scientists disagree on many of these questions. But skeptics have been critical of the data assembled to show that warming is occurring and the analytic methods that climate scientists use, including mathematical models used to demonstrate a human cause for warming and project future trends.

Both sides also have at times been criticized for overstatement in characterizing the scientific evidence. The contents of the stolen e-mail messages and documents have given fresh ammunition to the skeptics' camp.

The Climatic Research Unit's role as a central aggregator of temperature and other climate data has also made it a target. One widely discussed file extracted from the unit's computers, presumed to be the log of a researcher named Ian Harris, recorded his years of frustration in trying to make sense of disparate data and described procedures -- or "fudge factors," as he called them -- used by scientists to eliminate known sources of error.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN and JOHN M. BRODER. "Facing Skeptics, Climate Experts Sure of Peril." The New York Times (Mon., December 7, 2009): A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Sun., December 6, 2009 and has the title "In Face of Skeptics, Experts Affirm Climate Peril.")

(Note: ellipses added.)

Note: the online version of the article includes the following, very interesting, correction of the print version:

Correction: December 15, 2009
Because of an editing error, an article on Dec. 7 about the scientific evidence supporting global warming overstated the level of certainty expressed in a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a network of scientists, that human-caused warming was under way and, if unabated, would pose rising risks. The panel said that most warming since 1950 was "very likely" caused by humans, not that there was "no doubt." The article also misidentified the temperature data cited by a scientist at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit who had expressed frustration in a log about trying to make sense of disparate data. The data was direct measurements of temperature, not indirect indicators like the study of tree rings.

(Note: italics and bold in original.)

December 26, 2009

Emails Reveal Global Warming Scientists Exclude Contrary Views

ClimateGateEmails.gifSource of photo and email images: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

One can imagine Michael Crichton looking down on us with a sad smile:

(p. A3) The scientific community is buzzing over thousands of emails and documents -- posted on the Internet last week after being hacked from a prominent climate-change research center -- that some say raise ethical questions about a group of scientists who contend humans are responsible for global warming.

The correspondence between dozens of climate-change researchers, including many in the U.S., illustrates bitter feelings among those who believe human activities cause global warming toward rivals who argue that the link between humans and climate change remains uncertain.

Some emails also refer to efforts by scientists who believe man is causing global warming to exclude contrary views from important scientific publications.

"This is horrible," said Pat Michaels, a climate scientist at the Cato Institute in Washington who is mentioned negatively in the emails. "This is what everyone feared. Over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for anyone who does not view global warming as an end-of-the-world issue to publish papers. This isn't questionable practice, this is unethical."

John Christy, a scientist at the University of Alabama at Huntsville attacked in the emails for asking that an IPCC report include dissenting viewpoints, said, "It's disconcerting to realize that legislative actions this nation is preparing to take, and which will cost trillions of dollars, are based upon a view of climate that has not been completely scientifically tested--but rather orchestrated."

In all, more than 1,000 emails and more than 2,000 other documents were stolen Thursday from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University in the U.K. The identity of the hackers isn't certain, but the files were posted on a Russian file-sharing server late Thursday, and university officials confirmed over the weekend that their computer had been attacked and said the documents appeared to be genuine.

. . .

In one email, Benjamin Santer from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Livermore, Calif., wrote to the director of the climate-study center that he was "tempted to beat" up Mr. Michaels. Mr. Santer couldn't be reached for comment Sunday.

In another, Phil Jones, the director of the East Anglia climate center, suggested to climate scientist Michael Mann of Penn State University that skeptics' research was unwelcome: We "will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" Neither man could be reached for comment Sunday.

For the full story, see:

KEITH JOHNSON. "Climate Strife Comes to Light; Emails Illustrate Anger of Scientists Who Believe Humans Are Root of Global Warming." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 23, 2009): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the printed version of the article is mostly the same as the online version, but has some differences in order and content. The part quoted above is consistent with the printed version. The passages quoted are the same in both versions, except that the paragraph on the views of John Christy appears later in the online version, and the online version omits his phrase "but rather orchestrated." [I skimmed for differences, but am not absolutely sure that I caught them all.])

(Note: the title of the online version of the article is: "Climate Emails Stoke Debate; Scientists' Leaked Correspondence Illustrates Bitter Feud over Global Warming.")

December 24, 2009

Heretics to the Religion of Global Warming


Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.

(p. A19) Suppose for a minute--. . . --that global warming poses an imminent threat to the survival of our species. Suppose, too, that the best solution involves a helium balloon, several miles of garden hose and a harmless stream of sulfur dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere, all at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.

. . .

The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

Could it work? Mr. Myhrvold and his associates think it might, and they're a smart bunch. Also smart are University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, whose delightful "SuperFreakonomics"--the sequel to their runaway 2005 bestseller "Freakonomics"--gives Myhrvold and Co. pride of place in their lengthy chapter on global warming. Not surprisingly, global warming fanatics are experiencing a Pinatubo-like eruption of their own.

. . .

. . . , Messrs. Levitt and Dubner show every sign of being careful researchers, going so far as to send chapter drafts to their interviewees for comment prior to publication. Nor are they global warming "deniers," insofar as they acknowledge that temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

But when it comes to the religion of global warming--the First Commandment of which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion--Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are grievous sinners. They point out that belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined. They note that sea levels will probably not rise much more than 18 inches by 2100, "less than the twice-daily tidal variation in most coastal locations." They observe that "not only is carbon plainly not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity." They quote Mr. Myhrvold as saying that Mr. Gore's doomsday scenarios "don't have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame."

More subversively, they suggest that climatologists, like everyone else, respond to incentives in a way that shapes their conclusions. "The economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the [climate] models to approximately match one another." In other words, the herd-of-independent-minds phenomenon happens to scientists too and isn't the sole province of painters, politicians and news anchors


For the full commentary, see:

BRET STEPHENS. "Freaked Out Over SuperFreakonomics; Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 27, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

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.)

November 23, 2009

Global Warming Did Not Cause Southeast Drought

(p. A13) The drought that gripped the Southeast from 2005 to 2007 was not unprecedented and resulted from random weather events, not global warming, Columbia University researchers have concluded. They say its severe water shortages resulted from population growth more than rainfall patterns.

The researchers, who report their findings in an article in Thursday's issue of The Journal of Climate, cite census figures showing that in Georgia alone the population rose to 9.54 million in 2007 from 6.48 million in 1990.

"At the root of the water supply problem in the Southeast is a growing population," they wrote.

Richard Seager, a climate expert at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who led the study, said in an interview that when the drought struck, "people were wondering" whether climate change linked to a global increase in heat-trapping gases could be a cause.

But after studying data from weather instruments, computer models and measurements of tree rings, which reflect yearly rainfall, "our conclusion was this drought was pretty normal and pretty typical by standards of what has happened in the region over the century," Mr. Seager said.

Similar droughts unfolded over the last thousand years, the researchers wrote. Regardless of climate change, they added, similar weather patterns can be expected regularly in the future, with similar results.

For the full story, see:

CORNELIA DEAN. "Study Links Water Shortages in Southeast to Population, Not Global Warming." The New York Times (Fri., October 2, 2009): A13.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated Oct. 1st and has the title "Southeast Drought Study Ties Water Shortage to Population, Not Global Warming.")

The research summarized in the passages above can be read in its full and original form, at:

Seager, Richard, Alexandrina Tzanova, and Jennifer Nakamura. "Drought in the Southeastern United States: Causes, Variability over the Last Millennium, and the Potential for Future Hydroclimate Change." Journal of Climate 22, no. 19 (Oct. 1, 2009): 5021-45.

November 16, 2009

Third Generation Nuclear Reactors Are Simpler and Even Safer

WestinghouseAP1000Reactor2009-10-28.gif Source of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. R1) Researchers are working on reactors that they claim are simpler, cheaper in certain respects, and more efficient than the last generation of plants.

Some designs try to reduce the chance of accidents by automating safety features and minimizing the amount of hardware needed to shut down the reactor in an emergency. Others cut costs by using standardized parts that can be built in big chunks and then shipped to the site. Some squeeze more power out of uranium, reducing the amount of waste produced, while others wring even more energy out of spent fuel.

"Times are exciting for nuclear," says Ronaldo Szilard, director of nuclear science and engineering at the Idaho National Lab, a part of the U.S. Energy Department. "There are lots of options being explored."

. . .

(p. R3) As a whole, . . . , the U.S. nuclear industry has a solid safety record, and the productivity of plants has grown dramatically in the past decade. The next generation of reactors so-called Generation III units is intended to take everything that's been learned about safe operations and do it even better. Generation III units are the reactors of choice for most of the 34 nations that already have nuclear plants in operation. (China still is building a few Gen II units.)

"A common theme of future reactors is to make them simpler so there are fewer systems to monitor and fewer systems that could fail," says Revis James, director of the Energy Technology Assessment Center at the Electric Power Research Institute, an independent power-industry research organization.

The current generation of nuclear plants requires a complex maze of redundant motors, pumps, valves and control systems to deal with emergency conditions. Generation III plants cut down on some of that infrastructure and rely more heavily on passive systems that don't need human intervention to keep the reactor in a safe condition reducing the chance of an accident caused by operator error or equipment failure.

For example, the Westinghouse AP1000 boasts half as many safety-related valves, one-third fewer pumps and only one-fifth as much safety-related piping as earlier plants from Westinghouse, majority owned by Toshiba Corp. In an emergency, the reactor, which has been selected for use at Southern Co.'s Vogtle site in Georgia and at six other U.S. locations, is designed to shut down automatically and stay within a safe temperature range.

For the full story, see:

REBECCA SMITH. "The New Nukes; The next generation of nuclear reactors is on its way, and supporters say they will be safer, cheaper and more efficient than current plants. Here's a look at what's coming -- and when." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., SEPTEMBER 8, 2009): R1 & R3.

(Note: ellipses added.)

November 1, 2009

Picking Up Surface Nuggets Versus Digging a Deep Hole in One Place

(p. 423) The work was extraordinarily difficult, pushing the limits of the technically possible. Disappointment is my daily bread, he had said. I thrive on it. But he did not thrive. Often he thought of abandoning the work, abandoning all of it. Yet every day he continued to fill nearly every waking hour with thinking about it. Between 1934 and 1941 he published nothing. Nothing. For a scientist to go through such a dry period is more than depressing. It is a refutation of one's abilities, of one's life. But in the midst of that dry spell, Avery told a young researcher there were two types of investigators: most "go around picking up surface nuggets, and whenever they can spot a surface nugget of gold they pick it up and add it to their collection. . . . [The other type] is not really interested in the surface nugget. He is much more interested in digging a deep hole in one place, hoping to hit a vein. And of course if he strikes a vein of gold he makes a tremendous advance."


Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

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

October 28, 2009

"A Man of Science Past Sixty Does More Harm than Good" (Unless His Name is "Avery")

(p. 421) . . . , in 1928, Fred Griffith in Britain published a striking and puzzling finding. Earlier Griffith had discovered that all known types of pneumococci could exist with or without capsules. Virulent pneumococci had capsules; pneumococci without capsules could be easily destroyed by the immune system. Now he found something much stranger. He killed virulent pneumococci, ones surrounded by capsules, and injected them into mice. Since the bacteria were dead, all the mice survived. He also injected living pneumococci that had no capsules, that were not virulent. Again the mice lived. Their immune systems devoured the unencapsulated pneumococci. But then he injected dead pneumococci surrounded by capsules and living pneumococci without capsules.

The mice died. Somehow the living pneumococci had acquired cap-(p. 422)sules. Somehow they had changed. And, when isolated from the mice, they continued to grow with the capsule--as if they had inherited it.

Griffith's report seemed to make meaningless years of Avery's work-- and life. The immune system was based on specificity. Avery believed that the capsule was key to that specificity. But if the pneumococcus could change, that seemed to undermine everything Avery believed and thought he had proved. For months he dismissed Griffith's work as unsound. But Avery's despair seemed overwhelming. He left the laboratory for six months, suffering from Graves' disease, a disease likely related to stress. By the time he returned, Michael Dawson, a junior colleague he had asked to check Griffith's results, had confirmed them. Avery had to accept them.

His work now turned in a different direction. He had to understand how one kind of pneumococcus was transformed into another. He was now almost sixty years old. Thomas Huxley said, "A man of science past sixty does more harm than good." But now, more than ever, Avery focused on his task.


Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: italics in original.)

October 27, 2009

Fossil Found of Much Earlier Human Ancestor

HominidGraphic2009-10-04.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A1) Ardi, short for Ardipithecus ramidus, is the newest fossil skeleton out of Africa to take its place in the gallery of human origins. At an age of 4.4 million years, it lived well before and was much more primitive than the famous 3.2-million-year-old Lucy, of the species Australopithecus afarensis.

Since finding fragments of the older hominid in 1992, an international team of scientists has been searching for more specimens and on Thursday presented a fairly complete skeleton and their first full analysis. By replacing Lucy as the earliest known skeleton from the human branch of the primate family tree, the scientists said, Ardi opened a window to "the early evolutionary steps that our ancestors took after we diverged from our common ancestor with chimpanzees."

. . .

(p. A6) Scientists not involved in the new research hailed its importance, placing the Ardi skeleton on a pedestal alongside notable figures of hominid evolution like Lucy and the 1.6-million-year-old Turkana Boy from Kenya, an almost complete specimen of Homo erectus with anatomy remarkably similar to modern Homo sapiens.

David Pilbeam, a professor of human evolution at Harvard University who had no role in the discovery, said in an e-mail message that the Ardi skeleton represented "a genus plausibly ancestral to Australopithecus" and began "to fill in the temporal and structural 'space' between the apelike common ancestor and Australopithecus."

Andrew Hill, a paleoanthropologist at Yale University who was also not involved in the research, noted that Dr. White had kept "this skeleton in his closet for the last 15 years or so, but I think it has been worth the wait." In some ways the specimen's features are surprising, Dr. Hill added, "but it makes a very satisfactory animal for understanding the changes that have taken place along the human lineage."

The first comprehensive reports describing the skeleton and related findings, the result of 17 years of study, are being published Friday in the journal Science. Eleven papers by 47 authors from 10 countries describe the analysis of more than 110 Ardipithecus specimens from a minimum of 36 different individuals, including Ardi.

The paleoanthropologists wrote in one of the articles that Ardipithecus was "so rife with anatomical surprises that no one could have imagined it without direct fossil evidence."

A bounty of animal and plant material -- "every seed, every piece of fossil wood, every scrap of bone," Dr. White said -- was gathered to set the scene of the cooler, more humid woodland habitat in which these hominids had lived.

This was one of the first surprises, said Giday WoldeGabriel, a geologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, because it upset the hypothesis that upright walking had evolved as an adaptation to life on grassy savanna.

For the full story, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "Fossil Skeleton From Africa Predates Lucy." The New York Times (Fri., October 1, 2009): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


"A fairly complete skeleton of Ardipithecus ramidus, which replaced Lucy as the earliest known skeleton from the human branch of the primate family tree." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

October 25, 2009

Harvard Medical School Conference on the Quest for Eternal Life

SinclairWestphalStiris2009-10-04.jpg"AGE WELL. David Sinclair, left, and Christoph Westphal, co-founders of Sitris Pharmaceuticals, in Dr. Sinclair's laboratory in Cambrdge, Mass. The company develops drugs that mimic resveratrol, a chemical found in some red wines." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D4) BOSTON -- Who would have thought it? The quest for eternal life, or at least prolonged youthfulness, has now migrated from the outer fringes of alternative medicine to the halls of Harvard Medical School.

At a conference on aging held here last week, the medical school's dean, Jeffrey Flier, was to be seen greeting participants who ranged from members of the 120 club (they intend to live at least that long) to devotees of very low calorie diets.

. . .

Dr. Gallagher said that unpublished tests in mice showed that another chemical mimic, SRT-1720, increased both health and lifespan; after two years, twice as many mice taking the drug were alive compared with the undosed animals. Resveratrol itself has not been shown to increase lifespan in normal mice, although it does so in obese mice, laboratory roundworms and flies.

Sirtris has so far been doubly fortunate. No severe side effects have yet emerged from the clinical trials. The company has also been lucky in having apparently picked the right horse, or at least a good one, in a fast-developing field.

Besides the sirtuins, several other proteins are now known to influence longevity, energy use and the response to caloric restriction. These include the receptors for insulin and for another hormone called IGF-1, and a protein of increasing interest called TOR ("target of rapamycin"). Rapamycin is an antimicrobial that was recently found to extend lifespan significantly, even when given to mice at an advanced age. Since TOR is involved in the response to caloric restriction, rapamycin may extend life through this pathway.

. . .

"In five or six or seven years," said Christoph Westphal, Sirtris's other co-founder, "there will be drugs that prolong longevity."

But neither Dr. Sinclair nor Dr. Westphal was the most optimistic person at the conference. That status belonged to the English gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, who sports a beard so luxuriant that it is hard to see if he is wearing a tie. His goal is "negligible senescence."

. . .

Sirtris's quest for longevity drugs is founded on solid and promising research. But most drugs fail at some stage during trials. So there is no guarantee that any of Sirtris's candidate compounds will work in people. The first result from a Phase 2 clinical trial is not expected until the end of next year at the earliest.

Meanwhile, it is a pleasant and not wholly unfounded thought that, just possibly, a single drug might combat every degenerative disease of Western civilization.

For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Quest for a Long Life Gains Scientific Respect." The New York Times (Tues., September 28, 2009): D4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

October 24, 2009

Rapid Mutation of RNA-Based Flu Virus Allows Rapid Adaptation to Immune System Response

I found the passage quoted below to be especially illuminating on how rapid mutation helps explain why the flu virus is so successful and dangerous. (An additional important factor is that the virus can survive in birds, without killing them.)

It occurs to me that something akin to rapid mutation (e.g., rapid experimentation) has also been advocated as a way to quickly advance science (Karl Popper), or enterprise (George Gilder).

(p. 105) Whenever an organism reproduces, its genes try to make exact copies of themselves. But sometimes mistakes--mutations--occur in this process.

This is true whether the genes belong to people, plants, or viruses. The more advanced the organism, however, the more mechanisms exist to prevent mutations. A person mutates at a much slower rate than bacteria, bacteria mutates at a much slower rate than a virus--and a DNA virus mutates at a much slower rate than an RNA virus.

DNA has a kind of built-in proofreading mechanism to cut down on copying mistakes. RNA has no proofreading mechanism whatsoever, no way to protect against mutation. So viruses that use RNA to carry their genetic information mutate much faster--from 10,000 to 1 million times faster--than any DNA virus.

Different RNA viruses mutate at different rates as well. A few mutate so rapidly that virologists consider them not so much a population of copies of the same virus as what they call a "quasi species" or a "mutant swarm."

These mutant swarms contain trillions and trillions of closely related but different viruses. Even the viruses produced from a single cell will include many different versions of themselves, and the swarm as a whole will routinely contain almost every possible permutation of its genetic code.

Most of these mutations interfere with the functioning of the virus and will either destroy the virus outright or destroy its ability to infect. But other mutations, sometimes in a single base, a single letter, in its genetic code will allow the virus to adapt rapidly to a new situation. It is this adaptability that explains why these quasi species, these mutant swarms, can move rapidly back and forth between different environments and also develop extraordinarily rapid drug resistance. As one investigator has observed, the rapid mutation "confers a certain randomness to the disease processes that accompany RNA [viral] infections."

Influenza is an RNA virus. So is HIV and the coronavirus. And of all RNA viruses, influenza and HIV are among those that mutate the fastest. The influenza virus mutates so fast that 99 percent of the 100,000 to 1 million new viruses that burst out of a cell in the reproduction process (p. 106) are too defective to infect another cell and reproduce again. But that still leaves between 1,000 and 10,000 viruses that can infect another cell.

Both influenza and HIV fit the concept of a quasi species, of a mutant swarm. In both, a drug-resistant mutation can emerge within days. And the influenza virus reproduces rapidly--far faster than HIV. Therefore it adapts rapidly as well, often too rapidly for the immune system to respond.


Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: italics in original.)

October 21, 2009

Small Evidence Kills Big Theory


Big Tyrannosaurus rex and much smaller Raptorex kriegsteini. Source of image:

(p. A5) Paleontologists said Thursday that they had discovered what amounted to a miniature prototype of Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with the oversize head, powerful jaws, long legs -- and, as every schoolchild knows, puny arms -- that were hallmarks of the king of the dinosaurs.

But this scaled-down version, which was about nine feet long and weighed only 150 pounds, lived 125 million years ago, about 35 million years before giant Tyrannosaurs roamed the earth. So the discovery calls into question theories about the evolution of T. rex, which was about five times longer and almost 100 times heavier.

"The thought was these signature Tyrannosaur features evolved as a consequence of large body size," Stephen L. Brusatte of the American Museum of National History, an author of a paper describing the dinosaur published online by the journal Science, said at a news conference. "They needed to modify their entire skeleton so they could function as a predator at such colossal size."

The new dinosaur, named Raptorex kriegsteini, "really throws a wrench into this observed pattern," Mr. Brusatte said.

For the full story, see:

HENRY FOUNTAIN. "Fossil Discovery Challenges Theories on T. Rex Evolution." The New York Times (Fri., September 18, 2009): A5.

(Note: the online version is dated Sept. 17th and has the slightly different title: "Fossil Find Challenges Theories on T. Rex" but the body of the article seems the same as the print version.)

October 20, 2009

Scientist Huxley: "The Great End of Life is Not Knowledge But Action"

John Barry calls our attention to the views of Thomas Huxley who gave the keynote address at the founding of the Johns Hopkins University:

(p. 13) A brilliant scientist, later president of the Royal Society, he advised investigators, "Sit down before a fact as a little child, be prepared to give up every preconceived notion. Follow humbly wherever and to whatever abysses nature leads, or you shall learn nothing." He also believed that learning had purpose, stating, "The great end of life is not knowledge but action."


Barry, John M. The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History. Revised ed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

(Note: from the context in Barry, I am not certain whether the Huxley quotes are from the keynote address, or from elsewhere in Huxley's writings.)

October 19, 2009

"Recent Temperature Plateau" May Undermine Case for Global Warming

GlobalWarmingPlateauGraph2009-09-27.jpgSource of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A10) The world leaders who met at the United Nations to discuss climate change on Tuesday are faced with an intricate challenge: building momentum for an international climate treaty at a time when global temperatures have been relatively stable for a decade and may even drop in the next few years.

The plateau in temperatures has been seized upon by skeptics as evidence that the threat of global warming is overblown. And some climate experts worry that it could hamper treaty negotiations and slow the progress of legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the United States.

. . .

Underscoring just how little clarity there is on short-term temperature fluctuations, researchers from Britain's climate change office, in a paper published in August, projected "an end to this period of relative stability," with half the years between now and 2015 exceeding the record-setting global temperatures of 1998.

Whatever the next decade may hold, critics of global warming have lost no time in using the current temperature plateau to build their case.

"I think it supports the arguments of those who've said, 'What's the rush for policy on this issue?' " said Patrick J. Michaels, a climatologist affiliated with George Mason University and the Cato Institute, a group opposing most regulatory solutions to environmental problems.

. . .

A clearer view of whether the recent temperature plateau undermines arguments for dangerous climate change in the long run should come in a few years, as the predictions made by the British climate researchers are tested. Their paper appeared in a supplement to an August issue of The Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

While the authors concluded that there was a 1 in 8 chance of having a decade-long pause in warming like the current plateau, even with rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, the odds of a 15-year pause, they wrote, are only 5 in 100. As a result, the next few years of observations could tip the balance toward further concern or greater optimism.

Meanwhile, social scientists who study the way people understand and respond to environmental problems say it is not surprising that the current temperature stability has created confusion and apathy.

For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN. "Plateau in Temperatures Adds Difficulty to Task of Reaching a Solution." The New York Times (Weds., Sept. 23, 2009): A10.

(Note: the online version lists a date of September 21 and has the title as "Momentum on Climate Pact Is Elusive", but the body of the article seems to be the same as the print version.)

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 23, 2009

Scientists Believe Life Emerged from a Process of "Creative Destruction" and Global Warming

CosmicCrashSite2009-09-07.jpgSource of graphic: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) In a paradox of creation, new evidence suggests that devastating avalanches of cosmic debris may have fostered life on Earth, not annihilated it. If so, life on our planet may be older than scientists previously thought -- and more persistent.

Astronomers world-wide have been transfixed by a roiling gash the size of Earth in the atmosphere of Jupiter, caused by an errant comet or asteroid that smashed into the gas giant last month. The lingering turbulence is an echo of a cataclysmic bombardment that shaped the origin of life here 3.9 billion years ago, when millions of asteroids, comets and meteors pummeled our planet.

. . .

But in their super-heated plunge through the atmosphere, these asteroids and meteors may have helped create conditions ideal for emerging life. "Everyone focuses on the meteor that hits the ground," says geochemist Richard Court at London's Imperial College. "No one thinks about the products of its journey that get pumped into the atmosphere."

As they vented, they collectively could have imported billions of tons of life-sustaining water into the air every year, Dr. Court and his colleague Mark Sephton recently determined. They calculated that these showers of volatile rocks delivered 10 times the daily outflow of the Mississippi River every year for 20 million years. By analyzing the fumes emitted under such extreme heat, they discovered these rocks also could have injected billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the air every year.

Combined with so much water vapor, the carbon dioxide could have induced a global greenhouse effect. That could have kept any life emerging on Earth safely in a planetary incubator at a time when the planet might easily have frozen because the Sun radiated 25% less energy than today. "The amount of CO2 that was produced is about the same we produce today through fossil fuel use and we know that is a climate-changing volume," says Dr. Court.

. . .

"It is literally a revolution in our ideas about how our solar system evolved," says asteroid expert William Bottke at the Southwest Research Institute. "It could be that our form of life today -- every living thing that we see today -- is due to this bombardment that happened 3.9 billion years ago."

For the full commentary, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "SCIENCE JOURNAL; Some Creative Destruction on a Cosmic Scale; Scientists Say Asteroid Blasts, Once Thought Apocalyptic, Fostered Life on Earth by Carrying Water and Protective Greenhouse Gas." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., AUGUST 14, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

September 15, 2009

Global Warming Allows Humans to "Skip" Next Ice Age

SundayLakeAlaska2009-09-06.jpg "Researchers use a floating platform to take sediment cores from Sunday Lake in southwestern Alaska." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A17) The human-driven buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere appears to have ended a slide, many millenniums in the making, toward cooler summer temperatures in the Arctic, the authors of a new study report.

Scientists familiar with the work, to be published Friday in the journal Science, said it provided fresh evidence that human activity is not only warming the globe, particularly the Arctic, but could also even fend off what had been presumed to be an inevitable descent into a new ice age over the next few dozen millenniums.

. . .

In the very long term, the ability to artificially warm the climate, particularly the Arctic, could be seen as a boon as the planet's shifting orientation to the Sun enters a phase that could initiate the next ice age.

As a result of such periodic shifts, 17 ice ages are thought to have come and gone in two million years. The last ice age ended 11,000 years ago and the next one, according to recent research, could be 20,000 or 30,000 years off discounting any influence by humans. The last ice age buried much of the Northern Hemisphere under a mile or more of ice.

With humans' clear and growing ability to alter the climate, Dr. Overpeck said, "we could easily skip the next opportunity altogether."

For the full story, see:

ANDREW C. REVKIN. "Global Warming Is Delaying Ice Age, Study Finds." The New York Times (Fri., September 4, 2009): A17.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Global Warming Could Forestall Ice Age.")

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The reference to the full scientific presentation of the research is:

Kaufman, Darrell S., David P. Schneider, Nicholas P. McKay, Caspar M. Ammann, Raymond S. Bradley, Keith R. Briffa, Gifford H. Miller, Bette L. Otto-Bliesner, Jonathan T. Overpeck, Bo M. Vinther, and Members Arctic Lakes 2k Project. "Recent Warming Reverses Long-Term Arctic Cooling." Science 325, no. 5945 (2009): 1236-39.

August 22, 2009

"The Evidence of His Eyes Overturned 2,000 Years of Accepted Wisdom"

GalileoShowsVenetianSenators.jpg". . ., the Italian astronomer shows the satellites of Jupiter to Venetian senators in this 1882 illustration." Source of illustration and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) A mathematician and experimental physicist, Galileo, however, immediately recognized that what he could see of Venus, Jupiter and the moon through his telescope offered crucial evidence that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system. The evidence of his eyes overturned 2,000 years of accepted wisdom about cosmology in which philosophers had conceived the night sky as a system of crystalline spheres.

Moreover, Galileo quickly shared his observations with scientists throughout Europe by openly publishing his data.

"He wrought a change so fundamental for science and for humanity," says Munich astronomer Pedro Russo, who is global coordinator of the International Year of Astronomy. "For the first time, we realized we were not the center of the universe."

But his insistence on contradicting traditional cosmology led to his arrest and trial by the Roman Catholic Church. He was forced to recant his views and imprisoned for life. The Vatican did not formally admit that Galileo was correct until 1992. Now Vatican authorities are planning a statue in his honor.

During his life, Galileo is known to have built at least 100 telescopes, mostly as ornate presentation gifts for his patrons -- the powerful Medici family of Florence. Only one is known to survive with its optics intact -- the humble device now on show at the Franklin Institute.

"We assume it was personally used by Galileo," says Paolo Galluzzi, director of the science museum in Florence, which loaned the telescope for the exhibit. "Only this one was found among his property at his death. We believe that this is one of the major tools of his work."

. . .

"Science is fundamentally about establishing truth for yourself," says Dr. Pompea in Arizona. "People can make observations, take data and establish for themselves the nature of the universe. They don't have to take it from someone else or read it in a book."

Like Galileo, "they can see it."

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Galileo's Discoveries, 400 Years Later, Still Open Eyes
Astronomer's Telescope, on View Outside Italy for the First Time, Helped Expand Perceptions of the Universe." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 10, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


"Galileo Galilei." Source of image and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.

August 19, 2009

"Established Experts Flee in Horror to All Available Caves and Cages"

(p. 96) While science and enterprise open vast new panoramas of opportunity, our established experts flee in horror to all available caves and cages, like so many primitives, terrified by freedom and change.


Gilder, George. Recapturing the Spirit of Enterprise: Updated for the 1990s. updated ed. New York: ICS Press, 1992.

July 22, 2009

The Conflict Between Science and Faith

Professor Krauss is a physicist at Arizona State University.

(p. A15) My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

-- J.B.S. Haldane

J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.

Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival. Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world's organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an "atheist absolutist," a "reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions."

For the full commentary, see:

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS. "OPINION: God and Science Don't Mix; A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can't act like one." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JUNE 26, 2009): A15.

(Note: italics in 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.)

July 6, 2009

Our "Patently Absurd" Patent System

(p. A15) The Founders might have used quill pens, but they would roll their eyes at how, in this supposedly technology-minded era, we're undermining their intention to encourage innovation. The U.S. is stumbling in the transition from their Industrial Age to our Information Age, despite the charge in the Constitution that Congress "promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries."

. . .

Both sides may be right. New empirical research by Boston University law professors James Bessen and Michael Meurer, reported in their book, "Patent Failure," found that the value of pharmaceutical patents outweighed the costs of pharmaceutical-patent litigation. But for all other industries combined, they estimate that since the mid-1990s, the cost of U.S. patent litigation to alleged infringers ($12 billion in legal and business costs in 1999) is greater than the global profits that companies earn from patents (less than $4 billion in 1999). Since the 1980s, patent litigation has tripled and the probability that a particular patent is litigated within four years has more than doubled. Small inventors feel the brunt of the uncertainty costs, since bigger companies only pay for rights they think the system will protect.

These are shocking findings, but they point to the solution. New drugs require great specificity to earn a patent, whereas patents are often granted to broad, thus vague, innovations in software, communications and other technologies. Ironically, the aggregate value of these technology patents is then wiped out through litigation costs.

Our patent system for most innovations has become patently absurd. It's a disincentive at a time when we expect software and other technology companies to be the growth engine of the economy. Imagine how much more productive our information-driven economy would be if the patent system lived up to the intention of the Founders, by encouraging progress instead of suppressing it.

For the full commentary, see:

L. GORDON CROVITZ. "OPINION: INFORMATION AGE; Patent Gridlock Suppresses Innovation." Wall Street Journal (Mon., JULY 14, 2008): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 2, 2009

If the Medici Had Not Intervened, Galileo "Would Have Been Killed"

(p. D7) The Franklin Institute and its aspiring blockbuster, "Galileo, the Medici & the Age of Astronomy," are something of an odd couple -- a circumstance explained, like so much else, by history.

. . .

Meanwhile, the exhibition leaves provocative questions -- about the nexus of church and state, as well as science and faith -- unanswered. If Galileo was still a court favorite, and science was so revered in Florence, why weren't the powerful dukes able to prevent his 1633 trial, heresy conviction, and sentence of house arrest?

Galileo's patrons did, in fact, intervene on his behalf, Filippo Camerota, vice director of the Institute and Museum for the History of Science and one of the exhibition curators, said in an interview. "If the Medici were not there," Mr. Camerota said, "he would have been killed." Good to know.

For the full commentary, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Exhibition; What Galileo Saw." Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 28, 2009): D7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

July 1, 2009

RIP Marjorie Grene, Who Helped Polanyi with Personal Knowledge


"Marjorie Grene in 2003." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT obituary quoted and cited below.

The NYT reported, in the obituary quoted below, that philosopher Marjorie Grene died on March 16, 2009, at the age of 93.

Although I studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, my time there did not overlap with Marjorie Grene's and I don't believe that I ever met her, or ever even heard her speak (though I did occasionally walk past her former husband David Grene, on my way to talk to Stephen Toulmin).

I am increasingly appreciating Michael Polanyi's book Personal Knowledge in which he introduced his view of what he called "tacit knowledge." In particular, I am coming to believe that tacit knowledge is very important in understanding the role and importance of the entrepreneur.

So if Marjorie Grene was crucial to Personal Knowledge, as is indicated in the obituary quoted below, then she is deserving of serious consideration, and high regard.

(p. 23) In Chicago, she had met Michael Polanyi, a distinguished physical chemist turned philosopher; she ended up helping him research and develop his important book "Personal Knowledge" (1958). The book proposed a far more nuanced, personal idea of knowledge, and directly addressed approaches to science.

"There is hardly a page that has not benefited from her criticism," Dr. Polanyi wrote in his acknowledgments. "She has a share in anything I may have achieved here."

. . .

Her sense of humor sparkled when she was asked about being the first woman to have an edition of the Library of Living Philosophers devoted to her -- Volume 29 in 2002. Previous honorees included Bertrand Russell and Einstein. "I thought they must be looking desperately for a woman," Dr. Grene said.

For the full obituary, see:

DOUGLAS MARTIN. "Marjorie Grene, a Leading Philosopher of Biology, Is Dead at 98." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., March 29, 2009): 23.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

The reference for the Polanyi book, is:

Polanyi, Michael. Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1958.

June 29, 2009

To Cure Fatal Diseases We Need More Financial Incentives and Fewer F.D.A. Restrictions


"JOSHUA THOMPSON with his sons, Wyatt and Jordan, after his diagnosis, top, and before, with his wife, Joy, and Wyatt." Source of the photos and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. 1) VIRGINIA BEACH -- As Lou Gehrig's disease sapped Joshua Thompson of his ability to move and speak last fall, he consistently summoned one question from within the prison of his own body. "Iplex," he asked, in a whisper that pierced his mother's heart. "When?"

Iplex had never been tested in people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the formal name for the fatal disease that had struck Joshua, 34, in late 2006. Developed for a different condition and banished from the market by a patent dispute, it was not for sale to the public anywhere in the world.

But Kathy Thompson had vowed to get it for her son. On the Internet, she had found enthusiastic reviews from A.L.S. patients who had finagled a prescription for Iplex when it was available, along with speculation by leading researchers as to why it might slow the progressive paralysis that marks the disease. And for months, as she begged and bullied biotechnology companies, members of Congress, Italian doctors and federal drug regulators, she answered Joshua the same way:

"Soon," she said. "Soon."

At a time when terminally ill patients have more access to medical research than ever before, and perhaps a deeper conviction in its ability to cure them, many are campaigning for the chance to be treated with drugs whose safety and effectiveness is not yet known.

. . .

(p. 19) "Josh's sadness is unbearable," his mother wrote one night in her journal, nearly a year after her son's diagnosis.

Unexpected encouragement came in a Mother's Day note from her ex-husband. "You have given me some peace of mind that all potential options for Josh are being researched and acted upon," Bruce wrote. "Thank you."

Kathy's boyfriend accompanied her to Insmed's headquarters in Richmond, Va., offering to raise several million dollars to underwrite a compassionate use program for Iplex in the United States with A.L.S. patients. But the couple came away with a new understanding: F.D.A. regulations, they were told, prohibit any company from profiting on compassionate use. Even if Insmed could wriggle free of restrictions in the patent agreement, there was little financial incentive for it to invest in making the drug solely for compassionate use by A.L.S. patients.

. . .

On Jan. 16, when Dr. Werwath called to tell her the application had been rejected, she stood up in disbelief.

"How could that be?" she asked, dazed.

Kathy's friend Mrs. Reimers had received a call with the same news.

"He said they had safety concerns," Mrs. Reimers said. "This for a drug that was approved for children!"

"Safety," Kathy repeated. "And what, exactly, is safe about A.L.S.?"

Appealing an F.D.A. Denial

Before the F.D.A.'s decision, Kathy had spared little thought for any broader meaning of her quest for Joshua. But when she met with Richard A. Samp, a lawyer with the Washington Legal Foundation a week later, her outrage went beyond her son, and beyond Iplex.

"The F.D.A. is supposed to protect American citizens," Kathy fumed over an iced tea in Williamsburg, Va. "How does denying dying patients access to this drug serve the common good?"

Mr. Samp had handled a lawsuit by a patient advocacy group, the Abigail Alliance, that had sought to establish a constitutional right for terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs. In the case, which the group had lost on appeal in 2007, the F.D.A. claimed that it granted "nearly all" requests for compassionate use.

They would first make an administrative appeal, Mr. Samp told Kathy, asserting that the F.D.A. had violated its own guidelines. If that failed, they could pursue litigation that might allow them to raise the constitutional question again in a federal court in Virginia.

. . .

Kathy was pouring milk for her cereal on the morning of March 10 when Dr. Werwath's number flashed on her phone. The F.D.A. had just reversed itself, he said.

Before she could take a breath, Senator Mark Warner's office called. E-mail bleeped in as the news seeped out.

In the weeks after the appeal, Kathy learned, the F.D.A. had reached out to Insmed. The agency had persuaded the company to run a clinical trial for Iplex with several dozen A.L.S. patients, and permitted it to recoup the hefty costs directly from participants. In the trial, some of the participants would get a placebo. That way, the F.D.A. wrote on its Web site, the next wave of A.L.S. patients would learn whether the drug was in fact beneficial or harmful.

But for now, the agency had ruled, Joshua and 12 other patients would be given Iplex outside of the trial, on a compassionate use basis, if they agreed to read all the data about the risks.

For the full version of a very long story, see:

AMY HARMON. "Months to Live; Fighting for a Last Chance at Life; One Family's Tenacious Campaign for Access to an Unproven Drug." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., May 17, 2009): 1, 18-19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

ThompsonJoshuaIplexInjection2009-06-10.jpg"IN MARCH, Joshua Thompson received his first Iplex injection, from Dr. David L. Werwath. Thereafter Joshua's wife, Joy, left, and mother, Kathy, took over the daily duties." Source of the photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

June 6, 2009

The Ascent of Science Led to Belief that the World Could Improve

I believe the following paragraph expresses the central message of Steven Johnson's book The Invention of Air:

(p. 211) In the popular folklore of American History, there is a sense in which the founders' various achievements in natural philosophy---Franklin's electrical experiments, Jefferson's botany---serve as a (p. 212) kind of sanctified extracurricular activity. They were statesmen and political visionaries who just happened to be hobbyists in science, albeit amazingly successful ones. Their great passions were liberty and freedom and democracy; the experiments were a side project. But the Priestley view suggests that the story has it backward. Yes, they were hobbyists and amateurs at natural philosophy, but so were all the great minds of Enlightenment-era science. What they shared was a fundamental belief that the world could change---that it could improve--- if the light of reason was allowed to shine upon it. And that believe emanated from the great ascent of science over the past century, the upward trajectory that Priestley had s powerfully conveyed in his History and Present State of Electricity. The political possibilities for change were modeled after the change they had all experience through the advancements in natural philosophy. With Priestley, they grasped the political power of the air pump and the electrical machine.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

(Note: italics in original.)

June 2, 2009

Adams, as a Point of Honor, Defended the Innovations of Science

(p. 211) It is no accident that, despite the long litany of injuries Adams felt had been dealt him in Jefferson's letters to Priestley, he chose to begin his counterassault by denying, as a point of honor, that he had ever publicly taken a position as president that was resistant to the innovations of science. Remember that Jefferson had also insinuated that Adams had betrayed the Constitution with his "libel on legislation." But Adams lashed out first at the accusation that he was anti-science. That alone tells us something about the gap that separates the current political climate from that of the founders.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

June 1, 2009

"Infinitely Smart" Physicist and Futurist Expresses Global Warming Doubts

DysonFreeman2009-05-30a.jpg Dyson says that the "climate-studies people" have ". . . come to believe models are real and forget they are only models." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. (The caption used here is adapted from the body of the article, and is not the caption used under the photo in the article.)

The cover story of the March 29, 2009 Sunday New York Times Magazine section was a breath of fresh air on an old hot topic. Here is a small sample of a large article:

(p. 32) FOR MORE THAN HALF A CENTURY the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson has quietly resided in Prince­ton, N.J., on the wooded former farmland that is home to his employer, the Institute for Advanced Study, this country's most rarefied community of scholars. Lately, however, since coming "out of the closet as far as global warming is concerned," as Dyson sometimes puts it, there has been noise all around him. Chat rooms, Web threads, editors' letter boxes and Dyson's own e-mail queue resonate with a thermal current of invective in which Dyson has discovered himself variously described as "a pompous twit," "a blowhard," "a cesspool of misinformation," "an old coot riding into the sunset" and, perhaps inevitably, "a mad scientist." Dyson had proposed that whatever inflammations the climate was experiencing might be a (p. 34 sic) good thing because carbon dioxide helps plants of all kinds grow. Then he added the caveat that if CO2 levels soared too high, they could be soothed by the mass cultivation of specially bred "carbon-eating trees," whereupon the University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner looked through the thick grove of honorary degrees Dyson has been awarded -- there are 21 from universities like Georgetown, Princeton and Oxford -- and suggested that "perhaps trees can also be designed so that they can give directions to lost hikers." Dyson's son, George, a technology historian, says his father's views have cooled friendships, while many others have concluded that time has cost Dyson something else. There is the suspicion that, at age 85, a great scientist of the 20th century is no longer just far out, he is far gone -- out of his beautiful mind.

But in the considered opinion of the neurologist Oliver Sacks, Dyson's friend and fellow English expatriate, this is far from the case. "His mind is still so open and flexible," Sacks says. Which makes Dyson something far more formidable than just the latest peevish right-wing climate-change denier. Dyson is a scientist whose intelligence is revered by other scientists -- William Press, former deputy director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and now a professor of computer science at the University of Texas, calls him "infinitely smart." Dyson -- a mathematics prodigy who came to this country at 23 and right away contributed seminal work to physics by unifying quantum and electrodynamic theory -- not only did path-breaking science of his own; he also witnessed the development of modern physics, thinking alongside most of the luminous figures of the age, including Einstein, Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edward Witten, the "high priest of string theory" whose office at the institute is just across the hall from Dyson's. Yet instead of hewing to that fundamental field, Dyson chose to pursue broader and more unusual pursuits than most physicists -- and has lived a more original life.

. . .

(p. 36) Not long ago Dyson sat in his institute office, a chamber so neat it reminds Dyson's friend, the writer John McPhee, of a Japanese living room. On shelves beside Dyson were books about stellar evolution, viruses, thermodynamics and terrorism. "The climate-studies people who work with models always tend to overestimate their models," Dyson was saying. "They come to believe models are real and forget they are only models." Dyson speaks in calm, clear tones that carry simultaneous evidence of his English childhood, the move to the United States after completing his university studies at Cambridge and more than 50 years of marriage to the German-born Imme, but his opinions can be barbed, especially when a conversation turns to climate change. Climate models, he says, take into account atmospheric motion and water levels but have no feeling for the chemistry and biology of sky, soil and trees. "The biologists have essentially been pushed aside," he continues. "Al Gore's just an opportunist. The person who is really responsible for this overestimate of global warming is Jim Hansen. He consistently exaggerates all the dangers."

Dyson agrees with the prevailing view that there are rapidly rising carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere caused by human activity. To the planet, he suggests, the rising carbon may well be a MacGuffin, a striking yet ultimately benign occurrence in what Dyson says is still "a relatively cool period in the earth's history." The warming, he says, is not global but local, "making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter." Far from expecting any drastic harmful consequences from these increased temperatures, he says the carbon may well be salubrious -- a sign that "the climate is actually improving rather than getting worse," because carbon acts as an ideal fertilizer promoting forest growth and crop yields. "Most of the evolution of life occurred on a planet substantially warmer than it is now," he contends, "and substantially richer in carbon dioxide." Dyson calls ocean acidification, which many scientists say is destroying the saltwater food chain, a genuine but probably exaggerated problem. Sea levels, he says, are rising steadily, but why this is and what dangers it might portend "cannot be predicted until we know much more about its causes."

For the full article, see:

NICHOLAS DAWIDOFF. "The Civil Heretic." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., March 29, 2009): 32-39, 54, 57-59.

(Note: ellipses in top photo caption, and in article quotes, are added.)


"Freeman Dyson." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.

May 29, 2009

"The American Experiment Was, Literally, an Experiment"

(p. 199) This is politics seen through the eyes of an Enlightened rationalist. The American experiment was, literally, an experiment, like one of Priestley's elaborate concoctions in the Fair Hill lab: a system of causes and effects, checks and balances, that could only be truly tested by running the experiment with live subjects. The political order was to be celebrated not because it had the force of law, or divine right, or a standing army behind it. Its strength came from its internal balance, or homeostasis, its ability to rein in and subdue efforts to destabilize it.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

May 25, 2009

In the United States "Innovation" Became a Positive Word

(p. 198) "All advances in science were proscribed as innovations." Jefferson is using the older, negative sense of the word "innovation" here: a new development that threatened the existing order in a detrimental way. (The change in the valence of the word over the next century is one measure of society's shifting relationship to progress.) But that regressive age was now over, and Priestley--the most forward-thinking mind of his generation--could now consider himself fully at home:

Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm into which art and industry had thrown them: science and honesty are replaced on their high ground, and you, my dear Sir, as their great apostle, are on its pinnacle. It is with heartfelt satisfaction that in the first moments of my public action, I can hail you with welcome to our land, tender to you the homage of its respect and esteem, cover you under the protection of those laws which were made for the wise and good like you, and disdain the legitimacy of that libel on legislation which under the form of a law was for some time placed among them.

Perhaps inspired by the legendary optimism of Priestley himself, Jefferson then added some of the most stirringly hopeful words that he ever put to paper:

(p. 199) As the storm is now subsiding, and the horizon becoming serene, it is pleasant to consider the phenomenon with attention. We can no longer say there is nothing new under the sun. For this whole chapter in the history of man is new. The great extent of our Republic is new. Its sparse habitation is new. The mighty wave of public opinion which has rolled over it is new. But the most pleasing novelty is, it's so quietly subsiding over such an extent of surface to its true level again. The order and good sense displayed in this recovery from delusion, and in the momentous crisis which lately arose, really bespeak a strength of character in our nation which augurs well for the duration of our Republic; and I am much better satisfied now of it's stability than I was before it was tried.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

May 19, 2009

Bacon Died Experimenting and Hegel Died Contradicting Himself

(p. C32) The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia.

As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled "Book of Dead Philosophers."

. . .

Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, "Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?" Voltaire begged, "In the name of God, Monsieur, don't speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace."

Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, "Only one man ever understood me ... and he didn't understand me."

For the full review, see:

DINITIA SMITH. "Books of The Times - Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What's It All About, Diogenes?" The New York Times (Fri., January 30, 2009): C32.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis in Hegel quote was in original.)

The reference to Critchley's book, is:

Critchley, Simon. The Book of Dead Philosophers. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.

May 15, 2009

An Environment Where Long-Term Hunches Could Thrive

An environment in which long-term hunches can be pursued, is important not just to science and invention. I speculate that it is also important to entrepreneurship.

(p. 74) If great ideas usually arrive in fragments, a partial cluster of neurons, then part of the secret to having great ideas lies in creating a working environment where those fragments are nurtured and sustained over time. This obviously poses some difficulty in modern work environments, with deadlines and quarterly reports and annual job reviews. (The typical middle manager doesn't respond favorably to news that an employee has a hunch about something that probably won't see results for twenty years.) But Priestley had created an environment for himself where those long-term hunches could thrive with almost no pressure, and his habit of simultaneously writing multiple documents (on multiple topics) kept the fragments alive in his mind over the decades. In the final pages of his memoirs, he mentions a lifelong habit of writing down "as soon as possible, every thing I wish not to forget."


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

May 11, 2009

More Accurate Measurements Reveal Previously Undetected Anomalies

(p. 69) This is a standard pattern in the history of science: when tools for measuring increase their precision by orders of magnitude, new paradigms often emerge, because the newfound accuracy reveals anomalies that had gone undetected. One of the crucial benefits of increasing the accuracy of scales is that it suddenly became possible to measure things that had almost no weight. Black's discovery of fixed air, and its perplexing mixture with common air, would have been impossible without the state-of-the-art scales he employed in his experiments. The whole inquiry had begun when Black heated a quantity of white magnesia, and discovered that it lost a minuscule amount of weight in the process--a difference that would have been imperceptible using older scales. The shift in weight suggested that something was escaping from the magnesia into the air. By then running comparable experiments, heating a wide array of substances, Black was able to accurately determine the weight of carbon dioxide, and consequently prove the existence of the gas. It weighs, therefore it is.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

May 7, 2009

Magdeburg Sphere Let Scientists "See" the Vacuum

(p. 68) When we think of technological advances powering scientific discovery, the image that conventionally comes to mind is a specifically visual one: tools that expand the range of our vision, that let us literally see the object of study with new clarity, or peer into new levels of the very distant, the very small. Think of the impact that the telescope had on early physics, or the microscope on bacteriology. But new ways of seeing are not always crucial to discovery. The air pump didn't allow you to see the vacuum, because of course there was nothing to see: but it did allow you to see it indirectly, in the force that held the Magdeburg Sphere together despite all that horsepower.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

April 29, 2009

World Astonished that an American Tradesman Tamed Lightning

(p. 24) Within five years of his speculative note to Collinson, lightning rods had become a common sight on church steeples throughout Europe and America. Franklin's biographer Carl Van Doren aptly describes the astonishment that greeted these events around the world: "A man in Philadelphia in America, bred a tradesman, remote from the learned world, had hit upon a secret which enabled him, and other men, to catch and tame the lightning, so dread that it was still mythological."


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

April 22, 2009

Environmentalists Abandon Science

In honor of "Earth Day," some thoughtful comments by a co-founder of Greenpeace:

(p. A23) In 1971 an environmental and antiwar ethic was taking root in Canada, and I chose to participate. As I completed a Ph.D. in ecology, I combined my science background with the strong media skills of my colleagues. In keeping with our pacifist views, we started Greenpeace.

But I later learned that the environmental movement is not always guided by science. As we celebrate Earth Day today, this is a good lesson to keep in mind.

At first, many of the causes we championed, such as opposition to nuclear testing and protection of whales, stemmed from our scientific knowledge of nuclear physics and marine biology. But after six years as one of five directors of Greenpeace International, I observed that none of my fellow directors had any formal science education. They were either political activists or environmental entrepreneurs. Ultimately, a trend toward abandoning scientific objectivity in favor of political agendas forced me to leave Greenpeace in 1986.

The breaking point was a Greenpeace decision to support a world-wide ban on chlorine. Science shows that adding chlorine to drinking water was the biggest advance in the history of public health, virtually eradicating water-borne diseases such as cholera. And the majority of our pharmaceuticals are based on chlorine chemistry. Simply put, chlorine is essential for our health.

My former colleagues ignored science and supported the ban, forcing my departure. Despite science concluding no known health risks - and ample benefits - from chlorine in drinking water, Greenpeace and other environmental groups have opposed its use for more than 20 years.

For the full commentary, see:

PATRICK MOORE. "Why I Left Greenpeace." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., April 22, 2008): A23.

April 21, 2009

An Intellectual Collaboration Beyond the Grave

There is something touchingly noble in this:

(p. 11) There is no direct evidence in the historical record, but it is entirely probable that it was the waterspout sighting that sent Priestley off on his quest to measure the temperature of the sea, trying to marshal supporting evidence for a passing conjecture his friend had made a decade before. Franklin had been dead for nearly four years, but their intellectual collaboration continued, undeterred by war, distance, even death.


Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

April 14, 2009

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air


Source of book image:

Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about the determined entrepreneurial detective work that uncovered the cause of cholera, is one of my all-time favorite books, so I am now in the mode of reading everything else that Steven Johnson has written, or will write.

The most recent book, The Invention of Air, is not as spectacular as The Ghost Map, but is well-written on a thought-provoking topic. It focuses on Joseph Priestley's role in the American Revolution. Priestley is best known as an early chemist, but Johnson paints him as a poly-math whose science was of a piece with his philosophy, politics and his religion.

Johnson's broader point is that for many of the founding fathers, science was not a compartment of their lives, but part of the whole cloth (hey, it's my blog, so I can mix as many metaphors as I want to).

And the neat bottom line is that Priestley's method of science (and polity) is the same broadly empirical/experimental/entrepreneurial method that usually leads to truth and progress.

Along the way, Johnson makes many amusing and thought-provoking observations, such as the paragraphs devoted to his coffee-house theory of the enlightenment. (You see, coffee makes for clearer thinking than beer.)

The book:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.

February 19, 2009

Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide that is Probably Not Caused by Human Activity

JupiterLikePLanetDrawing.jpg "This artist's concept shows a cloudy Jupiter-like planet that orbits very close to its fiery hot star." Source of caption and image: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. A31) Astronomers testing techniques to search for extraterrestrial life have detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet 63 light-years away.

This carbon dioxide, though, is certainly not coming from plants or automobiles. The planet, HD 189733b, is far too large (about the mass of the Jupiter) and too hot (1,700 degrees Fahrenheit) for any possibility of life.

For the full story, see:

KENNETH CHANG. "Carbon Dioxide (No S.U.V.'s) Detected on Distant Planet." The New York Times (Thurs., December 11, 2008): A31.

February 15, 2009

"Little Risk the Ice Sheet Will Collapse"

JakobshavnIsbraeGlacierFissure.jpg "To probe the underside of Greenland's glaciers, NASA researcher Alberto Behar released 90 specially tagged rubber ducks into a fissure of the Jakobshavn Isbrae glacier in Greenland, tracking their progress along underground melt-water streams." Source of caption: typed from print version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: edited screen capture from the online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A13) As researchers learn more about the mechanics of Greenland's glaciers, they are becoming convinced that, by itself, the sub-surface water slide created by so much melting ice may be a short-lived seasonal effect, says University of Washington polar scientist Ian Joughin. The glaciers speed up in the summer but slow down in the fall. If that's true, there may be little risk the ice sheet will collapse as some scientists recently feared -- at least not for the foreseeable future.

For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "The Sober Science of Migrating Rubber Duckies; An Armada of Tub Toys Sets Sail in New Research Discipline, 'Flotsam Science,' and Helps Unravel Enduring Planetary Mysteries." Wall Street Journal (Mon., November 14, 2008): A13.

February 12, 2009

"A Splendid Birthday Present" for Charles Darwin


Source of the book image:

(p. A13) . . ., on Feb. 12, biologists the world over will celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Throughout the year, at festivals galore marking his bicentennial, "On the Origin of Species," a mere 150 years old, will be hailed as one of the greatest works in the history of the sciences.

. . .

Mr. Coyne begins with a succinct account of what is at stake. "Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species -- perhaps a self-replicating molecule -- that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection."

Darwinism is thus a claim with several basic components, and the book is structured by carefully exhibiting the evidence for each. Making that structure explicit allows readers to recognize just where they are in the argument. As they follow Mr. Coyne's parade of evidence -- his discussions of the fossil record, of vestigial traits, of the ways in which living things constantly make novel use of the bits and pieces they have inherited, of the distribution of plants and animals -- the components of Darwin's thesis are sequentially supported. We have a list of things to be shown, they are shown and the truth of evolution is established.

. . .

Yet will any defense of Darwin, however painstaking and lucid, succeed in substantially modifying the public-opinion survey results? Mr. Coyne has seen the opposition first-hand, recounting his experience of talking to a group of businessmen about evolution and eliciting the reaction: "Very convincing -- but I don't believe it." This sort of skepticism is often rooted in a sense that Darwinism somehow discredits morality -- a perception that Mr. Coyne argues against, cogently, in a brief final chapter. But he does not seem to appreciate the depth of popular hostility toward Darwin.

. . .

Whether or not he succeeds in bringing Americans en masse to learn to love evolution, he has offered Darwin a splendid birthday present.

For the full review, see:

PHILIP KITCHER. "Bookshelf; Following the Evidence." Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JAN