Archive for the ‘science writing’ category

Good Reads

July 30, 2013

Consider this a shout out to some friends doing fine work that y’all might enjoy.

An aside — or not really:  the early to mid 1980s are sometimes referred (by a highly specialized group of folks, to be sure) as “the Golden Age” of American science writing.  By that we usually mean that there was, briefly, a robust and seemingly ever-expanding ecosytem of newspaper science desks and science magazines (Discover — my alma mater –Science 198x, Science News, Omni and so on) aimed a general audience that seemed to crave focused reporting on really just about anything to do with science.  The tech boom that followed a few years later, brought with it a second wave of venues, places riding the tech zeitgeist, like the much-missed Mondo 2000 and Wired, along with technically literate business rags like The Red Herring and many more.

Now look at us.  Discover is still with us, on its fourth or fifth owner since Time Inc. gave up on it.  Newspaper science sections have almost entirely disappeared, and hundreds of staff science reporting jobs are gone.  That’s what some people point to when bemoaning the state of public knowledge about climate change, for example, or vaccine denialism…and so on.

But while all that’s true —  there has been a collapse of venues (and employment) for science writers schooled, as I was, in the pre-digital journalism world — the reality is that right now is the best time I recall for readers of science writing. There is more available through more channels and conduits than anytime in my working life, and lots and lots of it is smart, literate, important. What’s more, new venues are appearing that offer spaces for both longer and more varied, more expansive kinds of writing — and some of them, at least, are trying hard to pay their writers enough to make this kind of work something that accumulates into careers.

For example — I’ve been loving the work they do at  Atavist and at Matter* too, not to mention an ebook by one of my former students published by The Atlantic (excerpt here),  or the Pulitzer Prize winning journalism by a team that included another one of the fabulous alumnae of the Graduate Program in Science Writing aat MIT [not bragging.  Not me] and I’m leaving out many others, one’s I’ll get back to as I do this kind of post again.

For now, let me  point you to a new kid on the block, Aeon Magazine, which, unlike Atavist or Matter, doesn’t charge for its pieces.  Aeon publishes a long-read every day, each somehow connected with science, and I’ve found it to be an insistent time-sink, really remarkably so for such a recently arrived party to the conversation.

For example, check out this.  Yesterday, Virginia Hughes put up one of the most impressive pieces I’ve read in a long time, a very thoughtful, emotionally rich, intellectually challenging piece on research into the effects on the kids involved of the horrific regimen they experienced and are experiencing now in Romanian orphanages.


Virginia made this piece significant, as opposed to merely affecting, through her carefully framed account of the ethics of running controlled studies on subjects in such straits.  That’s interwoven with  the science involved, and a deeply felt sense of the human cost of doing this kind of research for both subject and scholar.  Really a fine piece of writing.  Here’s a brief sample:

Nelson had warned me several times about the emotional toll of meeting these children. So I was surprised, during our debrief, to hear him say that our visit had upset him. Turns out it was the first time that he had been to an orphanage with older teenagers, not all that much younger than his own son. ‘I’m used to being really distressed when I see all the little babies, or the three- and four-year-olds,’ he said. ‘But here, I almost had to leave at one point, to get myself some air. Just the thought of these kids living like this, it was really depressing.’

How does he do this? I wondered.

Go read the rest.

Then marvel at the sheer elegance of ant society and the almost classical account of hubris and potential tragedy to be read in Ed Yong’s story,  “Ant Farm.”


Ed’s piece moves from a close-up look at an ant-borne plant disease and its implications for chocolate lovers to consider a globalized agricultural system that is vastly more vulnerable than most of us (certainly me) usually suspect.

Have a taste:

Indeed, scientists with Evans’s skills and mindset — the Yodas of plant pathology — are racing to extinction faster than the crops they study. Admittedly, ‘they’ve made a disastrous job of promoting themselves’, according to Hughes, but sexy modern sciences such as molecular biology have also drawn investment away from more traditional fields. In a recent audit, the British Society for Plant Pathology found that their subject is in free fall, relegated to a few lectures at a smattering of universities. Labs have halved in numbers, most scientists in the field are over 50, and new faces are rare. (The same is true across the pond.) ‘Molecular biology tells us what makes these pathogens tick, which is exciting,’ said Cooke. ‘But if we end up with a cadre of trained molecular biologists who can’t identify an oak tree, you have a problem.’

Hughes sees a deeper tragedy at play — the loss of a patient, contemplative approach to British natural history that allowed Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to envision the theory of evolution by natural selection. ‘People like Harry [Evans] have spent 40 to 50 years working on groups of organisms, and know them deeply in the same way that Darwin or Wallace did,’ Hughes said. ‘We’re not replacing them, and that’s a lamentable shame.’

As the old guard retires sans apprentices, we lose the knowledge in their heads and we cripple our intellectual immune system. WhenPhytophthora ramorum started killing oak trees in the western US in the mid-1990s, it took a long time before anyone knew what it was, giving the disease a chance to establish a foothold. When ash dieback disease hit British trees in 2012, history repeated itself. ‘There were no taxonomists to identify the fungus,’ Evans said, ‘because we fired them all.’

Last, I’d like to point you again towards a book I’ve mentioned here before, Russ Rymer’s Paris Twilight.  Russ’s is, to my eyes at least, a simply wonderful novel.  Its science hook comes in the deep dive into both the techne and the psyche of anesthesia, beautifully plumbed by Russ through his lead character, an anaesthesiologist called to Paris to take part in a heart transplant operation that does not seem quite on the up-and-up.


The book investigates the themes of loss and distance and (usually) return through a number of different paths — the medicine, of course, and history, and what one might think of as either the battlefields or the courtrooms of memory in which love’s victors or culprits get called to account.  The central character is a compelling woman, and her supporting cast…well, when I finally put the book down I felt so deeply aggrieved that I couldn’t sit with them again tomorrow to hear the conversation we might have had next.

When I first read it, in draft, I thought that this was a book to win prizes.  I still believe that, rereading the finished text, so neatly dressed in its Sunday-go-to-church hard covers.  I’d quote here, but the text is so tightly  interleaved that I can’t easily pick out just a paragraph or to. It leads you on, you see.

Sadly, it’s hit the market in the summer doldrums, and so, in case you missed it last time I wrote (and talked with Russ) about it, then take this for as strong a recommendation as I can offer for words (and people) to keep you company on August holiday.

*One more example of one of my student’s work. Yes, it does make me happy to see folks we may have helped a little on the way do good in the world.  How not?

Images:  Max Liebermann, Amsterdam Orphan Girls 1881.

Pro Hart, The Big Ant, photo 2010.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Landscape at Sacre Coeur, c.1886

I Sing The Body Electric: Program Notes — this afternoon at 5 EST 2 PST

February 20, 2013

It is once more that time of the month:  I’ll be doing another of my interviews on Virtually Speaking Science, live from the Exploratorium’s hall in Second Life!

My guest this month is Cynthia Graber.  Cynthia is a double-threat science journalist, working in both print and radio; she’s currently at MIT, as it happens, as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow.

Most recently, Cynthia’s been blazing trail in what is rapidly becoming a new genre for nonfiction — what I’ve been calling in my head the non-fiction novella, stories that explode the seams of even length-happy magazines like The New Yorker or The Atlantic, but that do not require a full book’s level of engagement.  These e-book shorts appear now as Kindle Singles, TED books, Byliner projects and more. Perhaps the most discussed in the community I hang with has been the approach pioneered by The Atavist, which adds a fair amount of computing to the text in books sold both as e-texts and as apps.  The other eye-catcher in this domain recently has been the Matter project — a Kickstarter-funded start-up dedicated to original reported and investigative stories centered on science.

Cynthia wrote what became Matter’s second publication, Electric Shock: How Electricity Could Be The Key To Human RegenerationIt’s a story of a Tufts University researcher named Michael Levin, who believes he is on track to work out pathways through which humans could emulate the salamander and regenerate damaged or lost body parts0.


His approach is out of the mainstream for what begins as a kind of out-there body of research, as he focuses not on genetics or stem cell research, but on the electrical signalling functions of our biology.

It’s a wild subject, meticulously and carefully handled.  We’ll be talking about that — and about the perils of reporting on science when the line between the daring and the too-far-out-there isn’t always that easy to discern. That’ll cover most of the hour, but we will also save some time to talk about this brave new world of forms and genres emerging in the context of the new media ecosystem.  Should be fun; stop by if you have a chance.

Listen here.  The program will be available later as a podcast at that link to Blog Talk Radio and on iTunes — look for us under Virtually Speaking Science.

If you’re a virtual world type, you can join the live Second Life audience here.

Again timing:  5 p.m. today Eastern time; 10 p.m. in London; 2 p.m. in the land of my youth over there on the left coast.

Image: Hans Canon,  The Salamander, 1863.

For A Good Time On The ‘Tubes (Self Aggrandizement Alert)

August 29, 2012

Just a quick heads up for fans of smart (I hope) talk.  In just about an hour, at 5 p.m. EDT (10 GMT, 2 PDT) I’ll be trading views with science writer Jennifer Ouellete (AKA Jen-Luc Piquante), proprietor among much else of Cocktail Party Physics, which gig gives me the excuse for this pic:

The conversation will take place over at my more or less regular monthly gig on Virtually Speaking Science.  Listen live or later here. Alternatively, come join the virtually live audience in Second Life.  Podcasts of VSS, including the work of my co-host, Alan Boyle, can also be downloaded at the iTunes store.  Lots of back issues there — of particular current interest, you might check out my conversations with climate scientist Michael Mann; science studies scholar Naomi Oreskes, and science journalist and “framing” advocate Chris Mooney.

Jennifer and I will be leaping off from the impulse that led her to write her most recent book, The Calculus Diaries. That’s her account of being an admitted math-phobe coming to grips with the beauty and practical value of what is truly one of the handful of greatest human inventions ever.  As I blurbed for her — calculus allows one to think rigorously about change in time and space; it just doesn’t get bigger than that, really.

We’ll go from the book to the latest kerfluffle about what kinds of math should be taught in school (see the algebra controversy sparked by this piece. For a good reply, see this.)  More broadly we’ll use the question of how to present the actual importance of thinking mathematically in everyday circumstances to think out loud a bit about an issue that is bugging me more and more these days.  To put it in personal terms — I’ve been doing science writing/film making for public audiences for just about 30 years now.  Looking at the convention of one of our major political parties in which that party declares its denial of anthropogenic climate change, evidence based medicine, investments in science education and research and so on and on and on (without even going into the anti-evolution lunacy, nor the pseudo-science with which it justifies government regulation of ladyparts and … you get the picture) — looking at all that and more, it’s depressingly easy to conclude that my career has been a net negative.

Yes, I know, correlation is not cause, which is why some of us still believe that milk drinking does not  lead to heroin addiction. But really, for all that we live in something of a golden age of popular science writing and communication other media, it is past time, in my ever-so-humble opinion, to think about what, if anything, we should be doing to reach a mass audience we clearly have not fully attracted, much less persuaded.

Finally, Jennifer is near the end of a book that has proved much more challenging to write than she blithly thought going in.  I’m just starting a book I’m convinced I have got under control. (Thus every folly begins, in innocent confidence…) So we’re going to talk just a bit of shop:  how every book project trips you up, and what you can do about that terrible moment when you are finally, utterly, deeply certain that you computer is going to reach through the display and throttle you; just put you out of your and everyone else’s misery.

Should be fun.  Check it out when and as you have a notion.

PS:  As a DEW — Sunday, September 9, 8 p.m. EDT, 6 p.m. MT, I’ll be talking one of my old books, Measure for Measure: A Musical History of Science with the incomparable Desiree Schell on Skeptically Speaking. I’ve been on the show once before as a guest of Marie-Claire Shanahan, and it was a lot of fun.  Desiree is a fabulous interviewer, so I’m looking forward to this one too. But it’s relevant to the post above, if only because the book that both nearly killed me and most taught me to write was Measure…in which I succumbed to what I have decided is the dreaded second book syndrome.  More to come…

Image: Edgar Degas, L’absinthe, 1876

Of E-Books, Reviews, And the ReMaking of Literary Journalism. (Shameless Self and Project Promotion…)

August 23, 2012

Hey all –

For those that might be interested, I’ve got a review up of TED Senior Fellow Alanna Shaikh’s What’s Killing Us:  A Practical Guide to Our Biggest Global Health Problems.  It’s good-not-great IMHO, for reasons I go into with my usual gift for brevity.  I’ll post the full review below the jump — but I urge you to click on the link, as it will take you to the Download the Universe site, which is the project I’d like to bring to your attention.

DtU is the brainchild of uber-science writer Carl Zimmer, who while talking on a panel about e-books at last January’s Science Online conference was challenged to do something about his complaint that popular science writing lacks the community and infrastructure that the romance and mystery/thriller worlds have used to great effect.  On the spot he agreed to get something going.  He got in touch with some of his colleagues, me included, and we all agreed to put together (under Carl’s leadership) a site that would review as many e-books/apps/shorts and the like as we could.  The site’s been running since the beginning of the year; the editorial board, present company excepted, of course, is solid gold; and we’ve built up a reasonable archive of takes on stuff you might like to read.    For the snarkaholics among us, let me point  you to a couple to get started:  David Dobbs ripping several new orifices in Ron Gutman’s TED offering Smile; and Carl himself rendering  bodily harm to another TED published work (a theme here?) on Zimbardo and Duncan’s ghastly-sounding The Demise of Guys.

There were works we liked too.  Some favorites?  Steve Silberman’s take on the rescue of William Craddock’s psychedelic classic Be Not Content; Carl again on the app-book Leonardo which he asserts is “the first great science e-book;” Ed Yong on  The Electric Mind, an Atavist app-and-e-book; Deborah Blum on one of my all time favorites, Michael Faraday’s  Chemical History of a CandleThere are lots more.  Again, this site is populated by as fine a list of popular science writers as I can imagine; I’m honored to join them.

Here’s the thing.  These writers have come together because we are in the midst of a revolution in the way we talk to each to other– the existence of this blog is an example of communication and community that would not have been possible a very short time ago.  One consequence of that change is that models for making a living through the craft of writing are being remade.  Publishing has been disintermediated, which to my mind is mostly a very good thing indeed.   (I do know that all this is old hat to everyone reading this.)  But DtU came into existence because such disintermediation makes it harder to get the word out about good stuff.  So as science writers, working in an area we think surpassingly important (and lots of fun) we’ve taken matters into our own hands, as the technology requires us to do.  So, if you do have an interest in the construction of a culture of smart lay conversation about science, Download the Universe may be very useful to you.  I hope so.

Shameless self-and-other promotion complete.  As promised, the review of Shaikh’s work, complete with all the DtU apparatus, follows below the jump.

Image:   Jacques-Louis David, The Death of Marat (Marat assassiné), c.1693. (more…)

The Higgs Boson is a Liberal Conspiracy To Get The Government More Involved In Mass*

June 24, 2012

We await news of the Higgs boson, with a major announcement in the offing** (perhaps as early as July 4).  Some rumors have already started to percolate, suggesting that the hints of a Standard Model Higgs appearing at a particular energy level compatible with established theory may be approaching confirmation.

If the rumors are true, and the near-confirmation does get announced next month, and if that result then holds to the point where everyone competent to have a view concurs that the Higgs has actually been identified, then that’s a very big deal, though in some ways a disappointing one.  It’s a big deal because it will mean the attempt to understand one of the fundamental phenomena of the universe, the existence of the Higgs field, will be able to proceed with actual data.

It would also confirm (again) that the basic theoretical ideas that have governed particle physics for some time are still on the job.

That, in a way, is the bad news.  Divergence from the standard model would require new physics, and suggest that there are new intellectual continents to discover.  One more chip on the stack of winnings the SM has already racked up?  Impressive, but not as much fun as the kind of intellectual adventure that would result if the field had to accommodate something other than the simplest answer to the question of how the cosmos manages to confer mass on its stuff like quarks and electrons (the “job” of the Higgs field.)

Still — for those of you interested in the leading edge of the now c. 8 decades of high energy physics inquiry into basic properties of nature, we’ll know something exciting, one way or the other, in a few weeks.

In the above, I’ve linked a couple of times to blog posts by my friend, Matt Strassler.  He’s a very good guide on these kind of things, writing from a theoretician’s point of view.  But while I agree with Matt on lots of stuff, and have learned much more than that from him, there’s one aspect of this latest story on which he and I disagree.  Or perhaps more accurately, on which our perspectives differ

That would be the view he takes that early speculation on the results of the two experiments at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider amounts to subversion of the scientific process.  Jon Butterworth, a researcher on one of those experiments, strongly agrees.

In the comment thread Matt tangles with Peter Woit, proprietor of the blog Not Even Wrong, who in this post noted that  “reliable rumors”  suggest “the experiments are seeing much the same thing as last year in this year’s new data: strong hints of a Higgs around 125 GeV. ” –i.e. the step toward confirmation described above.

Matt’s and Butterworth’s argument is simple:  it is crucial for Higgs data analysis that those assessing the data from each experiment not know what the folks doing the same on the other experiment are seeing — or might be glimpsing, or think they might be getting to see.  Each group needs to be blind to the other to avoid the risk of contaminating the validation process with any expectation of what they “ought” to find, given what they know (or think they do) about the other folks’ results.  Publishing rumors — even reliable ones, from folks who shouldn’t be discussing preliminary data, but do anyway — damages the ability of those on the front line to do their work in a pristine intellectual environment, and that’s bad.

That’s an entirely valid view.  But the question is whether or not people who are not engaged in that work should publish what they learn.  And here, as a science writer and not a scientist, this is the thing:  science is an enterprise to be covered; it is not simply a cultural value to be defended and advanced (though science writers do so, in a number of implicit and explicit ways).

The Higgs is news.  It is so for several reasons, both intellectual and instrumental.  The intellectual — perhaps the aesthetic — ones are those hinted at above:  whatever form the understanding of Higgs processes may take, it will form an essential part of the picture we have of the nature of reality.  The instrumental ones are the same as those which led to the heinous labeling of the Higgs boson as “the God Particle.”  Cultivation of excitement around the Higgs is part of the case for supporting large and expensive social commitments to all the apparatus needed to do high-energy physics.  As Chad Orzel points out,

Dude, this means you’ve won.”

I mean, it’s not an accident that there’s a lot of excitement about the maybe-sorta-kinda discovery of the Higgs. This is the product of years of relentless hype from the particle physics community. They’ve been talking about this goddamn particle for longer than I’ve been running this blog, and it’s finally percolated out into the general public consciousness enough that buzz about it can trend on Twitter. Complaining that your persistent effort to get people to care about particle physics esoterica has led to people being excited about particle physics esoterica seems more than a little churlish.

More than churlish, in fact:  self defeating.  Either science is enough of a vital part of being a citizen and a thoughtful person that what happens as it unfolds is part of our common culture; or it is an esoteric pursuit, and hence more on the fringe than any scientist I know (and me!) would accept.  If science does take that central  a role, then properly reported stories from within experiments are fair game.  It’s not the writer’s fault if the scientists involved are troubled by (accurate, contextually-rich, honest…) coverage.  The fault, if any, is not with Peter Woit; it is with whoever leaked rumors.

Put this another way:  imagine the story is one of an investigation of fraud at a major experiment.  Would it seem right to enjoin a science writer from writing about that fraud investigation before it was complete?  Even if it impeded the investigation?  It seems to me that the answer is, mostly, “no.”  (I say mostly, because I can imagine being told that publication right now might kill some specific vital step in the inquiry. But even there, the constraint would have to be, from where I see it, narrowly constructed and limited:  I wouldn’t hold off publishing what I know for long.)

That is:  science journalists deal in accounts of what they have found out that are of interest to them and to their readers.  They have real obligations: their stories must be accurate, must hold validity within the larger context of work in which particular incidents take place, must not violate any agreements the writer may have entered into with her or his sources, and so on.  But in my view, the writer does not have the duty of policing the process of science itself.  She or he is rather engaged in a conversation with the audience — whose interests, like those of the writer, overlap with but are not necessarily identical to those of the scientists themselves.

And thus this sermon endeth.  May your day be highly energetic.

*Tweet by old friend @drskyskull (who blogs at Skulls in the Stars.

**Link to TPM, ‘coz that’s where first I saw what has become widely discussed.  But could we please lay off the “God Particle” nonsense?  Leon Lederman has long since done whatever penance he ought for that bit of nonsense.

Images:  Alfred Bierstadt, Buffalo Head,c. 1879.

Alfred Bierstadt, Trapped, before 1902.

Live Blog: Telling the Stories of Science Panel Two — Fifty Years Ahead

March 24, 2012

5:37 — and that’s a wrap, folks.

5:33:  Lloyd — don’t wanta quantum laptop just yet (takes a lot of gear just to talk to 12 atoms.)

Sweet spot for qu computing–factoring large numbers, which could break all public key codes. (Talk about disruption.)

5:15: Q & A time:  Belcher and Sharp talk about the sense of science as both a search for basic knowledge and very much an applied endeavor…Lloyd notes that most of the big problems are more political than scientific, but that in the end you still have to do the science to produce any remotely plausible solutions.

Q: Question about whether or not nano materials or organic quantum computers are disposable.  Sharp responsds that the nice thing about biological systems is that they are all pretty much made of stuff (proteins etc) that other creatures can eat.  But it is very important to design in recycleabilty (sp?).

Q:  Issue of framing problems — are we aiming too low, as in, investing in cancer drugs that at best prolong life for a few months.  Seth Lloyd responds:  aiming low is not really a problem at MIT — different calculation at drug companies.  He believes that we should allocate more resources to people trying “crazy” stuff.  Primary leaps for society come from technology that arise out of fundamental research — see e.g. the transistor — and not from incrementalism.  Hence, need to prioritize basic research over the attempt to divine the right applied line to follow.

Sharp: it matters at the highest level who’s setting policy because, yes, framing a problem is crucial; if you have the right statement of the problem you can solve that problem… much harder otherwise.  His example: lung cancer may be best approached by cutting smokng — that might be the right way tof rame the issue.

Belcher: emphasizes the value of interdisciplinarity. Putting her next to engineers at the Koch Center changes her insights, and vice versa.  She remembers her own experience of getting funding despite her “crazy” idea of giving genetic info to a nonliving system.

Sharp adds: origins of molecular biology lie in physics.  People like Delbruck came into physics and disciplined people to look at the simplest organism and work out those problems.  Cross fertilization of ideas and techniques…

Q: are the lawyers going to muck up the future of these sciences?  Sharp’s answer: there is an enormous amount of litigation around the health sciences, and an enormous amount of regulation.  The motivation of the regulation is clear — but you do have to work through/around this reality.

Lloyd asks Belcher, “you’ve patented a gazillion things — what do you think about the IP system.” Belcher — doesn’t have any sense of having been slowed down by litigation.  Maybe material science is easier than say, software.

Lloyd patents everything reflexively — ever since he didn’t patent an idea in quantum computing because, he thought, it’ll never work…which it didn’t until a company in Vancouver dropped $100 million to make it work.  Ah well….

5:02: Lloyd now moves to the specific question of quantum computing.  A quantum computer is wher eyou store and process information at level of individual quanta.

Now we get a delightful introduction to wave particle duality. Lloyd’s aside: it’s a toss up between quantum mechanics and natural selection as to which has more confirmation — and thus isn’t it curious that both are routinely under attack.

This leads to an anecdote about pitching a quantum search device to Brin and Page in a meeting held in a hot tub.  Interesting times…

Lloyd not interested in quantum computing to beat Moore’s law, particularly; rather, Lloyd want’s to understand how information processing happpens, in say, Belcher’s photosynthesizing plants/and/or/nanosystems.

Photosynthesis: take a photon, have it absorbed by a chromophor; it creates and electron-hole pair (exciton — a particle of excitement) which has to hop through the photosynthetic complext until it gets to a reaction center..reaction center is abou 5% efficient, whilst transport is hugely efficient….99 %.  Turns out the transport system involves a quantum biological step as these electron-hole pairs “ooze” (Lloyd’s word) through the complex.

So need insight into quantum information processing to understand what’s actually going on as we speak.

4:46: And yes — my fingers and wrists hurt.  Belcher talks fast.  Now it’s Seth Lloyd’s turn.  His specialty, says my colleague Marcia Bartusiak “All things Quantum.” (She challengers her inner Terry Pratchett, I think.)

Seth Lloyd begins with a shout out to science writing. (Yay!)

Grant writing is advertising — Mad Men without the sex.

Science is a uniquely public form of knowledge, not to mention that the public in this country actually pays for most of it.

A rather small fraction of scientists are good at communicating to that public what they do…and so Lloyd is here because he thinks that what our grads do is great — with which sentiment I thoroughly agree.

Now the talk:  Predicting 50 years is a mugs game.  Agrees w. Sharp that one tends to overestimate what comes in 5 years, and can’t have a clue what will happen in 50 years.

So if the scale of the earth is 10^8 meters (equator to pole via the Paris meridian. to the size of a liter of water…and then down to the atom level — you get the rough equivalence — the number of atoms that fill a liter water bottle is the same as the number of liter bottles that could fill the earth…all this to give a sense of the scale involved in thinking in quantum and or nano terms.

If you think of size not as an absolute measure, but as in relation to the smallest component to which we have access — then a liter bottle has grown very large indeed in the last decade or so.

Key take away — none of this discovery could have been anticipated a decade ago; we had no way to tell what would transpire when we got down to that level.

So Lloyd channels James Brown for his prediction of what will happen in 50 years.  “I don’t know what will happen, but whatever it is will be funky!”

Thinking about Moore’s law…an extrapolation would say computers with single atom components could come around 2050 — except that’s what his group is doing now in quantum computing.

Talking Moore’s law — uncertain as to the details of its future course…but just thinking about the nanoscale discussions by Belcher and Sharp — we know that very funky things will happen as we travel down the slope of scale and speed.

4:39:  Belcher adds that the A123 products went from invention in 2000 to broad commercial use now.

Our whirlwind tour heads now to healthcare.  Cost is formidable 17% of GDP in US will soon go to health care.  Need now for minimally invasive diagnostics and treatment; new and better imaging; and more…nanoscience impinges on the whole sequence: nano probes can take measurements within single cells; nanoparticles are being used to perform rapid diagnostics for particular proteins.

Moving now to ideas about nanotreatment — if you can get nanoparticles with particular properties, can target cells very specifically for treatment.  Neat idea — a nanoparticle that can detect a tumor cell can signal other nanoparticles to deliver a drug or what have you to the cell.

Belcher’s own work is trying to take CO2 from emissions and turn it into building supplies, through an engineered yeast system.  Discusses promise of nanotech for water purification.

Last thought: can give DNA to manufactures; have engineered viruses to make batteries, e.g.

4:27 Say hello to Angela Belcher, MacArthur Fellow and nanotechnologist extraordinaire.

Future of science turns on interfaces: in 50 years won’t say “I’m molecular biologist or engineer ” or what have you — as the fields merge.

Her quesetion:  What does that non-living/living interface look like.  Can we impart to nonliving materials some of the exquisite properties or capabilities that life has.  Can you evolve properties of materials into the DNA coding that indivduals could pass on to their kids?

E.g. — what if you could grow batteries from a dna-located code in petrie dish.  Belcher cites the Feynman idea “plenty of room at the bottom.

Key idea is that nano isn’t just small, but that you can control atoms precisely, make the system do exactly what you want.

Belcher’s motivation:  want to do nano to make the world better/livable for her kids.  Because you can control systems at the atom by atom level, nano has such broad potential — tons of fields.

What’s happening at the nano scale — just in cells, see proteins, Ribozomes, Linear alpha helix collagen, DNA…lots of models for sophisticated functionality at nano level.

See e.g. Bawendi’s quantum dots that use nano properties for a range of properties.  Others are workign on self cleaning solar cells deriving insight from self cleaning lotus leaves that work at nano scale.

Bob Langer is watching how geckos walk up walls and is looking at ways to build better bandages.

Unifiying idea: look at what evolution has produced over millions of years and see what ideas one can steal.

Now Belcher turns to the energy issue; we see a chart look at energy production.  The chart makes it clear that production of renewables is not now close to keeping pace with future need…nanotechnolgy can impinge on the solution to problem, in applications that range from solar — with improvements in efficiency, processing, cost, self-maintenance.  Similarly nano can improve energy conservation (efficiency) — see, e.g. Bawendi et al. quantum dot applications to LED innovations.  Next up:  improvement in battery tech; in which the nano scale can play a significant role — see what’s happened w. MIT spin off A123 Systems.

4:14:  Sharp continues…He co-chaired a National Academy report committee on “A New Biology for the 21st Century.”

Major challenges identified there:  (1) Nearly a billion undernourished in the world i ’07 w. population growth going on:  how do we sustain that population.

(2) Human activities are stressing the environment from which that sustenance must derive…getting worse.

(3) Transportation fuels depend almost entirely on limited non-renewable resources.

(4) Healthcare, which is costly now, and will get more so: so how to make it more effective and cost-effective.

These are the issues that molecualr biology may and will need to address over the next 50 years.

So, what about  the food challenge.  Next revolution — molecular engineering of plants to grow in places and with a control of inputs not now achievable. Turns on genetically informed decisions, which include understanding biodiversity, systematics and evolutioanry genomics.  Think “analsyis fo crops as ecosystems.”

Bad news says Sharp:  we in the US invest trivially in this; center of gravity is in Europe; we just lost the best researcher in this field to UK.

Environment Challenge:

Need a comprehensive and quantitative (my emphasis) meausre of ecosystem services…molecular biology can contribut

Energy Challenge:

To meet hte renewable fuel standard 2022 goal — need 4x increase in ceonomical biofuel production…

To get there must approach biomass to biofuel production process as a systems/engineering problem.

Health Challenge:

We can sequence a genome now for $1,000:  have an incredible ability coming soon to approach your health from a genomic point of view.

Issue — you ahve to participate in this: have your genome on your iPad…If the goal is individualized health surveillance and care.

Some future goals: develop conceptual and technical capacity to monitor metabolome (new term to me — I like it) integrated phenotypic readout.

Many major diseases are already getting tackled death-rates down from cancer etc.  Big challenge: aging.  Sharp expects that in 50 years his grandson will expect to live into the hundreds, being active into his eighties and nineties….

That aging breakthrough, if it comes, carries with it all kinds of social, ethical and practical challenges.

Thus, says Sharp:  hold on to your seats.  Big change at the macro level is coming from revolution at the molecular one.

4:09:  What has happened here over 50 years: first, shifted MIT’s biology dept. from “food processing” to molecular biology — a shift aided by recruitiing Luria to come here.  In 1972, decided to add a Center for Cancer Research — which shifted emphasis from single cell approaches, and to take on the problem of fundamental processes of cancer in humans.

IN 1983, along comes the Whitehead, w. the challenge of understanding how single cells transform into 3 D structures of a complex organism; central problem to how biology works.

in 1993, MIT decided in which biology became a core requirement — a huge shift for the whole institute, as physical scientists and engineers now had to respond to biologically informed questions from their own students…so they had to learn biology to.

in 2000, came the neuroscience complex; followed by the Broad Institute in 2003, which brings big science approaches to biology…and last, the Koch Institute combines the cancer center w. engineers…to mark the latest stage of the evolution of life sciences as a practice at MIT.

MIT is now central to the cluster of life sciences research and industry in and around Kendall Sq. — by far the largest such complex in the world.

4:07: Sharp:  I knew Crick for many years, and had lunch with Watson just the other day — and I can assure you they had no idea what would come from that double helix at the point of discovery.

People overestimate advances in short range; underestimate it over 50 years.  So to get a sense of the scale issue — look at what’s happened at MIT over the last 50 years in molecular biology as a prelude for speculation on what’s to come.

The idea…there is a third revolution coming in a convergence of life sciences, physical sciences and engineering.

4:02:  Professor Marcia Bartusiak begins by highlighting both successful predictions — Arthur C. Clarke and satellite tech, e.g. — and less excellent ones, like the original IBM Watson’s declaration that the world market for computers might touch five.  First up, Nobel laureate Phil Sharp on molecular biology

3:58:  Just about to start the second panel in the celebration of ten years of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT.  The panel title:  Fifty Years Ahead: Imagining Nanotechnology, Quantum Computing, and Molecular Biology in 2062

Coming up:  talks from Philip Sharp, Seth Lloyd and Angela Belcher on molecular biology, quantum computing and nanotechnology, respectively.  (No promises as to the order.)

Mnookin and Me

November 16, 2011

Hey, all:

This is just a reminder of tonight’s internet radio and/or Second Life* farrago, me and Panic Virus author Seth Mnookin in conversation.  Here’s Seth’s take on what we’ll be doing.

For my part, the first goal is to get some distance into why it’s so hard to get scientific thinking — and not just results — into the civic conversation.  Seth’s work on autism/vaccine tribulations is a path into that question that starts us off outside of politics, which I think is important.  That is: it’s not just overt malign interest that makes people reject settled conclusions and resist arguments that would seem (to folks already inside the tent) to be persuasive to anyone who just doesn’t know the details of this or that yet.

As commenter Linnaeus on the last thread I posted on tonight’s conversation pointed out, the Science Studies gang has in fact developed a name for the problem: agnotology.  We live in a culture that has taken the genuine scientific value of skepticism, and has turned it into a rhetorical tool to frame public attitudes towards and constrain access to knowledge about science.

It’s my view that as the weapons used are those of rhetoric, the counter will have to come from some understanding of what it takes to persuade (and move) people, given our current media landscape.

A big job and question, and one to which I doubt either Seth or I will have any conclusive answers — but worth thinking about.  Come along, shoot some questions at us, and have a good time.  Plus, we’ll probably say some stuff about Jenny McCarthy.  I mean, how not?

*Second Life venue:

Image: Jan Steen, The Crowned Orator, before 1675.


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