211 — May 29,
THE THIRD CULTURE
Do Some People Resist Science?
Bingham Fellowship for Writers
Our Synthetic Futures
NEW YORK TIMES
NIGHT WITH CONAN O'BRIEN
June 4, 2007
COVER STORY A band of maverick scientists—including Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome—are in the verge of rewriting life's genetic code from scratch. They think they can create artificial cells that can manufacture drugs and new materials, prowl the bloodstream for caner and turn sunlight into biofuels. Are they playing God?
June 4, 2007 issue - It last happened about 3.6 billion years ago. a tiny living cell emerged from the dust of the Earth. It replicated itself, and its progeny replicated themselves, and so on, with genetic twists and turns down through billions of generations. Today every living organism—every person, plant, animal and microbe—can trace its heritage back to that first cell. Earth's extended family is the only kind of life that we've observed, so far, in the universe.
This pantheon of living organisms is about to get some newcomers — and we're not talking about extraterrestrials. Scientists in the last couple of years have been trying to create novel forms of life from scratch. They've forged chemicals into synthetic DNA, the DNA into genes, genes into genomes, and built the molecular machinery of completely new organisms in the lab—organisms that are nothing like anything nature has produced.
The people who are defying Nature's monopoly on creation are a loose collection of engineers, computer scientists, physicists and chemists who look at life quite differently than traditional biologists do. Harvard professor George Church wants "to do for biology what Intel does for electronics"—namely, making biological parts that can be assembled into organisms, which in turn can perform any imaginable biological activity. Jay Keasling at UC Berkeley received $42 million from Bill Gates to create living microfactories that manufacture a powerful antimalaria agent. And then there's Craig Venter, the legendary biotech entrepreneur who made his name by decoding the human genome for a tenth of the predicted cost and in a tenth of the predicted time. Venter has put tens of millions of dollars of his own money into Synthetic Genomics, a start-up, to make artificial organisms that convert sunlight into biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases. These organisms, he says, will "replace the petrochemical industry, most food, clean energy and bioremediation."[...more]
June 4, 2007 issue - Craig Venter is the rude boy of molecular biology. He made himself famous by decoding the human genome faster and cheaper than anyone expected, beating a team of rivals led by the U.S. National Institutes of Health. Since then, Venter has spent much of his time aboard Sorcerer II, his high-tech research vessel, trolling the seas in search of new proteins. The findings will be helpful, he says, on his next project: synthesizing a living organism from a handful of inert chemicals. If he succeeds, he'll be able to turn cells into biochemical factories that can churn out biofuels. NEWSWEEK's Barrett Sheridan spoke with him by phone from Edinburgh, Scotland, on the problems and potential of synthetic biology. [...more]
The SynBio approach is onto something big—a new version of nanotechnology, which is the craft of manufacturing things at the molecular scale. SynBio’s plan is to capitalize on the fact that biology is already doing molecular fabrication all the time. What might happen if we repurpose biology to our own ends?
One big worry is what nanotechnologists call the “gray-goo problem.” What’s to stop a particularly virulent SynBio organism from eating everything on earth? My guess is that this could never happen. Every existing plant, animal, fungus and protozoan already aspires to world domination. There’s nothing more ruthless than viruses and bacteria—and they’ve been practicing for a very long time. [...more]
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE RESIST SCIENCE? [5.16.07]
"In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest."
To Janna Levin
The fellowship honors an exceptionally talented fiction writer whose debut work—a novel or collection of short stories published in 2006—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.
From the judges' citation: "Early in Janna Levin's brilliant first novel…the reader is asked, 'Don't our stories matter?' The question is tremendous, challenging the premise of fiction itself and the choice of the stories she tells, the lives of two great scientists, Kurt Godel and Alan Turing, their extraordinary achievements and their personal tragedies. Levin, who is a physicist and astronomer, does not exclude her own story. She's our Virgil who takes us from the Viennese café of 1931 in which Godel, young and untried, has already come upon his incompleteness theory, to the little hut in Bletchley Park where Alan Turing breaks Germany's Enigma code, and to Levin's own prospect of this day in New York in the 21st century. 'Craving an amulet, a jewel, a reason, a purpose, a truth.' The writer's voice is always present with authority and wonder, observing, listening in, unafraid of her own inventions. Levin's imagery is beautiful, often as elegant as solutions in her home field of mathematics, and always as clear as the answer we seek in the proof of a fine story."
Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science'
Though we live in an era of stunning scientific understanding, all too often the average educated person will have none of it. People who would sneer at the vulgarian who has never read Virginia Woolf will insouciantly boast of their ignorance of basic physics. Most of our intellectual magazines discuss science only when it bears on their political concerns or when they can portray science as just another political arena. As the nation’s math departments and biotech labs fill up with foreign students, the brightest young Americans learn better ways to sue one another or to capitalize on currency fluctuations. And all this is on top of our nation’s endless supply of New Age nostrums, psychic hot lines, creationist textbook stickers and other flimflam.
The costs of an ignorance of science are not just practical ones like misbegotten policies, forgone cures and a unilateral disarmament in national competitiveness. There is a moral cost as well. It is an astonishing fact about our species that we understand so much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff it’s made of, the origin of living things and the machinery of life. A failure to nurture this knowledge shows a philistine indifference to the magnificent achievements humanity is capable of, like allowing a great work of art to molder in a warehouse.
Mate Selection Is a Many-Splendored Thing
...It's a counterintuitive picture--at least to women like myself, for whom the search for a mate is no saunter through the produce department--and it didn't exactly catch on with Darwin's Victorian contemporaries. The idea of sexual selection gathered dust for a century, until biologists began thinking again about an evolved basis for social behavior. In 1972 a biologist named Robert Trivers published a crucial paper, "Parental Investment and Sexual Selection," which went a long way to resurrect the theory. Trivers explained differences in sex roles as the consequence of biologically mandated differences in "parental investment," defined as any investment of time or energy a parent devotes to one offspring at the expense of that parent's ability to invest in other offspring. ...
WEEK: RICHARD DAWKINS
It was good to be alive as I swam among the marine iguanas and the breathtakingly tame Galapagos sea lions, or walked among the flightless cormorants (unique to Galapagos) hanging their useless stubby wings out to dry. This week I came within touching distance (I did not touch) of nesting wave albatrosses, and of boobies, high-stepping their powder-blue feet in the slow-motion ballet of their surreal courtship. I have watched, spellbound, as boobies and pelicans rained down like arrows into the water, in a feeding frenzy that must strike the fish below with the fishy equivalent of shock and awe.
Our impressive Ecuadorian guides told us that boobies eventually go blind, the consequence of years of repeated high-velocity impacts of their eyes on the water. As Darwin would have realised (The Origin of Species is rich in such economic insights), this accords with natural selection. Eventual death by blinding is the price paid for successful reproduction earlier in life - successful passing on of the genes that laid down this ultimately suicidal behaviour.
A conversation with architect David Rockwell. His book, co-authored with Bruce Mau, is "Spectacle".
MySpace? Online Encyclopedia To Name All Species
rules of nomenclature are the hidden scaffolding of science. In crucial
ways, however, our vintage system of classification teeters on its
foundations, shaken by insights from genetics and evolution that alter
how we look at life.
Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson and his colleagues launched the new online Encyclopedia of Life with $12.5 million from the MacArthur Foundation and the Sloan Foundation. Over the next decade, they intend to create a Web page for every species known and named. "We are going for nothing less than the complete mapping of the world's biodiversity," Dr. Wilson said.
PBS has picked up the first season of Wired Science, a production of KCET/Los Angeles in association with Wired Magazine, to premiere nationwide October 3, 2007, at 8 p.m. The 10-week primetime series translates Wired's award-winning journalism, design and irreverent attitude into a fast-paced, one-hour weekly television show that will span the globe to chronicle the scientific advances and technologies that are transforming the world.
Wired Science will also have a strong online presence at www.pbs.org/wiredscience. The site, which re-launches in the fall, will feature streaming video of series stories, articles by Wired writers, opportunities for audience interaction and comprehensive educational resources that extend the viewer's experience beyond broadcast.
Science imports the DNA of Wired Magazine into an exciting new medium
for us," said Chris
Anderson, editor in chief of Wired Magazine. "We're delighted
to partner with KCET and PBS, as their viewers and our readers have
a lot in common: We're all fascinated by the many ways that science
and technology are changing the world around us."
developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise
in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive
expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the
scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially
strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in
common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and
trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with
regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary
biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial
nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other
animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs
are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted
religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains
where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE RESIST SCIENCE?
PAUL BLOOM is a psychologist at Yale University and the author of Descartes' Baby. DEENA SKOLNICK WEISBERG is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Yale University.
WHY DO SOME PEOPLE RESIST SCIENCE?
It is no secret that many American adults reject some scientific ideas. In a 2005 Pew Trust poll, for instance, 42% of respondents said that they believed that humans and other animals have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. A substantial minority of Americans, then, deny that evolution has even taken place, making them more radical than "Intelligent Design" theorists, who deny only that natural selection can explain complex design. But evolution is not the only domain in which people reject science: Many believe in the efficacy of unproven medical interventions, the mystical nature of out-of-body experiences, the existence of supernatural entities such as ghosts and fairies, and the legitimacy of astrology, ESP, and divination.
What children know
The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science. The last several decades of developmental psychology has made it abundantly clear that humans do not start off as "blank slates." Rather, even one year-olds possess a rich understanding of both the physical world (a "naïve physics") and the social world (a "naïve psychology"). Babies know that objects are solid, that they persist over time even when they are out of sight, that they fall to the ground if unsupported, and that they do not move unless acted upon. They also understand that people move autonomously in response to social and physical events, that they act and react in accord with their goals, and that they respond with appropriate emotions to different situations.
An interesting addendum is that while education does not shake this bias, real-world experience can suffice. In another study, undergraduates were asked about the path that water would take out of a curved hose. This corresponds to an event that most people have seen, and few believed that the water would take a curved path.
Just as children's intuitions about the physical world make it difficult for them to accept that the Earth is a sphere, their psychological intuitions about agency and design make it difficult for them to accept the processes of evolution.
How children learn
Part of the explanation for resistance to science lies in how children and adults process different sorts of information.
Some culture-specific information is not associated with any particular source. It is "common knowledge." As such, learning of this type of information generally bypasses critical analysis. A prototypical example is that of word meanings. Everyone uses the word "dog" to refer to dogs, so children easily learn that this is what they are called. Other examples include belief in germs and electricity. Their existence is generally assumed in day-to-day conversation and is not marked as uncertain; nobody says that they "believe in electricity." Hence even children and adults with little scientific background believe that these invisible entities really exist, a topic explored in detail by Paul Harris and his colleagues.
Science is not special here. Geographic information and historical information is also typically assumed, which is how an American child comes to believe that there is a faraway place called Africa and that there was a man who lived long ago named Abraham Lincoln. And, in some cultures, certain religious beliefs can be assumed as well. For instance, if the existence of supernatural entities like gods, karma, and ancestor spirits is never questioned by adults in the community, the existence of such entities will be unquestioningly accepted by children.
In sum, the developmental data suggest that resistance to science will arise in children when scientific claims clash with early emerging, intuitive expectations. This resistance will persist through adulthood if the scientific claims are contested within a society, and will be especially strong if there is a non-scientific alternative that is rooted in common sense and championed by people who are taken as reliable and trustworthy. This is the current situation in the United States with regard to the central tenets of neuroscience and of evolutionary biology. These clash with intuitive beliefs about the immaterial nature of the soul and the purposeful design of humans and other animals — and, in the United States, these intuitive beliefs are particularly likely to be endorsed and transmitted by trusted religious and political authorities. Hence these are among the domains where Americans' resistance to science is the strongest.