Edge 226 —October 18, 2007
(8,700 words)


THE WORLD QUESTION CENTER

"WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION? YOUR ALGORITHM?"
FORMULAE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY — AN EDGE SPECIAL QUESTION

FORMULAE FOR THE 21st CENTURY - NEWS

THE TELEGRAPH
Science and art meet in 'Experiment Marathon'
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
Short Answers To Big Questions
Andrian Kreye

E-FLUX
Serpentine Gallery

THIRD CULTURE NEWS

NATURE
A life worth writing about
By Jan Witkowski

THE TIMES
Life on all fours

THE TIMES
We’re all made with quadrupedal walking ability
By Anjana Ahuja

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Two, Deux, Dos: Heavily Used Words Evolve More Slowly
By Henry Fountain

THE TELEGRAPH
Craig Venter: Creating life in a lab using DNA
By Craig Venter

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Academic Inquisitors
By Christina Hoff Sommers

THE BOSTON GLOBE
Cooperation counts for math professor
By Heather Wax

SALON
Proud Atheists
By Steve Paulson

THE SUNDAY TIMES
Steven Pinker knows what's going on inside your head
By Bryan Appleyard

DISCOVER
JARON'S WORLD
Are We Trapped in God's Video Game?
By Jaron Lanier

SCIENCE
ON CAMPUS

NATURE

An incomparable life
Jared Diamond

NATURE
An invisible hand
W. Tecumseh Fitch

NATURE
Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history
Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson & Andrew Meade

NATURE
Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language
Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang & Martin A. Nowak

NATURE
Making the paper: Carolyn Porco

FORBES
Radical Ideas
By Bruce Upbin

TIME
'We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it.'

THE NEW REPUBLIC
Why We Curse
What the F***?
by Steven Pinker

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
A Refugee from Western Europe
By Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Nerd Chic Arrives on TV
By David Carr

THE GUARDIAN
Cracking the code to life
By Craig Venter

THE GUARDIAN
I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer
By Ed Pilkington

THE GUARDIAN
Gene genie
Interview with Ed Pilkington



WHAT IS YOUR FORMULA? YOUR EQUATION?
YOUR ALGORITHM?

FORMULAE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY


Alun Anderson, Scott Atran, Mahzarin R. Banaji, Simon Baron-Cohen, Samuel Barondes, Gregory Benford, Susan Blackmore, Paul Bloom, Stewart Brand, John Brockman, Rodney A. Brooks, Sean Carroll, George Church, M.Csikszentmihalyi, Leda Cosmides, Paul Davies, Richard Dawkins, David Deutsch, Keith Devlin, Chris DiBona, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson, Drew Endy, Brian Eno, Dan Everett, J. Doyne Farmer, Richard Foreman, Howard Gardner, David Gelernter, Steve Giddings, Daniel Gilbert, Marcelo Gleiser, Alison Gopnik, Joshua Greene, John Gottman, Jonathan Haidt, Judith Rich Harris, Marc D. Hauser, Donald D. Hoffman, Gerald Holton, John Horgan, Nicholas Humphrey, Marcy Kahan, Danny Kahneman, Dean Kamen, Kevin Kelly, Rem Koolhaas, Bart Kosko, Kai Krause, Ray Kurzweil, Lawrence M. Krauss, Janna Levin, Seth Lloyd, Benoit Mandelbrot, Geoffrey Miller, Marvin Minsky, Oliver Morton, David Myers, PZ Myers, Tor Nørretranders, Mark Pagel, Irene Pepperberg, Steven Pinker, Jordan Pollack, Ernst Pöppel, William Poundstone, Eduardo Punset, Martin Rees, Lisa Randall, Matt Ridley, Carlo Rovelli, Rudy Rucker, Doug Rushkoff, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Gino Segre, Michael Shermer, Neil Shubin, George Smoot, Dan Sperber, Maria Spiropulu, Linda Stone, Leonard Susskind, Nassim Taleb, Timothy Taylor, John Tooby, Max Tegmark, Craig Venter, Alexander Vilenkin, Shing-Tung Yau, Anton Zeilinger


AN EDGESERPENTINE GALLERY COLLABORATION

Introduction

I recently paid a visit to the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens, London to see Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, a long-time friend with whom I have a mutual connection: we both worked closely with the late James Lee Byars, the conceptual artist who, in 1971, implemented "The World Question Center" as a work of conceptual art.

The walls of Obrist's office were covered with single pages of size A4 paper on which artists, writers, scientists had responded to his question: "What Is Your Formula?" Among the pieces were formulas by quantum physicist David Deutsch, artist and musician Brian Eno, architect Rem Koolhaas, and fractal mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot.

Within minutes we had hatched an Edge-Serpentine collaboration for a "World Question Center" project, to debut on Edge during the annual Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon, the weekend of October 13-14. The plan was to further the reach of Obrist's question by asking for responses from the science-minded Edge community, thus complementing the rich array of formulas already assembled by the Serpentine from distinguished artists such as Marina Abramovic, Matthew Barney, Louise Bourgeois, Gilbert & George, and Rosemarie Trockel.

Edge Live in London

The Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon
10:00 am to 1:30 pm, Sunday 14 October

In addition to the online publication of "Formulae for the 21st Century," Edge was invited to program four hours of the twenty-four hour Serpentine Gallery Experiment Marathon. The event, which took place October 14th, was held in The Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007, commissioned by Serpentine Director Julia Peyton-Jones and designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorson.


Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007
© 2007 Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen

The session session featured live presentations of "table-top" experiments from zoologist Seirian Sumner (A Cooperative Foraging Experiment — Lessons From Ants), archeologist Timothy Taylor (The Tradescant's Art Experiment), physiologist Simon Baron-Cohen (Do Women Have Better Empathy Than Men), biologist Amrand Leroi (The Songs of Songs), geneticist Steve Jones (Some Like It Hot), physicist Neil Turok (What Banged? and The Morning Line), biologist Lewis Wolpert (How Our Limbs Are Patterned Like The French Flag), and playwright Marcy Kahan in conversation with psychologist Steven Pinker.

JB


THE TELEGRAPH
October 13, 2007

Science and art meet in 'Experiment Marathon'
By Roger Highfield, Science Editor

...Venter, head of the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, examines the connection between the ratio of the elements of carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus with life, and how this links with the letters of the genetic alphabet that nature used to spell out genes.

Pinker of Harvard University works out the potential number of thoughts we can have and Prof Dawkins underlines the power of Darwin's ideas about evolution. ...



SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
September 3, 2007
FEUILLITON — Front Page

Short Answers To Big Questions
Andrian Kreye
, Editor, The Feuilleton


...The experiment is not only represents a collaboration by Brockman and Obrist’s of their own work; it is also a continuation of a movement that began in the '60s on America’s East Coast. John Cage brought together young artists and scientists for symposia and seminars to see what what would happen in the interaction of big thinkers from different fields.  The resulting dialogue, which at the time seemed abstract and esoteric,  can today be regarded as the forerunner to interdisciplinary science and the digital culture.... 



E-FLUX
October 13, 2007

SERPENTINE GALLERY

Steven Pinker and other leading scientists join artists at the Serpentine Gallery for a 24-hour Experiment Marathon featuring robots, three-way kissing booths and out-of-body experiences

13 - 14 October 2007


The 2006 Marathon was 'An inspiring experience' - Time Out

Olafur Eliasson together with Hans Ulrich Obrist convenes the Serpentine Gallery 24-Hour Experiment Marathon from 13 to 14 October which blurs the boundaries of art and science and creates a laboratory of experience. A huge variety of experiments exploring perception, artificial intelligence, the body and language, takes place in and around the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion 2007 designed by Olafur Eliasson and Kjetil Thorsen.

This year's Pavilion has been conceived as a laboratory for experimentation and invention with artists, architects, academics and scientists being invited to present hand-held or table-top experiments throughout the weekend.

...

[Click On Images Below]

Alun Anderson
Scott Atran
Mahzarin R. Banaji
Simon Baron-Cohen
Samuel Barondes
Gregory Benford
Susan Blackmore
Paul Bloom
Stewart Brand
John Brockman
Rodney A. Brooks
Sean Carroll
George Church
M.Csikszentmihalyi
Leda Cosmides
Paul Davies
Richard Dawkins
David Deutsch
Keith Devlin
Chris DiBona
Freeman Dyson
George Dyson
Drew Endy
Brian Eno
Dan Everett
J. Doyne Farmer
Richard Foreman
Howard Gardner
David Gelernter
Neil Gershenfeld
Steve Giddings
Daniel Gilbert
Marcelo Gleiser
Alison Gopnik
Joshua Greene
John Gottman
Jonathan Haidt
Judith Rich Harris
Marc D. Hauser
Donald D. Hoffman
Gerald Holton
John Horgan
Nicholas Humphrey
Marcy Kahan
Danny Kahneman
Dean Kamen
Kevin Kelly
Rem Koolhaas
Bart Kosko
Kai Krause
Lawrence Krauss
Ray Kurzweil
Janna Levin
Seth Lloyd
Benoit Mandelbrot
Geoffrey Miller
Marvin Minsky
Oliver Morton
David Myers
PZ Myers
Tor Nørretranders
Mark Pagel
Irene Pepperberg
Steven Pinker
Jordan Pollack
Ernst Pöppel
William Poundstone
Eduardo Punset
Martin Rees
Lisa Randall
Matt Ridley
Carlo Rovelli
Rudy Rucker
Doug Rushkoff
Dimitar D. Sasselov
Gino Segre
Michael Shermer
Neil Shubin
George Smoot
Dan Sperber
Maria Spiropulu
Linda Stone
Leonard Susskind
Nassim Taleb
Timothy Taylor
John Tooby
Max Tegmark
Craig Venter
Alexander Vilenkin
Shing-Tung Yau
Anton Zeilinger
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 






 

DANNY KAHNEMAN
Psychologist, Princeton; Recipient, 2002 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

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DEAN KAMEN
Entrepreneur; Founder Deka Research; Inventor of the Segwey

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LEDA COSMIDES
Psychologist, UC Santa Barbara; Co-Founder and Co-Director, with John Tooby, of UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology

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JOHN TOOBY
Psychologist, UC Santa Barbara; Co-Founder and Co-Director, with John Tooby, of UCSB Center for Evolutionary Psychology

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J. CRAIG VENTER
Geneticist; Founder and President of the J. Craig Venter Institute and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation; Author A Life Decoded

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LISA RANDALL
Physicist, Harvard University; Author, Warped Passages

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MARIA SPIROPULU
Physicist, CERN

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MAHZARIN R. BANAJI
Psychologyst, Harvard

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SETH LLOYD
Quantum Computer Scientist, MIT; Author, The Computational Universe

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JANNA LEVIN
Physicist and Astronomer, Columbia Universtiy; Author, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines

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STEWART BRAND
Founder, Whole Earth Catalog; cofounder, The Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author, How Buildings Learn

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KEVIN KELLY
Editor-At-Large, Wired Magazine; Author, New Rules for the New Economy

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MARTIN REES
Physicist, Cambridge University; UK Astronomer Royal; President of the Royal Society; Author, Our Final Century

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LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
Physicist, Case Western Reserve University; Author, Fear of Physics

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NEIL GERSHENFELD
Physicist, MIT; Author, FAB

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GERALD HOLTON
Mallinckrodt Research Professor of Physics and Research Professor of History of Science, Harvard University; Author, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought

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OLIVER MORTON
Chief News and Features Editor, Nature; Author, Mapping Mars

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MARCY KAHAN
Screen Writer; Stage Dramatist

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EDUARDO PUNSET
Economist, Chemical Institute of Ramon Llull University in Barcelona; Director and Producer of Networks; Author, The Happiness Trip

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DREW ENDY
Biologist, MIT

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TIMOTHY TAYLOR
Archeologist, University of Bradford; Author The Buried Soul

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DANIEL GILBERT
Psychologist , Harvard University; Director, Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory, ; Author Stumbling on Happiness

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JOSHUA GREENE
Cognitive Neuroscientist and Philosopher, Harvard University

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NICHOLAS HUMPHREY
School Professor, London School of Economics; Professor of Psychology, School for Social Research; Author, The Color Red

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JORDAN POLLACK
Computer Scientist, Brandeis University

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PAUL DAVIES
Physicist, Arizona State University; Author, The Cosmic Jackpot

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RAY KURZWEIL
Inventor and Technologist; Author, The Singularity Is Near

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Ray Kurzweil

ALISON GOPNIK
Psychologist, UC-Berkeley; Coauthor, The Scientist In the Crib

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CHRIS DIBONA
Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc.; Editor, Open Sources: Voices From the Open Source Software Revolution and Open Sources 2.0

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BART KOSKO
Information Scientist, USC; Author, Noise

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TOR NØRRETRANDERS
Science Writer; Consultant; Lecturer, Copenhagen; Author, The Generous Man

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MARK PAGEL
Evolutionary Biologist, Reading University, England

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GEORGE SMOOT
Cosmologist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Recipient, The Nobel Prize For Physics 2006; Coauthor, Wrinkles in Time

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J. DOYNE FARMER
Physicist, Santa Fe Institute; Cofounder, Prediction Company

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KAI KRAUSE
Software and Design Pioneer

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BENOIT MANDELBROT
Mathematician, Yale University; Author, The Fractal Geometry of Nature

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SIMON BARON-COHEN
Psychologist, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University; Author, The Essential Difference

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ANTON ZEILINGER
University of Vienna and Scientific Director, Institute of Quantum Optics and Quantum Information, Austrian Academy of Sciences

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ALUN ANDERSON
Senior Consultant (and Former Editor-In-Chief and Publishing Director), New Scientist

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JONATHAN HAIDT
Psychologist, University of Virginia; Author, The Happiness Hypothesis

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RODNEY A. BROOKS
Director, MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); Chief Technical Officer of iRobot Corporation; Author, Flesh and Machines

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STEVE GIDDINGS
Theoretical Physicist, University of California, Santa Barbara

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GINO SEGRE
Physicist, University of Pennsylvania; Author, Faust In Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics

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MARVIN MINSKY
Computer Scientist; 1st Generation Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, MIT; Author, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind

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NASSIM TALEB
Epistemologist of Randomness and Applied Statistician; Author, The Black Swan

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GEORGE CHURCH
Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Center for Computational Genetics

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KEITH DEVLIN
Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; Director, Center for Computational Genetics

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PAUL BLOOM
Psychologist, Yale University; Author, Descartes' Baby

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SAMUEL BARONDES
Neurobiologist and Psychiatrist, University of California San Francisco; Author, Better Than Prozac

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RUDY RUCKER
Mathematician, Computer Scientist; CyberPunk Pioneer; Novelist; Author, Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul



PZ MYERS
Biologist, University of Minnesota, Morris



DAN SPERBER
Social and cognitive scientist; Directeur de Recherche, CNRS, Paris; Author, Rethinking Symbolism

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CARLO ROVELLI
Physicist, Universite' de la Mediterrane' (Marseille, France); Author, What is time? What is Space?



LEONARD SUSSKIND
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape



MARCELO GLEISER
Physicist, Dartmouth College; Author, The Prophet and the Astronomer



DONALD D. HOFFMAN
Cognitive Scientist, UC, Irvine; Author, Visual Intelligence



DOUG RUSHKOFF
Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside Out



ERNST PÖPPEL
Neuroscientist, Chairman, Board of Directors, Human Science Center and Department of Medical Psychology, Munich University, Germany; Author, Mindworks



MAX TEGMARK
Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology



SUSAN BLACKMORE
Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction



GEOFFREY MILLER
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind



RICHARD DAWKINS
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author, The God Delusion



MICHAEL SHERMER
Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American; Author, Why Darwin Matters



SCOTT ATRAN
Anthropologist, University of Michigan; Author, In Gods We Trust



SEAN CARROLL
Theoretical Physicist, Caltech



DIMITAR D. SASSELOV
Astronomer, Harvard University; Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative



GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion



JUDITH RICH HARRIS
Independent Investigator and Theoretician; Author, No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality



FREEMAN DYSON
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, A Many-Colored Glass



JOHN HORGAN
Director, the Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, Rational Mysticism



MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI
Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow



HOWARD GARDNER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Five Minds for the Future



ALEXANDER VILENKIN
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Five Minds for the Future



RICHARD FOREMAN
Founder Director, Ontological-Hysteric Theater; Playwright



SHING-TUNG YAU
Mathematician, Harvard University



DAVID MYERS
Social Psychologist, Hope College (Michigan); Author, A Quiet World: Living with Hearing Loss



GREGORY BENFORD
Physicist, UC Irvine; Author, Deep Time



DANIEL L. EVERETT
Researcher of Pirahã Culture; Chair of Languages, Literatures, & Cultures, Professor of Linguistics and Anthropology, Illinois State University



LINDA STONE
Former VP, Microsoft & Co-Founder & Director, Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group



JOHN GOTTMAN
Psychologist; Founder of Gottman Institute; Author (with Julie Gottman), And Baby Makes Three



IRENE PEPPERBERG
Research Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Alex Studies



DAVID GELERNTER
Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author, Drawing Life



MARC D. HAUSER
Psychologist and Biologist, Harvard University; Author, Moral Minds



STEVEN PINKER
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought



MATT RIDLEY
Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code



WILLIAM POUNDSTONE
Author, Fortune's Formula

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NEIL SHUBIN
Paleontologist, University of Chicago; Associate Dean, University of Chicago Medical School



DAVID DEUTSCH
Quantum physicist, Oxford University; Author, The Fabric of Reality



BRIAN ENO
Artist; Composer; Recording Producer: U2, Talking Heads, Paul Simon; Recording Artist



REM KOOLHAAS
Architect, Graduate School of Design, Harvard University







NATURE
October 18, 2007

A life worth writing about
Jan Witkowski

Craig Venter's
autobiography recounts the conflict and controversy that have contributed to his celebrity.

Reviewing Jim Watson's The Double Helix, Erwin Chargaff dismissed scientific autobiography as "a most awkward literary genre", arguing that most scientists lead monotonous and uneventful lives. This certainly does not apply to Craig Venter, whose autobiography is fittingly well-written, fast-paced and full of interesting data, gossip — and score-settling.

Little introduction is necessary for the man who is possibly the celebrity scientist of the modern era. Venter's name has rarely been out of the headlines for the past 12 years. Most recently, on the publication of his own genome sequence, his portrait occupied one-third of the front page of the New York Times's science section. His fame peaked at the beginning of the millennium at the celebrations for the first release of the human-genome sequence. Inspired by Darwin's Beagle voyage, he then set sail in his yacht Sorcerer II to catalogue the oceans' bacteria and viruses. ...

...I have interacted with Venter over the years since our first meeting in 1990, and have heard many strong opinions of his character. A Life Decoded is a fair representation of the man. It may even be more revealing than he thinks.

But the differing published accounts of the Drosophila and human-genome sequencing projects are reminiscent of the fable about the blind men who described an elephant by touch. Reading the books by John Sulston and Georgina Ferry (The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome), James Shreeve (The Genome War: How Craig Venter Tried to Capture the Code of Life and Save the World), Michael Ashburner (Won for All: How the Drosophila Genome Was Sequenced) and now Venter's contribution, it is scarcely credible that the protagonists lived through the same events. Robert Cook-Deegan's The Gene Wars: Science, Politics, and the Human Genome provided an authoritative, inside-the-Beltway account of the early days of the Human Genome Project, but what we need is a record of the whole project by a team of historians with no axe to grind.

Such an endeavour should begin with a comprehensive collection of material, along the lines of Thomas Kuhn's Sources for History of Quantum Physics. Kuhn and his colleagues interviewed the participants in, and found primary documents relating to, the greatest change in our view of the physical world since Isaac Newton. The greatest project in biology so far deserves to be similarly documented. The principals are still with us, as are their e-mails.

Chargaff called the heroes of The Double Helix "a new kind of scientist, one that could hardly have been thought of before science became a mass occupation, subject to, and forming part of, all the vulgarities of the communications media". Four decades on, our infinitely more vulgar media has called Venter many things: maverick, publicity hound, risk-taker, brash, controversial, genius, manic, rebellious, visionary, audacious, arrogant, feisty, determined, provocative. His autobiography shows that they are all justified.

...



THE TIMES
October 17, 2007

Life on all fours
Five quadrupedal siblings in Turkey were thought to be unique. But now more adults who walk on all fours have been found in Iraq

The photographer, our Iraqi bodyguards and I watched in amazement. We had been told to expect this, but still we were stunned. Four million years after humans learnt to walk on two feet we were watching men reverting to a primeval gait. We were witnessing a phenomenon so rare that there was, until three years ago, no known case anywhere in the world.

This story really started in 2004 with the discovery of a family with five quadrupedal children living in a remote village in southern Turkey.

The Times published a feature, and the BBC aired a documentary made with the help of Professor Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics. Last year, an Arabic satellite television channel, al-Arabia, screened that documentary, and by chance it was seen by a young researcher named Amjad Jabbr Majeed, who works at the University of Babylon in al-Hilla, 100km (62 miles) south of Baghdad. ...

...



THE TIMES
October 17, 2007


We’re all made with quadrupedal walking ability
By Anjana Ahuja

Professor Nicholas Humphrey, an evolutionary psychologist at the London School of Economics who has been studying hand-walking among humans, is aware of five families around the world with children who walk on all fours. The first to come to scientific attention was the Ulas family, from southern Turkey, who were the subject of a television documentary last year. Of 16 siblings, five were hand-walkers.

They were depicted as evolutionary throwbacks to a time when our ancestors crawled around on hands and feet. This dramatic theory – that hand-walking was caused by a gene that had somehow reawakened after lying dormant for millions of years – underpinned worldwide media coverage.

...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
October 16, 2007

OBSERVATORY
Two, Deux, Dos: Heavily Used Words Evolve More Slowly

By Henry Fountain

Languages evolve just as species do, and just as with organisms, the rate of evolution is hardly uniform. Some words evolve rapidly, with a result that there are many different word forms, what linguists call cognates, for meanings across languages. "Bird," for example, takes many disparate forms across other Indo-European languages: oiseau in French, vogel in German and so on.

But other words, like the word for the number after one, have hardly evolved at all: two, deux (French) and dos (Spanish) are very similar, derived from the same ancestral sound.

"If you study evolution, you immediately ask why is that the case?" said Mark Pagel, a professor at the University of Reading in England. Now he and colleagues Quentin D. Atkinson and Andrew Meade have come up with a mechanism to answer that question. Put simply, the more a word is used, the less it evolves.

...



THE TELEGRAPH
October 16, 2007

Craig Venter: Creating life in a lab using DNA
Geneticist Craig Venter explains how, by artificially producing DNA, his team could design 'green' microbes that digest toxic waste

By Craig Venter

My car pulled up in front of the Oval Room restaurant on Connecticut Avenue, a few blocks from the White House.

'Research of this sort could be devastating if it fell into the wrong hands'

It was Friday, September 3, 2003, and I had been summoned to an urgent meeting by Ari Patrinos, who was then working at the Department of Energy as the head of its office of biological research.

Joining us was John H Marburger III, science adviser to the President, and Lawrence Kerr, director of Bioterrorism, Research and Development for the Office of Homeland Security, among others.

This high-powered gathering had been arranged only two hours before. The group was keen to discuss a breakthrough in the project that their department was funding, a $3 million initiative to "develop a synthetic chromosome". It was the first step towards making a self-replicating organism with an artificial genetic make-up, or genome.

At the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, my team - principally the Nobel laureate Ham Smith and Clyde Hutchison - had made a leap forward in our ability to ''make" DNA.

...



THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
October 16, 2007


COMMENTARY

Academic Inquisitors
By Christina Hoff Sommers

...Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at Cambridge University and one of the world's leading experts on autism, had an intriguing hypothesis. Autism is far more common in males than females. Those afflicted with the disorder, including those with normal or high IQ, tend to be socially disconnected and clueless about the emotional states of others. They often exhibit an obsessive fixation on objects and machines.

Sound like anyone you know?

Mr. Baron-Cohen suggests that autism may be the far end of the male norm -- the "extreme male brain," all systematizing and no empathizing. He believes that men are, on average, wired to be better systematizers and women to be better empathizers. He presented a wide range of correlations between the level of fetal testosterone and behaviors in both girls and boys from infancy into grade school to back up his belief.

Harvard cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Spelke, another speaker, noted that Mr. Baron-Cohen's theory is not settled science. She is right, of course.

Yet the current configuration of the workplace fits Mr. Baron-Cohen's theory: Women dominate in empathy-centered fields such as early childhood education, social work and psychology, while men are over-represented in the "systematizing" vocations such as car repair, oil drilling and electrical engineering.

...



THE BOSTON GLOBE
October 15, 2007

Mathematician-Biologist Martin Nowak | Meeting the Minds
Cooperation counts for math professor

By Heather Wax, Globe Correspondent

..."The strength of Martin's work is that he's gifted in considering very complex processes and then going to the very core of the problem and formulating, in very simple mathematical terms, a framework that can be easily understood," said Christoph Hauert, a research associate on the theology project. "He's been instrumental in proposing models that lead to new interpretations and insights."

Humans, Nowak believes, evolved to cooperate; and he's come up with the mathematical formulas to prove it.

"The most competitive scenario of natural selection, where everybody competes with everybody else, can actually lead to features like generosity and forgiveness," he said. "That I find great."

...



SALON
October 15, 2007

Proud atheists
Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, America's brainiest couple, confess that belonging to one of America's most reviled subcultures doesn't mean they believe scientists can explain everything.

By Steve Paulson

I've always been obsessed with the mind-body problem," says philosopher Renee Feuer Himmel. "It's the essential problem of metaphysics, about both the world out there and the world in here."

Renee is the fictional alter ego of novelist and philosopher Rebecca Goldstein. In her 1983 novel, "The Mind-Body Problem," Goldstein laid out her own metaphysical concerns, which include the mystery of consciousness and the struggle between reason and emotion. As a novelist, she's drawn to the quirky lives of scientists and philosophers. She's also fascinated by history's great rationalist thinkers. She's written nonfiction accounts of the 17th-century Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza and the 20th-century mathematician-philosopher Kurt Gödel.

Perhaps it's not surprising that Goldstein would end up living with Steven Pinker, a leading theorist of the mind. He's a cognitive psychologist at Harvard; she's a philosopher who's taught at several colleges. Although they come out of different disciplines, they mine much of the same territory: language, consciousness, and the tension between science and religion. If Boston is ground zero for intellectuals, then Pinker and Goldstein must rank as one of America's brainiest power couples.

...



DISCOVER
October 15, 2007

JARON'S WORLD

Are We Trapped in God's Video Game?

Probably not. And no, he's not looking at your underwear.
By Jaron Lanier

...Robotics researcher Hans Moravec originated the argument that we are probably already living in VR: If it is possible to build virtual realities sophisticated enough to give rise to sentient residents, it's likely there would be many such VRs. After all, once we built the first car or the first laptop computer, millions upon millions more followed. (And even if humanity never builds superlative VR machines, some alien civilization somewhere will do it, if it is possible.) If you are a self-aware creature, then, there are two possibilities: You live in natural reality, or you live in one of these super-VRs. Since there is only one of the former and a lot of the latter, the chances are quite strong that you, and indeed all of us, are living in a simulated world...

When Moravec first made his case back in the 1980s, the popular way of thinking was that there is one and only one natural reality. These days, that answer is becoming less popular all the time...

...



THE SUNDAY TIMES
October 14, 2007

Steven Pinker knows what’s going on inside your head
Steven Pinker's jeans and wild hair have made him academia's rock star but it is his incendiary ideas that get the crowds going. The evolutionary psychologist believes everything from road rage to adultery may be explained by our genes

By Bryan Appleyard

...Famously good-looking with his blade-like jawline, equally famously rock’n’roll with his long, curly hair and his cowboy boots, Pinker is, along with Richard Dawkins and a handful of others, a global science celebrity. In a series of books – notably The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate – he has provided in pacy prose with autobiographical anecdotes and pop cultural references a layman’s guide to the science involved in being human, conscious and verbally adept. Above all, he has been science’s leading spokesman for the view that we are made by nature as well as nurture, an idea that can still enrage students and left-wing intellectuals.

"Their anger is weakening but it’s still there," he says.

...



SCIENCE
October 12, 2007

ON CAMPUS

MUZZLED. Two years after Lawrence Summers made the fateful remarks about women and science that got him pushed out of the Harvard University presidency, some still treat him like a pariah: A recent instance involved female faculty members at the University of California (UC) who led a successful petition to have Summers disinvited as a dinner speaker at the September meeting of the UC Board of Regents. But the controversy has earned Summers the sympathy of some of his erstwhile critics.

Among them is Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who says, "I don't know anyone at Harvard who favors what happened at UC Davis. … The regents and faculty who opposed [Summers's] appearance look like ignorant fools." The petition that led the regents to rescind the invitation cited Summers's "poor relationships with both women and underrepresented minority faculty at Harvard." Summers says, "I was somewhat surprised that none of the [UC] chancellors spoke up publicly on the precedent set by rescinding speaking engagements because of controversy." ...

...



NATURE
October 11, 2007

An incomparable life
Jared Diamond

Exceptional intellect and creativity made Ernst Mayr the last century's greatest evolutionary biologist.

Returning from an expedition to New Guinea in 1965, John Terborgh and I laid out our hundreds of bird specimens in the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for Ernst Mayr to identify. Ernst had made only one collecting trip to New Guinea 36 years previously, and his last publication on New Guinea birds had appeared in 1954. Nevertheless, as he walked along the shelf and glanced at one specimen after another, he quickly identified each by its Latin species name and then by its subspecies name; he told us which zoologist had described it, in what year and in which journal; gave the alternative names under which other zoologists had discussed it; and explained its broader biological significance (for example, "Check that one for altitudinal hybridization"). He hesitated only at one obscurely mottled specimen: "See if that's a female Rhagologus." We found later that it was indeed a female Rhagologus, a whistler whose relatives are usually banded black and gold.

This incident illustrates some of what made Ernst Mayr the greatest evolutionary biologist of the twentieth century. He is known especially for having woven together field studies of natural history, museum studies of taxonomy, and laboratory studies of population genetics to solve problems of the origin of species. He is also known for his syntheses of modern evolutionary biology and for contributions to understanding biology's distinctiveness within the history and philosophy of science. He released the last of his 21 books, What Makes Biology Unique?, on his hundredth birthday, after which he published the last seven of his 856 papers. He died five months short of turning 101. These achievements, plus his distinctive intellect and personality, make him an interesting subject for a biographer and historian of science. ...

...



NATURE
October 11, 2007

Making the paper: Carolyn Porco

Spacecraft's images suggest one of Saturn's moons may host water.

The Cassini spacecraft took seven years to reach Saturn. But for Carolyn Porco, who leads the Cassini imaging team at the Space Science Institute (SSI) in Boulder, Colorado, the images it sent back were well worth the wait. Most exciting of all was the revelation that one of the planet's moons may have the essential ingredients to support life.

A veteran of the 1980s Voyager space mission, Porco was well aware that the outer Solar System is not the barren wasteland it was once thought to be. Images from Voyager, for example, had shown some of Jupiter's and Neptune's moons to be geologically active. But this knowledge didn't dampen the thrill of Cassini's discovery that Enceladus, one of Saturn's 60 moons, spews jets of vapour containing organic material and tiny, icy particles from its south pole. This spectacular finding demonstrates present-day geological activity on a small, cold moon. ...

...



NATURE
October 11, 2007

An invisible hand
W. Tecumseh Fitch

Quantitative relationships between how frequently a word is used and how rapidly it changes over time raise intriguing questions about the way individual behaviours determine large-scale linguistic and cultural change.

...Elsewhere in this issue, two papers revisit these issues from a fresh perspective. Both concern language change, and come from laboratories of well-established evolutionary theorists. Both analyse historical linguistic data to show that patterns of change depend strongly on the frequency with which words are used in discourse, as measured from large contemporary databases. Lieberman et al. (page 713) consider the cultural evolution of the English past-tense marker '-ed'. In Old English, this was just one of many different rules used to indicate times gone by. Today, the other once-widespread rules remain only as irregular residues, such as 'fly/flew/flown'. By tracing their disappearance, the authors derive an exact quantitative relationship between the frequency of verb use and the speed of this pruning process: a verb used 100 times more often than another will regularize 10 times more slowly.

Pagel et al. (page 717) take a broader approach, quantifying the rate at which related words (such as 'water' in English and Wasser in German) have been replaced by other forms (such as the French eau) during the cultural evolution of 87 Indo-European languages. Using frequency data from four different language corpora — sets of texts representing patterns of usage in English, Spanish, Russian and Greek — and sophisticated tree-based statistical methods over the whole glossogenetic tree, Pagel's group derives a relationship holding over millennia. The relationship explains 50% of the variation in replacement rates between different words — a level of statistical power rarely observed in the social sciences, particularly across a wide range of cultures. ...

...



NATURE
October 11, 2007

Quantifying the evolutionary dynamics of language
Erez Lieberman, Jean-Baptiste Michel, Joe Jackson, Tina Tang & Martin A. Nowak

Human language is based on grammatical rules1, 2, 3, 4. Cultural evolution allows these rules to change over time5. Rules compete with each other: as new rules rise to prominence, old ones die away. To quantify the dynamics of language evolution, we studied the regularization of English verbs over the past 1,200 years. Although an elaborate system of productive conjugations existed in English's proto-Germanic ancestor, Modern English uses the dental suffix, '-ed', to signify past tense6. Here we describe the emergence of this linguistic rule amidst the evolutionary decay of its exceptions, known to us as irregular verbs. We have generated a data set of verbs whose conjugations have been evolving for more than a millennium, tracking inflectional changes to 177 Old-English irregular verbs. Of these irregular verbs, 145 remained irregular in Middle English and 98 are still irregular today. We study how the rate of regularization depends on the frequency of word usage. The half-life of an irregular verb scales as the square root of its usage frequency: a verb that is 100 times less frequent regularizes 10 times as fast. Our study provides a quantitative analysis of the regularization process by which ancestral forms gradually yield to an emerging linguistic rule.. ...

...



NATURE
October 11, 2007

Frequency of word-use predicts rates of lexical evolution throughout Indo-European history
Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson & Andrew Meade

Greek speakers say "__", Germans "schwanz" and the French "queue" to describe what English speakers call a 'tail', but all of these languages use a related form of 'two' to describe the number after one. Among more than 100 Indo-European languages and dialects, the words for some meanings (such as 'tail') evolve rapidly, being expressed across languages by dozens of unrelated words, while others evolve much more slowly—such as the number 'two', for which all Indo-European language speakers use the same related word-form. No general linguistic mechanism has been advanced to explain this striking variation in rates of lexical replacement among meanings. Here we use four large and divergent language corpora (English, Spanish, Russian and Greek) and a comparative database of 200 fundamental vocabulary meanings in 87 Indo-European languages to show that the frequency with which these words are used in modern language predicts their rate of replacement over thousands of years of Indo-European language evolution. Across all 200 meanings, frequently used words evolve at slower rates and infrequently used words evolve more rapidly. This relationship holds separately and identically across parts of speech for each of the four language corpora, and accounts for approximately 50% of the variation in historical rates of lexical replacement. We propose that the frequency with which specific words are used in everyday language exerts a general and law-like influence on their rates of evolution. Our findings are consistent with social models of word change that emphasize the role of selection, and suggest that owing to the ways that humans use language, some words will evolve slowly and others rapidly across all languages. ...

...



FORBES
October 11, 2007

Cool Ideas
Radical Ideas
Bruce Upbin

...Gadgetoff was the brainchild of two brothers, Daniel and Michael Dubno, and friend Greg Harper. Their goals are unabashedly patriotic: They care deeply about quickening the pulse of American innovation and keeping the U.S. in the race with Asia for engineering prowess. Five years ago, they decided that one way they could spice up the idea flow was to invite some of the smartest tinkers and thinkers they knew for a throw-down of idea...

...Turns out the Dubnos and Harper knew some smart folks--Dan had been CBS News' technology guru for years; Mike was chief technology officer at Goldman Sachs. Together with Harper, who runs a technology consulting firm, they came up with a list of invited contributors, asking each to bring an invention--useless or practical--an idea or at least good conversation...

..Other conference goers, many of whom are Gadgetoff regulars, also shone: including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, TED conference founder Richard Saul Wurman, computer engineer Danny Hillis, polymathic inventor Dean Kamen, sly literary agent John Brockman and Creative Good's Mark Hurst...

...



TIME
October 11, 2007


VERBATIM

'We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it.'

CRAIG VENTER, U.S. genetic researcher, on news that his team was preparing to announce the creation of the world's first synthetic chromosome, a stepping stone to creating artificial life



THE NEW REPUBLIC
October 9, 2007


WHY WE CURSE
What the F***?
by Steven Pinker

Fucking became the subject of congressional debate in 2003, after NBC broadcast the Golden Globe Awards. Bono, lead singer of the mega-band U2, was accepting a prize on behalf of the group and in his euphoria exclaimed, "This is really, really, fucking brilliant" on the air. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is charged with monitoring the nation's airwaves for indecency, decided somewhat surprisingly not to sanction the network for failing to bleep out the word. Explaining its decision, the FCC noted that its guidelines define "indecency" as "material that describes or depicts sexual or excretory organs or activities" and Bono had used fucking as "an adjective or expletive to emphasize an exclamation."

Cultural conservatives were outraged. California Representative Doug Ose tried to close the loophole in the FCC's regulations with the filthiest piece of legislation ever considered by Congress. Had it passed, the Clean Airwaves Act would have forbade from broadcast

the words "shit", "piss", "fuck", "cunt", "asshole", and the phrases "cock sucker", "mother fucker", and "ass hole", compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms)...

...



INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
October 9, 2007


A refugee from Western Europe
By Sam Harris and Salman Rushdie

As you read this, Ayaan Hirsi Ali sits in a safe house with armed men guarding her door. She is one of the most poised, intelligent and compassionate advocates of freedom of speech and conscience alive today, and for this she is despised in Muslim communities throughout the world.

The details of her story have been widely reported, but bear repeating, as they illustrate how poorly equipped we are to deal with the threat of Muslim extremism in the West..

...



THE NEW YORK TIMES
October 8, 2007
THE MEDIA EQUATION


Nerd Chic Arrives on TV

By David Carr

...This all sounds immensely precious, I know, except for the fact that Boing Boing is, by some definitions, one of the leading media sites for young technologically aware folks. And that’s a lot of folks. Since going online in 2000 — it began as a paper ’zine conceived by Mr. Frauenfelder in 1989 — Boing Boing has become one of the five most visited blogs on the Web, according to Comscore, with a monthly traffic of about 7.5 million page views a month. According to Google, more than 600,000 sites link to the site, making it a maypole for technologists around the world.

Co-edited by Cory Doctorow, Xeni Jardin, David Pescovitz and Mr. Frauenfelder, the self-described "directory of wonderful things" is the kind of place where a link to pictures of a two-headed turtle can come right behind a serious learned screed about the folly of digital rights management.

As the site bloomed, various networks approached the editors about a reality television show, which caught no one’s fancy. But as the amount of video on the Web and Boing Boing has grown, discussion began among the editors about what a branded television program might look like. They came up with a five-day a week program, three to five minutes in length, that is being produced in partnership with DECA, a Santa Monica digital entertainment company. The broadcast platform, naturally, is the Web.


Xeni Jardin is the face of Boing Boing TV. With a shock of white, almost architectural, hair, she looks like a siren from some lost episode of"The Jetsons." Ms. Jardin, who also contributes to Wired and other publications, as well as National Public Radio, serves as a muse and screen-saver for fanboys everywhere.

Ms. Jardin had been in negotiations with Fox Business Network about a contributing role, but she said that it became clear that they were not interested in sharing her with Boing Boing.

...



THE GUARDIAN
October 8, 2007


Cracking the code to life

When Craig Venter announced that he was going to unravel the human genome, it sparked one of the most bitterly contested races in the history of science. Here, in an extract from his new memoir, he describes the acrimonious sprint to the finish

By Craig Venter

...My working assumption was that my data would be essentially the only real data from the human genome for several years to come: the government-led competition was advancing at a crawl. But by September 1999, the pressure was on us. The public programme had announced that it had already sequenced about a quarter of the genome. In another change of direction, my rivals announced they would produce just a crude version of the genome and finish this "first draft" by the following spring, no doubt accompanied by a media event. The key differences in what we were doing at Celera and the altered publicly funded approach came down to standards and strategies: the whole-genome shotgun technique versus the clone-by-clone traditional approach [see Venter versus the establishment below]. I knew that we had the winning strategy with the shotgun technique, and that even with the same or even greater sequencing capacity, the government-funded labs could not compete unless they abandoned their standards and changed their plan to match ours.

In place of their original plan of publishing high-quality data over the course of a decade, my self-proclaimed rivals - the five surviving genome centres, which had nicknamed themselves the G5 - were now making an effort to dump as much raw sequence into the public databases as quickly as possible. They had convinced themselves that, by doing so, they were blocking me from both patenting the genome and getting credit for finishing first. I was baffled by the silliness and immaturity of their thinking. While my many critics were obsessed with the release of the Celera data, the public-funded labs were heedlessly dumping sequences into the public databases that the pharmaceutical companies were gleefully downloading nightly so they could file patents on them. This naive policy by all those opposed to patenting of the human genome therefore had precisely the opposite effect: gene patents were filed sooner and faster, and almost all were based on the government data, not Celera's. ...

...



THE GUARDIAN
Saturday, October 6, 2007


FRONT PAGE

I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer

Scientist has made synthetic chromosome • Breakthrough could combat warming
Ed Pilkington New York

Craig Venter, the controversial DNA researcher involved in the race to decipher the human genetic code, has built a synthetic chromosome out of laboratory chemicals and is poised to announce the creation of the first new artificial life form on Earth.

The announcement, which is expected within weeks and could come as early as Monday at the annual meeting of his scientific institute in San Diego, California, will herald a giant leap forward in the development of designer genomes. It is certain to provoke heated debate about the ethics of creating new species and could unlock the door to new energy sources and techniques to combat global warming.

Mr Venter told the Guardian he thought this landmark would be "a very important philosophical step in the history of our species. We are going from reading our genetic code to the ability to write it. That gives us the hypothetical ability to do things never contemplated before".

The Guardian can reveal that a team of 20 top scientists assembled by Mr Venter, led by the Nobel laureate Hamilton Smith, has already constructed a synthetic chromosome, a feat of virtuoso bio-engineering never previously achieved. Using lab-made chemicals, they have painstakingly stitched together a chromosome that is 381 genes long and contains 580,000 base pairs of genetic code. ...

....



THE GUARDIAN
Saturday, October 6, 2007

Gene genie

Any day now Craig Venter – geneticist, yachtsman and Vietnam veteran – will announce that he has achieved one of the greatest feats in science: the creation of artificial life. He talks to Ed Pilkington

For a room in which one of the most astonishing experiments in modern science is being conducted, the laboratory in the J Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, is understated. It is divided into wooden workstations reminiscent of a school science lab. There are stacks of glass test tubes and pipettes, and one wall is lined with air-controlled boxes containing Petri dishes. Petri dishes! The mere sight of them sparks memories of interminable, soporific biology lessons.

But there is nothing soporific about what is going on inside these Petri dishes. If all goes according to plan — and the full expectation is that it will — their surface will bloom imminently with an array of small white spots that will herald a giant leap in scientific and human potential. Each spot will contain up to 10m bacterial cells, and in each cell there will be a chromosome that has been painstakingly stitched together by humans from lab-made chemicals.

In short, those schoolboy Petri dishes will contain the first artificial life form ever created. ...

....



PRE-ORDER:

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK

November 5, 2007


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$14.95 400 pp
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November 1, 2007

WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?: Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better With an Introduction by Daniel C. Dennett, Edited By John Brockman

"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


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