Friday, October 11, 2013

An Evening of Auctions and Genome Sequencing

About a week ago, on October 2nd, I attended Rockefeller University' Celebrating Science fall benefit, an annual event put on to support Rockefeller's Parents & Science Initiative. About 350 people attended, and they raised around $1.1 million, but the best part of the evening, at least for me, was the pre-dinner lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Friedman. Dr. Friedman is a Rockefeller M.D./Ph.D. who helped discover leptin, a hormone that helps regulate weight in both humans and animals. This discovery has affected obesity treatment dramatically: Dr. Friedman showed the audience a photo of a boy with a leptin irregularity -- a deficiency, as I recall -- and then showed a photo of the boy taken a few years later, after he had received leptin-based treatment. The difference was profound. The boy's weight had decreased enormously, almost incredibly. This kind of treatment, though, only helps those people whose obesity is caused by genetic mutations. Nevertheless, the visual impact was stunning.

The main message of the lecture, though, was how the rapidly decreasing cost of genome sequencing was going to, very soon, revolutionize medicine. "The cost of sequencing your DNA is falling faster than Moore's Law," Friedman asserted. "Soon, everyone will have their genome sequenced. It will be a different world."

Sequencing one's genome will let physicians more precisely tailor treatment to a person's particular medical condition. "People have diabetes for different reasons," Dr. Friedman claimed, and knowing why, exactly, a particular person has a particular disease will mean better medical care.

Having your genome sequenced will also let doctors know if you have an intolerance for certain kinds of medicine. Some people, for instance, have almost fatal reactions to chemotherapy. If a doctor knew that his cancer patient had the genes that caused this reaction, she could alter the treatment accordingly.

Of course, cheap and easy genome sequencing raises serious bioethical issues. What would you do, for instance, if you learned that your child had an untreatable genetic disease? In addition, how much of this information should be available to insurance companies? You might think that genome sequencing results should always be private, but there could be exceptions. One genetic condition known as Long QT Syndrome can cause the heart to race and leads to an increased risk of sudden fainting. If someone with this condition drive a school bus or flew a commercial plane, shouldn't someone be made aware? Don't other people have the right to know? There are, seemingly, no easy answers.

[The image shown here should be credited to the Billy Farrell Agency.]

Back in Action!

Hi, all. I apologize for not updating this blog for a while. My professional life got busy, and along with moving to a new apartment, I didn't have a chance to post anything new. Don't worry, though: I'm going to get back to sharing cool developments in the every-growing sciart world. For example, I recent came across this Wired photo essay by Jakob Schiller. I always love seeing microscopic images presented in an art setting. There's something about the abstract patterns and vibrant (often man-made) colors that really captures my imagination.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Cosmic Beauty -- Astronomy Pictures are Beautiful, But Do They Reflect Reality?

I'm very excited right now because recently published one of my articles; you can read it here. The general idea is that, perhaps unbeknownst to lots of people, astronomy pictures -- like the beautiful images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope -- are usually manipulated by astronomers. And there are continuing debates about how far those manipulations should go. For instance, the color blue is astronomy images signifies the hottest of heat, while red signifies a cooler temperature. But in our everyday lives, the meanings of the colors are reversed. Should those common understandings prevail in astronomy? It's hard to say. I'll leave it to you to make up your own mind.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Museum of the History of Science

The one thing I like more than science museums is science museums with offbeat exhibits. And one of the best such museums is the Museum of the History of Science, at Oxford University. I came across the MHS website a few years ago, and noticed immediately the good selection of online exhibits, including one particularly intriguing exhibit focused on blackboards. Called “Bye Bye Blackboard...From Einstein and Others,” the exhibit showcases, among others, blackboards inscribed by Martin Rees, a Cambridge astrophysicist; Lisa Jardine, Professor of Renaissance Studies at University College London; Brian Eno, visionary musician; and Alain de Botton, a philosopher and author who recently wrote The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. The idea is to highlight the place that the blackboard has occupied in the history of ideas, and to pay homage to it, even as it quietly recedes from the classroom.

Other cool online exhibits include “The Astrolabe, East and West;” “Garden, Art, Tower, Temple;” “The Geometry of War;” “Fancy Names and Fun Toys;” and “Eccentricity.” The last one is another of my favorites. According to the site, the museum has “taken a broad approach to collecting, and contains many unexpected objects,” including mechanical flytrap from Japan, a typewriter collection, and as astrolabe belonging to Nostradamus. Wow.

Naturally, I had to learn more about this world of wonders. I contacted Jim Bennett, the museum’s former director, and asked him a few questions.

Me: How did you get involved with the MHS?

Jim: I had been curator (as the post was then called) of the equivalent museum in Cambridge -- the Whipple Museum of the History of Science -- for about 15 years, when the curator (as the post was then called) of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford came to retiring age.  In fact, I had two posts in Cambridge -- I was also Senior Tutor of Churchill College -- and I quite liked the idea of having only one.  Though relatively isolated intellectually, the Oxford museum is very centrally placed in Oxford and had enormous, untapped potential as a public museum.  Anyway, I understand that the panel liked the much more active nature of the Whipple as I had been running it in Cambridge, and I got the job.

Me: How did you get interested in the history of science?

Jim: Like very many people in the discipline in Britain, I discovered the subject as a science undergraduate in Cambridge, and found it much more interesting than straight science. It just suited me better, somehow -- I found I enjoyed reading books! I know that sounds daft, but I didn't grow up in a literary environment. I did science because I could.  In Cambridge I found something different; for one thing, I wasn't as good at physics as I thought I was, and also I enjoyed something more related to the humanities.  I stayed on to do a PhD in history of science -- on Christopher Wren.

Me: I’m really impressed by the MHS exhibitions, especially the ones about blackboards and eccentricity.  Who at the museum helps come up with those ideas? Is there a process you use to create new exhibitions?

Jim: The key is that we are relatively small, so we can take risks -- have an idea and decide to go with it.  So, I'm glad you like the exhibition programme -- I hope you don't mind my saying that it has been a fairly creative one -- especially in the context of museums of science.

"Blackboards" was so much my idea that the staff didn't believe in it at first -- I had to do it in spite of their scepticism (which seemed to me the wrong way round - isn't it the director's job to squash silly ideas?), which meant doing all the early work myself (including taking all the blackboards to the celebrity chalkers), till they come round.  In fact it was a great success.

The other exhibition that seemed like a real risk and was amazingly successful was “Steampunk,” and the idea for that came form a lighting designer in New York called Art Donovan. The trick there was recognising that something I had never heard of (steampunk) could be made to work for us.  It was so popular that we could hardly cope.

Who comes up with the ideas? Usually it’s one of the two curators (Stephen Johnston or me), and sometimes (especially for the smaller exhibitions) education staff.  There is an exhibitions committee where they are discussed and planned.  All exhibitions come from our work -- I mean we don't buy them in -- all are written and designed (and mostly built) here -- we don't really want to take in exhibitions.  Some of the art shows were in collaboration with the Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, and they made the proposals.

The next time I'm in the UK, this is the first place I'll visit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Homemade Lava!

When I was a kid, I used to love making volcanoes in the pathway to my house. There was something satisfying, and primal, about mounding up sand and dirt, pouring the baking soda and vinegar (and red food coloring, if you wanted to) into the volcano's maw, and watching the resulting eruption of fizz and foam. You could even put small, plastic dinosaurs on the volcano's flanks and wish them well before they met their doom. But the video below takes that fun to a whole new level. Some people at Syracuse University have built a furnace that melts basalt and are now creating their own lava flows. My small plastic dinosaurs wouldn't stand a chance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Lives of the Cell -- A Book Review

The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology WatcherThe Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher by Lewis Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was recommended to me, and I'm definitely glad that I read it. It's a collection of brief essays about biology, the wonder of cells and their internal machinery, and human society. Thomas strikes me as the M.F.K. Fisher of biology writing, able to turn a striking phrase every page or so, using clear prose and occasional poetry to communicate his thoughts. Here's a great example: ""It is hard to imagine a solitary, independent, existentialist minnow, recognizable for himself alone." That's a great sentence. It's true that Thomas sprinkles in some jargon here and there, but on the whole he's excellent. Highly recommended.

View all my reviews

Friday, August 10, 2012

Popular Mathematics Books

I recently put out an APB to other science writers on Twitter and LinkedIn, asking for recommendations for good books that explain math for the layman. I have been a math groupie for many years, enjoying books like The Man Who Knew Infinity and The Art of Mathematics. I knew, though, that there must be many more good reads out there in the world. I got some great tips, which I listed below. If you, dear reader, have any other recommendations, please leave a comment.

The World of Mathematics

The Number Devil

A Short Account of the History of Mathematics

Mathematics for the Million

The Music of the Primes

Fermat's Enigma

The Code Book: The Science of Secrecy from Ancient Egypt to Quantum Cryptography

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives

Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving

Math Girls

The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Math, from One to Infinity

In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World

Sync: How Order Emerges From Chaos in the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life

The Golden Ratio: The Story of Phi, The World's Most Astonishing Number

The Extended Phenotype: The Long Reach of the Gene

A Tour of the Calculus

The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse

Journey Through Genius: The Great Theorems of Mathematics

The Cartoon Guide to Calculus