My family and I were trapped once in our house by a terrorizing turtle. Last week, I told the saga of that day–and of my lifelong obsession with strange animals–at Story Collider, an evening of live story-telling about science. The recording is now online, and so you can listen to it here. May you have many peaceful encounters with turtles in your life.
At the end of August, I got a press release saying that a chemist named Steven Benner was going to deliver a lecture in Italy in which he broached the idea that we might descend from Martians.
I met Benner ten years ago. He was sitting in a coffee shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, working out what it would take to make life from scratch. Helping him in this exercise was Jack Szostak, a Nobel-prize winning Harvard biochemist whom he had known for years. In the midst of their conversation, Dr. Benner abruptly turned to me and asked, â€œHow much do you think it would cost to create a self-replicating organism capable of Darwinian evolution?â€
As a journalist, I’m not accustomed to such questions.”Twenty million dollars?” I blurted.
“Ridiculous,” I thought to myself. But Benner just tilted his head, looked away, and nodded in thought.
“That’s what Jack says,”he said.
Benner, a distinguished fellow at the Westheimer Institute at the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Florida, has balanced his career between two ways of doing science. On the one hand, he is a data-driven chemist who publishes papers with heart-stopping titles like, Labeled nucleoside triphosphates with reversibly terminating aminoalkoxyl groups. On the other hand, he is the sort of scientist who enjoys trying to draw up Frankenstein’s budget, or investigating whether life could exist in the liquid methane oceans of Saturn’s moon Titan.
So I knew that he’d have something interesting to say in his talk about Mars.
Not surprisingly, many reports have gone for the Little-Green-Men angle. But when I caught up with Benner, we ended up talking not about alien life, but about the philosophy of science–about how to investigate the origin of life when it happened so long ago and we still have so much left to learn about it. That conversation is the subject of my new “”Matter”” column for the New York Times. Check it out.”
“One of the best things about a blog is that it can function as a public sketch pad, where I can try out ideas that aren’t quite right for a full-blown magazine feature, book, or newspaper article. Sometimes those verbal sketches can mature into something more.
In November, for example, I was inspired by an online reading of Moby Dick to praise Melville as a science writer. Soon afterwards, I was contacted by the Los Angeles Public Library, which was planning a month-long celebration of the bookÂ that has just kicked off. They asked if I would write an essay about the science behind the novel, which they could include in the program for the final eventÂ on October 5.
It was a great pleasure to dig deeper into Melville’s life and times, and reflect on how his scatter-shot education in pre-Darwinian biology shaped his book.
Here’s how the piece starts:
To have one’s hands among the unspeakable foundations, ribs, and very pelvis of the world; this is a fearful thing. What am I that I should essay to hook the nose of this leviathan!
Ishmael asks himself this question at the beginning of “Cetology,” the thirty-second chapter of Moby Dick. Up till this point, the narrative of Moby Dick, as Ishmael recounts his experiences joining the crew of the Pequod, feels fairly straightforward. Readers who bought the novel when it first came out in 1851 probably found it similar to Melvilleâ€™s previous novels of the sea, like Mardi and White-Jacket. But then Ishmael abruptly turns into a peculiar sort a naturalist. He dedicates an entire chapter to whale taxonomy in absurdly exhaustive detail. Later in the novel, he writes chapters dedicated to the anatomy of whales, their fossils, and their ecology.
Those chapters put off many readers and critics in Melvilleâ€™s day. All that science felt like a massive distraction from the central story of Ahabâ€™s mad pursuit of the White Whale. And even today, Iâ€™d wager that a lot of readers page quickly through the long passages about whale flukes and whale brains. But the science of Moby Dick is as superfluous to the novel as lungs are to the body. Melville used science to elevate the hunt for a single sperm whale into a metaphysical tragicomedy.
The entire essay is available at the event’s web site. Check it out.”
I’ve been hearing good things for a while now about Retro Report, a journalism project that produces 10-to-20-minute-long videos about what happened to big headline stories from decades ago. I’m now gobbling up my Monday morning watching their backlist. It’s excellent stuff, and I’ve been trying to figure out why I like it. I think it’s because the programs get beyond the simple “Where Are They Now?” format. The journalists who make the pieces really report the stories–they go back and find people who were in the midst of the news to interview them, and then they discover the surprising course of the story after it fell away from the world’s attention.
What really surprised me about Retro Report is that most of their categories are related in one way or another science. I write about new scientific research, and so my job requires me to keep my eyes locked on the future, trying to figure out what some discovery or invention will mean to generations to come. And the longer you spend in this job, the more you start asking yourself, “Hey, what happened to…?” In many cases, things quietly take an unexpected–but revealing–turn.Â Retro Report shows that going back to a story about science can reveal important lessons about what’s going on today, but ones you may not have predicted.
Here, for example, is a piece about a GMO tomato that turned up in supermarkets way back in 1994. People went hysterical over the Flavr Savr tomato, either as an evil plot or the salvation of our food supply. After the cameras were shut off and the reporters went away, the company that made the tomato struggled to make a business out of it and quietly sold their patent off to GMO giant Monsanto, which then quietly shut the project down–arguably because it was boldly labeled in stores as genetically modified. Since then, Monsanto has gone on to make big profits on GMO plants by making farmers their customers, not consumers.
Here’s another piece, called Crack Babies. In the 1980s, people got frantically worried that crack-addicted women would give birth to a generation of brain-damaged infants. The idea–based on some preliminary research–turned out to be wrong. Yet it became a wildly successful meme, perhaps because it involved a then-new drug and perhaps because crack addicts were mostly poor blacks. Retro ReportÂ rightly asks why we never talk about the threat of “Booze Babies,” when alcohol is more harmful during pregnancy than crack.
These videos remind us forcefully that the real meaning of stories about science takes time to unfold. That is very hard to remember, because there’s something intoxicating about a new science story. Suddenly some great truth about the world seems to be unveiled. That truth can be terrifying, or elating. I can’t count all the emails I’ve gotten when I’ve written a story about some very preliminary research on a disease, from people who suffer from the disease and want to know where they can go to get cured.
In reality, a lot of science-related conclusions fall apart or have to be revised in later years. Science itself is starting to grapple with its flaws, with papers like “Most Published Research Findings Are False.”Â On the other hand, some findings gain strength over the years, as more and more evidence supports them. But those studies pile up like sand grains, and so it’s easy for journalists to overlook them, even after they’ve grown into a mountain.
I hope Retro ReportÂ does more investigations into science. They’re wonderful history lessons, and they also help people think more realistically about today’s news.
Other science stories include:
—Summer of Fire: How this year’s massive forest fires are part of a 25-year trend, due in part to human activity.
—Biosphere 2, the sealed building that was supposed to become self-sufficient and instead went wrong in a fascinating way.
—Y2K, the computer bug that terrified the world in 1999 with the prospect of computers shutting down on New Years Day.
—Voyage of the Mobro 4000: an ill-fated voyage of a garbage barge that gave rise to the recycling movement.
(P.S.: Retro Report is a non-profit project. The New York Times, where I’m a columnist, distributes Retro Report, but I’ve not had any dealings with them aside from as a viewer.)
In 1999, a new disease came to light–a brutal fever that sometimes led to fatal encephalitis. After the first outbreak in Malaysia, scientists traced the cause of the disease to a virus called Nipah. Although it was new to medicine, Nipah virus didn’t come out of thin air. It had replicated for generations inside Indian Flying Foxes, a common species of fruit bat in southeast Asia. The virus spilled over into humans, thanks to the fondness both species have for date palms. Now Nipah virus can spread from person to person.
This scenario sounds like it came from the pitch meeting for last year’s creepfest Contagion. Unfortunately, it’s all quite well documented. So is the emergence of many other viral diseases. (Check out David Quammen’s book Spillover for a sweeping view of these new diseases.)
In my Matter column this week in the New York Times, I take a look at a new way to battle these emerging diseases: by figuring out how many viruses there are in mammals that might spill over in the future. Scientists have taken the first step to such a virus catalog with a suitable species: the Indian Flying Fox. And unfortunately, it’s chockful of mammal viruses, most of which are new to science. Here’s the full story. (Also check out fellow Phenom Ed Yong’s report on the study fo The Scientist.)