“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'” — Isaac Asimov
On Wednesday, the bright line got dimmer. MIT Technology Reviewreported that, for the first time in the US, a scientist had used Crispr on human embryos.
Behind this milestone is reproductive biologist Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the same guy who first cloned embryonic stem cells in humans. And came up with three-parent in-vitro fertilization. And moved his research on replacing defective mitochondria in human eggs to China when the NIH declined to fund his work. Throughout his career, Mitalipov has gleefully played the role of mad scientist, courting controversy all along the way.
Yesterday’s news was no different. Editing viable human embryos is, if not exactly a no-no, at least controversial. Mitalipov and his colleagues at Oregon Health and Science University fertilized dozens of donated human eggs with sperm known to carry inherited disease-related mutations, according to the Tech Review report. At the same time, they used Crispr to correct those mutations. The team allowed the embryos to develop for a few days, and according to the original and subsequent reports a battery of tests revealed that the resulting embryos took up the desired genetic changes in the majority of their cells with few errors. Mitalipov declined to comment, saying the results were pending publication next month in a prominent scientific journal.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar is taking his shot helping narrow the opportunity and equity gaps with his Skyhook Foundation and Camp Skyhook. The Los Angeles nonprofit helps public school students in the city access a free, fun, week-long STEM education camp experience in the Angeles National Forest.
Every week throughout the year, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Unified School District, groups of 4th and 5th graders attend Camp Skyhook at the Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center, one of the oldest outdoor education centers in America. The hands-on science curriculum allows students to study nature up close: take water temperature in a stream; soil or forest samples during a hike; study the local wildlife or explore the stars. That’s alongside the traditional fare of hiking, swimming, and campfire songs.
It’s so popular there’s basically a five-year waiting list for the camp in the city’s schools, where about 80 percent of students receive free and reduced-price lunch.
Having an NBA Hall of Famer and the league’s all-time leading scorer support the camp certainly helps attract attention and financial support.
Abdul-Jabbar puts the spotlight “on environmental literacy and the need for students to be given the opportunity to learn about science in a place where they can do their own investigations and experiments,” says Gerry Salazar, director of outdoor and environmental education programs at LAUSD. “We don’t have rivers and streams at LA school sites.”
People hold signs as they listen to a group of scientists speak during a rally in conjunction with the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
The next big march on Washington could flood the Mall with scientists.
It’s an idea spawned on Reddit, where several scientists — concerned about the new president’s policies on climate change and other issues, and hyped from the success of the Women’s March on Washington — were discussing the best way to respond to what they feared would be an administration hostile to science.
Then someone wrote, “There needs to be a Scientists’ March on Washington.”
One participant in the exchange, University of Texas Health Science Center postdoctoral fellow Jonathan Berman, took the conversation to heart. In short order, the march had a Facebook page (whose membership swelled from 200 people on Tuesday night to more than 300,000 by Wednesday evening), a Twitter handle, a website, two co-chairs, Berman and science writer and public health researcher Caroline Weinberg, and a Google form through which interested researchers could sign up to help.
Right now, that’s all it has. But, as the women’s march on Saturday demonstrated, social movements have started with less.
With a president-elect who has publicly supported the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism, suggested that climate change is a hoax dreamed up by the Chinese, and appointed to his Cabinet a retired neurosurgeon who doesn’t buy the theory of evolution, things might look grim for science.
Yet watching Patti Smith sing “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” live streamed from the Nobel Prize ceremony in early December to a room full of physicists, chemists and physicians — watching her twice choke up, each time stopping the song altogether, only to push on through all seven wordy minutes of one of Bob Dylan’s most beloved songs — left me optimistic.
Taking nothing away from the very real anxieties about future funding and support for science, neuroscience in particular has had plenty of promising leads that could help fulfill Alfred Nobel’s mission to better humanity. In the spirit of optimism, and with input from the Society for Neuroscience, here are a few of the noteworthy neuroscientific achievements of 2016.
One of the more fascinating fields of neuroscience of late entails mapping the crosstalk between our biomes, brains and immune systems.
In July, a group from the University of Virginia published a study in Nature showing that the immune system, in addition to protecting us from a daily barrage of potentially infectious microbes, can also influence social behavior. The researchers had previously shown that a type of white blood cells called T cells influence learning behavior in mice by communicating with the brain. Now they’ve shown that blocking T cell access to the brain influences rodent social preferences.
Inside the science of negative sound effects, and what we can do about them.
Mark Allen Miller
If you’re a tree frog or an ovenbird in mating season and you happen to live in the 83 percent of the continental United States that lies within 3,500 feet of a road, bummer for you. Not only are you more likely to collide with an SUV, but you’re going to have a harder time finding a mate. Research suggests that human-generated noises also mess with nesting behavior, predator-prey dynamics, and sleep patterns. In other words, wildlife gets stressed out by noise.
The physical responses that helped save our asses from predators back on the veldt have obvious downsides in the middle of a school lesson.
So do we, it turns out—and the world is getting louder. Scientists define “noise” as unwanted sound, and the level of background din from human activities has been doubling roughly every three decades, beating population growth. Road traffic in the United States has tripled over the last 30 years. By 2032, the number of passenger flights is expected to be nearly double the 2011 figure—at peak hours, planes are even audible overhead 70 percent of the time in the remote backcountry of Yosemite National Park. And while that’s obviously a nuisance for animals and visitors seeking a restorative experience, this growing anthropophony (a fancy word for the human soundscape) is also contributing to stress-related diseases and early death, especially in and around cities.
By evolutionary necessity, noise triggers a potent stress response. We are more easily startled by unexpected sounds than by objects that come suddenly into our field of vision. Our nervous systems react to noises that are loud and abrupt (gunshots, a backfiring engine), rumbling (airplanes), or whining and chaotic (leaf blowers, coffee grinders) by instructing our bodies to boost the heart rate, breathe less deeply, and release fight-or-flight hormones.
Vin Diesel and Mark Zuckerberg speak onstage during the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, CA. Kimberly White/Getty Images
REDWOOD CITY, CA — Vin Diesel is a close talker. Plus he mumbles, and takes an unselfconsciously long time to answer questions for someone being gang-interviewed on the red carpet. So when he says things like: “I hope being here is a demonstration, or statement, to all future scientists that their cinematic heroes think that they are heroes,” you get the sense that this action hero didn’t just show up to the 2017 Breakthrough Prizes as a favor to Mark Zuckerberg. It seems the man sincerely idolizes nerds.
Then again, the guy is an actor. But whether he’s in character or not is besides the point. He is here—along with other celebrities like Sienna Miller and Alicia Keys—to transfer some of his star power to recent, important discoveries in the fields of theoretical physics, life sciences, and mathematics. The so-called “Oscars of Science,” held for the past five years in a makeshift hangar at NASA Ames Research Center, are meant as a demonstration, or statement, to society that the most celebrated people on the planet ought to be scientists.
In that frame, the whole night is a delicate balancing act. The celebrities attempt to illuminate—but not outshine—the awardees. So: Vin Diesel waxing reverently about nerdiness; Jeremy Irons pontificating on empirical research’s crucial role in society; Alex Rodriguez on his passion for science, “because it has never been more connected to baseball.” Real, live scientists also walk down the red carpet. The event’s media handlers are diligent about harpooning awardees past and present and roping them into conversations with relevant (i.e., science or technology-focused) media representatives. But how is a member of the press supposed to muscle through an interview with, say, theoretical physics awardee Cumrun Vafa talking about string theory as a way to unify relativity and quantum mechanics when—oh shit, it’s Morgan Freeman!
And because this is Silicon Valley, a tech billionaire like Yuri Milner gets semi-circled with a Brad Pitt-worthy thicket of microrecorders when he approaches the velvet rope. Milner is one of the Breakthrough Prize’s cofounders. Together with his wife Julia, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, and Cathy Zhang, Milner created the prizes to inspire more awe and respect for the sciences. Since 2012, they have awarded more than 70 $3 million prizes to standout researchers.
Anyone who has argued with an opinionated relative at Thanksgiving about immigration or gun control knows it is often impossible to sway someone with strong views.
That’s in part because our brains work hard to ensure the integrity of our worldview: We seek out information to confirm what we already know, and are dismissive of facts that are hostile to our core beliefs.
But it’s not impossible to make your argument stick. And there’s been some good scientific work on this. Here are two strategies that, based on the evidence, seem promising.
1) If the argument you find convincing doesn’t resonate with someone else, find out what does
Whenever we engage in political debates, we all tend to overrate the power of arguments we find personally convincing — and wrongly think the other side will be swayed.
On gun control, for instance, liberals are persuaded by stats like, “No other developed country in the world has nearly the same rate of gun violence as does America.” And they think other people will find this compelling, too.
Conservatives, meanwhile, often go to this formulation: “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
What both sides fail to understand is that they’re arguing a point that their opponents have not only already dismissed but may be inherently deaf to.
“The messages that are intuitive to people are, for the most part, not the effective ones,” Robb Willer, a professor of sociology and psychology at Stanford University, told me last year.
Willer has shown it’s at least possible to nudge our political opponents to consider ideas they’d normally reject outright. Last year, in a series of six studies, he and co-author Matthew Feinberg found that when conservative policies are framed around liberal values like equality or fairness, liberals become more accepting of them. The same was true of liberal policies recast in terms of conservative values like respect for authority.
So, his research suggests, if a conservative wanted to convince a liberal to support higher military spending, he shouldn’t appeal to patriotism. He should say something like, “Through the military, the disadvantaged can achieve equal standing and overcome the challenges of poverty and inequality.” Or at least that’s the general idea.
How to sway the other side: Use their morals against them
Willer’s work is based on moral foundations theory. It’s the idea that people have stable, gut-level morals that influence their worldview. The liberal moral foundations include equality, fairness, and protection of the vulnerable. Conservative moral foundations are more stalwart: They favor in-group loyalty, moral purity, and respect for authority.
Politicians intuitively use moral foundations to excite like-minded voters. Conservative politicians know phrases like “take our country back” get followers’ hearts beating.
What moral foundations theory tells us, however, is that these messages don’t translate from one moral tribe to the other. “You’re essentially trying to convince somebody who speaks French of some position while speaking German to them,” Willer says. “And that doesn’t resonate.”
Willer cautioned that it’s still extremely difficult to convert a political opponent completely to your side, even with these techniques. “We found statistically significant effects,” he says. “They’re reliable. But in terms of magnitude, they are not large.”
The chart below shows how well the moral reframing worked for each policy area in Willer’s study. To be clear, there’s only so much that reframing in terms of values can do: It can’t turnan anti-Obamacare conservative into a proponent, but it can soften his stance and get him to listen to counterarguments.
Talking to National Geographic from New York City, his hometown, Tyson explains why he had to chart his own path to becoming a scientist; how reaching Proxima bwould take us a thousand human generations; and why the next horizon in astrophysics will be dark matter.
Astrophysics seems a mostly white-dominated field. Talk about how you got into it—and whether being an African American helped, or hindered, you.
I never have those thoughts. What’s your race? I’m in the human race. That’s how I view the world so it wasn’t, Oh, I can’t do it because our skin colors don’t match. I can do it because we’re all human. They say, you need a role model. Well, if I needed a black person from the Bronx to have become an astrophysicist before I could consider it, I would never have been an astrophysicist! [Laughs.]
It’s a very simple story. My parents had a very deep sense of social justice and moral compass. When I was nine years old, I made my first visit to the Hayden Planetarium, my local planetarium. And I was hooked for life! I joke about this but I’m actually quite serious when I say, I think the universe chose me. We went into a museum, “Oh, let’s go to the planetarium.” Next, I’m sitting there, the lights dim, the stars come out, and this big machine in the middle of the room is turning. Then this voice comes from the dome—that planetarium director voice. And that was it! I committed the rest of my life to exploring and discovering the universe.
Your book talks among other things about zombies and how to take a poo in space. Isn’t this a bit beneath an eminent scientist like yourself?
It depends on how you view the world. The criterion I invoke is this: Would a person be interested in it and, by covering that topic, do they learn science?
Yes, we talk about zombies. However, if you use zombies as proxies for a slow-moving virus that has no cure, then zombies are a perfect analogue to a virus outbreak. In TV shows like The Walking Dead, it’s not just that a zombie’s going to eat you. It’s the psychological consequences of being alive at a time where most of the people you ever knew are dead, or have become zombies, and the services you’ve come to depend upon no longer exist. People will no longer be working at the reservoir, so you’re not going to get water. The farmers are dead, so you’re not getting fresh vegetables. Slowly, your civilization collapses.
So when we talk about zombies or anything pop culture-y—is that a word? [laughs]—we are finding the science init and using that pop culture as a scaffold for the science. Taking you to a scientific place that you thought might not have existed is the spirit and soul of my TV show.
Mars beckons as the moon once did. Do you think we will see a successful manned voyage to the red planet in our lifetimes? And what are the biggest obstacles we will have to overcome?
Great question! I like the notion that it beckons because we’ve already been to the moon, so we’re looking at the next destination. I assume you mean, will people get there? I think in our generation, yes. But it’s not clear what will motivate people unless they realize that when you have big, hairy, audacious goals such as that, you can energize a nation.
If you say, We’re going to Mars, who’s with us?, you will attract in your educational pipeline the best engineers, biologists, geologists, and meteorologists, who will help you engage this mission. There’ll be patents awarded because you’ll be doing things no one has done before. That’s what exploration means. That doesn’t even reference that it’s a grand vision, which is in our DNA. If you want to assure the future financial stability of your country, do something that will stimulate innovation.
The biggest obstacle in reaching Mars is getting people to understand why it’s something that should happen. That sounds like a cop-out answer but it’s really true. I joke that I should go to the president of China and whisper to him, “Can you leak a memo that says you want to put military bases on Mars?” [Laughs.] Oh, my gosh! Then we’ll go ballistic and put colonies on Mars! You don’t want war to be the motivation but that’s what sparked the Apollo era, the Cold War with the Soviet Union.
Another point that is hardly ever made is that when we went to the moon we looked back and, one could argue strongly, discovered Earth for the first time, because the modern conservation movement began with the first images of Earth from the Apollo program. The Earthrise photo was December 1968, and we landed on the moon July 1969. Within a year, in the U.S., we would create the Environmental Protection Agency and, in the next few years, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
When we saw the picture of the entire Earth, as nature intended us to view it, not with color-coded boundaries of countries, but with just ocean, land, and clouds, our sense of our planet changed. It was as though there was a firmware upgrade in our stewardship of this planet.
It’s a great word, isn’t it? [Laughs.] Pan means across, and spermia is the germination of life. It’s not so much that we think that life might have begun on Mars first; it’s that we cannot rule it out. Our understanding of the solar system allows it to have occurred that way. Mars once had liquid running water on its surface, and everywhere on Earth where you find water, you find life. Is it so much of a stretch to say Mars, when it had water, also had life, even microbial?
We have also learned in recent decades that when you have an asteroid strike, there’s a catastrophic wave set up in the ground below it, which can fling surrounding rocks into space, achieving escape velocity from the host planet. It’s like if you take Cheerios and sprinkle them on your bed and then punch the mattress. The Cheerios will bounce up. And these rocks may have had stowaway microbes. If they now go into space, where there’s no air and high radiation, if the microbes are not resistant to zero air and high radiation, they’ll die. If you are a microbe that survived that trip, it means your cell walls were endowed with radiation resistance and can also be freeze-dried.
On Earth there exist microbes that can resist high radiation and you can freeze dry and reconstitute them. There is no [evolutionary] selection for that on Earth. Why would a bacteria need to be able to survive high radiation unless its ancestors made the trip through space from Mars? These are the plausibility arguments we evoke. It could be that all humans are descendants of Martians.
[Laughs.] Do you know any billionaires that don’t have an ego? [Laughs.] But the fact that the rocket exploded is evidence that SpaceX is on the frontier. If you are experimenting and nothing goes wrong, you are not on the frontier. You are not in the game. This is not just in science. Mario Andretti, the race car driver, famously said, “If you are in full control of your car, you are not in the race.”
I have not spoken to Elon Musk since then, but I have no doubt that while it is disappointing that it exploded, it is part of their exploratory model to expect some of their experiments to fail. So, yes, private enterprise has a future. Governments usually do things that have never been done first. The first Europeans to the New World were not the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was Columbus, funded by Spain. So I think NASA should continue to expand the space frontier and then seed the routine aspects to private enterprise, which would then presumably do it more cheaply.
There was a flurry of excitement recently at the discovery of Proxima b. Do you believe we will one day find intelligent life beyond Earth?
What was exciting about Proxima b was not that it was a planet or even an Earth-like planet, but that this is the closest planet to our star system because it’s orbiting the closest star system to the sun. So, if you were to make a catalog of places you wanted to visit, in search for life as we know it, that would be the number one target planet.
Here is the problem: It’s four light-years away, and how fast can we move through the solar system now? If you take the New Horizons spaceship heading to Pluto and aim for Proxima b, it would take you, what, 50,000 years to get there? That’s between one and two thousand generations of humans. So it doesn’t seem realistic to me. That’s why we have telescopes and radio wave communication in case there is intelligent life there. We have secondary ways of doing it rather than just going there.
The idea of time travel has haunted the human imagination for centuries. Might it one day be possible? And what are the next big discoveries in space you are excited about?
We know how to go into the future; you just go fast, and time will tick more slowly for you. Then you return home and maybe everyone would have forgotten about you depending on how long you stayed away and how fast you moved. That’s plain vanilla Einstein relativity. Time traveling to the past? There are some plausible models for how to do that but they require a command of sources of energy that we don’t have access to. So it’s not realistic to think it could happen tomorrow.
What am I excited about? Another way of asking that is to say, About what are we most profoundly ignorant? We don’t know the origin of dark matter or dark energy. These are major drivers of cosmic phenomena. By some estimates, dark matter and dark energy account for 95 to 96 percent of everything that drives the universe. If we were to have major discoveries in those realms, it could be significant in terms of our general understanding of what we don’t know—which is why we have top people designing spacecraft to see whether they’re even asking the right question.
Science is getting to grips with ways to slow ageing. Rejoice, as long as the side-effects can be managed
IMAGINE a world in which getting fitted with a new heart, liver or set of kidneys, all grown from your own body cells, was as commonplace as knee and hip replacements are now. Or one in which you celebrated your 94th birthday by running a marathon with your school friends. Imagine, in other words, a world in which ageing had been abolished.
That world is not yet on offer. But a semblance of it might be one day. Senescence, the general dwindling of prowess experienced by all as time takes its toll, is coming under scrutiny from doctors and biologists (see article). Suspending it is not yet on the cards. But slowing it probably is. Average lifespans have risen a lot over the past century, but that was thanks to better food, housing, public health and some medicines. The new increase would be brought about by specific anti-senescence drugs, some of which may already exist.
This, optimists claim, will extend life for many people to today’s ceiling of 120 or so. But it may be just the beginning. In the next phase not just average lifespans but maximum lifespans will rise. If a body part wears out, it will be repaired or replaced altogether. DNA will be optimised for long life. Add in anti-ageing drugs, and centenarians will become two a penny.
To be human is to be constantly at war between our lofty goals and our immediate impulses.
Future Me wants me to run five miles. Right Now Me wants a cookie.
Unfortunately, that totally understandable tendency is one factor that can stop people from completing their education:
Ninety-three percent of high school seniors say they intend to go to college, but 1 in 10 of those never apply.
Between 10 and 15 percent of those who are admitted never register for classes.
Of those who do show up, only 59 percent of four-year college freshmen, and just 29 percent of two-year college freshmen, actually get that diploma in a reasonable length of time.
An unusual organization wants to change all that — not by the typical means, with money or mentors, but by closing the gaps between students’ intentions and their actions.
Ideas42 — a nonprofit research-into-action lab — designs policy interventions to help people make better decisions about their lives. Its primary method is through what’s called “behavioral science” — applying insights from psychology and other social sciences to real world problems.
Their high-profile scientific advisors include Richard Thaler, behavioral economist and co-author of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness ; and Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel Laureate and author of the book Thinking, Fast And Slow.
Education is one of several program areas at Ideas42, along with health, poverty and development, consumer finance, and sustainability.