Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:19 am

Scientists Research Questions Few Others Would Bother to Ask
by Sharon Begley
May 27, 2005; Page B1

Not every scientist can discover the double helix, or the cellular basis of memory, or the fundamental building blocks of matter. But fear not. For those who fall short of these lofty goals, another entry in the "publications" section of the ol' c.v. is within your reach. The proliferation of scientific journals and meetings makes it possible to publish or present papers whose conclusion inspires less "Wow! Who would have guessed?" and more "For this you got a Ph.D.?" In what follows (with thanks to colleagues who passed along their favorites), names have been withheld to protect the silly.

Want job satisfaction? A "careful choice of career is the key," researchers concluded in a paper this spring in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Choosing a career based on a well-lubricated encounter at a bar, it turns out, may not be the most promising route to career satisfaction. People who choose their jobs carefully are more likely to be satisfied with them than those who take a flying leap into the great unknown.

In April, scientists reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research that college students tend to drink much more alcohol than they think. Or, may I suggest, than they like to think. Or than they admit to their parents. Or remember.

Want to reduce problems with medications, such as harmful side effects or drug combinations that will kill you? The solution is at hand: "Communication between primary-care physicians and patients can reduce" such problems and the chance that patients will be harmed. That is especially true if doctors encourage their patients to -- wait for it -- tell them when they experience a bad side effect, concluded a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in January. When patients reported an adverse effect, they were more likely to be switched to a different drug than if they never mentioned it. For this, let us be grateful.

In what its sponsors called a "landmark study," scientists found that when your fingers are numb and turning that lovely robin's-egg blue, you make more typing effors. Er, errors. "When employees get chilly," the scientists concluded, "they are not working to their full potential." Achoo!

Investigators working on that finger-in-the-chili case at Wendy's may find inspiration in a study published online in March in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Every year some 28,000 kids and adults wind up in hospital emergency rooms because some mishap has cut off a finger; one high-risk group is men over 55. Apart from digits lost in workplace accidents, the most common cause of finger amputation in the men is -- drumroll, please -- power tools. So anyone looking suspiciously at, oh, sinks or toasters for their finger-gobbling potential can more profitably focus on chainsaws.

Taking nothing, especially not their readers' intelligence, for granted, the researchers advise men who use power tools to "avoid exposing their fingers to direct contact" with razor-sharp blades spinning at a few thousand rpm. Wise advice, to be sure, although you've got to think that anyone who didn't know this is in for more serious problems than a lost finger.

Just in case you were wondering whether it's a good idea to suck up carcinogens and respiratory poisons when your airways are already crippled, scientific proof is at hand. A study found that asthma worsens the effects of smoking, putting puffers at greater risk for the kinds of lung problems that smoking causes than people without asthma. If you do not have asthma, your airways are in somewhat better shape to withstand a toxic assault. Bottom line: Doctors should urge asthmatics to quit smoking.

Far be it from me to belittle research on forensic science, since I have written about the importance of questioning such conventional wisdom as the reliability of fingerprint evidence and the credibility of confessions. But surely we can do better than a February study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that concluded that it's easier to identify someone close to you than someone more than a football-field-length away. At 450 feet, the scientist concludes, "the human visual system starts to lose small details."

If you had found yourself in the nation's capital earlier this month, you might have heard researchers at an American Heart Association conference proclaim that if you work full time and watch television, play videogames or surf the Internet in your off hours, then you are probably not engaging in as much heart-healthy physical activity as full-timers who spend no time with TV, videogames and the computer.

Full-time workers who spend more of their down time in front of a screen also get significantly less exercise than part-time workers who spend the same number of hours glued to one screen or another, but do other things with the rest of their time. (Memo to self: Working full-time eats up . . . time.) While the finding fails the "tell us something we didn't know" test, at least it does so with statistical significance: It was based on data from 4,500 people.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:19 am

Simulations of Attacks By Terrorists Illustrate Challenge Officials Face
by Sharon Begley
July 15, 2005; Page B1

When an explosion tore through the double-decker Steel Bridge in Portland, Ore., during the morning rush hour, officials knew they faced a potential calamity: The bridge carries trains and pedestrians on its lower level; Oregon Highway 99W, light rail and a streetcar up above; as well as a natural gas pipeline and fiber optics. As information poured in from television bulletins and first responders, the mayor, police chief, fire chief and others were bombarded with questions. Should they set up a command center, and if so, where? Evacuate downtown? Have police and bomb squads check other bridges? Close them pre-emptively?

As the hours ticked by, "what we found," says Mark Chussil, co-founder of the company Crisis Simulations International, Portland, "is -- depending how one interprets it -- overconfidence, confusion or lack of preparedness."

It was only a simulation, developed and run by CSI. Still, the exercise underlined what many public officials are discovering as they war-game terrorist attacks, an activity that is expected to increase in the wake of the London bombings. As former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek put it after he participated in the "Atlantic Storm" simulation run by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and others this year: "Nobody is ready."

In that exercise, terrorists released smallpox in six cities around the world. Officials fumbled as they confronted a series of complex issues: Should the U.S. share its smallpox vaccine with countries that didn't support the Iraq war? What international agency would coordinate the response? Should borders be closed? As officials fumbled, hundreds of thousands of simulated people died, and the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse, says Tara O'Toole, director of the biosecurity center.

Such war games differ from drills in which police, fire and emergency medical teams practice, say, disarming a bomb. "Field exercises test plans," says Greg Hendricks, commander of the East Precinct in the Portland Police Bureau during the Portland exercise. "Simulations test people."

Many are getting failing grades. In the Portland simulation, participants debated whether to tell businesses to send workers home. When a terrorist group claimed responsibility for the bombing, the police chief dispatched squads to check other bridges, but the massive deployment left traffic unsupervised and produced gridlock. With the cellular phone network approaching overload, officials fretted that telling people not to make nonemergency calls would incite panic, so they did nothing. Soon the system, which also carried police and fire communications, crashed.

"One might expect that experts would gravitate to a single answer," Mr. Chussil says. "They didn't. Not even close. Either people don't know much about others' fields, or what's obviously right to one person is obviously wrong to another. Either way, there is a real potential for worse-than-necessary loss of life and property."

Mr. Chussil played the mayor in one run of the Portland exercise. "Even though I designed the simulation and knew what could/would happen, I was swept up in my emotions," he says. "I wanted to get people out. The police and fire chiefs said I couldn't, it would cause gridlock, and I exploded at them, screaming, 'Tell me what I can do!'" When he ordered an evacuation anyway, people sat for hours in traffic -- and in the path of a toxic cloud of chlorine released by a tanker car on the bombed bridge. Hundreds died.

Sometimes there is no "right" response, except in retrospect. If, after a bombing, you dispatch scores of medical, fire and police personnel to evacuate the wounded and secure the scene, many of them will die if terrorists have set a second bomb to detonate there. If you first order the bomb squad to sweep the area, the delay may doom the wounded.

"A terrorist incident is different from an accident or natural disaster," says J. Richard Russo of Cornell University, an expert in decision making. "You're dealing with an intelligent opponent. If you prepare for A and they find that out, they'll go to B."

Even absent clearly right responses, "there are definitely wrong responses," says Col. Dave McIntyre, director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University and former dean of the Naval War College. If both EMT and fire crews are sent to the site of an attack, for instance, authorities have no one to dispatch if there is a second attack. If officials don't close the first freeway exits out of a city, evacuees will all slow down to get off at the first opportunity (Col. McIntyre says everyone makes a beeline for the first motel), hopelessly snarling traffic all the way back to the city.

"And if you fail to tell people within 30 minutes of an attack that their kids are safe and being sheltered in place, it's too late to tell parents not to go pick them up," says Col. McIntyre. "Then the fire chief tells you he can't get his people to the attack site because the roads are jammed.

"The value of exercises like this is to bring home to leaders the magnitude of what can happen -- and therefore the magnitude of the bet they've put on the table if they refuse to prepare because they say, 'It can't happen here.'"
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:20 am

So Much For Destiny: Even Thoughts Can Turn Genes 'On' and 'Off'
by Sharon Begley
Wall Street Journal, Science Journal
June, 2002

It wasn't the kind of passage you usually encounter in a strait-laced science journal: "I have had to spend periods of several weeks on a remote island in comparative isolation," Anonymous wrote in Nature. Curiously, he continued, the day before he was due for shore leave his beard grew noticeably: "I have come to the conclusion that the stimulus for this growth is related to the resumption of sexual activity."

Neither Anonymous nor his fellow scientists were surprised that the aforementioned activity would loose a flood of testosterone, which affects beards the way Miracle-Gro affects tomato plants. No, the weird part is that merely anticipating female companionship did the trick.

Just as stress in the med students I wrote about last week altered the expression of genes in their immune systems, so libidinous thoughts seem to affect gene expression, says developmental psychologist David Moore of Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Thoughts can cause the release of hormones that can bind to DNA, "turning genes 'on' or 'off.'"

If something as will-o'-the-wisp as a thought can tweak genes, it's no surprise that more substantial influences can, too. For instance, when R. Adron Harris and his team at the University of Texas, Austin, screened 10,000 genes in the frontal and motor cortexes of alcoholics, they found changes in the expression of 191, they reported in last month's Journal of Neurochemistry.

Alcohol seems to cause "a selective reprogramming" of brain genes in areas involved in judgment and decision making, says Dr. Harris. Among them, genes that code for myelin, whose loss may impair cognition and judgment.

Antidepressants may also alter genes. The conventional wisdom is that drugs such as Prozac work by blocking re-uptake by brain neurons of the neurotransmitter serotonin. But Prozac starts doing that in 24 hours. Why, then, do such drugs typically take weeks to lift depression? "The hunch is that Prozac works by altering gene expression, maybe causing sprouting of new neurons and remodeling of synapses," Dr. Harris says.

Experience, too, can affect gene expression. How much a mother rat handles and licks her offspring -- an environmental influence if ever there was one -- has an astonishing effect: It determines whether genes that code for receptors for stress hormones in the brain are expressed or not. And the level of those receptors affects how a rat reacts to stress. Rats with attentive moms were much less fearful and more curious, finds Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal. Rats that got less maternal handling grew up to be timid and withdrawn in novel situations.

Rats are not long-tailed people, so you can't infer that maternal affection affects gene expression and thus temperament in babies, too. But something sure does. There is no shortage of evidence that intelligence, shyness, impulsivity, risk-taking and illnesses have a genetic component.

But identical twins, who have the same genes, don't have identical traits: One twin might be schizophrenic and the other not, one might be shy and the other outgoing, one might get a "gene-based" cancer and the other not. The difference between identical twins is the experiences they have and, if I may speculate, which of their genes are expressed.

What signal from the environment keeps schizophrenia-related genes silent? What activates IQ-lifting genes? Whatever it is, even a short-lived environmental signal might turn on genes that tell neurons how, and how much, to grow. That would leave an enduring mark: Neural circuits would be complex or simple, and different brain regions would be strongly linked or not. From such neuronal differences arise differences in intelligence and personality, health and temperament.

Linking specific environmental influences to gene activity would have been a pipe dream only a few years ago. But the new technology of microarray analysis, in which "gene chips" reveal which DNA in a sample of tissue is expressed and which is quiescent, is making such discoveries possible.

This past April, in one of their coolest uses so far, gene chips showed that the difference between human brains and chimp brains is not which genes each brain has. Those are nearly identical. The difference is which genes are turned on and which are switched off.

Ironically, the recognition that genes depend on the environment follows hard on the heels of genetics' greatest triumph: sequencing the human genome. But what's now clear is that the more we learn about genetics, the more we'll see that genes are not destiny.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:21 am

Study of the Cosmos Proceeds, But Will Take New Directions
by Sharon Begley
April 11, 2003

When cosmologists unveiled the findings of the WMAP satellite two months ago, it sounded like the instrument, orbiting 2.4 million miles above Earth, had not only accomplished its tasks -- answering timeless questions like how old the universe is and how galaxies are born -- but had gone considerably further. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, it seemed, had taken the eternal enigma of genesis and sucked all the mystery out of it.

The findings were exactly as predicted by Big Bang inflation, which holds that the cosmos began when a quantum fluctuation created from nothingness an infinitesimal bit of space-time (since Einstein, space and time have been viewed as a single entity). This nearly infinite-temperature, infinite-density speck then ballooned in size 10 to the 50th power-times in a quadrillionth of a quadrillionth of a second.

When WMAP's measurements fit this model, it seemed that all the interesting cosmological mysteries were solved. It was enough, one researcher told me, to plunge several of his colleagues into depression.

But like Mark Twain's demise, reports of the death of cosmology are greatly exaggerated. Now that the dust has settled after the WMAP announcement, it's clear that some profound questions are still alive and kicking.

"While WMAP is a great advance," says cosmologist Jeremiah Ostriker, a professor at the University of Cambridge, England, "it does not answer all the questions. Cosmology is not over."

WMAP certainly firmed up some long-squishy cosmic parameters. The universe is 13.4 billion years old, give or take 300 million. Space is flat (if you shine a light straight ahead it won't bend around and smack you in the back in a few billion years). Its total mass-energy (the two are equivalent, Einstein showed) is 4% ordinary matter; 23% some unidentified, like-nothing-we've-seen dark matter; and 73% dark energy, a mysterious, repulsive oomph that makes the universe expand ever faster.

Just when a science seems all settled, though, something tends to pop up to shake up the whole field. So it may be with cosmology now.

"WMAP was an experimental triumph," says Cambridge astrophysicist Ofer Lahav. "But if all the observations fit your model, then most likely it's the wrong model, because observations tend to change."

WMAP measurements, in fact, are not "uniquely consistent with the standard inflationary Big Bang picture," notes Cambridge astronomer Sarah Bridle and colleagues in a recent paper in the journal Science. "There remains room for radical alternatives."

Among them: A new proposal that the universe is eternal, that its supposed genesis in a Big Bang was the beginning of just another in an infinitude of cycles of expansion and contraction alternating for time without end. This cyclic theory "fits all our observations, including WMAP's," says cosmologist Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, New Jersey.

Besides not knowing how the universe began, we're also in the dark about what it's made of. What is the dark matter? Massive black holes? Exotic new particles? We just know what it isn't: the electrons, protons and neutrons that make up stars, aardvarks, peonies and everything else we see.

Nor do we know what the dark energy is. An eerie, dynamic force field dubbed "quintessence," or the never-changing "vacuum energy" posited by Einstein? "How can anyone say cosmology is over when we don't know the identity of more than 95% of the stuff in the universe?" asks Prof. Ostriker.

The true mark of an unfinished science is the surprises it springs. One, surely, will be the explanation for why the dark energy has precisely the value it does. It is just right for supporting complex physical and chemical processes, and therefore life. The amount of dark energy was minuscule in the past, and is on track to be gargantuan in the future. Neither is any good for supporting the physics and chemistry that allow stars to burn, planets to exist and life to live.

Contrary to the belief that there is nothing special about our place in the universe or our moment in cosmic history, "We are living in an anti-Copernican moment," says Prof. Steinhardt. "We really do live in a special time, and are only beginning to understand why."

Another unsolved mystery verges on science fiction. A recent calculation suggests that zipping off to another universe, or to a distant point in this one, via a black hole can't be ruled out. Black holes harbor space-time singularities, regions of infinite density that rip apart any extended object foolish enough to venture near.

That makes black-hole travel fairly unappealing. But Lior Burko of the University of Utah shows that a gentler black hole might exist. It would push and pull a spaceship only a little, acting as a portal to other worlds.

Whether black holes are destructive depends on what kind of matter pours into their hearts, which in turn depends on things like the nature of dark energy. Since that's an open question, the possibility of black-hole portals is small but real, Prof. Burko calculates in Physical Review Letters.

Until astrophysicists figure out whether there's a shortcut to the Andromeda galaxy, I'm going to consider cosmology unfinished business.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:21 am

Study Says Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger
by Sharon Begley
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
August 1, 2005

Charley, Jeanne, Ivan and Frances caused a record-setting $20 billion in insured losses when they blew through Florida last year. But if scientists are right, that record for hurricane damage will prove short-lived.

Hurricanes have been lasting longer and hitting harder since the mid-1970s, and in the coming years global warming is likely to increase the storms' destructiveness, according to a study released yesterday.

The link between global warming and hurricanes (or cyclones, as they are known globally) has been one of the most controversial in the field of climate change. Last year, a U.S. government scientist resigned from the international panel that assesses climate change, charging that a fellow panel member had made baseless statements connecting hurricanes and human-caused global warming.

But now a consensus may be emerging on how a warmer world is affecting hurricanes. In the latest study, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that the storms' power -- a combination of the energy they pack and how long they last -- "has increased markedly since the mid-1970s." His report in the online edition of the journal Nature says since 1970, the power of storms in the North Atlantic has tripled, while the power of those in the western North Pacific has more than doubled.

The rise in cyclones' intensity and duration fits with both basic science and computer simulations of climate. As the temperatures at the surface of the ocean rise, so should wind speeds, since they draw their power from heat. Higher winds take longer to dissipate. But the surge in intensity has been even greater than predicted based on warmer ocean temperatures, Prof. Emanuel says.

How a warming world will affect the number of cyclones spawned each year remains unclear. There has been no clear trend in the frequency of hurricanes.

Prof. Emanuel does think human activities are behind the increasing power of storms. Natural climate changes affect the world's seas, but the recent rise in sea-surface temperatures, especially in the cyclone-forming tropics, "is unprecedented either historically or in the paleoclimatic record," Prof. Emanuel says, "and probably reflects the effect of global warming."

Other scientists are reaching the same conclusion. Sea-surface temperatures from 1995 to 2004 set records, atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, reported this spring in the journal Science, and he attributes that to "human-influenced environmental changes."

Even if human activities are intensifying hurricanes, however, there may be better solutions than reducing the emission of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases, says environmental-policy expert Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Stronger building codes and policies that keep people from building and rebuilding in hurricane-prone regions are much more cost effective, he argues.

The field of hurricanes and climate change is churning so fast that papers written only last year are obsolete. Prof. Emanuel co-authored one, accepted but not yet published by a leading meteorology journal, that concludes there is "only weak evidence of a systematic increase" in storm intensity. "We make a lot of statements in there about the unimportance of global warming [for cyclone intensity], statements I don't subscribe to anymore," says Prof. Emanuel. "I said I would have to withdraw as a co-author."
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:22 am

Theory Men Are Wired To Kill Straying Mates Is Offensive and Wrong
by Sharon Begley
May 20, 2005; Page B1

If Rudyard Kipling had had another "Just So Story" in him, he might have followed "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" and "How the Leopard Got His Spots" with "How the Man Got His Wife-Killing Streak." It would have gone something like this:

In the High and Far-Off Times, oh Best Beloved, the Man lived harmoniously with others. Although his heart ached when his Mate fell in love with another, and he raged and cursed love's cruelty, the thought of vengeance never crossed his mind. Seeing his Doormat tendencies, Women scorned his advances, and he never had children. His line ended, Best Beloved.

But the Man lived to see the birth of a New Man. When the New Man grew up and his Mate was unfaithful, he killed her. When his next Mate merely glanced at another Man, he killed her, too. His third Mate, he beat up to keep her too submissive to even dream of looking at another. Women became smitten with his power and status, and his line grew plenteous. His sons inherited his mate-killing instincts, and soon only they -- not the Doormats -- mated and begot children. And ever since then, oh Best Beloved, all Men have a mind designed to kill unfaithful Wives.

Kipling never got around to explaining how men's minds got wired for uxoricide, but fear not: David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has. In "The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill," he explains that the male mind "has developed adaptations for killing." (An "adaptation" is a trait that conferred an evolutionary edge; those with it left more descendants than those without it.)

Killing, according to his Kipling-esque reasoning, offered so many "advantages to our early ancestors in the competition for survival and reproduction" that, today, "all men have an evolved psychology of mate killing that lies latent in their brains." Men with the genetically based mental circuit for uxoricide had such an edge over their pacifist peers, in other words, that all men living today -- their descendants -- have this murder circuit, too.

For proof, Prof. Buss cites homicide statistics showing that more men than women kill, that over a five-year period in Dayton, Ohio, 52% of the women murdered were killed by a husband, lover or ex, and that women age 15 to 24 are killed by their mates or ex-mates more than over-the-reproductive-hill women are. His explanation: Only the former have evolutionary value, so men are wired to kill them if they stray but not to bother with unfaithful old bags. Also, unemployed men are more likely to kill women who dump them than are gainfully-employed men. Such low-status men, explains Prof. Buss, have the toughest time replacing their lost access to a uterus, so they're wired to raise their attractiveness to women ("you're so strong and powerful!") by murdering a cheating mate.

As evolutionary theory, this is ludicrous. Killing the owner of the uterus that is your only current chance to get your genes into the next generation (the evolutionary imperative), especially if she is caring for your current children and has a father or brothers who take exception to your uxoricide, is an excellent way to a dead end personally and genealogically. Being the target of angry in-laws, not to mention life imprisonment or lethal injection, tends to limit one's reproductive opportunities.

As a parsimonious explanation of data, the "evolution made me do it" explanation pales beside alternatives. Yes, murdered women skew young. But twenty-something men are more impulsive than fifty-something men and more likely to have a 23-year-old than a 57-year-old as a mate. And yes, unemployed men are more likely to kill or try to kill when dumped. But traits that make getting a job tough (being poorly educated, stupid, impulsive, psychotic ...) can also incline a man to murder.

The claim that men are wired to kill their mate also flies in the face of fossil and primate data showing that early humans were prey, not predators, notes anthropologist Robert Sussman of Washington University, St. Louis, co-author of the new book "Man the Hunted." "As prey, early humans survived only if they cooperated," he told me. "This, not murder, is what evolution selected for." He calls Prof. Buss's claim "bad science" for ignoring what a lousy strategy wife-killing is. "Not only would the man have all those angry male in-laws, but the next 'Jane,' seeing he killed his first wife, would say, 'Not me,' " and keep her eggs well away from his sperm.

Prof. Buss is no lightweight; he is the author of the definitive textbook on evolutionary origins of human behavior. But the notion that killing women is a winning evolutionary strategy is lousy biology. "Only a few species kill their mating partners" -- insects, says Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green University, Ohio. "And the killing is usually done by females." He calls Prof. Buss's claim "ugly evolutionary icing with no basis."

The claim that works like "Murderer Next Door" are merely following data objectively in a search for truth is getting tiresome. The very decision to seek a "scientific" validation for killing women represents a value judgment. The fact that the claim makes no sense scientifically is almost secondary to that.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:22 am

U.S. Science Research Is in Danger of Losing Place on Cutting Edge
by Sharon Begley
August 12, 2005

News last week that scientists in South Korea had cloned a dog -- something no other researchers had ever managed -- was more surprising for the what than the who. Dogs are notoriously tough to clone, so the achievement was unexpected. But the scientists who pulled it off were exactly the ones the smart money had bet on.

In 2004, they cloned the first human embryo and extracted stem cells from it; earlier this year they became the first to create new lines of embryonic stem cells containing the DNA of patients with diseases or injuries, the first step toward cellular therapies custom tailored to a patient's genetic profile.

The fact that Seoul has become Cloning and Stem Cell Central has ratcheted up a concern that has been growing for years: Is the U.S. losing its decades-long pre-eminence in science? And if so, does it matter?

The numbers suggest that the answer to the first question is yes. According to the National Science Foundation, the U.S. share of scientific and engineering papers (a measure of how much knowledge researchers are generating) has been on a steady decline. From almost 40% in 1988, the U.S. share had fallen to 30% by 2001 (the last year for which the count is in), and is likely even lower now. That reflects, in particular, the rising scientific output of China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

As recently as 1995, the U.S. was the top producer of scientific knowledge, with about 200,000 papers. Since then, Western Europe has sprinted past, producing almost 230,000 papers in 2001. The U.S. was stalled at 200,000. Asia graduates more science and engineering Ph.D.s than the U.S. does; Europe graduates 50% more.

Unless you treat science the way the media do Olympics, with country-by-country medal counts obscuring the inspiring achievements, it's not obvious why the U.S.'s fall from dominance should cause concern, at least for patients. Ill Americans benefit from the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, invented in a lab in Belgium. The extract that formed the basis for the cholesterol-lowering drug Mevacor emerged from a lab in Spain. Americans don't need a passport to benefit from either.

That more smart people around the world are making more discoveries "portends well for the future of all humankind," Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argued in an editorial in Science.

"Do we have to trump the entire world?" he asked me rhetorically. "Probably not. That more papers are coming from outside the U.S. doesn't upset me nearly as much as the fact that cutting-edge scientists are leaving because they can't do research here" as a result of strict limits on human embryonic stem-cell studies. (It is illegal to use federal money for research like the Koreans', for example.) "This overlay of values onto research is a very alarming development."

That's the nub of it. It's one thing to lose pre-eminence, it's quite another to lose eminence, and that's where the U.S. is heading.

"Americans are rightfully proud of the research we do, but this is not the only place really great science is being done these days," says Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute, La Jolla, Calif., a leader in stem-cell research. "Countries that never had a tradition of cutting-edge biomedical research now have an entrée as a result of U.S. [stem-cell] policy. Americans are at a disadvantage in not having the opportunity to develop the technical know-how."

One sign of how besieged he and others feel: Lab space financed with private or state money for studies that can't be legally done with federal money is called a "safe haven."

Allowing a minority opinion to stifle research is only one symptom of politics undermining science. Some appointees to federal scientific advisory panels have been chosen for their ideology rather than their expertise; staffers with no research credentials alter the scientific (not only the policy) content of reports on climate change. Politicians' attacks on the science of evolution continue, even though "intelligent design" may make a fascinating lesson for a philosophy class, but is not biology.

"This anti-scientism couldn't be more damaging to young people contemplating devoting their life to research," says neuroscientist Ira Black, whose own stem-cell institute in New Jersey has been stalled by political red tape. "The sense of opportunity that was always predominant in the U.S. now lies elsewhere."

Since scientific innovation has long fueled economic growth, there is a danger "that the U.S. will no longer be dominant in innovation," says G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "A larger number of international patents are being obtained overseas, R&D facilities are moving overseas. If we are not innovating here, the economic benefits will go elsewhere, too."

An interesting battle will come when a lab in Singapore or Seoul or Britain uses embryonic stem cells to develop a therapy for diabetes or Parkinson's or heart disease. Its use in the U.S. would require approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Will opponents of stem-cell research demand that the FDA reject it and deprive patients of their only hope?
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:23 am

Very Old Eggs Reveal A Fast, Changing Path Through Evolution
by Sharon Begley
August 5, 2005; Page B1

Biologists studying how species change over the eons have always been hampered by the little problem of previous generations of a species being, well, dead. Sure, you can infer something about what a creature was like from fossils, but fossils generally fail to preserve much except bone. As a result, some of an animal's most interesting features vanish into the dust of time.

But these days, not even death is forever. A few years ago, biologist W. Charles Kerfoot was examining "cores" -- basically, muck deposited decades earlier -- in a Michigan lake. Lo and behold, he and his colleagues discovered eggs, and not just any eggs. They had been laid long ago by tiny creatures (mostly insects and crustaceans) that no longer lived in the lake. Even better, there was still life in the eggs. Under the right conditions, they would hatch.

"We knew right away that we were founding a whole new field," says Prof. Kerfoot of Michigan Technological University, Houghton. "I call it 'resurrection ecology.' " By hatching the eggs one muddy layer at a time, he realized, he could compare one generation with another to investigate evolutionary change.

It has always struck me as odd that evolutionary biology is caricatured by opponents as being static, a tower of unchanging (and unchangeable) dogma dating from Darwin. In fact, it is full of competing ideas, new discoveries and bickering scientists.

In his resurrection work, Prof. Kerfoot focuses on eggs of a tiny water flea, Daphnia retrocurva, from Portage Lake. He sieves them out of the deep muck, pops them into an incubator, and is a proud papa a few days later. "We've resurrected eggs from 300 years ago," he says. "That's 3,000 generations, equivalent to 120,000 years of evolution for humans."

And evolve is just what the little guys did. Daphnia share Portage Lake with creatures great and small, including predators, such as the shrimplike Leptodora. Prof. Kerfoot wondered whether the daphnia were doing something that biologists had hypothesized, but had struggled to prove -- namely, that the Red Queen in "Alice in Wonderland" was describing evolution when she told Alice, "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

In evolutionary biology, the Red Queen Hypothesis means predators and prey must evolve like heck just to keep from falling behind (and to remain able to hunt or elude capture).

Sure enough, daphnia eggs taken from muck with a high population of predators hatched into veritable warriors: They had long spikes on their tails and an impressive helmet, the better to make themselves too prickly to eat. "But as predators became less abundant, spine length and helmets became smaller," says Prof. Kerfoot. "Evidence for the Red Queen is very strong here. It looks like these populations really are changing just to stay in place."

He isn't the only scientist tinkering with classic Darwinism. The reigning theory of the molecular basis of evolution is that whether a mutation takes hold depends solely on natural selection: beneficial mutations last, detrimental ones disappear. But something else may be at work.

If a slew of mutations show up at once, more of them endure, scientists led by Bruce Lahn of the University of Chicago report in the July issue of Trends in Genetics. In my world, that's like an editor flooding you with dozens of suggestions for changes in your column. You're unable to fend them off, so more survive than if the requests come one-by-one over time.

Thousands of scientific papers presume that the fraction of retained mutations depends solely on how beneficial they are. "This theory has been the workhorse of molecular evolution," says Prof. Lahn. His discovery that a gene accepts more mutations when many hit at once is counterintuitive and controversial; a handful of journals actually rejected his paper. But if he is right, the molecular underpinning of evolutionary biology is itself in need of mutation.

Another pillar of evolution is that natural selection sculpts species toward some ideal fitness. In fact, what's "fit" is a matter of opinion. Consider the males of a little reptile called the side-blotched lizard, which come in three kinds. Orange-throated giants beat up on their diminutive blue-throated rivals, which in turn lord it over tiny yellow-throated guys. You'd think the yellows would eventually die out.

But natural selection is more forgiving than that. The yellows are so beneath the contempt of the oranges that they are able to steal assignations with females attracted to the oranges' territory. As a result, the yellows reproduce and survive.

Just as the game rock-paper-scissors has no single winning strategy -- it depends what your opponents choose -- so in lizard-dom there is more than one route to evolutionary fitness.

Critics contend that evolutionary biology is a haughty club that forces members "to circle the wagons against any and all would-be challengers, and to achieve consensus on the most contentious issues," Michael Shermer, director of the Skeptics Society, has written. "This conclusion is so wrong that it cannot have been made by anyone who has ever attended a scientific conference," or dipped so much as a toe into the roiling waters of evolutionary research.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:23 am

Water-Flea Case Shows That Ability to Adapt Is What's Really Innate
by Sharon Begley
April 22, 2005

HELLS ANGELS have nothing on some water fleas. While these tiny crustaceans are best known for their uncanny ability to skim atop the water's surface, some also boast a "helmet" that makes them tough for a predator to swallow. But other fleas with the same DNA -- clones of the helmeted ones -- have no such armor. And the reason is shaking up the world of genetics.

The helmeted fleas live in a lab aquarium to which scientists added the chemical scent of fish, fleas' main predator. The fleas without helmets come from an aquarium with no fish in sight (or smell). The difference between genetic duplicates reflects the power of environment: It can elicit markedly different traits from the same DNA.

I have written in the past about how environment -- ranging from experiences to diet -- can alter DNA, putting the molecular version of a "not in service" sign on our genes so they remain silent and, as geneticists say, unexpressed. The water flea and other examples of "developmental plasticity" show that a given genotype can develop in any of several ways depending on what environment it's in. And that makes the notion of "innate" look more and more inane.

"If you have a gene with some purported effect, that effect depends on the environment in which it's expressed," says Eric Turkheimer of the University of Virginia. "Anything that looks genetic, because people with that gene always turn out a certain way, might not really be a genetic effect but an artifact of how few environments people with that gene have been exposed to. Once a new environment comes along it can change everything, so what you thought was a fixed effect of a gene isn't."

OAK-TREE caterpillars that hatch in the spring, for instance, eat oak blossoms and grow up to look a bit like flowers. Caterpillars with the same genome, but which hatch in the summer, eat leaves and grow up to look like twigs. The different composition of blossoms and leaves affects what traits the caterpillars' genes produce. If you had never seen spring caterpillars, you would think their genome produces only twiggy caterpillars. But the twiggy look is, as Prof. Turkheimer says, only an artifact of how few environments those caterpillars have been exposed to, not genetic determinism.

In the past few years, scientists have found the first examples of such an effect in people, discovering how life experiences can alter gene-based traits once thought to be innate.

A certain form of a gene called MAOA, for instance, was so closely linked to aggression and criminality that it became known as a "violence gene." In a 2002 study, however, an international team of researchers followed 442 male New Zealanders who carried either of two versions of the MAOA gene. One version produces small amounts of MAOA, an enzyme active in the brain; a dearth of MAOA had been linked to criminality. The other produces high amounts of MAOA, as in a normal brain.

But the study found that men with the low-activity ("violent") form of the gene were no more likely to grow up to be antisocial or violent -- unless they had also been neglected or abused as children. In that case, they were about twice as likely to engage in persistent fighting, bullying, theft and vandalism. If they had the "violence gene" but were raised in a loving and nonabusive family, they turned out fine. A 2004 study by different scientists confirmed this.

IN A 2003 study, geneticists examined claims that one form of a gene called 5-HTT is associated with depression and suicide. Instead, they found that people who carry this form are no more likely to suffer from depression than people with the "healthy" variant -- unless they also experience deeply stressful events. Two papers in 2004 confirmed this.

"These genes were not connected with aggression or depression, respectively, in the absence of exposure to environmental risk," says behavioral geneticist Terrie Moffitt of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and King's College London. "That different environments can produce different [traits] from the same genotype is now emerging in many fields of health research."

For example, she says, studies show that "the effect of a gene on cholesterol levels depends on environmental risk -- high or low dietary fat. The effect of a gene on gum disease depends on whether you smoke or not."

Exactly how life experiences affect DNA has been most precisely worked out in lab animals. Last summer, Michael Meaney of McGill University, Montreal, and colleagues reported that a gene that shapes how fearful, jumpy and neurotic a rat is can be altered by how regularly its mother licks and grooms it. Maternal care changes the chemistry of a "neuroticism gene," and the rat grows up to be mellow and curious. The genetic trait of neuroticism -- deemed innate because scientists had found a gene "for" it -- is reversible by environment.

"The whole subject of what counts as innate has just exploded," says science historian and physicist Evelyn Fox Keller of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Historically, nature/nurture divided what was fixed from what could be changed. But what our biology really gives us is our plasticity, our ability to respond to our experiences. That's what's innate."
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:24 am

Why Just Detecting Hidden Explosives May Not Cut Deaths
by Sharon Begley
July 8, 2005; Page B1

The explosions that ripped through three subways and a bus in central London yesterday underlined the urgency of determining what measures can reduce casualties from terrorist attacks. Although researchers have made strides in developing technologies to detect explosives at a distance, there is grave concern that such progress still falls short of protecting the public.

New research suggests that even perfect detection may not substantially lower the death toll from bombs set off in urban areas. And in some cases, terrorism experts now recognize a counterintuitive possibility: Warnings may lead to more fatalities.

Americans have an abiding belief in technological fixes, and that faith is now finding expression in the war on terror. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently commissioned the National Research Council to examine technologies able to detect suicide bombers before they reach their target. In its 2004 report, the NRC concluded that a number of sophisticated sensors, from millimeter-wave imagers to vapor-plume detectors, can detect hidden explosives more than 90 feet away, although none is perfectly specific (no false hits) or perfectly sensitive (no misses).

If, for example, a suicide bomber walked into a crowded plaza, "standoff" bomb detectors might well pick up an unambiguous signal. A terahertz imaging system could spy the telltale wires and explosives in 30 milliseconds, and ultraviolet-visible spectroscopy now in development could sniff out the trace vapors emitted by the ethylene glycol dinitrate in the plastique. Let's say the sensors alerted a security guard, who spotted the terrorist and yelled to the crowd, "Run, it's a bomb!"

In this scenario, the explosives-detection technology worked perfectly. An alarm sounded before a detonation. People were able to run or throw themselves to the ground. But when the bomber exploded, the casualty toll might not have been any less than if the sensors weren't deployed. Even worse, in some situations the intervention -- "Run!" or "Get down!" -- could lead to more casualties, conclude Edward Kaplan of the Yale University School of Management, New Haven, Conn., and Moshe Kress of the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, Calif., in a new study.

Even under the best-case assumption of sensors that are perfect, covert and cheap enough to deploy at every city intersection or throughout plazas, early detection unambiguously lowers the casualty count only if the bomber fails to detonate. Ensuring that outcome probably requires ubiquitous deployment of perfect sharpshooters, says Prof. Kress.

Early detection can backfire because of the grisly fact that human beings act as human shields. "There is a trade-off between crowd size and crowd blocking," says Prof. Kaplan. A large, dense crowd puts more people in harm's way, but "the probability of being exposed to a bomb fragment declines exponentially with the size of the crowd." As a crowd flees, there are fewer people near the bomber to absorb the fragments (as when a soldier falls on a grenade) and more people, unshielded, farther away. Simple geometry shows that you can hit more people at a radius 20 feet from a bomber than you can five feet from him.

"If the first ring of unshielded people is at a greater radius, there are more of them, and more will be hit," says Prof. Kaplan.

The same effect occurs if people throw themselves to the ground. That minimizes each person's exposed area, but also at the expense of decreasing human shielding. For bombs with 500 or more fragments (in Israel, 1,000 is typical), "hit the deck" can raise rather than cut casualties. If scores of people fall from an average height of five feet eight inches to 1.5 feet, the scientists calculate, casualties could rise as high as 50 from 37.

"We are not suggesting that standoff detection has no use, but having the ability to detect explosives doesn't automatically make you safe," says Prof. Kaplan. Since the conclusions reflect a best-case scenario -- perfect sensors do not yet exist -- casualty reduction with real-world devices would be even less than the researchers calculate in their study, published online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The limits of technology are becoming apparent to those leading the war on terrorism. "Response [to detection of a suicide bomber] is a very difficult problem," says Todd Brethauer, science adviser to the U.S. Interagency Technical Support Working Group. "While there are tremendous efforts under way, don't expect a miracle near term."

Instead, pre-empting bombers before they reach their target and destroying explosives labs is likely to bring a greater payoff. Israel suffered 26 suicide attacks in 2003 and 15 in 2004, a decline it attributes in part to earlier interdictions.

Fathoming who suicide bombers are, what motivates them, and what can stop them has become particularly urgent now that such attacks in Iraq have reached unprecedented levels, with more than 200 this year. That has prompted concern that a generation of terrorists is learning skills it can bring to the U.S. and Europe. Science and experience show that last-minute defense is the wrong way to play this lethal game.
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