Category Archives: pop culture

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

After giving a basic explanation of the technology and some of the controversies in part 1 and offering more detail about the technology and about the possibility of designer babies in part 2; this part covers public discussion, a call for one and the suggestion that one is taking place in popular culture.

But a discussion does need to happen

In a move that is either an exquisite coincidence or has been carefully orchestrated (I vote for the latter), researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison have released a study about attitudes in the US to human genome editing. From an Aug. 11, 2017 University of Wisconsin-Madison news release (also on EurekAllert),

In early August 2017, an international team of scientists announced they had successfully edited the DNA of human embryos. As people process the political, moral and regulatory issues of the technology — which nudges us closer to nonfiction than science fiction — researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Temple University show the time is now to involve the American public in discussions about human genome editing.

In a study published Aug. 11 in the journal Science, the researchers assessed what people in the United States think about the uses of human genome editing and how their attitudes may drive public discussion. They found a public divided on its uses but united in the importance of moving conversations forward.

“There are several pathways we can go down with gene editing,” says UW-Madison’s Dietram Scheufele, lead author of the study and member of a National Academy of Sciences committee that compiled a report focused on human gene editing earlier this year. “Our study takes an exhaustive look at all of those possible pathways forward and asks where the public stands on each one of them.”

Compared to previous studies on public attitudes about the technology, the new study takes a more nuanced approach, examining public opinion about the use of gene editing for disease therapy versus for human enhancement, and about editing that becomes hereditary versus editing that does not.

The research team, which included Scheufele and Dominique Brossard — both professors of life sciences communication — along with Michael Xenos, professor of communication arts, first surveyed study participants about the use of editing to treat disease (therapy) versus for enhancement (creating so-called “designer babies”). While about two-thirds of respondents expressed at least some support for therapeutic editing, only one-third expressed support for using the technology for enhancement.

Diving even deeper, researchers looked into public attitudes about gene editing on specific cell types — somatic or germline — either for therapy or enhancement. Somatic cells are non-reproductive, so edits made in those cells do not affect future generations. Germline cells, however, are heritable, and changes made in these cells would be passed on to children.

Public support of therapeutic editing was high both in cells that would be inherited and those that would not, with 65 percent of respondents supporting therapy in germline cells and 64 percent supporting therapy in somatic cells. When considering enhancement editing, however, support depended more upon whether the changes would affect future generations. Only 26 percent of people surveyed supported enhancement editing in heritable germline cells and 39 percent supported enhancement of somatic cells that would not be passed on to children.

“A majority of people are saying that germline enhancement is where the technology crosses that invisible line and becomes unacceptable,” says Scheufele. “When it comes to therapy, the public is more open, and that may partly be reflective of how severe some of those genetically inherited diseases are. The potential treatments for those diseases are something the public at least is willing to consider.”

Beyond questions of support, researchers also wanted to understand what was driving public opinions. They found that two factors were related to respondents’ attitudes toward gene editing as well as their attitudes toward the public’s role in its emergence: the level of religious guidance in their lives, and factual knowledge about the technology.

Those with a high level of religious guidance in their daily lives had lower support for human genome editing than those with low religious guidance. Additionally, those with high knowledge of the technology were more supportive of it than those with less knowledge.

While respondents with high religious guidance and those with high knowledge differed on their support for the technology, both groups highly supported public engagement in its development and use. These results suggest broad agreement that the public should be involved in questions of political, regulatory and moral aspects of human genome editing.

“The public may be split along lines of religiosity or knowledge with regard to what they think about the technology and scientific community, but they are united in the idea that this is an issue that requires public involvement,” says Scheufele. “Our findings show very nicely that the public is ready for these discussions and that the time to have the discussions is now, before the science is fully ready and while we have time to carefully think through different options regarding how we want to move forward.”

Here’s a  link to and a citation for the paper,

U.S. attitudes on human genome editing by Dietram A. Scheufele, Michael A. Xenos, Emily L. Howell, Kathleen M. Rose, Dominique Brossard1, and Bruce W. Hardy. Science 11 Aug 2017: Vol. 357, Issue 6351, pp. 553-554 DOI: 10.1126/science.aan3708

This paper is behind a paywall.

A couple of final comments

Briefly, I notice that there’s no mention of the ethics of patenting this technology in the news release about the study.

Moving on, it seems surprising that the first team to engage in germline editing in the US is in Oregon; I would have expected the work to come from Massachusetts, California, or Illinois where a lot of bleeding edge medical research is performed. However, given the dearth of financial support from federal funding institutions, it seems likely that only an outsider would dare to engage i the research. Given the timing, Mitalipov’s work was already well underway before the recent about-face from the US National Academy of Sciences (Note: Kaiser’s Feb. 14, 2017 article does note that for some the recent recommendations do not represent any change).

As for discussion on issues such as editing of the germline, I’ve often noted here that popular culture (including advertising with the science fiction and other dramas laid in various media) often provides an informal forum for discussion. Joelle Renstrom in an Aug. 13, 2017 article for writes that Orphan Black (a BBC America series featuring clones) opened up a series of questions about science and ethics in the guise of a thriller about clones. She offers a précis of the first four seasons (Note: A link has been removed),

If you stopped watching a few seasons back, here’s a brief synopsis of how the mysteries wrap up. Neolution, an organization that seeks to control human evolution through genetic modification, began Project Leda, the cloning program, for two primary reasons: to see whether they could and to experiment with mutations that might allow people (i.e., themselves) to live longer. Neolution partnered with biotech companies such as Dyad, using its big pharma reach and deep pockets to harvest people’s genetic information and to conduct individual and germline (that is, genetic alterations passed down through generations) experiments, including infertility treatments that result in horrifying birth defects and body modification, such as tail-growing.

She then provides the article’s thesis (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black demonstrates Carl Sagan’s warning of a time when “awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few.” Neolutionists do whatever they want, pausing only to consider whether they’re missing an opportunity to exploit. Their hubris is straight out of Victor Frankenstein’s playbook. Frankenstein wonders whether he ought to first reanimate something “of simpler organisation” than a human, but starting small means waiting for glory. Orphan Black’s evil scientists embody this belief: if they’re going to play God, then they’ll control not just their own destinies, but the clones’ and, ultimately, all of humanity’s. Any sacrifices along the way are for the greater good—reasoning that culminates in Westmoreland’s eugenics fantasy to genetically sterilize 99 percent of the population he doesn’t enhance.

Orphan Black uses sci-fi tropes to explore real-world plausibility. Neolution shares similarities with transhumanism, the belief that humans should use science and technology to take control of their own evolution. While some transhumanists dabble in body modifications, such as microchip implants or night-vision eye drops, others seek to end suffering by curing human illness and aging. But even these goals can be seen as selfish, as access to disease-eradicating or life-extending technologies would be limited to the wealthy. Westmoreland’s goal to “sell Neolution to the 1 percent” seems frighteningly plausible—transhumanists, who statistically tend to be white, well-educated, and male, and their associated organizations raise and spend massive sums of money to help fulfill their goals. …

On Orphan Black, denial of choice is tantamount to imprisonment. That the clones have to earn autonomy underscores the need for ethics in science, especially when it comes to genetics. The show’s message here is timely given the rise of gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR. Recently, the National Academy of Sciences gave germline gene editing the green light, just one year after academy scientists from around the world argued it would be “irresponsible to proceed” without further exploring the implications. Scientists in the United Kingdom and China have already begun human genetic engineering and American scientists recently genetically engineered a human embryo for the first time. The possibility of Project Leda isn’t farfetched. Orphan Black warns us that money, power, and fear of death can corrupt both people and science. Once that happens, loss of humanity—of both the scientists and the subjects—is inevitable.

In Carl Sagan’s dark vision of the future, “people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority.” This describes the plight of the clones at the outset of Orphan Black, but as the series continues, they challenge this paradigm by approaching science and scientists with skepticism, ingenuity, and grit. …

I hope there are discussions such as those Scheufele and Brossard are advocating but it might be worth considering that there is already some discussion underway, as informal as it is.


Part 1: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

Part 2: CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Having included an explanation of CRISPR-CAS9 technology along with the news about the first US team to edit the germline and bits and pieces about ethics and a patent fight (part 1), this part hones in on the details of the work and worries about ‘designer babies’.

The interest flurry

I found three articles addressing the research and all three concur that despite some of the early reporting, this is not the beginning of a ‘designer baby’ generation.

First up was Nick Thieme in a July 28, 2017 article for Slate,

MIT Technology Review reported Thursday that a team of researchers from Portland, Oregon were the first team of U.S.-based scientists to successfully create a genetically modified human embryo. The researchers, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, changed the DNA of—in MIT Technology Review’s words—“many tens” of genetically-diseased embryos by injecting the host egg with CRISPR, a DNA-based gene editing tool first discovered in bacteria, at the time of fertilization. CRISPR-Cas9, as the full editing system is called, allows scientists to change genes accurately and efficiently. As has happened with research elsewhere, the CRISPR-edited embryos weren’t implanted—they were kept sustained for only a couple of days.

In addition to being the first American team to complete this feat, the researchers also improved upon the work of the three Chinese research teams that beat them to editing embryos with CRISPR: Mitalipov’s team increased the proportion of embryonic cells that received the intended genetic changes, addressing an issue called “mosaicism,” which is when an embryo is comprised of cells with different genetic makeups. Increasing that proportion is essential to CRISPR work in eliminating inherited diseases, to ensure that the CRISPR therapy has the intended result. The Oregon team also reduced the number of genetic errors introduced by CRISPR, reducing the likelihood that a patient would develop cancer elsewhere in the body.

Separate from the scientific advancements, it’s a big deal that this work happened in a country with such intense politicization of embryo research. …

But there are a great number of obstacles between the current research and the future of genetically editing all children to be 12-foot-tall Einsteins.

Ed Yong in an Aug. 2, 2017 article for The Atlantic offered a comprehensive overview of the research and its implications (unusually for Yong, there seems to be mildly condescending note but it’s worth ignoring for the wealth of information in the article; Note: Links have been removed),

… the full details of the experiment, which are released today, show that the study is scientifically important but much less of a social inflection point than has been suggested. “This has been widely reported as the dawn of the era of the designer baby, making it probably the fifth or sixth time people have reported that dawn,” says Alta Charo, an expert on law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And it’s not.”

Given the persistent confusion around CRISPR and its implications, I’ve laid out exactly what the team did, and what it means.

Who did the experiments?

Shoukhrat Mitalipov is a Kazakhstani-born cell biologist with a history of breakthroughs—and controversy—in the stem cell field. He was the scientist to clone monkeys. He was the first to create human embryos by cloning adult cells—a move that could provide patients with an easy supply of personalized stem cells. He also pioneered a technique for creating embryos with genetic material from three biological parents, as a way of preventing a group of debilitating inherited diseases.

Although MIT Tech Review name-checked Mitalipov alone, the paper splits credit for the research between five collaborating teams—four based in the United States, and one in South Korea.

What did they actually do?

The project effectively began with an elevator conversation between Mitalipov and his colleague Sanjiv Kaul. Mitalipov explained that he wanted to use CRISPR to correct a disease-causing gene in human embryos, and was trying to figure out which disease to focus on. Kaul, a cardiologist, told him about hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM)—an inherited heart disease that’s commonly caused by mutations in a gene called MYBPC3. HCM is surprisingly common, affecting 1 in 500 adults. Many of them lead normal lives, but in some, the walls of their hearts can thicken and suddenly fail. For that reason, HCM is the commonest cause of sudden death in athletes. “There really is no treatment,” says Kaul. “A number of drugs are being evaluated but they are all experimental,” and they merely treat the symptoms. The team wanted to prevent HCM entirely by removing the underlying mutation.

They collected sperm from a man with HCM and used CRISPR to change his mutant gene into its normal healthy version, while simultaneously using the sperm to fertilize eggs that had been donated by female volunteers. In this way, they created embryos that were completely free of the mutation. The procedure was effective, and avoided some of the critical problems that have plagued past attempts to use CRISPR in human embryos.

Wait, other human embryos have been edited before?

There have been three attempts in China. The first two—in 2015 and 2016—used non-viable embryos that could never have resulted in a live birth. The third—announced this March—was the first to use viable embryos that could theoretically have been implanted in a womb. All of these studies showed that CRISPR gene-editing, for all its hype, is still in its infancy.

The editing was imprecise. CRISPR is heralded for its precision, allowing scientists to edit particular genes of choice. But in practice, some of the Chinese researchers found worrying levels of off-target mutations, where CRISPR mistakenly cut other parts of the genome.

The editing was inefficient. The first Chinese team only managed to successfully edit a disease gene in 4 out of 86 embryos, and the second team fared even worse.

The editing was incomplete. Even in the successful cases, each embryo had a mix of modified and unmodified cells. This pattern, known as mosaicism, poses serious safety problems if gene-editing were ever to be used in practice. Doctors could end up implanting women with embryos that they thought were free of a disease-causing mutation, but were only partially free. The resulting person would still have many tissues and organs that carry those mutations, and might go on to develop symptoms.

What did the American team do differently?

The Chinese teams all used CRISPR to edit embryos at early stages of their development. By contrast, the Oregon researchers delivered the CRISPR components at the earliest possible point—minutes before fertilization. That neatly avoids the problem of mosaicism by ensuring that an embryo is edited from the very moment it is created. The team did this with 54 embryos and successfully edited the mutant MYBPC3 gene in 72 percent of them. In the other 28 percent, the editing didn’t work—a high failure rate, but far lower than in previous attempts. Better still, the team found no evidence of off-target mutations.

This is a big deal. Many scientists assumed that they’d have to do something more convoluted to avoid mosaicism. They’d have to collect a patient’s cells, which they’d revert into stem cells, which they’d use to make sperm or eggs, which they’d edit using CRISPR. “That’s a lot of extra steps, with more risks,” says Alta Charo. “If it’s possible to edit the embryo itself, that’s a real advance.” Perhaps for that reason, this is the first study to edit human embryos that was published in a top-tier scientific journal—Nature, which rejected some of the earlier Chinese papers.

Is this kind of research even legal?

Yes. In Western Europe, 15 countries out of 22 ban any attempts to change the human germ line—a term referring to sperm, eggs, and other cells that can transmit genetic information to future generations. No such stance exists in the United States but Congress has banned the Food and Drug Administration from considering research applications that make such modifications. Separately, federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health are banned from funding research that ultimately destroys human embryos. But the Oregon team used non-federal money from their institutions, and donations from several small non-profits. No taxpayer money went into their work. [emphasis mine]

Why would you want to edit embryos at all?

Partly to learn more about ourselves. By using CRISPR to manipulate the genes of embryos, scientists can learn more about the earliest stages of human development, and about problems like infertility and miscarriages. That’s why biologist Kathy Niakan from the Crick Institute in London recently secured a license from a British regulator to use CRISPR on human embryos.

Isn’t this a slippery slope toward making designer babies?

In terms of avoiding genetic diseases, it’s not conceptually different from PGD, which is already widely used. The bigger worry is that gene-editing could be used to make people stronger, smarter, or taller, paving the way for a new eugenics, and widening the already substantial gaps between the wealthy and poor. But many geneticists believe that such a future is fundamentally unlikely because complex traits like height and intelligence are the work of hundreds or thousands of genes, each of which have a tiny effect. The prospect of editing them all is implausible. And since genes are so thoroughly interconnected, it may be impossible to edit one particular trait without also affecting many others.

“There’s the worry that this could be used for enhancement, so society has to draw a line,” says Mitalipov. “But this is pretty complex technology and it wouldn’t be hard to regulate it.”

Does this discovery have any social importance at all?

“It’s not so much about designer babies as it is about geographical location,” says Charo. “It’s happening in the United States, and everything here around embryo research has high sensitivity.” She and others worry that the early report about the study, before the actual details were available for scrutiny, could lead to unnecessary panic. “Panic reactions often lead to panic-driven policy … which is usually bad policy,” wrote Greely [bioethicist Hank Greely].

As I understand it, despite the change in stance, there is no federal funding available for the research performed by Mitalipov and his team.

Finally, University College London (UCL) scientists Joyce Harper and Helen O’Neill wrote about CRISPR, the Oregon team’s work, and the possibilities in an Aug. 3, 2017 essay for The Conversation (Note: Links have been removed),

The genome editing tool used, CRISPR-Cas9, has transformed the field of biology in the short time since its discovery in that it not only promises, but delivers. CRISPR has surpassed all previous efforts to engineer cells and alter genomes at a fraction of the time and cost.

The technology, which works like molecular scissors to cut and paste DNA, is a natural defence system that bacteria use to fend off harmful infections. This system has the ability to recognise invading virus DNA, cut it and integrate this cut sequence into its own genome – allowing the bacterium to render itself immune to future infections of viruses with similar DNA. It is this ability to recognise and cut DNA that has allowed scientists to use it to target and edit specific DNA regions.

When this technology is applied to “germ cells” – the sperm and eggs – or embryos, it changes the germline. That means that any alterations made would be permanent and passed down to future generations. This makes it more ethically complex, but there are strict regulations around human germline genome editing, which is predominantly illegal. The UK received a licence in 2016 to carry out CRISPR on human embryos for research into early development. But edited embryos are not allowed to be inserted into the uterus and develop into a fetus in any country.

Germline genome editing came into the global spotlight when Chinese scientists announced in 2015 that they had used CRISPR to edit non-viable human embryos – cells that could never result in a live birth. They did this to modify the gene responsible for the blood disorder β-thalassaemia. While it was met with some success, it received a lot of criticism because of the premature use of this technology in human embryos. The results showed a high number of potentially dangerous, off-target mutations created in the procedure.

Impressive results

The new study, published in Nature, is different because it deals with viable human embryos and shows that the genome editing can be carried out safely – without creating harmful mutations. The team used CRISPR to correct a mutation in the gene MYBPC3, which accounts for approximately 40% of the myocardial disease hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. This is a dominant disease, so an affected individual only needs one abnormal copy of the gene to be affected.

The researchers used sperm from a patient carrying one copy of the MYBPC3 mutation to create 54 embryos. They edited them using CRISPR-Cas9 to correct the mutation. Without genome editing, approximately 50% of the embryos would carry the patients’ normal gene and 50% would carry his abnormal gene.

After genome editing, the aim would be for 100% of embryos to be normal. In the first round of the experiments, they found that 66.7% of embryos – 36 out of 54 – were normal after being injected with CRIPSR. Of the remaining 18 embryos, five had remained unchanged, suggesting editing had not worked. In 13 embryos, only a portion of cells had been edited.

The level of efficiency is affected by the type of CRISPR machinery used and, critically, the timing in which it is put into the embryo. The researchers therefore also tried injecting the sperm and the CRISPR-Cas9 complex into the egg at the same time, which resulted in more promising results. This was done for 75 mature donated human eggs using a common IVF technique called intracytoplasmic sperm injection. This time, impressively, 72.4% of embryos were normal as a result. The approach also lowered the number of embryos containing a mixture of edited and unedited cells (these embryos are called mosaics).

Finally, the team injected a further 22 embryos which were grown into blastocyst – a later stage of embryo development. These were sequenced and the researchers found that the editing had indeed worked. Importantly, they could show that the level of off-target mutations was low.

A brave new world?

So does this mean we finally have a cure for debilitating, heritable diseases? It’s important to remember that the study did not achieve a 100% success rate. Even the researchers themselves stress that further research is needed in order to fully understand the potential and limitations of the technique.

In our view, it is unlikely that genome editing would be used to treat the majority of inherited conditions anytime soon. We still can’t be sure how a child with a genetically altered genome will develop over a lifetime, so it seems unlikely that couples carrying a genetic disease would embark on gene editing rather than undergoing already available tests – such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis or prenatal diagnosis – where the embryos or fetus are tested for genetic faults.


As might be expected there is now a call for public discussion about the ethics about this kind of work. See Part 3.

For anyone who started in the middle of this series, here’s Part 1 featuring an introduction to the technology and some of the issues.

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

There’s been a minor flurry of interest in CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats; also known as CRISPR-CAS9), a gene-editing technique, since a team in Oregon announced a paper describing their work editing the germline. Since I’ve been following the CRISPR-CAS9 story for a while this seems like a good juncture for a more in-depth look at the topic. In this first part I’m including an introduction to CRISPR, some information about the latest US work, and some previous writing about ethics issues raised when Chinese scientists first announced their work editing germlines in 2015 and during the patent dispute between the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard University’s Broad Institute.

Introduction to CRISPR

I’ve been searching for a good description of CRISPR and this helped to clear up some questions for me (Thank you to MIT Review),

For anyone who’s been reading about science for a while, this upbeat approach to explaining how a particular technology will solve all sorts of problems will seem quite familiar. It’s not the most hyperbolic piece I’ve seen but it barely mentions any problems associated with research (for some of the problems see: ‘The interest flurry’ later in part 2).

Oregon team

Steve Connor’s July 26, 2017 article for the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Technology Review breaks the news (Note: Links have been removed),

The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon, MIT Technology Review has learned.

The effort, led by Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, involved changing the DNA of a large number of one-cell embryos with the gene-editing technique CRISPR, according to people familiar with the scientific results.

Until now, American scientists have watched with a combination of awe, envy, and some alarm as scientists elsewhere were first to explore the controversial practice. To date, three previous reports of editing human embryos were all published by scientists in China.

Now Mitalipov is believed to have broken new ground both in the number of embryos experimented upon and by demonstrating that it is possible to safely and efficiently correct defective genes that cause inherited diseases.

Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.

In altering the DNA code of human embryos, the objective of scientists is to show that they can eradicate or correct genes that cause inherited disease, like the blood condition beta-thalassemia. The process is termed “germline engineering” because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.

Some critics say germline experiments could open the floodgates to a brave new world of “designer babies” engineered with genetic enhancements—a prospect bitterly opposed by a range of religious organizations, civil society groups, and biotech companies.

The U.S. intelligence community last year called CRISPR a potential “weapon of mass destruction.”

Here’s a link to a citation for the groundbreaking paper,

Correction of a pathogenic gene mutation in human embryos by Hong Ma, Nuria Marti-Gutierrez, Sang-Wook Park, Jun Wu, Yeonmi Lee, Keiichiro Suzuki, Amy Koski, Dongmei Ji, Tomonari Hayama, Riffat Ahmed, Hayley Darby, Crystal Van Dyken, Ying Li, Eunju Kang, A.-Reum Park, Daesik Kim, Sang-Tae Kim, Jianhui Gong, Ying Gu, Xun Xu, David Battaglia, Sacha A. Krieg, David M. Lee, Diana H. Wu, Don P. Wolf, Stephen B. Heitner, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, Paula Amato, Jin-Soo Kim, Sanjiv Kaul, & Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature23305 Published online 02 August 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

CRISPR Issues: ethics and patents

In my May 14, 2015 posting I mentioned a ‘moratorium’ on germline research, the Chinese research paper, and the stance taken by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH),

The CRISPR technology has reignited a discussion about ethical and moral issues of human genetic engineering some of which is reviewed in an April 7, 2015 posting about a moratorium by Sheila Jasanoff, J. Benjamin Hurlbut and Krishanu Saha for the Guardian science blogs (Note: A link has been removed),

On April 3, 2015, a group of prominent biologists and ethicists writing in Science called for a moratorium on germline gene engineering; modifications to the human genome that will be passed on to future generations. The moratorium would apply to a technology called CRISPR/Cas9, which enables the removal of undesirable genes, insertion of desirable ones, and the broad recoding of nearly any DNA sequence.

Such modifications could affect every cell in an adult human being, including germ cells, and therefore be passed down through the generations. Many organisms across the range of biological complexity have already been edited in this way to generate designer bacteria, plants and primates. There is little reason to believe the same could not be done with human eggs, sperm and embryos. Now that the technology to engineer human germlines is here, the advocates for a moratorium declared, it is time to chart a prudent path forward. They recommend four actions: a hold on clinical applications; creation of expert forums; transparent research; and a globally representative group to recommend policy approaches.

The authors go on to review precedents and reasons for the moratorium while suggesting we need better ways for citizens to engage with and debate these issues,

An effective moratorium must be grounded in the principle that the power to modify the human genome demands serious engagement not only from scientists and ethicists but from all citizens. We need a more complex architecture for public deliberation, built on the recognition that we, as citizens, have a duty to participate in shaping our biotechnological futures, just as governments have a duty to empower us to participate in that process. Decisions such as whether or not to edit human genes should not be left to elite and invisible experts, whether in universities, ad hoc commissions, or parliamentary advisory committees. Nor should public deliberation be temporally limited by the span of a moratorium or narrowed to topics that experts deem reasonable to debate.

I recommend reading the post in its entirety as there are nuances that are best appreciated in the entirety of the piece.

Shortly after this essay was published, Chinese scientists announced they had genetically modified (nonviable) human embryos. From an April 22, 2015 article by David Cyranoski and Sara Reardon in Nature where the research and some of the ethical issues discussed,

In a world first, Chinese scientists have reported editing the genomes of human embryos. The results are published1 in the online journal Protein & Cell and confirm widespread rumours that such experiments had been conducted — rumours that sparked a high-profile debate last month2, 3 about the ethical implications of such work.

In the paper, researchers led by Junjiu Huang, a gene-function researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou, tried to head off such concerns by using ‘non-viable’ embryos, which cannot result in a live birth, that were obtained from local fertility clinics. The team attempted to modify the gene responsible for β-thalassaemia, a potentially fatal blood disorder, using a gene-editing technique known as CRISPR/Cas9. The researchers say that their results reveal serious obstacles to using the method in medical applications.

“I believe this is the first report of CRISPR/Cas9 applied to human pre-implantation embryos and as such the study is a landmark, as well as a cautionary tale,” says George Daley, a stem-cell biologist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. “Their study should be a stern warning to any practitioner who thinks the technology is ready for testing to eradicate disease genes.”


Huang says that the paper was rejected by Nature and Science, in part because of ethical objections; both journals declined to comment on the claim. (Nature’s news team is editorially independent of its research editorial team.)

He adds that critics of the paper have noted that the low efficiencies and high number of off-target mutations could be specific to the abnormal embryos used in the study. Huang acknowledges the critique, but because there are no examples of gene editing in normal embryos he says that there is no way to know if the technique operates differently in them.

Still, he maintains that the embryos allow for a more meaningful model — and one closer to a normal human embryo — than an animal model or one using adult human cells. “We wanted to show our data to the world so people know what really happened with this model, rather than just talking about what would happen without data,” he says.

This, too, is a good and thoughtful read.

There was an official response in the US to the publication of this research, from an April 29, 2015 post by David Bruggeman on his Pasco Phronesis blog (Note: Links have been removed),

In light of Chinese researchers reporting their efforts to edit the genes of ‘non-viable’ human embryos, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins issued a statement (H/T Carl Zimmer).

“NIH will not fund any use of gene-editing technologies in human embryos. The concept of altering the human germline in embryos for clinical purposes has been debated over many years from many different perspectives, and has been viewed almost universally as a line that should not be crossed. Advances in technology have given us an elegant new way of carrying out genome editing, but the strong arguments against engaging in this activity remain. These include the serious and unquantifiable safety issues, ethical issues presented by altering the germline in a way that affects the next generation without their consent, and a current lack of compelling medical applications justifying the use of CRISPR/Cas9 in embryos.” …

The US has modified its stance according to a February 14, 2017 article by Jocelyn Kaiser for Science Magazine (Note: Links have been removed),

Editing the DNA of a human embryo to prevent a disease in a baby could be ethically allowable one day—but only in rare circumstances and with safeguards in place, says a widely anticipated report released today.

The report from an international committee convened by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and the National Academy of Medicine in Washington, D.C., concludes that such a clinical trial “might be permitted, but only following much more research” on risks and benefits, and “only for compelling reasons and under strict oversight.” Those situations could be limited to couples who both have a serious genetic disease and for whom embryo editing is “really the last reasonable option” if they want to have a healthy biological child, says committee co-chair Alta Charo, a bioethicist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Some researchers are pleased with the report, saying it is consistent with previous conclusions that safely altering the DNA of human eggs, sperm, or early embryos—known as germline editing—to create a baby could be possible eventually. “They have closed the door to the vast majority of germline applications and left it open for a very small, well-defined subset. That’s not unreasonable in my opinion,” says genome researcher Eric Lander of the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Lander was among the organizers of an international summit at NAS in December 2015 who called for more discussion before proceeding with embryo editing.

But others see the report as lowering the bar for such experiments because it does not explicitly say they should be prohibited for now. “It changes the tone to an affirmative position in the absence of the broad public debate this report calls for,” says Edward Lanphier, chairman of the DNA editing company Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California. Two years ago, he co-authored a Nature commentary calling for a moratorium on clinical embryo editing.

One advocacy group opposed to embryo editing goes further. “We’re very disappointed with the report. It’s really a pretty dramatic shift from the existing and widespread agreement globally that human germline editing should be prohibited,” says Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley, California.

Interestingly, this change of stance occurred just prior to a CRISPR patent decision (from my March 15, 2017 posting),

I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.

It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,

After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 [2017]. The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.

Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.

The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.

Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.


I also noted this eyebrow-lifting statistic,  “As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.)


Part 2 covers three critical responses to the reporting and between them describe the technology in more detail and the possibility of ‘designer babies’.  CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

Part 3 is all about public discussion or, rather, the lack of and need for according to a couple of social scientists. Informally, there is some discussion via pop culture and Joelle Renstrom notes although she is focused on the larger issues touched on by the television series, Orphan Black and as I touch on in my final comments. CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

Bill Nye saving science ?; a Blackout Night Sky Festival; and Eclipse: Total Alignment (science events in Vancouver Canada)

During August (2017), science in Vancouver (Canada) seems to be mostly about the night sky. The one exception is an event featuring American science communicator, Bill Nye. Here, in the order in which they occur, are the three science events mentioned in the head (scroll down to the third event [Eclipse: Total Alignment] if you are interested in Early Bird tickets, which are available until Aug. 4, 2017).

Bill Nye speaks

Billed as ‘An Evening With Bill Nye & George Stroumboulopoulos’, the event takes place at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday, August 11, 2017. Here’s more from the event page on,

An Evening With Bill Nye & George Stroumboulopoulos
presented by Pangburn Philosophy

Friday, August 11, 2017
Doors: 7pm
Show: 8pm Sharp!

Bill Nye is one of the worlds most eminent promoters of science. He is a scientist, engineer, comedian, author, and inventor. His mission: to help foster a scientifically literate society, to help people everywhere understand and appreciate the science that makes our world work. Making science entertaining and accessible is something Bill has been doing most of his life. He will grace the stage on August 11th at the Orpheum Theatre in Vancouver to exchange dialogue with one of Canada’s most beloved public figures and tv personalities. George Stroumboulopoulos is a six-time Gemini Award and Canadian Screen Award winner for best host in a talk series, George Stroumboulopoulos has interviewed a who’s who of entertainment icons, world leaders and respected thinkers. George has also taken an active role in global initiatives and is a strong advocate for social issues.Special Note:

All PREMIUM ticket purchases grant you a copy of Bill Nye’s new book “Everything All at Once” plus fast-pass access to Bill’s book signing, taking place directly after the event.

All STUDENT discounted tickets are Will Call only at the Box Office, on the evening of the event. Student & Photo ID must be shown. No exceptions.

Service Charges Disclaimer
Note that all tickets are subject to an additional $3.50 for the Facility Fee and $5.00 for the Ticketing Fee.
Friday Aug 11, 2017 8:00 PM – Friday Aug 11, 2017 11:00 PM | CA$60.00 – CA$150.00

I got a message saying ‘sales are ended’, which suggests the event is sold out but organizers usually trumpet that detail right away so I don’t know. It might be an idea to try the Buy Tickets button on this page for yourself.

For anyone unfamiliar with the event organizers, Pangburn Philosophy, there’s their home page and this video,

While I’m quite interested in science and art, singly and together, the discussion about science, religion, and/or god, discussed in the video, leaves me cold. I notice the Pangburn Philosophy organization has a series of events titled ‘Science and Reason’ and all of them feature Richard Dawkins who (as I understand it) has been very involved in the debate about science/reason and religion/god. The debate gets more attention in the UK than it has here in Canada.

Getting back to Bill Nye, there was a provocative essay about Nye, his new television programme, and the debate regarding science/reason and anti-science/alternative facts (which can also touch on religion/god). From an April 25, 2017 essay (titled: Can Bill Nye – or any other science show – really save the world?) by Heather Akin, Bruce W. Hardy, Dietram A. Scheufele, and Dominique Brossard for The (h/t May 1, 2017 republication on; Note: Links have been removed)

Netflix’s new talk show, “Bill Nye Saves the World,” debuted the night before people around the world joined together to demonstrate and March for Science. Many have lauded the timing and relevance of the show, featuring the famous “Science Guy” as its host, because it aims to myth-bust and debunk anti-scientific claims in an alternative-fact era.

But are more facts really the kryptonite that will rein in what some suggest is a rapidly spreading “anti-science” sentiment in the U.S.?

“With the right science and good writing,” Nye hopes, “we’ll do our best to enlighten and entertain our audience. And, perhaps we’ll change the world a little.” In an ideal world, a show like this might attract a broad and diverse audience with varying levels of science interest and background. By entertaining a wide range of viewers, the thinking goes, the show could effectively dismantle enduring beliefs that are at odds with scientific evidence. Significant parts of the public still aren’t on board with the scientific consensus on climate change and the safety of vaccines and genetically modified foods, for instance.

But what deserves to be successful isn’t always what ends up winning hearts and minds in the real world. In fact, empirical data we collected suggest that the viewership of such shows – even heavily publicized and celebrity-endorsed ones – is small and made up of people who are already highly educated, knowledgeable about science and receptive to scientific evidence.

Engaging scientific programming could still be an antidote to waning public interest in science, especially where formal science education is falling short. But it is revealing that “Cosmos” – a heavily marketed, big-budget show backed by Fox Networks and “Family Guy” creator Seth McFarlane – did not reach the audience who need quality science information the most. “Bill Nye Saves the World” might not either. Its streaming numbers are not yet available.

Today’s fragmented and partisan media environment fosters selective exposure and motivated reasoning – that is, viewers typically tune in to programming that confirms their existing worldview. There are few opportunities or incentives for audiences to engage with scientific evidence in the media. All of this can propagate misleading claims and deter audiences from accepting the conclusions of sound science. And adoption of misinformation and alternative facts is not a partisan problem. Policy debates questioning or ignoring scientific consensus on vaccines, climate change and GMOs have cut across different political camps.

None of this is meant to downplay the huge potential of entertainment media to reach diverse audiences beyond the proverbial choir. We know from decades of research that our mental images of science and its impact on society are shaped heavily by (sometimes stereotypical) portrayals of science and scientists in shows like “The Big Bang Theory” or “Orphan Black.”

But successful scientific entertainment programming needs to accomplish two goals: First, draw in a diverse audience well beyond those already interested in science; second, present scientific issues in a way that unites audiences around shared values rather than further polarizing by presenting science in ways that seems at odds with specific political or religious worldviews.

And social science research suggests that complex information can reach audiences via the most unlikely of places, including the satirical fake news program “The Colbert Report.” In fact, a University of Pennsylvania study showed that a series of “Colbert Report” episodes about Super PACs and 501(c)(4) groups during the 2012 presidential election did a better job educating viewers than did mainstream programming in traditional news formats.

Social science can help us learn from our mistakes and better understand how to connect with hard-to-reach audiences via new formats and outlets. None of these shows by themselves will save the world. But if done right, they each might get us closer, one empirical step at a time.

I encourage you to read the essay in its entirety and, in particular, to read the comments.

The tickets for the Aug. 11, 2017 event seem a bit expensive but as they appear to be sold out, it proves I know very little about marketing science celebrities. I guess Stroumboulopoulos’ name recognition due to his CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) experience was part of the sales strategy since he doesn’t seem to have any science background. That said, good interviewers take the time to research and often unearth questions that someone with more expertise might not think to ask. I’ve been favourably impressed the few times I’ve caught one of Stroumboulopoulos’ interviews.

Blackout: Night Sky Festival

The day after Bill Nye, on Saturday, August 12, 2017, there’s a special event at the Museum of Anthropology on the University of British Columbia grounds in Vancouver. Cecilia Lu in a July 24, 2017 posting on The Daily Hive (Vancouver edition) writes up the event,

With the Perseid meteor shower returning next month, the Museum of Anthropology is putting on a unique stargazing festival for the occasion.

On Saturday, August 12 [2017], at the peak of meteor shower viewing season, Blackout: Night Sky Festival will see the MOA transform into an all-ages arts and astronomy celebration.

The museum will remain open until midnight, as stargazers enjoy the night sky amidst Indigenous storytelling, special musical performances, and lantern making.

The Museum of Anthropology’s Blackout event page provides more information,

Saturday, August 12 [2017] | 5 pm – Midnight | All-Ages + Licensed |
Adults $10 | Youth + Students Free | Tickets available at the door

Join the event on Facebook
Explore our connection to the stars during an evening of arts and astronomy.
Inspired by the global dark sky movement, Blackout brings together storytellers, musicians, artists and astronomers to share their relationships to the skies. Join us to witness the peak of the Perseid meteor shower and explore the museum until midnight during this all-ages event.
You’ll have the chance to peer into telescopes, make your own star lantern and experience an experimental art installation that reimagines the constellations. Bring a chair or blanket and enjoy stargazing to a soundtrack of downtempo and ambient beats, punctuated by live music and throat singing.
Co-hosted with the UBC Astronomy Club, in association with Hfour and the Secret Lantern Society. Performers include Bronson Charles, Jerry DesVoignes, You’re Me, Andrew Kim the musical scientist and the Secret Lantern Society musicians.

Blackout Night Sky Festival Schedule

Indigenous Sky Stories | 5–6 pm
Join us in the Great Hall for celestial storytelling by Margaret Grenier and learn about what you’ll see in the skies that night from the UBC Astronomy Club.
Planets and Pulsations: The New Keplerian Revolution | 6–7 pm
Does Earth harbour the only life in the universe? Astrophysicist Don Kurtz examines how the Kepler Space Mission has revolutionized our view in an animated multimedia performance.
Late Night Gallery Viewing | 5 pm – midnight
Explore MOA all night long — including our brand new Gallery of Northwest Coast Masterworks.
Bar + BBQ + Music | 7 pm – midnight
Grab a bite to eat or drink from our licensed bar and enjoy the music that runs all night. Vegetarian and non-alcoholic options available.
Lantern Making Workshop | 7–9 pm
Make your own pinhole lantern inspired by constellations from around the world in this drop-in workshop hosted by the Secret Lantern Society.
Reclaiming the Night Skies | 8:30 pm – midnight
Experimental artists Hfour and the MOA’s Native Youth Program present an immersive, projected art installation that brings to life a series of new constellations, featuring soundscapes by Adham Shaikh.
Lantern Procession | 9 pm
Join the procession of freshly built lanterns and roving musicians as we make our way across the Museum Grounds and up the hill for a night of stargazing!
Stargazing + Meteor Shower | 9:30 pm – midnight
How many meteors can you find? Expand your knowledge of the night sky with the telescopes and expertise of the UBC Astronomy Club and HR MacMillan Space Centre, set to a background of live and electronic music. On view that night: Moon, Saturn, Jupiter, M13, M15, Ring Nebula, Lagoon Nebula, Dumbbell Nebula and the Perseid meteor shower.

There are two eclipses during August 2017 (Aug. 7, 2017 and Aug. 21, 2017) and I find it odd that neither are mentioned in this astronomy-focused event at the Museum of Anthropology.  The Aug. 21, 2017 astronomical event is a total eclipse of the sun.. There’s more about it on this NASA (US National Aeronautics Space Administration) eclipse website.

Curiosity Collider and the Eclipse

[downloaded from]

Vancouver’s art/sci organization (they have a wordier description here). Curiosity Collider is holding an event that celebrates the upcoming eclipse. From a July 28, 2017 notice (received via email),

Join Curiosity Collider and H.R. MacMillan Centre for this one night
only event

and scientists interpret the rare alignment of the sun, earth, and moon
during a total solar eclipse. The event includes a performance show in
the planetarium theatre, and interactive multi and mixed media art
installations on the main level Cosmic Courtyard. Highlights include:

* a soundtrack of the solar system created by data sonification
* a dance piece that plays with alignment, light, and shadow
* scientific narration about the of the upcoming total solar eclipse
(on August 21st) and the phases of the moon
* spectacular custom planetarium dome visuals
* meeting the artists and scientists behind one-of-a-kind interactive
and multimedia art projects

This event is 19+ only. Beer and wine available for purchase, light
snacks included.

WHEN: 6:30pm on Thursday, August 17th 2017.
WHERE: H. R. MacMillan Space Centre (1100 Chestnut Street, Vancouver, BC

COST: $25-30. Each ticket includes entrance to the Space Centre and one
planetarium show (7:30pm or 9pm). LIMITED EARLY BIRD TICKETS AVAILABLE

Interested in observing the partial solar eclipse in Vancouver on
Monday, August 21st [2017]? Check out the two observation events hosted by H.R.
MacMillan Space Centre [5] and UBC Department of Physics & Astronomy

You can find information about the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre’s eclipse viewing event here and the UBC Department of Physics & Astronomy’s eclipse viewing event here. Both event will have eclipse viewers for safety purposes. For instructions on how to view an eclipse safely, there’s NASA.

Curiosity Collider’s event page (it’s a scrolling page so there are other events there as well) provides details about participants,

This show is curated by Curiosity Collider’s Creative Director Char Hoyt, and developed in collaboration with the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre. Participating artists and scientists:

I have not tried all of the links but at least one (Maren Lisac’s) is for a Twitter feed and it’s not particularly informative.

You can find the Eclipse event’s Facebook page here and information about tickets here.

Hollywood and physics: which movie gets it right?

Colin Hunter has written a May 18, 2017 posting for the Perimeter Institute’s (Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) Slice of Pi blog about Hollywood and physics,

Sometimes filmmakers base plotlines and special effects on well-established science. Sometimes they’re even prescient, anticipating or inspiring later scientific and technological advances (remember when a videophone was the stuff of Jetsons-like fantasy?). [For anyone unfamiliar with The Jetsons cartoon]

Other times, filmmakers take a bit (or a lot) of creative license with science, resulting in scenes or entire films that are considerably more “fi” than “sci.” We focused a scientific lens on some of our favourite films (and some duds) and graded them for accuracy.

What did we miss? Comment below, or tweet your favourite movie-science wins and fails to @Perimeter.

Watch a great MinutePhysics video explaining time dilation and the so-called twins paradox.

I encourage you to read the whole piece. It’s an easy read.

Solange Knowles and the Rennie Museum in Vancouver, Canada on April 27 and 28, 2017

Tickets ($35 CAD?) were sold out in less than an hour. Drat! On the upside, the Rennie Museum (formerly the Rennie Collection) is one of nine venues in nine cities hosting Solange Knowles’ music tour of art museums. (Not my usual topic but I have covered shows at the Rennie many times throughout the years.) This tour is discussed in Emilia Petrarca’s April 24, 2017 article for W magazine,

While Knowles isn’t formally touring for A Seat at the Table, she will continue on the festival circuit and is also working on a performance art-inspired “museum tour,” which she’ll perform at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as well as the Guggenheim Museum in May [2017].

On wanting to be more than just a singer:

“Singer is probably at the bottom of the barrel in terms of what I’m trying to achieve as an artist. Visually, through many mediums—through dance, through art direction, through color theory—there are so many things that I’ve dabbled in that I’ve yet to immerse myself in fully. But I think right now, I’m creating the live show and music composition, production, and creating from the ground up is when I feel the most at home.”

On her history as a dancer:

“I used to want to be a modern dancer when I was younger and go to Juilliard and do the whole thing, but I had a knee injury when I was 15. I was actually dancing for Destiny’s Child. And that was how I started to write, because I thought I was going to be an [Alvin] Ailey girl [emphasis mine] somewhere.”

On styling the costumes for her festival shows and museum tour:

“I’m touring two shows this spring/summer/fall, and one takes place in museum lobbies. For me, Donald Judd’s idea that we take on our surroundings as a part of the art itself really, really punctured me in the way that I look at performance art. It’s really rare that an artist gets to perform in daylight, unless it’s at a festival. So I really wanted to play with creating a strong color palette. I’ve been playing around with a lot of neutral tones since the record came out and Issey Miyake has been a huge influence. We’re also wearing a lot of Phillip Lim and really comfortable, moveable fabrics. On stage, I’ve really been empowered by the color red. I think it’s associated, especially with women, as this fiery, super volatile, and strong-willed color. Almost stubborn, if you will. So we’re wearing all-red for our festival shows and playing with the lighting for all the moods red can express. Color theory is this really nerdy side of me that I’ve been wanting to explore more of.”

It’s impossible to emphasize Alvin Ailey’s impact enough. Prior to him, there were no African American dancers in dance It was thought African Americans had the wrong body type until Alvin Ailey proved them wrong. (The topic of body type and dance is bizarre to an outsider, especially where ballet is concerned. It lends itself to racism but is rampant throughout the world of modern dance and ballet. I followed the topic for a number of years.)

Getting back to Solange Knowles, Tavi Gevinson’s Sept. 30, 2016 article for W explores her then new album ‘A Seat at the Table’,

Solange’s new album, A Seat at the Table, is so many things at once: an antidote to hate, a celebration of blackness, an expression of the right to feel it all. After a move to Louisiana and period of self-reflection, the artist joined forces with a range of collaborators to put her new discoveries to music. Hearing it for the very first time, my heart went in and out of slow motion: swelled at a layered vocal, stopped at a painfully apt choice of words, sped up with a perfect bass-line. Mostly I was struck by A Seat at the Table as a nurturing force among the trauma of anti-blackness; a further exploration of questions posed by Solange on her Twitter, last summer: “Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?”

So much of your album explicitly discusses racism and celebrating blackness, and one of the interludes talks about taking all the anger and metabolizing it through the work. Does that start with you through the lyrics or the sounds?

The writing process of this album was not more unique than any of my other processes, in that it typically starts with the melody idea and the words evolve based off of what I listen back to. Nine times out of ten, you’re freestyling, but you’re piecing the puzzle pieces together after you settle on a melody that you like. I definitely had concepts I wanted to explore. I knew that I wanted to make a song experiencing and communicating the exhaustion, the feeling of being weary and tired and energetically drained. I knew that I wanted to discuss this idea of the “angry black woman” in society, and dissect a conversation that I’ve had one too many times. I knew I had these concepts that I wanted to communicate, but I was resistant to letting them lead the creative process. So the first layer of making the album, I just jammed in a room with some incredible musicians. It was a great energy in the room, because it was not so much like, ‘I’m going to make this album about this specific thing. It was just music-making. Then, I took that music and I went to New Iberia for that time, and I needed that insular time to break down what I was saying, what I was going to communicate and how I was going to do that. From there, I spent that summer writing lyrics. It was an interesting process because I’m a mother and I had to balance making an album and raising a preteen. And having my hands in all these different pots, so it was either all or nothing to me. I spent three months in New Iberia, and I recorded some of the album in Ghana and Jamaica. I had to have these isolated experiences creatively in order to turn off and listen to myself.

For all of the continued awareness of systemic violence and oppression, there isn’t a lot of talk about that psychological toll of racism, at least in white circles and white media. That is so heavy in the album, and I’m really excited for people to have that to turn to.

That is such an ignored part of the conversation. I feel there were a lot of traumas that I had to experience during this creative process, that I didn’t identify as traumas until I realized just how much weight and how many triggers [there are] like constantly seeing the images of young black people lifeless in the street, and how many cries of mothers that you’re constantly hearing on a daily basis. Outside of those traumas, just the nuances that you have to navigate through everyday as a black person living in this country. It absolutely has a psychological effect on you. There are clinical and scientific studies that show the brain dealing with the same type of PTSD that we know of in other traumatic instances and experiences, but society has not yet come to terms with applying it to race. But I have a lot of optimism in the fact that we’re even able to have this conversation now. This isn’t something that my mom and one of her white friends would be discussing in their time. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always comfortable, and the person leading it usually gets a lot of shit for it, but that’s with any revolution.

Here’s a little information about the upcoming Vancouver show from an April 21, 2017 news item on the Georgia Straight (Note: Links have been removed),

Solange Knowles, woke artist, activist, feminist, and producer of one of 2016’s most critically acclaimed albums, has announced that she will be playing a show at Vancouver’s Rennie Museum (51 East Pender Street) on April 27.

The singer published an image to her Instagram page yesterday (April 20), revealing that Vancouver is one of nine cities she will be stopping in over the next two months. Shortly after, the Rennie Collection, one of the country’s largest collections of contemporary art exhibited at the Wing Sang building in Chinatown, shared on its social media pages that Knowles will be conducting a “special performance”.

“Her album [A Seat at the Table] is very artistic,” Wendy Chang, director at the Rennie, tells the Straight by phone. “She’s on the West Coast this week and, because she has nothing planned for Vancouver at all, we thought we’d take advantage of that and have her perform and have all proceeds go to a charity.”

Chang reveals that the “very small, very intimate” performance will benefit the Atira Women’s Resource Society, a DTES–based nonprofit that provides safe housing and support for women and children affected by violence.

Not much else has been confirmed about the last-minute show, though given the venue and the sold-out act Knowles plans to present at New York’s Guggenheim Museum in May, fans can expect an interdisciplinary set that explores blackness, prejudice, and womanhood both visually and sonically.

In March, Knowles also debuted “Scales”, a performance project “examining protest as meditation through movement and experimentation of unique compositions and arrangements from A Seat at the Table”, at Houston’s Menil Collection. More recently, she appeared at the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

In addition to Vancouver, Knowles is making stops in cities such as San Francisco, Mayer, Arizona, and Boston between now and June [2017].

I did find a review for Knowles’ April 21, 2017 show in Portland, Oregon (from  Emerson Malone’s April 22, 2017 review for,

The unsinkable Solange Knowles played the headlining slot for Soul’d Out Music Fest, a soul and R&B music festival based in multiple venues around Portland, on Friday, April 21, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. The festival’s events from April 19–23 have included Travis Scott (who brought Drake out to get cozy in the crowd); Giorgio Moroder, The Ohio Players and Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles.

One of the most admirable elements of Solange’s live show is the impeccable choreography. It’s so precisely designed that every subtle movement, every head nod and jazz hand-wave, was on cue. At times the group would form a tight chorus line and sway back and forth in unison, with everyone (save the trombonists) continuing to play.

When she demanded that everyone dance during the bubblegum-pop hit “Losing You” from her 2012 EP “True,” the entire hall erupted at her behest. The encore performance “Don’t Touch My Hair” — Solange’s exhortation of the casual fetishization of black women  — was phenomenal. She turned her back to the audience and acted as conductor, commanding the musicians with loud, grandiose gestures. As the drummer smashed the cymbals, she mirrored him, thrashed her limbs and windmilled her arms.

Following the show, even one of the Arlene’s security guards — who just spent the last hour dancing — was quietly weeping and speechlessly shaking her head in awe. Solange isn’t just a firebrand individual, and her show isn’t just an opulent, elegant triumph of performance art. She is a puppet master; we’re marionettes.

Unfortunately, the Solange Knowles’ Vancouver show sold out within minutes (yes, I know I’m repeating it but it was heartbreaking) and I gather from the folks at the Rennie Museum that they had very little notice about the show which is being organized solely by Knowles’ people in response to my somewhat grumbling email. Ah well, them’s the breaks. In any event, there are only 100 tickets per performance available so for those who did get a ticket, you are going to have an intimate experience with the artist  and given the venue, this will be a performance art experience rather than a music show such as the one in Portland, Oregon. There will be three performances in Vancouver,. one on Thursday, April 27, 2017 and two on Friday, April 28, 2017 (you can see the listing here). Enjoy!

Communicating science effectively—a December 2016 book from the US National Academy of Sciences

I stumbled across this Dec. 13, 2016  essay/book announcement by Dr. Andrew Maynard and Dr. Dietram A. Scheufele on The Conversation,

Many scientists and science communicators have grappled with disregard for, or inappropriate use of, scientific evidence for years – especially around contentious issues like the causes of global warming, or the benefits of vaccinating children. A long debunked study on links between vaccinations and autism, for instance, cost the researcher his medical license but continues to keep vaccination rates lower than they should be.

Only recently, however, have people begun to think systematically about what actually works to promote better public discourse and decision-making around what is sometimes controversial science. Of course scientists would like to rely on evidence, generated by research, to gain insights into how to most effectively convey to others what they know and do.

As it turns out, the science on how to best communicate science across different issues, social settings and audiences has not led to easy-to-follow, concrete recommendations.

About a year ago, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine brought together a diverse group of experts and practitioners to address this gap between research and practice. The goal was to apply scientific thinking to the process of how we go about communicating science effectively. Both of us were a part of this group (with Dietram as the vice chair).

The public draft of the group’s findings – “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda” – has just been published. In it, we take a hard look at what effective science communication means and why it’s important; what makes it so challenging – especially where the science is uncertain or contested; and how researchers and science communicators can increase our knowledge of what works, and under what conditions.

At some level, all science communication has embedded values. Information always comes wrapped in a complex skein of purpose and intent – even when presented as impartial scientific facts. Despite, or maybe because of, this complexity, there remains a need to develop a stronger empirical foundation for effective communication of and about science.

Addressing this, the National Academies draft report makes an extensive number of recommendations. A few in particular stand out:

  • Use a systems approach to guide science communication. In other words, recognize that science communication is part of a larger network of information and influences that affect what people and organizations think and do.
  • Assess the effectiveness of science communication. Yes, researchers try, but often we still engage in communication first and evaluate later. Better to design the best approach to communication based on empirical insights about both audiences and contexts. Very often, the technical risk that scientists think must be communicated have nothing to do with the hopes or concerns public audiences have.
  • Get better at meaningful engagement between scientists and others to enable that “honest, bidirectional dialogue” about the promises and pitfalls of science that our committee chair Alan Leshner and others have called for.
  • Consider social media’s impact – positive and negative.
  • Work toward better understanding when and how to communicate science around issues that are contentious, or potentially so.

The paper version of the book has a cost but you can get a free online version.  Unfortunately,  I cannot copy and paste the book’s table of contents here and was not able to find a book index although there is a handy list of reference texts.

I have taken a very quick look at the book. If you’re in the field, it’s definitely worth a look. It is, however, written for and by academics. If you look at the list of writers and reviewers, you will find over 90% are professors at one university or another. That said, I was happy to see references to Dan Kahan’s work at the Yale Law School’s Culture Cognition Project cited. As happens they weren’t able to cite his latest work [***see my xxx, 2017 curiosity post***], released about a month after “Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda.”

I was unable to find any reference to science communication via popular culture. I’m a little dismayed as I feel that this is a seriously ignored source of information by science communication specialists and academicians but not by the folks at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) who announced a wireless app in the same week as it was featured in an episode of the US television comedy, The Big Bang Theory. Here’s more from MIT’s emotion detection wireless app in a Feb. 1, 2017 news release (also on EurekAlert),

It’s a fact of nature that a single conversation can be interpreted in very different ways. For people with anxiety or conditions such as Asperger’s, this can make social situations extremely stressful. But what if there was a more objective way to measure and understand our interactions?

Researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and Institute of Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) say that they’ve gotten closer to a potential solution: an artificially intelligent, wearable system that can predict if a conversation is happy, sad, or neutral based on a person’s speech patterns and vitals.

“Imagine if, at the end of a conversation, you could rewind it and see the moments when the people around you felt the most anxious,” says graduate student Tuka Alhanai, who co-authored a related paper with PhD candidate Mohammad Ghassemi that they will present at next week’s Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) conference in San Francisco. “Our work is a step in this direction, suggesting that we may not be that far away from a world where people can have an AI social coach right in their pocket.”

As a participant tells a story, the system can analyze audio, text transcriptions, and physiological signals to determine the overall tone of the story with 83 percent accuracy. Using deep-learning techniques, the system can also provide a “sentiment score” for specific five-second intervals within a conversation.

“As far as we know, this is the first experiment that collects both physical data and speech data in a passive but robust way, even while subjects are having natural, unstructured interactions,” says Ghassemi. “Our results show that it’s possible to classify the emotional tone of conversations in real-time.”

The researchers say that the system’s performance would be further improved by having multiple people in a conversation use it on their smartwatches, creating more data to be analyzed by their algorithms. The team is keen to point out that they developed the system with privacy strongly in mind: The algorithm runs locally on a user’s device as a way of protecting personal information. (Alhanai says that a consumer version would obviously need clear protocols for getting consent from the people involved in the conversations.)

How it works

Many emotion-detection studies show participants “happy” and “sad” videos, or ask them to artificially act out specific emotive states. But in an effort to elicit more organic emotions, the team instead asked subjects to tell a happy or sad story of their own choosing.

Subjects wore a Samsung Simband, a research device that captures high-resolution physiological waveforms to measure features such as movement, heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, and skin temperature. The system also captured audio data and text transcripts to analyze the speaker’s tone, pitch, energy, and vocabulary.

“The team’s usage of consumer market devices for collecting physiological data and speech data shows how close we are to having such tools in everyday devices,” says Björn Schuller, professor and chair of Complex and Intelligent Systems at the University of Passau in Germany, who was not involved in the research. “Technology could soon feel much more emotionally intelligent, or even ‘emotional’ itself.”

After capturing 31 different conversations of several minutes each, the team trained two algorithms on the data: One classified the overall nature of a conversation as either happy or sad, while the second classified each five-second block of every conversation as positive, negative, or neutral.

Alhanai notes that, in traditional neural networks, all features about the data are provided to the algorithm at the base of the network. In contrast, her team found that they could improve performance by organizing different features at the various layers of the network.

“The system picks up on how, for example, the sentiment in the text transcription was more abstract than the raw accelerometer data,” says Alhanai. “It’s quite remarkable that a machine could approximate how we humans perceive these interactions, without significant input from us as researchers.”


Indeed, the algorithm’s findings align well with what we humans might expect to observe. For instance, long pauses and monotonous vocal tones were associated with sadder stories, while more energetic, varied speech patterns were associated with happier ones. In terms of body language, sadder stories were also strongly associated with increased fidgeting and cardiovascular activity, as well as certain postures like putting one’s hands on one’s face.

On average, the model could classify the mood of each five-second interval with an accuracy that was approximately 18 percent above chance, and a full 7.5 percent better than existing approaches.

The algorithm is not yet reliable enough to be deployed for social coaching, but Alhanai says that they are actively working toward that goal. For future work the team plans to collect data on a much larger scale, potentially using commercial devices such as the Apple Watch that would allow them to more easily implement the system out in the world.

“Our next step is to improve the algorithm’s emotional granularity so that it is more accurate at calling out boring, tense, and excited moments, rather than just labeling interactions as ‘positive’ or ‘negative,’” says Alhanai. “Developing technology that can take the pulse of human emotions has the potential to dramatically improve how we communicate with each other.”

This research was made possible in part by the Samsung Strategy and Innovation Center.

Episode 14 of season 10 of The Big Bang Theory was titled “The Emotion Detection Automation”  (full episode can be found on this webpage) and broadcast on Feb. 2, 2017. There’s also a Feb. 2, 2017 recap (recapitulation) by Lincee Ray for (it seems Ray is unaware that there really is such a machine),

Who knew we would see the day when Sheldon and Raj figured out solutions for their social ineptitudes? Only The Big Bang Theory writers would think to tackle our favorite physicists’ lack of social skills with an emotion detector and an ex-girlfriend focus group. It’s been a while since I enjoyed both storylines as much as I did in this episode. That’s no bazinga.

When Raj tells the guys that he is back on the market, he wonders out loud what is wrong with his game. Why do women reject him? Sheldon receives the information like a scientist and runs through many possible answers. Raj shuts him down with a simple, “I’m fine.”

Sheldon is irritated when he learns that this obligatory remark is a mask for what Raj is really feeling. It turns out, Raj is not fine. Sheldon whines, wondering why no one just says exactly what’s on their mind. It’s quite annoying for those who struggle with recognizing emotional cues.

Lo and behold, Bernadette recently read about a gizmo that was created for people who have this exact same anxiety. MIT has a prototype, and because Howard is an alum, he can probably submit Sheldon’s name as a beta tester.

Of course this is a real thing. If anyone can build an emotion detector, it’s a bunch of awkward scientists with zero social skills.

This is the first time I’ve noticed an academic institution’s news release to be almost simultaneous with mention of its research in a popular culture television program, which suggests things have come a long way since I featured news about a webinar by the National Academies ‘ Science and Entertainment Exchange for film and television productions collaborating with scientists in an Aug. 28, 2012 post.

One last science/popular culture moment: Hidden Figures, a movie about African American women who were human computers supporting NASA (US National Aeronautics and Space Agency) efforts during the 1960s space race and getting a man on the moon was (shockingly) no. 1 in the US box office for a few weeks (there’s more about the movie here in my Sept. 2, 2016 post covering then upcoming movies featuring science).  After the movie was released, Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote up a Jan. 23, 2017 interview with the ‘Hidden Figures’ scriptwriter for

I [Allison Schroeder] got on the phone with her [co-producer Renee Witt] and Donna  [co-producer Donna Gigliotti] and I said, “You have to hire me for this; I was born to write this.” Donna sort of rolled her eyes and was like, “God, these Hollywood types would say anything.” I said, “No, no, I grew up at Cape Canaveral. My grandmother was a computer programmer at NASA, my grandfather worked on the Mercury prototype, and I interned there all through high school and then the summer after my freshman year at Stanford I interned. I worked at a missile launch company.”

She was like, “OK that’s impressive.” And I said, “No, I literally grew up climbing on the Mercury capsule — hitting all the buttons, trying to launch myself into space.”

She said, “Well do you think you can handle the math?” I said that I had to study a certain amount of math at Stanford for economics degree. She said, “Oh, all right, that sounds pretty good.”

I pitched her a few scenes. I pitched her the end of the movie that you saw with Katherine running the numbers as John Glenn is trying to get up in space. I pitched her the idea of one of the women as a mechanic and to see her legs underneath the engine. You’re used to seeing a guy like that, but what would it be like to see heels and pantyhose and a skirt and she’s a mechanic and fixing something? Those are some of the scenes that I pitched them, and I got the job.

I love that the film begins with setting up their mechanical aptitude. You set up these are women; you set up these women of color. You set up exactly what that means in this moment in history. It’s like you just go from there.

I was on a really tight timeline because this started as an indie film. It was just Donna Gigliotti, Renee Witt, me and the author Margot Lee Shetterly for about a year working on it. I was only given four weeks for research and 12 weeks for writing the first draft. I’m not sure if I hadn’t known NASA and known the culture and just knew what the machines would look like, knew what the prototypes looked like, if I could have done it that quickly. I turned in that draft and Donna was like, “OK you’ve got the math and the science; it’s all here. Now go have fun.” Then I did a few more drafts and that was really enjoyable because I could let go of the fact I did it and make sure that the characters and the drive of the story and everything just fit what needed to happen.

For anyone interested in the science/popular culture connection, David Bruggeman of the Pasco Phronesis blog does a better job than I do of keeping up with the latest doings.

Getting back to ‘Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda’, even with a mention of popular culture, it is a thoughtful book on the topic.

Essays on Frankenstein is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?


Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.




Popular Culture

Further Reading


‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.

The mathematics of Disney’s ‘Moana’

The hit Disney movie “Moana” features stunning visual effects, including the animation of water to such a degree that it becomes a distinct character in the film. Courtesy of Walt Disney Animation Studios

Few people think to marvel over the mathematics when watching an animated feature but without mathematicians, the artists would not be able to achieve their artistic goals as a Jan. 4, 2017 news item on makes clear (Note: A link has been removed),

UCLA [University of California at Los Angeles] mathematics professor Joseph Teran, a Walt Disney consultant on animated movies since 2007, is under no illusion that artists want lengthy mathematics lessons, but many of them realize that the success of animated movies often depends on advanced mathematics.

“In general, the animators and artists at the studios want as little to do with mathematics and physics as possible, but the demands for realism in animated movies are so high,” Teran said. “Things are going to look fake if you don’t at least start with the correct physics and mathematics for many materials, such as water and snow. If the physics and mathematics are not simulated accurately, it will be very glaring that something is wrong with the animation of the material.”

Teran and his research team have helped infuse realism into several Disney movies, including “Frozen,” where they used science to animate snow scenes. Most recently, they applied their knowledge of math, physics and computer science to enliven the new 3-D computer-animated hit, “Moana,” a tale about an adventurous teenage girl who is drawn to the ocean and is inspired to leave the safety of her island on a daring journey to save her people.

A Jan. 3, 2017 UCLA news release, which originated the news item, explains in further nontechnical detail,

Alexey Stomakhin, a former UCLA doctoral student of Teran’s and Andrea Bertozzi’s, played an important role in the making of “Moana.” After earning his Ph.D. in applied mathematics in 2013, he became a senior software engineer at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Working with Disney’s effects artists, technical directors and software developers, Stomakhin led the development of the code that was used to simulate the movement of water in “Moana,” enabling it to play a role as one of the characters in the film.

“The increased demand for realism and complexity in animated movies makes it preferable to get assistance from computers; this means we have to simulate the movement of the ocean surface and how the water splashes, for example, to make it look believable,” Stomakhin explained. “There is a lot of mathematics, physics and computer science under the hood. That’s what we do.”

“Moana” has been praised for its stunning visual effects in words the mathematicians love hearing. “Everything in the movie looks almost real, so the movement of the water has to look real too, and it does,” Teran said. “’Moana’ has the best water effects I’ve ever seen, by far.”

Stomakhin said his job is fun and “super-interesting, especially when we cheat physics and step beyond physics. It’s almost like building your own universe with your own laws of physics and trying to simulate that universe.

“Disney movies are about magic, so magical things happen which do not exist in the real world,” said the software engineer. “It’s our job to add some extra forces and other tricks to help create those effects. If you have an understanding of how the real physical laws work, you can push parameters beyond physical limits and change equations slightly; we can predict the consequences of that.”

To make animated movies these days, movie studios need to solve, or nearly solve, partial differential equations. Stomakhin, Teran and their colleagues build the code that solves the partial differential equations. More accurately, they write algorithms that closely approximate the partial differential equations because they cannot be solved perfectly. “We try to come up with new algorithms that have the highest-quality metrics in all possible categories, including preserving angular momentum perfectly and preserving energy perfectly. Many algorithms don’t have these properties,” Teran said.

Stomakhin was also involved in creating the ocean’s crashing waves that have to break at a certain place and time. That task required him to get creative with physics and use other tricks. “You don’t allow physics to completely guide it,” he said.  “You allow the wave to break only when it needs to break.”

Depicting boats on waves posed additional challenges for the scientists.

“It’s easy to simulate a boat traveling through a static lake, but a boat on waves is much more challenging to simulate,” Stomakhin said. “We simulated the fluid around the boat; the challenge was to blend that fluid with the rest of the ocean. It can’t look like the boat is splashing in a little swimming pool — the blend needs to be seamless.”

Stomakhin spent more than a year developing the code and understanding the physics that allowed him to achieve this effect.

“It’s nice to see the great visual effect, something you couldn’t have achieved if you hadn’t designed the algorithm to solve physics accurately,” said Teran, who has taught an undergraduate course on scientific computing for the visual-effects industry.

While Teran loves spectacular visual effects, he said the research has many other scientific applications as well. It could be used to simulate plasmas, simulate 3-D printing or for surgical simulation, for example. Teran is using a related algorithm to build virtual livers to substitute for the animal livers that surgeons train on. He is also using the algorithm to study traumatic leg injuries.

Teran describes the work with Disney as “bread-and-butter, high-performance computing for simulating materials, as mechanical engineers and physicists at national laboratories would. Simulating water for a movie is not so different, but there are, of course, small tweaks to make the water visually compelling. We don’t have a separate branch of research for computer graphics. We create new algorithms that work for simulating wide ranges of materials.”

Teran, Stomakhin and three other applied mathematicians — Chenfanfu Jiang, Craig Schroeder and Andrew Selle — also developed a state-of-the-art simulation method for fluids in graphics, called APIC, based on months of calculations. It allows for better realism and stunning visual results. Jiang is a UCLA postdoctoral scholar in Teran’s laboratory, who won a 2015 UCLA best dissertation prize.  Schroeder is a former UCLA postdoctoral scholar who worked with Teran and is now at UC Riverside. Selle, who worked at Walt Disney Animation Studios, is now at Google.

Their newest version of APIC has been accepted for publication by the peer-reviewed Journal of Computational Physics.

“Alexey is using ideas from high-performance computing to make movies,” Teran said, “and we are contributing to the scientific community by improving the algorithm.”

Unfortunately, the paper does not seem to have been published early online so I cannot offer a link.

Final comment, it would have been interesting to have had a comment from one of the film’s artists or animators included in the article but it may not have been possible due to time or space constraints.

“Science Fiction by Real Scientists” campaign success

This news bit concerns a science fiction short  story anthology and novel series from scientists and experts and a now completed fundraising campaign. From a Nov. 14, 2016 Springer Books press release on EurekAlert,

Springer Nature and Humble Bundle have raised a charitable contribution of $22,000 through the science fiction book campaign “Science Fiction by Real Scientists.” One half of the proceeds, $11,000, goes to the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America’s Givers Fund. The same amount goes to the U.S. Fund for UNICEF as part of the global children’s charity’s annual Halloween fundraising drive. Humble Bundle supports a number of charities by offering media packages to its customers on a pay-what-you-want basis.

During the campaign, Springer offered a specially priced eBook bundle from its Science and Fiction series, consisting of nine full novels, two books of short stories and five nonfiction books. Readers were able to choose how their purchase dollars were allocated between the publisher and charity. Starting at just one dollar, customers could name their price, increasing their contribution to upgrade their bundles or contribute more to charity.

The Science and Fiction series, launched in 2012 by Springer, is a unique publishing program for fiction written by actual scientists and experts in scientific fields. Each novel or anthology of short stories is accompanied by an extensive afterword that explains, in lay terms, the current scientific theory or findings that serve as the basis for the fictional work.

Mia Kravitz, Director Global eRetail at Springer Nature, said, “Springer was so pleased to work with Humble Bundle on this worthwhile effort to aid children globally as well as support writers and artists in the science fiction genre. Pushing the envelope for scientific inquiry is part of our mission, and this is a fun way to bring current research to a wider audience.”

Here’s a bit more information about the “Science and Fiction” series from a Sept. 20, 2016 Springer Books press release,

The Springer series Science and Fiction was launched in 2012 and comprises entertaining and thought-provoking books which appeal equally to science buffs, scientists and science fiction fans. The idea was born out of the recognition that scientific discovery and the creation of plausible fictional scenarios are often two sides of the same coin. Each science fiction book, with an afterword on the science underlying the tale, relies on an understanding of the way the world works, coupled with the imaginative ability to invent new or alternative explanations and even other worlds.

Christian Caron, Executive Editor Physics at Springer, said the concept developed when a Springer author, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch, published his first hard science fiction novel on Amazon. “Our very first thought was, why couldn’t we do this?” he said. “Our authors, all of them scientists and experts at some forefront of research, would of course have an interface with speculative science in their fields.”

The books in Springer’s Science and Fiction series explore and exploit the borderlands between accepted science and its fictional counterpart. Uncovering mutual influences, promoting fruitful interaction, and narrating and analyzing fictional scenarios, they serve as a reaction vessel for inspired new ideas in science, technology and beyond.

You can find a list of books in the series here. Note: I found forthcoming titles in 2017 and titles dating back to 2014. Springer made the announcement in 2012 but didn’t publish any books in the series until 2014.