Journals


Fifty Years After Apollo 11, the View of Earth from the Moon

The New Yorker

I saw "Apollo 11" in the Los Angeles suburb of Alhambra, sitting in an IMAX theatre with ten or so other freelancers and retirees who could see a documentary about NASA in the middle of a Thursday. The director and editor, Todd Douglas Miller, tells the story of the moon launch using archival footage, including a trove of 70-mm. The film has no voice-over narration. Instead its story is relayed by the newscasts of Walter Cronkite and the radio transmissions of Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins, and their interlocutors on Earth. The result is a visual museum about America in July, 1969, in which Aldrin's famous 16-mm.


Hallucinogen Therapy Is Coming - Issue 70: Variables

Nautilus

Three years later Daniel Kreitman still chokes up when he talks about what he saw, and how it changed him. Kreitman, an upholsterer by trade, had taken psilocybin, a hallucinogen derived from mushrooms, in a trial at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for nicotine addiction. He was 52, and he'd smoked between one and two packs a day for nearly 40 years. After his first psilocybin session, his urge to smoke was gone. During his third and final session, he had the vision that helped him quit for good. He saw lakes, roads, and mountains, and a broad-shouldered man at the helm of a ship, lassoing birds. Was it his dead father? But he remembers giggling and feeling good. Music was playing in his headphones.


Aging Is a Communication Breakdown - Issue 70: Variables

Nautilus

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the 18th-century poet and philosopher, believed life was hardwired with archetypes, or models, which instructed its development. Yet he was fascinated with how life could, at the same time, be so malleable. One day, while meditating on a leaf, the poet had what you might call a proto-evolutionary thought: Plants were never created "and then locked into the given form" but have instead been given, he later wrote, a "felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places." A rediscovery of principles of genetic inheritance in the early 20th century showed that organisms could not learn or acquire heritable traits by interacting with their environment, but they did not yet explain how life could undergo such shapeshifting tricks--the plasticity that fascinated Goethe. A polymathic and pioneering British biologist proposed such a mechanism for how organisms could adapt to their environment, upending the early field of evolutionary biology.


How to Improve Political Forecasts - Issue 70: Variables

Nautilus

The 2020 Democratic candidates are out of the gate and the pollsters have the call! Bernie Sanders is leading by two lengths with Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren right behind, but Cory Booker and Beto O'Rourke are coming on fast! The political horse-race season is upon us and I bet I know what you are thinking: "Stop!" Every election we complain about horse-race coverage and every election we stay glued to it all the same. The problem with this kind of coverage is not that it's unimportant.


Adversarial attacks on medical machine learning

Science

With public and academic attention increasingly focused on the new role of machine learning in the health information economy, an unusual and no-longer-esoteric category of vulnerabilities in machine-learning systems could prove important. These vulnerabilities allow a small, carefully designed change in how inputs are presented to a system to completely alter its output, causing it to confidently arrive at manifestly wrong conclusions. These advanced techniques to subvert otherwise-reliable machine-learning systems--so-called adversarial attacks--have, to date, been of interest primarily to computer science researchers (1). However, the landscape of often-competing interests within health care, and billions of dollars at stake in systems' outputs, implies considerable problems. We outline motivations that various players in the health care system may have to use adversarial attacks and begin a discussion of what to do about them.


The future of science in film

Science

Film is a universal language of modern societies. Larger-than-life images, stories, ideas, and characters portrayed in films can speak across the globe. This makes science and technology--which have shaped the modern world but remain little understood and poorly integrated into mainstream culture--a rich subject for film and a goldmine for filmmakers. From the mad scientist films of the '20s and '30s to the postnuclear dystopias of the '50s; and from the ecological disaster flics of the '70s and '80s to the space adventures of recent years, films have periodically reflected society's hopes and fears about science. But we can do better when it comes to dramatizing the great, ongoing human enterprise to understand and enhance the world around and inside us.


Machine learning for data-driven discovery in solid Earth geoscience

Science

Physical, chemical, and biological processes interact and have substantial influence on this complex geosystem, and humans interact with it in ways that are increasingly consequential to the future of both the natural world and civilization as the finiteness of Earth becomes increasingly apparent and limits on available energy, mineral resources, and fresh water increasingly affect the human condition. Earth is subject to a variety of geohazards that are poorly understood, yet increasingly impactful as our exposure grows through increasing urbanization, particularly in hazard-prone areas. We have a fundamental need to develop the best possible predictive understanding of how the geosystem works, and that understanding must be informed by both the present and the deep past. This understanding will come through the analysis of increasingly large geo-datasets and from computationally intensive simulations, often connected through inverse problems. Geoscientists are faced with the challenge of extracting as much useful information as possible and gaining new insights from these data, simulations, and the interplay between the two.


Alex Gibney's "The Inventor," Reviewed: The Vexing Inscrutability of Elizabeth Holmes

The New Yorker

Late last year, I picked up John Carreyrou's "Bad Blood," which chronicles the long con pulled by Elizabeth Holmes, an entrepreneur who dropped out of Stanford at nineteen to found Theranos, a company that she claimed would reinvent the biomedical industry. I was instantly engrossed--"Bad Blood" unfolds like a thriller, offering a breathless barrage of details exposing how Holmes deceived her investors and colleagues at nearly every turn. Holmes wanted to disrupt the blood test: she boasted that her company was developing a method for running hundreds of lab tests from a single drop of blood, employing a machine called "The Edison" that used nanotechnology and robotics to analyze the sample. In just a few short years, thanks to Carreyrou's investigations and leaks from whistle-blowers, Holmes went from Silicon Valley's golden girl--named the youngest self-made female billionaire by Forbes--to a disgraced fraudster whose company was under investigation by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "Bad Blood" does a formidable job charting the Theranos ordeal, but it doesn't get into Holmes's head.


What Makes Music Special to Us? - Issue 70: Variables

Nautilus

We are all born with a predisposition for music, a predisposition that develops spontaneously and is refined by listening to music. Nearly everyone possesses the musical skills essential to experiencing and appreciating music. Think of "relative pitch,"recognizing a melody separately from the exact pitch or tempo at which it is sung, and "beat perception,"hearing regularity in a varying rhythm. Even human newborns turn out to be sensitive to intonation or melody, rhythm, and the dynamics of the noise in their surroundings. Everything suggests that human biology is already primed for music at birth with respect to both the perception and enjoyment of listening. Human musicality is clearly special. Musicality being a set of natural, spontaneously developing traits based on, or constrained by, our cognitive abilities (attention, memory, expectation) and our biological predisposition.


Ushering in the next generation of precision trials for pediatric cancer

Science

Cancer treatment decisions are increasingly based on the genomic profile of the patient's tumor, a strategy called "precision oncology." Over the past few years, a growing number of clinical trials and case reports have provided evidence that precision oncology is an effective approach for at least some children with cancer. Here, we review key factors influencing pediatric drug development in the era of precision oncology. We describe an emerging regulatory framework that is accelerating the pace of clinical trials in children as well as design challenges that are specific to trials that involve young cancer patients. Last, we discuss new drug development approaches for pediatric cancers whose growth relies on proteins that are difficult to target therapeutically, such as transcription factors. The landscape of genomic alterations in cancers that arise in children, adolescents, and young adults is slowly becoming clearer as a result of dedicated pediatric cancer genome-sequencing projects conducted over the past decade. Of particular note are two recent studies that produced a comprehensive picture of the genomic features that characterize many of the more common pediatric cancers (1, 2). Two major themes have emerged.