Therapeutic Area


Seeing with Your Tongue

The New Yorker

Seated off to one side, with a slim gray plastic band wrapped around his brow, Erik Weihenmayer was warming up, too--by reading flash cards. The camera feed is reduced in resolution to a grid of four hundred gray-scale pixels, transmitted to his tongue via a corresponding grid of four hundred tiny electrodes on the lollipop. Bach-y-Rita had already begun tinkering with devices that substituted tactile sensation for vision, but, encouraged by this personal evidence of the brain's ability to adapt to loss, he completed his first prototype in 1969. The pins vibrated intensely for dark pixels and stayed still for light ones, enabling users to feel the picture pulsing on their backs.


Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever

The New Yorker

" (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google's anti-aging research, and writes that the company "probably won't solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.") A few years ago, there was great excitement about telomeres, Liz Blackburn's specialty--DNA buffers that protect the ends of chromosomes just as plastic tips protect the ends of shoelaces. But it turns out that animals with long telomeres, such as lab mice, don't necessarily have long lives--and that telomerase, the enzyme that promotes telomere growth, is also activated in the vast majority of cancer cells. Aubrey de Grey likes to compare the body to a car: a mechanic can fix an engine without necessarily understanding the physics of combustion, and assiduously restored antique cars run just fine.


Daniel Dennett's Science of the Soul

The New Yorker

The physicalists believe, with Dennett, that science can explain consciousness in purely material terms. Rainier, dozens of researchers shared speculative work on honeybee brains, mouse minds, octopus intelligence, avian cognition, and the mental faculties of monkeys and human children. The zombie problem is a conversational vortex among those who study animal minds: the researchers, anticipating the discussion's inexorable transformation into a meditation on "Westworld," clutched their heads and sighed. Animals have fewer mental layers than people--in particular, they lack language, which Dennett believes endows human mental life with its complexity and texture--but this doesn't make them zombies.


Rewriting the Code of Life

The New Yorker

Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama's White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project.


The Mistrust of Science

The New Yorker

The following was delivered as the commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, on Friday, June 10th. If this place has done its job--and I suspect it has--you're all scientists now. Sorry, English and history graduates, even you are, too. Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation.


Kalief Browder Learned How to Commit Suicide on Rikers

The New Yorker

On June 6, 2015, Kalief Browder took his own life at his home, in the Bronx. He was twenty-two years old. He had been released from Rikers Island two years earlier, ending an ordeal that had begun on a spring night in 2010, when he had been arrested for robbery, at sixteen. He spent the next three years in jail trying to prove his innocence, and, for about two of those years, he was held in solitary confinement, where he attempted suicide several times. The charges against him were eventually dropped.


Feel Me

The New Yorker

On a bitter, soul-shivering, damp, biting gray February day in Cleveland--that is to say, on a February day in Cleveland--a handless man is handling a nonexistent ball. Igor Spetic lost his right hand when his forearm was pulped in an industrial accident six years ago and had to be amputated. In an operation four years ago, a team of surgeons implanted a set of small translucent "interfaces" into the neural circuits of his upper arm. This afternoon, in a basement lab at a Veterans Administration hospital, the wires are hooked up directly to a prosthetic hand--plastic, flesh-colored, five-fingered, and articulated--that is affixed to what remains of his arm. The hand has more than a dozen pressure sensors within it, and their signals can be transformed by a computer into electric waves like those natural to the nervous system.


Runs in the Family

The New Yorker

In the winter of 2012, I travelled from New Delhi, where I grew up, to Calcutta to visit my cousin Moni. My father accompanied me as a guide and companion, but he was a sullen and brooding presence, lost in a private anguish. He is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his firstborn nephew--the eldest brother's son. Since 2004, Moni, now fifty-two, has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill (a "lunatic home," as my father calls it), with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept awash in antipsychotics and sedatives, and an attendant watches, bathes, and feeds him through the day.