Field scientists get all the fun

Here’s a series of illustrations of funny mistakes by scientists.

​Jim Jourdane

​Jim Jourdane

They all seem to be about awkward things that occurred while doing field work, and I’m feeling left out. I sit in a lab with air conditioning and fluorescent lights, staring into a microscope. Nothing amusing ever happens to me.

Maybe I need to bring in a few crocodiles or let a troop of monkeys loose.

Dangerous business

SpaceX blew up on the launch pad this morning. There were no casualties, at least, and we do get a spectacular explosion video out of it, but this is an unfortunate setback.

Human beings sometimes sit on top of those kinds of infernal devices? I don’t think I could do that.

Deliver us from the fury of the cyborgs and grant us the peace of cyberspace, O Lord

David Brin reviews some recent books on the future of artificial intelligence. He’s more optimistic than I am. For one, I think most of the AI pundits are little better than glib con men, so any survey of the literature should consist mostly of culling all the garbage. No, really, please don’t bring up Kurzweil again. Also, any obscenely rich Silicon Valley pundit who predicts a glorious future of infinite wealth because technology can just fuck right off.

But there’s also some stuff I agree with. People who authoritatively declare that this is how the future will be, and that is how people will respond to it, are not actually being authoritative, because they won’t be there, but are being authoritarian. We set the wheel rolling, and we hope that we aren’t setting it on a path to future destruction, but we don’t get to dictate to future generations how they should deal with it. To announce that we’ve created a disaster and that our grandchildren will react by creating a dystopian nightmare world sells them short, and pretending that they’ll use the tools we have generously given them to create a glorious bright utopia is stealing all the credit. People will be people. Finger-wagging from the distant past will have zero or negative influence.

Across all of those harsh millennia, people could sense that something was wrong. Cruelty and savagery, tyranny and unfairness vastly amplified the already unsupportable misery of disease and grinding poverty. Hence, well-meaning men and women donned priestly robes and… preached!

They lectured and chided. They threatened damnation and offered heavenly rewards. Their intellectual cream concocted incantations of either faith or reason, or moral suasion. From Hindu and Buddhist sutras to polytheistic pantheons to Judeao-Christian-Muslim laws and rituals, we have been urged to behave better by sincere finger-waggers since time immemorial. Until finally, a couple of hundred years ago, some bright guys turned to all the priests and prescribers and asked a simple question:

“How’s that working out for you?”

In fact, while moralistic lecturing might sway normal people a bit toward better behavior, it never affects the worst human predators, parasites and abusers –– just as it won’t divert the most malignant machines. Indeed, moralizing often empowers them, offering ways to rationalize exploiting others.

Beyond artificial intelligence, a better example might be climate change — that’s one monstrous juggernaut we’ve set rolling into the future. The very worst thing we can do is start lecturing posterity about how they should deal with it, since we don’t really know all the consequences that are going to arise, and it’s rather presumptuous for us to create the problem, and then tell our grandchildren how they should fix it. It’s better that we set an example and address the problems that emerge now, do our best to minimize foreseeable consequences, and trust the competence of future generations to cope with their situations, as driven by necessities we have created.

They’re probably not going to thank us for any advice, no matter how well-meaning, and are more likely to curse us for our neglect and laziness and exploitation of the environment. If you really care about the welfare of future generations, you’ll do what you can now, not tell them how they’re supposed to be.

The AI literature comes across as extremely silly, too.

What will happen as we enter the era of human augmentation, artificial intelligence and government-by-algorithm? James Barrat, author of Our Final Invention, said: “Coexisting safely and ethically with intelligent machines is the central challenge of the twenty-first century.”

Jesus. We don’t have these “intelligent machines” yet, and may not — I think AI researchers always exaggerate the imminence of their breakthroughs, and the simplicity of intelligence. So this guy is declaring that the big concern of this century, which is already 1/6th over, is an ethical crisis in dealing with non-existent entities? The comparison with religious authorities is even more apt.

I tell you what. Once we figure out how to coexist safely and ethically with our fellow human beings, then you can pontificate on how to coexist safely and ethically with imaginary androids.

An awful lot of speculation on very little data

Over the last several days, I’ve seen a lot of excitement about a particular result of the SETI search. Scientists observed a signal from the direction of a star called HD 164595, which is about the size of our sun, and “only” 95 light years away. It’s also known to have a non-Earth-like planet in orbit around it; maybe there are some nice rocky planets in the habitable zone, as well?

In case you were curious, here’s the “message”:

Strong signal from the direction of HD 164595. “Raw” record of the signal together with expected shape of the signal for point-like source in the position of HD 164595. Credit: Bursov et al.

Strong signal from the direction of HD 164595. “Raw” record of the signal together with expected shape of the signal for point-like source in the position of HD 164595. Credit: Bursov et al.

It was a burst of energy significantly larger than the fuzzy noise seen in their usual observations. It happened once. It’s also a lot of energy to abruptly emerge from the neighborhood of a star, and that’s interesting in itself. The scientists involved are recommending that we keep an eye on that star — and I agree that we might learn something from that.

But it’s not likely to be an alien civilization trying to talk to us. That ought to be at the bottom of everyone’s list of possibilities. Even Seth Shostak has nothing but sensible interpretations.

This is a bit of a puzzling story, as the Russians found this signal a year ago or so, but just didn’t let others know. That’s not good policy, as what you really want is confirmation at another telescope, but… Is it real? The signal may be real, but I suspect it’s not ET. There are other possibilities for a wide-band signal such as this, and they’re caused by natural sources (or even terrestrial interference).

I just did a quick calculation of how much wattage they’d need to wield from 94 light-years (I think that’s the distance) in order to produce the apparently received signal, and that would be a big utility bill, even if they were directing the transmission (as opposed to broadcasting equally in all directions).

What I find odd is all the sites talking about inferring Kardashev levels from the size of the burst. The Kardashev scale is a science-fictiony estimate of the amount of energy available to a civilization: we’re at Kardashev 0; it would take a Kardashev 1 civilization able to tap energy sources equivalent to the entire amount of energy falling on their planet from their star to send a signal aimed directly at us; and it would take a Kardashev 2 civilization to produce an expanding sphere of signal nonspecifically propagating in all directions.

It seems to me that that is all an argument against this being communication from aliens. That one little blip took a greater amount of energy than our entire society can produce. It’s reasonable to argue that a more advanced civilization could have access to even more energy, but then you’d have to argue that super-advanced highly technological aliens then used their vast power to send one uninformative short blat of power outward. This would only make sense if the planet were inhabited by an entire species of privileged frat-boy types who thought it hilarious to fart at the universe.

That isn’t interesting. I’d be more enthusiastic if this were a novel natural phenomenon.

The fountain of youth must meet some reasonable expectations

There are two interacting factors I expect of a good scientific explanation. One is empirical evidence, obviously — everyone knows that. You don’t get to sit back in your easy chair and make up ‘evidence’, and it’s unsatisfactory science if you don’t actually have any data to back it up.


But there’s another piece that’s hinted at in the cartoon: theory. Without theory, you can’t have evidence; you have a miscellany of disconnected observations that don’t get you anywhere. You need to be able to answer the question “what did you see?”, but you also need to answer “why did you go looking for it?” and “how do you interpret what you saw?” Having an expectation that all of those basic questions ought to be answerable before you accept an idea means, unfortunately, that I have to reject a lot of entirely desirable ideas.

I’d like a fountain of youth, for instance, or at least a pill that would slow down the effects of aging, but that doesn’t imply that I get to have one. There’s a hot new company, Elysium Health, selling a pill called Basis, which is supposed to keep you young longer.

I recently received in the mail a small cardboard box, solidly constructed and colored a subtle metallic gray, from the future. ELYSIUM HEALTH was printed on it in white sans-serif capital letters. Inside, a smaller crisp white box, banded in blue and imprinted with a letterpress E, described its contents as “a daily health product designed to optimize and support your most critical metabolic systems,” including “DNA repair,” “Cellular detoxification,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function.” Within was an elegant pillbox containing 60 capsules. The technical language obscured an arresting truth: Basis, which I had ordered online without a prescription, paying $60 for a month’s supply, was either the most sophisticated fountain-of-youth scam ever to come to market or the first fountain-of-youth pill ever to work.

That is such a hopelessly naive article. That last choice is silly: it’s a scam. The author has no reason to believe any of the claims on that box, except that they sound sciencey. Well, maybe they sound sciencey to a layperson: they all sound like crap to me. “DNA repair,” “Energy production,” and “Protein function” are all routine cellular functions, and I don’t even know how you can “optimize” stuff that has 4 billion years of evolution behind it with a pill, but maybe they have a theory to suggest a strategy? We’ll see. As for “Cellular detoxification,” good gob, that’s a pseudoscientific buzzword — haven’t you learned yet that when someone sells you a detox plan, they’re peddling the purest quackery?

That’s the opening paragraph. So when I read further, I’m going to be looking for two things: I want to see a plausible explanation for how this pill works, and I want to see evidence. It’s entirely possible to have a phenomenon that works that they don’t understand — data trumps theory — but I still will want to see a tentative explanation for what they see.

Sadly, though, the evidence for the effectiveness of the pill seems to be largely built around random anecdotes.

Others who’d taken Basis before me had described effects including fingernail growth, hair growth, skin smoothness, crazy dreams, increased stamina, better sleep, and more energy. Once I began taking it, I did feel an almost jittery uptick in mojo for a few days, and I slept more soundly as well. Then those effects seemed to recede, and there were also mornings where I felt a little out of it. If these were placebo effects, they were weird ones, because they didn’t make me feel better, only different.

There doesn’t seem to be any clinical evidence that this particular pill does anything. In fact, in another telling move, the company has skipped all that horrible FDA approval stuff by marketing it as a dietary supplement. Basically, they’re announcing that they can’t demonstrate any substantial effects, so they’ve chosen a marketing strategy that allows them to claim vaguely beneficial effects without the onus of actually providing any evidence for them.

So what about a theory? Here it is.

Scientists have recognized since the 1930s that calorie-restricted diets extend life in mammals (we evolved, the thinking goes, to withstand periods of famine, downshifting our metabolism in order to defer reproduction until we were again in a time of plenty). Guarente was one of the first to discover a single gene with a linchpin role in the process: in his case, a class of molecules called sirtuins. Now, aging science is in a growth spurt, with an accelerating race to develop compounds that target such master genes. The idea, and the premise of Basis, is that certain compounds might trick our bodies into thinking they’re starving (thereby extending our lives) without our having to feel hungry.

Uh-oh. There is a substantial literature on caloric restriction improving longevity; I haven’t been dazzled by any of it, since a lot of it is on model systems (and as someone who works on a model system, I can tell you that there is a lot of weirdness there), and the effects have been modest and variable. But caloric restriction has real physiological effects, unsurprisingly, and I’m seeing it touted as a treatment for everything from aging to Alzheimers to cancer. It all seems to be wobbling about in the world of straining for good p values, though, rather than the practical world of actually being robustly effective. But hey, we should keep studying it — maybe we’ll find some clear answers. We haven’t yet. We certainly haven’t found a recipe for reliable outcomes.

Sirtuins are also cool and interesting. These are proteins that regulate cellular pathways…a lot of different pathways. Saying that sirtuins play a role in aging-related metabolic pathways is literally true and wonderfully broad and ambiguous. They also seem to be an important mediator in the pathways stimulated by resveratrol, for instance, so hooray, there is a link between one vaguely beneficial pathway and another vaguely beneficial pathway! What do you mean, if you multiply weak statistical effects by other weak statistical effects, you don’t get stronger statistics?

So the theory behind this pill that has no evidence that holds up in clinical trials is that they are going to activate an enzyme that has multiple roles, but a few of those roles seem to be associated with weak effects on aging in some studies, so upregulating those pathways has to be good for you, right?

I don’t know. Here’s an old computer control panel with lots of switches.


Somewhere on that box is a switch that, if you flip it on, turns on the whole machine, which is good. Therefore, if there are a lot of switches, it’ll work better if you flip them all to the up position. I don’t even know why they bother with switches at all — wouldn’t it be more efficient to get rid of them all and put everything in a permanent ‘on’ state? Science!

Another bothersome phenomenon: the company’s advisory board is packed with 6 Nobelists. This is more marketing than science; there is no reason to think that having a Nobel prize makes one universally wise, but it does persuade the rubes. Then there’s the disturbing phenomenon of people getting committed to believe in something for the sake of that belief, and their reputation, while not actually being convinced intellectually.

Then again, all these people are financially and reputationally incentivized to believe in Basis. Even Nelsen acknowledged he could be experiencing a placebo effect. I asked other scientists, outside Elysium’s orbit, whether they take the pill. Olshansky told me he takes nothing: He tries to exercise daily and watch what he eats. Kennedy, likewise, takes nothing: “I said I’m going to wait till I’m 50 before I start taking anything. I run, I try to keep my caloric level down, I manage stress.” Kaeberlein takes nothing but says he’s “getting more and more tempted to take rapamycin in a low dose.” Sinclair, who now co-directs a Glenn-funded center at Harvard, still takes resveratrol every day and also takes an NAD booster (he has his own biotech company, currently in stealth mode, focused on that booster).

I have to say, though, these guys are actually saying smart things. Moderation, sensible diet, reasonable exercise, managing stress — these seem to be effective ways to limit the effects of aging. If you’re doing those, you don’t need a magic pill. And if you’re doing those things while taking the pill, the magic pill will look even better.

But if you’re not living healthily, you might want a magic pill that that gives the benefits of a healthy life style. Which means that Elysium Health, like all the quack nostrum peddlers, is going to make money. That’s all that matters, right?

Tom Wolfe’s magic combo move

Here’s a formula for seeming wise: take two complex, deep topics that are individually the domain of specialists, and that may be unfathomable to the general public. Combine them in some arcane way; you can trust that the set of experts who understand both topics will be minuscule, so you’ll be able to get away with a lot of nonsense, because experts in A will be impressed with your knowledge of B while thinking you don’t know squat about A, while experts in B will be vice versa. The classic example of this strategem is Velikovsky, who blended expertise in Middle Eastern mythology with astrophysics. Astrophysicists thought his flying, colliding planets that ignored conservation of energy were ludicrous nonsense, while gosh, there sure are a lot of provocative ancient texts talking about astrophysics, while classical scholars were shocked at all the liberties he was taking with history, but gee whiz, that physics stuff is impressively daunting. Meanwhile, the people who nothing about either were applauding him as a genius.

We have another example, and unfortunately, it’s the brilliant writer Tom Wolfe. He has taken his dilettante’s understanding of two subjects to attempt to fuse them: in this case, linguistics and evolution. One would think those two would complement each other nicely, but not when the author’s preconceptions are simply stuck in human exceptionalism, and his arguments are all about ‘proving’ his assumptions correct, no matter how false they are. And, most unfortunately, it leads him to conclude not that his understanding of linguistics is deficient, but that evolution must be false.

There’s absolutely nothing like it [speech], and I think it’s time for people who are interested in evolution to say that the theory of evolution applies only, only to animals.

He’s also not worried that creationists will love this, because, he says, there’s there’s not a shred of whatever that depends at all on faith, on belief in an extraterrestrial power. Ah. So intelligent design creationism it is, then.

You might want to take a look at this wonderfully entertaining review of the book. It’s an ahistorical mess — Wolfe claims that Darwin was obsessed with proving that human speech was derived from animal sounds, for instance, and that the whole idea of examining the evolution of speech was discarded after Darwin, until Chomsky. He not only gets the history of evolution wrong, he mangles the history of linguistics.

Speech, Mr. Wolfe says triumphantly, gave our species “the power to conquer the entire planet,” “the power to ask questions about his own life,” the power to control other human minds—“a power the Theory of Evolution cannot even begin to account for . . . or abide.” “Speech! To say that animals evolved into man is like saying that Carrara marble evolved into Michelangelo’s David.”

And here my pen dropped onto the bonded-vinyl flooring. I stared at the page with a slack, dopey expression. I scratched my fuzzy head. I just did not understand. Even if speech were entirely due to culture, why is this some sort of victory over evolution? Why the boosterish chest-thumping? No biologists think that the great creations of our species— Mozart’s symphonies, Katsura Villa, the Mahabharata, integral calculus—were due to natural selection. None believe that today’s languages evolved from some unknown ape tongue. Meanwhile, everyone who accepts evolution at all—including, I had thought, Mr. Wolfe—knows that the larynx evolved over time, as did the pharyngeal cavity, motor cortex and the rest of the mechanism of speech. Geneticists have turned up a library of genes involved in language. Zoologists have found that animal sounds are more complex than previously believed (most are “non-Markovian,” in the jargon). To all of these people, the arrival of language is not a matter of abrupt on-and-off, like a light switch, but more a subtle accumulation, like a dimmer switch. Co-evolution, as Darwin hand-waved at the beginning. But even if there were an exact line to draw, as Mr. Wolfe contends, why would shifting it here or there reflect better on our species? Why does it matter whether Mr. Wolfe used a product of nurture or nature for his razzle-dazzle prose? Either way, it’s all his.​

It’s all very sad. Wolfe will use his considerable talents at writing to successfully peddle nonsense to the public, doing harm to public education, giving me yet another line of babble to refute which will be smugly thrown at me for the next several years, and the only gain will be that Mr Wolfe will be able to buy a few more white suits while his bullshit rises on the NY Times bestseller lists.

Man, maybe I ought to do some retirement planning. What two subjects do I know very little about (that part’s easy, most of the subjects), but can profitably merge to sound innovative and insightful? Everyone goes for the obvious one, quantum physics, so I think that’s played out. Hmm. Photonics and immunology? Gravity and time travel? Indian cooking and renewable energy? I’m sure all I have to do is find the right catchy combo, and then I’ll be on all the talk shows.

Everyone loves Volvox

This past weekend, I was off at Lake Itasca with a group of new biology students, and one of the things they did was collect plankton and bring them back to the lab where we took micrographs of what they found — lots of algae and crustaceans and rotifers, etc., etc. But we also saw some colonial protists, and one of the things I saw the students excitedly discuss was Volvox. It’s always nice when I can just sit down and shut up and the students are enthusiastically explaining to each other how biology works.

So, anyway, I think I know a few more people who are in the market for the swag mentioned by Matthew Herron.