Add ‘light bulbs growing on trees’ to ‘flying cars’ on your list of things Science didn’t bring you for Christmas

There once was a kickstarter that raised half a million dollars with the idea of genetically modifying trees to glow in the dark, thereby replacing the need for street lights. It failed. I’m not surprised. They are citing technical difficulties in getting the needed genes inserted (it looks like they were using the luciferase reaction, which is the enzyme used by fireflies).

To get the plant to glow well, the research team had to insert six genes. But they never could get all six in at once. At best, some plants glowed very dimly. (The photo above of the glowing plant is a long exposure, making it appear much brighter than it actually is.) Evans says that he realizes now trying to insert six genes into a complex organism like a plant—rather than single-celled bacteria or yeast—was premature.

That’s why TAXA, the company that Evans set up to work on glowing plants, eventually pivoted to creating genetically modified moss that smells like patchouli to subsidize continuing glowing-plant research. Moss is a simpler organism. They got the scented moss growing, but the last bunch was contaminated and could not be shipped to customers. Without the moss, there was no way to keep funding the company. That’s when Evans realized that glowing plants weren’t happening.

I don’t even…yes, this is harder than the popular press sometimes makes it sound. Keep that in mind when you hear some transhumanist wackaloon speak blithely of modifying human genes to increase intelligence or longevity or whatever. The tools keep getting better, so maybe someday it’ll be easy to spritz in any number of genes into any organism we want, but the hard part is always going to be figuring out what genes do what we want, and don’t do what we don’t want.

That’s not what made me instantly doubt the project, though. It was wondering what fantasy world they were living in to think bioluminescence would have adequate output to come even close to the illumination we can produce with street lights. Consider the amount of light you can get from a jar of fireflies, if you’ve ever caught them; they’re pretty, but it really isn’t enough to read by, or to compete with a cheap flashlight. I’ve seen seas lit up with swarms of bioluminescent organisms, but even there it was only bright in contrast to the total darkness of the night. Right away I’m questioning how effective even a “tree” that was a solid cylinder of bioluminescent molecules would be.

Another problem: your tree cells are busy making light, like a collection of glow sticks inside…but they’re surrounded by bark. Trees aren’t transparent, you know, so only the thin outer layer of living cells will count for light production.

So just make the bark the glowing part, you say. Can’t. The outer layer of bark is dead, the luciferase reaction requires constant consumption of ATP and O2. This is an energy-intensive reaction, even if the enzyme is remarkably efficient at converting chemical energy into photons. So you’re basically trying to engineer a plant with an alternative pathway to compete with the Calvin cycle, subverting the whole process of absorbing photons to produce chemical energy to instead throw away that energy by emitting photons. And you’re simultaneously expecting the plant to grow into a massive tree.

Yeah, it’s a hard problem alright.

You now may be thinking but wait — we’ve made glow-in-the-dark fish, and you can buy them for five bucks down at the pet store. That’s a whole different process. Glofish don’t make light, and don’t require internal energy to produce photons. They absorb light and re-emit it at a different wavelength, causing a color shift, a process called fluorescence. I’ve worked with a lot of fluorescent molecules (and even with luciferase), and it takes some non-trivial optics to separate out the shifted color signal. That light is also faint — it takes further non-trivial electronics to amplify it into a useful signal.

The dodge of producing patchouli-scented moss is a transparent fake-out, too. Nothing about that solves any of the problems of introducing a complex and energetically expensive set of genes into a plant. It’s also remarkably pointless. There’s an herb, Pogostemon, that grows naturally and already produces the scent, so why not just go with that? Also, I may have fond memories of patchouli perfume everywhere in the hippie culture of the 1970s, but there seems to be a lot of people who don’t care for it or its associations, so it’s an odd choice for a replacement. When I go to the store to buy a light bulb, I’m not going to be satisfied if the clerk “pivots” and sells me Axe body spray instead.

Bottom line: if you invested in this, you got taken.

The President must be a zombie

Virginia Heffernan:

THIS is what makes my head spin: The president is not a moral figure in any idiom, any land, any culture, any subculture. I’m not talking about the liberal enlightenment that would make him want the country to take care of the poor and sick. I mean he has no Republican values either. He has no honor among thieves, no cosa nostra loyalty, no Southern code against cheating or lying, none of the openness of New York, rectitude of Boston, expressiveness and kindness of California, no evangelical family values, no Protestant work ethic. No Catholic moral seriousness, no sense of contrition or gratitude. No Jewish moral and intellectual precision, sense of history. He doesn’t care about the life of the mind OR the life of the senses. He is not mandarin, not committed to inquiry or justice, not hospitable. He is not proper. He is not a bon vivant who loves to eat, drink, laugh. There’s nothing he would die for — not American values, obviously, but not the land of Russia or his wife or young son. He has some hollow success creeds from Norman Vincent Peale, but Peale was obsessed with fair-dealing and a Presbyterian pastor; Trump has no fairness or piety. He’s not sentimental; no affection for dogs or babies. No love for mothers, “the common man,” veterans. He has no sense of military valor, and is openly a coward about war. He would have sorely lacked the pagan beauty and capacity to fight required in ancient Greece. He doesn’t care about his wife or wives; he is a philanderer but he’s not a romantic hero with great love for women and sex. He commands loyalty and labor from his children not because he loves them, even; he seems almost to hate them — and if one of them slipped it would be terrifying. He does no philanthropy. He doesn’t — in a more secular key — even seem to have a sense of his enlightened self-interest enough to shake Angela Merkel’s hand. Doesn’t even affect a love for the arts, like most rich New Yorkers. He doesn’t live and die by aesthetics and health practices like some fascists; he’s very ugly and barely mammalian. Am I missing an obscure moral system to which he so much as nods? Also are there other people, living or dead, like him?

It’s true, and it’s strange. I wonder if this is the secret to his success: he’s a completely amoral cipher, and his supporters simply project their values onto the blank slate of his narcissistic personality.

Remember the old days, when atheism was a philosophy leading to a bright, rational future?

It’s something of a standing joke that it is so common to see priests outed as pedophiles — it’s as if their religion doesn’t actually do anything to promote moral behavior. That individual priests are repulsive in their behavior doesn’t necessarily indict their faith as contributing to the problem, though. What does is when their religious hierarchy permits or enables it, or makes excuses for it, or ignores the problem altogether.

So I’m dismayed to read this story about identifying the founder of the Redpill Subreddit, a vile online sanctuary for misogynistic abusive men. The Daily Beast did a thorough job of tracking down the creator; read the article and there is more than enough evidence that Robert Fisher is the name of the man who built “the web’s most popular online destination for pickup artistry and men’s rights activists, The Red Pill”.

It turns out he’s a Republican. Check, no surprise there.

He’s a computer nerd and businessman, check.

He’s been elected to his state Congress, check.

Aaaaaand…he’s an atheist. Check, and no surprise, I’m sorry to say. Online, he went by the alias Pk_atheist.

A post by Pk_atheist in the early days of the forum advertises the author’s blog, Dating American, a blog that immediately precipitated the establishment of The Red Pill in 2012 and which was “dedicated to the woes of dating in the American culture.” On the “about the author” section of Dating American, the author, who calls himself “Desmond,” promotes two other blogs he’s “authored”: Existential Vortex and Explain God. Performing a search of the unique URL for Existential Vortex led to a comment on an ex-Christian message board again advertising the blog,

Futrelle summarizes his repellent misogyny. He’s simply a terrible person. He’s a perfectly acceptable atheist, of course, as I’m sure many will tell me. He’s a person who doesn’t believe in gods, and that’s all it takes to be an atheist, and the amoral contingent within movement atheism will take this as good evidence that my pleas for the atheist movement to adopt some degree of moral responsibility, to regard acceptance of the natural world and rejection of the supernatural as a proper foundation for justifying ethical behavior, are completely wrong.

I’m beginning to be swayed to agreement.

Unfortunately, if this movement is willing to accept Robert Fisher as a member in good standing, if we are so pleased with the absence of any kind of ethical stance to this collection of random people united by one trivial idea, if this is nothing but a granfalloon that gives a tacit welcome to anyone, no matter how vile, then…

Why would anyone want to be identified as an atheist?

I mean, it’s not as if atheism does anything to promote moral behavior, and a hell of a lot of atheists treat it as a point of pride that their identity lacks any expectations beyond not believing in deities. If I will condemn the Catholics for condoning the rape of children, why would I want to be part of a movement that implicitly condones the rape and harassment of women, with many of its members gladly joining misogynistic fora on YouTube and Reddit? It is looking rather pointless.

The Right Wing Lie Machine

Heidi Czerwiec dared to complain about ROTC carrying out unannounced military exercises on the University of North Dakota campus — I sympathize completely. There were a few times when I was at Temple University that I’d sleepily arrive on campus early in the morning and suddenly be surrounded by men in buzzcuts and fatigues waving rifles around, and no, it wasn’t a pleasant shock. We don’t seem to have a ROTC program here at UMM, fortunately.

But Czerwiec was reasonably concerned and later quite angry when she looked out her office window to see men in camouflage gear with guns, and she complained loudly to the ROTC officer in charge — you do not spring these kinds of activities on people without warning in this era of “active shooters” and mass murder at schools. It was irresponsible and unethical. Maybe the ROTC ought to carry out their exercises elsewhere?

And then right-wing radio and news sites got the story.

They play her up as one of those liberals, unpatriotic and hatin’ on the military, wanting to take away your guns. It turned into a frenzy of ignorant hatred.

Out of the 500 or so emails I receive (not counting voicemail and Facebook messages), most are hatemail, most calling for my job.

Nearly all the hatemail (98%) is from men.

Most of the hatemail accuses me of one or more of the following: being anti-military, anti-gun, and liberal:

And then she quotes a series of emails. They are so, so familiar. I’ve seen similar responses, in similar floods of right-wing hate. She’s a woman, so she also gets lots of dismissive insults about her appearance, her genitals, her “fuckability”. I wish I could say I’m safe from those, but nope — I get similar comments, and a common insult is to suggest that I’m a woman, so they can recycle their misogynist cliches against me, too. They can’t even criticize a man without letting their contempt for women ooze through.

What always strikes me is how unoriginal the haters are, how much their language is one of primal grunts and unthinking rote recitals of the same old stupidity and prejudice. Even when they can string together a proper and grammatical English sentence, the sentiments are the same crude bigoted knee-jerk execrations — it’s the difference between a turd and a lovingly sculpted turd.

It was a disconcerting article to read, bringing back unpleasant memories of past deluges of yahoos hating on me that I’ve received. But then I open my inbox and see that this morning I’ve only received two hate mails that got past my filters today, and only one of them wanted me to die horribly, and even he was willing to wait for me to passively die of cancer without actively causing my demise, so I’m feeling like maybe this will be a good day, relatively.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks: Too much Oprah

I watched the new HBO movie, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and I hate to say it, but I didn’t much care for it. I very much liked the book, enough that I’ve made it assigned reading in some of my classes, but I wouldn’t use the movie in the same way. And, weirdly, what I consider a serious failing of the movie is considered a strength by other reviewers. Here’s Variety, for instance:

The HBO movie about this trio [Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot, and Deborah Lacks] makes only one of the women truly memorable, but it’s worth seeing in order to witness Oprah Winfrey give one of the best performances of her career. Winfrey is mesmerizing as Deborah Lacks, whose quest to connect with the history of her mother, who died when she was a baby, forms much of the spine of Skloot’s book. (Henrietta’s cancer cells were unusually hardy, and became the source of the kind of useful cells that labs need in order to perform key biological experiments.)

See that last sentence? That covers in its entirety all of the science in the movie, completely. If you want to learn more about HeLa cells and their history and use in the laboratory, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about Henrietta Lacks, there are a few brief vignettes scattered here and there, but otherwise, it’s not here. If you want to learn more about the ethics (or lack thereof) of biomedical research, it’s alluded to, but otherwise, it’s not here. This is all about Oprah and her Emmy-deserving performance.

It’s not just me. Vulture, USA Today, The Ringer, LA Times, Time, and basically everyone who has reviewed it, says the same thing: Oprah was excellent, and she stole the show. I agree. But I think that’s a shame.

If you want to see a movie with some fine acting, with an impressive character study, with a singular character who sucks all the air out of the room when she’s on screen (which she is, most of the time), then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on HBO is the show for you, enjoy it for what it is. If you want a richer, more complicated story of the intersection between science and culture and how it affects one larger family, then read the book…which, I notice, is out in a new edition with a new cover that replaces the photograph of Henrietta Lacks with a close-up of Oprah, and that’s a perfect metaphor for the movie.

More criticism of Neuralink

Antonio Relagado, senior editor for biomedicine for MIT Technology Review, isn’t too impressed with Elon Musk’s claims for Neuralink. In particular, he explains that the 8-10 year time line for the first available implants is absurd and impossible.

Let’s deal with Musk’s time line first. A brain implant is a medical device that requires neurosurgery. Proving that it works requires a stepwise series of experiments that each takes years, starting in rats or monkeys.

Here’s a time line from the real world: a company called NeuroPace was started in 1997 to develop an implant that controls epileptic seizures. It actually senses a seizure coming and zaps your brain to stop it. The device got approved in 2013—16 years later. And that was for a very serious medical condition in which brain surgery is common.

Putting an implant in healthy people? That would require extraordinary evidence of safety. And that’s hard to picture, because as soon as you open someone’s head you put that person’s life at risk. We at MIT Technology Review know of only one case of a healthy person getting a brain implant: a crazy stunt undertaken in Central America by a scientist trying to do research on himself. It caused life-threatening complications.

Musk doesn’t seem to be considering the ethical problems at all. It’s cool tech, but I wouldn’t let anyone stick wires in my brain unless it was to treat a serious medical problem with tested procedures.

So it’s not crazy to believe there could be some very interesting brain-computer interfaces in the future. But that future is not as close at hand as Musk would have you believe. One reason is that opening a person’s skull is not a trivial procedure. Another is that technology for safely recording from more than a hundred neurons at once—neural dust, neural lace, optical arrays that thread through your blood vessels—remains mostly at the blueprint stage.

So what facts am I missing? What makes it even remotely okay that Musk and Facebook are promising the public telepathy within a few short years?

We criticize religions for making false promises without evidence; we imprison people for bilking people out of money on false pretenses; so yes, I agree, why do we give billionaire industrialists a pass when they make secular claims that don’t stand a chance in hell of coming true, and when they do it on behalf of profit-making companies?

Students! Demanding weird pronouns! OFFENDED!

I was asked if I listened to this interview with Peter Boghossian.

No! I had not! Thanks for asking!

But, out of morbid curiosity, I did click on the link. I even listened to it for 15 minutes, in sick fascination.

He’s very annoyed that students ask him to address them by their preferred pronouns. How dare they! This is the problem with The Left nowadays, they take offense at everything, and are actively looking for excuses to be offended. It’s ridiculous that we professors are expected to master the impossible, arcane skill of talking to students appropriately.

Boghossian must be incredibly stupid, because I’ve found that it’s really easy — the harder task is to remember all those names, and when I’ve got 50 students in a class, it sometimes takes the entire term before I’ve got them all straight. Pronouns are trivial. If I could address everyone as he, she, they, or “hey, you”, it would be so easy to sail through the semester, never bothering to recognize students as individuals. It’s even easier to adapt to these pronoun requests because most students are gender-conforming and wearing clothing that signals their gender identity, and it’s only a few exceptions that you have to consider…and again, it’s no big deal, no more difficult than recognizing that Student A needs help with statistics, Student B did really well on the last test but is struggling in organic chemistry, Student C is looking for a chance to do summer research. Student D wants to be addressed by “they, them”? No problem.

Boghossian doesn’t get it. He seems to think students are his enemy, and that this is all a leftist tactic to make him suffer. Try a different point of view, guy: maybe your students are looking for respect, and would like you to recognize that they have a history and a context and opinions and needs and desires, too, and would appreciate that being acknowledged. Maybe they’re not looking to be offended, but are already tired of being treated as faceless, interchangeable tuition-paying blobs, who are expected to conform to your expectation that they will readily fit into two and only two boxes.

I had to stop listening after a quarter hour, though, because he started complaining about how these pronoun issues are taking away from his valuable class time, and important issues like establishing his seating chart (???) for the class.

P.S. I’ll mention this because I know it will infuriate self-identified Classical Liberals like Boghossian. One simple tip I got at my conference at Howard Hughes Medical Institute was a suggestion to help foster more inclusion: professors should include their preferred pronouns in their syllabi. I had never thought of that, because of course I am an obvious male figure who would be addressed as “he/him”, and then I realized…yep, that’s my privilege talking, that I’m your standard male-conforming American citizen, and the only “of course” in this situation is that I assume the minority will have to take the effort to explain things to me, while I will benefit from the default assumptions.

So naturally, as a craven leftist, I’m going to follow the recommendation of a major granting authority and take 5 seconds to type in “Preferred pronouns: he/him” into all of my syllabi next term. I know, it’s a disgraceful submission that will snatch away so much time that I could have spent teaching cell biology or evolution, but hey, I’m taking the long view that respecting student identities will actually help them learn. And if I slip up, and a student needs to correct me, I won’t take it as a conspiracy by the Left to attack me, but will thank them for helping me improve my awareness of who they are.

P.P.S. Remember when people got all outraged at the introduction of “Ms.”? It was very important to know whether a woman was a “Miss” or a “Mrs.”, for some reason, but we didn’t have to make any such distinctions within the category of “Mr.”

Goddamn police

Fire these cops.

Five twelve-year-old kids walking home from a basketball game; a policeman pulls up, opens his car door, and immediately pulls a gun on them and tells them to get on the ground. Nobody gets shot this time, fortunately, but it’s hard to watch — those poor kids are initially confused, and then terrified, and you get to hear them crying and wailing in fear as the brave police officer calmly and politely threatens them with death.

The kids were in the “wrong place at the wrong time”. They tell a distraught parent afterwards “you have to understand our position as well”. Yeah, I understand your position very well, you cowardly motherfucker: you are confident that you have the right to use deadly force against unarmed children, if you even have the slightest suspicion that they might be “bad guys”. They were “just doing their job”. They completely fail to understand the perspective of others. One mother summarizes the situation perfectly: “Y’all didn’t see a gun but y’all pulled a gun on my kids”. The earnest certainty of the police officers is galling — they absolutely think they are in the right, but they threatened children with a gun.

Treat these cops the same way they would be treated if they pulled this shit on white kids in a white suburban neighborhood — you know they’d be off the force in a flash, and the chief of police would be getting savaged in the press for incompetent management.

This is unacceptable.