Showing posts from March, 2021

Economics Zero

Economics is the science that is, among other things, concerned with the allocation of scarce resources.  Ever since the invention of agriculture and civilization, the most central scarce resource has been  agricultural land.  Such land has always been a scarce resource because of the principle discovered by Dr. Malthus - reproduction will tend to exceed the replacement rate and the Earth isn't making more land.   The dramatic expansion of the feudal system in the centuries just before and after the start of the Second Millennium of the Christian Era owes its dynamism to this fact.  Household knights usually could not marry unless they had a fief of land, and younger sons of a lord also faced the prospect of social status loss.  The solution for such a younger son was to recruit some landless knights and soldiers and set off for a foreign land to rob the local inhabitants.  If such a venture was successful, as in the case of William the Conqueror, the foot soldiers would become kni

Tiny Boltzmann Brains and Big Brains

The potions master starts with a tiny bit of skin and in a carefully calibrated series of steps adds a little bit of this and a little bit of that, a little molecular magic, and, presto the former skin cells become  neural stem cells.  Next, a cell or two is placed into tiny wells, and, with a bit more molecular magic, they start growing into a tangled mass of neurons.  Tangles?  Well, not really, because they organize themselves into circuits, and start sending out random pulses which eventually synchronize into something like brain waves.  The experimenter drums his fingers on the table, and the tiny Boltzmann brains, er, neural organoids synchronize with the drumming. These potions masters are not at Hogwarts, but in university labs.  One interesting thing they have discovered in their experiments is that a single switch seems to be mainly responsible from brain size. Organoids from chimp and gorilla brains stop growing much sooner than human brain organoids.  Not coincidentally, hu

Elite Public High Schools

 A number of elite public high schools were founded in the US, mostly in major cities, with the objective of encouraging the most gifted students.  One of these is Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia.  These high schools have an excellent track record for producing elite adults, including numerous Nobel Laureates, but they are coming under attack. At TJHSST 66% of the admitted students are Asian, while less than 4% are Black or Hispanic.  Poorer children are highly underrepresented.  A similar picture is seen at other elite schools.  Admission criteria at TJHSST mix grades, preparatory courses, and a crucial exam.  The idea, of course, is to select the students with the greatest talent and preparation. Talent, we suppose, is inborn, but preparation depends both on the student and the environment they live in.  How prepared students are depends on their elementary and middle schools, but probably even more on the resources parents can and do comm

Galileo Under House Arrest

 [Nobel Prize Winner James] Watson attended that initial meeting of the CRISPR group, as he did most meetings at Cold Spring Harbor, and he sat in the front row of the auditorium, underneath a grand oil portrait of himself, to hear Doudna’s talk. It was a reprise of her first visit there as a graduate student in the summer of 1987, when Watson also sat up front as she presented, with youthful nervousness, a paper on how some RNAs could replicate themselves. After Doudna’s CRISPR talk, he came up to say a few words of praise, just as he had done almost thirty years earlier. It was important, he said, to push the science of making gene edits in humans, including enhancing intelligence. For some in attendance, it felt historic. Stanford biology professor David Kingsley took a picture of Watson and Doudna talking.1 But when I show up at the 2019 meeting, Watson is not in his usual seat in the front row. After fifty years, he has been banished from meetings, and the oil portrait of him remo

The Longest War

  …has been waged between bacteria and viruses, probably for billions of years.   Wars we are told, are foci of technological and cultural innovation, and   this one is starting to do its part.   Bacteriophages, the viruses that prey on bacteria, are ubiquitous in astonishing numbers – nearly a billion of them in every milliliter of sea water.   It is a fairly recent realization by our species that bacteria have evolved impressive defense mechanisms, including one that promises to revolutionize human life. This is the story told in Walter Isaacson’s latest biography: Code Breaker , Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race. The cover features a stern looking Jennifer Doudna, the heroine of his book and one of the pioneers of the CRISPR technology, which is revolutionizing gene editing.   Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for their work on the science. Among the petty wars of humans are disputes over scientific priority and the conse

Texas Dumb

Texas does everything in a big way.  Dumb seems to be one of them.  How else can you describe Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and the Republican scoundrels who left their State with an easily preventably power disaster, sacrificed 44,000 Texans to Covid, and is now are disregarding the recommendations of public health officials to invite a new Covid explosion. Why does Texas keep electing these losers?