Friday, October 02, 2015

When bioethics goes bad

I have just received a copy of the Australian science magazine Cosmos in the post, as I have an article in it on invisibility. And it reaffirms the impression I had when I reacquainted myself with the magazine during a visit to Melbourne earlier this year: it is a thoroughly splendid publication which deserves to have a wider global reach. The production values are high, the writing is smart, and it’s altogether an accessible but non-sensationalist digest of what’s up in science. In the latest issue you get Dan Falk on 100 years of general relativity, Robin McKie on dark matter… what more could you ask?

So now I’m going to gripe. Not about the magazine per se, but I want to take issue with something that is said in the latest issue. One of the columns is written by Laurie Zoloth, a professor of medical ethics and humanities at Northwestern University. I came across Zoloth before when I wrote my book Unnatural. She is one of the opponents of “advanced reproductive technologies”, including genetic therapies applied to embryos, and she represents a perfect example of how vague scaremongering and woolly moralizing can be used to damn promising new technologies in this field. For example, she complains that we have a tendency to treat infertility as a disease which must be cured. This is a fair complaint insofar as it refers to the way assisted reproduction is often marketed by private clinics (especially in the US, where regulation seems disturbingly lax). But as I wrote in Unnatural,
It is characteristic of critics like Zoloth that they duck the unpalatable corollaries of their criticisms. Should we, then, ban IVF and tell those who suffer from infertility that they must simply learn to live with it? Or might we merely want to constrain and monitor how it is done? At the same time Zoloth herself pathologizes infertility to a grotesque degree, saying that ‘the hunger of the infertile is ravenous, desperate’ – with the implication that it is also dangerous and lacking all moral restraint.

That last comment of hers is unforgiveable – but, as I point out in my book, entirely in accord with traditional views of infertility as something morally suspect.

Zoloth doesn’t see these technologies as attempts to alleviate serious medical conditions, but rather, as narcissistic quests for perfection: for the ideal “designer baby”. Her criticisms of cloning reveal as much; as I said,
Bioethicist Laurie Zoloth bases her objections to cloning on the idea that it will generate a ‘close-as-can-be’ replica, and that this would indeed be a clone’s raison d’être. In a car-crash of metaphors, she asserts that in child-rearing we must ‘learn to have the stranger, not the copy, live by our side as though out of our side’. (Didn’t Eve come, asexually, out of Adam’s side?) Even in literal terms, it seems odd to imply that the cloned child of a couple would be, to the non-cloned parent, less of a ‘stranger’ than a child sharing half his or her genes. But Zoloth’s real fear seems to be that, for reasons unspecified, the parents of a cloned child will, like Victor Frankenstein, fail to parent it as they would any other child. [As she wrote]:
“The whole point of ‘making babies’ is not the production, it is the careful rearing of persons, the promise to have bonds of love that extend far beyond the initial ask and answer of the marketplace.

Again, that last comment is both meretricious and true to the mythical roots of such discomfort: a cloned child will, for some reason, not be “normal”, nor will it have a “normal” upbringing. I’m not arguing in favour of human reproductive cloning, which undoubtedly raises important ethical questions quite beyond any considerations of safety. Rather, I just want us to consider those questions with open eyes, and not to cast lazy aspersions based on ancient prejudices.

Well, Zoloth is at it again in her Cosmos column, which considers the prospects of CRISPR/Cas9 editing of human genomes. She says that germline genetic modification “is a code for engineering embryos. It has been rejected by every political, religious and ethical body that has considered it.” So there’s your argument: it is wrong because folks like me have decided it’s wrong. No mention of whether such work might not actually be used to “make babies” anyway, but, as in the case of the recent application in the UK, to solve medical problems related to conception. The use of embryos that are never intended, or legally allowed, to be implanted for full-term gestation, is in Zoloth’s view just a trick for “deflecting criticism”. The scientists in the US and China are, she warns, “continuing to refine the technique” despite the Chinese work discovering that there could be “disastrous consequences for the embryo”. (Never mind the fact that the Chinese work was conducted precisely to find out if that would be the case, i.e. to assess the risks.)

And so to Zoloth’s conclusion: “Our knowledge of unforeseen consequences is too poor; our capacity for greed and narcissism too strong; our society already too unjust to begin to design babies to a spec sheet.” Oh, she has a way with outrageous phrases all right. What does that “designing babies to a spec sheet” actually mean for all serious researchers thinking about the possibilities of using CRISPR/Cas9 (if and only if it looks safe enough) for humans? It means “curing babies of debilitating genetic diseases” (or avoiding the termination of embryos screened and found to contain them). There is no room in Zoloth’s litany of our evils for any recognition that we also have compassion. For these folk, compassion is merely what paves the road to the Brave New World.

Zoloth sits on the US Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, which, she says, “reviews every proposed clinical trial of gene therapy”. I am very alarmed by that.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

Nature: the biography

Here is a review of Melinda Baldwin’s basically sound and thoughtful “biography” of Nature. It was destined for the Observer, but scheduling complications left it orphaned. So it comes to rest here instead.


Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal
Melinda Baldwin

University of Chicago Press, 2015
ISBN 978-0-226-26145-4
299 pages

When James Watson and Francis Crick figured out the structure of the DNA molecule in late 1952 – as they put it with characteristic exaggeration, “discovered the secret of life” – there was no argument about where they would publish their epochal work. Of course it should be sent to Nature.

The science journal is still the most prestigious in the world, a British institution comparable to Punch or the Spectator. The scientists who have published there include Darwin, Einstein, Hawking, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi. As Melinda Baldwin puts it in this biography of the journal, “Nature has not only shaped scientific research… [it] has been a site where practitioners defined the very idea of modern science.” A natural history of Nature was long overdue.

If Nature shaped the business of science, the converse is also true. The hope of its founder, astronomer Norman Lockyer, in 1869, was that the journal would speak to “men of science” (a deliberately gendered label) and lay readers alike. But few leading scientists showed much inclination or aptitude to write for the non-specialist (plus ça change), and within a decade most contributions to Nature were beyond the ken of the educated public. As physicist Oliver Lodge professed in 1893, “Perhaps few are able to say that they read Nature all the way through as Mr. Darwin did.” By extension, few were equipped to contribute either: parsons reporting the first robin of spring were no longer welcomed, and as Baldwin says, “Nature was a key site where the qualifications for membership in British science were proposed, debated, and established.”

Nature’s purpose and status depended on who chose to contribute. It was lucky to attract the patronage of New Zealand-born physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose ambitions to establish priority for his discoveries in nuclear physics and radioactivity were well served by its rapid publication times. Sir John Maddox, the (non-contiguous) editor from 1966 to 1995, attested that one of its greatest early assets was the speed of the Royal Mail.

What ultimately distinguished it, however, was character. As Maddox, who revitalized Nature’s flagging reputation as a place for scientific news, gossip and controversy, put it, “A journal really has to have an opinion.” That, more than the quality or significance of published papers, is what has set it apart from its American rival Science, established in conscious imitation in 1880 but, as the official organ of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, less free to ruffle feathers.

Baldwin convincingly demonstrates that the story of Nature is the story of how science has been reported and to who, of science’s authority, conduct and sense of internationalism. In short, it is about the position of science in society. The journal’s editors, of whom there have been just seven, have been key to this role. Both Maddox and Sir Richard Gregory, editor from 1919 to 1938, had an acute sense of how to situate the journal at the centre of current scientific debates. All the same, Baldwin risks making same mistake as many of the journal’s would-be contributors in imagining that the editorial position was monolithic and determined by the editor; in reality, the modern Nature has also been shaped by a strong-willed staff, sometimes through stormy internal conflict.

Happily, though, she gives due credit to Maddox’s erstwhile assistant Mary Sheehan, who often seemed the only person capable of holding the maverick editor in check. By the late 1980s his office had become a black hole for submissions, stacked high with loose papers. Somewhere in there a promised special issue on the Chernobyl accident vanished, to my knowledge forever.

That John Maddox was so unpredictable and stubborn did nothing to deter the loyalty and affection he induced in his editors. It was often frustrating and infuriating to work for him, but it was never dull. His journalistic instincts might sometimes have got the better of him, but usually they were sharper than those of his younger staff, who he doubtless often felt were too conservative and timid.

The modern Nature is covered only sketchily here. Its current editor Philip Campbell has been in the post for two decades, yet is denied the analysis awarded to all his predecessors. The expansion of the journal into the Nature Publishing Group, with almost 40 spin-off publications now bearing the "Nature" brand, is as important a development as anything that happened in the journal’s earlier history, but is awarded only a paragraph.

This neglect of the near-present is odd, since there is no shortage of stories, nor of witnesses to them. The battle with the Sunday Times over its AIDS denial shamefully indulged by Andrew Neil, de-recognition of the editors’ trade union in the Thatcherite 1990s, the takeover of Macmillan by the Holtzbrinck group – all are overlooked. Perhaps the biggest lacuna is the absence of debate about the dominant role today of “prestige” journals like Nature and Science in scientific tenure and grant decisions. Nobel laureate biologist Randy Schekman recently announced a self-imposed boycott, somehow forgetting that this inflated influence has been awarded by no one but his own colleagues and community. For better or worse, they are still making Nature.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Not so spooky

The impressive experiments described in a preprint by Ronald Hanson at Delft and colleagues have been widely reported (for example, here and here) as if to imply that they confirm quantum “spooky action at a distance” (in other words, entanglement). With all due respect to my excellent colleagues (who of course don’t write their own headlines), this is not true.

Einstein’s phrase is of course too nice to resist. But there’s a clue here. Einstein? You, know, the guy who wasn’t convinced by the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics that reality is just what we can measure, and that nothing deeper lies “beneath”? Einstein, who suspected that there might be “hidden variables” that restore local properties to the quantum world?

Einstein’s “spooky action at a distance” was predicated on that view. It was action at a distance if, via this thing we call (that is, which Schrödinger called) entanglement, an influence at one location (via a measurement) is transmitted instantaneously to another. Only in some kind of local or hidden-variables view do you need to invoke that picture.

Quantum nonlocality – which is what is supported by a violation of Bell’s inequality, and what the new experiments now confirm by closing another of the loopholes that could have permitted a violation in other circumstances – is not spooky action at a distance, but the alternative to it. It says that we can’t always characterise the properties of a particle in ways local to that particle: its state is a smeared-out thing (to put it crudely) that may be correlated with the state of another distant particle. And so it appears to be. In this view, there is no action at a distance when we make a measurement on one particle – rather, there are nonlocal quantum correlations with the state of another. It is hard to find words for this. But they are not “spooky action at a distance.”

I don’t expect these words to make a blind bit of difference, but here they are anyway.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Songwriting by numbers

Can a crowd write a song? That’s what an online experiment by computer programmer Brendon Ferris in the Dominican Republic is hoping to determine. Users are invited to vote on the notes of a melody, one note at a time, and the most popular choice secures the next note. The melody is selected to fit an anodyne chord sequence, and as far as I can make out the choices of notes are restricted to those in the major scale of C, the key signature of the composition. I’m not sure if the notes are allowed to stray out of the single octave range beginning on middle C (the New Scientist article provides very few details), but so far they haven’t. In other words, the rules are set up to ensure that this will be a pretty crappy song come what may, with all the melodic invention and vocal range of Morrissey (oh ouch, that’s not going to be popular!).

Even putting that aside, the experiment bears no relation to how music is composed. No one decides on a melody note by note, or at least not outside of the extremes of, say, total serialism, where everything is determined algorithmically. Neither do we hear a melody that way. We group or “chunk” the notes into phrases, and one of the most salient aspects of a melodic line that we attend to – it’s what infants first discern, irrespective of the exact relationships between successive pitches – is the overall contour. Does it go up or down? Is the pitch jump a big or small one? The melodic phrase is, in general, a single meaningful unit, and its musicality disappears once it is atomized into notes. The very basis of our musicality lies in our propensity to arrange sound stimuli into groups: to bind notes together.

But this doesn’t mean that the experiment is worthless (even if it’s worthless as music). It potentially raises some interesting questions (though as I say below, the answers in this case are highly compromised by the constraints). Will this democratic approach to making melody result in a tune that shares the characteristics of other conventional tonal melodies? In other words, can the crowd as a whole intuit the “rules” that seem empirically to guide melodic composition? It seems that to a certain extent they can. For example:

- the crowdsourced melody (to the extent that can be judged so far) exhibits the same kind of arch contour as many common tunes (think of “Ode to Joy” or “The Grand Old Duke of York”, say), rising at the start and then falling at the end of the phrase.

- the contours tend to be fairly smooth: an ascent, once started, persists for several notes in the same direction, before eventually reversing.

- the statistics of pitch jumps between one note and the next exhibit the same general pattern, within the limited statistics so far, as is seen for music pretty universally: that’s to say, there are more small pitch steps than large ones, with most being just zero, one or two semitones (especially two, since this corresponds to the distance between most successive note pairs in the diatonic scale). Here’s the comparison: the statistics for a sample of Western classical music are shown in grey, the thick black line is for this song:

But there are some anomalies, like those weird downward jumps of a seventh, which I suspect are a consequence of a silly restriction on the span of the allowed note to exclude the upper note of the tonic octave: you have to go back down to C because you can’t go up. So perhaps all we really learn in this case is totally unsurprising: people have assimilated enough from nursery rhymes not to be picking notes at random or putting rests in weird places, they have intuited some basic principles of harmony (so that we’re not getting B naturals against an F chord), and that if you permit only the blandest of note choices against the blandest of chord sequences, you’ll get a tune that is of no real interest to anyone.

That’s the opposite of what Ferris was hoping for. “My way of thinking was, if the crowd decides what the next note is, then there must be something there that appeals to the most people,” he has said. “The song should sound good to everybody.” But even if the rules weren’t so badly chosen, this totally misunderstands what music is about. What snags our attention is not the obvious, the consensual, the average, but the unusual, the unexpected. But that can’t be arbitrary: there are also rules of a sort that help to make the unexpected work and prevent it from seeming unmotivated. Whether the crowd could, if given the right options, find its way to that sort of inventiveness remains to be seen; I’d be astonished if it could do so note by note.

Something of this same nature was tried before, with more insight, by the avant-garde jazz musician David Soldier, who is the pseudonym of the neuroscientist David Sulzer at Columbia University. Sulzer wrote a song based on surveys of hundreds of people to discover what elements, such as instrumentation, tempo and lyrics they liked best. He called the result "Most Wanted Song". I haven’t heard it myself, but some people have described it as a sickly abomination, while others have said that it sounds a bit like Celine Dion. Which I suppose is the same thing.

Sulzer’s whole point is that trying to define the perfect song according to some kind of measure of popularity is liable to end badly. I think Ferris is discovering that too.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The cost of faking it

Here, a little belatedly, is my July column for Nature Materials, which considers the issues around bioprinting of fake rhino horn.


Debates about distinctions between “natural” and “synthetic” materials date back to antiquity, when Plato and Aristotle wondered if human “art” can rival that of nature. Scepticism about alchemists’ claims to make gold in the Middle Ages weren’t so much about whether their gold was “real” but whether it could compare in quality to natural gold. Such questions persisted into the modern age, for example in painters’ initial suspicions of synthetic ultramarine and in current consumer confusion over the integrity of synthesized natural products such as vitamin C.

It is all too easy for materials technologists to overlook the fact that what to them seems like a question of chemical identity is for users often as much a matter of symbolism. Luxury materials become such because of their cost, not their composition, while attitudes to the synthetic/natural distinction are hostage to changing fashions and values. The market for fake fur expanded in the 1970s as a result of a greater awareness of animal conservation and cruelty, but providing a synthetic alternative was not without complications and controversy. Some animal-rights groups argue that even fakes perpetuate an aesthetic that feeds the real-fur market, while recently there has been a rise in real fur being passed off as faux – a striking inversion of values – to capture the market of “ethical” fur fans. The moral – familiar to marketeers and economists if less so to materials scientists – is that market forces are dictated by much more than chemical composition.

These considerations resonate strongly in the current debate over plans by Seattle-based bioengineering company Pembient to use 3D printing for making fake rhinoceros horn from keratin. The company hopes to reduce rhino poaching by providing a synthetic alternative that, by some accounts, is virtually indistinguishable in composition, appearance and smell from the real thing. It claims that 45% of rhino horn traders have said they would buy the substitute. How to interpret that figure, even taken at face value, is unclear: will it help save the rhino, or does it show that over half of the buyers value something more than material identity? In the black-market Chinese and Vietnamese medicines that use the horn, it is supposed to imbue the drugs with an essence of the wild animal’s vitality: it is not just an ingredient in the same sense as egg is a part of cake mix, but imparts potency and status.

The same is true of the tiger bone traded illegally for medicines and wine. Even providing the real thing in a way that purports to curb the threat to wildlife, as for example when tigers are farmed in China to supposedly relieve the pressure on wild populations, can backfire in the marketplace: some experts say that tiger farming has revitalized what was a waning demand.

Critics of Pembient’s plans – the company intends to print tiger bone too – make similar complaints, saying that the objective should be to change the culture that creates a demand for these products rather than pandering to it. There’s surely a risk here of unintended outcomes in manipulating markets, but also a need to remember that materials, when they enter culture, become more than what they’re made of.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Liquid-state particle physics

Here’s my latest column for Nature Materials.


The ability of condensed-matter physics to offer models for fundamental and particle physics has a distinguished history. Arguably it commenced with the liquid-droplet model of the atomic nucleus formulated in 1936 by Niels Bohr, which provided a simple approximation for thinking about nuclear stability and fission in terms of familiar concepts such as surface tension and heat of vaporization. Since then, real materials systems have offered all manner of laboratory analogues for exploring fundamental physical phenomena that lie outside the range of direct experimentation: for example, the use of liquid crystals to mimic the topological defects of cosmic strings and monopoles [1], the representation of graphene’s electronic structure in terms of massless relativistic Dirac fermions [2], or the way topological insulators made from oxide materials might manifest the same properties as Majorana fermions, putative spin-½ particles that are their own antiparticles [3].

These cases and others supply an elegant demonstration that physics is unified not so much by reduction to a small set of underlying equations describing its most fundamental entities, but by universal principles operating at many scales, of which symmetry breaking, phase transitions and collective phenomena are the most obvious. It’s perhaps curious, then, that particle physics has traditionally focused on individual rather than collective states – as Ollitrault has recently put it, “on rare events and the discovery of new elementary particles, rather than the “bulk” of particles” [4]. One indication that bulk properties are as important for high-energy physics as for materials science, he suggests, is the new discovery by the CMS Collaboration at CERN in Geneva that the plasma of quarks and gluons created by a proton collision with a lead nucleus has emergent features characteristic of a liquid [5].

It was initially expected that the quark-gluon plasma (QGP) – a soup of the fundamental constituents of nucleons – produced in collisions of heavy nuclei would resemble a gas. In this case, as in an ideal gas, the “bulk” properties of the plasma can be derived rather straightforwardly from those of its individual components. But instead the QGP turns out to be more like a liquid, in which many-body effects can’t be neglected.

Shades of Bohr, indeed. But how many many-body terms are relevant? Earlier studies of the tiny blob of QGP formed in lead-proton collisions, containing just 1,000 or so fundamental particles, showed significant two-particle correlations [6]. But in an ordinary liquid, hydrodynamic flow produces coherent structures in which the motions of many molecules are correlated. The new CMS results show that the QGP also has small but measurable six- and eight-body correlations – suggestive of collective flow effects – that are evident in the variations in particle numbers with the azimuthal angle relative to the line of collision. The azimuthal variations indicate that this flow is anisotropic, and the CMS team proposes that the anisotropy comes from a hydrodynamic amplification of random quantum fluctuations of the colliding particles.

So exactly what kind of liquid is this? Since the strong force between quarks and gluons doesn’t diminish with distance, the QGP seems likely to be quite unlike any we know so far. But might it be within the wit of colloid scientists to tune inter-particle forces so as to create a simple laboratory analogue?

1. Davis, A.-C. & Brandenberger, R. Formation and Interactions of Topological Defects (Springer, New York, 2012).
2. Novoselov, K. S. et al., Nature 438, 197-200 (2005).
3. Fu, L. & Kane, C. L., Phys. Rev. Lett. 100, 096407 (2008).
4. Ollitrault, J.-Y., (2015) [here].
5. Khachatryan, V. et al. (CMS Collaboration), Phys. Rev. Lett. 115, 012301 (2015) [here].
6. CMS Collaboration, Phys. Lett. B 718, 795-814 (2013).

Added note: Jean-Yves Ollitrault reminds me that perhaps the best example of particle physics borrowing from condensed-matter physics is the Higgs mechanism, which was inspired by the model of conventional superconductivity.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Silence of the geronotologists

I was perhaps a bit cryptic in tweeting about my New Statesman piece on “the immortality business” (which I’m afraid I can’t put up here, but it should be online soon – and NS is always worth its modest cover price anyway). This is what I meant.

When I pester researchers for comments on a topic I’m writing about, I recognize of course that none is under the slightest obligation to respond. That they almost always do (even if it’s to apologize for being unable to help) is a testament to the extraordinary generosity of the research community, and is one of the abiding joys and privileges of writing about science – my impression is that some other disciplines don’t fully share this willingness to explain and discuss their work. Occasionally I do simply get no response at all from a researcher, although it is unusual that a gentle follow-up enquiry will not at least elicit an explanation that the person concerned is too busy or otherwise indisposed to comment.

That’s why my experience in writing this piece was so clearly anomalous. I contacted a large number of gerontologists and others working on ageing, explaining what I was trying to do with this piece. With the very few honourable exceptions named in my article, none responded at all. (One other did at least have the grace to pretend that this was “not really my field”, despite that being self-evidently untrue.) I am almost certain that this is because these folks have decided that any “journalist” contacting them while mentioning names like Aubrey de Grey wants to write another uncritical piece about how he and others like him are going to conquer ageing.

I can understand this fear, especially in the light of what I said in the article: some researchers feel that even allowing the immortalists the oxygen of publicity is counter-productive. But truly, chaps, burying your head in the sand is the worst way to deal with this. A blanket distrust of the press, while to some degree understandable, just takes us back to the bad old days of adversarial science communication, the kind of “us versus them” mentality that, several years ago, I saw John Sulston so dismayingly portray at a gathering of scientists and science writers. What researchers need to do instead is to be selective and discerning: to decide that all writers are going to recycle the same old rubbish is not only silly but damaging to the public communication of science. I would even venture to say that, in figuring out how to deal with the distortions and misrepresentations that science sometimes undoubtedly suffers from, scientists need help. While it is understandable that, say, IVF pioneer Robert Edwards should have bemoaned the way “Frankenstein or Faust or Jekyll… [loom] over every biological debate”, I see little indication that biologists and medics really know how to grapple with that fact rather than just complain about it. You really need to talk to us, guys – we will (some of us) do our very best to help.