Tag Archives: science

Age of Excessions Interlude: Biology, or the Drugs Win the Drug War.

Understanding what the Venter Institute really did today

The short answer is that they created a wholly synthetic genome and put it in a yeast cell. This goes towards creating a minimal cell; figuring out how little DNA you need to make a barebones organism. This leaves lots of extra possible genetic space to making that minimal cell do stuff we want, whether it be pee out biofuels or Prozac, eat Gulf of Mexico oil, or glow in the presence of melamine, cancer, or anger. With a minimal and reusable platform, doing any of these things just becomes a coding problem. And not even a novel coding problem, because we already have Nature to reverse engineer from. Nature uses the same platform, and at some point or another has already solved all these problems.

It’s techno-exciting, but fundamentally, it’s the next level of fine-grained resolution on the control of our environment, which has been our species’ trick from the beginning. Venter and his cohort are trying to replace petroleum, (and control the replacement, and pretty much rule the world as a result) and others are trying to create complex cancer fighting biologics. Some sweet, wonderful people from the nicer parts of biomed are even trying to figure out how to make a cheap suite of biologic drugs to treat the horrible helminthic NTDs (Neglected Tropical Diseases) that are destroying the lives of about 1.5 billion of the world’s poor. This task will be made vastly simpler with a platform like the minimal cell, at least in theory.

But there’s a paradox built into our tendency to seek more environmental control. The more control we have, the more unpredictable our world becomes. This is because all the other humans with their unpredictable and hidden desires can now also control our environment.

While biopunditry is talking about biofuel, cancer treatment, and growing extinct mammoths, I wanted to bring the implications of this work out of the towers of ivory and industry and down to earth.

Today, we lost the drug war. Oh, it will run around for a while, unaware that it is dead, but we have decisively lost.

You know what’s a lot easier than all the high minded business about environment, or life extension, or even the scary doomsday 12 Monkeys scenarios? Growing simpler molecule drugs. I don’t mean like aspirin, I mean like heroin and cocaine, THC and hallucinogens. They already grow in plants thoroughly studied, and people are motivated and not at all risk averse about getting those sequences somewhere they can use them. Cooking meth is hard and dangerous science compared to the ability to get a starter of a minimal cell that poops heroin and feeding it growth medium in your closet. We may have lost the drug war, but not as badly as the drug lords have.

It’s still hard to grow drugs in medium. But the whole point of this project is to make it easier. Who will be motivated to put in the work to make it happen? Especially if it’s so bad for organized crime? Drug addicts, frankly. You think they look like street junkies with DTs, but a fair number look like scientists, because they are. Drugs will finally be p2p, and governments and drug lords alike will find out what it’s like to be media companies and counterfeiters in a world of lossless copying and 100Mb pipes. Junkies will be victims of their success, and if we don’t get serious about treating addiction instead of trying to fight chemicals, it’s going to look a lot more bloody and horrid than the RIAA’s lawsuit factory. This is just one vision of what this kind of disruption looks like when people get a hold of it.

What synthbio is inventing right now is the true Bittorrent for things. It’s a platform for generating and sharing materials just this side of geology, since nearly everything but rocks is made by life. Right now you can think of it has having an interface so bad only a few people in the world can actually use it, and our hope for being in control is that the interface stays bad as long as possible. In the history of technology, that has rarely worked in the long term.

Craig Venter is not, despite his press, the smartest guy on the planet. He is not savant like, leaps and bounds in front of everyone and everything else. He isn’t the only one working on this. He’s maybe slightly in front, but probably not. If he is, it’s by inches. This is perhaps his Trinity, or the proof of concept right before it. It’s momentous, but it won’t stay contained.

This is on the scale of nukes, but not for long. Nukes are hard to build, requiring mind-boggling equipment and leave a kind of scent where ever they go. They can only really be used for magawatt power generation, and blowing shit up. Bio can be used for nearly anything you, me, or Charlie Stross can dream up. Imagine trying to stop proliferation if the atomic material centrifuges literally grew on trees and the fissile material floated freely through the air, and tended to show up in great amounts on bread you left out too long.

When you think of this, you can think of seeing a dodo someday, or Jurassic Park, or even taking a drug that a doctor grew just for you. But keep in mind the strangeness of the human imagination and the strength of human desires. A thousand weird Somas are coming, too.

The Age of Excessions

Part One: The question and the answer.

While this essay represents bits of 18 years of thinking and observing human institutions responding to the various forces I’ve encountered (primary in technology and medicine) I was prompted to write it in response to a question a man asked me last summer at a conference on the future. His question, roughly put, was this: How do you tell what institutions are about to get disrupted? My answer, equally paraphrased was this: any part of an institution that was there to facilitate information is going to go away in favor of the internet. This answer was both too general in that I never really explained what facilitating information meant or how the internet would destroy it, and too specific, because I only talked about the internet, as if it were the only technological force looming over these institutions.

What follows is a longer reply to the question about the fates of institutions, past, present, and future. I believe we are entering an age where these disruptions come at a speed we’ve never dealt with before. It’s bountiful in destruction and utopianism. It’s a stochastic time, with too much of everything. These changes so severe they break social institutions before new institutions can evolve. These changes are so many, it’s the defining characteristic of the age: an age of excessions.

An excession is something that exceeds the current frame of reference, and therefore wrecks it. I’ve stolen the word from the illimitable writer and thinker Iaim M. Banks, but it’s not my intention to attribute my definition to him. For my purposes an excession doesn’t have to just come from outside the frame of reference, like the WWII troops that landed on Micronesian islands bearing Cargo. They can also arise internally, like puberty. As a matter of fact, laying aside the occasional meteorite, hurricane, or well armed British explorer, almost all do arise from colliding forces inside humanity. But they all feel like the weather, an unpredictable thing outside our comprehension or control that tends to smack us around without warning. Many excessions arise from colliding forces of social power structures and technological progress. One of the reasons that so many excessions are so surprising is that politicians and technologists usually think they are where the really important stuff is, their worlds providing the invisible climate to each other. There are other spheres that provide more invisible climate, but even trying to talk about these two is confusing enough to start with. Technology and politics are incredibly compelling, and looking closely at either will convince anyone that they’ve found the cornerstone to history, stories of progress that really explain what’s going on, and what they can’t explain was random chance or the hidden variables- more weather. If a political thinker looks at the history of New York in the mid-century they uncover Robert Moses as an explanation of everything. A technologist looks at the same story and sees the inevitable result of advances in building materials and automobile engineering. Arguing who really has history figured out between the two is like arguing nature and nurture in children- turns out to be incoherent and not as interesting as you think. I will try very hard not to do that.

The greatest institutions meet one of history’s poltergeists

In the 1980s the nascent social force of the internet entered a world of unprecedented consolidations. Nation-states, corporations, and even religions were larger and more coherent than at any other time in history. Partly that was the first order effect of rising population levels, but it was came from the need for cohesion in scaled up societies. We were not merely millions of Americans together, we were part of the capitalist faction of humanity, employees of megacorporations, and citizens of a government so sprawling it couldn’t be held in the mind. One of the benefits of the project that both consolidated and segmented the world is that we could substitute categories for people, something the modern mind needed desperately.

The 19th and 20th centuries had done something disturbing to humanity; it had made us aware of there being so many more people than we could ever know or form opinions of. Even if you managed to spend your life in in the village of your birth and not know more than 150 people (and fewer of us could manage that) you now had more and more a sense of the oppressive other. There were millions of people out there, then billions, a crush of humanity that the social human mind couldn’t take in. Being able to make simple statements like ‘capitalists are like me, communists are evil’ was a way of managing the terrible weight of the unknowable other. Capitalism itself was an attempt to scale social institutions to keep up with populations, as was socialism. They were the organizational systems humans desperately latched onto to deal with the sudden logistical problems of there being so damn many of us.

We often think of this process of happening slowly, but if you were to extend the history of humanity back to the founding of civilization at 12,000 years, or reasonably even to the beginning of our speciation around 200,000 years ago, the last 200-300 years suddenly looks like what it is- the adaptation of human institutions at a breakneck pace. For the first time changes routinely lapped generations. The elders couldn’t even recognize the world they’d always been meant to comment on. Their roles of wisdom were stunted: the world they knew so much about was gone.

The internet (and here I include the greater telephony it’s part of) was about accelerate and rearrange everything it touched, creating and collapsing scaling problems in institutions like a mad poltergeist of history. Not necessarily via the usually discussed channels, like blogging, but by rendering obsolete the mass infrastructure of information wherever the net arrived. The middle layer of communication and cultural cohesion that had once been the largest, richest, most articulate part of the economy and culture was rendered obsolete without even the courtesy of being dismantled. Overnight, the conduits not only ceased to be conduits, they became barriers, without ever changing their behavior. Tt was as if the world had spun 180 degrees around them. People don’t handle this sort of thing well. In fact, they kind of go crazy.

Next: The first time you ever heard of the RIAA

The once and future of scientific publishing

Science as an act of public participation

The idea of open science began with The Royal Society of London, an idiosyncratic groups of talkative 17th century Gentlemen Scientists. Mostly they were the middling upper class – third sons of lords, a group that had more free time than responsibility. They met in a hall to talk about science, read letters from absent colleagues and perform experiments in front of each other. They were so taken with the idea that a theory should be judged on its merits rather than the status of the person advancing it that they started a journal in 1665- the Philosophical Transactions- whose articles were chosen by a review of expert peers rather than the eminence of the presenter. The Royal Society’s motto is “Nullius in Verba,” Latin for “On the words of no one.”

Since then science changed all of society, and the barriers to understanding and participation have steadily declined. Charles Darwin was probably the last of the Gentlemen Scientists. He published The Origin of the Species just 10 years before Nature first rolled off the press as one of the early modern scientific journals. From there the standards of rigor would solidify, and science would move into the academy. The 19th century was the death knell of the class system barrier to scientific participation. This changed how we fundamentally saw science- no longer the pursuit of Great (Smart) Men of history. Progress became the many dots of published research that made up the pointillist portrait of the natural world, conveyed largely by the journal. The next century exploded as a result.

A search on the Nature website alone turns up references to over 370,000 articles across a meager 72 journals. The largest publisher, Elsevier publishes over 2200 journals1. Elsevier’s motto, which dates back to the 17th century, is “Non solus,” Latin for “not alone.” It’s a beautiful motto for the 400 year old peer review system. Science required a community, it could only really happens when we are not alone.

The net brought this community to a new place, a place where a layer of mediation (publishers) can be safely removed. This is the Open Access movement. Open Access is about scientific publishing being quickly posted online, freely available to all comers. It’s peer reviewed in some cases, not in others.

Compared to the rich history of the Royal Society and Elsevier, the world of Open Access journals is tiny and new. But the internet is changing the space between scientists, which in time will change the shape of science entirely. According to eprints.org there at 753 open archives of research, and many of those are small archives with little more than minutes of local scientific society meetings. The largest of these, arXiv.org, boasts 388,000 articles2, but no peer-review.

arXiv.org started as a “preprint” area, but evolved into the place where physics and math can iterate quickly, making math and physics into a conversation, and the conversation is vibrant. Formal peer review is replaced by constant peer interest. Into this environment came Grisha Perelman’s proof of the PoincarĂ© conjecture. The unlikely proof, along his refusal of the Fields Medal captured the media’s imagination. A portrait of a sensitive and grumpy mathematician came out, someone unwilling to submit to the social processes of science for personal reasons. It didn’t matter how valid those reasons were if it kept him out of the literature- generally, that’s the end of the story. But this time we didn’t have to do without his brilliant math. Importantly, in this story, Perelman isn’t the beneficiary of Open publishing; the rest of us are.

But Open Access publishing isn’t just the subscription model sans subscription fees. It’s a different way of doing science when anyone can potentially point an RSS reader at the latest work, from eminent to downright dodgy. They can mark it up, discuss it, blog it, cross reference it, and even integrate it into their world view- and then head off to breakfast.

It’s jarring, even shocking, to be disrupted this way, and to many it looks like a revolt against the publishers of journals. Historical context suggests something different; that perhaps wide dissemination and opening of the process is just part of the natural progression of scientific dialogue. This step, like each before it, takes advantage of the technology and social shifts of the time, and each step has accelerated the progress and widened the breadth of science. And every step has been scary for those who went to the Academy for stability, as well as the euphoric high of understanding.

For scientists in the developing world, or outside the university system, or just those hungry for speed, it’s resources like arXiv.org that have made them “Non solus.” This is touted as one of the triumphs of Open Access, that people outside the usual sphere of science can finally get the latest research. But in fact, it’s the community of science that benefits the most by swelling their ranks.

Taking research out of the segregating world of the of the journal invites the general public to participate in the act of science. They are no long safely outside the walls of the 19th century’s privileged classes or the 20th century’s academia. They are going to watch and comment. They are going to help, and get in the way. Science trolls will harass legitimate work, celebrity pressure will push publishing popular results on popular topics. Rituals of scientific professionalism will become archaic, the status derived from publishing itself will muddy. But it will all be worth it: every endeavor of research with be at last ‘Non solus’ – no one is alone on the internet. With tools for data analysis and statistical modeling falling into everyone’s hands, novel patterns impossible to see in the walled gardens of journals will emerge. Amateurs whose only qualification is interest will transform every discipline they touch. The public will study science and science will study the public. They will delight each other, they will horrify each other with misappropriation, they will drive each other until they are so fast and wide they are one thing. It will be hectic and unstable. Newly opened doors will require new gatekeepers. What the open form of science will bring us is as beyond our imagination as current daily life would be to Darwin. Here the culture of technology informs the culture of science: this is what open interconnectedness has already done to tech.

Perhaps the most important change will be generational. Children growing up in an environment of open science will have a fundamental scientific literacy that we who have learned to love science like a second language will never fully be able to experience like the native speakers. Not all children, but certainly those that lean that way. The natural reasoning of our grandchildren will baffle us as much as the computer literacy of our children has.

It was a radical departure for science from the appeal to authority to the idea of experimentation and collaboration- a wildly egalitarian idea for the 17th century. To “Nullius in Verba,” (On the words of no one), Open Access might add “Omnium Iudicio”, or “to the judgement of all” – the wild idea of the 21st. Summing up from my 2006 Seed piece: science in the 21st century will be vandalized and common, and better for it.

1. 2006 numbers.
2. Haven’t updated these numbers either. Suffice to say, a lot.

Wait, if it’s the white matter, aren’t women are smarter than men?

There yet another study on intelligence that surely has it nailed down this time.

Surely. Study gives more proof that intelligence is largely inherited – talks about intelligence being determined by the volume of the white matter, and therefore having a high genetic correlation (Let’s not even get into correlation v causation, much less figuring out what the hell intelligence is.) Of course the punchline here is that studies show that women have more white matter than men, so we must just be genetically smarter, right? Except maybe we’re smarter by brain volume than men because we have more grey matter. Confused? That’s brain imaging studies for you. Then again, maybe volume of white v grey only account for a few kinds of intelligence, and we should just stick with good ol’ phrenology for the rest.