Thursday, September 24, 2009

First potential AIDS vaccine

This just came off the press:
A new AIDS vaccine tested on more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand has protected a significant minority against infection, the first time any vaccine against the disease has even partly succeeded in a clinical trial...Col. Jerome H. Kim, a physician who is manager of the army’s H.I.V. vaccine program, said half the 16,402 volunteers were given six doses of two vaccines in 2006 and half were given placebos. They then got regular tests for the AIDS virus for three years. Of those who got placebos, 74 became infected, while only 51 of those who got the vaccines did. Results of the trial of the vaccine, known as RV 144, were released at 2 a.m. Eastern time Thursday in Thailand by the partners that ran the trial, by far the largest of an AIDS vaccine: the United States Army, the Thai Ministry of Public Health, Dr. Fauci’s institute, and the patent-holders in the two parts of the vaccine, Sanofi-Pasteur and Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases.
However this also came off the same press:
Scientists said they were delighted but puzzled by the result. The vaccine — a combination of two genetically engineered vaccines, neither of which had worked before in humans — protected too few people to be declared an unqualified success. And the researchers do not know why it worked...The most confusing aspect of the trial, Dr. Kim said, was that everyone who did become infected developed roughly the same amount of virus in their blood whether they got the vaccine or a placebo. Normally, any vaccine that gives only partial protection — a mismatched flu shot, for example — at least lowers the viral load.
Nevertheless, after a decade of failures, at least it's a definite starting point scientifically.

Labels: ,

Sunday, September 20, 2009

One day left before the singularity

Image Hosted by

Image Hosted by

Stay tuned for it at 9:30 PM on CBS


Thursday, September 17, 2009

Missile shield to be scrapped

It's a great day. This piece of news makes me feel extremely gratified as I am sure it does many others. Missile defense against ICBMs has been an eternal bug that has bitten almost every President since 1960. The Bush administration had aggressively pushed plans to implement a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. There has always been evidence that the efficacy of such a shield will ultimately be severely limited by the basic laws of physics, and that the adversary can essentially and cheaply overwhelm the defense with decoys and countermeasures.

I have written about these limitations and studies about them several times before (see below). The best article arguing against the European missile shield is a May 2008 article by Theodore Postol and George Lewis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (free PDF here).

And as arms expert Pavel Podvig succinctly wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists only three days back, it's not just about the technology, but it's about a fundamentally flawed concept:
"The fundamental problem with the argument is that missile defense will never live up to its expectations. Let me say that again: Missile defense will never make a shred of difference when it comes to its primary mission--protecting a country from the threat of a nuclear missile attack. That isn't to say that advanced sensors and interceptors someday won't be able to deal with sophisticated missiles and decoys. They probably will. But again, this won't overcome the fundamental challenge of keeping a nation safe against a nuclear threat, because it would take only a small probability of success to make such a threat credible while missile defense would need to offer absolute certainty of protection to truly be effective...It's understandable that people often talk about European missile defense as one of the ways in which to deal with the missile threat posed by Iran. Or that someday missile defense could provide insurance for nuclear disarmament--this is the vision that Ronald Reagan had. When framed in this way, missile defense seems like a promising way out of difficult situations. But this promise is false. If a real confrontation ever comes about (and let's hope it never happens), we quickly would find out that missile defense offers no meaningful protection whatsoever".
Now the Obama administration has decided to scrap the unworkable shield and has decided to replace it with a much more realistic defense against short-range missiles. I cannot imagine how gratified this must make the scores of scientists, engineers and policy officials who have long argued against the feasibility of the shield. It also signals a huge shift in Bush-era foreign policy. Notice how the administration has diplomatically and shrewdly avoided mentioning the basic failures of the earlier system.

Unfortunately, the sordid history of missile defense and the inherent satisfaction that seems to stem by arguing in favor of a "shield" to protect the population makes me skeptical in believing that the concept is dead forever. But for now, there is peace in our time and this is a significant breakthrough.

Past posts on missile defense:
Made For Each Other
Missile Defense: The Eternal Bug
Holes in the Whole Enterprise
Czechs halt missile shield progress

Labels: , ,

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Can natural sciences be taught without recourse to evolution?

That's the question for a discussion over the American Philosophical Society museum website. I think the answer to the question would have to be no. Now of course that does not mean it's technically impossibly; after all before Darwin natural sciences were taught without recourse to evolution. But evolution ties together all the threads like nothing else, and to teach the natural sciences without it would be to present disparate facts without really connecting them together. It would be like presenting someone with a map of a city without a single road in it.

In fact natural sciences were largely taught to us without recourse to evolution during our high school and college days. Remember those reams of facts about the anatomy of obscure animals that we had to memorize. If it wasn't the hydra it was the mouse. If not the mouse then the paramecium. I can never resent my biology teachers enough for not connecting all these animals and their features through the lens of evolution. What a world of difference it would have made if the beauty of the unity of life would have been made evident by citing the evolutionary relationships between all these exotic creatures.

In fact "Evolution" was nothing more than a set of two clumsy textbook chapters that got many of the details wrong and left countless other facts wanting. Granted, some of the teachers at least had good intentions, but they just didn't get it. Teaching biology without constantly referring to evolution is like asking someone to learn about a world without using language. Would you teach physics without recourse to mathematics? Then you should not teach biology without recourse to evolution, at least not in the twenty first century.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Olivia Judson on "Creation"

Image Hosted by

Olivia Judson is a science writer and research associate at Imperial College London who has written excellent articles on biology and evolution for the NYT as well as the entertaining and informative book "Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation". She seems to like the new movie on Charles Darwin, "Creation", in which the real life couple of Jennifer Connelly and Paul Bettany star as Darwin's wife Emma and Charles. Interestingly Bettany did a fine job playing a Darwin-like naturalist and doctor in the film "Master and Commander".

Darwin's relationship with his wife was admirable and interesting because although she was always devoutly religious and he increasingly was not, their marriage was largely warm and affectionate throughout their lives. In typical scientific fashion, he had drawn up a list of pros and cons before marrying her and decided the pros outweighed the cons. Emma who had taken piano lessons from Chopin provided marital stability while Charles labored over The Origin.

In the movie, I think Connelly is too attractive to play Emma but that's a relatively minor point. My greater concern was with the scientific accuracy in the movie and whether it might turn out to be overwrought and unduly dramatised. However Judson largely mitigates my fears.
Unlike most biographies of Darwin, its central event is not the publication of the “Origin,” but the death of Darwin’s adored eldest daughter, Annie, at the age of 10. She died in 1851 after nine months of a mysterious illness; at the time of her death, she was not at home, but in the English spa town of Malvern, where she had been sent for treatment.

Annie’s death is also the central event of this beautifully shot film. For “Creation” is not a didactic film: its main aim is not the public understanding of Darwin’s ideas, but a portrait of a bereaved man and his family. The man just happens to be one of the most important thinkers in human history.

Which isn’t to say that Darwin’s ideas don’t feature. We see him dissecting barnacles, preparing pigeon skeletons, meeting pigeon breeders and talking to scientific colleagues. He visits the London zoo, where he plays a mouth organ to Jenny, an orangutan; at home, he takes notes on Annie as a baby (Does she laugh? Does she recognize herself in the mirror?). He teaches his children about geology and beetles, makes them laugh with tales of his adventures in South America, and shows them how to walk silently in a forest so as to sneak up on wild animals.

At the same time, we see his view of nature — a wasteful, cruel, violent place, where wasps lay their eggs in the living flesh of caterpillars, chicks fall from the nest and die of starvation, and the fox kills and eats the rabbit.

But all this is merely the backdrop to the story of a man convulsed by grief.
Thus the movie really seems to focus on Darwin's relationship with his family and especially with his beloved and favorite daughter who unfortunately died an untimely death as a child. According to most accounts, this was a focal point in Darwin's conversion to being a non-believer and the movie seems to dwell on the pain and conflict that Darwin experienced during this event.

It's probably easy to forget that along with being one of the greatest minds in history, Darwin was also an unsually kind, modest and gentle soul and a devoted family man. Seems like this movie will do a good job of underscoring this fact as well as entertaining audiences with some of Darwin's scientific explorations.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The beat of a different drum

Jagdish Mehra's biography of Feynman, "The Beat of a Different Drum" is one of the more notable biographies of the great man around, with James Gleick's "Genius" being better known to the general public. There is also an excellent biography of Feynman by John and Mary Gribbin. But there seems to be an acrimonious debate in the comments sections of the Amazon reviews of Mehra's book. Essentially they boil down to Neil Mehra, Jagdish Mehra's son, vehemently lambasting anyone who thinks it's not a good biography and who instead happens to praise Gleick's biography.

Mehra cannot stop praising his father enough and constantly noting that he personally knew the greatest physicists of the century including Feynman himself for thirty years. Apparently Feynman used to hold Mehra in very high regard. To be honest, Mehra junior's constant and extreme praise for his father and condescension towards others get a little tiresome after a while, but I have to admit that I remember being fascinated and very impressed with this book when I discovered it in the library of IISc. on a lazy afternoon in the summer of 2002. There are some parts in the book which are full of equations and would be comprehensible only to a theoretical physicist; this thus seems to be the only scientific as well as personal biography of Feynman around as such. Interestingly Silvan Schweber (author of a scientific biography of the men who developed quantum electrodynamics) gave this book a scathing review in Physics Today and berated Mehra for apparently neglecting Gleick's book, and Mehra responded with a clearly angry rejoinder. Mehra noted that the great Hans Bethe (who was one of Feynman's close mentors) had asked Mehra to help Gleick with his Feynman biography.

I of course like Gleick's biography a lot but Mehra junior, notwithstanding his rants, has a point; unlike Mehra who definitely knew Feynman well, Gleick hadn't met the man at all, and I would think this would definitely impact his portrayal of Feynman and make Mehra's portrayal a better one in some respects. Unlike Gleick, Mehra also certainly knew enough physics to actually understand Feynman's work and set it in its correct scientific context. Mehra was also uniquely familiar with the history of physics (and much older than Gleick), edited or wrote several biographies of physicists, and co-authored a magisterial and definitive six-volume conceptual history of quantum mechanics. From a scientific standpoint Mehra was undoubtedly better equipped to understand Feynman's scientific development.

However, a scientific biography is also more than laying out just the science. From what I remember, Gleick was simply the better writer, had a better style and a novelist's eye for detail; consider his fascinating and sparkling narrative in "Chaos". This of course does not make Mehra's biography any less accurate or preempt his understanding of physics and its history but it makes Gleick's book more attractive and accessible to laymen. In the end Mehra was the better physicist and Gleick was the better writer. In any case, this bitter debate has again fueled my desire to read the volume and I have ordered a used copy from Amazon and am eagerly awaiting it.

Is personal acquaintance an important prerequisite for writing a good biography? I think that in general it is, but there also seem to be great counterexamples; Richard Rhodes's famous book for instance does a great job in describing several scientists like Oppenheimer and Bohr who the author had not met. Books like Gleick and Rhodes should encourage young writers to write about historial subjects who they may not have been personally acquainted with.

Labels: , , ,