Category Archives: Social issues ( be civil ! )

Book recommendation

“It’s complicated”.  No this isn’t about the movie with Meryl Streep but the response I got from several Harvard PhD physicists five years ago at Graduate Alumni Day in April 2014.  A month earlier the BICEP2 experiment claimed to have seen B-mode polarization in the cosmic background radiation, which would have been observational proof of cosmic inflation.  Nobel prize material for sure.  Unfortunately the signal turned out to be from dust in our galaxy, the milky way

You can read all about it in “Losing the Nobel Prize” by Brian Keating, who developed the instrumentation for BICEP2.  I recommend the book for several reasons.  The main reason is the discussion of cosmology and its various theories starting with Galileo (p. 28) getting up to  the B-Modes that BICEPs thought it saw by p. 138.  The discussion is incredibly clear, with discussions (to name a few) of how Galileo knew Ptolemy was wrong (the way the moons of Jupiter moved around it in time), refracting vs.reflecting telescopes, Hubble and cepheid variables, Vera Rubin and why she didn’t get a Nobel — she died too soon, how polaroid glasses work, and why bouncing of water is enough to polarize unpolarized light.  Want more? Fred Hoyle and steady state cosmology, the problems with the big bang (smoothness problem, horizon problem, flatness problem) solved by Alan Guth and inflation, false vacuum, and finally what B-modes actually are.

If you’ve a typical reader of blogs scientific but not a pro in physics, astronomy, cosmology, you’ve probably heard all these terms. Keating explains them clearly.

Even better, he writes well and is funny.  Here is the opening paragraph of the book.

“Each year, on December tenth, thousands of worshippers convene in Scandinavia to commemorate the passing of an arms dealer known as the merchant of death.  The eschatological ritual features all the rites and incantations befitting a pharaoh’s funeral.  Haunting dirges play as the worshippers, bedecked in mandatory regalia, mourn the merchant.  He is eerily present; his visage looms over the congregants as they feast on exotic game, surrounded by fresh-cut flowers imported from the merchant’s mausoleum.  The event culminates with the presentation of gilded, graven images bearing his likeness.”

Anything dealing with the creation of the universe has theological overtones, and we can regard the book as a history of various scientific creation myths, the difference being that they are abandoned when evidence is found which contradicts them.  Georges’ Lemaitre, a catholic priest and relativist puts in more than an appearance (p. 56) as he predicted what is probably the first big bang theory — the primeval atom with its subsequent expansion.

The book isn’t all science, and the author whose Jewish father abandoned them was raised by a catholic step-father describes being an altar boy for a time.   Then there are adventure stories of journeys to the south pole for the BICEP experiment.

There’s a lot more in the book, which is definitely worth a read.

Finally a few personal notes.  The man who brought BICEP2 down to earth David Spergel appears.  He’s a good guy.  At my 50th reunion there my wife and I  were standing in our reunion suits outside our hotel across route 1 waiting for a bus to take us across.  Some guy (Spergel) sees us an offers a ride to campus. On the ride over I asked what he did, and he says astronomy and physics.  So I asked how come the universe is said to be homogenous when all we see is clumpy galaxies and stars — you asked the right guy saith Spergel, and he launches into an explanation (which I’ve forgotten).  I mention that Jim Hartle is a class member.  “He’s very smart” saith David.  Later I tell Hartle the same story.  “He’s very smart” saith Jim.

Another good person is Meryl Streep.  A cousin is in movies both acting in the past and now directing and knows her.  Her father was a great admirer, so Meryl took the trouble to hike over to New Jersey and say hello.  She didn’t have to do that.  Unfortunately in the movie mentioned first, Meryl had to play a porn star with her aged scrawny body (probably Harvey Weinstein put her up to it).  I couldn’t stand it and walked out at that point.


Science fiction for the cognoscenti – III — not all the background you need will be explained

Now that every team in the NFL has its own molecular biologist and antiVirologist, you might be interested in knowing how it all started.  Like most technologies affecting our lives it had a military origin.

The escape of the Taiwanese pacifist virus started it all –

The technology of infectious gene transfer by recombinant adeno-associated virus  (AAV) was well advanced long before there were garage molecular biologists.

The NFL wars began with the New England Patriots, (who else?), they of deflategate and other nefarious ways to win.

Tom Brady was getting all set to win superbowl LVII in 2023 at age 45 when the first counterattack was successful.

His wife, the beautiful Gisele, hated the idea of him playing so long, being very worried about dementia pugilista from all the head trauma.  Tom had agreed to yearly PET scans with Pittsburgh compound B, an uncharged derivative of thioflavin T which gets through the blood brain barrier and which stains senile plaques.  They showed no evidence of plaques (although plenty of demented people don’t have them) so he kept on playing behind Belichick’s not so secret weapon — 400 pound linemen.  Even though he’d lost a step or two, his eye and arm were still good and the linemen gave him plenty of time to throw.

Football players have always been bulking up.  Even the early experience with extra testosterone (which causes testicular atrophy in high doses) didn’t dissuade them.  Newer anabolic steroids had somewhat fewer testicular effects.  Eventually players took to using HCG to help normalize things, but some testicular atrophy was a price they were willing to pay.  The cheerleaders felt a lot safer around those using them.

So how did the Patriots have 400 pound linemen when no one else did?  The answer goes back to Piedmontese and Belgian Blue cattle which were bred for their large muscles.  They turned out to have inactivating mutations in the gene for myostatin, a protein which causes muscles to stop growing.

Boston isn’t known as the home of biotech for nothing, and Belichick contracted with an as yet un-named biotech firm (their depositions having been sealed by the court) to come up with a small molecule (compound M) absorbable through the skin which inhibited myostatin.

No one caught on why Belicheck had separate showers installed for the lineman and defensive backs, but they had to use them and got  dosed that way.  Testing for performance enhancing drugs was always negative. The linemen loved it, as their testicles grew back to normal size.  The cheerleaders didn’t.

So there the Patriots were, about to play the Arizona Cardinals, a team only winning 3 games in 2018 in superbowl LVII. No one understood how the Cardinals turned around and how they got those very slippery running backs.

No one, except the molecular biologist they hired.  But that’s for next time.

A tragic way to start the new year !

Durgin Park is closing ! ! ! !

This is tragic.  In the fall of 1960 a bunch of us newly minted chemistry grad students went there and found that the life of a struggling graduate student wasn’t hard at all. A giant slab of roast beef, followed by a large bowl of strawberry shortcake all for $5 (minimum wage 1$).  Sad ! ! !

Update 10 Jan ’19 —

‘They’ve come out of the woodwork;’ business booms at Durgin Park as historic Boston restaurant prepares to close

Even sadder ! ! ! !

Happy New Year

Off to see the grandkids.  Next post next year.  All the best to you and yours.

If you liked or were interested in and have nothing better to do over the holidays, I suggest reading Cell vol. 175 pp.1842 – 1855 ’18 in which phase changes are described at enhancers and possibly a universal phenomenon at the start of mRNA transcription by pol II.

Were the initial native Americans inbred?

Usually when I eMail the author(s) of a paper or a math book with a question or a comment I get a quick response.  My cynical wife says thing this is because mathematicians don’t have much to do.  Not so in this case. Hence the hopefully attention getting title of this post.

I refer to the following papers [ Cell vol. 175 pp. 1173 – 1174, 1185 – 1197 ’18 ]  Nature vol. 563 pp. 303 – 304 ’18,Science vol. 362 pp. 1128 eaav2621  1 –> 11 ’18 ] I’ve sent a bunch letters to the authors and have heard nothing back in a week.

So what is all this about?  It’s about population bottlenecks and founder effects in the ancestors of what are now called ‘native Americans’ — although while living in Montana from ’72 – ’87, if you called an Indian, a Native American, you would have received some strange looks.

I am not a population geneticist, so I wonder just how many people made it over the Bering land bridge during the last ice age, and just how genetically diverse they were.  Northern Siberia today is a rather forbidding place, and I doubt that hordes of genetically different people lived here.  I’m not sure how long the land bridge was open and how many people crossed it.

So modern native Americans may be quite genetically homogeneous.  How to tell?  This is where the papers come in.  They sequenced genomes from a variety of locations in the western hemisphere, all dying over a thousand years ago (before the Europeans came and interbred with them).  It seems that they have around 100 such genomes.

I wrote to ask how similar these genomes are.  No response.  Is it because the answer might be politically incorrect?

I don’t think the question is idiotic.  Possibly we don’t have enough genomes to make a sensible statement, but if they’re all really close (however defined) we could say something.

Anybody out there have any thoughts (or even better)  knowledge about these matters?

We interrupt this fund drive to actually play some music

I don’t know what things are like in your neck of the woods, but the local public radio station just completed a 12 day fund drive ending 9 December.  I haven’t kept exact track, but this sort of thing happens 4 times a year, with additional stuff thrown in now and then.  This means they are raising funds close to or over 1 day out of 7.  The church only demands a tithe of 10% (not 14%).

Anything similar going on out there?  Any thoughts?

Book recommendation

“Losing the Nobel Prize”  by Brian Keating is a book you should read if you have any interest in l. physics. 2. astronomy 3. cosmology 4. the sociology of the scientific enterprise (physics division) 5. The Nobel prize 6. The BICEPs and BICEP2 experiments.

It contains extremely clear explanations of the following

l. The spiderweb bolometer detector used to measure the curvature of the universe

2. How Galileo’s telescope works and what he saw

3. How refracting and reflecting telescopes work

4. The Hubble expansion of the universe and the problems it caused

5. The history of the big bang, its inherent problems, how Guth solved some of them but created more

6. How bouncing off water (or dust) polarizes light

7. The smoothness problem, the flatness problem and the horizon problem.

8. The difference between B modes and E modes and why one would be evidence of gravitational waves which would be evidence for inflation.

9. Cosmic background radiation

The list could be much longer.  The writing style is clear and very informal.   Example: he calls the dust found all over the universe — cosmic schmutz.   Then there are the stories about explorers trying to reach the south pole, and what it’s like getting there (and existing there).

As you probably know BICEP2 found galactic dust and not the polarization pattern produced by gravitational waves.  The initial results were announced 17 March 2014 to much excitement.  It was the subject of a talk given the following month at Harvard Graduate Alumni Day, an always interesting set of talks.  I didn’t go to the talk but there were plenty of physicists around to ask about the results (which were nowhere nearly as clearly explained as this book).  All of them responded to my questions the same way — “It’s complicated.”

The author Brian Keating has a lot to say about Nobels and their pursuit and how distorting it is, but that’s the subject of another post, as purely through chance I’ve known 9 Nobelists before they received their prize.

It will also lead to another post about the general unhappiness of a group of physicists.

Buy and read the book

A modest proposal — take 2

The current dustup in France brought on by elites raising the price of gas  to demonstrate their climatological virtue at little cost to themselves warrants the republication of an earlier post in which I endeavor to show how they can put some of their own skin in the game and actually do something other than posture.

A modest proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

The New York Times magazine of 5 August 2018 was entirely devoted to global warming and our lack of response to it.  Doubtless it was read with great approval by the denizens of the upper East and East Sides as they sat in their million dollar apartments, vowing to fight until the last coal miner and oli field roughneck was out of work.  This will cost them nothing.

Virtue signaling notwithstanding, it’s time they had some skin of their own in the game. Having practiced medicine in the People’s Republic of New York, I know the love of New York state government for regulations and mandates, and the approval with which they have been met by the above denizens.

So here is a modest proposal for fighting global warming.  Mandate that governors be placed on air conditioners so that room temperatures can be no lower than 80 in the summer.  Similar governors should  be placed on heating, allowing room temperatures no warmer than 60 in the winter.  Start in the upper East and West sides of Manhattan, and if met with general approval extend it further.

I think it will be accepted as well they accepted the wind farms proposed off Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket near their summer homes.

Eat what you want, no one really knows what a healthy diet is.

All dietary recommendations are based on sand so eat what you want and enjoy your Thanksgiving meal.  How can I say this? Just in time for Thanksgiving, the  august pages of Science contain the following article entitled “Dietary Fat:  From Foe to Friend ?” [ Science vol. 362 pp.  764 – 770 ’18 ].  Think I’m kidding?  Here is a verbatim  list of NINE current controversies (translation — not settled science) from the article.

1. Do diets with various carbohydrate-to-fat proportions affect body composition (ratio of fat to lean tissue) independently of energy intake? Do they affect energy expenditure independently of body weight?

2. Do ketogenic diets provide metabolic benefits beyond those of moderate carbohydrate restriction? Can they help with prevention or treatment of cardiometabolic disease?

3. What are the optimal amounts of specific fatty acids (saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated) in the context of a very-low-carbohydrate diet?

4. What is the relative importance for cardiovascular disease of the amounts of LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides in the blood, or of lipoprotein particle size, for persons on diets with distinct fat-to-carbohydrate ratios? Are other biomarkers of equivalent or greater importance?

5. What are the effects of dietary fat amount and quality across the lifespan on risk of neurodegenerative, pulmonary, and other diseases that have not been well studied?

6. What are the long-term efficacies of diets with different carbohydrate-to-fat proportions in chronic disease prevention and treatment under optimal intervention conditions (designed to maximize dietary compliance)?

7. What behavioral and environmental interventions can maximize long-term dietary compliance?

8. What individual genetic and phenotypic factors predict long-term beneficial outcomes on diets with various fat-to-carbohydrate compositions? Can this knowledge inform personalized nutrition, with translation to prevention and treatment?

9. How does variation in the carbohydrate-to-fat ratio and in sources of dietary fat affect the affordability andenvironmental sustainability of diets?

Then totally ignoring the above controversies — they say they agree on such bromides as

l. With a focus on nutrient quality, good health and low chronic disease risk can be achieved for many people on diets with a broad range of carbohydrate-to-fat ratios.

2. Replacement of saturated fat with naturally occurring unsaturated fats provides health benefits for the general population. Industrially produced trans fats are harmful and should be eliminated. The metabolism of saturated fat may differ on carbohydrate-restricted diets, an issue that requires study.

Basically I think you can eat what you want. Perhaps some day the research needed to base dietary recommendations on solid data will have been done, but that day is not here.

Here is an older post (March 2015) written when the dietary guidelines were changed yet again.

The dietary guidelines have been changed — what are the faithful to believe now ?

While we were in China dietary guidelines shifted. Cholesterol is no longer bad. Shades of Woody Allen and “Sleeper”. It’s life imitating art.

Sleeper is one of the great Woody Allen movies from the 70s. Woody plays Miles Monroe, the owner of (what else?) a health food store who through some medical mishap is frozen in nitrogen and is awakened 200 years later. He finds that scientific research has shown that cigarettes and fats are good for you. A McDonald’s restaurant is shown with a sign “Over 795 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 Served”

Seriously then, should you believe any dietary guidelines? In my opinion you shouldn’t. In particular I’d forget the guidelines for salt intake (unless you actually have high blood pressure in which case you should definitely limit your salt). People have been fighting over salt guidelines for decades, studies have been done and the results have been claimed to support both sides.

So what’s a body to do? Well here are 4 things which are pretty solid (which few docs would disagree with, myself included)

l. Don’t smoke
2. Don’t drink too much (over 2 drinks a day), or too little (no drinks). Study after study has shown that mortality is lowest with 1 – 2 drinks/day
3. Don’t get fat — by this I mean fat (Body Mass Index over 30) not overweight (Body Mass Index over 25). The mortality curve for BMI in this range is pretty flat. So eat whatever you want, it’s the quantities you must control.
4. Get some exercise — walking a few miles a week is incredibly much better than no exercise at all — it’s probably half as good as intense workouts — compared to doing nothing.

Not very sexy, but you’re very unlikely to find anyone telling you the opposite 50years from now.

Typical of the crap foisted on the public (vitamin D and fish oil prevents cancer, heart disease and all sorts of horrible things) is it’s refutation once a decent study has been done

A large-scale trial has found no evidence that two popular supplements reduce the risk of cancer or the combined risk for a trio of cardiovascular problems.

JoAnn Manson at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and her colleagues recruited more than 25,000 healthy men and women in their fifties or older for a trial examining the effects of fish oil and vitamin D supplements. Some participants took both, others took only one type and the remaining participants took two placebos.

After an average of 5.3 years in the trial, participants who had taken fish oil had essentially the same likelihood of cancer as people who hadn’t. Compared with the placebo group, the fish-oil group had a lower rate of heart attack but the same rate of total cardiovascular events, a category that included heart attacks, strokes and death from cardiovascular disease.

Vitamin D supplements conferred no clear health benefits against cardiovascular disease or cancer, compared with a placebo.

A science fiction story (for the cognoscenti) — answer to the puzzle and a bit more

Comrade Chen we have a serious problem.

Don’t tell me one of our bugs escaped confinement.

Worse.  One of theirs did.  And it’s affecting the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).  Some are turning into pacifists.

It doesn’t kill them?

No. But for our purposes it might as well.

It’s a typical adenoassociated virus (AAV) like we use.

Well, what does the genome look like?

We’ve sequenced it and among other things, it codes for a protein which enters the brain and alters behavior.


Well, the enemy has some excellent biologists, one of whom works on Wolbachia.

What’s that?

It’s a rickettsial organism which changes the sex life of some insects.

I don’t believe that.

Do you have a cat?


Well many cats contain another organism (toxoplasma gondi).

So what.

Rats infected by the organism become less afraid of cats.

Another example please.

A fungus infecting carpenter ants causes the ant to leave its colony, climb a tree, chomp down on the underside of a leaf and die, freeing fungal spores to fall on the ground where they can reinfect new ants.

Well what is the genome of the virus?

It has some very unusual sequences, and one which proves that the Wolbachia biologist on the other side has a very large ego.

How so.

Well in addition to the brain infecting protein, there is a very unusual triplet of peptides all in a row.

Methionine Alanine Aspartic Acid Glutamic acid, then a stop codon, then Isoleucine Asparagine, than a stop codon, then Threonine Alanine Isoleucine Tryptophan Alanine Asparagine.  We think that the first two in some way cause readthrough of the stop codons so the protein following the short peptides is made.

Where does the big ego come in?

Sir, proteins can have hundreds and hundreds of amino acids.  People got tired of writing their full names out, so each of the 20 amino acids was given a single letter to stand for it.

M – Methionine

A – Alanine

D – Aspartic acid

What does D have to do with Aspartic acid?

Nothing sir, look on the letters as Chinese characters.

E -Glutamic Acid

I – isoleucine

What about the stop codon between Glutamic acid and Isoleucine

Just regard it as a space.

N – Asparagine

Nooo! ! ! I I’m beginning to get the picture.

Yes sir, it stands for MADE IN TAIWAN


A few years later

Well the Taiwanese biologist outsmarted himself (or herself).   The Taiwanese soldiers wouldn’t fight either as the virus spread.  Most conflicts between nation states pretty much ended (Russia/Ukraine, North Korea/South Korea) etc. etc.  The Taiwanese biologist was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and did receive it in absentia, as every military type in the world was looking for him (or  her), so he (or she) went into hiding, and is believed to be living in an Ashram near Boulder, Colorado.

Unfortunately, the idea of using viruses to change human behavior spread past nation states, and private groups with their own agendas began using it.

The ‘new soviet man’ of the previous century looked rather benign compared to what subsequently happened.

The next story for the scientific cognoscenti will describe the events leading up to the impeachment trial of President Jon Tester in 2028.