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2011 World Science Festival: A look back

The Scientist covered some of the events that made this year's festival memorable.

By | June 10, 2011

Detail of "Portrait of Monsieur de Lavoisier and his Wife, chemist Marie-Anne Pierrette Paulze"JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID

Another World Science Festival has come and gone. This year's installment—the fourth for the multi-day carnival of events that celebrate the union of science and art—was just as packed with interesting talks, stellar presenters, and cutting-edge research as we've come to expect. The Scientist made it to a handful of the New York City events. Here are a few we found noteworthy.

 

 



Chemistry on Canvas: A Revealing Portrait of Monsieur and Madame Lavoisier
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
June 5, 2:00-3:00 PM

Antoine Lavoisier—often called the father of modern chemistry for naming oxygen and hydrogen, among other seminal advances—cuts a fine figure in the famous painting by renowned French Neoclassical painter Jacques-Louis David. Even more fetching is David's rendering of Lavoisier's wife and scientific collaborator Marie-Anne—long, pale tresses spilling down the hump of her petticoat. But in 1788, as the Lavoisiers posed for the painting they had commissioned, France was hurtling towards revolution. Just six years after being immortalized in oil, Lavoisier would fall to the guillotine, branded a traitor during the Jacobin Reign of Terror.

Lavoisier's contribution to science reverberates through the community today, and two Nobel Laureates, Cornell University chemist Roald Hoffman and oncologist Harold Varmus, joined art historian and David expert Kathryn Calley Galitz to discuss the intriguing story told by the painting. Was Madame Lavoisier engaged in a romance with David, from whom she took private art lessons? Is the Monsieur's right leg poking out from the crimson tablecloth suggestive in the Freudian sense? These questions were open for conjecture, but some things about the work and lives the Lavoisiers were clear. Marie-Anne played a substantial role in her husband's research, though she was never listed as a coauthor on any of his publications, an injustice decried by Hoffman, who cowrote the 2001 play Oxygen about the Lavoisiers. Antoine's involvement in realms beyond science—he was a tax collector and involved in politics—likely contributed to his execution. Varmus, who was director of the National Institutes of Health from 1993–1999 and currently heads the National Cancer Institute, said he could relate to the burden of wearing multiple hats—even if today's political climate is considerably more tame. "I escaped from the directorship of the NIH with my head intact," he said.

Spotlight: Women in Science
Galapagos Art Space
June 2, 8:00-9:30PM

During this cocktail hour held at the Galapagos Art Center, five accomplished women scientists presented their research to a 200-person audience that seemed genuinely fascinated and engaged. But the speakers voiced only scant plans to counteract science's gender imbalance, which is what I was most looking forward to.

Jean Berko Gleason, psycholinguist at Boston University, used audience members to demonstrate the “Wug Test”—which she invented in 1958—illustrating the fact that children learn speech by recognizing language patterns rather than by mimicking adults.

Priyamvada Natarajan, a Yale University cosmologist, scours the universe for exotica, dark matter that comprises 96 percent of what's out there.  “When cosmologists don’t know the name of something, they append ‘dark’ to it,” she said.

Joy Hirsch, a leader in the field of functional neuroimaging, has a family history of trailblazing women.  Her grandmother, for example, was such a good shot with a rifle that she was hired as protection by a wagon train on a nineteenth-century trip to Oregon.

Tal Rabin, head of a cryptography research group at IBM, is one of only a few women in her field—the science of hiding or encrypting information. Using a Where’s Waldo book, she demonstrated how people show that they know where a piece of information is without revealing it’s location to others—one of the basic uses of cryptography.

Lastly, Corina Tarnita, a mathematician at Harvard University, described being sought out by renowned biologist E. O. Wilson to develop mathematical models to explain the evolution of eusocial ant colonies. She said that Wilson reinforced the idea that in science, you just want the right person for the job, regardless of gender.

Each presenter gave a cursory nod to the fact that more women should be involved in science, but none laid out any clear road map for accomplishing that goal. But perhaps young women in the audience will be inspired simply by the living examples these women represent.

Cancer’s Last Stand? The Genome Solution
NYU Kimmel Center
June 2, 8:00-9:30 PM

Geneticists Eric Lander and Mary-Claire King, and oncologists Olufunmilayo Olopade and Siddhartha Mukherjee had no problem conveying how bullish they are about the future of cancer genomics. For them, sequencing the DNA of different tumors to map their faulty circuitry is the sure path to personalized therapies that could transform cancer from a deadly disease into a manageable, chronic condition.

Though it took a few billion dollars and several years to generate the first human genome sequence, technological advances now make it possible to sequence the protein-coding regions of the genome for a few thousand dollars. Since cancers involve multiple mutations, the goal of sequencing thousands of tumors from all types of cancer is to populate The Cancer Genome Atlas with as much information specific to different types of cancer as possible so that researchers can pinpoint common pathways disrupted at the molecular level. When this collaborative NCI project began 5 years ago it contained about 100 samples of just a few different kinds of cancer. The project is now gearing up to collect data on more than 20 different cancers.

Directed therapy targeting specific cellular pathways is now becoming available for treating melanomas, explained Lander, but, while the results are impressive, the tumors eventually “roar back” because cancer cells easily accumulate new mutations that result in drug resistance. Sequencing a patient’s tumor once will not be enough, and effective therapy will require the use of drugs in combination. While they agreed that the science will be deciphered, all the panelists were more pessimistic about the funding and design of future clinical trials.

The Origins of Orientation: Sexuality in 2011
The New School
June 4, 8:00-9:00 PM

It was clear by the end of this discussion that even if researchers aren’t a lot closer to figuring out how sexual orientation develops, they have a lot of really interesting results to describe.

On the perennial question of how biology and choice interact to determine one's sexual preference, there seemed to be general agreement among the panelists that one doesn’t have much choice about the sex which attracts them. But they unanimously admitted that there isn’t much good data about factors that influence the choice, with a baffling array of genes likely playing a role.

Paul Vasey, an evolutionary psychologist who studies homosexual behavior in fa’afafine (males attracted to adult masculine men) in Samoa, posits that kin selection works in favor of the homosexual behavior: fa’afafine are much more avuncular and play a crucial social role by helping to raise their relatives’ children. In this way they indirectly pass on their own genes by allowing these relative to have more children of their own.

On the question of whether male homosexuality is an adaptation or an evolutionary byproduct, Vasey came down on the side of the behavior’s being a byproduct of elevated fecundity in the homosexual’s female kin. He cited studies done in Samoa, Italy, and England showing that the female kin of homosexuals tend to have more offspring.

The sole female on the panel, Meredith Chivers, suitably enough studies female sexual arousal and stated that heterosexual women report arousal patterns that conflict with those reported by males and that she's working on a more dynamic model to explain her findings.

Neuroscientist Jim Pfaus studies sexual conditioning and postulated that, at least for rats, the bonding associated with one’s first sexual partner may be linked to the effects of the hormone oxytocin.

As far as the brain is concerned, the aptly named Marc Breedlove, who studies the effect of hormones on the developing brain, mused that although animal brains share many similar structures, any generalizations about human sexual behavior to be drawn must take into account how “our massive cortexes” often override purely biological urges.

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