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Power Lost, Power Gained

By | September 8, 2003

My alarm clock was blinking an erroneous time, but I ignored it; I had just taken a much-appreciated nap, and I needed to get back to a yeast cell biology conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I was staying 10 miles away at a Vincentian seminary that housed students like me. My fan was running, and my cellular phone recharger was pulsing red. I had no idea that the power was coming from a backup generator. I was probably one of a few people of about 50 million, from Canada to New Jers


Blueberry-Modified Pancakes

By | August 25, 2003

Advances in technology always make us uneasy. Telephones, vaccinations, E-mail, mobile phones--despite the value we now place on them, these innovations provoked dire forecasts, and damnation, on their arrival. A vocal minority continue to see these innovations as dangerous. Some of the unease that comes with the new and different is well founded. We don't have to search far to find examples of new technologies that turned out to have unanticipated, troublesome consequences. Nonetheless, muc


Y Envy

By | July 28, 2003

The Y chromosome has long had an image problem. A male grasshopper lacks a Y, and a male bee stems from an egg that the queen deemed unfertilizable. Turtle eggs laid in the sun become sisters, their shaded brethren, brothers. And although most mammalian males do indeed have Ys, the two species that don't--mole voles--are apparently fine. They even copulate. But the Y's lowly status has changed; now, it seems, the Y has been evolving, not dying, thanks to work by David Page and others at the


Control the Media? No, Educate Them

By | July 14, 2003

Ignorance and commercial interest make a combustible mixture, with enlightenment often a victim of the fumes. Views tend to polarize and become unduly influenced by those best able to manipulate the media, irrespective of the argument's merits. The result can be an alarming disparity between public opinion and the true state of the science. No doubt, this syndrome has adversely affected debate over big issues such as genetic modification of plants and global warming. The question is, what's


Adolf Hitler: My Parts Per Million in his Downfall

By | June 30, 2003

In his novel, Adolf Hitler: My Part in His Downfall, Spike Milligan describes waiting for the train to take him to his first military posting during WWII. His commanding officer hands him a picture of Hitler labeled: This is your enemy. "I searched every compartment," writes Milligan, "but he wasn't on the train." In a way, we are still searching for the Führer. Hitler is the archetypal enemy, whose badness virtually all can agree on, which is why his name often crops up in discussions


The Out-of-Hand Omnipresent Ome

By | June 16, 2003

In 1909, the Danish biologist Wilhelm Johannsen coined the terms gene, to describe the unit of heredity, and genotype as the entire genetic profile of an organism. Seven years later, the term biome appeared, used to describe an ecological community of organisms and environments. As technology progressed, it became possible to do high-throughput molecular biology, and we began exploring the genomes of various microbes. This essentially entailed sequencing and annotating the entire genetic com


They Could Have Been Contenders

By | June 2, 2003

In April, the Department of Energy announced that it will give a $9 million (US) grant to a private, nonprofit institute in Maryland to decode the genome of every organism found in the Sargasso Sea, a body of water covering two million square miles in the North Atlantic. Covered by algae, encased by numerous currents that keep it relatively immobile, the Sargasso is essentially a sea unto itself. It's a good thing that the DOE is awarding this project. As proteomics and systems biology nudge


Bring Back OTA--Congress' Own Think Tank

By | May 19, 2003

Scientists cheered in 1972 when Congress created the Office of Technology Assessment, a PhD-laden think tank that was dedicated to providing policy analyses and technical evaluations for the House and Senate. They wept in 1995, when, in a burst of political pique and boastful penny-pinching, Newt Gingrich and his Republican Revolution abolished OTA. Resuscitation efforts started then, and continue--in futility. Thus, in the current Congress, Rep. Rush Holt (D-NJ), one of the few scientists i


Science Goes Madison Avenue

By | May 5, 2003

Given the daily onslaught of advice--sagacious and otherwise--on seemingly every topic delivered by anyone within earshot of a soapbox, it's pleasant to consider what societies might be like if lateral thinkers, such as scientists, led the way. What if even just a few prominent voices, clearly heard above the ruckus of opinion-giving and decision-making, were more idealistic than pragmatic, pensive rather than reactive, and beholden to no special interests but life and peace? Okay, that isn't


Don't Blame It on Sputnik

By | April 21, 2003

Since Sputnik, hardly a year goes by without the federal government, some nonprofit foundation, or a large corporation launching schemes to entice people into research careers. These initiatives, meant to improve the quality of our science and bring about technological, medical, and other advances, offer educational opportunities and financial incentives. Sensible as these programs often are, they do not consider some of the most important motives that draw people to science and the personal


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