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2003

Unnatural Selection
Discover, September 2003
Link

A review of War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race by Edwin Black (Four Walls Eight Windows)

James Watson, the codiscoverer of DNA's double helix, thinks the world would be a better place if there were fewer stupid people. "If you really are stupid, I would call that a disease," Watson said on the documentary DNA, which aired in Britain in March. "The lower 10 percent who really have difficulty, even in elementary school, what's the cause of it? A lot of people would like to say, 'Well, poverty, things like that.' It probably isn't. So I'd like to get rid of that, to help the lower 10 percent." His solution: engineering the genes that influence intelligence in order to eliminate stupidity in future generations. It would be foolish for parents not to use this technology, he added, because genetically enhanced children "are going to be the ones who dominate the world."


Great Mysteries Of Human Evolution
Discover, September 2003 (Cover story)
Link

Everything you do has a history. You wake up each morning and get out of bed using an anatomy that allowed your ancestors to stand upright at least 4 million years ago. You go to the kitchen and eat cereal with a bowl and spoon that are part of a toolmaking tradition at least 2.5 million years old. As you munch your cereal, you page through the newspaper, which you can understand thanks to a brain capable of language, abstract thought, and prodigious memory-a brain that has been expanding for 2 million years.

What If Something Is Going On In There?
New York Times Magazine, September 28, 2003
Link

Daniel Rios is 24 years old, with wavy black hair, a thick mustache and a glassy stare that seems to look both at you and through you. One day almost four years ago, while he was taking a shower, a blood vessel ruptured in his brain, and he collapsed on the bathroom floor. After emergency surgery, he lay in a coma for three weeks. When he finally opened his eyes, he could not speak or move his body; his head simply lolled. In the months that followed, the doctors monitoring him at the Center for Head Injuries at the J.F.K. Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in Edison, N.J., saw few signs that he had any meaningful mental life. Sometimes he looked as if he were crying. Other times his eyes would follow a mirror passed before his face. On his best days he was able to close his eyes on command. But those days were rare. For the most part he lay unresponsive, adrift in a neurological twilight.

Head Shots
Newsweek, June 9, 2003

It started as an odd feeling of deja vu. Over a few weeks the sensation grew more and more intense, until finally John (not his real name) had trouble concentrating on teaching his grade-school class. Then he started having seizures. His doctors traced the trouble to a tumor in his brain's left frontal lobe. The best option, they thought, was to remove the tumor surgically, and then, just to make sure there were no stray cancer cells, cut away some of the surrounding tissue. But how much tissue could they safely remove? No two brains are organized identically-losing one slice of the brain might have no effect on one patient but paralyze the next. Probing John's brain with electrodes might have offered some crude clues, but it would have entailed removing the top of his skull.


Taming Pathogens: An Elegant Idea, But Will It Work?
Science, May 30, 2003
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Skeptics are challenging the popular idea that an evolutionary tradeoff faced by pathogens may be the secret to making diseases less harmful.

In 1859 a rancher decided to introduce European rabbits into Australia so that he could have something to hunt. Before long the rabbits had exploded across the continent, eating so much vegetation that they began to cause serious soil erosion. In the 1950s scientists deployed a biological counteroffensive, myxoma virus, a pathogen from South America. It didn't eliminate the rabbits, but it did provide grist for an ongoing debate about virulence.


How The Mind Reads Other Minds
Science, May 16, 2003
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Imagine a boy sitting on a couch about to unwrap a chocolate bar. His mother announces that she's taking him to soccer practice. He tucks the chocolate under the couch for safekeeping and leaves. A few minutes later, his sister comes into the room in search of her teddy bear. When she looks under the couch she is surprised to find an unopened chocolate bar, which she then hides behind a bookshelf. When her brother comes home, drooling for chocolate, where will he look?

Rapid Evolution Can Foil Even The Best Laid Plans
Science, May 9, 2003
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Natural selection, once seen as a stately and imperceptible process, can be speeded up to resemble a case of hyperactive jiggles. Over the past 20 years, as evolutionary biologists have begun to study natural selection in the wild, they have documented record-breaking changes in some populations of animals and plants that occur in years--not centuries or millennia.

The Evolutionary Blackbird
Nature, April 22, 2003
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A review of The Story of Life, by Richard Southwood
(Oxford University Press: 2003.)

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote about 13 ways of looking at a blackbird. Perhaps someday another poet will write about 13 ways of looking at the history of life. I can certainly think of 13 different scientists who have written books on the subject, each of which is coloured by its author's expertise. Books by vertebrate palaeontologists are dominated by animals with bones, despite the fact that vertebrates make up a tiny proportion of the world's biodiversity today — not to mention the fact that they didn't exist for the first 3 billion years or so of life's history. The Precambrian expert Andrew Knoll has looked at those first 3 billion years in great detail in his new book Life on a Young Planet (to be reviewed in Nature shortly), leaving the details of dinosaurs and mastodons to others. For yet another take, try The Major Transitions in Evolution by John Maynard Smith and Eörs Szathmáry. For them, the essence of life's history is the emergence of new kinds of complexity. Instead of fossils, you get equations.



Adam's Family
New York Times Book Review, March 2, 2003
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Review of The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey, by Spencer Wells.
(Princeton University Press, 2003)

You probably haven't heard of the Yagnob, but Spencer Wells has. In fact, he traveled to war-torn Tajikistan to meet these Central Asian people, driving an old Soviet van over mountain passes and along dirt roads of the remote Zerafshan Valley. The Yagnob were not so hard to find 1,500 years ago. They were masters of the Silk Route, and their language was the lingua franca of trading merchants from Persia to China. But the Yagnob have dwindled, and by the time Wells reached the Zerafshan Valley, he could find only a single village where Yagnobi was still spoken.

Tinker, Tailor: Can Venter Stitch Together A Genome From Scratch?
Science, February 14, 2003
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Craig Venter can't stand to be bored. No sooner had he and his team at Celera Genomics finished sequencing the human genome than Venter set another modest challenge for himself: He would tackle the world's environmental woes. His self-proclaimed goal (which landed him in newspapers and magazines around the world a few months ago) is to create microbes from scratch that can produce clean energy or curb global warming. To make this a reality, he set up a new organization, the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives (IBEA) in Rockville, Maryland, right next to The Institute for Genomic Research that he founded in 1992. He got a small vote of confidence last November, when the Department of Energy awarded IBEA $3 million to take the first few steps toward that goal.

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