Scientific Fraud

The New York Times is now reporting that the human cloning result of Hwang Woo Suk was completely fabricated. His two Science papers in 2004 and 2005 rocked the scientific community and put South Korea at the forefront of stem cell research. He had planned to open cloning centers around the world to provide research labs with various embryonic stem cell lines. Now, he has been completely disgraced and the field has been set back somewhat.

I think this is an example of how giving unlimited resources to a single individual can lead to bad results. The Korean government gave Hwang almost 40 million dollars since 1998 in hopes of garnering the nation’s first Noble prize. He must have felt tremendous pressure to succeed.

I can envision a scenario that led to the fraud. His lab probably had preliminary results that seemed to work but they then couldn’t reproduce it. Hwang likely felt frustrated but confident that the method would eventually work so he decided to proceed with publication so they wouldn’t get scooped. Maybe he rationalized that there would be little harm to embellish some data to get the news out earlier. In the meantime he would get it to work reliably. He may even have gotten away with it if the papers didn’t have as large an impact which led to greater scrutiny of the work.

Sometimes throwing money at a problem does pan out. Examples include the Manhattan project and the Apollo moon mission. In these cases, there was a talented and motivated team focused on the task. There was a sense of urgency but there was also an imperative to be correct. People were checking other people’s work because making an error had dire consequences. The participants weren’t thinking about future riches or fame. While it is true that Oppenheimer became a household name, he certainly didn’t put pressure on the team to succeed so he could become rich and famous. What he did do was assemble the greatest minds of the time.

Will a Manhattan type effort work in biology? I’m not so sure because there is still a lot of basic science to discover. We don’t really know what must be done to cure diabetes, malaria or cancer. I think the best thing to do now is to have many labs pursue many different paths. We may even want to divide the money out more evenly than it is now. Someone should do a study to see if it is more cost effective to fund a few big labs or many small labs. I’m betting on the latter.

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Life Will Go On

At this moment, we are undergoing a massive loss of species on par with the six great extinctions of history such as the most recent one 65 million years ago and the Great Dying of 250 million years ago. Being a good existentialist, I agree that we should do all we can to prevent loss of biodiversity even if the effort is likely to be futile. However, a part of me is secure that life will go on regardless of what happens now. Each great extinction is always followed by a flowering of new life. It was only because of the demise of the dinosaurs were mammals able to rise. I agree that it is a major cause of concern as to whether we will survive this extinction but on the long time scale all species eventually go extinct.

Ironically, one reason for my optimism is the large amount of garbage we dump into the environment. The toxicity of a waste product implies that it is bioreactive and hence could be exploited. Remember that oxygen was once an environmental toxin that forced major changes to life on earth. The extra methane and carbon dioxide we currently spew into the atmosphere could likewise be utilized. I’m sure new species of life will be found in garbage dumps sometime in the future.

There are already some signs of adaptation to the modern world even by large animals. For example, deer are now doing so well in cities and suburbs that some communities need to cull them. New York City has several pairs of thriving peregrine falcons. Some fear that beautiful species like orchids, parrots, and sea otters will disappear leaving behind only drab scavengers like cockroaches, coyotes, crows and rats. I think we need to give life more credit. I don’t think beauty is necessarily correlated with fragility. Also, our standards of beauty have been shaped by our environment. As the environment changes, so too will our brains and hence what we consider beautiful. Barring a catastrophic event like a nearby supernova or a complete loss of atmosphere, I think we can be fairly certain that life will continue to flourish on earth in spite of what we do.

Observations of a Dad

When a baby is born, she immediately has a set of reflexes – like rooting for a nipple, crying, grasping, and sleeping. These reflexes are hardwired into the brain and get triggered by certain sensory cues. Hunger and discomfort trigger crying, stroking of the face sets off rooting, and putting something in her hand initiates grasping.

What makes a baby fussy or easy going is coded in the thresholds that trigger the reflexes and shuts them off. Some babies can tolerate a large amount of discomfort before they cry and transition from an active state into sleep quickly. These are easy babies. In fussy babies, the discomfort thresholds may be very low and small perturbations can trigger crying. Most babies are somewhere in between – fussy in some aspects, impervious in others.

The multiple thresholds are set at birth and in essence define the initial personality of a baby. There is probably a genetic component but I bet most are set entirely randomly. After the baby is born, neural plasticity can shift these settings. So depending on how the parents react to the baby, thresholds could be moved up or down.

An entire book industry has sprouted in an attempt to educate parents on how to train their baby to be an easy going one. However, I doubt there will ever be a surefire method. The different sensory and reflex modalities probably interact in a highly nonlinear fashion. So trying to make a baby less sensitive to one thing could make them more sensitive to something else. Personally, I think we should just enjoy our babies the way they are. But then again, I think my baby is pretty easy, even if she stays up all night.