Monday, February 28, 2005

Evolution and the Zoo Rabbi

The People of the Book ban a book
Feb. 28, 2005

By Joel N. Shurkin
Fundamentalist Christians are not the only ones who have trouble with cosmology and evolution. Everyone who thinks the Bible is to be taken literally does as well, including the Haredi, the most fervently observant—fundamentalist—Jews.
A month ago, a group of the most esteemed Haredi rabbis, both in Israel and in the U.S., banned three books written by a well-known Orthodox rabbi because the books assert the world was not created in six days 5765 years ago, and because it accepts Darwinian evolution as the accepted scientific theory.
The books were, they said, unfit for Jewish homes.
The banning caused a furor in the usually private and quiet world of the Orthodox Jewish community, prompting a prominent head of a rabbinic school (or yeshiva) to fly to Israel to try to get them to back down. He only partially succeeded.
The author of the books, Rabbi Nosson Slifkin, the so-called “Zoo Rabbi” was accused of being a heretic and of writing books containing heresy because they contradicted a literal reading of Genesis. He made the situation even more contentious by suggesting that perhaps some of the great rabbis who commented on the Bible (the Jewish Torah) in the Talmud, got their science wrong. Having serious support from some of the most famous Talmudic scholars in history did him little good.
Rabbi Aharon Feldman, head of Ner Israel in Baltimore, the second largest yeshiva in North America, flew to Israel two weeks ago to “end the confusion,” and managed to get at least one of the rabbis attacking Rabbi Slifkin to agree that he was not himself a heretic. However, what he wrote still was verboten.

To read the rest, click here

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Life on Mars and cocktail party journalism

Do you publish a story overheard at a private meeting—or: is there life on Mars?
Feb. 17, 2005

Some science stories don’t really matter. Like, what if string theory is wrong and the strings are more like beads. See? Life on Mars? Unless they invade (see the movie coming out soon), does it matter much? It could raise some interesting journalistic questions, however. Two NASA researchers were overheard at a private meeting at the Ames Research Center in Mt. View, CA, describing their research findings. They didn’t actually say they found life, only the methane signatures that there might be life, something like what you would see in terrestrial caves. They said they had submitted their research to Science magazine, the esteemed peer review journal, but it had not gone through the review process yet. A reporter for heard about it and put the article on the web site. It went from there to the wire services and out. Then again, does it matter? The same day, also reported that other scientists found evidence of extensive water there. Their research had been reviewed and would appear in next week’s Science.

Problems with dating an older man

New dating techniques push back the dawn of humanity some 60,000 years.
Feb. 17, 2005

It’s been well-established that humans first appeared in Africa—Ethiopia, to be specific—but when? It turns out that because of difficulties with dating technology, the emergence of humanity happened much earlier than anyone first thought. Two Ethiopian fossils, first discovered by the legendary Richard Leakey in 1967, were walking around 195,000 years ago and are hence, the oldest known examples of Homo sapiens. That’s a difference of 60,000 years from the results of earlier dating on the same skulls. The problem was that the earlier dating came from testing mollusc shells discovered near the fossils. They were dated at 130,000 years ago. Newer techniques and more accurate dating technology applied at the Australian National University and published in Nature have changed the date. The two fossils, named Omo I and Omo II for the river bed they were discovered in, also give further credence to the “out of Africa” theory: humanity first rose in Africa and then some 40,000 years ago, began to spread outward. Of course, some media will have to add the intelligent design hypothesis to the story.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Music goes entirely digital and a revolution looms

Technology history is made as a digital album wins a Grammy and record companies shake.
Feb. 15, 2005

No one with any taste or sense watched the Grammy Awards on television this week, but if you did you saw a technology history being made—and it is not a minor matter. A musician named Maria Schneider won the award for best large jazz ensemble for “Concert in the Garden.” What was historic about it is that no such album exists, either on tape, CD or even vinyl. You download it digitally from the web. We all know that audio tape is so 20th century, but Ms. Schneider is the harbinger of the death of CDs or, for that matter, any physical music container. And if you saw pale faces in the crowd, they would be record company executives. The album was financed entirely by Ms. Schneider’s fans (to a tune of about $87,000) and distributed on the web by No record company, no middle-man, no distributor, no record shop. There were 10,000 copies (downloads), 9,000 of them available for pre-order for participants and the other 1,000 for later auction. Those quarter of a billion songs downloaded into all those iPods are a good sample of what’s coming. It also explains why 11 percent of the U.S. population own iPods or other MP-3 players. In what must drive Bill Gates crazy, an estimated 80 percent of Microsoft employees bop to iPods. Now if we can only work this out for books.... But wait, we can!

Sunday, February 13, 2005

HIV's Perfect Storm

Patient in New York has virulent AIDS from a resistant virus.
Feb. 13, 2005

No one is surprised. The question is how alarmed should we be? A man in his 40s has come down with the first recorded case of an HIV infection virtually resistant to the known medications, and much too quickly, a particularly virulent case of AIDS. Three of the four standard medications aren’t working and the infection moved from HIV to AIDS unusually rapidly—in this case months, not years. Mutations such as this are inevitable with pathogens but it isn’t clear how serious it is. Is it the harbinger of a deadly epidemic or just an isolated instance? The study has a n=1. Larry Altman and Marc Santora in the New York Times were careful to quote experts as saying the time to panic would be when a cluster of these cases show up; until then we’re dealing with an anecdote. Nonetheless, the story ran two days on the front page of the Times, including the iconic Sunday edition. One more thing: there are usually three ways to catch HIV, and two of them involve doing things you shouldn’t be doing. The patient, a homosexual in his 40s, was doing two of them: repeated, unprotected anal sex and drugs, in this case, crystal meth. That may limit appropriate panic to a much smaller universe. So far, it hasn’t.

Friday, February 11, 2005

State vs. State, State vs. Church, State vs. Scientists, Newspaper vs. Newspaper

Feb. 11, 2005
Massachusetts governor sets off a scientific brouhaha by opposing some stem cell research in his research-rich state.
Gov. Mitt Romney stunned much of the biosciences community in his state by telling the New York Times he opposed some stem cell research being proposed by Harvard and other research institutions. In fact, he wants to outlaw it. A law, proposed by the commonwealth Senate president Robert E. Travaglini, would permit research on cells derived from embryos, the most promising source—either left-overs from fertilization clinics or those specifically cloned for research. Cloning humans would be banned. The controversy is interesting for lots of reasons besides the obvious. Romney is the Republican governor of the bluest of all states and may have national ambitions—note the interview was with the Times, not the Boston Globe, which did not amuse the Globe people, especially since the Times owns the Globe. While he infuriated those in favor of stem cell research, he also managed to piss off the anti-abortion crowd who opposes all such research. His wife suffers from multiple sclerosis and could benefit from the research. Since the California referendum funding this research, other states with concentrations of researchers are panicked that their best scientists will head west. And finally, Romney is a Mormon in a heavily Catholic state and the attitude of the Mormon Church to stem cells may be involved. There’s no way you could do a short story on this.

Loser with a Broken Heart

Feb. 7, 2005
Patients who have endured a sudden stressful experience—like having their hearts broken—can suffer something that looks awfully like a heart attack.
Never doubt a poet again. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Medicine reported in the New England Journal of Medicine, that having your heart broken can be really bad for your health. Lover walk out you? Uh oh. Lose your job? Hope that was just a palpitation. Kid announces he’s become a Scientologist? 911! The result could be what the researchers call stress-induced cardiomyopathy. In other words, “emotional stress can precipitate severe, reversible left ventricular dysfunction in patients without coronary disease. Exaggerated sympathetic stimulation is probably central to the cause of this syndrome.” The story, of course, is irresistible. Think of all the ledes; it came out the week before Valentine’s day; the research was done at Johns Hopkins, and the journal was NEJM. What more could you ask for in terms of respectability? Well, it might be pointed out that the number of authors was 10, the subjects totalled 19. Oh, 95 percent were women. And it was the week before Valentine’s Day. I guess we ought to add they didn’t actually have heart attacks either, just a mimic of one. Fortunately, recovery was quick; no one died. Maybe they all went off and wrote a song. Or a press release.

The Ring of Hell Dante Never Imagined

Feb. 8, 2005
People in a non-responsive, brain-damaged state may be aware and trapped in their own bodies.
In a hair-raising study published in the journal Neurology, New York researchers found that when they played audio tapes of relatives reminiscing about their lives to two brain-damaged, minimally responsive patients, the two men showed the same brain wave activity in MRI scans as seven healthy volunteers. The two men had active cerebral networks; they were just unable to respond, trapped, apparently in their bodies when everyone thought they were unaware. One researcher not involved and quoted in Benedict Carey’s New York Times piece, said the research gave him goose bumps. Indeed. The ramifications are extraordinary because it opens whole new areas of research into brain damage and has vast legal repercussions. Remember Terri Schiavo and the fight over whether to keep her alive in Florida? Most people (except her parents who have sued to prevent her doctors from pulling the plug) assumed she was unaware of her surroundings. Maybe not. The research also defines a whole new hell we thought reserved for ALS patients. For a good roundup on research into the field, also see Clive Thompson in Slate.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

What in the World is This?

....Of Cabbage--and Kings, is a blog for science and medical writers or anyone interested in science and science journalism. There are lots of places you can go now, but most of the time you are inundated with a lot of junk--junk here being defined as press releases sent out for the purpose of sending out press releases; stories that shouldn’t be done by anyone because the science is bad or the stories simply aren’t important, or stories that are badly done. This is subjective, viewed through the prism of someone who has been doing it for 30 years and has grown more than a little cynical. It is not true, as I have sometimes stated, that there are really only three science stories and we’ve all done them all a hundred times. It is true, however, that there are fewer real stories in relation to the number actually produced. I will be your filter. A subjective filter, to be sure, but a good place to start. I will use two criteria: stories that are worth doing because they are newsworthy, and stories that are worth doing because they are fun and no responsible writer would consider passing them up.
I draw from both the old and the new media, keeping in mind that the new media--which means stuff posted on the Internet by amateurs, fakers and hacks without the processes or ethics of journalism, are not to be trusted. If I can link to an original source that does not require payment, I will do so. If the only source is secondary--a newspaper or magazine, that will be the link. Some of you actually do original digging.
There is a place for comments, and if you all want a running dialog, be my guest. I reserve the right to moderate for civility and pertinence.

Joel Shurkin

The time has come....

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes -- and ships -- and sealing-wax --
Of cabbages -- and kings --
And why the sea is boiling hot --
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that...”
–Lewis Carroll