June 28, 2011
Sunday evening I stood on the second-story portal of my house in Santa Fe and looked west toward Los Alamos where smoke billowed like a mushroom cloud from the Las Conchas fire. Hours later in the darkness, the glow of the flames was so bright it looked as though the sun had got stuck on its way below the horizon. I remembered the Cerro Grande fire, 11 years ago, and something I wrote for the Week in Review of the New York Times: Chaos Theory; Harness Fire? Mother Nature Begs to Differ. Reading it again after all these years, I see that my theme was the illusion of control. Read More
2011 was such a dry and terrible year here in New Mexico that 2012 was bound to be better — a regression toward the mean. But it wasn’t, and now 2013 is looking even worse. I am used to a northern New Mexico where I am still shoveling snow a few times in March and sometimes April. And that is after all the winter snows, which by now would be running as cold, icy water down the Santa Fe River and the Rio en Medio and the Capulin and the Nambe — all up and down the Sangre de Cristos — and recharging the water table. But the snowpack this winter was also a bust. And, for the first time in memory, we had no real rainy season last summer.
In March Tom Yulsman published this stunning satellite photo in a post on ImaGeo titled Land of Enchantment, Drought and Fire.
The 10,000-acre fire scar to the northeast is the Pacheco Canyon Fire (misnamed — it actually ignited two canyons northward). It was a shock, but a sadly familiar one, seeing the smoke plume from my windows. Read More
August 7, 2011
Last Sunday, a couple of friends and I drove up Hyde Park Road and, just before the Aspen Vista lookout, turned onto Forest Road 102. We were headed for Aspen Ranch, the trailhead for what I remembered as one of the most beautiful hikes in the Santa Fe mountains. The 13-mile loop leads to La Junta, “the junction,” a mountain meadow where the Rio Nambe and the Rio Capulin meet. Judging from the maps of the Pacheco Fire, the meadow is now toast, but I hoped to get close enough to see what had been spared by the flames.
Long ago Aspen Ranch was the site of a boys school. In his book, An Anthropology of Everyday Life, the late Ned Hall (better known to the world as Edward T. Hall) described a year he spent there. The land is now owned by Tesuque Pueblo, and when I used to go there, maybe a decade ago, there was a sign informing hikers of a $10 parking fee. Since there was never anyone monitoring the trailhead and no visible means of making payment, I would leave a check made out to the pueblo on my windshield. It was always there when I returned, so I would keep it in the glove compartment for a future visit. Read More
Shortly after my post earlier this spring about the dubious idea of π day, I started reading David Foster Wallace’s Everything and More: A Compact History of Infinity. It was the last book he published before his suicide. He called it a booklet. It was part of a series of what were intended as short accounts of Great Discoveries, but it was 319 pages long. That is short for Wallace, I guess. His novel Infinite Jest was more than 1,100 pages. And who knows how long A Pale King might have been had he lived to complete it? It was published unfinished after his death.
It’s fair to say that Everything and More was not very well received, with some particularly nasty comments from Read More
Less than a year before Watson and Crick’s paper, “A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid,” was published in Nature, 60 years ago today, Rosalind Franklin sent around a hand-lettered obituary:
Led astray by her own evidence, she had missed, just barely, making the greatest discovery in the history of biology: the coiled, interlaced structure that explained with such clarity the working of the gene. “The secret of life,” Crick called it. Read More
Earlier this year, the 23-karat gold medal awarded to Francis Crick was auctioned off for £1.3 million, or more than $2 million. When I heard the news, I thought it seemed a little tacky. Then I went on to read that Crick’s family will donate 20 percent of the money to the establishment of the Francis Crick Institute in London. That took out some of the sting.
Not long afterward another bit of Crick memorabilia went on the auction block at Christie’s: a letter, dated March 19, 1953 from Crick to his 12-year-old son, Michael, who was away at boarding school. It went for £3.45 million or about $5.3 million. Half will go to the Salk Institute in La Jolla, where Crick worked for many years.
It is easy to see why the letter was worth so much more than the piece of gold. In just a few hundred words, Crick Read More
The New Yorker recently started a blog about science and technology called Elements. I wish it had confined itself more tightly to science. There is too much about social networking — Facebook, in particular — and the Internet. But there are also plenty of posts — articles really — by some very good science writers: Gareth Cook, Michelle Nijhuis, and David Dobbs. (All three have been instructors at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, which my former New York Times colleague, Sandra Blakeslee, and I organize every year. Before that Michelle was a student there.) Virginia Hughes, another talent, has a post in Elements today.
The blog has also included dispatches from some of the magazine’s excellent staff writers like Michael Specter and Elizabeth Kolbert. Good science writing is a New Yorker tradition, and Joshua Rothman, on a different part of the website, recently noted some of the great examples that have appeared over nearly a century in the printed edition — works by Freeman Dyson, John McPhee, Oliver Sacks, and other luminaries.
I know he couldn’t mention everyone, but for me two omissions particularly stood out: Jeremy Bernstein and Horace Freeland Judson. Read More
A unique source for peeking behind the curtains at the inner workings of science is Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus’s Retraction Watch. Each day they comb through journals and alert readers to some of the latest research papers that, for one reason or another, a journal has decided to correct or withdraw from publication. In yesterday’s posts we learned, for example, that Misuse of data forces retraction of paper on sow’s milk and that Plagiarism leads to retraction of math paper. The reasons given by the journals can be comically opaque and Retraction Watch tries, with a sometimes sardonic touch, to get to the truth of the matter.
The best journals take great care in the laborious process of receiving papers, sending them out for review, and eventually publishing those that make the cut. “And yet mistakes happen,” Marcus and Oransky noted in their introductory post. Read More
At the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, which begins tomorrow in Washington D.C., what you notice right away is how every PowerPoint presentation starts with an obligatory conflict-of-interest disclosure slide. Many university researchers, including Nobel prizewinners, consult for pharmaceutical corporations and some even have their own startups. If they can develop a new targeted cancer treatment that staves off death a few months longer, their company might be snapped up by Genentech. The financial stakes are as high as anything happening in Silicon Valley.
At an AACR meeting I sat through a couple of years ago, the disclosure requirement often met with resentment, and in The Cancer Chronicles (which will go to press this summer) I describe how some of the speakers expressed their displeasure. A few proudly declared, to a round of applause, that they had no conflicts. They were scientists not businessmen. Others recited their disclosures so quickly that you could barely catch a word. I was reminded of television car commercials where the announcer, in a chipmunk voice, speeds through the warranty disclaimers. Read More
After belatedly reading my colleague Paul Raeburn’s scathing appraisal of the Time magazine story on cancer, I’m thinking I was too generous in my previous post. I wrote that if you could forget for a moment the reckless magazine cover – with its blaring headline “How to Cure Cancer” — that the article itself was reasonably well done.
Raeburn makes some good criticisms and, it turns out, there is an even larger issue. I had read the Time story online and not in the paper edition, and it is disturbing to learn that there is a full-page advertisement for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center placed among the pages of the article. Even worse, Raeburn writes in a follow-up post, “the language in the ad is almost identical to some of the language in the story.”
Anderson has had a wave of bad publicity under its recently appointed president, Ronald DePinho, and his wife, Lynda Chin, over conflicts of interest and a managerial style that has led to resignations of top researchers. And Dr. DePinho’s “moon shots” program and the way it was played up last year on CNN has been called the worst kind of cancer hype. For a biting critique see Gary Schwitzer’s report in HealthNewsReview.org.
Since then morale at Anderson has apparently gotten worse. Just as Time’s cover story appeared last week, The Cancer Letter published a special issue about the low morale at Anderson, as described in a 64-page internal report. (Both can be downloaded at The Cancer Letter’s website.)
Related posts: On Dwarves, James Watson, and the Oddities of Cancer