Farewell to Discover

By George Johnson | February 27, 2014 9:11 am

It has been just over a year since I posted Lighting the Match, the first entry in this venture called Fire in the Mind. During that time I’ve written about a variety of subjects from fluoride paranoia to the mystical mathematics of rock and roll. Some of my favorite posts were about Oliver Sacks and his idiot-savant prodigies, the beguiling psychology of cancer clusters, Rosalind Franklin’s missed opportunity to discover the double helix, the infinite obsessions of David Foster Wallace, and Jhumpa Lahiri and the magic of perfectly chosen words. There was also a dispatch about Horace Freeland Judson, author of the best science book ever written. His daughter, Olivia Judson, has been writing a moving series in the Times about cleaning out her famly’s old house in Baltimore. (Be especially sure to read part 5, A Piece of DNA, in which she comes across part of Watson and Crick’s famous wire and sheet metal model.)

Toward the end of my run, I wrote mostly about the mysteries of cancer, the topic of my most recent book, with a side trip into the peculiarities of one of the most brilliant people alive, Murray Gell-Mann, the reluctant subject of my biography, Strange Beauty. He is 84.

Now it is time to move on. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, top-posts, Uncategorized

Robert Millikan, Jane Austen, and Confirmation Bias

By George Johnson | February 17, 2014 2:32 pm

This weekend, as I was putting the final touches on my next “Raw Data” column for Tuesday’s New York Times, a friend mentioned, out of the blue, her reaction to an opinion piece published last month in the paper’s Sunday Review section. It was called “Scientific Pride and Prejudice,” by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, a political scientist at U.C.L.A. and the author of Jane Austen, Game Theorist.

I was belatedly reading the piece when I was struck by an eerie feeling resembling déjà vu. Or maybe backwards déjà vu. Read More

Raw Data: How Widespread is the Problem of Irreproducible Results?

By George Johnson | January 29, 2014 4:17 pm

Last week in the first installment of “Raw Data,” my new monthly column for the New York Times, I reflected on what has become known in science as the problem of irreproducible results. The fear that the corpus of scientific knowledge is becoming polluted with questionable findings — experiments that cannot be replicated by other laboratories — has become so great that the journal Nature has promised to implement new measures “improving the consistency and quality of reporting in life-sciences articles” and has compiled an eye-opening archive called “Challenges in Reproducible Research.”

The concerns are arising not just in epidemiological studies — where some effect (a drug, food, behavior, or an environmental contaminant) is correlated positively or negatively with human health — but also in bench research. This is the science of petri dishes and chemical reagents, with subjects ranging in complexity from human cells to genetically altered mice. Read More

The Things That Kill Us

By George Johnson | January 14, 2014 12:41 am

As my first act of 2014, I wrote a piece for the New York Times Sunday Review: Why Everyone Seems to Have Cancer. The occasion was the annual release of the National Cancer Institute’s “Report to the Nation.” It showed, as it has for many years, that mortality from cancer continues to decline. But the progress is far outpaced by what has been happening with the country’s other biggest killer. In the last half century, the death rate from heart disease has dropped by 68 percent and cancer by 10 percent.

In my article I consider the reasons, but the short answer is this: heart disease is an easier problem and death is a zero-sum game. Fewer people dying of one means more people living long enough to succumb to the other.

All of this must be accounted for in age-adjusted numbers. The post-World War II baby boom led to a surge in the population — a demographic bulge of people who are now in their 60s, when cancer is more likely to occur. The fact that we are left to die from it — instead of, say, tuberculosis or influenza — is a kind of luxury. It is not one enjoyed in the developing world, where cancer is overshadowed by more immediate perils. Read More

An Idea as Grand as the Ritz

By George Johnson | December 15, 2013 8:49 pm
The core of a Magic Eightball.

The core of a Magic Eightball. (from ginifab.com)

I hadn’t thought, until a few days ago, when I was thumbing through Strange Beauty, about the origin of the word ritzy. It has become so ingrained in the language that it somehow sounds like what it means. I vaguely knew about the Hotel Ritz in Paris and the Ritz Carlton chain. These places were called that, I supposed, because they were ritzy.

Actually it worked the other way around. There was a Swiss hotelier named César Ritz, whose original establishment was so chic and luxurious that a new superlative was coined. Much of the renown lay with the cuisine, prepared under the direction of Georges Auguste Escoffier, who became the preeminent French chef of his day. Escoffier, oddly enough, figures into the history of modern physics, though in a very roundabout way. Read More

The Terror of Error. Murray Gell-Mann, Part 2

By George Johnson | December 12, 2013 9:18 pm
three quarks

Three quarks. Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Blogs by their nature do not go through the editing a writer comes to value before new assemblages of words are let out in the world. No matter how many times I reread and revise a post, I am chagrined how often I find, after pressing “publish,” that there is a typo or two. These are not actually random mistypings — spellcheck usually spots those — but neurological malfunctions. Bugs in the wetware. I will think one word and type another, and with each rereading my mind automatically sees what I intended and not what I typed. The wound heals over and the scab goes unnoticed. Until I press “publish” and the blunders jump out at me. Read More

My First Strange Encounter with Murray Gell-Mann

By George Johnson | December 11, 2013 5:43 pm
Credit line: Harvey of Pasadena, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Credit line: Harvey of Pasadena, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

Long ago when I was working as a police reporter at the Albuquerque Journal, my best friend Richard Freedman called to deliver some exciting news: Murray Gell-Mann was giving a public lecture that evening up in Los Alamos, the city high in the Jemez Mountains where the atomic bomb was devised. Having made less than optimal use of our undergraduate education, Richard and I were studying new subjects like mad. Physics, philosophy, linear algebra — we were sure that somewhere therein lay the secret of the universe.

In school I hadn’t got past Physics 101 and an introduction to western philosophy. But throughout those years I had fallen in love with the literature of science Read More


By George Johnson | December 5, 2013 6:26 pm
Tumbleweed snowman. Picture courtesy Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority

Tumbleweed snowman. Picture courtesy Albuquerque Metropolitan Arroyo Flood Control Authority

You know Christmas is coming in Albuquerque when you spot the tumbleweed snowman rising as high as 13 feet over Interstate 40, leering at the shoppers on their way to Coronado Mall. Assembled from gargantuan examples of these noxious rolling weeds, the smiling giant has become a holiday tradition. For me it stands instead as a sad reminder, of how we lost the war against a relentless invader.

Pictured in so many movies about the American West, tumbling tumbleweeds lope alongside stagecoaches and wagon trains, they amble down Main Street in ramshackle frontier towns. But if you’re watching a film about the California Gold Rush or the Battle for the Alamo and a tumbleweed comes blowing by, you’re witnessing an anachronism. The weeds, also known as Russian thistle or salsola tragus, didn’t arrive on the continent until 1873.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: select, top-posts

Cancer, Estrogen, and the Metabolic Mess

By George Johnson | November 6, 2013 9:18 pm

If there is a single refrain in the science of cancer that I found most resonant, it is probably this: Anything that causes cells to divide more quickly increases the chance of mutations — random copying errors that arise when the mother cell’s library of genomic information is duplicated, letter by letter, and passed on to its progeny. The right combination of these genetic misspellings can give a cell the power to pursue a life of its own and become the seed of a cancer.

Sometimes the effect is straight forward. Every gulp of alcohol kills cells that line the alimentary tract. That stimulates the growth of new tissue, increasing the rate of cellular division, and raising the risk of esophageal cancer.

A carcinogen, in other words, does not have to be a mutagen — something that alters DNA. Nor does it have to be a foreign substance. Read More

The End of Pinktober

By George Johnson | October 28, 2013 12:18 pm

(excerpt from The Cancer Chronicles, copyright 2013 by George Johnson)

On the early morning flight from Albuquerque to Boston, the captain was wearing a pink tie, and a pink kerchief was peeking from the pocket of his uniform. The flight attendants were similarly dressed, with pink shirts and aprons. It was National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and when the plane was in the sky one of the attendants enthusiastically announced that the airline was selling pink lemonade and pink martinis—this on a flight departing at 6 a.m. The proceeds would go for “curing” breast cancer.

No more than a hundred years ago cancer was a word spoken only in whispers lest the illness be stirred from its slumber. One might die of “heart failure” or “cachexia,” a latinized way of saying that, eaten by cancer, a loved one had wasted away. Though the fear has not disappeared, “cancer” is no longer the unutterable word. The cheerfulness with which the subject has been embraced and shouted is almost macabre. A cosmetics company was advertising “Kisses for the Cure.” Buy a lipstick and a small donation would be made to the fight. “Pucker up and Kiss Breast Cancer Goodbye.” Read More


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Fire in the Mind

Whether a subtle new pattern shows up in an experiment on the Higgs boson, an epidemiological report about a suspected cancer cluster, or a double-blind trial purporting to demonstrate ESP, it can be maddeningly difficult to distinguish between what we see and what we think we see. "Fire in the Mind" takes a look at the big questions behind today’s science news.

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