In my previous dispatch, I described the reasoning behind demographer Carl Haub’s estimate that a whopping total of 108 billion people have lived and died since modern homo sapiens appeared. Since the current world population is about 7.1 billion, the old shibboleth that “more people are alive today than have ever lived” is wildly wrong. A lot of readers probably already knew that, but it was a surprise to me — and to my editor — when I first came across the number for a story I wrote for the New York Times.
Haub may be off by several billion (he makes a good case that, if anything, his figure is an underestimate), but all I was really after was an order-of-magnitude calculation — the right number of zeroes. For something so uncertain that is as precise as you can hope to get.
What I wondered next was how much of that subterranean horde has been excavated in recent centuries and made available for scientific study. Read More
While I was writing The Cancer Chronicles, I came to a point, early on, where I wondered how many people had ever been alive in the world. The best answer I could find came from a study by an organization called the Population Reference Bureau: 108 billion.
I was stunned by the magnitude of the number. It is still common to hear that more people are alive today than have ever lived. Or an even more extreme claim: that 75 percent of everyone who ever walked the earth is living today. But that is not even close to being correct. By the Population Reference Bureau’s reckoning, the proportion of living to dead is only about 6 percent.
The author of the study, Carl Haub, describes the assumptions that went into his calculations. Read More
I dimly remember when the Discovery Channel was a place to learn about science and to enjoy the creative ways it could be presented on TV. Or maybe I am imagining that. Christie Wilcox did a great job yesterday on her blog debunking the pseudoscience that Discovery is foisting off on the public in what purports to be a documentary: “Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives” (the problem being that it doesn’t). The backlash from viewers has been an encouraging sign that there is a demand for quality, and the fallout from the scandal led me to check out what other fare is currently offered.
It’s easy to read too much into the scant evidence that remains of ancient rituals, particularly when the believers — and the victims — left no written records. But in the case of the Incas, who flourished half a millennium ago in the heights of the Andes, archaeologists have been piecing together a persuasive story of a religion that involved the sacrifice of children, who were apparently drugged into submission and left to die on cold mountain tops. Because of the dry, frigid climate, many of the bodies did not decompose. Instead they were mummified, leaving behind forensic clues to ancient murders.
One of the measures by which oncologists describe the severity of a malignancy is according to its stage, with Stage 4 being the most deadly. There is a certain amount of arbitrariness to the labeling scheme, and the details vary according to the type of cancer. But Stage 4 refers, in general, to those that have spread, or metastasized, beyond the original site — to a distant lymph node or organ. Advanced Stage 4 cancers are almost never curable, and the treatments can be so devastating that it is often not clear whether a few extra months of life is something to be desired.
Then there are what the doctors call Stage 0 — abnormal cells that may or may not ever become a problem. Read More
Pick up a copy of the New York Times on almost any day and you will find on-the-ground reports of political unrest in Africa, the Middle East, Latin America or on the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq. These are written and reported by correspondents risking and occasionally losing their lives. Periodically there will be investigative pieces, taking months of reporting — prying information from reluctant officials, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and lawsuits. The story might be on the misuse of medical radiation therapy or the Walmart bribery scandal in Mexico or the secretive financial empire of the Chinese prime minister. It might be on the the bankruptcy of Detroit or the scope of domestic surveillance by the N.S.A.
For all the economic difficulties the news business is facing, you will find work of similar scale and ambition in the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post. Journalism attracts and nourishes people who have a burning curiosity for how things work, whether they are writing about warfare, politics, or the latest scientific discoveries. You gather the facts and do the hard work of conveying the sense of them.
Journalists, in fact, embrace the same basic philosophy that scientists do. There is a world out there of enormous complexity. We can sample it through the narrow bandwidth of our nervous system and make sense of it with our brains.
Given all that I was taken aback to see the attention accorded last week to a blog post on the website run by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting). The headline, reflexively tweeted and liked until you could hardly avoid it, was “Nate Silver Didn’t Fit In at the New York Times Because He Believed in the Real World.” Read More
In an earlier post, “The Most Powerful Carcinogen is Entropy,” I included a pie chart that breaks down cancers in the United States according to their causes. The numbers almost always take people by surprise, mostly because of the very small percentage of cases attributed to synthetic chemicals in the environment. But it is also striking that relatively few cancers, at least in the developed world, are caused by viruses.
They seem like such likely culprits. Here is how I describe them in The Cancer Chronicles:
Existing on the boundary between chemistry and life, viruses are packets of information— streamlined sequences of DNA or RNA wrapped in a protective sheath. They are wandering genomes so simple that some consist of only three genes. Like the handmade Internet viruses they later inspired, they infiltrate their hosts (the biological computers called cells) and commandeer the internal machinery. There the invader’s genes are dutifully duplicated and repackaged again and again, the viral copies spreading to other cells where they robotically carry out the same routine—life itself stripped of its capacity to do anything except reproduce.
Since cancer is a disease of genes gone mad, it is natural to suspect that viruses would be a primary cause of cancer. But they appear to be involved in only a few varieties. The most prominent, by far, are liver and cervical cancer, and the problem is especially fierce in the poorer parts of the world, which account for about 80 percent of all cases. Read More
In my previous post, on the inevitability of cancer in a world dominated by entropy, I described how the cells in a body are constantly dividing, copying with each division every letter and punctuation mark of their genetic information. “Only a creationist could believe that errors do not happen along the way,” I wrote. Mistakes that slip through the cell’s elaborate proofreading mechanism accumulate, and in the right combination these changes — mutations — can lead to cancer.
Something seemed a little fishy to me about the first part of that sentence, and a reader pointed out my mistake. Though creationists do not believe in evolution, they do believe in genetic mutations. While they play no part in the origin and development of the species — these were laid out in advance by God — mutations can give you cancer. They are among the wages of sin befalling mankind since Eve bit the apple in the Garden of Eden. Read More
I was at science writers’ summer camp last week (I’ll probably write more about that later) when Razib Khan, on his blog Gene Expressions, wrote about my forthcoming book, The Cancer Chronicles: Unlocking Medicine’s Deepest Mystery. It’s a thoughtful post, and I was particularly struck by his observations about cause and effect — how the human mind demands reasons, preferably simple ones, even when none may exist. That is one of the obsessions behind Fire in the Mind (the book and the blog), and it carries over to The Cancer Chronicles.
When we or someone we love gets cancer, we agonize over the reasons. Was there something we did wrong or that was done to us? When we hear about strangers who are stricken, we want to believe that they ate too much junk food or lived in a particularly polluted atmosphere — mistakes we personally can avoid. But more often than not there is no identifiable cause. Read More
As I read Ray Monk’s new biography of Robert Oppenheimer, which I reviewed for the forthcoming issue of the New York Times Book Review, the parts that affected me most deeply were about northern New Mexico. I’d long known the story of Oppenheimer and Los Alamos, the secret atomic city he presided over in the Jemez Mountains. But it was on the opposite side of the Rio Grande Valley, in the Sangre de Cristo range, that he fell in love with the wild beauty of this land. He was 18 years old.
He had grown up in luxury on the Gold Coast of Manhattan’s Upper Westside. From the Oppenheimers’ apartment atop a building on Riverside Drive, they could admire the sunsets over the Hudson River, and the van Goghs and the Renoir that hung on the walls. Holidays were spent at a mansion on Long Island and sailing on the family yacht. The boy’s life changed when, before he left for Harvard, his parents arranged for him to spend the summer of 1922 in New Mexico. Read More