A wonderful new book arrived this month that I highly recommend to readers! Misha Angrist composed Here Is A Human Being: At the Dawn of Personal Genomics, not only chronicling the experience of having his genome sequenced, but also introducing many fascinating characters in this engaging narrative about the relationship between us and our DNA.
Misha is assistant professor at Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy and I was fortunate to get to know him while working at the university. (For a sense of what Misha’s up to, check out this interview featured in the News & Observer.) As one of the first ten individuals to participate in George Church’s Personal Genome Project, his book explores the broad implications of what personal genomics means in our society while providing the firsthand account of his experience. From Amazon:
In 2007, Misha Angrist became the fourth subject in the Personal Genome Project, George Church’s ambitious plan to sequence the entire genomic catalog: every participant’s twenty thousand–plus genes and the rest of his or her 6 billion base pairs. Church hopes to better understand how genes influence our physical traits, from height and athletic ability to behavior and weight, and our medical conditions, from cancer and diabetes to obesity and male pattern baldness. Now Angrist reveals startling information about the experiment’s participants and scientists; how the experiment was, is, and will be conducted; the discoveries and potential discoveries; and the profound implications of having an unfiltered view of our hardwired selves for us and for our children.
DNA technology has already changed our health care, the food we eat, and our criminal justice system. Unlocking the secrets of our genomes opens the door not only to helping us understand why we are the way we are and potentially fixing what ails us but also to many other concerns: What exactly will happen to this information? Will it become just another marketing tool? Can it help us understand our ancestry, or will it merely reinforce old ideas of race? Can personal genomics help fix the U.S. health care system?
Here Is a Human Being explores these complicated questions while documenting Angrist’s own fascinating journey—one that tens of thousands of us will soon make.
Here Is A Human Being is will appeal to anyone interested in DNA and the future of science. The content is easy to understand for experts and laypeople alike. At times Misha takes on a serious tone while elsewhere you’ll find yourself laughing at funny anecdotes. These transitions are seamless and the narrative is thought-provoking. I really enjoyed reading this book and learned a lot along the way. You will too so pick this one up!
The award has now come in for the most off base and, frankly, elitist response to the Rock S.O.S.™ campaign. It goes to science blogger Martin Robbins of the Guardian, who doesn’t even understand what the campaign is, and so acts as if everything he objects to is something done by GQ magazine rather than by the Geoffrey Beene Gives Back® Rock Stars of Science™ campaign, which ran a PSA in GQ.
Robbins isn’t merely unaware of what he’s criticizing; he’s also apparently clueless about the U.S. public and how it regards science. His basic argument seems to be that people should already know that scientists, not rock stars, are the really cool ones. (Even though many Americans can’t even name a scientist.) Rock stars should kneel at the feet of scientists, rather than vice versa. And if you don’t get it…well, just look at this picture of science from the archives that Robbins has to show you!
It’s a NASA moonscape shot. More specifically, it’s billed as “Pete Conrad inspects Surveyor 3. Conrad’s own spaceship, the Intrepid, can be seen 200 yards away in the background.” Yes, it’s very cool; no, it’s not currently running in GQ’s “Men of the Year” issue. Magazines like new photos, not photos from the bygone days when Americans actually paid attention to science. Robbins adds this gloss:
This is a picture of two spacecraft on the moon at the same time, taken by astronauts who have walked from one to the other. If you don’t understand why this is one of the coolest things you will ever see, then you really aren’t cool, in fact you’re the opposite of cool. You are to cool what Dan Brown is to literature.
To which the American public responds “!#$@^ you, I liked The Da Vinci Code” and returns to watching Dancing With the Stars.
In general, most Americans don’t think science is cool. It isn’t even on the radar. You can tell them they’re wrong, and that they’re the ones who don’t understand cool–but in this case you’re a British blogger occupying a media niche that few Americans will find themselves visiting. Meanwhile, you’re bashing a campaign that has a far better chance of reaching them.
You also won’t reach them by…making fun of hip-hop artists like B.O.B., whom Robbins calls “a child rapper named Bob”:
‘Bob’ is apparently notable for his breakout hit Haterz Everywhere, which is clearly a clever satire on conspicuous consumption, making a powerful statement about the ability of successful capitalists to act above the law and oppress the common man…
Much of the time Robbins is at least a funny writer. Not here. Not remotely.
It’s a kitchen sink attack, so Robbins also criticizes some overly technical language on the Rock Stars website (not GQ’s website), which admittedly could have been better written. The funny thing about this critique, though, is that Robbins starts off his first sentence by denouncing the “isochronal cavalcade” of the Rock Stars campaign. Clearly, here’s a man who understands the pitfalls of jargon.
…here’s a picture of the Sun. Taken at night. Through the Earth (explanation here).
Yes science can do many marvelous things. But you’ll notice that Robbins’ image requires…an explanation. As it happens, it involves neutrinos, which–I’m quite certain–most Americans do not know about or understand.
Now compare the image below, and decide which the American public is more likely to respond to: