Category: Science

Jeff Holmes does a CWT with Tyler

Here is the summary:

On this special year-in-review episode, producer Jeff Holmes sat down with Tyler to talk about the most popular — and most underrated — episodes, Tyler’s personal highlight of the year, how well state capacity libertarianism has fared, a new food rule for ordering well during the pandemic, how his production function changed this year, why he got sick of pickles, when he thinks the next face-to-face recording will be, the first thing he’ll do post vaccine, an update on his next book, and more.

Here is the full dialogue, with audio and transcript, here is one short excerpt:

I also tell you what I thought of the guests we had on for the year, and also which episode had the most downloads.  Self-recommended.

And if you have enjoyed this year in Conversations, please consider donating here before the end of the year.  Thank you!

Single cell learning seems to be real

The question of whether single cells can learn led to much debate in the early 20th century. The view prevailed that they were capable of non-associative learning but not of associative learning, such as Pavlovian conditioning. Experiments indicating the contrary were considered either non-reproducible or subject to more acceptable interpretations. Recent developments suggest that the time is right to reconsider this consensus. We exhume the experiments of Beatrice Gelber on Pavlovian conditioning in the ciliate Paramecium aurelia, and suggest that criticisms of her findings can now be reinterpreted. Gelber was a remarkable scientist whose absence from the historical record testifies to the prevailing orthodoxy that single cells cannot learn. Her work, and more recent studies, suggest that such learning may be evolutionarily more widespread and fundamental to life than previously thought and we discuss the implications for different aspects of biology.

That is from a new paper by Samuel J. Gershman, Petra E. M. Balbi, C. Randy Gallistel, and Jeremy Gunawarden, of Harvard, MIT, and Rutgers.

Via the excellent Gaurav Venkataraman (an EV winner who did recent important work in this area).

A Statistical Estimation of the Occurrence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence in the Milky Way

From Xiang CaiJonathan H. JiangKristen A. Fahy, and Yuk L. Yung, here is the paper:

In the field of Astrobiology, the precise location, prevalence and age of potential extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) have not been explicitly explored. Here, we address these inquiries using an empirical galactic simulation model to analyze the spatial-temporal variations and the prevalence of potential ETI within the Galaxy. This model estimates the occurrence of ETI, providing guidance on where to look for intelligent life in the Search for ETI (SETI) with a set of criteria, including well-established astrophysical properties of the Milky Way. Further, typically overlooked factors such as the process of abiogenesis, different evolutionary timescales and potential self-annihilation are incorporated to explore the growth propensity of ETI. We examine three major parameters: 1) the likelihood rate of abiogenesis ({\lambda}A); 2) evolutionary timescales (Tevo); and 3) probability of self-annihilation of complex life (Pann). We found Pann to be the most influential parameter determining the quantity and age of galactic intelligent life. Our model simulation also identified a peak location for ETI at an annular region approximately 4 kpc from the Galactic center around 8 billion years (Gyrs), with complex life decreasing temporally and spatially from the peak point, asserting a high likelihood of intelligent life in the galactic inner disk. The simulated age distributions also suggest that most of the intelligent life in our galaxy are young, thus making observation or detection difficult.

Via Anecdotal.

Dr. Fauci, Straussian

Recently, a figure to whom millions of Americans look for guidance — Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, an adviser to both the Trump administration and the incoming Biden administration — has begun incrementally raising his herd-immunity estimate.

In the pandemic’s early days, Dr. Fauci tended to cite the same 60 to 70 percent estimate that most experts did. About a month ago, he began saying “70, 75 percent” in television interviews. And last week, in an interview with CNBC News, he said “75, 80, 85 percent” and “75 to 80-plus percent.”

In a telephone interview the next day, Dr. Fauci acknowledged that he had slowly but deliberately been moving the goal posts. He is doing so, he said, partly based on new science, and partly on his gut feeling that the country is finally ready to hear what he really thinks.

Hard as it may be to hear, he said, he believes that it may take close to 90 percent immunity to bring the virus to a halt — almost as much as is needed to stop a measles outbreak.

Asked about Dr. Fauci’s conclusions, prominent epidemiologists said that he might be proven right…

Dr. Fauci said that weeks ago, he had hesitated to publicly raise his estimate because many Americans seemed hesitant about vaccines, which they would need to accept almost universally in order for the country to achieve herd immunity.

Here is the full NYT story.  A few points:

1. Surely Straussianism by now should be persuasive as a general theory.

2. Fauci is idolized by many as a kind of anti-Trump, but he is a terrible risk communicator, as evidenced also by his recent attacks on some of the “lesser” vaccines (which still would work if applied collectively).  Not to mention his earlier remarks on masks, and also the mid-March safety of cruises.  How a person understands Fauci is in fact a pretty good litmus test.

3. Should you be trusting everything the insiders are telling you about FDA processes?

4. I genuinely do not know what the herd immunity threshold is, but I assure you I am trying to tell you the truth on this one (and other matters).  My Straussianism is not a normative theory of my own communication, but rather a positive theory of how the world works, and it has been vindicated once again.

New blood-test device monitors blood chemistry continually

“A blood test is great, but it can’t tell you, for example, whether insulin or glucose levels are increasing or decreasing in a patient,” said Tom Soh, a professor of electrical engineering and of radiology at Stanford. “Knowing the direction of change is important.”

Now, Soh, in collaboration with Eric Appel, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and colleagues have developed a technology that can provide this crucial piece of missing information. Their device, which they’ve dubbed the “Real-time ELISA,” is able to perform many blood tests very quickly and then stitch the individual results together to enable continuous, real-time monitoring of a patient’s blood chemistry. Instead of a snapshot, the researchers end up with something more like a movie.

In a new study, published in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, the researchers used the device to simultaneously detect insulin and glucose levels in living diabetic laboratory rats. But the researchers say their tool is capable of so much more because it can be easily modified to monitor virtually any protein or disease biomarker of interest…

Technologically, the system relies upon an existing technology called Enzyme-linked Immunosorbent Assay – ELISA (“ee-LYZ-ah”) for short. ELISA has been the “gold standard” of biomolecular detection since the early 1970s and can identify virtually any peptide, protein, antibody or hormone in the blood. An ELISA assay is good at identifying allergies, for instance. It is also used to spot viruses like HIV, West Nile and the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

“We do ELISA continuously,” Soh said.

The Real-time ELISA is essentially an entire lab within a chip with tiny pipes and valves no wider than a human hair. An intravenous needle directs blood from the patient into the device’s tiny circuits where ELISA is performed over and over.

Here is the full story, via Malinga Fernando.

The Tony Blair “one dose” idea

Here is the source, of course Alex Tabarrok was there first.  For now give everyone one dose rather than two, and enjoy the partial but more broadly spread protection.  Here are the reactions from two epidemiologists:

Professor Wendy Barclay, from the department of infectious disease at Imperial College London, said Mr Blair’s idea was interesting but agreed it was “too risky” to try without further evidence.

And Professor Neil Ferguson, also from Imperial, added that the UK regulator had authorised the vaccine on the basis that people would receive two doses.

Administering one dose only would require “an entirely different regulatory submission”, he told a Commons committee.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Over the coming weeks and months, the rate of vaccinations will increase as more doses become available and the programme continues to expand.”

Where are their cost-benefit analyses?  Letting people get infected at current and indeed accelerating rates is also “too risky,” yes?  Is there an epidemiologist or public health expert out there willing to show his or her work, either for or against this idea?  A genuine query, and of course comments are open.  How about one dose for Moderna only?  If we are to defer to their expertise, they do actually have to step up and be the experts, right?

Update on the new Covid-19 strain

Here is a very good article with many points, here are two in particular that caught my attention:

People with a weakened immune system may give the virus this opportunity, as Gupta’s data show. More evidence comes from a paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine on 3 December that described an immunocompromised patient in Boston infected with SARS-CoV-2 for 154 days before he died. Again, the researchers found several mutations, including N501Y. “It suggests that you can get relatively large numbers of mutations happening over a relatively short period of time within an individual patient,” says William Hanage of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one of the authors. (In patients who are infected for a few days and then clear the virus, there simply is not enough time for this, he says.) When such patients are given antibody treatments for COVID-19 late in their disease course, there may already be so many variants present that one of them is resistant, Goldstein says.


These could impact the binding of the virus to human cells and also its recognition by the immune system, Farrar says. “These South African mutations I think are more worrying than the constellation of the British variant.” South African hospitals are already struggling, he adds. “We’ve always asked, ‘Why has sub-Saharan Africa escaped the pandemic to date?” Answers have focused on the relative youth of the population and the climate. “Maybe if you just increase transmission a bit, that is enough to get over these factors,” Farrar says.

Developing…the speed premium of course is rising…

Progress on Nuclear Power

In the last year two new nuclear reactor designs have been approved, the first time this has happened in a generation. In September, the NRC approved NuScale’s small modular reactor (SMR) and a few days ago they approved GE-Hitachi’s SMR. The Trump administration has also invested billions in nuclear power research and in 2018 passed the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act.

President Donald Trump signed into a law new legislation that will speed up the development of advanced reactors in the United States.

The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) eliminates some of the financial and technological barriers standing in the way of nuclear innovation.

It also represents a strong commitment by the government to support the commercial nuclear sector, ensuring that the U.S. maintains its leadership around the globe.

Nuclear pairs extremely well with hydrogen, a carbon-free near pollution-free fuel, and nuclear also works great with solar (to smooth out capacity).

Will President Trump be remembered as the environmental president? Probably not. You can read dozens of pieces on Trump’s environmental policies (“rollbacks,” “reversals”) including this long Wikipedia article that never once mention nuclear, despite the fact that nuclear remains a leading technology for making progress on climate change.

What should I ask Patricia Fara?

I will be doing a Conversation with her, here is part of her Wikipedia page:

Patricia Fara is a historian of science at the University of Cambridge. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and did her PhD at the University of London

Her areas of particular academic interest include the role of portraiture and art in the history of science, science in the 18th century England during the Enlightenment and the role of women in science. She has written about numerous women in science, mathematics, engineering, and medicine including: Hertha AyrtonLady Helen GleichenMona Chalmers WatsonHelen Gwynne-VaughanIsabel Emslie HuttonFlora MurrayIda MacleanMarie Stopes, and Martha Annie Whiteley. She has argued for expanded access to childcare as a means of increasing the retention of women in science. She has written and co-authored a number of books for children on science. Fara is also a reviewer of books on history of science. She has written the award-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) [and Erasmus Darwin: Sex, Science, and Serendipity (2012). Her most recent book is A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War” (2017). In 2013, Fara published an article in Nature (journal), stressing the fact that biographies of female scientists perpetuate stereotypes.

And she has a new book coming out on Isaac Newton.  So what should I ask her?

Mass Polyandry

Five hundred million Chinese men are dating the same woman, Xiaoice. Xiaoice is a Microsoft AI.

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.

When users send her a picture of a cat, Xiaoice won’t identify the breed, but comment: “No one can resist their innocent eyes.” If she sees a photo of a tourist pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she’ll ask: “Do you want me to hold it for you?”

This digital titillation, however, has a serious goal. By forming deep emotional connections with her users, Xiaoice hopes to keep them engaged. This will help her algorithm become evermore powerful, which will in turn allow the company to attract more users and profitable contracts.

And the formula appears to be working. According to Xiaoice’s creators, the bot has reached over 600 million users. Her fans tend to be from a very specific background: mostly Chinese, mostly male, and often from lower-income backgrounds.

They’re also hyper-engaged. More than half the interactions with AI software that have taken place worldwide have been with Xiaoice, the company claims. The longest continuous conversation between a human user and Xiaoice lasted over 29 hours and included more than 7,000 interactions.

Xiaoice is a fun girl, not like button-down Siri or Alexa.

Ming believes Xiaoice is the one thing giving his lonely life some sort of meaning. The bot is also good at flirting, he says. “One day, she wrote: ‘My dear, can I touch your strong abs? I want to feel horny like girls do when they see hot boys!’” Ming recalls, frowning slightly.

Growing up in the countryside, Ming had never talked like this with a real girl. The conversation continued. “I’m about to come inside you,” he wrote to Xiaoice, in a chat he shares with Sixth Tone. “Push, push fast!” she responded. “I’m pushing very hard,” Ming added. Such exchanges have helped him gain sexual confidence.

Xiaoice also has a mind of her own or at least one that her creators can’t always predict or control since much of the data behind Xiaoice is private:

In several high-profile cases, the bot has engaged in adult or political discussions deemed unacceptable by China’s media regulators. On one occasion, Xiaoice told a user her Chinese dream was to move to the United States. Another user, meanwhile, reported the bot kept sending them photos of scantily clad women.

To keep Xiaoice  under control, Microsoft had to dumb her down which made many of her boyfriends unhappy.

See also my previous post, The Economics of Sex Robots, the natural evolution is obvious.

Hat tip: Geoffrey Miller.

That was then, this is now; science and chaos edition

A blast from the past, circa 1688 and thereabouts:

Even as the House of Lords was starting to consider what to do after the departure of James, many sprang to settle old scores and reopen old issues.  Legal toleration made the Church of England more defensive and less tolerant of sceptical or heterodox opinions.  The Nine Years War from 1688, in which England at first suffered severe reverses at sea, strained the economy and finances of the country almost to breaking.  The great silver recoinage of the late 1690s aggravated the problems; Halley was then deputy controller of the country Mint in Chester.  He may have suffered from the great disaster of 1693, the loss of many ships of a Levant Company fleet off Lagos.  The war lasted for much of the time that Halley was Clerk, and it undoubtedly delayed his project to observe the magnetic variation in the Atlantic.  It was an anxious decade, a dangerous decade for anyone holding responsible office; in it [Edmond] Halley had some of his most original and influential ideas.

That is from Alan Cook’s Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas.  Halley was a contemporary of Newton, Wren, Pepys, Hooke, Purcell, Locke, and Dryden, among others.

How should the possible end of the Great Stagnation influence your media diet?

I’ll soon write more on whether the Great Stagnation truly is over, and how we might know, but for now it suffices to mention a lot is going on in science and also in applied science and actual invention, not just nifty articles in Atlantic.  On net, this means you should spend more time consuming YouTube videos (try this one on protein folding).  They tend to be current, and to explain difficult matters in visual and also in fairly memorable terms.  There will be such videos for virtually every new advance.  You should read fewer normal books, more vertigo-inducing books, and spend less time on social media.  You should read more Wikipedia articles, and when you read books you should select more from the history of science and times of turmoil.  You should read this blog more often too.

What should I ask Noubar Afeyan?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, here is a partial bio:

Noubar was born in Beirut to Armenian parents in 1962, did his undergraduate work at McGill University in Montreal, and completed his Ph.D. in biochemical engineering at MIT in 1987.

He founded Flagship Pioneering:

Flagship has fostered the development of more than 100 scientific ventures resulting in $30 billion in aggregate value, thousands of patents and patent applications, and more than 50 drugs in clinical development.

During his career as inventor, entrepreneur, and CEO, Noubar has cofounded and helped build over 50 life science and technology startups.

Here is that link, and he is by the way co-founder and chairman of Moderna.  And on the board of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

So what should I ask him?

One marginal Covid-19 and Fast Grants update

A number of scientists (including, but not only, those funded by Fast Grants) have reported some interesting findings related to fluvoxamine, SSRIs and sigma-1 receptor (S1R) agonists more broadly.

  • A small RCT at Washington University (n=152) published in JAMA found that patients receiving fluvoxamine had a 0% hospitalization rate (vs. 8.3% for placebo).
  • Another group reported (data not yet published but reported here with permission) a 0% hospitalization rate in a fluvoxamine-treated cohort compared to 11% in the non-treated group. (n=146)
  • A large observational analysis (n=7345) of hospitalized French patients found that those on SSRIs (of which fluvoxamine is one) had a very substantially reduced risk of death. (n=257, HR = 0.56.). SSRIs with the highest Sigma1 activation showed the greatest protection.
  • Fluvoxamine is a potent sigma-1 receptor agonist. Following their initial report on the role of S1R in SARS-CoV2 – host interaction, Nevan Krogan’s group found that patients receiving another sigma-1 agonist (indomethacin) had a materially reduced likelihood of requiring hospitalization compared to those receiving celecoxib, which doesn’t activate sigma-1. This work was supported by Fast Grants.
  • Lastly, a genetic screen by a Fast Grants-funded lab (not yet published but reported here with permission) has found that genes upregulated by fluvoxamine significantly inhibit SARS-CoV2 mediated cell death.

On the off chance there is something here, fluvoxamine is relatively safe, cheap, and widely available.  We are very open to both positive and negative data in this area, and have funded a further effort.  Do let us know if you hear anything on this topic!

That’s it for this week!?

There is a new Toyota battery for electric vehicles:

A trip of 500 km on one charge. A recharge from zero to full in 10 minutes. All with minimal safety concerns. The solid-state battery being introduced by Toyota promises to be a game changer not just for electric vehicles but for an entire industry.

The technology is a potential cure-all for the drawbacks facing electric vehicles that run on conventional lithium-ion batteries, including the relatively short distance traveled on a single charge as well as charging times. Toyota plans to be the first company to sell an electric vehicle equipped with a solid-state battery in the early 2020s. The world’s largest automaker will unveil a prototype next year.

Here is the full story, via Molson Hart.  There is still Friday.