Chapter 27
Heard at the Boston Book Festival 2013

For those who still read

11:00 Synthetic Biology

Craig Venter: geneticist, entrepreneur; Juan Enriquez: venture capitalist; Emily Anthes: journalist.

  • Gene anything (analysis, therapy, etc.) is almost brand new, started only recently, about 1944.
  • Venter's group recently added a synthetic virus to E. coli. The virus was small, only about 5,000 base pairs, but still a significant achievement.
  • They are now building a "digital to biological converter" machine. Put the digital sequence in the front, DNA comes out the back. What use is this? Example: A new flu strain (H7N9?) was isolated in labs in Mexico. But, due to international shipping regulations, it was not possible to export it from Mexico to the US, where US labs could work on it. Solution? Venter's group downloaded the virus's DNA sequence from the web and built a synthetic version of it in twelve hours. Then US labs could work on the virus, characterize it, analyze it, develop vaccines. Of course, it is possible to put these digital-to-biological converter machines in other countries that are also restricted by import and export regulations. We can produce vaccines worldwide by downloading the sequence and manufacturing it in other locales.
  • Life is basically a DNA-software based system.
  • Biotech will be 3-5% of the future world economy.
  • Public expectations about what biotech can do are way too high. The first question from the uninformed press is always, "Are you going to make wooly mammoths, Neanderthals, dinosaurs?" Nonsense. The minor increments we make today are tiny by comparison, but are much more significant relative to health, science, and economics.
  • Admittedly there are lots of novelty genetic manipulations in the news these days: fish and mice that glow, and so forth. These modifications are considered "unnatural" because they are done with genetics. However, strange breeding results are commonplace for domestic animals. Consider all the breeds of dogs, cats, cattle, sheep. Those were all done genetically.
  • Is it reasonable to breed animals to take them apart for pieces that we use in medicine? We are very nervous about breeding animals for organ transplants, pig's hearts and livers and such; but it doesn't bother us to raise animals and slaughter then for food. Hmmm. It will be possible to grow synthetic meat soon, and it may be necessary to do so to feed the ten billion people expected by 2050.
  • What large US companies did not exist twenty years ago? Lots. Think Microsoft, Google, many other high-tech companies. [And Genzyme, Genentech, other biotech companies.] Now ask the same question about European companies. Much trickier. The level of innovation that occurs in major US centers is incredible: Boston, Silicon Valley, San Diego, Seattle.
  • Biotech will be the new industrial revolution. Large companies are moving to biotech, too. At DuPont, for instance, biological processes have replaced some petrochemical processes in fiber production. GE is getting into biotech, too.
  • More people today die from antibiotic-resistant infections than from auto accidents.
  • Science itself may seem complex, but the application of science to real life is much more complex.
  • Vaccines: we have technology but we lack distribution networks. It is not enough for the world to have technology; you have to apply it. Also, even in the first world, delivery of vaccines isn't perfect: if you are not vaccinating your kids, you are a hazard to all around you.
  • The John Nestor story: In DC back in the eighties, there were bad traffic jams on one portion of a major road, and people couldn't understand why. It was discovered that one guy in a slow car in the left lane every day caused bad backups. He set his cruise control right on the posted speed limit and stayed in the left lane so that he wouldn't have to deal with people exiting and entering. Later he said, "Why should I inconvenience myself for someone who wants to speed?" Turns out that he was an FDA medical officer who was eventually transferred out of a division that had approved no new drugs for four years running -- in stark contrast to every other medically advanced country in the world, and to the rest of the FDA. They were apparently too afraid that they would approve the next Thalidomide. Thalidomide, by the way, can be used to stop growth and might have applications in cancer treatment. But just try getting approval for that.
  • Drug approvals are dramatically slower now. They used to take three years and cost $20 million. Now, ten years and $1 billion because of the extensive testing involved. And for new genetically engineered drugs for some cancers, for instance, it is simply impossible to assemble the people needed for extensive testing. FDA bureaucrats naturally do not want to approve drugs that are not safe, but you can't really prove that a drug is completely safe, only that it might affect only small numbers of people. The safest action for bureaucrats in the approval cycle is inaction.
  • Slowdowns in drug approval are a real problem in the real world: people die while waiting for drug approval. There has been a lot written about this lately. We should be surprised that cancer patients aren't picketing the FDA's offices.
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) get a puzzlingly bad rap. For instance, there is not a single documented instance of an allergy to a GMO. But we hear every day of allergies to peanut butter, gluten, lactose, and other staples of the American diet. Why isn't there an uproar about these? This is due largely to a failure of basic science education in this country. For instance, 50% of people who object to GMOs believe that "natural" vegetables don't have genes, that genes are these things added to GMOs that make them unnatural. Science illiteracy is particularly bad at the top, in the advisory positions of the government.

13:15 Heroes and Antiheroes

Gregory Nagy, Chuck Klosterman, Claire Messud

  • When Homeric heroes do bad things, they do them much worse than we would do. We are meant to be shocked.
  • Dutch mom story: the mother of the family was never angry, never yelled at her family. But once a week, on Sunday morning, after the big family meal, she went off to clean up while the men stayed at the table. As she was cleaning upstairs, she would curse at the top of her lungs. Everyone heard it, every week. It was never discussed.
  • There are three types of anger: polluting anger that just poisons relationships; raw anger that explodes at someone or something; time bomb anger that waits and goes off at just the right time.
  • Everyone is a hero in his own life story.
  • When we're young, we identify with Luke Skywalker; later with Han Solo; and much later with Darth Vader. As we age, we come to understand their circumstances.
  • Actors prefer playing villains because they're more interesting? That's the standard wisdom. Nope, it's because they're more real. It's easier to understand their motives. Besides, what really matters, their acts or their motives?
  • What about a series like Breaking Bad? If you are still rooting for Walter White [the anti-hero character] near the end of the series, you're not really rooting for the villain; you're rooting for the story, because only the villain makes the story interesting.
  • Do villains have to be punished? That used to be true in classical times, but is less true today. Examples: The Sopranos, Breaking Bad. The events of the story are seen through the villain's eyes.

15:30 The State of Cities

Vishaan Chakrabarti, Anthony Townsend, Moses Gates

  • Three percent of the land mass of the US -- the inner cities -- generates 90% of the GDP and 86% of the jobs.
  • You need a population density at least as great as the Back Bay of Boston to support a public transit system. Only 12% of the country is zoned that way. And most of the taxes paid by residents of the cities do not come back to the cities to support urban needs like public transit.
  • Check out the proposed American Smart Infrastructure Act (ASIA).
  • The entire world is now more than 50% urban (measured by population density). And the Internet is more than 50% mobile.
  • There are more things than people on the Internet today.
  • Detroit story: police radio began as transmissions over AM radio. They had to get a license as an entertainment radio station and actually play entertainment programming. Then they could insert bulletins about crimes and calls for police presence.
  • The modern data processing era began with the 1890 census and Herman Hollerith. [Well-known story.]