Marie Curie Opposed Patents Because Women Could Not Own Property in France

(p. C6) Ms. Wirtén, a professor at Linköping University in Sweden, pays special attention to the decision not to patent and how it was treated in the founding texts of the Curie legend: Curie’s 1923 biography of her husband, “Pierre Curie,” and their daughter Eve’s 1937 biography of her mother, “Madame Curie.” The books each recount a conversation in which husband and wife agree that patenting their radium method would be contrary to the spirit of science.
It is not quite that simple. As Ms. Wirtén points out, the Curies derived a significant portion of their income from Pierre’s patents on instruments. Various factors besides beneficence could have affected their decision not to extend this approach to their radium process. Intriguingly, the author suggests that the ineligibility of women to own property under French law might have shaped Curie’s perspective. “Because the law excluded her from the status of person upon which these intellectual property rights depend,” Ms. Wirtén writes, “the ‘property’ road was closed to Marie Curie. The persona road was not.”

For the full review, see:
EVAN HEPLER-SMITH. “Scientific Saint; After scandals in France, Curie was embraced by American women as an intellectual icon.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C6.
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:
Wirtén, Eva Hemmungs. Making Marie Curie: Intellectual Property and Celebrity Culture in an Age of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015.

In Health Care We Need More than Incremental Steps; We Need Cures

(p. 8A) In 1998, I went to the doctor so fatigued I was unable to get out of bed. He sent me home diagnosed with multiple sclerosis but without so much as a treatment plan, a prescription or what I needed most: hope. Come back when it gets worse, he said, the medical equivalent of a pat on the head.
. . .
We need advocates unwilling to tolerate the old silos who insist on pushing neurologic science into a new era of breakthroughs. We need private funders with the vision to place big bets, often on long odds, with bigger payouts, perhaps a vaccine for MS or Alzheimer’s, on the other side.
At a time when the horizons of science have never spread wider, researchers and their supporters must rethink both the goals and the model of scientific research. It is a time for bold ambitions, not incremental steps.
Millions have experienced moments like the one I did in 1998. We owe these patients more than incremental progress. Ultimately, we owe them cures.

For the full commentary, see:
Ann Romney. “Bold Innovators Needed to Boost Health Research.” USA Today (Mon., October 16, 2014): 4A.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date October 16, 2014, and the title “Ann Romney: Health Research Needs Boost from Bold Innovators.”)

From Self-Funding, and Sony, Khanna Builds PlayStation Supercomputer to Advance Science

KhannaGauravPlaystationSupercomputer2015-07-05.jpg“Gaurav Khanna with a supercomputer he built at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department using 200 Playstation 3 consoles that are housed in a refrigerated shipping container.” Source of caption: print version of the NYT article quoted and cited below. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

(p. D3) This spring, Gaurav Khanna noticed that the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth physics department was more crowded than usual. Why, he wondered, were so many students suddenly so interested in science?”

It wasn’t a thirst for knowledge, it turns out. News of Dr. Khanna’s success in building a supercomputer using only PlayStation 3 video game consoles had spread quickly; the students, a lot of them gamers, just wanted to gape at the sight of nearly 200 consoles stacked on one another.
. . .
Making a supercomputer requires a large number of processors — standard desktops, laptops or the like — and a way to network them. Dr. Khanna picked the PlayStation 3 for its viability and cost, currently, $250 to $300 in stores. Unlike other game consoles, the PlayStation 3 allows users to install a preferred operating system, making it attractive to programmers and developers. (The latest model, the PlayStation 4, does not have this feature.)
“Gaming had grown into a huge market,” Dr. Khanna said. “There’s a huge push for performance, meaning you can buy low-cost, high-performance hardware very easily. I could go out and buy 100 PlayStation 3 consoles at my neighborhood Best Buy, if I wanted.”
That is just what Dr. Khanna did, though on a smaller scale. Because the National Science Foundation, which funds much of Dr. Khanna’s research, might not have viewed the bulk buying of video game consoles as a responsible use of grant money, he reached out to Sony Computer Entertainment America, the company behind the PlayStation 3. Sony donated four consoles to the experiment; Dr. Khanna’s university paid for eight more, and Dr. Khanna bought another four. He then installed the Linux operating system on all 16 consoles, plugged them into the Internet and booted up the supercomputer.
Lior Burko, an associate professor of physics at Georgia Gwinnett College and a past collaborator with Dr. Khanna, praised the idea as an “ingenious” way to get the function of a supercomputer without the prohibitive expense.
“Dr. Khanna was able to combine his two fields of expertise, namely general relativity and computer science, to invent something new that allowed for not just a neat new machine, but also scientific progress that otherwise might have taken many more years to achieve,” Dr. Burko said.
. . .
His team linked the consoles, housing them in a refrigerated shipping container designed to carry milk. The resulting supercomputer, Dr. Khanna said, had the computational power of nearly 3,000 laptop or desktop processors, and cost only $75,000 to make — about a tenth the cost of a comparable supercomputer made using traditional parts.

For the full story, see:
LAURA PARKER “An Economical Way to Save Progress.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014, and has the title “That Old PlayStation Can Aid Science.”)

No Increase in Public’s Concern with Income Inequality Since 1978

(p. 4A) DENVER (AP) — Income inequality is all the rage in public debate nowadays. Political figures from Sen. Elizabeth Warren on the left to Republican presidential prospect Jeb Bush on the right are denouncing the widening gap between the wealthy and everyone else.
But ordinary Americans don’t seem as fascinated by the issue as their would-be leaders. The public’s expressed interest in income inequality has remained stagnant over the past 36 years, according to the General Social Survey, which measures trends in public opinion.
In 2014 polling, Republicans’ support for the government doing something to narrow the rich-poor gap reached an all-time low. Even Democrats were slightly less interested in government action on the issue than they were two years ago.
The survey is conducted by the independent research organization NORC at the University of Chicago. Because of its long-running and comprehensive questions, it is a highly regarded source on social trends.
In the latest survey, made public last week, less than half of Americans — 46 percent — said the government ought to reduce income differences between the rich and the poor. That level has held fairly steady since 1978. Thirty-seven percent said the government shouldn’t concern itself with income differences, and the rest didn’t feel strongly either way.

For the full story, see:
AP. “Income Inequality? Pols Want to Talk about It; Public Yawns.” Omaha World-Herald (Monday, March 23, 2015): 4A.

For more details on the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) General Social Survey (GSS) results through 2014, see:
Inequality: Trends in Americans’ Attitudes URL: http://www.apnorc.org/projects/Pages/HTML%20Reports/inequality-trends-in-americans-attitudes0317-6562.aspx#study

Homo Sapiens Made Eye Contact with Dogs to Dominate Neanderthals

(p. C6) In the space of just a few thousand years, as we spread through the region, we killed off the apex predators: first the Neanderthals and then, over time, cave bears, cave hyenas, lesser scimitar cats, dholes, mammoths and woolly rhinos, among other animals. How did we manage this? According to Ms. Shipman, we enlisted the help of dogs.
. . .
Ms. Shipman devotes the final third of her book to exploring a fascinating range of evidence–genetic, archaeological, anthropological–that provides substantial support for this theory. She never proposes that the alliance of humans and dogs alone led to the extinction of the Neanderthals. In all likelihood, she writes, the mere presence of humans, a competitive new predator in the Eurasian ecosystem, was an important stressor, as were climate change and perhaps even infectious diseases brought by humans from Africa. But the domestication of dogs, she suggests, significantly tipped the balance: “The unprecedented alliance of humans with another top predator (wolf-dogs or a kind of wolf) may have been the final stress that pushed Neanderthals and many other species down the slippery slope toward extinction.”
So how did humans manage to domesticate wolves while their Neanderthal cousins, so similar in so many ways, did not? Here Ms. Shipman gets imaginative. Modern humans, she writes, have recently been shown to be the only extant primates whose irises are surrounded by white scleras–the whites of our eyes. We’re also the only primate to have eyelids that expose much of our scleras. What evolutionary advantage could this have possibly given us? “The white scleras and open eyelids,” she proposes, “make the direction of a person’s gaze highly visible from a distance.” Having white scleras allowed us to communicate subtly at a distance among ourselves and with our new best friend, dogs, a biological advantage that may have made all the difference as we competed for prey with Neanderthals–who, if they were like every other primate we know of today, had dark scleras.
Most animals, including apes and wolves, don’t make eye contact with humans; nor do they gaze at faces for long. Dogs, on the contrary, are excellent gaze-followers, a trait that scientists believe we selectively bred into them during their domestication. Once we had teamed up with dogs, we were unstoppable.

For the full review, see:
TOBY LESTER. “The Slippery Slope to Extinction.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 21, 2015): C5-C6.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date March 20, 2015.)

The book under review, is:
Shipman, Pat. The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2015.

Pentagon Seeks Innovation from Private Start-Ups Since “They’ve Realized that the Old Model Wasn’t Working Anymore”

(p. A3) SAN FRANCISCO — A small group of high-ranking Pentagon officials made a quiet visit to Silicon Valley in December to solicit national security ideas from start-up firms with little or no history of working with the military.
The visit was made as part of an effort to find new ways to maintain a military advantage in an increasingly uncertain world.
In announcing its Defense Innovation Initiative in a speech in California in November, Chuck Hagel, then the defense secretary, mentioned examples of technologies like robotics, unmanned systems, miniaturization and 3-D printing as places to look for “game changing” technologies that would maintain military superiority.
“They’ve realized that the old model wasn’t working anymore,” said James Lewis, director of the Strategic Technologies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “They’re really worried about America’s capacity to innovate.”
There is a precedent for the initiative. Startled by the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, at the Pentagon to ensure that the United States would not be blindsided by technological advances.
Now, the Pentagon has decided that the nation needs more than ARPA, renamed the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, if it is to find new technologies to maintain American military superiority.
. . .
The Pentagon focused on smaller companies during its December visit; it did not, for example, visit Google. Mr. Welby acknowledged that Silicon Valley start-ups were not likely to be focused on the Pentagon as a customer. The military has captive suppliers and a long and complex sales cycle, and it is perceived as being a small market compared with the hundreds of millions of customers for consumer electronics products.
Mr. Welby has worked for three different Darpa directors, but he said that Pentagon officials now believed they had to look beyond their own advanced technology offices.
“The Darpa culture is about trying to understand high-risk technology,” he said. “It’s about big leaps.” Today, however, the Pentagon needs to break out of what can be seen as a “not invented here” culture, he said.
“We’re thinking about what the world is going to look like in 2030 and what tools the department will need in 20 or 30 years,” he added.

For the full story, see:
JOHN MARKOFF. “Pentagon Shops in Silicon Valley for Game Changers.” The New York Times (Fri., FEB. 27, 2015): A3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date FEB. 26, 2015.)

Without Clear Regulatory Pathway, Investors Will Avoid the New, Small, Safe, Modular Nuclear Reactors

(p. D1) To its advocates, nuclear power is a potent force for fighting climate change, combining the near-zero emissions of wind and solar energy with the reliability of coal and gas. And nuclear power, which provides about 19 percent of all electricity in the United States and 11 percent worldwide, could be a greater source.
. . .
In a report she prepared in 2009, Ms. Squassoni wrote that in light of steep construction costs, only a handful of new reactors would come on line by 2015, even in the best of circumstances.
“If you really wanted to reduce carbon emissions through nuclear, it was going to be incredibly expensive,” she said. “You’d have to build an incredible number of power plants.”
Now plants are even more expensive, in part because of new safety requirements in the wake of Fukushima. So-called small modular reactors have been proposed as a lower-cost alternative. There are many different designs — at least one is meant to run on waste fuel — but the federal Department of Energy has provided significant development money only for two designs that are smaller variations of the most common kind of reactor.
Ashley Finan, an analyst with the Clean Air Task Force, which focuses on technologies to fight climate change, said that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had not made it easy for alternative designs to win backing from private investors.
“There’s a lack of a clear and predictable regulatory pathway,” Dr. Finan said. “You’re really not able to attract funding without a clear regulatory process.”
As a result, small modular reactors are many years from reality in the United States. Overseas, there are only a few isolated small-reactor projects underway, including one under construction in China.
Most modular designs have features that are intended to make them safer than existing reactors. Safety, as always, looms large in the debate about nuclear power. Although some watchdog groups point to incidents like leaks of radioactive water from some plants, the industry in the United States promotes its safety record, noting that events like unplanned reactor shutdowns are at historical lows. And the American industry’s one major accident, at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, pales in comparison with Fukushima or the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union.

For the full story, see:
HENRY FOUNTAIN “THE BIG FIX; Nuclear: Carbon Free, but Not Free of Unease.” The New York Times (Tues., DEC. 23, 2014): D1-D2.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date DEC. 22, 2014.)