A.C.L.U. Defends the N.R.A.’s Free Speech

(p. 23) The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association agree about very little. They are often on opposite sides in major cases, and they certainly have starkly different views about gun rights.

But when the Supreme Court agreed to hear the N.R.A.’s free-speech challenge to what it said were a New York official’s efforts to blacklist it, one of its lawyers had a bold idea. Why not ask the A.C.L.U. to represent it before the justices?

. . .

David Cole, the civil liberties group’s national legal director, said the request in one sense posed a hard question.

“It’s never easy to defend those with whom you disagree,” he said. “But the A.C.L.U. has long stood for the proposition that we may disagree with what you say but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Mr. Cole’s group has been subject to occasional criticism that it has become less attentive to free-speech principles and more devoted to values rooted in equality in recent years. He rejected that critique, even as he acknowledged that the decision to represent the N.R.A. would not meet with universal praise.

. . .

“It will be controversial, within and outside the A.C.L.U.,” Mr. Cole said. “But if it was easy, it wouldn’t mean as much.”

He added: “In this hyper-polarized environment, where few are willing to cross the aisle on anything, the fact that the A.C.L.U. is defending the N.R.A. here only underscores the importance of the free speech principle at stake.”

In a statement, the civil liberties group drew a distinction.

“The A.C.L.U. does not support the N.R.A. or its mission,” the statement said. “We signed on as co-counsel because public officials shouldn’t be allowed to abuse the powers of the office to blacklist an organization just because they oppose an organization’s political views.”

For the full commentary, see:

Adam Liptak. “A.C.L.U. to Represent N.R.A. in Supreme Court.” The New York Times, First Section (Sunday, December 10, 2023): 23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Dec. 9, 2023, and has the title “The A.C.L.U. Has a New Client: The National Rifle Association.”)

Cancel Culture Chills “Ideologically Diverse Speech”

(p. C15) Given my concern about illiberal pressures on free speech emanating from both ends of the ideological spectrum, my favorite books embody constructive pushback. “The Canceling of the American Mind,” co-authored by Greg Lukianoff, the president of FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression), and the journalist Rikki Schlott, documents the cancel-culture tactics, wielded by left and right alike, that unduly chill ideologically diverse speech.

For the full review, see:

Nadine Strossen. “12 Months of Reading: Nadine Strossen.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 9, 2023): C15.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed words, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 8, 2023, and has the title “Who Read What in 2023: Political Voices and Policy Makers: Nadine Strossen.”)

The book praised by the former president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is:

Lukianoff, Greg, and Rikki Schlott. The Canceling of the American Mind: Cancel Culture Undermines Trust and Threatens Us All―-But There Is a Solution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Zoliflodacin Is First New Antibiotic in Decades

(p. A12) A new antibiotic, the first to be developed in decades, can cure gonorrhea infections at least as effectively as the most powerful current treatment, a large clinical trial has found. The drug, zoliflodacin, is taken as a single dose, and it has not yet been approved for use in any country.

. . .

Pharmaceutical companies have largely abandoned antibiotic development as unprofitable. The development of zoliflodacin represents a new model: G.A.R.D.P., which is funded by many Group of 20 countries and the European Union, developed the drug in collaboration with an American pharmaceutical company called Innoviva Specialty Therapeutics.

The nonprofit sponsored the Phase 3 trial of the drug. In exchange, it holds the license to sell the antibiotic in about 160 countries while Innoviva retains marketing rights for high-income countries.

“I’ll go out on a limb and say that’s probably the only way in which we develop antibiotics going forward, because the old model is simply not going to work,” said Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar at Princeton University who chairs the G.A.R.D.P. board.

. . .

“Nobody’s making a boatload of money off treatment of gonorrhea, especially when you’re using a single dose of an oral antibiotic,” said Dr. Jeanne Marrazzo, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

“This is a path forward to solve the dilemma of getting pathways for products that don’t guarantee profits,” Dr. Marrazzo said.

For the full story, see:

Apoorva Mandavilli. “A New Drug Is Developed To Combat Gonorrhea.” The New York Times (Friday, November 11, 2023): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 10, 2023, and has the title “Gonorrhea Is Becoming Drug Resistant. Scientists Just Found a Solution.”)

Elon Musk Wants to Go to Mars, But He Wants Freedom Even More

The video clip above is embedded through YouTube’s “share” feature. It is a clip from the annual DealBook Summit of The New York Times. Andrew Ross Sorkin interviewed Elon Musk on November 29, 2023 at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

A year earlier at the 2022 DealBook Summit, Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings said: “Elon Musk is the bravest most creative person on the planet.”

Musk’s dream is for humanity to go to Mars. He is trying to privately fund his dream with billions of dollars he hoped to earn from Tesla. His investment of 44 billion dollars to buy Twitter may end his dream. But he bought Twitter to defend free speech, and free speech is required for the fast advance of science and technology. So if we ever make it to Mars we will owe much to Elon Musk. And even if we never make it to Mars we still will owe much to Elon Musk.

Swaminathan and Borlaug Crossbred Wheat Strains to End Starvation in India

(p. B12) M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent crop geneticist who fused plant breeding science with keen administrative skills to produce bountiful harvests that ended famine and steadily transformed India into one of the world’s top growers of wheat and rice, died on Thursday [Sept. 28, 2023] in Chennai, India.

. . .

The events that set Dr. Swaminathan’s path to global renown occurred in the early 1960s. As a plant geneticist at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, he learned about the exceptional yields from new and sturdier wheat varieties that were being tested in Mexico by the American scientist Norman E. Borlaug.

Dr. Swaminathan was soft-spoken and had exquisite manners, but he could be persistent. He prodded the research institute’s chief executive to invite Dr. Borlaug to India. He arrived in 1963, and Dr. Swaminathan accompanied him on a tour of small farms in Punjab and Haryana, northwestern states that now are among the nation’s largest grain producers.

The two developed a productive partnership, with Dr. Swaminathan crossbreeding the Borlaug strains with other strains from Mexico and Japan. That genetic mixing resulted in a wheat variety with a strong stalk that produced a golden-colored flour favored by Indians.

. . .

Dr. Borlaug earned the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing the seeds that staved off mass starvation and fed the world. On receiving the prize, he commended his Indian collaborator: “To you, Dr. Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognizing the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia.”

Dr. Swaminathan delighted in rebuking the Malthusian projections that low yields and high population growth would produce mass starvation in India. In the 1960s, he recalled, “many books were published by doomsday experts. Paul and Anne Ehrlich, the very famous population experts. They said Indians had no future unless a thermonuclear bomb kills them. Another group of experts said Indians would die like sheep going to the slaughterhouse. We decided this would not happen.”

For the full obituary, see:

Keith Schneider. “M. S. Swaminathan, 98, Scientist Who Helped End Famine in India, Is Dead.” The New York Times (Friday, September 29, 2023): B12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed date, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date Sept. 28, 2023, and has the title “M. S. Swaminathan, Scientist Who Helped Conquer Famine in India, Dies at 98.”)

The Orthodox Establishment Did Not Understand Michael Milken’s Brilliantly Disruptive Innovations

(p. C13) I . . . ended [the year] with . . . with Richard Sandler’s “Witness to a Prosecution: The Myth of Michael Milken.”

. . .

Mr. Milken’s brilliance led to investments in companies that the “establishment” ignored. When those companies generated outsize returns, there was more interest in trying to find wrongdoing than in understanding his innovative approach to investing.  . . . disrupting established orthodoxies is difficult and . . . the rules established by social structures are riddled with biases that can end up undermining the public good.

For the full review, see:

Nina Rees. “12 Months of Reading: Nina Rees.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 9, 2023): C13.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed words, added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 8, 2023, and has the title “Who Read What in 2023: Political Voices and Policy Makers: Nina Rees.”)

The new book on Michael Milken praised above is:

Sandler, Richard V. Witness to a Prosecution: The Myth of Michael Milken. ForbesBooks: Charleston, South Carolina, 2023.

A book on Milken that I found convincing many years ago is:

Kornbluth, Jesse. Highly Confident: The Crime and Punishment of Michael Milken. New York: William Morrow & Co., 1992.

To Succeed as an Engineer, “All You Have to Be Is a Capitalist Who Wants to Make Better Things and Sell More of Them”

(p. B9) Dr. Wulf made a career in computer science when the field barely existed. As the importance of computers grew, his career became a road map of the developing field: first in academic research, next as an entrepreneur and then as a policymaker.

. . .

He and his wife, Anita K. Jones, also a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, left the university in 1981 to found Tartan Laboratories, which specialized in compilers. (It was named for the university’s athletic teams.)

. . .

Dr. Wulf and Dr. Jones moved to faculty positions at the University of Virginia, but Dr. Wulf took a leave of absence to join the Directorate for Computer and Information Science and Engineering at the National Science Foundation. There, he worked with Al Gore, then a senator, to craft legislation to make the military’s computer network, Arpanet, available to civilian researchers through the foundation’s NSFnet. That model gave way eventually to widely accessible, commercially operated networks.

. . .

Ed Lazowska, a computer scientist at the University of Washington, said of Dr. Wulf in an interview, “I don’t mean to diminish his technical contributions” — both he and Dr. Jones “are giants in the field,” he said — but Dr. Wulf, he believes, will be most remembered for his inspiring leadership in engineering.

In particular, he said, Dr. Wulf was “a huge champion of broadening participation in the field” by not only women and members of other underrepresented groups, but also by people who did not necessarily come from “big research universities, mostly on the coasts.”

Dr. Wulf called engineering “problem-solving under constraints” — time, money or other practical issues. Bringing diverse experiences and points of view to problems, he said, raises the odds of success. Without diverse views, he told an academy meeting in 1998, “we pay an opportunity cost — a cost in products not built, in designs not considered, in constraints not understood, in processes not invented.”

Or, as Dr. Lazowska put it: “You don’t have to have a social conscience. All you have to be is a capitalist who wants to make better things and sell more of them.”

For the full obituary, see:

Cornelia Dean. “William A. Wulf, 83, Who Helped Pave the Way to the Internet, Dies.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 25, 2023): B9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated March 23, 2023, and has the title “William A. Wulf, Pioneering Computer Scientist, Dies at 83.” Where there is a difference in wording in versions, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

“Serendipitous” Discoveries Related to Two “Odd-Looking” Animals Was Source of Weight-Loss Drugs

(p. A1) The blockbuster diabetes drugs that have revolutionized obesity treatment seem to have come out of nowhere, turning the diet industry upside down in just the past year. But they didn’t arrive suddenly. They are the unlikely result of two separate bodies of science that date back decades and began with the study of (p. A2) two unsightly creatures: a carnivorous fish and a poisonous lizard.

In 1980, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital wanted to use new technology to find the gene that encodes a hormone called glucagon. The team decided to study Anglerfish, which have special organs that make the hormone, simplifying the task of gathering samples of pure tissue.

. . .

After plucking out organs the size of Lima beans with scalpels, they dropped them into liquid nitrogen and drove back to Boston. Then they determined the genetic sequence of glucagon, which is how they learned that the same gene encodes related hormones known as peptides. One of them was a key discovery that would soon be found in humans, too.

It was called glucagon-like peptide-1 and its nickname was GLP-1.

After they found GLP-1, others would determine its significance. Scientists in Massachusetts and Europe learned that it encourages insulin release and lowers blood sugar. That held out hope that it could help treat diabetes. Later they discovered that GLP-1 makes people feel fuller faster and slows down emptying of food from the stomach.

. . .

The key to the first drug would come from a serendipitous discovery inside another odd-looking animal.

Around the time Goodman was cutting open fish, Jean-Pierre Raufman was studying insect and animal venoms to see if they stimulated digestive enzymes in mammals.

“We got a tremendous response from Gila monster venom,” he recalled.

It was a small discovery that could have been forgotten, but for a lucky break nearly a decade later when Raufman gave a lecture on that work at the Bronx Veterans Administration. John Eng, an expert in identifying peptides, was intrigued. The pair had collaborated on unrelated work a few years before. Eng proposed they study Gila monsters.

. . .

Eng isolated a small peptide that he called Exendin-4, which they found was similar to human GLP-1.

Eng then tested his new peptide on diabetic mice and found something intriguing: It not only reduced blood glucose, it did so for hours. If the same effect were to be observed in humans, it could be the key to turning GLP-1 into a meaningful advance in diabetes treatment, not just a seasickness simulator in an IV bag.

Jens Juul Holst, a pioneering GLP-1 researcher, remembers standing in an exhibit hall at a European conference next to Eng. The two had put up posters that displayed their work, hoping top researchers would stop by to discuss it. But other scientists were skeptical that anything derived from a lizard would work in humans.

“He was extremely frustrated,” recalled Holst. “Nobody was interested in his work. None of the important people. It was too strange for people to accept.”

After three years, tens of thousands of dollars in patent-related fees and thousands of miles traveled, Eng found himself standing with his poster in San Francisco. This time, he caught the attention of Andrew Young, an executive from a small pharmaceutical company named Amylin.

“I saw the results in the mice and realized this could be druggable,” Young said.

When an Eli Lilly executive leaned over his shoulder to look at Eng’s work, Young worried he might miss his chance. Not long after, Amylin licensed the patent.

They worked to develop Exendin-4 into a drug by synthesizing the Gila monster peptide. They weren’t sure what would happen in humans. “We couldn’t predict weight loss or weight gain with these drugs,” recalled Young. “They enhance insulin secretion. Usually that increases body weight.” But the effect on slowing the stomach’s processing of food was more pronounced and Young’s team found as they tested their new drug that it caused weight loss.

To get a better understanding of Exendin-4, Young consulted with Mark Seward, a dentist raising more than 100 Gila monsters in his Colorado Springs, Colo., basement. The lizard enthusiast’s task was to feed them and draw blood. One took exception to the needle in its tail, slipped its restraint and snapped its teeth on Seward’s palm—the only time he’s been bitten in the decades he’s raised the animals. “It’s like a wasp sting,” he said, “but much worse.”

Nine years after the chance San Francisco meeting between Eng and Young, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first GLP-1-based treatment in 2005.

The twice-daily injection remained in the bloodstream for hours, helping patients manage Type 2 diabetes. Eng would be paid royalties as high as $6.7 million per year for the drug, . . .

For the full story, see:

Rolfe Winkler and Ben Cohen. “Two Monsters Spawned Huge Drugs.” The Wall Street Journal (Friday, June 24, 2023): A1-A2.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 23, 2023, and has the title “Monster Diet Drugs Like Ozempic Started With Actual Monsters.” The sentence about “a serendipitous discovery” appears in the online, but not the print, version of the article. The passages quoted above also include several other sentences that appear in the more extensive online version, but not in the print version.)

Many Long-Lived Ashkenazi Jews Did NOT Follow Usual Advice on Exercise, Diet, Sleep, and Social Connectivity

(p. B10) Louise Levy, who along with hundreds of others 95 and older was part of a study to understand how their genetic makeup led to their good physical and cognitive health during extremely long lives, died on July 17 [2023] in Greenwich, Conn. She was 112.

. . .

Mrs. Levy was one of more than 700 people, all 95 or older, recruited since 1998 to participate in a study by the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in the Bronx to learn the genetic reasons for their unusually long, healthy lives.

“It’s not luck,” Dr. Nir Barzilai, an endocrinologist who directs the institute, said by phone. “They exceeded luck. The biggest answer is genetics.”

Using the blood and plasma of the test group, all Ashkenazi Jews — a comparatively homogeneous population whose genetic variations are easier to spot — the institute’s Longevity Genes Project has discovered gene mutations that are believed to be responsible for slowing the impact of aging on people like Mrs. Levy and protecting them against high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The most striking thing about them is they had a contraction of morbidity,” Dr. Barzilai said. “They are sick, as a group, for very little time at the end of their lives.”

He added, “Did they do what we know we should do — exercise, diet and sleep and have social connectivity? The answer is mostly no. Sixty percent were smoking. Less than 50 percent did much household activity or biking. Fifty percent were overweight or obese. Less than three percent were vegetarians. So they weren’t special in that sense.”

The goal of the research is the development of drugs that would imitate what the centenarians’ genes do to protect their health.

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Louise Levy, 112, Longtime Subject in a Genetic Study of Human Longevity.” The New York Times (Saturday, July 29, 2023): B10.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated July 31, 2023, and has the title “Louise Levy, Who Was Studied for Her Very Long Life, Is Dead at 112.”)

Temple Grandin Admires Elon Musk and Long Knew He Was on the Autism Spectrum

Professor Temple Grandin identifies as autistic and has written on what we can learn from the cognitively diverse. In the passages quoted below, she refers to the May 2021 Saturday Night Live hosted by Elon Musk in which he said he had Asperger’s syndrome.

(p. C7) I have always admired Elon Musk’s engineering of rockets and cars. I loved his cool space suits and how he made a rocket booster land upright. My must-read book is Walter Isaacson’s “Elon Musk.” Previously I had read Ashlee Vance’s book about Mr. Musk. It still has Post-it Notes stuck on it: I marked the pages that made me sure he was on the autism spectrum. I had to keep it to myself until he made his announcement on “Saturday Night Live.”

For the full review, see:

Temple Grandin. “12 Months of Reading: Temple Grandin.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, December 9, 2023): C7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date December 8, 2023, and has the title “Who Read What in 2023: Leaders in Business, Science and Technology: Temple Grandin.”)

The Elon Musk books Temple Grandin praises are:

Isaacson, Walter. Elon Musk. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.

Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. New York: Ecco, 2015.

Global Warming Can Allow a “Sudden Efflorescence” of Adaptation from Dormant “Sleeping Beauties”

Above the title of the book review quoted below, the Wall Street Journal printed a few lines from a poem by Baudelaire:

Many a jewel of untold worth
Lies slumbering at the core of Earth
In darkness and oblivion drowned . . .
–Charles Baudelaire, “Le Guignon”

(p. C12) In his new book, Mr. [Andreas] Wagner, a professor at the Department of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies at the University of Zurich, showcases biological “sleeping beauties”: animals, plants, even bacteria that for generations plugged along with modest evolutionary success, only to later flourish spectacularly. “Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture” explains how evolutionary adaptations sometimes go from dormancy to full flowering, while also suggesting that an analogous process applies to human innovations, including science, technology and the arts.

. . .

First we need to recall that not every biological trait an organism possesses is optimal for its current environment. The swim bladder, for example, evolved in fish as an aid to adjusting buoyancy, only later becoming the basis for lungs when their descendants became terrestrial. And the human appendix currently appears to be more an evolutionary liability than an asset, although it may well have conveyed immunologic benefits in the past—and could even prove adaptive in the future. Certain traits may develop that are not immediately adaptive, in the sense of contributing directly to the reproductive success of the genes responsible for the trait and of the individuals carrying them.

If an organism develops a characteristic maladapted to its environment, it and the genes responsible for the trait are selected away into oblivion. But if the novelty is not particularly harmful, or even somewhat helpful, the trait may simply hang around through the generations—until a descendant organism finds a welcoming environmental niche.

The natural world is filled with solutions awaiting a problem.  . . .  But when environments change (and they always do), a wonderful and lively explosion can ensue.

Mr. Wagner refers to this sudden efflorescence as “adaptive radiation”—“only with a key innovation,” he writes, “can a species exploit existing opportunities, such as a warmer climate, a new source of food, or a superior form of shelter. In this view, any one adaptive radiation has to wait, possibly for a long time, until the right innovation arises. And the need to wait holds evolution back.”

In regard to evolutionary developments that at first seem to bear no fruit, Mr. Wagner could have quoted from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

In the world of human creativity, “full many” a terrific creation has been neglected or ignored in its time.

For the full review, see:

David P. Barash. “In Praise of Late Bloomers.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 29, 2023): C12.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed name, added, except for first one at the end of quoted passage from Baudelaire.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 28, 2023, and has the title “‘Sleeping Beauties’ Review: Nature’s Late Bloomers.”)

The book under review is:

Wagner, Andreas. Sleeping Beauties: The Mystery of Dormant Innovations in Nature and Culture. London: Oneworld Publications, 2023.