“Hubs of Genius Do Not Arise from Government Planning”

(p. 13) In the early 1960s, the Soviet Union tried to make a version of Silicon Valley from scratch. A city called Zelenograd came to life on the outskirts of Moscow and was populated with all manner of brainy Soviet engineers. The hope — naturally — was that a concentration of clever minds coupled with ample funding would result in a wellspring of innovation and help Russia keep pace with California’s electronics boom. The experiment worked as well as one might expect. Few people will read this on a Mayakovsky-branded tablet or ­smartphone.
Many similar attempts have been made in the subsequent dec­ades to replicate Silicon Valley and its abundance of creativity and ingenuity. Such efforts have largely failed. It seems near impossible to will an exceptional place into being or to manufacture the conditions that lead to an outpouring of genius.
. . .
As in the case of Zelenograd, hubs of genius do not arise from government planning or by acting on the observations of a traveler. They’re happy accidents. To attempt to clone such things or pinpoint their characteristics is futile.

For the full review, see:
ASHLEE VANCE. “Smart Sites.” The New York Times Book Review (Sun., JAN. 10, 2016): 13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date JAN. 8, 2016, and has the title “”The Geography of Genius,’ by Eric Weiner.”)

The book under review, is:
Weiner, Eric. The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World’s Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016.

Under Communism Inventiveness Did Not Yield Economic Benefits

(p. A17) The Soviet Union may have pioneered in space with Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin, but today Russia has less than 1% of the world commercial market in space telecommunications, the most successful commercial product so far stemming from space exploration. Russians may have won Nobel Prizes for developing the laser, but Russia today is insignificant in the production of lasers for the world market. Russians may have developed the first digital computer in continental Europe, but who today buys a Russian computer? By missing out on the multi-billion-dollar markets for lasers, computers and space-based telecommunications, Russia has suffered a grievous economic loss.
Accompanying this technical and economic failure was a human tragedy. Russian achievements in science and technology occurred in an environment of political terror. The father of the Russian hydrogen bomb, Andrei Sakharov, wrote in his memoirs that the research facility in which he worked was built by political prisoners, and each morning he looked out the window of his office to see them marching under armed guard to their construction sites. The “chief designer” of the Soviet space program, Sergei Korolev, was long a prisoner who worked in a special prison laboratory, or sharashka. The dean of Soviet airplane designers, A.N. Tupolev, also labored for years as a prisoner in a special laboratory. Three of the Soviet Union’s Nobel Prize-winning physicists were arrested for alleged political disloyalty. Probably half of the engineers in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s were eventually arrested. In 1928 alone 648 members of the staff of the Soviet Academy of Sciences were purged.
When one looks at these statistics and at the genuine achievements of Soviet science, one is forced to ask basic questions about the relation of freedom to scientific progress.
. . .
Mr. Ings admirable effort to reach nonspecialized readers sometimes leads him to make exaggerated statements. He claims that we have “good agricultural and climate data for Russia going back over a thousand years” when in fact the data is incomplete and unreliable.
. . .
The claim that the Soviet Union was a scientific state brings Mr. Ings close, in his conclusion, to condemning science itself. He sees science and technology as causing a coming global ecological collapse, and he thinks that in some ways the demise of the Soviet Union was a preview of what we will all soon face. In one of his final sentences he says: “We are all little Stalinists now, convinced of the efficacy of science to bail us out of any and every crisis.” “Stalin and the Scientists” deserves attention, but a very critical form of attention. It is based on an impressive amount of study, and most readers will learn a great deal. It is, however, incomplete and overdrawn.

For the full review, see:
LOREN GRAHAM. “BOOKSHELF; No Good Deed Went Unpunished.” The Wall Street Journal (Tues., Feb. 21, 2017): A17.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Feb. 20, 2017, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; Science Under Stalin.”)

The book under review, is:
Ings, Simon. Stalin and the Scientists: A History of Triumph and Tragedy, 1905-1953. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2017.

Mokyr Credits the Great Enrichment to a Culture That Values Scientific Inquiry

(p. A13) Life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” Thomas Hobbes proclaimed in 1651, and it had been that way ever since humans had inhabited the Earth. At the time Hobbes wrote those words, life expectancy averaged about 30 years old in his native England and income per person typically was around $5 a day (in 2016 dollars). Thanks to the Industrial Revolution and the Great Enrichment that followed, the typical subject of Queen Elizabeth II lives to almost 80 and has an income of over $100 a day. Perhaps more impressively, most people in the world today face the prospect of living at least that well within a generation or two.
What brought about the Great Enrichment? And why did it all start in England? Joel Mokyr, in his fine book, attributes it to the unique and productive culture that evolved there. It was a culture that welcomed change and favored scientific inquiry that spurred radical technological improvements.
. . .
According to Mr. Mokyr, three factors led to the ultimate triumph of the new modern search for scientific truth over the largely inaccurate “science” of the ancients. First, Europe’s fractured political environment was a blessing: Scientists who were banned or ostracized in one political jurisdiction fled to other locales more tolerant of their views. The controversial Franciscan monk, Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564), for example, was often in trouble and moving to evade authorities, leading him to flee from Italy to Switzerland and later, England, Poland and Moravia. Second, the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press around 1440 enormously lowered the cost of widely disseminating knowledge over large areas. Third, an extraordinary intellectual community evolved–Voltaire and others called the Republic of Letters–that made the dissemination of new information (through letters to fellow scientists) obligatory for anyone who wanted to gain respect in the growing international community of scientists.

For the full review, see:
RICHARD VEDDER. “BOOKSHELF; The Genesis of Prosperity; What brought about the Great Enrichment? And why did it start in England? It had a culture that embraced change and scientific inquiry.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 11, 2016): A13.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Nov. 10, 2016.)

The book under review, is:
Mokyr, Joel. A Culture of Growth: The Origins of the Modern Economy, Graz Schumpeter Lectures. New Haven, CT: Princeton University Press, 2016..

Musk Unveils Bold Private Enterprise Plan to Colonize Mars

(p. B3) Entrepreneur Elon Musk unveiled his contrarian vision for sending humans to Mars in roughly the next decade, and ultimately setting up colonies there, relying on bold moves by private enterprise, instead of more-gradual steps previously proposed by Washington.
Mr. Musk–who in 14 years transformed his closely held rocket company, Space Exploration Technologies Corp., into a global presence–envisions hosts of giant, reusable rockets standing more than 300 feet tall eventually launching fleets of carbon-fiber spacecraft into orbit.
The boosters would return to Earth, blast off again into the heavens with “tanker” spaceships capable of refueling the initial vehicles, and then send those serviced spacecraft on their way to the Red Planet. The rockets would be twice as powerful as the Saturn 5 boosters that sent U.S. astronauts to the Moon. Each fully developed spacecraft likely would carry between 100 and 200 passengers, Mr. Musk said.

For the full story, see:
ANDY PASZTOR. “Musk Offers Vision of Mars Flights.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Sept. 28, 2016): B3.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Sept. 27, 2016, and has the title “Elon Musk Outlines Plans for Missions to Mars.”)

NASA Funding Depends on “Pure Pork-Barrel Politics”

(p. A15) “Beyond Earth” is delightfully different from any other book I’ve ever read by human-spaceflight cheerleaders. The authors have put their thinking caps on and broken out of the usual orthodoxy by presenting cogent ideas on why humans should go into space, including their lovely idea of going to and living on obscure (to most folks) Titan. We go, they say, because we need to go, not just to explore and study but to find another place to live and, if we want to, screw it up just as much as we have screwed up Earth, because that’s what we do, that’s what makes us human. We may make mistakes but, by God, we also produce great civilizations and art and, yes, science in the process. We’ve done Earth, so let’s now go wherever our abilities take us and physics allow.
. . .
The one great truth I always tell people wanting to understand the American space program is this: The federal government doesn’t give a flip about human spaceflight. That’s why Apollo was canceled just as it hit its stride, why the shuttle program was underfunded from its inception, and why, after the shuttle was retired, NASA had nothing to replace it with. No one who holds the purse strings for NASA really cares whether American astronauts ever go anywhere. It’s just not that important to a country beset with a vast array of pressing problems.
What keeps the current space program going at all is pure pork-barrel politics. That’s why President Obama didn’t blink an eye when he signed NASA budgets that provided funds to build a giant rocket called the Space Launch System, which has no well-defined purpose, as well as a crewed capsule called Orion, which has no specifically assigned places to go. As proof that spending money isn’t evidence of support, there wasn’t one dime in those budgets to procure and deliver the accouterments needed for true human space endeavors–no space suits, no planetary landers, no rovers, no habitats, nothing but the bottom and top of a big, expensive rocket that will require a vast marching army to operate for no apparent reason.

For the full review, see:
HOMER HICKAM. “BOOKSHELF; Forget Mars, Aim for Titan.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., December 16, 2016): A15.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date Dec. 15, 2016,)

The book under review, is:
Wohlforth, Charles, and Hendrix. Amanda R. Beyond Earth: Our Path to a New Home in the Planets. New York: Pantheon, 2016.

To Get the High-Hanging Fruit, Grow Shorter Trees

Dr. Gennaro Fazio, a plant breeder and geneticist with the USDA’s Agricultural Resource Service tells us . . . :

“In taller apple trees, the fruit that is high up, exposed to the sun, ripens the fastest. Low-hanging fruit doesn’t get much sun, and it’s not as ripe — not so delectable, you could say — as the higher fruit. You want to pick the low-hanging fruit last, so it has more time to develop.”

But according to Fazio none of this ultimately matters: the idiom “low-hanging fruit” has been rendered totally and utterly irrelevant by the changing nature of apple tree genetics.
When “low-hanging fruit” became a metaphor in the late 1960s, the majority of apple trees in the U.S. were 25- to 30-foot tall goliaths–and the only fruits within reach were those that lingered on lower branches. Today, however, the majority of apple trees are what arborists refer to as “dwarfs.”
. . .
Once hesitant that the smaller trees wouldn’t produce as much fruit, apple growers realized dwarf trees were actually far more profitable. “Farmers get a higher yield per acre,” says Heather Faubert, of the Rhode Island Fruit Growers Association. “With the taller trees, you could only plant about 20 trees per acre; now, you can get as many as 2,000 in the same space.”
The result of these smaller trees is that the lowest-hanging fruits are actually no longer the easiest to pick. In fact, picking them requires repeatedly bending over to knee-level, a maneuver that can prove incredibly straining on the lower back.
“The ergonomics of picking apples have completely changed,” says Fazio. “It really no longer makes sense to go for the low-hanging fruit. The phrase is irrelevant.”

For the full story, see:
Priceonomics.com, “Should You Literally Pick the Low-Hanging Fruit?,” Feb. 5, 2016, URL: http://priceonomics.com/should-you-literally-pick-the-low-hanging-fruit/.
(Note: ellipses added.)

The web page was excerpted in:
“Notable & Quotable: ‘Low-Hanging Fruit’.” The Wall Street Journal (Weds., Feb. 10, 2016): A11.
(Note: the online version of the article has the date Feb. 9, 2016.)

“Hey You, Get Busy” Bolted in Place

(p. D8) Most scientists rely on grants from the federal government and private foundations to finance their work. Michael W. Davidson turned to neckties.
Mr. Davidson, who died on Dec. 24 [2015] at 65, used sophisticated microscopes to create stunning, psychedelic images of crystallized substances like DNA and hormones, and he contributed to Nobel Prize-honored research about the inner workings of cells. His images were on the covers of scientific journals and, as unlikely as it might seem, on neckwear.
They found their way into men’s apparel in the early 1990s, when Mr. Davidson called Irwin Sternberg, the president of the necktie company Stonehenge Ltd., proposing a series of ties using his ultramagnified, wildly colorful images of vitamins. Mr. Sternberg, though skeptical, agreed to take a look.
“When I saw Michael’s work, I started to think I couldn’t get a designer more talented,” Mr. Sternberg said in an interview.
Stonehenge released a line of “vitamin ties” in September 1993. A year later, neckties with Mr. Davidson’s images of moon rocks were released on the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11, the first manned lunar mission. Ties with images of cocktails, beer and wine followed. Millions of ties were sold, and a slice of the profits — millions of dollars — went to charity. Mr. Davidson’s share went to his laboratory work at Florida State University in Tallahassee.
. . .
Mr. Davidson started college at Georgia Southern University, then attended Oglethorpe University in Georgia before earning a chemistry degree at Georgia State.
He arrived at Florida State in the early 1980s as a graduate student. He quit to start a business chrome-plating auto parts.
A few years later, Mr. Davidson returned to Florida State as a microscopy technician for a materials research laboratory. “He just came in and said, ‘I think there are things we can do,’ and he got hired,” said Kirby Kemper, a retired Florida State physics professor who was then associate chairman of the physics department.
To produce his work, Mr. Davidson hired an army of assistants. Some were undergraduates. Others were out of school with no credentials in the field. But the work helped propel many of them to successful jobs in academia and industry.
Eric Clark had been a nurse when Mr. Davidson hired him as an assistant in 1999. Now, as an application developer, he is continuing Mr. Davidson’s educational website and scientific illustration operations. (The molecular biology laboratory was disbanded.)
Mr. Davidson worked seven days a week, and he expected the same of the people who worked with him. On his door was a large metal sign that said, “Hey you, get busy.” MagLab officials told him to take it down. Mr. Davidson bolted it in place, and it is still there.

For the full obituary, see:
KENNETH CHANG. “Michael W. Davidson, 65, a Scientist Who Had an Artist’s Eye for Detail.” The New York Times (Sat., JAN. 16, 2016): D8.
(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed year, added.)
(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date JAN. 12, 2016, and has the title “Michael W. Davidson, a Success in Microscopes and Neckwear, Dies at 65.”)

Regulations Slow Eradication of Cancer

(p. D3) . . . the triumph of chemotherapy for Hodgkin’s and then for many other tumors opened an interlocking series of dilemmas. In the clinic and the hospital, the new protocols demanded that doctors muster the courage to make their patients very sick in order to make them well. But how sick was too sick? The risks and benefits of the powerful treatments now needed careful, deliberate assessment at every stage of the disease.
Similar questions dogged those who developed, evaluated and regulated the drugs. How poisonous could these agents safely be? How assiduously should desperate patients be saved by their government from pharmaceutical risk?
Dr. DeVita stands firmly among those affirming cancer patients’ right to aggressive treatment. One particular exchange summarizes his philosophy: “Do your patients speak to you after you do this to them?” one skeptic asked him early on. “The answer is yes,” he replied, “and for a lot longer.”
The regulatory caution of the Food and Drug Administration has been a thorn in his side for decades: “I’d like to be able to say that as cancer drugs have become increasingly more complex and sophisticated, the F.D.A. has as well. But it has not.” In fact, he writes, “the rate-limiting step in eradicating cancer today is not the science but the regulatory environment we work in.”

For the full review, see:
ABIGAIL ZUGER, M.D. “An Unbowed Warrior.” The New York Times (Tues., Dec.. 1, 2015): D3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)
(Note: the online version of the review has the date NOV. 30, 2015, and has the title “Review: Science and Politics Collide in ‘The Death of Cancer’.”)

The book under review, is:
DeVita, Vincent T., and Elizabeth DeVita-Raeburn. The Death of Cancer: After Fifty Years on the Front Lines of Medicine, a Pioneering Oncologist Reveals Why the War on Cancer Is Winnable–and How We Can Get There. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.

Private Start-Ups Pursue Fusion Approaches Ignored by Government

(p. B5) Fusion reactions release no carbon dioxide. Their fuel, derived from water, is abundant. Compared with contemporary nuclear reactors, which produce energy by splitting atoms apart, a fusion plant would produce little radioactive waste.
The possibilities have attracted Jeffrey P. Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. He has invested in General Fusion, a start-up in British Columbia, through Bezos Expeditions, the firm that manages his venture capital investments. Paul Allen, a co-founder of Microsoft, is betting on another fusion company, Tri Alpha Energy, based in Foothill Ranch, Calif., an hour south of Los Angeles, through his venture arm, Vulcan Capital.
Peter Thiel — the co-founder of PayPal, who once lamented the superficiality of the technology sector by saying, “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters” — has invested in a third fusion start-up, Helion Energy, based near Seattle, through Mithril Capital Management.
Government money fueled a surge in fusion research in the 1970s, but the fusion budget was cut nearly in half over the next decade. Federal research narrowed on what scientists saw as the most promising prototype — a machine called a tokamak, which uses magnets to contain and fuse a spinning, doughnut-shape cloud of hydrogen.
Today’s start-ups are trying to perfect some of the ideas that the government left by the wayside.
After earning his doctorate from the University of California, Irvine, in the mid-1990s, Michl Binderbauer had trouble securing federal funds to research an alternative approach to fusion that the American government briefly explored — one that adds the element boron into the hydrogen fuel. The advantage of the mixture is that the reaction does not fling off neutrons that, like shrapnel, can wear down machine parts and make them radioactive.
Mr. Binderbauer, along with his Ph.D. adviser, Norman Rostoker, founded Tri Alpha Energy, eventually raising money from the venture capital arms of Mr. Allen and the Rockefeller family. The company has raised over $200 million.

For the full story, see:
DINO GRANDONI. “Start-Ups Take on Challenge of Fusion.” The New York Times (Mon., OCT. 26, 2015): B1 & B5.
(Note: the online version of the story has the date OCT. 25, 2015, and has the title “Start-Ups Take On Challenge of Nuclear Fusion.”)

FDA Forces Child to Go to London to Get Drug to Fight His Cancer

(p. A15) How far would you go to get a drug that could save your child’s life? Across an ocean? That is exactly what the federal government is forcing some American families with dying children to do.
In 2012, when Diego Morris was 11 years old, he was diagnosed with a deadly cancer in his leg called osteosarcoma. Doctors at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., removed the tumor, but the prognosis was poor. There was a significant risk that even extensive chemotherapy after surgery would not prevent the cancer from returning.
Fortunately, a team of doctors at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City had developed a revolutionary new drug, mifamurtide (MTP), that can prevent osteosarcoma from coming back. A study by Dr. Eugenie Kleinerman of MD Anderson and Dr. Paul Meyers of Sloan Kettering showed the drug resulted in a 30% reduction in the osteosarcoma mortality rate at eight years after diagnosis.
The drug was approved in 2009 by the European Medicines Agency and is currently the standard of care in Europe, Israel and many other countries. In 2012 it received the prestigious Prix Galien Award, the gold medal for pharmaceutical research and development in the United Kingdom.
MPT was exactly what Diego needed. But there was one problem: The drug was not available in America because the Food and Drug Administration had rejected it, demanding additional studies. That meant that Diego had to travel from Phoenix to London to get the drug he needed to save his life–a drug that was available in almost every industrialized nation and should have been available in the U.S.

For the full commentary, see:

DARCY OLSEN. “Winning the Right to Save Your Own Life; As the FDA dawdles, 24 states pass ‘right-to-try’ laws giving terminally ill patients access to drugs.” The Wall Street Journal (Fri., Nov. 27, 2015): A15.

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 26, 2015.)

Olsen’s commentary is related to her book:
Olsen, Darcy. The Right to Try: How the Federal Government Prevents Americans from Getting the Lifesaving Treatments They Need. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2015.

Climate Change Likely to Be Slower and Less Harmful than Feared

(p. A11) . . . , we are often told by journalists that the science is “settled” and there is no debate. But scientists disagree: They say there is great uncertainty, and they reflected this uncertainty in their fifth and latest assessment for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It projects that temperatures are likely to be anything from 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer by the latter part of the century–that is, anything from mildly beneficial to significantly harmful.
As for the impact of that future warming, a new study by a leading climate economist, Richard Tol of the University of Sussex, concludes that warming may well bring gains, because carbon dioxide causes crops and wild ecosystems to grow greener and more drought-resistant. In the long run, the negatives may outweigh these benefits, says Mr. Tol, but “the impact of climate change does not significantly deviate from zero until 3.5°C warming.”
Mr. Tol’s study summarizes the effect we are to expect during this century: “The welfare change caused by climate change is equivalent to the welfare change caused by an income change of a few percent. That is, a century of climate change is about as good/bad for welfare as a year of economic growth. Statements that climate change is the biggest problem of humankind are unfounded: We can readily think of bigger problems.” No justification for prioritizing climate change over terrorism there.
. . .
To put it bluntly, climate change and its likely impact are proving slower and less harmful than we feared, while decarbonization of the economy is proving more painful and costly than we hoped. The mood in Paris will be one of furious pessimism among the well-funded NGOs that will attend the summit in large numbers: Decarbonization, on which they have set their hearts, is not happening, and they dare not mention the reassuring news from science lest it threaten their budgets.
Casting around for somebody to blame, they have fastened on foot-dragging fossil-fuel companies and those who make skeptical observations, however well-founded, about the likelihood of dangerous climate change. Scientific skeptics are now routinely censored, or threatened with prosecution. One recent survey by Rasmussen Reports shows that 27% of Democrats in the U.S. are in favor of prosecuting climate skeptics. This is the mentality of religious fanaticism, not scientific debate.

For the full commentary, see:
MATT RIDLEY And BENNY PEISER. “Your Complete Guide to the Climate Debate; At the Paris conference, expect an agreement that is sufficiently vague and noncommittal for all countries to claim victory.” The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Nov. 28, 2015): A11.
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date Nov. 27, 2015.)

The Tol working paper mentioned above, is:
Tol, Richard S. J. “Economic Impacts of Climate Change.” University of Sussex Economics Working Paper No. 75-2015.