Thales of Miletus Lives

 

   Source of book image:  http://store.43folders.com/books-3-1400063515-The_Black_Swan_The_Impact_of_the_Highly_Improbable

 

This is part entertaining rant and part serious epistemology.  I’ve finished 9 of 19 chapters so far–almost all of my reading time spent smiling. 

Historians of Greek philosophy used to tell the story of one of the first philosophers, Thales of Miletus, that he once was watching the stars, and fell into a well.  The citizens of Miletus made fun of him being an impractical philosopher.  To prove them wrong, he used his knowledge to corner the market in something, and made a fortune. 

Not a very plausible story, but appealing to us philosophers.  (Like Thales, we like to think we could all be rich, if we didn’t have higher goals.)

Well apparently Taleb is the real Thales.  He wanted to be a philosopher, got rich on Wall Street using his epistemological insights, and is now using his wealth to finance his musings on whatever he cares to muse on.

Beautiful!

 

Here’s an amusing sentence that broadened my grin.  (It was even more amusing, and profound, in context, but I don’t have time to type in the context for you.)

(p. 87)  If you are a researcher, you will have to publish inconsequential articles in "prestigious" publications so that others say hello to you once in a while when you run into them at conferences.

 

Reference for the book:

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House, 2007.

 

“We’re Not Looking to Achieve Incremental Advances”

 

LevinsonArthurGenentechCEO.jpg   Genentech CEO Dr. Arthur D. Levinson.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.

 

(p. B1)  WSJ: You have multiple blockbuster biotech drugs on the market and more on the way. In such an uncertain business, how do you manage scientists to achieve that kind of success?

Dr. Levinson: We are first and foremost committed to doing great science. If a drug can’t be the first in class or the best in class, we’re just not interested. We’re not looking to achieve incremental advances or extend patents or do X, Y, Z unless it is going to really matter for patients. That allows us to bring in phenomenal scientists and encourage them to do the basic and translational research.

We decided 15 years ago that we would be committing (p. B2) to oncology, which at the time for us was new. We are now the leading producer of anticancer drugs in the United States. We took a lot of risks. In many cases, those risks paid off. We are now also in immunology. Again, the role of management here is to set the broad direction and then hire absolutely the best scientists and bring them in and say, ‘Do your stuff.’

 

For the full interview, see:

MARILYN CHASE. The Wall Street Journal "How Genentech Wins At Blockbuster Drugs CEO to Critics of Prices: ‘Give Me a Break’."   The Wall Street Journal  (Tues., June 5, 2007):  B1 & B2.

 

 GenentechStockPrices.gif   Source of graph:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.

 

Nonprofits Often Fund Risky, but Useful, Research that is Shunned by Government

 

The following excerpt from a summary of a May 17th Nature article, has a message that complements what I found in a paper published a couple of years ago (see the reference at the bottom of this entry).

 

Do charities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation produce better medical research than institutions supported by the government?

. . .

. . . , some scientists believe philanthropies make better use of that $5 billion than corporations or governments, says Nature’s Meredith Wadman. Many researchers have stories about nonprofits who rescued risky but useful projects that had been shunned by government-backed institutions. Charities can make decisions more quickly and can take bigger risks. Philanthropists also tend to closely monitor their investments and want the satisfaction of a mission accomplished.

 

For the full summary, see: 

"Informed Reader; PHILANTHROPY; Do Charities Outdo Research By Federal-Backed Agencies?"  The Wall Street Journal  (May 18, 2007):  B6. 

(Note:  ellipses added.)

The reference to the Nature article is: 

Meredith Wadman.  "Biomedical philanthropy: State of the donation."  Nature  447, (May 17, 2007):  248 – 250. 

 

My related paper is:

Diamond, Arthur M., Jr.  "The Relative Success of Private Funders and Government Funders in Funding Important Science."  The European Journal of Law and Economics 21, no. 2 (April 2006): 149-61.

 

Medical Cures Going First to the Dogs

Bazell_melanoma_dog.jpg  One of the dogs cured of melanoma by a new vaccine.  Source of photo:  screen capture from NBC news report.

 

Melanoma has taken many human lives, including my father’s on April 15, 2000.  Government licensing and regulations reduce competition in medicine and slow the pace of medical innovation.  Animal health care is less regulated.  Is it an accident that dogs are being cured for melanoma before humans?  

 

Vet Philip Bergman remembers the first time he tried the vaccine in a dog.

"That was a dog that thankfully underwent complete disappearance of his tumor," says Bergman.  "It was remarkable, obviously, to us."

Since then, more than 100 dogs have been treated, including Lawana Hart’s Lucky, who last June appeared to have only a few months to live.

 

For the full report, see:

Robert Bazell.  "Treatment for canines with cancer raises hopes; Researchers encouraged by melanoma vaccine’s success on dogs."  NBC Evening News Report; online print version updated: 6:36 p.m. CT Oct 26, 2006.

 

For the video version, go to:

http://video.msn.com/v/us/msnbc.htm?g=d7f603e0-86bb-44db-bad0-524ec79b02c8&f=00&fg=copy

Sulfa: First Antibiotic Was Pursued for Profit

  Source of the book image:  http://ec1.images-amazon.com/images/P/1400082137.01._SS500_SCLZZZZZZZ_V52133117_.jpg

 

Economists have debated whether patents mainly provide incentives, or obstacles, to innovation.  In the story of the development of sulfa, the first powerful antibiotic, the desire for profit, through patents, was one motive that drove an important part of the development process; this, even though, in the end, sulfa turned out not to be patentable:

(p. P9) Mr. Hager follows a group of doctors into postwar German industry — specifically into the dye conglomerate IG Farben.  These men, having witnessed horrible deaths by infection on the battlefield, picked up on Ehrlich’s hypothesis by trying to synthesize a dye that specifically stained and killed bacteria.  Led by the physician-scientist Gerhard Domagk, they brought German know-how, regimentation and industry to the enterprise.

Year after year the team infected mice with streptococci, the bacteria responsible for so many deadly infections in humans.  The researchers then treated the mice with various dyes but had to watch as thousands upon thousands of them died despite such treatment.  Nothing seemed to work.  The 1920s turned into the ’30s, and still Domagk and his team held to Ehrlich’s idea.  There was simply no better idea around.

Then one of the old hands at IG Farben mentioned that he could get dyes to stick to wool and to fade less by attaching molecular side-chains containing sulfur to them.  Maybe what worked for wool would work for bacteria by making the dye adhere to the bacteria long enough to kill it.

. . .

The IG Farben conglomerate expected huge profits from Prontosil.  But then French scientists at the Pasteur Institute in Paris dashed these dreams.  The German scientists — all of them Ehrlich disciples — thought that the power to cure infection rested in the dye, with the sulfa side-chain merely holding the killer dye to the bacteria.  The scientists at the Pasteur Institute, though, showed that the sulfa side-chain alone worked against infection just as well as the Prontosil compound.  In fact, the dye fraction of the compound was useless.  You could have Ehrlich’s magic bullet without Ehrlich’s big idea!  This bombshell rendered the German patents worthless.  The life-saver "drug" turned out to be a simple, unpatentable chemical available in bulk everywhere.

 

For the full review, see: 

PAUL MCHUGH.  "BOOKS; Medicine’s First Miracle Drug."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., September 30, 2006):  P9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

 

The reference for the book is: 

Thomas Hager.  The Demon Under The Microscope.  Harmony, 340 pages, $24.95

Maybe Fewer Women Engineers Because Fewer Women Want to Be Engineers?

I’ve slogged through enough reports from the National Academy of Sciences to know they’re often not shining examples of the scientific method.  But — call me naïve — I never thought the academy was cynical enough to publish a political tract like “Beyond Bias and Barriers,” the new report on discrimination against female scientists and engineers.

. . .

I consulted half a dozen of these experts about the report, and they all dismissed it as a triumph of politics over science.  It’s classic rent-seeking by a special-interest group that stands to get more money and jobs if the recommendations are adopted.

“I am embarrassed,” said Linda Gottfredson of the University of Delaware, “that this female-dominated panel of scientists would ignore decades of scientific evidence to justify an already disproved conclusion, namely, that the sexes do not differ in career-relevant interests and abilities.”

. . .

After decades of schools pushing girls into science and universities desperately looking for gender diversity on their faculties, it’s insulting to pretend that most female students are too intimidated to know their best interests.  As Science magazine reported in 2000, the social scientist Patti Hausman offered a simple explanation for why women don’t go into engineering:  they don’t want to.

“Wherever you go, you will find females far less likely than males to see what is so fascinating about ohms, carburetors or quarks,” Hausman said.  “Reinventing the curriculum will not make me more interested in learning how my dishwasher works.”

 

For the full commentary, see:

JOHN TIERNEY.  "Academy of P.C. Science."  The New York Times   (Tues., September 26, 2006):  A23.

 

(Note:  the title of the online version was "Academy of P.C. Sciences.")

(Note:  ellipses added.) 

“Growing Recognition of Economic Costs” of Koyoto Protocol

Commentary on the Kyoto Protocol:

(p. 3) . . . the current stalemate is not just because of the inadequacies of the protocol. It is also a response to the world’s ballooning energy appetite, which, largely because of economic growth in China, has exceeded almost everyone’s expectations. And there are still no viable alternatives to fossil fuels, the main source of greenhouse gases.

Then, too, there is a growing recognition of the economic costs incurred by signing on to the Kyoto Protocol.

As Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, a proponent of emissions targets, said in a statement on Nov. 1: ”The blunt truth about the politics of climate change is that no country will want to sacrifice its economy in order to meet this challenge.”

This is as true, in different ways, in developed nations with high unemployment, like Germany and France, as it is in Russia, which said last week that it may have spot energy shortages this winter.
. . .
The only real answer at the moment is still far out on the horizon: nonpolluting energy sources. But the amount of money being devoted to research and develop such technologies, much less install them, is nowhere near the scale of the problem, many experts on energy technology said.

Enormous investments in basic research have to be made promptly, even with the knowledge that most of the research is likely to fail, if there is to be any chance of creating options for the world’s vastly increased energy thirst in a few decades, said Richard G. Richels, an economist at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit center for energy and environment research.

”The train is not leaving the station, and it needs to leave the station,” Mr. Richels said. ”If we don’t have the technologies available at that time, it’s going to be a mess.”

For the full commentary, see:
ANDREW C. REVKIN. “THE WORLD; On Climate Change, a Change of Thinking.” The New York Times, Section 4 (Sun., December 4, 2005): 3.
(Note: ellipsis added.)