Superworm Larvae Can Digest Styrofoam

(p. D2) The plump, glossy larvae of the darkling beetle, nicknamed “superworms” perhaps because of their size, are usually content to munch on wheat bran. But a number of the two-inch-long critters recently found themselves dining on much stranger fare in the service of science: polystyrene, the long-lived plastic packing material known sometimes by the brand name Styrofoam.

What’s more, the larvae that managed to choke down this peculiar feedstock did not, as you might expect, expire. As scientists documented in a paper published on Thursday [June 16, 2022] in the journal Microbial Genomics, they even gained a bit of weight and were able to metamorphose into beetles most of the time, prompting the researchers to check their digestive systems for microbes that could break down the polystyrene. If scientists can understand such microbes’ tool kits, they can devise a better way to recycle this tenacious substance, which, if left on its own, may persist in the environment for hundreds of years or more.

For the full story, see:

Veronique Greenwood. “Don’t Try This at Home: Styrofoam as a Snack Food? Superworms Just Pack It In.” The New York Times (Tuesday, June 21, 2022): D2.

(Note: bracketed date added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date June 10, 2022, and has the title “How Superworms Make Styrofoam Into a Healthy Meal.” The version quoted above is the online version that includes several words that are absent from the print version.)

The paper mentioned above is:

Sun, Jiarui, Apoorva Prabhu, Samuel T. N. Aroney, and Christian Rinke. “Insights into Plastic Biodegradation: Community Composition and Functional Capabilities of the Superworm (Zophobas Morio) Microbiome in Styrofoam Feeding Trials.” Microbial Genomics 8, no. 6 (2022).

The “Perceptually Divergent” Are Open to How Species Differ in Their Sensory Trade-Offs

(p. C1) That I found myself surprised at so many moments while reading “An Immense World,” Ed Yong’s new book about animal senses, speaks to his exceptional gifts as a storyteller — . . .

. . .

(p. C4) Yong’s book is funny and elegantly written, mercifully restrained when it comes to jargon, though he does introduce a helpful German word that he uses throughout: Umwelt. It means “environment,” but a little more than a century ago the Baltic German zoologist Jakob von Uexküll used it to refer more specifically to that sensory bubble — an animal’s perceptual world.

. . .

The human Umwelt will necessarily shape how we apprehend other Umwelten. “An Immense World” inevitably refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s foundational essay on this struggle, “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”

But some humans might be more open-minded than others. A number of the sensory biologists Yong meets are perceptually divergent, seeing color differently or having difficulty remembering familiar faces: “Perhaps people who experience the world in ways that are considered atypical,” he writes, “have an intuitive feeling for the limits of typicality.”

When it comes to sight, there’s a trade-off between sensitivity and resolution; humans tend to have extraordinary visual acuity during the day but have a much harder time seeing at night, while animals with better night vision don’t register the crisp images at a distance that we do. “Senses always come at a cost,” Yong writes. “No animal can sense everything well.” The world inundates us with stimuli. Registering some of it is taxing enough; fully processing the continuous deluge of it would be overwhelming.

For the full review, see:

Jennifer Szalai. “An Enthralling Tour Of Nonhuman Reality.” The New York Times (Thursday, June 23, 2022): C1 & C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 22, 2022, and has the title “‘An Immense World’ Is a Thrilling Tour of Nonhuman Perception.”)

The book under review is:

Yong, Ed. An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms around Us. New York: Random House, 2022.

Key Healthcare Issue Is Not How to Divvy Up a Fixed Pie, But How to Grow the Pie Through New Cures

(p. A23) . . . in the second phase of my illness, once I knew roughly what was wrong with me and the problem was how to treat it, I very quickly entered a world where the official medical consensus had little to offer me. It was only outside that consensus, among Lyme disease doctors whose approach to treatment lacked any C.D.C. or F.D.A. imprimatur, that I found real help and real hope.

And this experience made me more libertarian in various ways, more skeptical not just of our own medical bureaucracy, but of any centralized approach to health care policy and medical treatment.

This was true even though the help I found was often expensive and it generally wasn’t covered by insurance; like many patients with chronic Lyme, I had to pay in cash. But if I couldn’t trust the C.D.C. to recognize the effectiveness of these treatments, why would I trust a more socialized system to cover them? After all, in socialized systems cost control often depends on some centralized authority — like Britain’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence or the controversial, stillborn Independent Payment Advisory Board envisioned by Obamacare — setting rules or guidelines for the system as a whole. And if you’re seeking a treatment that official expertise does not endorse, I wouldn’t expect such an authority to be particularly flexible and open-minded about paying for it.

Quite the reverse, in fact, given the trade-off that often shows up in health policy, where more free-market systems yield more inequalities but also more experiments, while more socialist systems tend to achieve their egalitarian advantages at some cost to innovation. Thus many European countries have cheaper prescription drugs than we do, but at a meaningful cost to drug development. Americans spend obscene, unnecessary-seeming amounts of money on our system; America also produces an outsize share of medical innovations.

And if being mysteriously sick made me more appreciative of the value of an equalizing floor of health-insurance coverage, it also made me aware of the incredible value of those breakthroughs and discoveries, the importance of having incentives that lead researchers down unexpected paths, even the value of the unusual personality types that become doctors in the first place. (Are American doctors overpaid relative to their developed-world peers? Maybe. Am I glad that American medicine is remunerative enough to attract weird Type A egomaniacs who like to buck consensus? Definitely.)

Whatever everyday health insurance coverage is worth to the sick person, a cure for a heretofore-incurable disease is worth more. The cancer patient has more to gain from a single drug that sends the disease into remission than a single-payer plan that covers a hundred drugs that don’t.

. . .

. . ., the weakness of the liberal focus on equalizing cost and coverage is the implicit sense that medical care is a fixed pie in need of careful divvying, rather than a zone where vast benefits await outside the realm of what’s already available.

. . .

. . . once you’ve become part of the American pattern of trying anything, absolutely anything in order to feel better — and found that spirit essential to your own recovery — the idea of medical cost control as a primary policy goal inevitably loses some of its allure, and the American way of medical spending looks a little more defensible. To just try things without counting the cost can absolutely run to excess. But sometimes what seems like waste on the technocrat’s ledger is the lifeline that a desperate patient needs.

For the full commentary, see:

Ross Douthat. “Being Sick Changed My Views on Health Care.” The New York Times (Thursday, January 20, 2022): A23.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date January 19, 2022, and has the title “How Being Sick Changed My Health Care Views.”)

The commentary quoted above is related to the author’s book:

Douthat, Ross. The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery. New York: Convergent Books, 2021.

F.A.A. Can Take Many Years to Certify Innovative Aviation Technologies

(p. 6) Despite the excitement about e-planes, the Federal Aviation Administration has never certified electric propulsion as safe for commercial use. Companies expect that to change in the coming years, but only gradually, as safety concerns are worked out.

. . .

The consensus within the industry is that the F.A.A., which regulates half the world’s aviation activity, is several years from certifying urban air mobility.

“It’s a big burden of proof to bring new technology to the F.A.A. — appropriately so,” Mr. Clark said. Currently the certification process for a new plane or helicopter takes two to three years on average. For an entirely new type of vehicle, it could be considerably longer. (One conventionally powered aircraft that can take off and land without a runway had its first flight in 2003. It remains uncertified.)

For the full story, see:

Ben Ryder Howe and Tristan Spinski. “Covid Patient In Shanghai Describes Life In Isolation.” The New York Times, SundayBusiness Section (Sunday, April 17, 2022): 1 & 6-7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 18, 2022, and has the title “The Battery That Flies.”)

Elon Musk Is a “Free Speech Absolutist”

(p. A1) Twitter Inc. accepted Elon Musk’s bid to take over the company and go private, a deal that would give the world’s richest person control over the social-media network where he is also among its most influential users.

. . .

On Monday [April 15, 2022], a day after The Wall Street Journal first reported that a deal was close, Mr. Musk tweeted to indicate that he wants the platform to be a destination for wide-ranging discourse and disagreement.

. . .

(p. A6) Mr. Musk, a self-described “free speech absolutist,” said in a recent interview at a TED conference that he sees Twitter as the “de facto town square.”

For the full story, see:

Cara Lombardo, Meghan Bobrowsky and Georgia Wells. “Musk Strikes Deal to Buy Twitter.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, April 26, 2022): A1 & A6.

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

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 25, 2022, and has the title “Twitter Accepts Elon Musk’s Offer to Buy Company in $44 Billion Deal.”)

Diamond to Teach Economics of Entrepreneurship Seminar in Fall 2022

Prof. Art Diamond, Economics
College of Business Administration
University of Nebraska Omaha
Seminar Meets in Mammel Hall 116
Fall 2022, Tuesdays, 6:00 – 8:40 PM
First Session: Aug. 23, 2022

ECON 4730-001, ECON 8736-001

Some Questions to Be Discussed:

• How can policies encouraging innovative entrepreneurship help us create a more dynamic growth economy with more and better jobs, more and better innovations, and more choice and opportunity?
• Are innovative entrepreneurs smarter, or more courageous, or less risk-averse, or more intuitive, or more determined, or more frugal, or more arrogant, or more hard-working, or greedier, than the rest of us?
• Can economic historian John Nye defend his claim that successful entrepreneurs are “lucky fools?”
• What is the role of entrepreneurship in the process of economic dynamism, and what is the role of economic dynamism in making our lives longer and better?
• Would labor be better off in an economy in which innovative entrepreneurship is encouraged?
• Why did economist Will Baumol believe that too much higher education can discourage successful innovative entrepreneurship?
• Can unbinding entrepreneurs in medicine bring us more cures and longer lives?

Dreaming Often Is Nonlinear Problem-Solving

(p. A15) Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold, two of the world’s leading researchers in the science of sleep and dreams, have written a remarkable account of what we know and don’t know about this mysterious thing that happens during the night.

. . .

To many, dreams are prophecies, implanted in our brains by God or angels; to others, they exist to encode our memories of the previous day, to others they are simply random neural firings.

. . .

The weight of the evidence supports a more elaborate, nuanced and wondrous version of the memory-encoding hypothesis. Messrs. Zadra and Stickgold have designed a conceptual model they call Nextup (“Network Exploration to Understand Possibilities”), using it to describe the progression of dreams throughout the four sleep stages and their different functions. They debunk the common myth that we only dream during REM sleep and show that, in fact, we are typically dreaming throughout the night and in nonREM sleep states. They tie all of this into the brain’s “default mode network,” in which our minds are wandering and, often, problem-solving. When we’re awake, our brains are so busy attending to the environment that we tend to favor linear connections and thinking; when we allow ourselves to daydream, we solve problems that have distant, novel or nonlinear solutions.

For the full review, see:

Daniel J. Levitin. “Destination Anywhere.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, March 6, 2021): C7.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated March 5, 2021, and has the title “‘When Brains Dream’ Review: Night Shift.”)

The book under review is:

Zadra, Antonio, and Robert Stickgold. When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2021.

Unknown Theodore Judah Mattered More Than Famous Leland Stanford in the Success of the Central Pacific

(p. A15) . . . Mr. De Wolk insists that his subject paved the way to a postindustrial revolution. “The way virtually every man, woman, and child in the world would live would be altered permanently,” the author writes. “All because of Leland Stanford’s life.” Nonsense.

The story that Mr. De Wolk tells is of an undistinguished man who had no success on his own as a young adult. But he did have the good fortune of having brothers who set him up with a wholesale grocery shop in Sacramento, Calif. More good luck came his way when Huntington, at the time a fellow shopkeeper, and two other local merchants hatched a railroad company—even though none of them had any railroad experience—and invited Stanford to join as a partner. The vast sums of capital that they would need would be mostly supplied by 30-year bonds issued by the federal government, which also awarded enormous grants of land, gratis.

. . .

The most important person in the company’s founding was altogether excluded from the quintet at the top: Theodore Judah, a young man in his early 30s and the only one among the leadership who had any real experience building railroads. Judah’s surveys of the Sierra Nevada led to the discovery of a feasible passage at Donner Pass. It was Judah’s presentation to prospective investors that emboldened the Sacramento shopkeepers to go into the railroad business.

For the full review, see:

Randall Stross. “BOOKSHELF; Leland Stanford: Life and Myth.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, October 28, 2019): A15.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date October 27, 2019, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘American Disruptor’ Review: The Life and Myth of Leland Stanford.”)

The book under review is:

De Wolk, Roland. American Disruptor: The Scandalous Life of Leland Stanford. Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2019.

Crispr Gene-Editing Tried Against Cancer

(p. D4) Doctors have for the first time in the United States tested a powerful gene-editing technique in people with cancer.

The test, meant to assess only safety, was a step toward the ultimate goal of editing genes to help a patient’s own immune system to attack cancer. The editing was done by the DNA-snipping tool Crispr.

The procedure was feasible and safe, early results indicate, but whether it is fighting the disease is unclear. Only three patients have been treated so far, and the longest follow-up is nine months. All three patients are in their 60s, with very advanced cancers that had progressed despite standard treatments like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

“The good news is that all of them are alive,” said Dr. Edward A. Stadtmauer, the section chief of hematologic malignancies at the University of Pennsylvania Abramson Cancer Center. He added, “The best response we’ve seen so far is stabilization of their disease.”

For the full story, see:

Denise Grady. “Editing Genes in Bid to Fight Cancer.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 12, 2019): D4.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated Oct. 7, 2020 [sic], and has the title “Crispr Takes Its First Steps in Editing Genes to Fight Cancer.”)

Bennet Chose Pig’s Heart Since “It Was Either Die or Do This Transplant”

(p. A3) A man who had the first transplant to replace his human heart with a genetically-modified pig’s heart without immediate rejection died Tuesday afternoon at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, two months after the groundbreaking surgery.

. . .

While Mr. Bennett only lived with the pig heart for a couple of months, Dr. Parsia Vagefi, UT Southwestern Medical Center’s chief of the division of surgical transplantation, said people shouldn’t view the transplant as a failure and that he hopes it serves as a “new beginning” for xenotransplantation.

“I think what this shows is just the enormous amount of progress that’s been made and hopefully it’s just the beginning that we continue to grow on,” he said.

Mr. Bennett wasn’t eligible for a more typical heart transplant because he didn’t comply with doctors’ orders or attend follow-up visits. Several transplant centers—including the Maryland one—declined to list him for the chance to get a human heart, according to David Bennett Jr. , Mr. Bennett’s son. He also didn’t regularly take his medication, the younger Mr. Bennett previously said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration had granted Mr. Bennett’s operation emergency authorization on New Year’s Eve. “It was either die or do this transplant,” he said the day before his surgery, according to the University of Maryland Medicine. The handyman and father of two called the transplant his “last choice.”

For the full story, see:

Allison Prang. “Pig-Heart Recipient Dies 2 Months Later.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, March 10, 2022): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated March 9, 2022, and has the title “The Patient Who Received a Pig Heart Dies Two Months After Transplant.” The first two sentences after the ellipsis appear in the online, but not the print, version.)