Labrador Noses May Be Cheaper and More Accurate Than Rapid Antigen Test at Detecting Covid-19

(p. A1) . . . three Labradors, operating out of a university clinic in Bangkok, are part of a global corps of dogs being trained to sniff out Covid-19 in people. Preliminary studies, conducted in multiple countries, suggest that their detection rate may surpass that of the rapid antigen testing often used in airports and other public places.

. . .

(p. A6) . . . as a group, the dogs being trained in Thailand — Angel, Bobby, Bravo and three others, Apollo, Tiger and Nasa — accurately detected the virus 96.2 percent of the time in controlled settings, according to university researchers. Studies in Germany and the United Arab Emirates had lower but still impressive results.

Sniffer dogs work faster and far more cheaply than polymerase chain reaction, or P.C.R., testing, their proponents say. An intake of air through their sensitive snouts is enough to identify within a second the volatile organic compound or cocktail of compounds that are produced when a person with Covid-19 sheds damaged cells, researchers say.

“P.C.R. tests are not immediate, and there are false negative results, while we know that dogs can detect Covid in its incubation phase,” said Dr. Anne-Lise Chaber, an interdisciplinary health expert at the School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences at the University of Adelaide in Australia who has been working for six months with 15 Covid-sniffing dogs.

Some methods of detection, like temperature screening, can’t identify infected people who have no symptoms. But dogs can, because the infected lungs and trachea produce a trademark scent. And dogs need fewer molecules to nose out Covid than are required for P.C.R. testing, Thai researchers said.

The Thai Labradors are part of a research project run jointly by Chulalongkorn University and Chevron. The oil company had previously used dogs to test its offshore employees for illegal drug use, and a Thai manager wondered whether the animals could do the same with the coronavirus.

. . .

Dogs, whose wet snouts have up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared with roughly six million for humans, can be trained to memorize about 10 smell patterns for a specific compound, Dr. Kaywalee said. Dogs can also smell through another organ nestled between their noses and mouths.

Some research has suggested that dogs of various breeds may be able to detect diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, malaria and certain cancers — that is, the volatile organic compounds or bodily fluids associated with them.

Labradors are among the smartest breeds, said Lertchai Chaumrattanakul, who leads Chevron’s part of the dog project. They are affable, too, making them the ideal doggy detector: engaged and eager.

Mr. Lertchai noted that Labradors are expensive, about $2,000 each in Thailand. But the cotton swabs and other basic equipment for canine testing work out to about 75 cents per sample. That is much cheaper than what’s needed for other types of rapid screening.

For the full commentary, see:

Hannah Beech. “The Best Rapid Covid-19 Test Adores Treats and Belly Rubs.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 1, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 31, 2021, and has the title “On the Covid Front Lines, When Not Getting Belly Rubs.”)

Media Used “Censorship and Vilification” to Suppress Wuhan Lab-Leak Theory

(p. A23) If it turns out that the Covid pandemic was caused by a leak from a lab in Wuhan, China, it will rank among the greatest scientific scandals in history: dangerous research, possibly involving ethically dubious techniques that make viruses more dangerous, carried out in a poorly safeguarded facility, thuggishly covered up by a regime more interested in propaganda than human life, catastrophic for the entire world.

But this possible scandal, which is as yet unproved, obscures an actual scandal, which remains to be digested.

I mean the long refusal by too many media gatekeepers (social as well as mainstream) to take the lab-leak theory seriously. The reasons for this — rank partisanship and credulous reporting — and the methods by which it was enforced — censorship and vilification — are reminders that sometimes the most destructive enemies of science can be those who claim to speak in its name.

. . .

Was it smart for science reporters to accept the authority of a February 2020 letter, signed by 27 scientists and published in The Lancet, feverishly insisting on the “natural origin” of Covid? Not if those reporters had probed the ties between the letter’s lead author and the Wuhan lab (a fact, as the science writer Nicholas Wade points out in a landmark essay in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, that has been public knowledge for months).

Was it wise to suppose that the World Health Organization, which has served as a mouthpiece for Chinese regime propaganda, should be an authority on what counted as Covid “misinformation” by Facebook, which in February [2021] banned the lab-leak theory from its platform? Not if the aim of companies like Facebook is to bring the world closer together, as opposed to laundering Chinese government disinformation while modeling its illiberal methods.

. . .

Yet the lab-leak theory, whether or not it turns out to be right, was always credible. Even if Tom Cotton believed it. Even if the scientific “consensus” disputed it. Even if bigots — who rarely need a pretext — drew bigoted conclusions from it.

Good journalism, like good science, should follow evidence, not narratives. It should pay as much heed to intelligent gadflies as it does to eminent authorities. And it should never treat honest disagreement as moral heresy.

Anyone wondering why so many people have become so hostile to the pronouncements of public-health officials and science journalists should draw the appropriate conclusion from this story. When lecturing the public about the dangers of misinformation, it’s best not to peddle it yourself.

For the full commentary, see:

Bret Stephens. “The Lab-Leak Theory and The Media.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, June 1, 2021): A23.

(Note: ellipses, and bracketed year, added; italics in original.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date May 31, 2021, and has the title “Media Groupthink and the Lab-Leak Theory.”)

“If It’s Consensus, It Isn’t Science”

(p. C9) . . . science itself is not conducted by polls, regardless of how often we are urged to heed a “scientific consensus” on climate. As the science-trained novelist Michael Crichton summarized in a famous 2003 lecture at Caltech: “If it’s consensus, it isn’t science. If it’s science, it isn’t consensus. Period.” Mr. Koonin says much the same in “Unsettled.”

. . .

As for “denying,” Mr. Koonin makes it clear, on the book’s first page, that “it’s true that the globe is warming, and that humans are exerting a warming influence upon it.”

The heart of the science debate, however, isn’t about whether the globe is warmer or whether humanity contributed. The important questions are about the magnitude of civilization’s contribution and the speed of changes; and, derivatively, about the urgency and scale of governmental response. Mr. Koonin thinks most readers will be surprised at what the data show. I dare say they will.

As Mr Koonin illustrates, tornado frequency and severity are also not trending up; nor are the number and severity of droughts. The extent of global fires has been trending significantly downward. The rate of sea-level rise has not accelerated. Global crop yields are rising, not falling. And while global atmospheric CO2 levels are obviously higher now than two centuries ago, they’re not at any record planetary high—they’re at a low that has only been seen once before in the past 500 million years.

. . .

Mr. Koonin’s science credentials are impeccable—unlike, say, those of one well-known Swedish teenager to whom the media affords great attention on climate matters. He has been a professor of physics at Caltech and served as the top scientist in Barack Obama’s Energy Department. The book is copiously referenced and relies on widely accepted government documents.

. . .

Never have so many spent so much public money on the basis of claims that are so unsettled.

For the full review, see:

Mark P. Mills. “The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 26, 2021): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 25, 2021, and has the title “‘Unsettled’ Review: The ‘Consensus’ On Climate.”)

The book under review is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Virologist “Dismayed” That Wuhan Lab Conducted Two Coronavirus Studies “With Only a Modest Level of Safety Measures”

(p. A6) On the heels of President Biden’s abrupt order to U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, many scientists reacted positively, reflecting their push in recent weeks for more information about the work of a virus lab in Wuhan, China. But they cautioned against expecting an answer in the three-month time frame of the president’s request.

After long steering clear of the debate, some influential scientists have lately become more open to expressing uncertainties about the origins of the virus. If the two most vocal poles of the argument are natural spillover vs. laboratory leak, these new voices have added a third point of view: a resounding undecided.

“In the beginning, there was a lot of pressure against speaking up, because it was tied to conspiracies and Trump supporters,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. “There was very little rational discussion going on in the beginning.”

. . .

While researchers generally welcome a sustained search for answers, some warn that those answers may not arrive any time soon — if ever.

“At the end of this process, I would not be surprised if we did not know much more than we know now,” said W. Ian Lipkin, a virologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University who was one of the first U.S. scientists to visit China in early 2020 and consult with public health authorities there.

China’s lack of cooperation with the W.H.O. has long fueled suspicions about how the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, had emerged seemingly from nowhere to seize the world.

. . .

Speaking recently to the former New York Times journalist Donald McNeil Jr., Dr. Lipkin said he was dismayed to learn of two coronavirus studies from the Wuhan Institute of Virology that had been carried out with only a modest level of safety measures, known as BSL-2.

In an interview with The Times, Dr. Lipkin said this fact wasn’t proof in itself that SARS-CoV-2 spread from the lab. “But it certainly does raise the possibility that must be considered,” he said.

A BSL-2 level of research would also add to the difficulty researchers will face trying to pin down clear evidence that a coronavirus infected the staff. At higher levels of security, staff regularly give blood samples that can be studied later for genetic material from viruses and antibodies against them. There may be no such record for SARS-CoV-2.

For the full story, see:

Carl Zimmer, James Gorman, and Benjamin Mueller. “Scientists Welcome a Search That Might Never Bear Fruit.” The New York Times (Friday, May 28, 2021): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 27, 2021, and has the title “Scientists Don’t Want to Ignore the ‘Lab Leak’ Theory, Despite No New Evidence.”)

Biden’s “Abrupt Shift” on Wuhan Lab Origin of Covid-19

(p. A1) WASHINGTON — President Biden ordered U.S. intelligence agencies on Wednesday to investigate the origins of the coronavirus, indicating that his administration takes seriously the possibility that the deadly virus was accidentally leaked from a lab, in addition to the prevailing theory that it was transmitted by an animal to humans outside a lab.

. . .

But the president’s carefully worded directive underscored a new surge in interest about the lab, which President Donald J. Trump and some of his top aides repeatedly blamed for the pandemic. Some scientists attributed the renewed focus on the lab to Mr. Trump’s departure from the White House — and being less identified with the theory — while others said it reflected the deep frustrations with the recent W.H.O. report that was co-written by Chinese scientists.

. . .

(p. A8) “For over a year, anyone asking questions about the Wuhan Institute of Virology has been branded as a conspiracy theorist,” Mr. Hawley said. “The world needs to know if this pandemic was the product of negligence at the Wuhan lab, but the C.C.P. has done everything it can to block a credible investigation.”

In the past several days, the White House had played down the need for an investigation led by the United States and insisted that the W.H.O. was the proper place for an international inquiry. Mr. Biden’s statement on Wednesday was an abrupt shift.

. . .

Scientists had been reluctant to discuss the lab leak hypothesis last year because they had been on guard against disinformation, said Marc Lipsitch, a Harvard epidemiologist.

“Nobody wants to succumb to conspiracy theories,” he said.

But the March report by the group of W.H.O.-chosen experts in collaboration with Chinese scientists, dismissing the possibility of a lab leak as “extremely unlikely,” compelled some scientists to speak out.

“When I read that, I was very frustrated,” said Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University. Along with Professor Lipsitch, she signed a letter published in the journal Science this month saying that there was not enough evidence to decide whether a natural origin or an accidental laboratory leak caused the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think it’s really an unanswered question that really needs more rigorous investigation,” Dr. Iwasaki added.

From the earliest weeks of the outbreak, the Chinese government has worked to delay, deflect or block independent investigation of the virus’s origins.

Chinese officials said in early 2020 that the outbreak began at a Wuhan market, and they blamed illegal wildlife sales there. They did so despite having evidence that undermined that theory: Early data showed that four of the first five coronavirus patients had no clear links to the market. The government resisted accepting an international scientific mission.

For the full story, see:

Michael D. Shear, Julian E. Barnes, Carl Zimmer, and Benjamin Mueller. “President Orders Report in 90 Days on Virus Origins.” The New York Times (Thursday, May 27, 2021): A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was updated May 27, 2021, and has the title “Biden Orders Intelligence Inquiry Into Origins of Virus.” Where the wording in the online and print versions of the passages quoted above differs, the passages quoted above follow the online version.)

Journals Publish Positive Results So Scientists “File-Drawer” Negative Results

(p. A15) In “The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills,” Jesse Singal, a contributing writer at New York magazine, chronicles several dubious enthusiasms that permeate our culture. Along the way, he tries to show why they are so widespread. His focus is on “the allure of fad psychology,” as he puts it, and on the ways in which “both individuals and institutions can do a better job of resisting it.”

. . .

Academic journals, too, are keen to publish supposedly newsworthy findings. Under such conditions, it’s easy to see why a psychologist would be reluctant to re-examine her too-good-to-be-true results when doubts—her own and those of colleagues—begin to nag.

Each chapter of “The Quick Fix” presents accessible explanations of the research that was eventually shown to be “half-baked,” as Mr. Singal puts it. The problems, he shows, often derive from dodgy statistical analysis or faulty experimental design. Researchers, for instance, might use various statistical tests until one shows a sought-for result, or they might submit only positive results to a journal for publication, holding the negative ones back, a practice known as “file-drawering.” Mr. Singal also traces the social and political currents that helped propel certain trends.

Mr. Singal’s analysis is thus a quick fix for readers who want to be more enlightened and thoughtful consumers of psychological science.

For the full review, see:

Sally Satel. “BOOKSHELF; A Bias Toward Easy Answers.” The Wall Street Journal (Monday, April 12, 2021): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date April 11, 2021, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘The Quick Fix’ Review: A Bias Toward Easy Answers.”)

The book under review is:

Singal, Jesse. The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can’t Cure Our Social Ills. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Always-Curious Microbiologist Found Useful Robust New Bacterium in Yellowstone Hot Spring

An enzyme in the bacterium that Brock discovered was used by Kary Mullis to create the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) that is part of Covid-19 tests.

(p. B11) Thomas Brock, a microbiologist, was driving west to a laboratory in Washington State in 1964 when he stopped off at Yellowstone National Park.

. . .

What fascinated him, on what would be the first of many trips to Yellowstone, were the blue-green algae living in a hot spring — proof that some life could tolerate temperatures above the boiling point of water.

It was the beginning of research that led to a revolutionary find in 1966: a species of bacteria that he called Thermus aquaticus, which thrived at 70 degrees Celsius (158 degrees Fahrenheit) or more.

. . .

The yellow bacteria — discovered by Dr. Brock and Hudson Freeze, his undergraduate assistant at Indiana University — survive because all their enzymes are stable at very high temperatures, including one, Taq polymerase, that replicates its own DNA. It proved essential to the invention of the process behind the gold standard in coronavirus testing.

. . .

When he arrived at Yellowstone, he did not have grandiose ambitions.

“I was just looking for a nice, simple ecosystem where I could study microbial ecology,” he said in an interview for the website of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he was a professor of natural sciences in the department of bacteriology from 1971 to 1990. “At higher temperatures, you don’t have the complications of having animals that eat all the microbes.”

Stephen Zinder worked with Dr. Brock as a student from 1974 to 1977, a period that included Dr. Brock’s last summer of work at Yellowstone and his research into the ecology of Wisconsin’s lakes, including Lake Mendota in Madison.

“He had an encyclopedic knowledge of microbiology and science in general,” said Dr. Zinder, now a professor of microbiology at Cornell University. “He was always learning and picking up new things.” He added, “I think his real ability was to see things simply and to figure out simple techniques to find out what the organisms were doing in their environment.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Sandomir. “Thomas Brock, 94, Scientist Who Shared a Nobel Prize’.” The New York Times (Saturday, May 1, 2021): B11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated April 26, 2020, and has the title “Thomas Brock, Whose Discovery Paved the Way for PCR Tests, Dies at 94.”)

“As a Species, We’re Very Good At Adapting”

(p. A11) Barack Obama is one of many who have declared an “epistemological crisis,” in which our society is losing its handle on something called truth.

Thus an interesting experiment will be his and other Democrats’ response to a book by Steven Koonin, who was chief scientist of the Obama Energy Department. Mr. Koonin argues not against current climate science but that what the media and politicians and activists say about climate science has drifted so far out of touch with the actual science as to be absurdly, demonstrably false.

. . .

Mr. Koonin still has a lot of Brooklyn in him: a robust laugh, a gift for expression and for cutting to the heart of any matter. His thoughts seem to be governed by an all-embracing realism. Hence the book coming out next month, “Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters.”

Any reader would benefit from its deft, lucid tour of climate science, the best I’ve seen. His rigorous parsing of the evidence will have you questioning the political class’s compulsion to manufacture certainty where certainty doesn’t exist. You will come to doubt the usefulness of centurylong forecasts claiming to know how 1% shifts in variables will affect a global climate that we don’t understand with anything resembling 1% precision.

. . .

Mr. Koonin is a practitioner and fan of computer modeling. “There are situations where models do a wonderful job. Nuclear weapons, when we model them because we don’t test them anymore. And when Boeing builds an airplane, they will model the heck out of it before they bend any metal.”

“But these are much more controlled, engineered situations,” he adds, “whereas the climate is a natural phenomenon. It’s going to do whatever it’s going to do. And it’s hard to observe. You need long, precise observations to understand its natural variability and how it responds to external influences.”

Yet these models supply most of our insight into how the weather might change when emissions raise the atmosphere’s CO2 component from 0.028% in preindustrial times to 0.056% later in this century. “I’ve been building models and watching others build models for 45 years,” he says. Climate models “are not to the standard you would trust your life to or even your trillions of dollars to.”

. . .

Let technology and markets work at their own pace. The climate might continue to change, at a pace that’s hard to perceive, but societies will adapt. “As a species, we’re very good at adapting.”

. . .

. . . , the mainstream climate community will try to ignore his book, even as his publicists work the TV bookers in hopes of making a splash. Then Mr. Koonin knows will come the avalanche of name-calling that befalls anybody trying to inject some practical nuance into political discussions of climate.

He adds with a laugh: “My married daughter is happy that she’s got a different last name.”

For the full interview, see:

Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., interviewer. “How a Physicist Became a Climate Truth Teller.” The Wall Street Journal (Saturday, April 17, 2021): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date April 16, 2021, and has the title “Mr. Humble and Dr. Butcher’ Review: A Heart in the Right Place.”)

Koonin’s climate book, discussed in the interview quoted above, is:

Koonin, Steven E. Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. Dallas, TX: BenBella Books, 2021.

Clarity Is Rewarded, at Least Among Cave Experts

After Deirdre McCloskey published her classic “Economical Writing” in Economic Inquiry, Jack High published a critique in the same journal arguing that young economists would ruin their careers if they followed McCloskey’s advice to write clearly. High claimed that clear writing would be less published and economists who wrote more clearly would therefore be less likely to receive tenure. McCloskey published a rebuttal saying that clear writing was more likely to be published, to be read, and to help the writer receive tenure. But she added that even if she was wrong about that, we should try to write clearly because it is the right thing to do.

The study mentioned below provides some evidence to support McCloskey’s claim that clarity is rewarded.

(p. D2) . . . a team of researchers has analyzed jargon in a set of over 21,000 scientific manuscripts. The study focused on manuscripts written by scientists who study caves, . . .

They found that papers containing higher proportions of jargon in their titles and abstracts were cited less frequently by other researchers. Science communication — with the public but also among scientists — suffers when a research paper is packed with too much specialized terminology, the team concluded.

For the full story, see:

Katherine Kornei. “Confused by All That Scientific Jargon? So Are the Scientists.” The New York Times (Tuesday, April 13, 2021): D2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the date April 9, 2021, and has the title “Are You Confused by Scientific Jargon? So Are Scientists.” Where the wording in the online version differs from the wording in the print version, the passages quoted above follow the print version.)

The study discussed in the passages quoted above is:

Martínez, Alejandro, and Stefano Mammola. “Specialized Terminology Reduces the Number of Citations of Scientific Papers.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of Britain (April 7, 2021)
https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2581.

The McCloskey classic article, and the exchange with Jack High, are:

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 23, no. 2 (April 1985): 187-222.

High, Jack C. “The Costs of Economical Writing.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 543-45.

McCloskey, Deirdre. “Reply to Jack High.” Economic Inquiry 25, no. 3 (July 1987): 547-548.

How Chuck Yeager Acquired the ‘Right Stuff’: “I Worked My Tail Off”

(p. A1) Chuck Yeager, the most famous test pilot of his generation, who was the first to break the sound barrier and, thanks to Tom Wolfe, came to personify the death-defying aviator who possessed the elusive yet unmistakable “right stuff,” died on Monday [December 7, 2020] in Los Angeles.

. . .

His signal achievement came on Oct. 14, 1947, when he climbed out of a B-29 bomber as it ascended over the Mojave Desert in California and entered the cockpit of an orange, bullet-shaped, rocket-powered experimental plane attached to the bomb bay.

An Air Force captain at the time, he zoomed off in the plane, a (p. A23) Bell Aircraft X-1, at an altitude of 23,000 feet, and when he reached about 43,000 feet above the desert, history’s first sonic boom reverberated across the floor of the dry lake beds. He had reached a speed of 700 miles an hour, breaking the sound barrier and dispelling the long-held fear that any plane flying at or beyond the speed of sound would be torn apart by shock waves.

. . .

Mr. Wolfe wrote about a nonchalance affected by pilots in the face of an emergency in a voice “specifically Appalachian in origin,” one that was first heard in military circles but ultimately emanated from the cockpits of commercial airliners.

“It was,” Mr. Wolfe said, “the drawl of the most righteous of all the possessors of the right stuff: Chuck Yeager.”

In his memoir, General Yeager said he was annoyed when people asked him if he had the right stuff, since he felt it implied a talent he was born with.

“All I know is I worked my tail off learning to learn how to fly, and worked hard at it all the way,” he wrote. “If there is such a thing as the right stuff in piloting, then it is experience. The secret to my success was that somehow I always managed to live to fly another day.”

. . .

At a time when the administration of President John F. Kennedy was encouraging diversity in the Air Force, a former test pilot, Edward Dwight Jr., became the only African-American astronaut candidate at the school. But he was never selected for the astronaut corps, retired from the Air Force in 1966 and became a sculptor, specializing in bronze representations of heroic figures in Black history.

In July 2019, Mr. Dwight told the New York Times that General Yeager had never given him a fair chance. “Every week, right on the dot,” Mr. Dwight said, “he’d call me into his office and say, ‘Are you ready to quit? This is too much for you, and you’re going to kill yourself, boy.’ Calling me a boy, and I’m an officer in the Air Force.”

Responding to those remarks, General Yeager said that he had never told anybody that he would get Mr. Dwight out of the program, that he had not held weekly meetings with him, and that he had never called him “boy.”

But he did question Mr. Dwight’s ability. “Isn’t it great that Ed Dwight found his true calling and became an accomplished sculptor?” he wrote in an email.

. . .

In his memoir, General Yeager wrote that through all his years as a pilot, he had made sure to “learn everything I could about my airplane and my emergency equipment.”

It may not have accorded with his image, but, as he told it: “I was always afraid of dying. Always.”

For the full obituary, see:

Richard Goldstein. “Fighter Ace and Test Pilot Embodied ‘the Right Stuff’.” The New York Times (Wednesday, December 9, 2020): A1 & A23.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was updated December 9, 2020, and has the title “Chuck Yeager, Test Pilot Who Broke the Sound Barrier, Is Dead at 97.” The paragraphs quoted above about Edward Dwight appear in the print, but not in the online, version of the obituary.)

Tom Wolfe portrayed Yeager as the exemplar of the “right stuff” in:

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc., 1979.

Yeager’s memoir is:

Yeager, Chuck, and Leo Janos. Yeager: An Autobiography. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.

Humans Excel at Finding and Using Patterns

(p. 9) At the end of the 20th century, scholars of human evolution proposed a thrilling idea: Humans were special and distinct from all other animals because of a sudden transformational change that occurred around 35,000 years ago. For millions of years our ancestors had trudged through existence with the same simple tool kit, yet in that special moment, there was a flowering of symbolism, of art, of complicated tool use. This was when the modern human mind was born. You could see its traces in the archaeological record.

. . .

In “The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention,” Simon Baron-Cohen, a psychologist and the director of the Autism Research Center at Cambridge University, contributes a new version of this cognitive revolution. Baron-Cohen argues that humans split off from all other animals to become the “scientific and technological masters of our planet” because we evolved a unique piece of mental equipment that he calls the Systemizing Mechanism. It came into being between 70,000 and 100,000 years ago, and it led to the invention of pretty much everything, bows and arrows, pottery, agriculture, science, skateboards and so on.

. . .

Here’s how the mechanism works: Humans alone observe the world and ask questions that demand why, how and what. They answer their questions by looking for if-and-then patterns, such as, if I boil an egg for eight minutes, then the yolk will be hard, and if I boil an egg for four minutes, then the yolk will be soft. They use those patterns to build theories, which they then repeatedly test, looking always for systems to further employ and exploit.

Grand theories aside, Baron-Cohen is at his most striking when he writes about people with autism, like Jonah, who was slow to talk but who taught himself to read. When Jonah eventually learned to speak, he used language less as a tool for communication than as a system for categorizing the world around him. As a young child, he was endlessly fascinated by how things worked, and he spent hours experimenting, like flipping a light switch on and off to test and retest its effect. At school he showed great brilliance in his observations about the natural world, he was a “born pattern seeker,” but at the same time he was taunted by other children for being so different. In group reading time, which he hated, he would shut his eyes and put his fingers in his ears. Jonah’s weekend hobby as a young man was helping fishermen locate shoals by being able to read the signs from surface waves. Yet despite his incredible talents, Jonah was lonely and frustrated because he couldn’t find a job that would allow him to live an independent life. Baron-Cohen argues with feeling and conviction that society must do a better job of making room for people like Jonah, and that it will benefit enormously when it does.

For the full review, see:

Christine Kenneally. “Systematizers.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, December 20, 2020): 9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review was updated Dec. 9, 2020, and has the title “Does Autism Hold the Key to What Makes Humans Special?.”)

The book under review is:

Baron-Cohen, Simon. The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention. New York: Basic Books, 2020.