National Institutes of Health Rejected Funding for Moir’s Radical Theories

(p. B14) Robert D. Moir, a Harvard scientist whose radical theories of the brain plaques in Alzheimer’s defied conventional views of the disease, but whose research ultimately led to important proposals for how to treat it, died on Friday [December 20, 2019] at a hospice in Milton, Mass. He was 58.

His wife, Julie Alperen, said the cause was glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer.

Dr. Moir, who grew up on a farm in Donnybrook, a small town in Western Australia, had a track record for confounding expectations. He did not learn to read or write until he was nearly 12; Ms. Alperen said he had told her that the teacher at his one-room schoolhouse was “a demented nun.” Yet, she said, he also knew from age 7 that he wanted to be a scientist.

. . .

Conventional wisdom held that beta amyloid accumulation was a central part of the disease, and that clearing the brain of beta amyloid would be a good thing for patients.

Dr. Moir proposed instead that beta amyloid is there for a reason: It is the way the brain defends itself against infections. Beta amyloid, he said, forms a sticky web that can trap microbes. The problem is that sometimes the brain goes overboard producing it, and when that happens the brain is damaged.

The implication is that treatments designed to clear the brain of amyloid could be detrimental. The goal would be to remove some of the sticky substance, but not all of it.

The idea, which Dr. Moir first proposed 12 years ago, was met with skepticism. But he kept at it, producing a string of papers with findings that supported the hypothesis. Increasingly, some of the doubters have been won over, said Rudolph Tanzi, a close friend and fellow Alzheimer’s researcher at Harvard.

Dr. Moir’s unconventional ideas made it difficult for him to get federal grants. Nearly every time he submitted a grant proposal to the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Tanzi said in a phone interview, two out of three reviewers would be enthusiastic, while a third would simply not believe it. The proposal would not be funded.

For the full obituary, see:

Gina Kolata. “Robert Moir, 58, Researcher Who Rethought Alzheimer’s.” The New York Times (Saturday, December 21, 2019): B14.

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

(Note: the online version of the obituary was last updated December 23 [sic], 2019, and has the title “Robert Moir, 58, Dies; His Research Changed Views on Alzheimer’s.”)

Opening a New “Treasure Box of Strange Phenomena”

(p. D1) In the universe of office supplies, pencil lead — a mixture of graphite and clay, which does not include any lead — appears unexceptional beyond its ability to draw dark lines.

But 15 years ago, scientists discovered that a single sheet of graphite — a one-atom-thick layer of carbon atoms laid out in a honeycomb pattern — is a wonder. This ultrathin carbon, called graphene, is flexible and lighter than paper yet 200 times stronger than steel. It is also a good conductor of heat and electrical current.

Scientists imagined all of the remarkable things that graphene might be made into: transistors, sensors, novel materials. But after studying and cataloging its properties, scientists moved on to other problems. Practical uses have been slow to come, because part of what makes graphene alluring — its strength — also makes the material difficult to cut into precise shapes.

Last year, graphene burst back on the physics research scene when physicists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discovered that stacking two sheets of the material, twisted at a small angle between them, opened up a treasure box of strange phenomena. It started a new field: twistronics.

For the full story, see:

Kenneth Chang. “A Physics Trick: Take 2 Sheets of Carbon and Twist.” The New York Times (Tuesday, November 5, 2019): D1 & D3.

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Oct. 30, 2019, and has the title “A Physics Magic Trick: Take 2 Sheets of Carbon and Twist.”)

Forecasts “of Doom and Gloom” Fail Because “Lot of Moving Parts That Are Not Well Understood”

(p. A3) The science community now believes tornadoes most likely build from the ground up and not from a storm cloud down, potentially making them harder to spot via radar early in the formation process. But scientists still struggle to say with certainty when and where a tornado will form, or why some storms spawn them and neighboring storms don’t.

“Sometimes the science and the atmosphere remind us of the limitations of what we can predict,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center.

. . .

“We have big outlooks of doom and gloom, and nothing happens because there are a lot of moving parts that are not well understood yet,” said Erik Rasmussen, a research scientist with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory.

For the full story, see:

Erin Ailworth. “Tornadoes Outrun Forecaster Data.” The Wall Street Journal (Thursday, May 30, 2019): A3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date May 29, 2019, and the title “New Science Explains Why Tornadoes Are So Hard to Forecast.”)

Sulston Earned Nobel, Not by “Bold Theories,” But by “Gathering Data for the Sake of Seeing the Whole Picture”

(p. A9) The nematode worm known as C. elegans is only a millimeter long and leads what appears to be a fairly dull existence. It eats bacteria, wriggles around and reaches adulthood in three days. “It consists basically of two tubes, one inside the other,” the English biologist John Sulston wrote in a memoir.

Although some colleagues thought he was wasting time, Dr. Sulston for years spent up to eight hours a day peering through microscopes at these worms. His findings on the genetics of worms won him a Nobel Prize for physiology in 2002.

. . .

His work didn’t involve “bold theories or sudden leaps of understanding,” he wrote in a 2002 memoir, “The Common Thread.” Instead, he saw his role as “gathering data for the sake of seeing the whole picture.”

For the full obituary, see:

James R. Hagerty. “Exhaustive Study of a Worm Ended in Nobel Prize.” The New York Times (Saturday, March 17, 2018): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the obituary has the date March 16, 2018, and has the title “Sulston’s Work on Lowly Worm Led to Major Role in Mapping Human Genome.”)

Sulston’s 2002 memoir, mentioned above, is:

Sulston, John, and Georgina Ferry. The Common Thread: A Story of Science, Politics, Ethics and the Human Genome. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 2002.

Lacking Absolute Certainty, Evidence Can Get Us to “True Enough”

(p. A17) As in his earlier books, Mr. Blackburn displays a rare combination of erudite precision and an ability to make complex ideas clear in unfussy prose.

If truth has seemed unattainable, he argues, it is because in the hands of philosophers such as Plato and Descartes it became so purified, rarefied and abstract that it eluded human comprehension. Mr. Blackburn colorfully describes their presentation of truth as a “picture of an entirely self-enclosed world of thought, spinning frictionless in the void.”

The alternative is inspired by more grounded philosophers, like David Hume and especially the American pragmatists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: Charles Sanders Peirce, William James and John Dewey. Mr. Blackburn repeatedly returns to a quote from Peirce that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs: “We must not begin by talking of pure ideas—vagabond thoughts that tramp the public highways without any human habitation—but must begin with men and their conversation.” The best way to think about truth is not in the abstract but in media res, as it is found in the warp and weft of human life.

Put crudely, for the pragmatists “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” We take to be true what works. Newton’s laws got us to the moon, so it would be perverse to deny that they are true. It doesn’t matter if they are not the final laws of physics; they are true enough. “We must remember that a tentative judgment of truth is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty,” says Mr. Blackburn, a sentence that glib deniers of the possibility of truth should be made to copy out a hundred times. Skepticism about truth only gets off the ground if we demand that true enough is not good enough—that truth be beyond all possible doubt and not just the reasonable kind.

For the full review, see:

Julian Baggini. “BOOKSHELF; Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.” The Wall Street Journal (Wednesday, July 25, 2018): A17.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 24, 2018, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘On Truth’ Review: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt; A philosopher argues that truth is humble, not absolute: “A tentative judgment . . . is not the same as a dogmatic assertion of certainty”.”)

The book under review is:

Blackburn, Simon. On Truth. Reprint ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.

Openness to Creative Destruction Released Today

Art Diamond next to sign saying "Congratulations!".
My wife Jeanette decorated the mantelpiece to celebrate the publication of Openness. Our daughter Jenny, and dachshund Fritz, joined the celebration.

Today, June 3, 2019, is the official release date of my book Openness to Creative Destruction: Sustaining Innovative Dynamism.

A couple of weeks ago I heard a thoughtful presentation by Pete Boettke that contrasted the role of economist as scientist and as savior. He plausibly claimed that one of my mentors, George Stigler, defended the economist as scientist.

But as is true of many of us, Stigler was not always consistent. He sometimes said that whether you are a fireman or an incendiary, you need to know how fire works. And I generalize that if you want to be effective at saving the world, you need to know how the world works. Science as a method of tolerant inquiry, and not as a body of unquestionable doctrine, helps you to know how the world works.

So my immodest hope for Openness is both that it advances the science of economics, and that it helps to save the world.

PS: Openness can be purchased from Oxford University Press for 30% off using the discount code ASFLYQ6.

No End to “Tantalizing” Mysteries of Science

(p. A13) NASA’s Opportunity rover began its 15th year on Mars this week, although the intrepid robotic explorer may already be dead.
“I haven’t given up yet,” said Steven W. Squyres, the principal investigator for the mission. But he added, “This could be the end. Under the assumption that this is the end, it feels good. I mean that.”
The rover — which outlasted all expectations since its landing on Mars in 2004 and helped find convincing geological signs that water once flowed there — fell silent last June when it was enveloped by a global Martian dust storm. In darkness, the solar panels could not generate enough power to keep Opportunity awake.
. . .
Years ago, Dr. Squyres said no matter when the mission ended, he was sure that there would be some tantalizing mystery they would see just beyond reach.
On Thursday [January 24, 2019], he said that indeed seems to be the case. Opportunity was in the middle of exploring what looks like a gully that was formed by the flowing of water on ancient Mars. As expected, the gully looks eroded near the top, but the rover had not reached the bottom to look at where the sediments would have flowed.
The scientists had rejected some alternative hypotheses, but other ideas could also explain the landscape. “So far, the story is uncertain,” Dr. Squyres said. “The answer probably lies just down the hill.”

For the full story, see:

Kenneth Chang. “NASA’s Opportunity Rover May Have Reached Its End.” The New York Times (Saturday, Jan. 26, 2019): A13.

(Note: ellipsis, and bracketed date, added.)
(Note: the online version of the story has the date Jan. 25, 2019, and has the title “‘This Could Be the End’ for NASA’s Mars Opportunity Rover.”)