Nobel Conference 50: Where Does Science Go From Here? (Wednesday)

See my first post for a description of Nobel Conference and Tuesday’s speakers.

Wednesday morning began with a rare livestream session, this one from Steven Weinberg. He talked about the clues we have to the hidden world beyond the standard model: where do things get weird consistently, and what would it take to find out what’s going on there? I was particularly pleased that he wanted a positive reason why formal mathematical simplicity should appear in our theories–that “we just like it a lot” is not a great reason and in fact can lead us astray, as it may have in the current formulation of Einstein’s equations, which he suggested may be more complicated than we think due to undetectable terms due to extra powers divided by very long lengths. My favorite moment was when he declared something “of no fundamental interest–well, it’s interesting to astronomers, but they’re interested in a lot of things.” (I am like astronomers in this.) I found the talk energizing and fascinating, ranging as it did across interaction strengths and neutrino masses, but the reaction of the people around me was frankly disheartening: they did not seem to follow what he was getting at.

Then came one of the stand-out first-rate blow-your-mind talks of the conference, one of the ones that moved me to tears, one of the talks that made me sad that standing ovations have become so common so that people do not feel the impact of it when I leap to my feet, because quite often people stand, particularly when they are about to leave for lunch. Harry Gray is the father of bio-inorganic chemistry. He is also, quite incidentally, a former professor of my friend Ctein, I learned later, but that had nothing to do with his talk, which was mostly about a thing he calls the Twenty-First Century Solar Army. And wow, wow, wow, wow. I came away a convert to Harry Gray’s Solar Army. If you know a teenager who’s interested in chemistry, Harry Gray will send them the materials they need to help participate on a genuinely useful level in this really cool project. They can help find two different catalysts, one for reducing and one for oxidizing, seawater, to use for clean hydrogen fuel. It’s explained very clearly on the website, and they’ll go into more detail if you’re interested and contact them. Harry Gray is the sort of person who is big enough that he doesn’t need to hog credit–he was giving names of specific high school and college students who have helped with breakthroughs, because he can, he needs to, he wants this to work, and he wants more help with it working. He talked about the range of things he wanted to try requiring either robots or students, and he preferred students because they’ll talk back and tell him when he’s wrong, and I went, oh, yes, you, you are the guy. (Although I’m hoping we’ll get robots there too someday. But that’s another Nobel Conference.) They did a really cool photo anode with an intercalated N2 in the middle of the WO3 that the referees of journals did not believe until they got confirmation from both Berkeley and Brookhaven because it was just too far “out there.” It’s great stuff. And you don’t have to be in the US to do it, he’ll take recruits to the Solar Army from anywhere and send them materials. The kids involved have started having their own conventions, SEAL-CONs, to talk about their work, and it’s been going on long enough that a lot of them are going on to work in the sciences as grad students or beyond. It was so wonderful. I ran into one of my old professors afterwards, and we were so excited that we hugged each other twice, and we’re both from here. So. Yeah. Solar Army, look into it, wonderful stuff.

Thank heavens lunch was between that and Jennifer L. West’s talk, because if there hadn’t been a substantial break, I’m not sure I could have coped. And West’s was the other talk that moved me to tears with how good it was. She led in with talking about matching the scale of the treatment to the scale of the medical problem. She touched on growing biomimetic patterned tissue to match certain types of cells (mostly thin/avascular cells) and the need to figure out how to grow capillaries on scaffolds. Then the main body of her talk was about nanoshells and their use in cancer treatments through photo-thermal therapy. These incredibly small silicon balls have finely determined shells of gold. They’re injected into the blood stream of cancer patients, and their size is selected such that they won’t be filtered out in the kidneys but will collect at the tumor sites due to the way tumors form blood vessels–basically, tumors are kind of crap at forming blood vessels and end up with leaky vaculature compared to normal cells, so if you get the size of your tiny nanoshell gold-and-silicon thing right, it will congregate in just the spot of the tumor. Then when you irradiate with light near the IR spectrum (650-900 nm), it’s harmless to the rest of the healthy tissue but causes rapid heating of the nanoshell (15 C hotter than surrounding tissue) and burns off only the tumor.

This. Is. Amazing.

They can adjust them to do either imaging (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to scatter the light) or therapy (with the thickness of the gold adjusted to absorb, as above with the rapid heating). So you can get a good idea of exactly where the tumor is without injecting tagging drugs, or you can just blast the sucker. The “blast the sucker” preliminary results are extremely good on breast cancer and brain cancer in the lab so far, and in clinical trials on head and neck, prostate, and lung cancers, with no bad side effects and really great rates of efficacy. They are also looking at extending to multimodal uses and doing CT imaging–they could do MR if they included gadolinium, too. You can also add a thermally responsive coating of a chemo drug to expel the drug when the laser is on, so that it gets delivered very directly to the tumor site, at which point I was gasping, “What do you mean more therapeutic modalities?” and muttering, “It slices, it dices, it juliennes.” It was all just so much and so cool.

She noted in the Q&A that the structure of brain tumors often breaks down the blood-brain barrier anyway, and that nanoshells can take advantage of this. She also noted that the designers had to be careful of the surface chemistry to minimize risk of emboli, but that this care was quite effective so far.

This was a couple weeks ago, so I did think of Velma. I thought of other friends with cancer, some for whom this treatment is not in time. But it just sounds like it will help so many people. I scribbled furiously as she talked about the potential applications in retinopathy and other problems. And I cried, because it was just so very wonderful. A few days later, a friend was Tweeting something about how “we’re not going to cure cancer, but we *can*” [some other charitable assistance]. And I thought, it’s not a zero-sum game. “Curing cancer” is not all one thing. We’re closer to helping a lot more cancer patients than we think, and those we can help, can go on and help with other things that need doing in the world. I understand that it can be frustrating when your cause is not as popular as some other cause, but like the man says, we all do better when we all do better, and guys, this is one of the things better looks like. This really is better.

Antonio Damasio started out by giving the aphorism, “Never tackle the problem of consciousness before you’re tenured.” Then he gave a list of different things people mean when they say “consciousness,” narrowing his own focus to the experience of subjectivity, which he tries to separate in study from the mind-making part of consciousness, and further separate the interior and exterior-directed mind-making bits. He talked about the body phantom, interoception, and brainstem nuclei structure. He also talked about myelination and the role of risk in consciousness. Finally, he brought up second-order maps and the possible role of reflexive looping in creating sensation awareness and consciousness. It was one of those things that I wanted to go back over again with the diagram of brainstem nuclei structure several times to make sure I had the details right, but it was very neat stuff, and he’s got several books and articles out that will be worth tracking down.

Patricia Smith Churchland was introduced as Manitoba’s punk rock neurophilosopher. She theorizes about the neurological basis of moral values and is very, very much against Richard Dawkins and his social theories. She hypothesized that oxytocin and vasopressin were the hub and basis of the system that built up into much more complicated social rewards and eventually social and moral values. She included the caveat that any category will have fuzzy boundaries and be socially influenced, so she was less interested in the edges between what’s social and what’s moral and more in the center of the concept. She talked a lot about the uses of oxytocin and vasopressin in nurturance and attachment in different kinds of mammalian brains and how simple these things aren’t, how they interact with dopamine and other chemicals in the brain and out of it. She also talked about some things we don’t know–the human density of oxytocin receptors, for example, and the fact that almost all experiments in this chemical set are done on men because oxytocin tends to send women into estrus, so…I will be interested in how this is handled in future studies, because it seems like it’s worth knowing. A lot of people early on wanted to just have snorting oxytocin be useful for something, or more oxytocin be better for attachment, (I have seen this in SF writers, so I wanted to note it here!), but there are issues with blood-brain barrier and with it having different effects all over the body or with tipping over into entirely different behaviors.

And then I went home and collapsed and absorbed it all. Wow, wow.

Nobel Conference 50: Where does science go from here? (Tuesday)

A couple weeks ago, I went down to my alma mater for an event they have annually: Nobel Conference. They get Nobel laureates and other cool scientists to come and give lectures around a particular theme for two days in early October. I used to love Nobel Conferences when I was a student, and they’re not just for students, not in the least. This year was the 50th anniversary conference, and as such they decided on a broader theme, the future of science. They brought back several favorite speakers from past Nobel Conferences, including inviting Freeman Dyson to be the banquet keynote speaker to finish the conference on Wednesday. Well. Freeman Dyson was my professor for a semester when I was at Gustavus, and he was a really lovely person. I was halfway talked into going when I was reading through the rest of the presenters, but when I got to him on the list, that was it: I had to go see him again.

Unfortunately, he was ill and couldn’t make it. But by then I’d already committed to doing it, and I’m so glad I did. Not only did I get to have lunch with my former advisor and see a couple of my other professors, I got to hear some really exciting lectures on a wide variety of topics. I also sat the first day with an earnest and wide-eyed high school student and the second day with some eager and fascinated old people, so that was fun too, the different people I ran into who were interested in coming together for this sort of thing. If you’re in the greater Minnesota-Wisconsin area–even northern Iowa, really–you should think about Nobel Conference. There’s nothing quite like it.

Steven Chu showed some very interesting graphs about costs, regulation, and energy, which did not do what economists predict or can explain at all. One of his interesting quotes was from Sheikh Ahmed Yamani, who said, “The Stone Age came to an end not for a lack of stones, and the oil age will end but not for a lack of oil.” He talked about room-temperature storage and long-distance transmission of energy from renewables (e.g. wind and solar) as major technical goals for the next chunk of time. He felt that his biggest successes were invisible to the public: recruitment and retention of scientists and engineers, especially those in their 40s, to this line of work, and to the National Academy of Science in particular. I didn’t mind not hearing about his original work in cooling and trapping atoms with laser light, because the stuff he’s done since has been interesting, too. I was definitely a Steven Chu fan by the end of his talk.

I wish I could say the same of Sir Harold Kroto. His original work on fullerenes was so impressive, I’d have loved to hear about that, but if not that, something else that was…not a rehash of every flat Atlantic or New Yorker article ever written on the subject of creativity, with a heaping helping of Kids These Days mixed in. Things are not as they were when Sir Harold was a youth, and Sir Harold does not approve! He’s not about to spend any time trying to understand, adjust, or God help us improve anything. He just does not approve! Some helpful person tried to steer him towards something, anything like a positive path in the Q&A session, and he was having none! Sadly I did not bring my cane, so I could not lend it to him to shake at some clouds. Seriously, what a disappointment. Fullerenes are so cool that even if you do nothing else interesting, you can always return to that–and should, if you have nothing else to other than harumphing.

With Sean B. Carroll, though, we were entirely back on track, and I am definitely looking for his book. He talked about the icefish, a creature that evolved to have plasma full of antifreeze that came from digestive enzymes. It’s one of less than a dozen vertebrates to lack red blood cells and absorb oxygen passively. This is the kind of random nerdy crap I really enjoy, and he went on to talk about more evolutionary examples in animal development, about European kestrels mutating to see in the UV instead of blue/violet and getting to see trails of vole urine as a result, because apparently vole urine is quite visible in the UV. Who knew! What lovely stuff. He also talked about the astonishing progress in restoring large species diversity at Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique. Exciting, inspiring stuff.

Svante Pääbo talked about early humans and the hominids lines who contributed to homo sapiens, and then the hominid lines who contributed to them. I think the best part of his talk was that when he was first at Nobel conference in 2008, he gave a firm date beyond which we probably wouldn’t know anything about hominid line contributions, and now, six years later, he was thoroughly willing to rescind that, talking about an older hominid line that we can see contributing to the Denisovans the way the Denisovans contributed to us, and he’s no longer willing to say, “Here is the date before which we won’t be able to say anything.” I just loved that. I loved watching knowledge extend just that fast that he stopped trying to say what we can’t know. And I loved that he could put up a list of all human-specific amino acids on one slide.

I left early from Gary Ernst’s talk; he was disorganized and breathless and kept circling back around points that were either staggeringly obvious or really alarming. (“Drilling for oil has been contaminating the groundwater for 150 years and nobody cared before,” is as direct a quote as I could write it down. I don’t even. Just–no.) He was the last talk of the day, and I was tired, so maybe his talk got better, but I did not stick around to find out. In a slate of ten panelists, having only two of them give bad talks and the other eight somewhere between good and transcendently great is an amazing ratio.

I have more to say here, and the two best talks, the ones where the science moved me to tears, are yet to come. But this is already getting long, so I should break it into two posts, so I will come back to Wednesday’s talks in my next Nobel Conference post.