Weekend Coffee: CRISPR

Double Helix

For decades, we've understood the structure and function of DNA. But this immensely powerful knowledge has led to surprisingly few practical breakthroughs. Our ability to alter the genomes of living things has been painfully limited, progress frustratingly slow and elusive. However, that all may be about to change, thanks to a new technology taken from nature: a genetic system called CRISPR.CRISPR was an initially-mysterious string of repeating DNA sequences, discovered in bacteria decades … [Read more...]

Movie Review: The Martian


Content note: Contains some spoilers.It says something about our era that so many of the most popular movies and TV shows are grim, depressing stories of disaster and dystopia. Is it a reflection of the popular mood? A sign that we've lost hope in ourselves and our ability to achieve great things? Why are there so few works of culture which make us feel optimistic, which tell us that better days are ahead?This weekend, I saw a movie that's a welcome exception to that gloomy trend: Ridley … [Read more...]

The White Man Non-Culpability Squad


There was some rare good news on the sexual-harassment front last week, with the news that Geoff Marcy has resigned. Marcy is a scientific pioneer in the field of exoplanet astronomy, who's often been mentioned as a potential Nobel laureate. He's also long been trailed by rumors of inappropriate, predatory behavior toward women. According to a former graduate student, now Harvard professor, John Asher Johnson:"What's really infuriating about this is that anybody of my generation in the … [Read more...]

Blood Moon Lunacy, or the Virtue of Vagueness


On Sunday night, I went out to see the "super blood moon" eclipse. It was a clear autumn night, and I got a good view of the Earth's shadow spreading across the Moon, like a dark slice taken out of a white sea. When the eclipse reached totality, the Moon's face dimmed to a ruddy polished-copper color, glimmering with, as Phil Plait puts it, the reflected light of every sunset on Earth.This was the fourth and final in a series of total lunar eclipses last year and this year. It was also a … [Read more...]

Book Review: 1491


Summary: Like a watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken.It's a common belief that, when Europeans first encountered them, the Native Americans were living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle scarcely changed from that of the earliest humans. This idea spans the political spectrum: from those on the left, who idealize indigenous people as living a purer, simpler life in harmony with nature, to those on the right, like Ayn Rand, who called them "savages" and cheered colonial settlers … [Read more...]

The Strange Tale of Rose Marks


Last month, I wrote about whether we should pity the victims of the prosperity gospel and argued that, unlike in cases of outright fraud or coercion, their poor decisions are their own. There were several responses, such as this post by Russell Glasser, that took a more sympathetic view, arguing that most people who fall prey to this hustle can't be expected to know better.To be sure, lack of education and lifelong immersion in a religious faith that treats such claims as normal are surely … [Read more...]

When Rationalists Reinvent Religion


I enjoyed this story by Dylan Matthews on Vox about effective altruism, an idea I'm all in favor of and wanted to say more about.EA is the philosophy that we should use science, rather than warm fuzzy feelings or guesswork, to direct our charitable giving where it will do the most good. Compared to the enormous need in the world, the amount of money and energy available for charity is small to begin with, and too many of those scarce and precious dollars and volunteer hours have been … [Read more...]

The World in the Dark


Human beings have always been explorers, and this week, we pushed the boundaries of our exploration one step further. NASA's far-roving New Horizons spacecraft has completed the most important phase of its mission, making the first-ever close-up observations of Pluto.New Horizons was launched on January 19, 2006 (which means the mission is just a bit older than this blog!). It's flown a nine-year, three-billion-mile course through the solar system, making its closest approach to Pluto on … [Read more...]

The Pope’s Laudato: So Close And Yet So Far


Pope Francis has issued an encyclical, Laudato Si, which warns about the grave danger of climate change and calls on Catholics to take urgent action to combat it. Lest I be accused of ignoring something actually good that religion has done, here are my thoughts.I'm glad for this statement, I really am, and I want to say that without hesitation. Climate change is the greatest threat looming over human civilization, and it's heartening to see anyone with influence speak out about it. I've … [Read more...]

Debunking the Bible’s Gender Binary

Christian fundamentalists who oppose same-sex marriage, or who attack the identities of transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner, tend to cite one biblical verse more than any other:"So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them."—Genesis 1:27 (KJV)Christians who cite this passage, like San Francisco archbishop Salvatore Cordileone or the Duggars' pastor Ronnie Floyd, use it to support their belief in separate and … [Read more...]