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Though there is a paucity of equations, particularly on the information theoretic side, Loewenstein does a fantastic job of discussing the theory and philosophy of what is going on in the overlapping fields of information theory and microbiology. (I will note that it is commonly held wisdom within publishing, particularly for books for the broader public, that the number of equations in a text is inversely proportional to the number of sales and I’m sure this is the reason for the lack of mathematical substantiation which he could easily have supplied.)
This is a much more specific and therefore much better – in my mind – book than John Avery’s Information Theory and Evolution which covers some similar ground. Loewenstein has a much better and more specific grasp of the material in my opinion. Those who feel overwhelmed by Loewenstein may prefer to take a step back to Avery’s more facile presentation.
Loewenstein has a deft ability to describe what is going on and give both an up-close view with many examples as well as a spectacular view of the broader picture – something which is often missing in general science books of this sort. Readers with no mathematical or microbiology background can benefit from it as much as those with more experience.
One thing which sets it apart from much of its competition, even in the broader general science area of non-fiction, is that the author has a quirky but adept ability to add some flowery language and analogy to clarify his points. Though many will find this off-putting, it really does add some additional flavor to what might be dry and dull explication to many. His range of background knowledge, philosophy and vocabulary are second only (and possibly even on par or exceeding in some cases) that of Simon Winchester.
I’d highly recommend this book to people prior to their academic studies of biochemistry or molecular cell biology or to budding biomedical engineers prior to their junior year of study. I truly wish I had read this in 1994 myself, but alas it didn’t exist until a few years after. I lament that I hadn’t picked it up and been able to read it thoroughly until now.
For my part, his drastically differing viewpoint of the way in which biology should be viewed moving forward, is spot on. I am firmly a member of this new “school”. His final chapter on this concept is truly illuminating from a philosophical and theoretical view and I encourage people to read it first instead of last.
I’ll also note briefly that I’ve seen some reviews of this book which make mention of creationism or intelligent design and whether or not proponents of those philosophies feel that Loewenstein’s work here supports them or not, particularly since Loewenstein appeared on a panel with Dembski once. I will state for those who take a purely scientific viewpoint of things, that this book is written in full support of evolution and microbiology and doesn’t use the concept of “information” to muddy the waters the way many ID arguments are typically made.Syndicated copies to:
Genie: That’s not in my power to give.
RNA: Grant me then at least a wish?
Genie: (laughing) One wish?
RNA: Yes, only one.
Genie: Go ahead…
RNA: (with great wile and guile) Make me thrifty.
Genie: (with a cherry nod and a wink) Granted!
RNA: Thank you!
…and the RNA lived forever after.Syndicated copies to:
David Christian, a trained historian, is one of the leading proponents of the relatively new concept of Big History, which I view as a sea-change in the way humans will begin to view not only the world but our place in it and what we might expect to come in the future. His work presents a truly monumental and profound thesis and a drastically new framework for where humankind fits into the universe. Of the broad variety of works I’ve read in the past several decades, it is simply one of the most interesting and cohesive theses I’ve come across, and I highly and unreservedly recommend it to everyone I know. I’d put it on par or above works like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist among others for its broad impact on how I now view the world. For scientists and researchers it has the potential to be the philosophical equivalent of The Bible and in fact, like many religious texts, it is in effect a modern day “creation myth,” albeit one with a scientific underpinning.
Christian’s work was initially brought to my attention by an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jeffrey R. Young in which he mentioned that Bill Gates was a big fan of Christian’s work and had recommended it himself at a TED conference. (Gates is now also a financial supporter of Christian’s Big History Project.) I myself was aware of the Learning Company’s generally excellent coursework offerings and within a few weeks got an audio copy of the course of forty-eight lectures to listen to on my daily commute.
I’ve now devoured both his rather large text on the subject as well as a lecture series he created for a course on the subject. Below are brief reviews of the two works.The magnum written opus Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History is an interesting change of reference from a historical perspective combining the disciplines of physics, cosmology, astronomy, geology, chemistry, microbiology, evolutionary theory, archaeology, politics, religion, economics, sociology, and history into one big area of contiguous study based upon much larger timescales than those traditionally taken in the study of historical time periods. Though it takes pieces from many disciplines, it provides for an interesting, fresh, and much needed perspective on who humans are and their place in not only the world, but the entire universe.
By looking at history from a much broader viewpoint (billions of years versus the more common decades or even just a few centuries) one comes away with a drastically different perspective on the universe and life.
I’d highly recommend this to any general reader as early as they can find time to read through it, particularly because it provides such an excellent base for a variety of disciplines thereby better framing their future studies. I wish I had been able to read this book in the ninth or tenth grade or certainly at the latest by my freshman year in college – alas the general conception of the topic itself didn’t exist until after I had graduated from university.
Although I have significant backgrounds in most, if not all, of the disciplines which comprise the tapestry of big history, the background included in the book is more than adequate to give the general reader the requisite introductions to these subjects to make big history a coherent subject on its own.
This could be an extremely fundamental and life-changing book for common summer reading programs of incoming college freshman. If I could, I would make it required reading for all students at the high school level. Fortunately Bill Gates and others are helping to fund David Christian’s work to help introduce it more broadly at the high school and other educational levels.
Within David Christian’s opus, there is also a collection of audio lectures produced by The Learning Company as part of their Great Courses series which I listened to as well. The collection of forty-eight lectures is entitled Big History: The Big Bang, Life on Earth, and the Rise of Humanity (Great Courses, Course No. 8050). It provides a much quicker philosophical overview of the subject and doesn’t delve as deeply into the individual disciplines as the text does, but still provides a very cohesive presentation of the overall thesis. In fact, for me, the introduction to the topic was much better in these audio lectures than it was in the written book. Christian’s lecture style is fantastic and even better than his already excellent writing style.
In the audio lectures Christian highlights eight major thresholds which he uses as a framework by which to view the 13.4 billion years of history which the Universe has presently traversed. Then within those he uses the conceptualization of disparities in power/energy as the major driving forces/factors in history in a unique and enlightening way which provides a wealth of perspective on almost every topic (scientific or historical) one can consider. This allows one to see parallels and connections between seemingly disparate topics like the creations of stars and the first building of cities or how the big bang is similar to the invention of agriculture.
I can easily say that David Christian’s works on big history are some of the most influential works I’ve ever come across – and having experienced them, I can never see our universe in the same naive way again.
For those interested in taking a short and immediate look at Christian’s work, I can recommend his Ted Talk “The History of Our World in 18 Minutes” which only begins to scratch the surface of his much deeper and profound thesis:
Given how profound the topic of big history is, I’m sure I’ll be writing about and referring to it often. Posts in relation to it can be found here with the tag: “big history“.
- 03/11/2011 marked as: want to read after reading Bill Gates Promotes Professor’s Online Course at TED by Jeffrey R. Young in The Chronicle of Higher Education
- 08/26/11 started reading
- 08/27/11 5.0% done on page 34 of 668
- 03/01/12 5.0% done or on page 35 of 668; “Reread some of the beginning this morning as I get back into David Christian’s audio lectures.”
- 04/28/12 9.0% done on page 60 of 668
- 04/30/12 11.0% done
- 05/03/12 14.0% done
- 05/05/12 18.0% done
- 05/23/12 35.0% done
- 06/02/12 40.0% done
- 06/14/12 52.0% done
- 06/17/12 60.0% done; “Technically finished reading, but need to still go through the endnotes.”
- 10/21/12 Finished book
Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
Guide to highlight colors
Yellow–general highlights and highlights which don’t fit under another category below
Orange–Vocabulary word; interesting and/or rare word
Green–Reference to read
Red–Example to work through
Editor’s Note: Data relating to reading progress was added to this post on 10/21/16. Data relating to highlights, quotes, and marginalia added on 10/23/16.Syndicated copies to:
Adami’s work is along similar lines to some of my own research. This short video gives an intriguing look into some of the basics of how to define life so that one can recognize it when one sees it. Syndicated copies to:
This is a fantastic book which, for the majority of people, I’d give a five star review. For my own purposes, however, I was expecting far more on the theoretical side of information theory and statistical mechanics as applied to microbiology that it didn’t live up to, so I’m giving it three stars from a purely personal perspective.
I do wish that someone had placed it in my hands and forced me to read it when I was a freshman in college entering the study of biomedical and electrical engineering. It is far more an impressive book at this level and for those in the general public who are interested in the general history of science and philosophy of the topics. The general reader may be somewhat scared by a small amount of mathematics in chapter 4, but there is really no loss of continuity by skimming through most of it. For those looking for a bit more rigor, Avery provides some additional details in appendix A, but for the specialist, the presentation is heavily lacking.
The book opens with a facile but acceptable overview of the history of the development for the theory of evolution whereas most other texts would simply begin with Darwin’s work and completely skip the important philosophical and scientific contributions of Aristotle, Averroes, Condorcet, Linnaeus, Erasmus Darwin, Lamarck, or the debates between Cuvier and St. Hilaire.
For me, the meat of the book was chapters 3-5 and appendix A which collectively covered molecular biology, evolution, statistical mechanics, and a bit of information theory, albeit from a very big picture point of view. Unfortunately the rigor of the presentation and the underlying mathematics were skimmed over all too quickly to accomplish what I had hoped to gain from the text. On the other hand, the individual sections of “suggestions for further reading” throughout the book seem well researched and offer an acceptable launching pad for delving into topics in places where they may be covered more thoroughly.
The final several chapters become a bit more of an overview of philosophy surrounding cultural evolution and information technology which are much better covered and discussed in James Gleick’s recent book The Information.
Overall, Avery has a well laid out outline of the broad array of subjects and covers it all fairly well in an easy to read and engaging style.
- Started book on 07/11/11
- Finished book on 08/14//11
The Organizing Committee invites you to attend the 18th International C. elegans Meeting, sponsored by the Genetics Society of America. The meeting will be held June 22 – 26, 2011 at the University of California, Los Angeles campus. The meeting will begin on Wednesday evening, June 22 at 7:00 pm and will end on Sunday, June 26 at 12:00 noon. On Friday, June 24 at 5:00 pm there will be a Keynote Address by Joseph Culotti, Samuel Lunenfeld Research Institute, Toronto, Canada
This is a great short article on bioengineering and synthetic biology written for the layperson. It’s also one of the best crash courses I’ve read on genetics in a while.
Does where you live have an impact on your overhall health? Bill Davenhall believes that the location of our homes is critical to our medical history.
This is a great thing to think about the next time your doctor asks for your medical history. Perhaps with more data and a better visualization of it, it may bring home the messages of pollution and global warming.
Imagine having your back cut open, part of your spine removed, a stabilizing device that resembles a mini oil rig mounted on your back, the outer membrane of your spinal cord sliced open and experimental stem cells injected into it -- all for the advancement of science because it's not expected to benefit you.
Another article announcing the first stem cells being transplanted into a human patient in the United States. I worked with the researchers and surgeon in this experiment and built the microinjectors that were used in the lead up experiments as well as for this first patient.
Syndicated copies to:
Atlanta, Georgia — Imagine having your back cut open, part of your spine removed, a stabilizing device that resembles a mini oil rig mounted on your back, the outer membrane of your spinal cord sliced open and experimental stem cells injected into it — all for the advancement of science because it’s not expected to benefit you.
John Cornick, 51, did just that earlier this month as part of a groundbreaking clinical trial.
Almost a year ago, Cornick was told he had ALS — better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The diagnosis left him “fairly devastated,” he says.
He knew the prospects were grim because there is no cure.
But John wasn’t giving up so quickly, nor was his wife, Gina.
“I knew he was a fighter from the beginning and he really wanted to do something,” Gina Cornick says. She found information about a clinical trial on online and immediately signed him up, even though she had no idea where it was being held.
ALS destroys the nerve cells in the brain and spine which control muscle movement. When the brain can no longer tell muscles to move, they eventually die, depriving the patient of the ability to move arms and legs and eventually breathe.
The goal of this phase 1 trial is to determine whether fetal stem cells can safely be injected into the spinal cord. Ultimately, researchers hope to show that these cells may slow or halt the progression of the fatal disease.
But for now, the only goal is establishing safety.
The Cornicks live in North Carolina, just a few hours from Atlanta, Georgia’s Emory University, the site of the trial. It is the first FDA-approved clinical trial to inject fetal stem cells directly into the spinal cord of an adult.
Dr. Jonathan Glass, director of Emory’s ALS center, is overseeing the trial. Cornick and two previous patients in the trial are heroes, says Glass, because at this point, the trial will likely produce only information, not results.
“In reality what do these patients have? Time, families and their life and we’re putting all of these at risk,” says Glass.
Dr. Lucie Bruijn, science director of the ALS Association, says the progress being made in this clinical trial is exciting. “We’ve been able to move it forward … from animal testing now into actual patients.” The treatment had not been tried in humans before.
Glass hopes this trial will lead to a new form of treatment for people with ALS. “We’re testing multiple things: We’re testing the safety of the surgery; we’re testing the cells; we’re testing immunosuppressants[because scientists do not know whether the body will reject the cells].” They are also testing how well Cornick handles this major surgical procedure, says Glass.
“After we’re finished with the first 12 or 18 patients we will know whether this is surgery that patients can tolerate.”
As he was prepped for surgery, Cornick was hopeful but realistic. “Well, of course you’d like to get up and walk … but I know that’s not going to happen.”
The stem cells used in the surgery are shipped overnight from Maryland, where Neuralstem, the company funding the trial, is based. The stem cells’ source is donated tissue from the spinal cord of an 8-week old aborted fetus, which was donated to the company. The company has developed a method that enables growth of millions of stem cells from this single source of human nerve stem cells.
Before the surgery can begin, a technician at Emory has to verify that a majority of stem cells made it to Atlanta alive. At least 70 percent have to be viable. In this case three samples under the microscope showed 85 percent of the cells arrived alive.
Lead researcher Dr. Eva Feldman, a neurologist at the University of Michigan, designed the trial just four years ago. After a lot of animal testing, her team determined that using fetal nerve stems rather than human embryonic or adult stem cells (such as bone marrow stem cells) was most effective, she says.
Stem cells have the ability to turn into different cells in the body. However, human embryonic stem cells, which come from 4- or 5-day-old embryos, also been found to sometimes turn into cancer cells. Fetal stem cells, such as those used in this trial, are a few weeks older and have already taken on a specific identity — in this case nerve cells.
Feldman says the fetal stem cells used in this trial did not become any of the unwanted cell types. “That’s very, very important,” she says.
Animal testing also proved very useful when it came to figuring out how to actually inject the stem cells. Emory University’s neurosurgeon Dr. Nicholas Boulis invented the device that holds the needle that injects the stem cells. The goal is to inject the cells without injuring the spine and causing even more paralysis. He practiced on 100 pigs before attempting the procedure on a human.
Boulis says it’s critical that the injection be done in a very slow and controlled way.
“If you inject quickly, you’re going to create pressure at the head of the needle and that can cause damage,” Boulis says. That pressure can also inflate an area in the spinal cord which could cause the stem cells to seep back out of the cord when the needle is pulled out, he says. “So by pumping [cells] in slowly you have more security that you are not going to have reflux and you’re not going to have damage.”
Dr. Jeffrey Rothstein, who heads the ALS research center at Johns Hopkins University and is not connected to this trial, said work on this method is a big achievement. “This is purely about how to surgically deliver cellular therapy to spinal cord,” he says. “It’s never been done before.”
After the spinal cord was exposed, the injections began. Cornick got five — each one contains about 100,000 stem cells.
The four-and-a-half hour surgery went smoothly, Boulis, says. “There were no surprises.”
A day after surgery, Cornick was lying flat in a hospital bed, chatting and laughing with some friends from North Carolina.
One week after surgery, he says he felt amazingly well and was still hopeful the cells would do some good for him.
Two weeks later Cornick’s stitches were removed and he was able to drive home. But he will be making frequent visits back to Atlanta as Glass and his team continue to monitor him.
Neuralstem’s Chief Scientific Officer Karl Johe says after the trial’s safety board reviews all existing data, including Cornick’s results, a fourth patient can be treated with the stem cells.
“Patients Four, Five and Six will receive twice as many [stem cell] injections,” Johe says. They will get five more injections on the other side of the spinal cord compared with Cornicks’s surgery.
Cornick expects the researchers will follow his progress for a long time. He says he understands the need for people to be willing to participate in experimental research like this.
“For me it just seemed like the right thing to do. I almost felt I had an obligation to do this,” he says. “To help other people and myself.”
For the first time in the United States, stem cells have been directly injected into the spinal cord of a patient, researchers announced Thursday.
A recent article announcing the first stem cells being transplanted into a human patient in the United States. I worked with the researchers and surgeon in this experiment and built the microinjectors that were used in the lead up experiments as well as for this first patient.
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) — For the first time in the United States, stem cells have been directly injected into the spinal cord of a patient, researchers announced Thursday.
Doctors injected stem cells from 8-week-old fetal tissue into the spine of a man in his early 60s who has advanced, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It was part of a clinical trial designed to determine whether it is safe to inject stem cells into the spinal cord and whether the cells themselves are safe.
ALS is a fatal neurodegenerative disease that causes the deterioration of specific nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord called motor neurons, which control muscle movement. About 30,000 Americans have ALS at any given time, according to the ALS Association.
There is no cure for ALS, which is better known asdisease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman and Hall of Famer who retired from baseball in the 1930s after being diagnosed with the disease.
As the illness progresses, patients lose their ability to walk, talk and breathe. Patients usually die within two to five years of diagnosis, according the ALS Association.
Neuralstem Inc., a Rockville, Maryland-based biotech company, received approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to conduct the clinical trial in September. The company is fully funding the research and provides the stem cells that are being injected into the patients.
Neuralstem announced the start of the clinical trial in a news release Thursday.
Longtime ALS researcher and University of Michigan neurologist Dr. Eva Feldman is overseeing the first human clinical trial of a stem cell treatment in ALS patients.
“We are entering a new era of cell therapeutics for ALS, and in my opinion, it is an new era of hope for patients with ALS,” Feldman said.
At least 12 patients are expected to participate in this early research. They are to receive the stem cell transplants at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
“This is the first study to see if the invasive injection into the spinal cord is safe for the patient,” said Lucie Bruijn, science director of the ALS Association.
This first patient in the clinical trial received several injections of stem cells into the lumbar region of the spinal cord, the area that controls leg function, because most ALS patients first lose muscle function in their legs, according to Karl Johe, Neuralstem’s chairman and chief scientific officer.
Bruijn says there have been a few other occasions outside the United States in which fetalhave been injected into a patient, “but not necessarily using a very [rigorous] trial design.” She adds that there were also a couple of small studies in Italy that injected other types of stem cells into a few patients but that this is the first FDA-approved trial in the United States.
“Our biggest hope for stem cells is to significantly slow the progression the disease,” Bruijn said.
The ALS Association is not providing funding for this clinical trial, but it has supported the work of Dr. Nick Boulis, the Emory neurosurgeon who developed the surgical technique used to inject the stem cells.
Johe invented the technology that allows the company to manufacture billions of copies of stem cells that are taken from a single source of spinal cord cells: cells that were extracted from fetal tissue, which was donated to the company.
“The cells are human neural stem cells,” Johe said, acknowledging that the introduction of stem cells is a very invasive procedure.
“What we are attempting is a novel approach by directly injecting them into the middle of the spinal cord, which to our knowledge has never been done before,” Johe said.
Researchers plan to follow this and future patients participating in this trial for a long time to determine the safety of the procedure.
These particular stem cells — which came from the spinal cord of an 8-week-old fetus — are neural stem cells, which have the ability to turn into different types of nerve cells. These are not the same stem cells as the controversial human embryonic stem cells, which destroy the embryo when the stem cells are removed.
Johe says that once the safety of this type of transplant is determined, he and his colleagues hope to see whether this is a possible treatment for ALS.
“This is not a cure. We are not replacing those motor neurons [nerve cells which tell muscles to contract]. These stem cells don’t generate motor neurons. Instead they protect the still-functioning motor neurons,” Johe explained.
Bruijn says that injecting stem cells into the spinal cord — in the region where the motor neurons are located that affect ALS — is a breakthrough. But she cautions that this is only the first step in the first part of this clinical trial. It’s too early to draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of this treatment, especially since the trial has only just begun.
She notes that everyone involved with the study and other ALS patients have to wait and see what the results of the clinical trial will be.
The FDA granted the first approval for injecting human embryonic stem cells into humans to Menlo Park, California-based Geron Corporation in January 2009. Their trials were expected to start last summer but have yet to begin.