One of the remarkable things science has learned about our planet is that the continents are moving as a result of geological forces acting in our oceans. Although the idea of continental drift was first proposed in the early 20th century, it was not until the 1960s that geologists and others fully recognized that the continents were moving. I still remember walking across the campus of my graduate university in 1965 after having just read a scientific paper that said that it was proven that plate tectonics existed. A recent article in Science magazine acknowledged a scientist, Dr. Marie Tharp, who worked to produce a map of the Atlantic Ocean showing a V-shaped ridge that she proposed was the result of the North American and European continents drifting apart. When Dr. Tharp explained her finding to her male colleague, it was dismissed as “girl talk.” Dr. Tharp was also prevented from boarding ships that were collecting information about the ocean floor, although she carefully analyzed these data to produce the maps that showed the movements of the continents. This is one of many sad stories about the bad treatment of women scientists. Dr. Tharp was a persistent scientist who made important discoveries about our planet. All male scientists should recognize that women can be just as good as they are, and that their hypotheses and results should be carefully considered.
One of the important results of developing technology to manipulate DNA is that it might be used to deal with human diseases that we have not been able to treat so far. For example, progeria is a genetic disease that results in remarkable early aging that causes the deaths of children by the age of 14 from the same problems, stroke or heart attack, that cause the death of old adults. Children with progeria look very different from normal kids. These young people are very thin, grow slowly, are bald with wrinkled skin and other problems mostly affecting old adults. A woman scientist, Dr. Leslie Gordon at Brown University, who had a son with progeria has joined in the creation of the Progeria Research Foundation (https://www.progeriaresearch.org/). Check out their website to see photos of children with progeria. Progeria is caused by a mutation in the gene coding for a protein that is critical for the functioning of the nucleus of cells where DNA is located. A recent article in Nature Medicine (https://www.nature.com/articles/nm0705-718) reports experiments to treat mice that have a mutation in the progeria gene. These scientists used a new gene editing technology to change a single base in one strand of DNA in mice with the progeria mutation. Mice that were treated using the new technology lived almost twice as long as the untreated ones. Dr. Gordon at the Progeria Research Foundation wants to see clinical trials of this technology on children with progeria. Hopefully this will happen soon.
Patterns of attraction
Do you wonder how you identify your friends and their characteristics that you find attractive? A group of scientists in Korea and the University of California in L.A. have recently published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences about the characteristics of people’s friends. We used to think that what we told others about our personalities was the basis for developing friendships. It turns out that this is not consistent across friendships. The scientists studied people in a small village who reported their personalities and whose brains were studied using methods to detect connections between parts of the brain. These connection patterns are consistent over time in individuals and neuroscientists have shown that they are good predictors of how people think and behave. People’s brains in this village were examined while they were not being stimulated. It was discovered that people who were friends with each other had similar connection patterns in their brains. Another remarkable result was that the demographic characteristics of people, such as wealth, family origins and so forth, were not as predictive of friendships as their brain connections. This raises the question that I have written about before, and that is do we really have free will? After watching all the political events that have frightened us recently, one really has to wonder about this, and if it is true. And if so, how should our democracy be structured to account for it?
Rollin Richmond is an emeritus professor of biology and emeritus president at Humboldt State University. He has worked as an evolutionary geneticist at several universities during his career. (Full disclosure: He happens to be responsible for 50 percent of Times-Standard publisher John Richmond’s genetic makeup.) Questions or comments about this column can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.