Cell-cell communication…

From neuronal action potentials to cell signaling during embryogenesis, the communication between healthy cells is fascinating. And when it goes awry, very bad things happen (e.g. cytokine storms).

Outside the biomedical context, the subject matter of the details of cell-cell communication is of considerable interest. The NYT covers this wonderful article in SCIENCE today here. This is why places like the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole are so special–by studying non-model organisms (i.e. other than mouse, fruit fly or zebra fish) we gain insights from evolution on how these capabilities of cells came to be.

Why sending foreign students home hurts the US

The Trump administration has put forward a new executive order. The upshot is that foreign students at US colleges and universities, who as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, can’t take classes in person in the Fall, will loose their visa status.

This hurts the US in so many ways. First, those students are paying tuition. The loss of those dollars will be damaging to colleges exactly at they are suffering from massive financial losses from COVID19 related budget cuts. When our academic institutions are damaged, then the US itself is damaged because those institutions are the lifeblood of our innovation ecosystem–Silicon Valley’s proximity to Stanford is not accidental.

Second, those students, in the normal course of events, would return home with a likely positive view of the US: our academic institutions are still ranked top in the world. That won’t be the case if they are deported. So the US will loose one of its key sources of soft-power: foreign alumni of US universities. As importantly, we will loose the collective brain power of those students! Most folks don’t realize that its students (graduate and undergraduate) who conduct most of the research in this country. And it’s the creative collaboration between those students and their professors that is our country’s “secret sauce”. That’s why US science has historically been so good.

Finally, we loose some of the diversity that gives strength to higher education. Our graduates will still need to compete globally. An education in isolation, is an impoverished one.

Getting around censorship of journalism….

By hiding articles within the Minecraft computer game, story here. Key point: anyone can read, but no one can change the content. Hat tip to the Scifoo Alumni group.

Which brings me to the point of information control. Certainly in the scientific literature, we want content open and available–but we also want it to be accurate with regards to methods and data. But errors need to be corrected promptly, so as with software provenance (and GitHub), the evolution of changes need to be trackable.

The affect of COVID19 on single parent scientists….

My wife and I have been discussing how the pandemic will affect professional women differentially as child care and home schooling eat into the time that could be devoted to “leaning in”. And then there’s this piece on the CNN website today about a grad student who is a single parent. I’ve seen some slight accommodations from universities in terms of tenure clocks. That’s not enough if we aren’t going to put the next generation of women scientists at risk.

What would be the right policy prescriptions for the current situation?

Quantum Mechanics for non-physicists

In tomorrow’s NYT Magazine, by Bob Henderson, here. Actually way more interesting than my title. It’s about the effort to separate QM from the requirement for a human “observer” that is experimental and being funded by the European Commission. Braver in a sense that NSF funding LIGO, although far less expensive. The article stands out for it’s success at describing quite a lot of QM in non-mathematical plain English.

Is a virus alive?

This is actually a question in science. On the one hand, a virus is a set of instructions wrapped up in an envelope. So in that sense, it’s a lot like a computer virus: not alive.

On the other hand, the instructions are quite complicated and not only allow for reproduction (using the host’s cellular machinery) but also “stealthing” technologies for eluding the host’s immune system. So that sounds very much like a living thing, right?

Finally, actually many viruses (like SARS-CoV2) actually have functional proteins that are in addition to the instructions and the envelope. For the current novel coronavirus, the spike protein, is the viral key that opens the host cellular lock, angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). So that’s also very “alive”.

The Navy UFO videos….

These are declassified videos released in April. I’ve been thinking about these for a while because they appear to be real. Are they real aliens? Not necessarily. But they are real physical phenomena that need to be explained scientifically. Lots has been written on-line about them. It would be useful to think about taking the observations themselves and, as astronomers do, setting physical constraints on the processes that could have produced the data–including technical artifact, but also allowing for the data to be artifact free.

How would we design a science program around this data? How would we collect more data? What sorts of data (beyond black and white gun camera video) should be collected?

Avoiding nuclear war…

There’s this op ed in today’s NYT by former Secretary of Defense Perry and Tom Collina. It’s worth a read because it’s a no-brainer in my opinion and would make the planet a lot safer. The notion that one individual should be trusted with the power to kill the biosphere of our planet is a bad one. Shame on Harry Truman for claiming it.


That stands for American Association of University Professors. They are the collective bargaining unit for many of my colleagues across the country at schools where the faculty are unionized. Not here at George Mason, but still the local chapter is very active. Yesterday, after more than two decades at my university, I attended my first AAUP event (virtually of course). It was a very positive experience.

Why? First, it’s heartening to have an organization that exists to protect your role in the labor force. At yesterday’s meeting, there were conversations about COVID19, protection of faculty intellectual property and work-load expectations. You don’t get that stuff so much at faculty meetings. Or at least, when there are administrators in the room, it’s a very different tone.

Second, AAUP’s primary historical role has been to protect the idea of academic freedom in American colleges and universities. This is why tenure came to be in the first place: to protect faculty from being fired because of their political views or their scholarship. As a tenured faculty member, this is something I value a lot.

I remember hearing about the organization from my faculty member parents both at Michigan and Caltech. They were both very enamored with both the idea of a faculty union and its practical day-to-day function. I think I am also.