Categories / Science

My genetic future

For the August issue of Men’s Journal, I volunteered as an early guinea pig for a genome scanning service offered by the California-based company Navigenics. My genetic proclivity towards any of a couple dozen diseases was less than depressing but mildly alarming — and perhaps also completely unreliable. Here’s a .pdf of the story.

Navigenics and another genetic testing company, 23andMe, both just obtained their official licenses to operate in California.

The life of a surf bum physicist, PhD

In the latest May issue of Outside, I have a feature-length profile of Garrett Lisi, a physicist who came up with a potential unifying theory of physics while living in a van on Maui. (The piece is out on newsstands but not yet online.) The very bare bones of his theory, which he first published last November, involve fitting together the four forces of physics — the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force, the weak nuclear force, and gravity — into an incredibly intricate shape called E8. Lisi was a challenging guy to capture, mostly because the ideas behind his theory are largely unintelligible to the almost anyone who (like me) lacks some — if not extensive — higher-level study of physics. It was clear as soon as I started delving into it that the stories hyping Lisi as “the next Einstein,” or what have you, were doing so with only the flimsiest of notions of whether he is, or even could be, right.

Interestingly, Lisi himself pretty much seemed to feel the same way. He was ambitious in his aims but modest about his chances of succeeding. As he told me — and several extremely accomplished academic physicists agreed — his theory had at best maybe a 5% chance of being at least partly right. So I ended up trying to play around with this notion of “the next Einstein” (as you can see in the cover line) and use it to focus in on what I found most fascinating about Lisi: that despite his ambitions, he refuses to compromise his lifestyle.

It was also interesting to see the divide among physicists when Lisi started showing up in the media last fall. On the one hand, the surprisingly caustic world of physics blogs made quite a show over having to waste precious time debunking such a crank. On the other, I talked to quite a few physicists (including a Nobel Prize winner) who said some version of, “hey, he’s probably not right, but he’s got some good ideas and does proper math, so who cares if he gets a bit too much press? New ideas are always for the good.” Which struck me — at least as an outsider to the community — as a healthier approach. In any case, no physicist who had actually bothered to talk to Lisi actually thought he even remotely approached being a crank. In fact, they all seemed to kind of admire his outsider approach. He certainly wouldn’t be the first physicist to make contributions working outside of academia.

Saga of a dinosaur CAT scan

dsc_0015_sm.JPGI made a rare foray into daily news over the weekend, with a story posted at Wired online about the discovery of a dinosaur “mummy.” (In quotes as it’s a naturally preserved dino, not mummified in the sense of ancient Egypt; so don’t get excited you old-earth creationist folks.) The short piece was actually many months in the making, although it might not look it. I found out about the discovery from National Geographic Television over the summer but have had to keep it under my hat since then.

dsc_0007_sm.JPGBack in June, I flew down to Boeing’s research office, in the hills outside of Canoga Park, near Los Angeles, to observe the dinosaur heading into the company’s giant CT scanner. It didn’t go exactly as planned. The researchers, led by Phil Manning from the University of Manchester, had trucked the body from South Dakota, only to discover that they’d built a frame around it too wide to spin on the CT bed. As a result, most of the day was spent hacking and sawing away at the corners of the dino’s plaster, trying to shrink it enough to fit. Read More

The NPR double

A little late posting this, but I made a pair of appearances on National Public Radio recently, both times discussing the ins and outs of cellulosic ethanol based on my Wired piece. Both shows are archived for your listening pleasure:

First off, “Talk of the Nation Science Friday,” on October 5.

Followed by “Fair Game,” November 15.