Psychology cleans up its act, plus biohackers embrace gene editing, CRISPR, cyborgs


You’d think that the just-published Science paper, recounting a massive  attempt at replication of 100 selected research projects published in the top psychology journals in 2008, would be cause for much beating of breasts. It showed that only a little more than a third of the papers came up with results consistent with the original study the researchers were trying to confirm. Joel Achenbach describes the findings and the background with his usual cogency at Speaking of Science.

On its face the finding sounds like a disaster, not just for psychology but for the already-battered image of science and the validity of the scientific method. And indeed, low replication rates have been reported for other fields of science too.

brain psychology

But so far much of the commentary on the psychology paper is determinedly looking on the bright side. Christian Jarrett’s post for the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest is typical.

Jarrett concluded, “This may sound like a disappointing day for psychology, but in fact really the opposite is true. Through the Reproducibility Project, psychology and psychologists are blazing a trail, helping shed light on a problem that afflicts all of science, not just psychology.”

Just last week the fine science journalist Christie Aschwanden assured readers at FiveThirtyEight that science isn’t broken.  The hed on her post reporting on the new paper carries on with that theme, adding a redemptive twist: “The Scientific Method: Psychology Is Starting To Deal With Its Replication Problem.”

To be fair, there’s truth in that hed. The replication study was an immense project involving hundreds of scientists seeking to identify problems with the research in their field and do something about them. But there are other efforts too.

One example: A dozen journals are participating in the Registered Reports project, a procedure for reviewing and accepting research project proposals before data are collected. This could help cut down on publication bias–the inclination of journals to publish only papers with positive results. It is part of the OpenScience Collaboration, which is exploiting newly possible aspects of the Web for increasing science’s trustworthiness. Katie Palmer describes some at Wired.

At Retraction Watch, statistician Jelte M. Wicherts describes a number of kinds of defiencies in psychological (and other) research to Alison McCook, but declares, “this study shows that psychology is cleaning up its act.”



It was inevitable, given the (relative) ease of using gene-editing techniques like CRISPR to try to alter cells and organisms, that biohackers would launch their own explorations into gene editing. Biohackers–amateur scientists who pursue life sciences projects on their own time, often in community labs–and some of their projects are the subject of Heidi Ledford’s piece at Nature News, summarized at Genome Web and Popular Science.

As you might expect, the projects described are benign, among them attempts to make vegan cheese and distinctive beers. No obvious bioweapons here, which may have something to do with the fact that the FBI’s Bioterrorism Protection Team is keeping an eye on biohackers and has urged them to keep an eye on each other, according to Ledford.

Meanwhile, other biohackers are turning themselves into cyborgs. At The Verge’s What’s Tech, Chris Plante interviews biohacker Adi Robertson to find out why.

cyborg dalek

And at The Guardian’s architecture and design blog, Oliver Wainwright writes about Professor Stelarc, an Australian performance artist who has grown himself a third ear. On his arm. There’s a photo. Stelarc says he wants to equip it with wi-fi and GPS tracking so that people can follow his travels.

Wainwright also describes other DIY cyborg projects, including an academic with nervous system implants, a music lover with a graft of permanent headphones, and a computer programmer who lost half a finger in an accident and replaced it with a removable 2GB flash drive. That last one actually sounds like a reasonable idea.

Note that this news is brought to us not in a science blog but in an architecture and design blog.



You may recall that Chinese scientists reported attempted gene editing of human embryos in April, discussed here at On Science Blogs. It didn’t go well; results were all over the place.

There was some bioethical flap about the project because it involved human embryos, but it appeared ethically sound to me because the embryos were to be discarded anyhow and could not have survived. However, the failure was also reassuring in a way.  As I observed, “that failure may give us a bit of breathing room to figure out what should be done about genetic tinkering with an embryo that will affect that person-to-be’s descendants.”

Now comes Kevin Loria at TechInsider to tell us that the reason the Chinese research turned out so badly is that the researchers were doing it wrong. Loria interviews a number of  Western scientists and concludes, “There are (and were) far more accurate versions of the gene-editing tool they used (CRISPR/Cas-9), and many researchers have been able to edit cells and even animal embryos with almost zero unwanted or unexpected changes.”

And therefore the ability to edit human embryos successfully may not so far off as it seemed in April.

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Jimmy Carter’s cancer, female sexual desire, and Donald Trump’s trumpery


The immunotherapy Jimmy Carter is getting in addition to radiation for the metastisized melanoma that has invaded his brain and liver is startlingly effective in some patients and not at all in others. As yet, no one knows why, Julia Belluz explains at Vox.

The drug Carter is being given, pembrolizumab, is a checkpoint inhibitor that can interfere with a protein that turns T-cells off, freeing them to fight cancer cells. Belluz quotes a doc who says these new immunotherapies tend to work well in about 15% or 20% of metastatic cancers, but for now identifying which patients can benefit isn’t possible.

Among the 39th President’s accomplishments is the Carter Center, the NGO he founded shortly after he left office, which has nearly eradicated  guinea worm. Guinea worm is an especially  horrid parasite that used to infect millions of people in the developing world.

“[T]hanks to the work of the Carter Center, there were only 17 cases of guinea worm counted in the first five months of 2015, a stunning public health victory,” Vox’s Sarah Kliff tells us. There were 3.5 million cases in 1986.

No vaccines or drugs can vanquish guinea worm. Instead, the dramatic reversal is due to education and behavior change, Kliff explains.

Carter’s cancer was identified late in May when docs found a mass on his liver. Surgery to remove it was delayed until early August, at which point an MRI disclosed four melanoma spots on his brain. The reason for the delay? Carter was scheduled for a book tour.




I wrote about the disappointments of Addyi (flibanserin), which is not the female Viagra, here at On Science Blogs in June. The most relevant news right now, though,  is not that the Food and Drug Administration finally approved the drug (which it did this week.) It’s that two days after FDA approval, the 34-employee North Carolina company that produces Addyi was sold.

For a billion dollars. $1,000,000,000


The triumph of capitalism over science. And feminism. And good sense.

At Vox, Julia Belluz explains the drug’s unimpressive performance and side effects. These include severe drops in blood pressure, especially in combination with 2 things that often accompany sex: contraceptive hormones and alcohol.

At BuzzFeedNews, Azeen Ghorayshi describes how a clever full-throttle marketing campaign that employed spurious feminist demands for equal treatment succeeded in browbeating regulators into submission. They had turned the drug down twice before.

At the Washington Post’s To Your Health, Brigid Schulte presents a chronology of medical/pharma efforts to boost female sexual desire. It begins in 1952, when “Frigidity and Impotence are listed as sexual disorders in the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.”

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner's 2009 documentary on drug companies' efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women's sexual problems. Great reviews.

Poster for Orgasm Inc., Liz Canner’s 2009 documentary on drug companies’ efforts to medicalize and create a market for cures to women’s sexual problems. Great reviews.

At MedPageToday, Shannon Firth quotes reactions from several docs and other experts, pro and con. One is happy that Addyi’s effects on women are weak, apparently on grounds of preventing offenses to decency. “Your goal is not to make them euphoric. You don’t want them dancing through the streets giggling.”

Goddess forbid that sex should involve humor and public dancing and, worst of all, euphoria. The point, after all, is to make babies. With decorum.



Although I’ve been following the Presidential candidacy of Donald Trump with glee, I wasn’t expecting to have science-related reasons for sharing The Donald’s rocketing ride with you. But Joe Romm at Climate Progress, of all people, is considering that Trump might actually win the Republican nomination a year from now, and the presidency after that.

Romm is remarkably cheerful about what that might mean for climate change policy.  He  argues that the Environmental Protection Agency’s new Clean Climate Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants will be greeted enthusiastically at the UN Paris meeting on climate matters late in the fall. Romm believes that the CPP will be a good deal for the US, and since Trump champions good deals, he wouldn’t fight this one as president.

Romm also believes, despite Trump’s public ridicule of policy proposals to reduce climate change, that in his heart The Donald doesn’t believe the Republican party line on climate. As evidence Romm cites a recent Trump interview with CNN.

Romm concludes, “Trump (correctly) understands that most of what politicians say on the issues does not matter to voters. . . This allows him to focus on being as entertaining and provocative as possible for the public, but then retreating to pragmatism — his supposedly superior deal-making skills — whenever pressed on the facts by the media.”

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Credit: Gage Skidmore

At her Scientific American blog PsySociety, Melanie Tannenbaum employs psychology to try to explain Trump’s appeal to the public and his continuing command of the polls despite pooh-poohs from pundits. Two posts so far, and she has promised a third.

In her first post, she argues that conservative voters hate uncertainty, and because The Donald says whatever comes to his tongue, he leaves no ambiguity about his positions on issues.

Of course if Romm is right, that’s not true, at least about climate change. And, as Tannenbaum acknowledges in her second post, The Donald has held many positions in the past that are the opposite of what he says now. He was once pro-choice, he was once for taxing the rich, he has given lots of money to Democrats.

This last point may not really count, since during the Republican debate The Donald was up front about expecting return favors from the politicians he donates to. (I am guessing the favors are not all as benign as his demand that Hillary Clinton come to his most recent wedding.)

But that sort of counter-intuitive remark, Tannenbaum insists, is the key to Trump’s appeal, despite his obvious flip-flops on past positions.  He says the unexpected thing, the thing that other politicians dare not say–that, for instance, he expects  quid pro quo from candidates he gives money to.

And declarations like those makes people see him as more honest and credible than his opponents. What he says is not typical politician bull. Therefore he must be trustworthy.

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Pinker’s gene editing rant ignored most bioethics issues; debunking stoner Shakespeare

Do you suppose Steven Pinker’s broadside against professional bioethics oversight of CRISPR and other forms of gene editing–Pinker’s command to bioethics was brutally inflexible: “Get out of the way”–will change bioethics for the better? Or gene editing, for that matter?

In an interview with stem-cell researcher Paul Knoepfler following up his Boston Globe op-ed, Pinker accused bioethics of being “a professional guild that all too often impedes sound ethical concerns rather than advancing them.” In addition to being bad moral philosophers, he says, many bioethicists are embroiled in a conflict of interest because institutional bioethics has become an industry.  They need to defend their turf.

Pinker told Knoepfler: “a truly ethical bioethics should justify any restrictions on research with rigorous, defensible arguments about benefit and harm, not with moralistic grandstanding, science fiction dystopias, perverse analogies to Nazis and nuclear weapons, esoteric theories pulled out of the air, or freak-show scenarios like armies of cloned Hitlers, people selling their eyeballs on eBay, or warehouses of zombies to supply people with spare organs—all of which I’ve heard in these debates.”

Historian of science Alice Dreger, author of the disturbingly delightful Galileo’s Middle Finger, defended some of Pinker’s points, agreeing that people have often been wrong about the supposed doom that will attend new biomedical technologies. But Dreger wishes that Pinker hadn’t conflated two different topics in his post, that he hadn’t linked assurances that protection of research subjects is already perfectly adequate with thrashing the prophets of doom.

That’s because she disagrees with him about the former. “Steve is not suggesting rolling back safeguards, so far as I can see, although he doesn’t advocate having more, either—which some of us would advocate. (For my part, I’d advocate neither more nor less per se, but much more effective. I’m not sure how to get that.) And Steve’s obviously factually wrong about there being ample safeguards,” she says.

The bioethics folks that Alexandra Ossola talked to for Popular Science agreed that Pinker’s picture of bioethics was mostly caricature. One of them, Norman Fost, underlined the differences between bioethics and the Institutional Review Boards that decide whether a particular research project can proceed or not. About IRB members who insist on picayune paperwork details, such as whether a quorum is present, Fost is scathing. They “are bureaucrats at a federal regulatory agency with little background in ethics,” he says.

Ossola concludes that Pinker is wrong. “We need bioethicists–now more than ever. But discussing the ethics doesn’t have to slow progress.”


Discussing ethics might not slow progress, but the halt to gene-editing research demanded by several high-level scientists, whether temporary or permanent, surely would. And even if instituted, a moratorium would affect at most the US and maybe some other Western countries.

Gene-editing has already been fully embraced by China, and scientists there are doing interesting work that has even been helpful on ethical issues. If you need to catch up, On Science Blogs has been following the CRISPR/gene-editing story for the past few months. Start here.

A moratorium might or might not be honored by private enterprise. Note the simultaneous news that Editas Medicine has just received $120 million from investors that include Google Ventures and Bill Gates. Elliot Hosman’s post at Biopolitical Times points out that Editas is working on an obscure disease that affects at most 1000 patients, implying that gene editing won’t have wide application.

That’s not true (see below), and it’s certainly arguable that gene editing can be applied to the social and environmental factors that underlie much disease. Consider, for instance, the plan to wipe out malaria by killing off an entire mosquito species with gene drives. Whether we want to employ biotechnology to fix such problems is, of course, a different question.

Not sure what we should make of the Pinker-inspired but somewhat parochial episode in the CRISPR-gene editing debate. In focusing on bioethics as a profession, it ignored a couple of pretty crucial (bioethical) issues.

One is whether the scientists who have called for a moratorium on this research are justified. The other is gene-editing’s application to germline changes that would affect future generations, human and otherwise. Odd, since those changes are arguably the most consequential. Or at least potentially consequential. For us and for the planet.



Which is the greater offense: Offering up the bogus “scientific” assertion that Shakespeare’s muse was Cannabis, (and he told us about her in Sonnet 76, with its references to “compounds strange” and “invention in a noted weed”?)

shakespeare pot

Or media’s wholehearted embrace and the lame headlines promulgating this fairy tale? (Example: “Prithee, Did Thou Knowest That Shakespeare Smoked Weed?”)  At least Hilary Hansen’s topper, at HuffPo, while cutesy beyond toleration, expressed skepticism: “The Evidence Is Doobie-ous.”

Thanks be to Kaila Hale-Stern at Gawker, who brings deflationary skills to this nonsense balloon. She points out that the cannabis residue found on the clay pipes dug up from Shakespeare’s garden has also been reported (along with coca traces) on other pipes of the era, and that there is no evidence the pipes were Shakespeare’s. Also that this isn’t even new news, having first been disclosed by a South African researcher nearly 15 years ago and reported by National Geographic, among others, at the time.

Thanks be also to Edward Delman at The Atlantic, who believes that one reason even doubtful news about Shakespeare gets a lot of attention is that so little is actually known about the man–despite his enormous contribution to our language and our culture.

Delman also brings more rain to the media parade. He points out that the pipe fragments have been dated to the 17th century, but not more precisely. (Shakespeare died in 1616.) He notes also that the papers on this work have not even offered conclusive evidence of pot on the pipes.

The coke finding seems to be somewhat more reliable. Make of that what you will.

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HitchBOT RIP and other robots and autonomous weapons


We don’t know, at this point, who dismembered and decapitated hitchBOT, the overly cutesy but otherwise inoffensive hitch-hiking robot. My money is on mindless teenage vandalism, bro humor division.

But I suppose it’s possible that this is the work of Luddites reborn. Someone feeling threatened by the Rise of the Machines? Perhaps even someone egged on by the high-profile call by high-profile persons for a halt to development of autonomous weapons?

What’s deeply horrible about hitchBOT’s demise is that for the Canadian engineers who put it together, the robot was an experiment in trust. Can humans trust robots? Can robots trust humans? Sam Wood talks to hitchBOT’s project manager at, who hews to the line that “the overarching response over the course of this project has been positive, and has truly demonstrated the cooperation, goodwill, and kindness of humans.”

Two-way trust worked for 6000 miles. HitchBOT hitched without a hitch all the way across Canada, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. In Germany and the Netherlands too. But in the US, where the final goal was the Exploratorium in San Francisco, hitchBOT made it only as far west as Philadelphia.

Credit: AndreaWBZ

Credit: AndreaWBZ

It’s quite tempting to see such mean-spirited hooliganism as one more in this country’s series of deranged racial-ethnic-political current events.


At the Washington Post’s Innovation, Dominic Basulto regards the robocide as evidence that robots have a lot more to fear from us than the other way ’round. “Robots of the future, far from being beyond our control, will probably rely on humanity for their existence. They may be smarter than us, but we will always have the upper hand because we will have built in the control mechanisms to limit the damage. And, if all else fails, sorry to say, we’ll hack off the arms, legs or head of any robot that tries to become a robot overlord.”

Erik Sofge, at Popular Science’s Zero Moment, thinks that autonomous weapons are doomed. It’s true that Elon Musk’s and Stephen Hawking’s names on the open letter guaranteed media attention, but what was really important is that the signatories included virtually every major name in artificial intelligence and robotics–even those who in the past have argued that fears about AI are overblown. Sofge’s post spells out exactly what forms of autonomous AI weapons he believes will be ruled out by international agreements.

Jai Galliot, who does robotics research at the University of New South Wales, declares himself to be a reformed activist for robot arms control and explains why at The Conversation. He reasons that autonomous weapons  don’t really exist because no robot can kill without human intervention.


One reason it’s difficult to get on the anti-robot bandwagon is that it’s hard for an ordinary consumer to believe something that seems so incompetent could really be a threat. At TechInsider, Julia Calderone burbles on about a dishwashing robot. But at this early stage of its development, the robotic arm is taking dishes out of a rack and handing them to a human to put away. No washing involved. Or even storing.  And how will a robot ever be able to learn to load a dishwasher when no two humans can agree on how to accomplish that task?

A personal example of more robotic insufficiency: I’m on my second punked-out Roomba. Have I learned my lesson? I doubt it.  I want so passionately to believe in the possibility of a useful nonhuman vacuumer that I wouldn’t rule out getting sucked into a third Roomba some day. For shame.

Experiences like these make it easy to grasp one of the fears about autonomous weapons, which is that they will, willy nilly, kill the wrong people. That sort of accident seems to be what happened at the German Volkswagen plant, where a robot seized a worker and crushed him. Apparently it was not the robot’s fault; the unfortunate human got in its way.

This turns out not to be an isolated incident. Robolaw expert Ryan Calo told Kelsey Atherton at Popular Science that, in the US, an industrial robot kills about one person every year. The Department of Labor keeps track, apparently.


Vanessa Van Edwards has a plan for improving human-robot relations. She wants to teach robots social skills and explains at length how to do that at Huffington Post.  HitchBOT had some conversational ability, which I guess counts as a social skill. But knowing how to converse didn’t suffice to talk the bad guy(s) out of lethal violence.

HitchBOT also had a camera. That news had me hoping for incriminating photos revealing the perpetrator(s) in the act, like those police action videos we’ve been seeing lately, the ones that will maybe possibly revolutionize citizen interactions with cops. But poor naive hitchBOT seems to have expected only goodness and beauty of the world. Its final photo was of trees at sunrise.



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Exciting new drugs for Alzheimer’s disease? Nah.

So, exciting new drugs for treating Alzheimer’s disease, right?

Wrong. Or, rather, let’s allow for semi-miraculous outcomes and say instead that this recent news is unlikely to be right.

Most of the news concerned research results on two monoclonal antibody drugs reported at last week’s Alzheimer’s Association International Convention in Washington. Both drugs attack beta amyloid, the protein that is suspected by some researchers of gumming up the brain. Not a theory embraced by all, however.

The two drugs aren’t even new drugs. Solanezumab, from Eli Lilly, has already bombed in two previous clinical trials. Biogen reported some results from aducanumab, adding to data released in March.

There are plenty of hard-nosed critiques out there, so it’s difficult to understand the media huzzahs. Unless so-called reporters are just swallowing press releases whole.

Oh, wait . . .


Emily Underwood described the drugs’ uneven history at Science, observing of the new results, “the small cognitive benefits and the fact that one trial didn’t show any reduction in the amyloid in people’s brains left plenty of room for skepticism.”

Kevin Lomangino took stock at HealthNewsReview and noted “So why bother to present provisional results that don’t even demonstrate that the drugs had any noticeable effect? As Matthew Herper points out at Forbes, the show at this week’s conference may have been more about company stock prices than about informing patients and the public.”

Lomangino was unhappy at pretty much all the coverage except for a piece at NBC–and even that was damaged, in his view, by a cheerleading hed. Which presumably the writer of the reasonable story had nothing to do with, as is so often the case.

HT: HealthNewsReview

HT: HealthNewsReview

At In the Pipeline, pharma researcher Derek Lowe is not happy about the aducanumab study’s small size. “And the first thing that has to be learned from watching clinical research (especially for a disease like Alzheimer’s) is that you cannot draw conclusions until you see a large, well-run data set. Ignore this advice at your peril. The list of promising-looking Alzheimer’s ideas that have evaporated on contact with a larger trial is long and terrible.”

As for solanezumab, Lowe says Lilly claims to be seeing more effect in the patients who started the therapy earlier, but “not everyone is buying that interpretation. The effect they’re seeing may well be clinically meaningless.”

Solanezumab failed to meet its endpoints in two Stage 3 clinical trials. Leading researchers to proclaim, in one of the more tortured arguments ever, that the disappointing outcome must mean that it works not just on symptoms but on the underlying disease itself.


Doc Perry Wilson treats this argument with the contempt it deserves at Medpage Today, saying solanezumab is “unlikely to have any clinical benefit” and calling the announcement “a Master Class in how to spin your drug that failed its original trial.”

Recent research is also showing that even if a splendid Alzheimer’s drug arrives, it may be splendid for only part of the population, owing to human diversity. Frederick Kunkle reports at the Washington Post that African-Americans with Alzheimer’s disease also seem to suffer from additional brain pathologies less frequent in Caucasians, notably the accumulation of abnormal proteins called Lewy bodies and lesions in tiny blood vessels.

Researchers at the Alzheimer’s meeting have also found that older women with cognitive decline seem to get worse and progress to Alzheimer’s disease twice as fast as men, Laura Geggel reports at LiveScience.


According to Harry Johns at Congress Blog, Alzheimer’s is already the US’s most expensive disease, one that threatens to bankrupt Medicare. Today, Medicare spends nearly 1 out of 5 of its dollars on caring for people with the disease. By 2050, a generation from now, it is estimated that will climb to nearly 1 in 3 dollars.

Neuroscientist Douglas Fields, writing at a SciAm Mind guest blog, is optimistic that even the obstructive current Congress will be open to funding more Alzheimer’s research. The key, he says, will be early diagnosis. Well, maybe. But until there are effective ways of treating early Alzheimer’s, early diagnosis is kinda beside the point, isn’t it? Or could even be a bad idea, considering what bombshells like this hopeless news can do to patients and their families?

Bloomberg View attempts a rational economic argument for more research: “Lawmakers may also want to consider that taxpayers will end up paying either way. Medicare and Medicaid will spend $153 billion caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other kinds of dementia this year, or about 261 times what the NIH will spend looking for ways to prevent and cure the disease. Until one is found, these numbers are way out of balance.”

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First Americans mystery again plus $100 million search for extraterrestrials


Oh, goody. Dueling papers. Always a treat. And dueling papers in the same week in Science and Nature, an extra-special treat.

The topic a hot one, as befits dueling papers: Based on genetic studies in ancient and modern Native American populations, whence cometh the First Americans?

Moreover, the studies were carried out by two of the 800-pound gorillas of genetic populations studies: David Reich’s Harvard lab (in Nature) and the group led by Eske Willerslev, based at the University of Copenhagen (in Science).

In fact, although you wouldn’t know it from the media, which loves a fight, the papers are in broad agreement about the data and even about its implications for theories of migration.

First, the consensus that underlies the current First Americans migration story: More than 20,000 years ago, a group of people came from Siberia to what was then the Bering land bridge between Asia and North America, now long drowned in the rising post-Ice Age seas. They lingered in this grassy, productive place, perhaps for a few thousand years.

Then, maybe driven away as their green land disappeared under water, they ventured south, probably along the Pacific coast. (My favorite theory is that these migrations were at least partly by boat.) By 14,600 years ago they had gotten all the way to what is today southern Chile, nearly to Patagonia. This is the well-dated inland site at Monte Verde. Impressive.

This means–and much genetic evidence now confirms it–that there was only one major Paleolithic migration from Asia to the Americas. However, there is a discombobulating genetic fact that both these papers wrestle with: detection of a bit of Australo-Melanesian ancestry in a few–but only a few–Native American groups, mostly in South America. Both papers end up accounting for this by suggesting that there may have been two migrations, not just one.


Note that neither of these papers postulates something so romantic (and unlikely) as a Kon Tiki-type voyage in reverse, paddling from the Antipodes eastward across the Pacific. Instead they rest their theorizing on the firmly established human inclination to wander and to procreate.

Because the Willerslev group found no trace of the Australo-Melanesian DNA in their ancient DNA samples, the Science paper argues that it may have arrived in the Americas relatively late–perhaps a migration to the Aleutian Islands (where this DNA is also found.) This journey is hypothesized to have taken place about 9,000 years ago. After which, I guess, the idea is that the Australo-Melanesian DNA then trickled southward, eventually into South America.

Seems like a bit of a stretch. I wonder especially about the (relatively) small number of ancient DNA samples studied. As we all know, because we have been told it so often, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Maybe the Australo-Melanesian DNA signal will appear in ancient American DNA too, when more of it becomes available?

But the Nature paper’s theory is also unappealingly intricate. Reich and his colleagues think those genes may be fairly ancient. They account for them by inventing a (conveniently) now-extinct East Asian “Population Y” that is only distantly related to today’s Andamanese, Australian and New Guinean populations.

But the American editions of these genes “cannot be due to a single pulse of migration south of the Late Pleistocene ice sheets from a homogenous source population.” Their suggestion: since it appears that genes from a Clovis burial are what are now thought of as classically Native American, try looking for the Australo-Melanesian genes in non-Clovis sites.


Are these two ideas really in such direct conflict, except maybe about how long ago those anomalous genes entered the Americas? They both cope by proposing a second migration.

What seems most intriguing to me is that both groups found the Australo-Melanesian DNA. So it is likely to be real, and it needs explaining. Maybe it would be better to view the two more as sparring papers rather than dueling papers, even though that makes this conflict somewhat less compelling and clickworthy.

Both papers also agree that the “Paleoamerican” model is wrong. That model, based on skeletal morphology rather than genes, argues that the true First Americans were Australo-Melanesians whose genes were swamped by later-arriving Siberians, as Gregory Cochrane explains at West Hunter.

At Embargo Watch, Ivan Oransky describes the maneuvering that Science and Nature went through to ensure that these papers got to journalists together. A very last-minute arrangement.

I wonder if that short lead time helps account for the media and blogging discussions of these papers, which I found unusually confused and confusing. It’s kinda defeatist, but I guess I’ll leave the last word to Razib Khan, whose exposition at Gene Expression was otherwise not terribly clear: “It is turning out that reality is crazier than our imaginations. Hold tight.”


I suppose it’s really no puzzle why the media reception for Yuri Milner’s $100 million project to search for alien life treated the news as if the project was Stephen Hawking’s. See, for example, Rachel Feltman at Speaking of Science and  Calla Cofield at LiveScience.

Who, after all, has ever heard of Yuri Milner? Even if he did have the public relations savvy to sign up Hawking (and other luminaries) and probably expected to be upstaged.

And I concede that Hawking’s endorsement raises an interesting question.  He is known for his fear that ETs would be so far above us in accomplishments that they would sweep us into oblivion, regarding us as we regard bacteria. Why, then, does he want to search for them? It appears that he can’t stand not knowing. Life arose spontaneously on Earth, why not elsewhere?


Lots of detail from Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica. Much of the $100 million will go to buy telescope time on the 100-meter Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope in West Virginia and the 64-meter Parkes Telescope in New South Wales, Australia.

At The Conversation, Jonti Horner will tell you everything about the history of the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and Andrew Norton will tell you everything about why it will be a waste of time.


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What you might not know about Pluto and the New Horizons mission

Even with Iran nukes, and Greece surrender, and Donald Trump to absorb you this week, you can hardly have escaped immersion in NASA’s New Horizons mission and the triumphant Pluto flyby. Still, here are some bloggeries about this extraordinary space adventure that you may not have encountered yet.


Pluto has a heart!  Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Pluto has a heart! Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SWRI

Dan Satterfield, of Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal (an American Geophysical Union blog), posted a 14-minute video of scientifically accurate Pluto chaff between Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson. From which I learned that, comparatively speaking, if Neptune was the size of a Chevvy Impala, Pluto would be the size of a Matchbox car.

Mike Summers, one of the New Horizons team members, blogs about the history of the New Horizons project, and the jubilation over its success, at The Conversation.

I was bowled over by the news that New Horizons is carrying the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930. But so says Chris Arridge, who also explains at The Conversation how New Horizons scientists are coping with its ancient technology–more than ten years old, and in some cases closer to 20.

Charon, Pluto's largest moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon, Pluto’s largest moon. Credit: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

It had never occurred to me that there would be confusion over how to pronounce the name of Pluto’s largest moon, which is surely SHARE-on. But apparently there is confusion, even among the New Horizons scientists, as Nick Stockton complains at Wired. Also, I learn there, the moon was not, after all, originally named Charon after the mythological ferryman from Hell who carried souls across the river Styx. No, the name was based on the name of Charon’s discoverer’s wife.

Charon, ferryman. Credit: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni

Charon, ferryman. Credit: Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni


SciGuy Eric Berger ponders what has just been learned about the science of Pluto and its moon Charon. Both have features–11,000-foot ice mountains, for example, and a remarkable lack of cratering–that suggest recent geological activity and a very young surface.

But that implies these deepest of deep-freeze objects, which have orbited 3 billion miles from the sun for billions of years, might retain enough core heat for . . . volcanos? Or are there tectonic plates? Is Charon big enough to cause tidal heating on Pluto? Is Pluto radioactive? George Dvorsky speculates and speculates at io9, but in the end throws up his hands and declares, “This really is completely crazy.”

Some of the larger of the estimated hundred-thousand objects (with their known moons) in the Kuiper Belt, the crowded outer solar system neighborhood where Pluto dwells. Credit: © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC

Some of the larger of the estimated hundred-thousand objects (with their known moons) in the Kuiper Belt, the crowded outer solar system neighborhood where Pluto dwells. Credit: © 2015 The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory LLC

If you want to consult one source only, see what Joseph Stromberg has done at Vox. You’ll be there a while, because it’s lots, including photos.  He also contributes 6 amazing things the mission has taught us so far. And a thorough explanation, with diagrams, about Pluto’s demotion to dwarf planet status and whether it and a few other similarly sized round Kuiper Belt objects should be declared (or in Pluto’s case re-declared) to be planets.


New Horizons apparently has the technical capacity to study another Kuiper Belt object while it’s there; all it needs is money. Mika McKinnon, at Gizmodo, wants you to plead with your Congressperson  for more cash to carry out this additional mission.

At NASA Watch, Keith Cowing is grumpy. Again. “To be certain, this mission is nerd cool and exciting – and inspirational – even if you do not know all (or any) of the science behind it. But at the end of the day, how many of the 300,000,000 people who paid for this truly understand what was done, why it was done, and why it was more important to spend ~$700,000,000 on this as opposed to [fill in the blank].”

Cowing is particularly miffed at NASA’s claim that the mission to Pluto was a necessary step to the mission to Mars, which he declares to be nonsense. “You do not need to go 3 billion miles to Pluto so that you can go 100 million or so miles to Mars and back.” That’s because NASA can muster enough funds to occasionally do impressive missions like a journey to Pluto and beyond, “but nowhere near enough to do the big things that its Public Affairs office would have you think are a done deal.”

For an entirely different view of NASA’s PR operation, see Adam Epstein’s longish and admiring piece at Quartz detailing how NASA mastered viral tweets and took over the Internet this week.

The New Horizons mission is noteworthy for another reason: the number of women working on it. “This may be the mission with the most women in NASA history,” says Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic. Or it may not be. The assertion is equivocal because she presents no numbers. This is an encouraging snap:

Women of the New Horizons flyby team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

Women of the New Horizons flyby team at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: SwRI/JHUAPL

Alice Bowman is the mission operations manager, acronymed MOM. I am hoping that “mission operations manager” is the usual title for the US taxpayers’ space projects, and that other such are known as MOM too. Even when they possess Y chromosomes.

But let’s conclude on a nonquarrelsome  upnote from Steven Novella at Neurologica: “[The New Horizons mission] is a stunning validation of not only astronomy and physics, but of science itself. No other intellectual tool developed by humans has achieved such a success. No dowser, psychic, or spiritualist could have divined the information necessary to target the probe. No astrologer could have given us this information. Alchemy could not have powered the rockets so powerfully and precisely. . . This will be remembered as an achievement of our species, of our civilization, and of the power of science.”

Credit and HT: Gizmodo

Credit and HT: Gizmodo

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Alien life on a comet and mind-boggling mind-reading successes


Owing to a fortuitous agglomeration of events–and if you think “fortuitous” means “lucky,” you’re wrong–this is Science Fiction Week at On Science Blogs.



First, and most easily disposed of, is the claim that out-of-this-world microorganisms inhabit the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. That comet, you’ll recall, was the target of the amazing Rosetta mission and its Philae lander, discussed here a number of times. For example here and also here.

This claim of cometary aliens is one of the finer examples of the story that’s too good to check. So most of the persons who wrote the initial reports failed to look even briefly into the recent activities of one of the claimants. That would be Chandra Wickramasinghe, who runs the department of fanciful astrobiology at the University of Buckingham (“The only independent university in the United Kingdom, founded in the 1970s”).

Wickramasinghe has a history of this sort of alien life outlandishness, as Stuart Clark recounts at The Guardian’s Across the Universe. Clark’s post is, I guess, The Guardian’s attempt to make up for its initial credulous news story by “Rebecca Ratcliffe and agencies”. You can blame Ratcliffe and/or “agencies”, but knowing how newspapers operate, I suspect the true villain is the subeditor who cobbled the thing together. I hope Ratcliffe is mad as hell.

Salon also ran an uncritical piece originally, but its updated version by Jenny Kutner says The Guardian has issued a retraction. I’m not giving Salon a lot of points for this, since it retains the clickbait hed “Scientists might have discovered alien life on a comet” and subhed “The comet that a spacecraft landed on last year appears to be home to viral particles.”

I couldn’t find the retraction on The Guardian’s site, and it doesn’t seem to be noted in connection with the original news story, which is still up, although there is a link to Clark’s  debunking post.

For nonbiological accounts of the cometary features Wickramasinghe cited as evidence of alien life, see space scientist Monica Grady’s nice explainer post at Out of This World.



Why am I not surprised that Facebook is working on telepathy? Anything to ramp up the FB invasion of our minds. So my instinct is just to sneer and snark at all the fuss about Mark Zuckerberg, the face of Facebook, and his declaration this week that “You’ll just be able to think of something and your friends will immediately be able to experience it too.”

Good grief. Calamity. But the fact is that people–real people, not Facebook–are working right now on–well, they don’t call it telepathy. They call it brain-to-brain communication or brain-to-machine interface. To be sure, the work is at the pre-embryonic stage. But there is stuff going on out there that is . . . unsettling.

Jesse Emspak recaps some recent work briefly at LiveScience, link above in first graf. Emspak also quotes skeptics like the neuroscientist who pointed out that the idea of transmitting thoughts faces a serious barrier: we don’t know what a thought is. Not to mention that sticking wires into people’s heads, the present state of a lot of mind-reading technology, is risky.

Another researcher noted that the cases of success with getting the brain’s motor cortex to operate prosthetic limbs is not anything like the exchange of experiences that Zuckerberg babbled on about.

For you youngsters, this is Mr. Spock doing a mind-meld.

For you youngsters, this is Mr. Spock doing a mind-meld.

On the other hand, read Roli Roberts, an editor at PLOS Biology, who blogged (and bragged) about a 2012 paper he handled at PLOS Biologue. “Much of neuroscience arguably involves subjecting an animal to a stimulus and then trying to find out how the brain responds. This paper describes a spookily successful attempt to achieve the reverse – looking at the brain’s activity and trying to reconstruct the stimulus that must have caused it.”

The authors, based at Berkeley, placed electrodes on the auditory cortex of epileptics about to undergo brain surgery, spoke single words to the patients, made recordings. “The human brain has evolved computational mechanisms that decode highly variable acoustic inputs into meaningful elements of language such as phonemes and words,” they explain. The paper reports successful decoding the patients’ brain signals to produce single words, some surprisingly accurate.

The Roberts post has lots of detail and a recording. Ira Flatow interviewed senior author Robert Knight on Talk of the Nation; find the recording and the transcript here. At the Huffington Post, Kyrsty Hazell said first author Brian Pasley “compared this technique to a pianist ‘hearing’ the music a colleague is playing in a sound-proof room simply by looking at the keys on the piano.

And there’s more. Mark Harris, at Technology Review, recounts two examples of what he calls direct exchange of information between human brains. Both were published last year and used technologies that have been around for a while, an EEG (electroencephalography) cap and transcranial magnetic stimulation. One aim of this work to help scientists test “ideas about how neurons in the brain represent information, especially about abstract concepts,” Harris says. A good hed too: Are Telepathy Experiments Stunts or Science?

And then there are the two papers just published by Scientific Reports, one of Nature’s journals. The papers reported research at Duke on getting (1) rhesus monkey brains and (2) rat brains to communicate and perform collaborative tasks for juice or water rewards. As Carl Zimmer notes at Matter, “In many of the trials, the networked animals performed better than individuals.

Zimmer’s post suggests some possible human uses for what the Duke researchers are calling brainets, for example networked surgeons operating collectively on a single patient. But he takes his usual care in pointing out pitfalls, like the gigantic ethical problem of neural privacy. At New Scientist, Jessica Hamzelou throws such cautions to the winds, speculating about superhuman problem-solving abilities and doing away with language altogether.

The papers are brand-new, published Thursday (July 9), and I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot more about them. Made me wonder if Zuckerberg had early word of this new work before his speculation last Tuesday on telepathy.

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Down with time changes plus the NY Times hearty series on cardio developments


It must have seemed like a good idea at the time, the time being 1972, a time before computers ran the world. That’s when it was decided that a way must be invented to keep precision atomic clocks in sync with the Earth’s messy natural rotation.

Behold the creation of the leap second. We had one of them last Tuesday. Carl Engelking explains at D-brief: “Come midnight Coordinated Universal Time June 30, the official time will read 23:59:60 rather than resetting to 00:00:00.”

Credit: National Physical Laboratory via Spencer Kelly and

Credit: National Physical Laboratory via Spencer Kelly and

The latest atomic clock measures the frequency of a particular transition in the cesium atom. That amounts to 9,192,631,770 vibrations per second, which defines the second, the international (SI) unit of time. This clock will keep perfect time, neither gaining nor losing a second, for 300 million years, Ars Technica’s Megan Geuss explained when the clock was unveiled last year.

For reasons not completely understood yet, but which have to do with competing gravitational pulls of the Earth, the moon, and the sun, Earth’s rotation is slowing down a teeny bit. But the rate of slowdown is unpredictable. We think of a single rotation as a day, 24 hours, 86,400 seconds. Because of the slowdown, though, the actual average length of a day is roughly 86,400.002 seconds, according to Laura Geggel at Live Science.

So at irregular intervals, time as measured by the Earth’s   infinitesimally slower spin must be synchronized with time as measured by that ever-so-precise atomic clock. In 1972, they started adding a second every now and then–a leap second–to even things out.

Leap seconds have been inserted into our timekeeping 25 times, at first nearly annually. But, also for reasons not completely understood yet, it’s happened much less frequently since 1999. Only 4 times, says Amanda Montañez at Scientific American.

However, those recent leap second insertions have messed things up. Last time, in 2012, “reddit crashed, Gawker went down, lots of Linux servers fell over, and Australian airline Qantas had some computer problems that caused up to 50 delayed flights. While it was sometimes a case of computer admins being caught with their pants down (i.e., old systems and packages that haven’t been updated), it was also just the result of not enough corner case testing,” says Sebastian Anthony at Ars Technica.

This time, Wired’s Cade Metz was worried that it might derange the financial industry’s computers, already coping with the Greek crisis. But according to Stephanie Yang at the Wall Street Journal’s MoneyBeat, there were hiccups but no chaos.

Metz wants to get rid of the leap second, pointing out that its absence wouldn’t seriously revise the human sense of time for centuries. 700 years from now, when the clock says 11:30 although it’s “really” midnight, world time could be adjusted by half an hour in one lump. We do something like that twice a year for Daylight Saving Time anyway.

In November, the International Telecommunications Union will meet to discuss the leap second–again. They’ve already done so a number of times and always voted to keep it. Will this time be different?

And while we’re at it, we should get rid of Daylight Saving Time too. Among other reasons, it deranges our metabolisms, a form of jet lag we impose on ourselves twice yearly. To no purpose at all, and to the detriment of health. I have ranted on this topic several times here at On Science Blogs, for example here, so will not repeat myself this time.


Gina Kolata, New York Times science journalist, is a controversial topic among her peers, although some think she has no peers. According to Larry Husten, another top science journalist, who specializes in matters cardiovascular, Kolata is “the most extravagantly talented and gifted health and science reporter working today.”

At Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast, Malcolm Campbell called her recent article on stents his Read of the Week.  The stents piece was part of a four-part Kolata series, “Mending Hearts,” on new developments in cardio medicine, and you’ll be wanting to bet that the series will will win prizes and praises.

Credit: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Credit: National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Health News Review tackled one of the pieces in the series, this one on transcatheter aortic valve replacement, calling it a compelling tale but saying it needed more detail. For instance, some focus on less-than-successful cases in addition to heartwarming tales such as Henry Kissinger’s.

At The Pump Handle, Liz Borkowski liked Kolata’s piece on how hospitals have cut time-to-treatment dramatically, part of the reason the death rate from coronary heart disease has dropped 38% in the last decade. Husten liked it too but was irritated that Kolata failed to mention a big reason for the other 62%–patients’ delay in calling 911 or otherwise being poky about getting themselves to the emergency room.

And he is outright angry at the stents piece, which says that a 2007 big clinical trial that was negative about stents didn’t change medical practice. Husten quotes the trial’s PI as saying it reduced the volume of stent use between 20-25%. Husten says, “the trial ended an era of stent mania, and initiated in its place a medical culture much more likely to question unbridled enthusiasm for new drugs or devices.”

Husten has other complaints too. He concludes that the series is “good, really good. But it could be better.”


owing to Independence Day and all.
heart flag

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Obamacare lives and Kennewick Man is a Native American


The Affordable Care Act (aka ACA, aka Obamacare) subsidies to help people buy health insurance got saved by the US Supreme Court after all, with the somewhat unexpected help (unexpected by me, anyway) of Chief Justice John Roberts. Here’s my entirely biased summary from last week’s On Science Blogs post on the then-pending Supreme Court Case (and other matters.)

And here’s SCOTUSblog’s Amy Howe on the decision: “Court backs Obama administration on health-care subsidies: In Plain English.” Also many many many more SCOTUSblog analytic posts that begin here.  In advance of the decision, JoAnne Kenen provided links to lots of helpful background at Covering Health, the blog of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

A couple of headlines make clear the opposing positions on that disputed language in the ACA, the basis for this ridiculous case:

From Hit & Run, a libertarian site: “Supreme Court Resigns Duties, Tortures English Language to Save Obamacare
Judicial restraint? More like judicial hysterical appeasement.”

From Swampland, at Time: “Supreme Court Rules That a Typo Should Not Undo Obamacare.”

President Obama and others, Sarah Kliff at Vox for one, say the ruling means the ACA is here to stay. At Kaiser Health News, Jay Hancock is not entirely sure that’s so. Several suits against the law are still pending, and Congress will go on trying to change the law. “The high court decision sets up the 2016 presidential election as the health law’s next big test, although by then it could be difficult to fully uproot even if Republicans take the White House.”

At the Health Policy Blog at the right-wing National Center for Policy Analysis, John Graham forecasts that “The People, Not The Judges, Will Replace Obamacare” and makes suggestions for some Congressional actions he believes are doable.

In the meantime, lower courts–even conservative ones–keep knocking down legal challenges to Obamacare’s declaration that birth control should be free to all those covered. Jessica Mason Pieklo explains at RH Reality Check.

These are all just first takes; by the time you read this post thousands of others will also have had something to say.

Where Homo sapiens came from

On to one of everybody’s favorite topics, the story of where we humans came from. I write about genetics and DNA all the time, but I’m still bowled over by how much the genome has, in just a few years, contributed to our understanding of our origins (and maybe, depending on where gene editing takes us, where we are going.)

But first, the past. I call your attention the new PBS TV series on human origins, First Peoples, which has just begun. I have watched the first hour, which gets things a little backward because it’s about settlement of the Americas, one of the last places we landed.

Like most science documentaries, it relies on docudrama techniques. Shots of impossibly hunky dudes, clad in tailored skins and apparently lice-free, wielding spears in gorgeous landscapes. Overpowering cookie-cutter music that frequently drowns out the narration. And a budget that apparently permitted only a few of these things because they are repeated over and over.

Credit: PBS

Credit: PBS

But the interviews are pretty straightforward and informative. And I can’t quarrel at all with the argument of the first hour, since it embraces a formerly off-the-wall notion about American migration that I wrote about, ahem, in 1999.

To wit, the first Americans didn’t get here by using their feet. They used their heads. They came by boat. After crossing what was then the Bering land bridge from Asia, they paddled down the Pacific coast about 15,000 years ago. A couple of thousand years later they were definitely in Chile, almost to South America’s tip.

At Ars Technica, John Timmer has some reservations about First Peoples, but ends up saying, “Scientifically, just about everything seems solid and reasonably current.” Agreed.

The Kennewick Man story, but not Kennewick Man, finally laid to rest

Which brings us to the very complicated Kennewick Man story, tackled in the first episode of First Peoples. Where does this 8500 year-old skeleton, found in Washington State in 1996, belong? Should his remains, old as they are, be turned over to Native American tribes for burial, as the law specifies? Or does he belong only to the science of paleontology? His skull shape is different from today’s Native Americans. Does that mean he’s not one of them? Might he even be, gasp, European?

Those are among the questions that have bedeviled scientific study of the remains. Last week a paper in Nature answered the question of origins definitively: Kennewick Man’s DNA is unquestionably Native American.

This new paper got a lot of publicity, but it isn’t really news.  The basic nugget, that Kennewick Man’s DNA is definitely Native American, was published by the Seattle Times in January, thanks to–of all  things–a Freedom of Information Act request. An indication of the politics of Kennewick Man. At GeneExpression, Razib Khan has details and discusses migratory theories. Ewan Callaway’s piece at Nature News is illuminating on the politics.

And Kennewick Man’s skull shape isn’t such a puzzle after all. It’s similar to the skull shape of the teenage girl found in an underwater cave in Yucatan. I wrote about this find, dated at about 13,000 years ago, last year. That date makes the girl the oldest American skeleton so far. Her mitochondrial DNA marks her as related conclusively to today’s Native Americans despite the different skull shape.

Kennewick Man. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

Kennewick Man. Credit: Chip Clark/Smithsonian Institution

So what explains the skull shape differences between these ancient ones, who are by DNA clearly ancestors of today’s Native Americans? Evolution. And yes, it can happen that fast. The genetic ability to digest milk as an adult spread widely in Africa and Europe beginning at most no more than 8000 years ago.

The final turn to this twisted tale is inside baseball, of interest chiefly to science writers. The new paper was published with a very short embargo time, meaning it was made available to journalists only a day or so before official publication. Science writers were miffed because the brief advance warning–embargoed papers are usually handed out at least a few days before publication–gave them little time to prepare a complicated assignment that incorporates recaps of lots of political maneuvering in addition to explaining the DNA results.

Ivan Oransky has a juicy account at Embargo Watch, complete with indignant tweets. It’s also now clear what the unusually short embargo was almost certainly about: Nature hurried the paper into publication because there was pressure to tie it in to, ta-da, the First Peoples PBS series that was about to begin–with an initial episode covering the Kennewick Man story.

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