Goodbye, For Now

Three years ago, Brian Mossop, then the community manager at PLoS, asked me if I’d ever considered blogging. I had, but only in the way that I had, say, contemplated having children–it was a distant, abstract notion.

But Brian told me that PLoS was getting ready to launch a new blog network and that a handful of other fantastic writers had already signed on to participate. I decided that it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and thus, my adventures in blogging began.

Over the last few years, I’ve had a blast. Blogging has been more enjoyable and rewarding than I imagined. But as regular readers may have noticed, I have not been posting here very frequently over the last year. In part that was because I was finishing a book. In the last few months, some other priorities and commitments–book-related events and travel, as well as the relaunching of my freelance career–have kept me from being able to blog as much as I’d like.

In short: I’ve realized that–at the moment, at least–I simply don’t have the time or mental bandwith to produce a blog I’m proud of.

So rather than dribble out a few quick posts now and then, I’ve decided that I’m going to take a temporary hiatus from blogging until I can devote the time and energy to it that it deserves.

I’ve also decided that, going forward, it makes more sense for me to host my blog on my own site, So when I return to blogging, it will over at that site, rather than here.

I’m planning on this break being temporary, but at the moment, I can’t say exactly when I’ll return to blogging. (I’ll fill you all in on my plans, when I know them, on my website, Twitter, and Facebook.) Until then, thanks for reading, and thanks to PLoS for giving me this opportunity.

Category: Blogging, Housekeeping | 1 Comment

Empathy and Risk Assessment

I’m a little behind on my reading, so I only just got to last week’s New Yorker. In it, I discovered a remarkable, thought-provoking essay by superstar psychologist Paul Bloom. It’s called “The Baby in the Well: The case against empathy,” and it does, indeed, make a compelling case against empathy.

As Bloom puts it: “Empathy has some unfortunate features–it is parochial, narrow-minded, and innumerate. We’re often at our best when we’re smart enough not to rely on it.”

For me, the essay is at its most compelling when Bloom shows examples of how empathy can lead us astray in evaluating risk. Take vaccines. Sometimes–very, very rarely, but occasionally–a child will have a serious (or even possibly fatal) reaction to a vaccine. It’s natural to have empathy for that family and that child. And that empathy–and the power of a single story with a name and a face–might inspire us to take up arms against vaccines, to keep our own children from getting them and to encourage other parents to follow suit. The trouble is that a world without vaccines is one in which lots of children will die. Vaccines absolutely save many more lives than they take. But the individual injuries they may occassionally (again: very rarely) cause tug at our heart strings more than the abstract notion of the lives that they’re invisibly saving. As Bloom puts it: “…you can’t point to a specific person whose life was spared because of vaccination.”

Bloom goes on: “There’s a larger pattern here. Sensible policies have benefits that are merely statistical but victims who have names and stories.”

As I’ve been on book tour this spring, I’ve spent some time trying to debunk common myths about genetically modified food, so Bloom’s comments resonate with me. Though there is no reliable evidence linking GMOs to human health problems, activist groups and self-styled natural health “gurus” are constantly saying otherwise. Given the rampant spread of this misinformation, it’s not hard to see why the public has turned against GMOs.  It’s a lot easier to get worked up about hypothetical but personal risks (say, to your children or your neighbor’s children) than real but distant-seeming benefits (such as increased productivity for farmers or improved food security).

In any case, the point isn’t that empathy itself is necessarily bad–just that it’s not always a sound basis for formulating public policy. Bloom’s essay also helps illuminate some of the challenges involved in communicating risk and explain why fighting for science-based policy can sometimes seem like such an uphill battle.

Category: Biotechnology, Frankenstein's Cat, Genetic Modification, Psychology | 2 Comments

Behold, the Canine Tramp Stamp

Last month, I wrote a long essay on animal aesthetics for Aeon magazine. I explored how our pets have become aesthetic objects and examined how humans have used selective breeding, cosmetic surgery, colorful dyes, and even genetic engineering in order to create more attractive animals.

It did not even occur to me to discuss tattoos. Because, well, why on Earth would it? Tattooing a pet was beyond my wildest imagination. But perhaps it should not have been. (After all, I once met a woman who had pierced her cat’s ears.) In any case, dog tattoos are now absolutely on my radar, thanks to an item I saw today on DNAinfo (via the New York Observer). And I quote: 

Owners of fashion-forward fidos in Manhattan’s toniest neighborhood are starting to beg groomers for temporary tattoos — reflecting a burgeoning international interest in dog body art, industry insiders tell New York.

And the key player turning on tail waggers’ masters to the idea is Jorge Bendersky, a celebrity dog groomer whose clientele hails mainly from the Upper East Side. The tattoos are especially popular among owners of short-haired dogs, he explained.

“In the summer, they cut the dogs’ hair short, so you’ve got to supplement the glamour,” he said. “Having no hair is no excuse not to be glamorous.”

The tattoos are needle- and ink-free, requiring only “canine-safe glue,” glitter, and rhinestones. So don’t worry, doggies–that rhinestone rose that seemed like such a good idea six drinks into the evening? Totally temporary.

Read the full story here or here, and be sure to check out the can’t-miss slideshow.

Category: Animals | Comments Off on Behold, the Canine Tramp Stamp

Pet Cloning is for (Pun) Lovers

CC, the world's first cloned cat.

CC, the world’s first cloned cat.

Since Frankenstein’s Cat came out last month, I’ve been traveling the country and giving talks about animal biotechnology. Along the way, I’ve been telling the story of a Black Angus bull named Bull 86.

In the early 1980s, scientists at Texas A&M discovered the bull, which just happened to have a natural genetic mutation that left him totally resistant to several serious diseases, including tuberculosis, salmonella, and brucellosis (a nasty bacterial disease common among livestock). No matter how hard the scientists tried, they simply couldn’t make Bull 86 sick.

The researchers spent years studying Bull 86, but the animal eventually got old and died. The scientists made sure to freeze some of his sperm before he died, but the sample was later accidentally destroyed in a laboratory accident. So it seemed as though Bull 86’s valuable genes had died out with him.

By the late 1990s, however, Texas A&M was exploring the brave new world of animal cloning. One of the scientists heading up the cloning effort, veterinary physiologist Mark Westhusin, had an idea: He knew that Bull 86’s sperm was gone, but perhaps there were other cell samples tucked away somewhere?
Continue reading »

Category: Animals, Cloning, Frankenstein's Cat | 5 Comments

Meet Frankenstein’s Cat

Cover Final Blog SizeFirst of all, many apologies for my recent silence here. But I have (I hope) a good excuse. My book, Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts, just came out, and it’s been a whirlwind.

I promise to get back to real blogging soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d gather a bunch of my book-related information in one place. This isn’t everything–I’ve been doing oodles of radio interviews and podcasts, and there’ve been excerpts and reviews in more publications than I can keep track of–but I’ve tried to collect some of the highlights. I’ll continue to update this page as new links go live.

The Book: Read more about the book here.

Orders: You can order the book online–through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Powell’s, or iTunes–or pick up a copy at your local bookstore.

Reviews: Read some reviews here.

Upcoming Events: See a list of upcoming events here.


Interviews: I’ve been doing lots of interviews about the book. Here are a few highlights.

Category: Biotechnology, Books, Frankenstein's Cat | Comments Off on Meet Frankenstein’s Cat

Frankenstein’s Cat Book Tour

It’s hard to believe, but after three long years of work, the release of my book, Frankenstein’s Cat, is finally imminent! (It will be out on March 12. You can order a copy at AmazonBarnes & NobleIndieBoundPowell’s, or the iBookstore.)

My publicist at FSG has set up a great slate of readings and events for me. I’ll be all over the country in the next few months–I’d love to see you if I’m in your neighborhood!

Here’s the calendar so far:

March 2, 2013
Tempe, AZ
1:30 PM
Cyborg Salon
Emerge Conference

March 11, 2013
Portland, OR
7:00 PM
Oregon Museum of Science and Industry
Science Pub Night
More information

March 14, 2013
Seattle, WA
7:30 PM
Town Hall Seattle
More information

March 19, 2013
Washington, DC
7:00 PM
Politics & Prose
More information

March 26, 2013
New York, NY
7:00 PM
True Story: Nonfiction at KGB Reading Series

March 29, 2013
Brooklyn, NY
8:00 PM

April 9, 2013
Westport, CT
7:30 PM
Westport Public Library
More information

April 17, 2013
Cambridge, MA
7:00 PM
Museum of Science & Nerd Nite Boston
Science Author Salon
Middlesex Lounge

April 18, 2013
Cambridge, MA
7:00 PM
Building 56, Room 114

June 1, 2013
Arlington, VA
5:30 PM
One More Page Books

July 17, 2013
New York, NY
6:30 PM
New York Public Library
Mid-Manhattan Library

Category: Books, Frankenstein's Cat | Comments Off on Frankenstein’s Cat Book Tour

Wildlife Tracking Addendum (Multimedia Edition)

Last week, I had an op-ed in the New York Times about wildlife tracking–and how modern communications technologies can foster closer relationships with animals.

I got some interesting responses to the piece, including pointers to a few interesting multimedia projects that tap into some of the ideas I discussed. So without further ado:

1. Much of the op-ed followed on the tracking of gray wolves in Yellowstone National Park and the tragic death of a tagged wolf known as wolf 832F. Wolf 832F was shot by a rancher when she wandered outside the park’s boundaries. After my op-ed appeared, Brooks Fahy sent me a link to The Imperiled American Wolf, a 9-minute documentary, made by the nonprofit Predator Defense, about the hunting and trapping of wolves. You can watch the full video here.

2. Someone on Twitter (unfortunately, I can no longer remember who–if it was you, thanks!) steered me toward Bear 71, which calls itself “an interactive documentary.” I’m not sure what I’d call it, but it’s a pretty innovative and interesting experience–and a provocative look at human monitoring of the wild world. You’ve really got to check it out for yourself.

3. Artist Julie Freeman sent me an e-mail about her work The Lake, a piece of digital art tied to the movements of wild fish. As Freeman explains it on her website, “The work used hydrophones, custom software and advanced technology to track the electronically tagged fish in the circular Fringe Lake and translate their movement into an audio visual experience.” Read more here or here.

I don’t have a whole lot of details on any of these projects, but they’re worth checking out on your own.

Category: Animals, Biotechnology, Technology | 1 Comment

Silencing Epilepsy With A Flash of Light

Traditionally, scientists and doctors have sent messages to our brain cells in one of two ways: electrically (via electrodes or chips implanted in the brain) or chemically (hello Xanax, Zoloft, and Ativan). But one of the hottest new fields in science is optogenetics, in which scientists engineer neurons to fire in response to flashes of light.

This improbable and astonishing development makes use of specialized proteins called opsins, which are naturally present in plants, fungi, and bacteria and allow these organisms to respond to light. (Opsins are also present in animal eyes, but optogeneticists tend to use forms of the proteins that are derived from “simpler” lifeforms.) Scientists can take the genes that code for these opsins and inject them directly into the brain, where some neurons will take the foreign DNA segments up into their own genomes. The nerve cells will then start churning out opsins.

Once inside a neuron, opsins work as light-activated channels, regulating the flow of electrically charged particles, or ions, into the cell. Hit the neuron with light, and the channel will open; ions will flow into the cell and change the voltage inside. There are many different kinds of opsins, and they have varied effects–some allow positively charged ions into the neuron and trigger the cell to fire. Others grant entry to negatively charged ions, making a neuron less likely to fire.

By modifying different kinds of neurons to express different types of opsins, scientists can make living brains selectively responsive to light–shine a blue light on the brain, for instance, and some neurons will start firing away. Shine an orange light on the brain and other neurons will go silent.
Continue reading »

Category: Medicine, Neuroscience | Comments Off on Silencing Epilepsy With A Flash of Light

ScienceOnline and Book Galleys

I’m down in North Carolina for a few days for one of my favorite events of the year: Science Online. The gathering is a chance for all of us science journalists, bloggers, and communicators to swap tips and tricks, discuss the future of the field, and just do some good old fashioned socializing at the hotel bar.

As you might expect, many of the 450 science writers who attend each year’s conference have recently written books, and one of the highlights of the conference each year is the chance to peruse these titles–and then win one (or more) to take home. (Last year, I got a copy of Richard Coniff’s The Species Seekers and a galley of Charle Duhigg’s about-to-be-released The Power of Habit.)

This year, I’m especially excited about the book giveaway, because my publisher (Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux) has been kind enough to send 200 (!) galleys of my book, Frankenstein’s Catdown to the conference. This was incredibly generous of them–and will give 200 people a chance to snag a copy of the book before it’s even released. (The book will be published in March.)

If you manage to get your hands on a galley, I’d love to know what you think. If you didn’t make it to the conference this year, or don’t walk away with a copy, never fear–there’s still plenty of time to pre-order the book, which you can do right here.

Category: Books | Comments Off on ScienceOnline and Book Galleys

Dog Tails and Social Signaling: The Long and the Short of It

My dog’s tail is a study in perpetual motion. It wags when he’s happy and when he’s nervous, when he leaves a room and when he enters one, when he stands in a doorway snorting at me in an attempt to communicate his desperate desire for a walk or a toy or a treat. Even late at night, when I’m reading in bed and he’s asleep on the floor beside me, I’ll hear the thwap! thwap! thwap! of his tail, twitching while he slumbers.

Dogs may not have voices, but they have very active tails, and they rely heavily on these furry appendages to communicate. A fast, wagging tail can signal excitement and playfulness, whereas a tail tucked between the legs is a sign of submission. A dog that’s feeling aroused, confident, or aggressive may hold his tail up high, while a relaxed pooch lets his tail hang down lower and looser. These tail movements provide important clues about how a dog is feeling–especially to other canines that may be sharing the same sidewalk or dog park.

That’s another reason, experts have argued, to object to tail docking, a barbaric procedure in which several inches of a puppy’s tail are amputated, often without anesthesia. The pain and suffering that cosmetic tail docking can cause are reason enough to oppose the practice, and they are, indeed, the most commonly mentioned objections. Less often discussed, however, is the possibility that removing  most of a dog’s tail may actually hamper its ability to communicate with the rest of its species.

I recently came across an ingenious little study that illuminates this problem. The study–run by two biologists at Canada’s University of Victoria and published in the journal Behavior in 2008–makes use of my new favorite experimental apparatus: a life-sized robotic dog.
Continue reading »

Category: Animals, Pets | 9 Comments