Category: Science & technology

Science Sunday: The Anti-GMO Crackpots

This week’s science blog is an excuse to point you at Will Saletan’s thorough article exposing the deceptions used by the forces opposed to genetically modified foods. After a year of reporting, he has unveiled a long post thick with links to studies by scientists and claims by anti-GMO activists. It is very very damning. The anti-GMO crowd make the Intelligent Designers look like Marie Curie:

I’ve spent much of the past year digging into the evidence. Here’s what I’ve learned. First, it’s true that the issue is complicated. But the deeper you dig, the more fraud you find in the case against GMOs. It’s full of errors, fallacies, misconceptions, misrepresentations, and lies. The people who tell you that Monsanto is hiding the truth are themselves hiding evidence that their own allegations about GMOs are false. They’re counting on you to feel overwhelmed by the science and to accept, as a gut presumption, their message of distrust.

Second, the central argument of the anti-GMO movement—that prudence and caution are reasons to avoid genetically engineered, or GE, food—is a sham. Activists who tell you to play it safe around GMOs take no such care in evaluating the alternatives. They denounce proteins in GE crops as toxic, even as they defend drugs, pesticides, and non-GMO crops that are loaded with the same proteins. They portray genetic engineering as chaotic and unpredictable, even when studies indicate that other crop improvement methods, including those favored by the same activists, are more disruptive to plant genomes.

Third, there are valid concerns about some aspects of GE agriculture, such as herbicides, monocultures, and patents. But none of these concerns is fundamentally about genetic engineering. Genetic engineering isn’t a thing. It’s a process that can be used in different ways to create different things. To think clearly about GMOs, you have to distinguish among the applications and focus on the substance of each case. If you’re concerned about pesticides and transparency, you need to know about the toxins to which your food has been exposed. A GMO label won’t tell you that. And it can lull you into buying a non-GMO product even when the GE alternative is safer.

Saletan focuses on three examples of anti-GMO nutbaggery. The first the is the ringspot virus-resistant papaya, engineered to save the papaya industry in Hawaii. Environmentalist groups unleashed every trick in the book: claiming it was unsafe to consume a viral protein that people were consuming anyway; claiming it was bankrupting farmers (because of their opposition); claiming it had not been proven safe. All of these were lies and distortions, pushed by people with an agenda.

Next is crops containing Bt — a protein that kills predatory insects. Anti-GMO activists insist that plants contain Bt are poison … when they aren’t claiming they are ineffective. They do this while pushing Bt-containing sprays as safe and sustainable and attributing harms from Bt sprays to Bt-engineered crops.

Finally, he gets to the golden rice, which we’ve mentioned before. The golden rice could save the eyesight of hundreds of thousands of children. Anti-GMO activists opposed it because it didn’t have enough vitamin A. Then opposed because it had too much.

That summary doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. All along the way, the anti-GMO forces have been … well, lying. They distort studies, they misquote studies, they ignore studies that contradict their opinion. They denounce things as dangerous when they come from genetic engineering but proclaim them safe when they come from other means.

Now you might say, “Hey, what’s the harm in labeling GMO foods?” Here’s the harm:

GMO labels don’t clarify what’s in your food. They don’t address the underlying ingredients—pesticides, toxins, proteins—that supposedly make GMOs harmful. They stigmatize food that’s perfectly safe, and they deflect scrutiny from non-GMO products that have the same disparaged ingredients.

In other words, that safe organic banana might actually have more pesticide, more bacteria and more “toxins” than the supposedly dangerous GMO product. Putting a scarlet letter on GMO products isn’t “informing the public”. It’s trying to scare them into supporting an agenda.

This isn’t a trivial matter. Right now, we are seeing the spread of the UG-99 wheat rust. This rust has the potential to wreck the world’s wheat production, causing mass starvation and economic chaos. We desperately need to engineer strains of wheat that can resist the rust. But if the anti-GMO forces get their way, we’ll only be able to use the slow and less certain process of traditional breeding. Millions could die as a result.

(Saletan, like everyone who defends GMO’s, is being accused of being paid off by Monsanto. Monsanto had a clever reply to this.)

Saletan doesn’t ignore legitimate issues with GMO crops, such as the arms race they are creating in weed control. But those are solvable problems. Solvable problems that are not getting enough attention because the green luddites have us focused on the wrong things.

GMO crops are safe. This is the conclusion of every scientific study that has been done. There are issues around GMO’s that need some work. Let’s concentrate on that.

New Horizons is Alive and Well

The last time we did a flyby of a planet, I was in high school. It was 1989 — Bush the Elder was President — and we had a TV on in my physics class showing us a live feed from NASA of the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune. I was enthralled … everyone was. Here was a world we had only glimpsed through a telescope and now it was so close you could touch it.

(I could say something about that inspired me to enter astronomy but that would be a lie. I liked astronomy but it never occurred to me to do it for a living until my junior year of college.)

I felt some of that excitement last night as we awaited the signal from New Horizons that would indicate a successful flyby. And today we have some stunning images coming down. Here is Charon, Pluto’s moon, that was a dot even for the Hubble Space Telescope:

newhorizons-charon_1stlook.jpg.CROP.original-original

You can read some of the details of the picture over at Bad Astronomy.

It’s impossible for me to express how much I love this … all of it. I love the fiddly engineering and amazing work that go into planning a mission. I love the facilities down at Goddard where they do every test imaginable on the hardware of upcoming missions. I love watching the rockets leap from the pad on a pillar of fire. I love the seemingly impossible task of sending a probe over a nine-year three-billion-mile mission and having it still work. I love the technical jargon as the Mission Operations Center monitors the spacecraft (a lot of which I now understand, having worked for a NASA mission). I love the excitement space aficionados and even hardened astronomers feel as the images come down and reveal a distant and mysterious world. It is all exciting and wonderful and thrilling and inspiring.

Here’a closeup of that heart-shaped region of Pluto.

newhorizons_pluto_1stlook.jpg.CROP.original-original

Pluto has vast mountains of ice, canyons miles deep, a surface that was repaved within the last hundred million years by some process we can only guess at right now. In a few hours, New Horizons gathered data that will keep scientists busy for years and may change our understanding of the Kuiper Belt.

I’ve said this before about our space program: this is the way to waste taxpayer money. You want to talk to me about American exceptionalism? This is American exceptionalism. America is defined by many things but our exploration of space has to be our country’s greatest achievement. We’ve sent probes to every planet; we’ve put men on the moon; we’ve glimpsed the fires of creation through space telescopes. No other nation can match us. Russia sorta could for a while (and right now, they’re embarrassingly the only means of getting astronauts into space). Europe sorta can in their European way. India and China are trying to get things going. But when you really break it down, we are the country of space. We are the explorers. We are the pioneers. And this a commitment we should be devoting more resources to, not less.

Last year, the Houston Chronicle ran a great series about the foundering of our space policy. The big problem I see is that no President has been really committed to it. They come up with their pet projects — a mission to Mars, an asteroid capture, a return to the Moon — and that gets vaguely funded only to have another pet project to take its place when the presidency changes hands. What we need is a more realistic long-term strategy, something NASA can commit to for the next twenty years or more. NASA’s focus should be astrophysics, identifying potentially dangerous asteroids, continuing to explore the Solar System with unmanned probes and, most importantly, trying to devise cheaper ways of getting people and cargo into space. The last part is the only way human exploration of space will ever be feasible.

This should go hand-in-hand with supporting private space programs and commercial exploitation of space. What I’d really like to see is a bunch of billionaires get together, pool their funds, and set a course for the next few decades of private space flight, with NASA committed to supporting them.

But that’s tomorrow. Today, enjoy the amazing pictures of a distant world coming down from New Horizons. And thank your stars that you’re part of a species smart enough to think of this and a country rich enough and daring enough to pull it off.

(Post Scriptum: I said this on Twitter, but will mention it here. I sometimes get asked what I think about Pluto no longer being a planet. My opinion is this: call it what you want.

I understand why the change was made. If Pluto is a planet, that means Eris, Haumea, Ceres and Makemake have to be planets, to be consistent. And it means that, in a few decades, we might have identified hundreds of planets. Pluto is very different from the other planets and much more like the vast sea of Kuiper Belt objects that probably lurks out there. This doesn’t take away from Clyde Tombaugh’s achievement. On the contrary, he discovered something even more amazing than Planet X.

But … I really don’t think it would have killed us to just call Pluto a planet for historical reasons. Consistency is, after all, the hobgoblin of small minds. And Pluto doesn’t care what you call it.)

My electricity bill is again going to go up due to stupidity

On the last day of June, the SCOTUS struck down the ludicrous mercury regulations the EPA put together and did so because the whole think stunk and provided no information about the cost. Obama, to show them he is the emperor, issued more ridiculously stupid and horribly costly renewable energy fantasy promises. This fucking guy lives in his own stupid reality. At a time where technical people like
Bill Gates explain why everything points to current renewable energy not being viable, Obama doubles down on the stupid. And Gates is not alone to make that argument: Google, a lefty company if ever anything, agreed with him that current renewable energy technology doesn’t cut it. I have made this point myself. Solar, which was too costly and simply too unreliable and inefficient when Jimmy Carter promised to make us use only that in the late 70s has not come much further in the 4 decades since. Wind is an even bigger joke. The cost vs. return for these technologies not only make them prohibitive, but they are ludicrous and stand in the way of viable technologies (like nuclear).

My electrical bill has all but doubled since Obama took office. My consumption has almost been halved. I am almost paying four times as much as I used to per kWh since Obama put his idiotic ideas into motion, and the only people to make like bandits are those connected to the Obama administration that not only receive massive tax payer subsidized funding and breaks, but benefit from stupid shit like this promise by Obama that forces people being squeezed dry but without the knowledge to know they are being hoodwinked, into giving them even more of their money.

Heck, I now even have some new tax that cock gobbler Maloy socked on those of us not sucking at the government’s teat that takes more of my money to help those unable to pay their bill do so. I bet you none of these people I am now “helping” are trying to either reduce their consumption or dependency on this abusive industry that has so enriched collectivists that pretend they are fighting a noble fight against world destroying evil brown energy. Worse yet, unless I do what one of the government approved scams that line the pocket of supporters of these ludicrous and inefficient technologies peddle, I must not only remain on their grid, but accept the ass fucking they send my way every month, and thank them for it too. At this point I am sure I can come up with alternatives that don’t enrich these evil fucks and cost me less. But they will throw my ass in jail for daring to fight their monopoly.

Why are we letting these people run the show, huh? Greece is showing us where this always ends. And China is going to one up them and really fuck up things. There is not enough “Other people’s money” to let the leftists do what they want. No, not make things better, but fleece the productive while throwing scraps to the unproductive for their envious support. The left loves to pretend that the robber barons are in the party they oppose, but reality doesn’t bear that out. I can’t wait for Iran to get the bomb and start WWIII already. Nothing will end the stupidity of liberalism short of a global cataclysm that finally forces mankind to abandon socialism and the other beliefs the left holds dear. We need a mega dose of harsh reality to cure humanity of this mental disorder.

Science Sunday: New Horizons Back Online

Well, that was a bit nervous-making:

NASA’s New Horizons mission is returning to normal science operations after a July 4 anomaly and remains on track for its July 14 flyby of Pluto.

The investigation into the anomaly that caused New Horizons to enter “safe mode” on July 4 has concluded that no hardware or software fault occurred on the spacecraft. The underlying cause of the incident was a hard-to-detect timing flaw in the spacecraft command sequence that occurred during an operation to prepare for the close flyby. No similar operations are planned for the remainder of the Pluto encounter.

I was bit worried when I heard New Horizons had gone into safe mode, but not terribly. Spacecraft almost always have a “safe mode” they can go into in case of an unexpected error. It’s basically a standby that keeps all the instruments and hardware from potentially being damaged while the ground teams figure out what has happened. In this case, it seems like the software didn’t quite time right (which happens; spacecrafts is complicated). So we’re back in business.

Safe modes are a bit nerve-wracking. But they’re not as nerve-wracking as silence. Thankfully, we appear to be back on track for a great flyby.

Science Sunday: SpaceX Explodes

Ouch:

An unmanned rocket by Elon Musk’s SpaceX on a resupply mission to the International Space Station exploded Sunday just minutes after launch.

It wasn’t clear what caused the rocket, named Dragon, to fail. SpaceX will conduct an investigation overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration.

It was the third resupply mission to fail in recent months. The three astronauts on the space station have about four months worth of supplies, according to NASA.

This is the first big failure for SpaceX, which has had a good track record so far (they’ve had a few failed launches of experimental craft as well). You can follow Phil Plait here who speculates that it was a fuel tank rupture.

I’m a big fan of private space flight and disappointed that Congress is trying to curtail it a bit. The potential savings is good but the potential for breakthrough technology is very large. Hopefully, this won’t be too big a setback.

Science SunMonday: Volcanic Venus

The more we learn about our solar system, the more interesting it gets:

Could there be volcanoes erupting on Venus?

Scientists think the answer is yes based on the latest data from European Space Agency’s Venus Express, which completed an eight-year mission of Earth’s neighboring planet last year.

Using a near-infrared channel of the spacecraft’s Venus Monitoring Camera (VMC) to map thermal emission from the surface, an international team spotted localized changes in surface brightness between images taken only a few days apart.

“We have now seen several events where a spot on the surface suddenly gets much hotter, and then cools down again,” said Eugene Shalygin from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research in Germany, lead author of the paper reporting the results in Geophysical Research Letters.

“These four hotspots are located in what are known from radar imagery to be tectonic rift zones, but this is the first time we have detected that they are hot and changing in temperature from day to day. It is the most tantalizing evidence yet for active volcanism.”

We’ve had hints of this for a long time now: changes in the sulphur content of Venus’ atmosphere, heat signatures of potential volcanos, what appear to be warm lava flows. But this is the clearest evidence yet. This follows on recent evidence of a cryovolcano on Enceladus. We are also seeing some interesting features as probes close in on Ceres and Pluto.

Science Sunday: Philae Revives

Great news from ESA:

Rosetta’s lander Philae has woken up after seven months in hibernation on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The signals were received at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt at 22:28 CEST on 13 June. More than 300 data packets have been analysed by the teams at the Lander Control Center at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).

“Philae is doing very well: It has an operating temperature of -35ºC and has 24 Watts available,” explains DLR Philae Project Manager Dr. Stephan Ulamec. “The lander is ready for operations.”

For 85 seconds Philae “spoke” with its team on ground, via Rosetta, in the first contact since going into hibernation in November.

When analysing the status data it became clear that Philae also must have been awake earlier: “We have also received historical data – so far, however, the lander had not been able to contact us earlier.”

Now the scientists are waiting for the next contact. There are still more than 8000 data packets in Philae’s mass memory which will give the DLR team information on what happened to the lander in the past few days on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Philae shut down on 15 November 2014 at 1:15 CET after being in operation on the comet for about 60 hours. Since 12 March 2015 the communication unit on orbiter Rosetta was turned on to listen out for the lander.

You may remember Philae as the spacecraft that descended to the comet and landed on the surface. The thought was that it landed at an angle in a crater and it’s solar panels were not well-illuminated. It did some experiments before running out of power but there was always hope that, as it got closer to the sun, the increased sunlight would be enough to revive it.

It looks, tentatively, like that’s happening. If so, it’s gravy on the lovely roast that has been Rosetta’s mission. We’ve already gotten tons of awesome data and breath-taking images. Now we’re might get even more.

Welcome back, Philae.

Science Sunday: Chocolate Caper

A few weeks ago, the internet lit up with stories that eating chocolate could help you lose weight. This week, the other shoe dropped: the story was bullshit:

I am Johannes Bohannon, Ph.D. Well, actually my name is John, and I’m a journalist. I do have a Ph.D., but it’s in the molecular biology of bacteria, not humans. The Institute of Diet and Health? That’s nothing more than a website.

Other than those fibs, the study was 100 percent authentic. My colleagues and I recruited actual human subjects in Germany. We ran an actual clinical trial, with subjects randomly assigned to different diet regimes. And the statistically significant benefits of chocolate that we reported are based on the actual data. It was, in fact, a fairly typical study for the field of diet research. Which is to say: It was terrible science. The results are meaningless, and the health claims that the media blasted out to millions of people around the world are utterly unfounded.

The important thing to note here is that they did not fake their results. What they did was use an analysis method that is used by a lot of junk science studies in the arena of health:

Here’s a dirty little science secret: If you measure a large number of things about a small number of people, you are almost guaranteed to get a “statistically significant” result. Our study included 18 different measurements—weight, cholesterol, sodium, blood protein levels, sleep quality, well-being, etc.—from 15 people. (One subject was dropped.) That study design is a recipe for false positives.

Think of the measurements as lottery tickets. Each one has a small chance of paying off in the form of a “significant” result that we can spin a story around and sell to the media. The more tickets you buy, the more likely you are to win. We didn’t know exactly what would pan out—the headline could have been that chocolate improves sleep or lowers blood pressure—but we knew our chances of getting at least one “statistically significant” result were pretty good.

Whenever you hear that phrase, it means that some result has a small p value. The letter p seems to have totemic power, but it’s just a way to gauge the signal-to-noise ratio in the data. The conventional cutoff for being “significant” is 0.05, which means that there is just a 5 percent chance that your result is a random fluctuation. The more lottery tickets, the better your chances of getting a false positive. So how many tickets do you need to buy?

P(winning) = 1 – (1 – p)n

With our 18 measurements, we had a 60% chance of getting some“significant” result with p < 0.05. (The measurements weren’t independent, so it could be even higher.) The game was stacked in our favor.

It’s called p-hacking—fiddling with your experimental design and data to push p under 0.05—and it’s a big problem. Most scientists are honest and do it unconsciously. They get negative results, convince themselves they goofed, and repeat the experiment until it “works.” Or they drop “outlier” data points.

You can see this p-hacking illustrated by XKCD here. A similar hack is sometimes referred to as the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy. The idea is that if you run 100 tests, you will very likely find that one of those tests shows a signal that has a 1% chance of being a coincidence. In fact, as Nate Silver pointed out in his book, if you don’t find that about one in a hundred tests produces a spurious 99% result, you’re doing your statistics wrong.

One of the most infamous was a study in the early 90’s showing that high-tension power lines caused leukemia. Their results was statistically significant. But they tested 800 medical conditions. They were bound to come up with something just by chance.

That’s not to say statistics are useless. It’s to say that they have a context. When you’re testing one specific hypothesis, such as testing if vaccines cause autism, then they are useful. But they can be very deceptive when used in this scattershot approach.

Another illustration is DNA testing. Police in many areas have been doing blind DNA searches of databases to identify suspects in cold cases. When they find their suspect, they claim that the likelihood of a false match is literally one in a million. But these databases have hundreds of thousands of names in them. If you had a specific suspect and other reasons to suspect him, that one in a million stat would mean something. But in a blind search, your odds of finding a match by sheer coincidence is more like one in three.

Bohannon uses the lottery illustration and it’s a perfect one. The odds of any particular person winning the lottery are something like one in tens of millions. But someone is going to beat those odds. Someone always does.

Science — particularly when it comes to health — is littered with these sort of studies: blind searches that find something that then get touted in the media. Vox illustrates it here (point #2). There are statistically significant studies showing both that milk causes and prevents cancer. When you take them all into account, the net risk is basically zero. Of course Vox is in a bit of a glass house, having frequently touted such studies when convenient.

Science Sunday: Gene Editing

Genetic engineering has been with us for about forty years. During that time, it has helped us develop more effective drugs, drought- and disease-resistant crops, and a barrage of genetic tests that can measure your risk for such things as breast cancer. It has also sparked a lot of opposition from those who fear its power as well as luddite hatred from anti-GMO types who have successfully slowed the implementation of such as things as “the golden rice” and therefore condemned thousands of children to unnecessary blindness.

Things took another step a couple of weeks ago, however, when researchers in China used the new CRISPR technology to modify the genes of non-viable human embryos. Does this mean we are on the verge of a real-life Gattaca? Should we be worried about this?

Francis Collins, the NIH Director, makes the case against allowing this kind of research:

It’s also very hard to identify the need for this kind of embryo manipulation for human purposes. If you’re talking about genetic disease, we have pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, which gives couples at risk for genetic disease a chance to avoid that risk without any manipulation of the germline.

Last, there are deep concerns of a philosophical sort, about what it means for human beings to intentionally manipulate their own genomes. If applied broadly and widely, does that result in us being changed into something other than homo sapiens? I don’t think we even have to go to that one to say this is something we shouldn’t do. The safety arguments and lack of medical need trump [these concerns].

Collins gets one thing very wrong in that paragraph: his claim that pre-implantation diagnosis is enough for couples screening for genetic disease. We looked into this when we were doing fertility treatments (Hal 11000 Beta came about the old-fashioned way after fertility failed). Our doctor told us that the diagnosis tech is shaky at best. And with some disorders — such as Down’s — the errors can occur in some cells but not others. So the idea that there is no “need” for this — even assuming we have to show a need to the likes of Collins — is a bit of a reach.1

But Collins hits most of the points probably going through your head: that this kind of research would be unethical, that messing with the human genome is a dangerous road, etc.

The counterpoint is given by Ramez Naan at Marginal Revolution in two posts (here and here).

[Banning this research] is a mistake, for several reasons.

1. The technology isn’t as mature as reported. Most responses to it are over-reactions.

2. Parents are likely to use genetic technologies in the best interests of their children.

3. Using gene editing to create ‘superhumans’ will be tremendously harder, riskier, and less likely to be embraced by parents than using it to prevent disease.

4. A ban on research funding or clinical application will only worsen safety, inequality, and other concerns expressed about the research.

Part 1 I didn’t find terribly interesting. He’s right that CRISPR can’t create viable genetically modified embryos. But the ethical issues remain. Someday, we probably will have that power.

His other points are much more germane. He points out the human genome, like almost everything in the human body, has many moving parts. There is no single gene for high intelligence or good looks. You would have to make massive changes to many parts of someone’s DNA to, say, make them taller. This is why short parents can have tall kids and vice versa — the genetics are far more complex than, say, hair color.

Manipulating IQ, height, or personality is thus likely to involve making a very large number of genetic changes. Even then, genetic changes are likely to produce a moderate rather than overwhelming impact.

Conversely, for those unlucky enough to be conceived with the wrong genes, a single genetic change could prevent Cystic Fibrosis, or dramatically reduce the odds of Alzheimer’s disease, breast cancer or ovarian cancer, or cut the risk of heart disease by 30-40%.

Reducing disease is orders of magnitude easier and safer than augmenting abilities.

That addressed Collins’ major point. There is a medical need for this sort of technology; a big one. One that could be filled very easily and at low risk.

Now, it’s possible we could one day have the technology to modify more complex things like height or intelligence. But that technology is decades away at this point, even assuming it is possible at all. It would require an understanding of genetics, and possibly even more importantly, epigenetics, that is a quantum leap beyond where we are now. It’s something to worry about, but not if its means blocking technology that could cure Cystic Fibrosis.

Naam’s third point is that parents are risk-averse. This plays on the first point. Parents might, in theory, want to give their child a genetic leg up. But the best they might face is a possibility of increasing their child’s IQ by ten points at the potential risk of unknown disorders or complications. While I agree with him, it’s certain that some parents will embrace these risks, especially as the technology matures.

Naam’s final point is basically that this is going to happen. And once it does, there is no putting the genie back in the bottle. If we ban it here, it will pop up in China. If we get China to ban it, it will pop up in India. If we get India to ban it, it will pop up in South Africa.

This is not something we can unlearn. It’s something we have to deal with. At this stage, given the crudeness of the technology, I am more than happy for the NIH to ban research into genetically engineering humans. But that’s kicking the can down the road. At some point, we will have to decide what we will and will not allow and who gets to decide what risks are and are not worth it.

We have, however, been here before. In the 1970’s, there were efforts to ban the very genetic engineering that has been so beneficial to us and brought us to this point. Supporters of the ban included James Watson, one of the discoverers of DNA’s structure, and Al Gore, supposed science luminary (Watson later admitted he was wrong). They failed, barely. And as it turned out, it was for the best. As P.J. O’Rourke noted twenty years ago in All the Trouble in the World:

Biotechnologists could still come up with something awful by accident, not to mention on purpose. Nature does it all the time. Nature is forever inventing things like the bubonic plague, although whether intentionally or not is a question too deep for this state college graduate. But, in the meantime, we’ve got a four-billion-dollar biotech industry that produces cheap insulin, accurate tests for everything from pregnancy to colon cancer, new vaccines, the diagnostic process that keeps the nation’s blood supply freed of AIDS and hepatitis, and hundreds of other products, with thousands more on the horizon — a small price to pay for an occasional giant sheep.

Nature is forever editing the human genome. The possibility of humans tampering with their own genetics is frightening and I think we should take the potential risks seriously. But, given history, it is much more likely to result in the ability to cut the risk of cancer than to produce a race of Uma Thurman clones.

Genetic engineering did play one role in Hal’s birth. Thanks to a new genetic screening technique, we were able to test Hal at ten weeks for potential trisomies with 99% accuracy.</sup