I can’t say that I’m surprised, but what Francis Collins presented in his talk last night at Caltech as constituting evidence for God’s existence was utterly unconvincing. However, what he said and the questions which followed were vastly better framed, less offensive, and in some important respects much closer to the truth than the talk that Richard Dawkins gave at Caltech in 2006 when he was touring for his book The God Delusion (which was ultimately so unpleasant and ill conceived that even I, an atheist who basically agrees with Dawkins’ criticisms of religion, am unable to recommend it). You can watch or listen to an earlier version of Collins’ talk on the Veritas Forum website. It’s in support of his own book, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Went to Francis Collins’ afternoon talk “fireside chat” with David Baltimore on the future of medicine, as illuminated by genomic work. Too much introduction and rambling biographical information, but some good discussion anyway. I thought his best comments had to do with the positive effects of the open data model that the Human Genome project initiated – it’s had a long lasting impact on the entire field of genomics, and thank goodness! Also, he mentioned that as of now, there aren’t any major studies seeking to correlate and analyze the relationships between genotypes, phenotypes, and environment in the human population, and that such a study is really what’s needed to truly understand what’s actually heritable, what our real low frequency (rare allele) genetic variation is like, and what kinds of effects environmental factors play. He pointed out, interestingly, that we don’t need to wait until thousand dollar genomes are available to start this study – what we need to do is get people signed up, and start tracking their health history and environmental factors, and we can sequence them when it becomes cheap enough. He suggested that we ought to do this for roughly 500,000 people, and that it would likely cost on the order of half a billion dollars a year, and need to run for a few decades. And then we’d know, and medicine would be forever changed. He also suggested that those $1000 genomes are likely on the order of 5 years away. Really, once we’ve got fast, cheap sequencing – this study will almost do itself, so long as we can at some point get access to the medical histories and genomes of people. The real value add is in starting it now, so we have the information as soon as possible, and in getting all the environmental/lifestyle data, in addition to the healthcare records.
It turns out that Pasadena has a wonderful little theater called The Boston Court. It’s a non-profit organization, producing some classics, but perhaps more interestingly, also some first-run original pieces by SoCal playwrites. Michelle saw an adaptation of the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh there last year, and we went and saw 1001, a story weaving the Arabian Nights with commentary on the modern Arab-Israeli coflict and the War on Terror. The casts are essentially dedicated amateurs – the auditions page lists a $300 rehearsal stipend, plus $25/performance. The space is so small that there is no need for amplified sound, and the sets are fairly minimalist. They have student discounts and matinees, and late night salons for discussion after the plays are performed. I have a hard time imagining a better setting and scale for theater. Even better, it’s easy biking distance, and they seem to have a bent toward plays that are relevant to the modern world.
On Friday, we went to see The Sequence, by Paul Mullin, who has also written about Louis Slotin’s death during the Manhattan Project due to a criticality accident while “tickling the dragon’s tail’, and The Ten Thousand Things, an exploration of the meaning of deep time in human society, inspired by The Clock of the Long Now. The Sequence is a play about the Human Genome Project, and the race between Craig Venter‘s Celera, and the publicly funded project headed by Francis Collins, to complete the sequence first, and also about a young journalist, Kellie Silverstein, who is covering the race, who struggles with her own genetic destiny, knowing that her mother died from breast cancer due to the BRCA1 mutation, which she likely also carries. The Sequence was commissioned by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Ironically, Mullin cannot afford to be a professional playwrite, and instead works in a clerical position at Amgen to pay the bills. Like Copenhagen, the play has only three characters.