Published by
Stanford Medicine



Humor, Neuroscience, Research, Videos

Late nights in the lab, expressed through song

Late nights in the lab, expressed through song

Like many others out there, my favorite thing to listen to this summer was “Get Lucky.” (Totally superior to that other Pharrell hit.) An earworm of a song, it launched tons of parodies – but it’s the latest, from the UC-San Diego Neurosciences Graduate Program – that managed to win my heart. I’ve never worked in a lab, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate classic lyrics like this:

She’s up all night to pipette
I’m up all night to collect
She’s up all night, no regrets
I’m up all night to get data

I highly recommend watching the video. But don’t blame me if you find yourself humming the chorus the rest of the day.

Via The Next Regeneration
Video by 123comicbro

Bioengineering, Events, Humor, Neuroscience, Science, Stanford News, Technology

Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?

Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?

cyborgA few weeks ago, I blogged about the past half-century’s startling advances in computer competence. Referring obliquely to the Turing test, I mused, “Makes me wonder: Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?”

A week later, as fate would have it, I showed up in a classroom on Stanford’s quad for a discussion between UC-Berkeley philosopher John Searle, PhD, and Stanford artificial-intelligence expert Terry Winograd, PhD, concerning a similar-sounding but subtly deeper question: “Can a computer have a mind?”

Failed philosophy major that I am (see confession), I refrained from raising my hand while Searle recapped his famous “Chinese room” argument. “I don’t understand a word of Chinese,” he told the audience. But were you to arm him with sufficient instructions for responding to myriad character combinations with counterpart character-combination outputs, he claimed, he might be able to fool a remote observer into concluding otherwise. (Philosophers are always “claiming” something or other. How nostalgic!)

Sure, machines might be able to “think” in the sense of manipulating symbols, said Searle. But when it comes to consciousness, such “thoughts” do not a mind make. Syntax (the manipulation of symbols – nothing but ones and zeroes, in this case) isn’t the equivalent of semantics (the effects of those manipulations on our consciousness: in a word, “meaning.)

“We still don’t know how the brain creates consciousness,” Searle said, arguing that to fully understand subjectivity, it will be necessary not merely to simulate brain function but to duplicate it. (A street map is not the same as the city it’s a map of.) That’s a comforting constraint for carbon-based throwbacks such as myself, who would like to feel our dominance is assured, at least for a while, by the excruciating nested complexity of the biological components-within-components-within-components of the human brain.

Aha! The Devil is in the details. (The Tom Südhofs of the world are busily working those out as I write this). Score one for biology: A ones-and-zeroes-based gizmo, which can’t even sprout body hair, may never acquire that precious thing called “consciousness.” At least, not on its own.

But what if nanotech and biotech team up?

Once upon a time before coming to Stanford , I wrote an article titled “The 21st Century Meets the Tin Woodsman” and subtitled: “Can Joe Six-Pack compete with Sid Cyborg?” Consider a scenario wherein computation- and communication-enabled nanoparticles, ingested in a pill, float through the blood-brain barrier and seat themselves at each of the quadrillion or so nerve-cell to nerve-cell contact points in a person’s central nervous system:

With nanobots monitoring every critical neural connection’s involvement in a thought or emotion or experience, you’ll be able to back up your brain – or even try on someone else’s – by plugging into a virtual-reality jack. The brain bots feed your synapses the appropriate electrical signals and you’re off and running, without necessarily moving. If nanotechnology gets traction, all bets are off, because whoever’s packing those brain bots will be infinitely more intelligent than mortal meat puppets like me … I hope our sleek semiconducting successors like pets, because, while the mammalian herding instinct ensures that many of us will go along for the ride, characteristic human obstinacy ensures that many will not.

Call me obstinate. To the best of my knowledge, I’m still 100 percent human. But in ten or twenty years, at the rate things are going, how will I be able to be sure you are, too?

Previously: Step by step, Sudhof stalk the devil in the details, snagged a Nobel, Half-century climb in computer’s competence colloquially captured by Nobelist Michael Levitt and Brains of different people listening to the same piece of music actually respond in the same way
Photo by Javi

History, Humor, Medicine and Literature, Science, Technology

Half-century climb in computer's competence colloquially captured by Nobelist Michael Levitt

Half-century climb in computer's competence colloquially captured by Nobelist Michael Levitt

ancient computerOn October 9, the day Stanford macromolecule-modeling maven Michael Levitt, PhD, won his Nobel Prize, I wrote him a note of congratulations.

He wrote back six days later: “Thanks so much. It has been one wild ride! It will be good for the field, though, and I will learn to disappear and still have time for myself.” It’s a wonder he got back to me as soon as he did, crushed as he must feel by the cheering throngs dogging him at every turn since Nobel day. But he has made a point of replying quickly and gracefully to not only well-wishers but deadline-driven reporters.

Although his Nobel was for chemistry, the lab Levitt operates in is stocked with shelves full of ones and zeroes. His expertise lies in the field of computer science, a field of which Alfred Nobel had no inkling when he created the awards in his final will, written in 1895.

As we all know, Nobel made his millions in the explosives field. No explosion he could have imagined in 1895 has been more profound, in recent decades, than the explosion in computing power pithily encapsulated in Moore’s law. In the late 1960s, Levitt began constructing his increasingly detailed simulations of the giant biomolecules that animate our cells and, in a sense, our souls as well, by pumping punchcards into what was then among the world’s most potent computers (dubbed Golem in memory of a powerful, soulless giant of medieval Jewish folklore) at Israel’s Weizmann Institute.

Since those seminal days, the ones-and-zeroes game has picked up speed. Responding to an e-mailed query from science writer Lisa Krieger of the San Jose Mercury News, Levitt put it this way:

The computer that I used in 1968 allowed me 300 [kilobytes] of memory, or about 1/10,000th of the memory on a smart phone. [An extremely complex,  fifty-step computation] took 18 minutes on the Golem computer… for a cost of about five million 1965 U.S. dollars ($35 million today). The same calculation takes 0.18 seconds on an Apple MacMook PRO laptop costing $3,500. This means that the calculation is… 6,000 times faster on a computer costing… 10,000 times less.

If cars had changed in the same way, Levitt drolly noted, “a 1965 Cadillac that cost $6,000 in 1965 dollars ($40,000 today) would actually cost just four dollars. More amazingly, it would have a top speed of 600,000 miles an hour and be able to carry 50,000 people.”

Makes me wonder: Just how long will it be before we can no longer tell our computers from ourselves?

Previously: But is it news? How the Nobel Prize transformed noteworthy into newsworthy, Nobel winner Michael Levitt’s work animates biological processes, No average morning for Nobel winner Michael Levitt and Stanford’s Michael Levitt wins 2013 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
Photo by kalleboo

Humor, Research

A flowchart for debating scientific studies?

A flowchart for debating scientific studies?

Nerd alert: I love flowcharts. They can be used to learn the structure of an organization, find a solution to a problem, or determine if all connections really do lead back to actor Kevin Bacon. I’ve even used them as a self-diagnosis tool (allergies or sinus infection?). Well, it turns out flowcharts may also be useful when it comes to research. Dylan Matthews at’s Wonkblog has come up with one for scientific studies called “How to argue with research you don’t like.”

The argument guide provides readers with a range of reasoned responses in a debate, from “This is a major contribution of unparalleled rigor” to “I urge you to tell the thousands this program has helped that it has failed to make their lives better.” You might want to put a few in your pocket.


Humor, Medicine and Society

Discussing "urgent" matters in medical paperwork

Discussing "urgent" matters in medical paperwork

Apparently writers aren’t the only ones repelled by exclamation points: In an essay on NEJM Journal Watch, the blog’s editor-in-chief Paul Sax, MD, describes in bullet points why extreme punctuation and other editorial overstatements make irritating, and sometimes unnecessary, demands on doctors’ time. Especially when delivered by fax.

From the piece:

  • It’s “Urgent.” Not just Urgent, but urgent!!! How do we know? Look, the word has squiggly underlining — that means it must be really important. But one might wonder why it’s so important when, as mentioned above, the care has already been given (and, for the record, the patient no longer needs their services, he’s much improved). Could it be that that the definition of “urgent” for this company differs quite substantially from a clinician’s? To a clinician, examples of “urgent” problems include a patient who is short of breath, or bleeding, or having chest pain. For this company, “urgent” means “we want to be paid as soon as possible.”

The whole post is an amusing – if maddening – read.

Via Common Health

Big data, Events, Humor, Stanford News, Technology

Big laughs at Stanford's Big Data in Biomedicine Conference

Big laughs at Stanford's Big Data in Biomedicine Conference

Last week’s high-powered Big Data in Biomedicine Conference, held on Stanford’s campus, featured more than 40 speakers and several hundred participants grappling with the massive challenges of harnessing the growing flood of relevant data that’s soaking the fields of patient care and medical research.

Sound deadly? In fact, the talks were punctuated every five minutes or so by belly laughs. In my write-up of the three-day event, I managed to include one causal zinger, a comment by opening speaker John Hennessy, PhD, Stanford University’s president and a computer scientist by training:

If cars had made as much progress as computers over the past several decades, you’d be able to drive across the country for a dime in one of them and then pack it up and stick in your shirt pocket.

But I had to leave a whole lot of great material out – for instance, this aside by Atul Butte, MD, PhD, the conference’s principal organizer, upon noting that the amount of data generated globally each year is now measured in zettabytes (the prefix “zetta” referring to the number “1” followed by 21 zeroes): “I’ll freely admit that most of those zettabytes are kittens playing the piano!”

And here’s keynoter David Ewing Duncan, author of the book “The Experimental Man” and a human guinea pig who has had himself tested more than a thousand times for tens of thousands of genetic traits including behavioral ones, on learning that he is at “very high risk” for a deficiency in empathy: “I don’t know quite what to think about that. And I don’t care what you think about it.”

Previously: Image of the Week: The Experimental Man at Big Data in Biomedicine, A call to use the “tsunami of biomedical data” to preserve life and enhance health and Mining medical discoveries from a mountain of ones and zeroes

Humor, Videos

Depressed? Ask your doctor about tacos

Depressed? Ask your doctor about tacos

During last week’s break, I came across (and spent a good amount of time laughing over) a new parody video from Jeff Wysaski. The video pokes fun at pharmaceutical ads by promoting the use of tacos (yes, tacos) to fight depression – and April Fool’s Day seems like the perfect time to share it.

Via Grub Street

Humor, In the News, Stem Cells, Videos

Learning and laughing: CIRM's elevator pitch contest

Learning and laughing: CIRM's elevator pitch contest

I’m having WAY too much fun this morning reviewing entrants in the most recent competition sponsored by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. This contest pits scientists against one another as they battle not for funding, but for the title of the ‘best elevator pitch.’ The idea, as described here by the institute’s senior director of public communications Kevin McCormack and communications manager (and my friend!) Amy Adams, is to help researchers improve their ability to describe their lab work as articulately and quickly as possible.

Amy and Kevin have great fun parodying exactly how bad some scientists can be at explaining their work, while encouraging grantees to take their turn in front of the camera during a meeting earlier this month. (Amy’s white knuckle grip on her coffee cup while a researcher gabbles on about gliogenesis in infant monkeys made me laugh out loud.) You can see all the entrants on CIRM’s YouTube channel – including several from Stanford.

Continue Reading »

Bioengineering, Humor, Immunology, In the News, Infectious Disease, Microbiology, Research

Gutnik? NASA to launch colon-inhabiting bacteria into space

You’ve heard of Sputnik, that little tiny antenna-clad chunk of metal heaved into low orbit on October 4, 1957, effectively kicking off the Space Age?

Well, make way for Gutnik. A news release issued by NASA’s Ames Research Center foretells the launch into space of a satellite inhabited by a bunch of nano-mariners who, left to their own devices, would no doubt rather curl up inside a bowel.

Sometime in the next one to three years, according to the release, a so-called “nanosatellite” weighing about 30 pounds and peopled by the intestinal bug E. coli will streak into the sky, with the mission of amassing data on whether the zero-gravity environment that cloaks our planet might increase microbes’ resistance to antibiotics. That’s important, because, as the release states:

Bacterial antibiotic resistance may pose a danger to astronauts in microgravity, where the immune response is weakened. Scientist believe that the results of this experiment could help design effective countermeasures to protect astronauts’ health during long-duration human space missions.

E. coli is probably the most-studied micro-organism in all of science. While most strains are harmless and actually quite friendly (producing vitamin K for us, just to name one of the nice things they do), some of them can cause food poisoning, urinary-tract infections and more.

Gutnik (whose real name is EcAMSat) is the brainchild of Stanford microbiologist A.C. Matin, PhD, the principal investigator for the joint NASA/Stanford University School of Medicine project. Matin’s previous inventions include microbes capable of gobbling up environmental toxins like uranium and chromium, as well as magnetic-field-seeking bacteria that can increase the contrast of magnetic-resonance imaging. So this new satellite caper is just one more in a series of wild but potentially very useful feats of imagination.

The thing that really knocks me out, though, is how all these scientists and engineers will manage to get those billions of little tiny bugs to sit still while the chin straps on their little tiny space helmets are being fastened.

Previously: Space: A new frontier for doctors and patients and Outer-space ultrasound technologies land on Earth
Photo by Per Olof Forsberg

Humor, Public Health, Videos

Mixing humor and pop culture to boost flu shot rates

Mixing humor and pop culture to boost flu shot rates

My colleague wrote today about how researchers at Johns Hopkins have devised a new method to track flu trends using Twitter. Over on Healthland, Bonnie Rochman writes about the use of social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube to communicate important public health messages that are fun, engaging and easy to understand for patients.

In the above video, Zubin Damania, MD, better known as ZDoggMD, parodies pop boy band One Direction to spread the importance of getting the flu vaccine. The video was produced and first screened at Zappos’ all-employee meeting in August, and the online company says there’s been a 35 percent increase in flu shot adoption over the previous flu season.

Previously: Bay Area hospitalist raps about ulcers

Stanford Medicine Resources: