Brilliant, controversial UMass biologist Lynn Margulis dead at 73


According to a statement from the University of Massachusetts where she was a professor of geosciences, Margulis died at her home on Tuesday. She was 73.

Margulis was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which challenges Neo-Darwinism by arguing that inherited variation does not come from random mutations but long-lasting interaction between organisms.

She was also a strong proponent of the Gaia hypothesis that the earth acts as a living organism.

Some say she drifted away from good science in her late career. In April, University of Chicago professor Jerry A. Coyne, author of Why Evolution is True, said her later theories are “bad for science.”

In the last couple decades she’s been going around casting doubt on modern evolutionary theory. She has said, for example, that modern evolutionary biology is “a minor twentieth-century religious sect within the sprawling religious persuasion of Anglo-Saxon biology” and that “Neo-Darwinism, which insists on (the slow accrual of mutations), is in a complete funk.” Since she’s famous, she’s invited many places, and often uses these occasions to dump on modern evolutionary biology. In this respect she may be worse for science than creationists, since her scientific credibility remains high. You may also remember that Margulis “handled” (i.e., allowing it to be published despite dissenting referees) the Williamson paper positing a hybrid origin of the lepidopteran life cycle (caterpillar then adult) through mating of an ancestral volant butterfly with a velvet worm. (The paper was subsequently debunked.)

He was inspired to write by this Discover magazine Q & A with Margulis

From The Daily Hampshire Gazette

AMHERST – World renowned evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis never stopped thinking about science, right up to her untimely death Tuesday at the age of 73.

Two weeks ago, in fact, colleagues say the professor of geosciences at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst was abuzz about an organism she had found in Puffer’s Pond not far from campus.

“She thought it was special and was going to follow up on it right away,” recalled Steve Goodwin, dean of the College of Natural Sciences at UMass Amherst. “That was her. She was always looking for the next new thing.”

Margulis died at her home in Amherst following complications from a stroke last week.


UMass PR obit here.

A former student offer this recollection.

From The Chronicle of Higer Ed.

Science and the 99%: Why some area researchers support Occupy Boston

MIT biologist Jonathan King doesn’t need to look too far to find the influence of the so-called “1%” on the nation’s scientific agenda. The newest, flashiest building on campus is the “David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research,” named for the conservative activist and MIT alum who made his millions in oil, gas and industrial chemicals.

There, the focus is on genomics, nanotechnology and personalized medicine. But, King said research there and elsewhere fails to fully explore cancer causes – like chemical exposures— or how to prevent the disease. In the wider world of science, the link between toxins and disease is on no one’s radar, he says.

“It doesn’t even occur to them that, well, maybe these cancers are due to exposure to a class of carcinogens that are not nutritional, but are chemical and if you identify them, you could cut down the incidence of the disease,” King says

Such thinking might indict oil and chemical companies, he said. Like Koch Industries, for example. In a poll on the website “Who are the 1%?” from the lefty Brave New Foundation, the Koch Brothers are running No. 2, second only to Fox News boss Rupert Murdoch. (See this New Yorker story and this NNB post for the Koch’s response to the charge that their operations harm the environment.)

Researchers like King who support the protesters at Occupy Boston say science is losing out as more of the nation’s wealth is channeled into the hand of the elite. Academic scientists are scrambling for private sponsors to survive in an era of NIH austerity budgets. That means more of the scientific agenda will be profit-driven and in the private domain.

Those keen on smaller government might applaud that shift. But Boston University physics professor Pankaj Mehta sees it as a huge transfer of wealth from public to private interests, with no benefit to the public.

“I think this a part of a larger process that is taking away our commons —the common goods that society needs to function properly,” says Mehta, who has three “Occupy Boston” flyers on his office door. “A science for the people — a public science — is a common that everyone can benefit from.”

So Mehta, who arrived at BU this year from Rutgers, is working with the occupiers. Along with several other academics, he launched the Occupy Boston Howard Zinn Memorial Lectures, named for the late activist, historian and BU professor. Mehta urged other academics to join the movement when he took the open-air Dewey Square stage in October to introduce Zinn’s compatriot, MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky.

“Knowledge is a public good and part of making money scarce…inherently it become more commodified and available to only those with power and money,” Mehta said later.(For more on this argument, see the book Science in the Private Interest by Tufts’ Urban Studies Professor Sheldon Krimsky.)

At Mehta’s request, King will be giving one of those Zinn lecture, his entitled “Science for the 99 %.”

And while most of area schools have their own Occupy links, not everyone on campus supports the effort. A group of student has started a petition to end the Harvard Yard occupation, which led Harvard to restrict access to the students, staff and faculty. (The closure of Harvard Yard has created major detour for Harvard Square foot traffic. So the petition may be as much about logistics as it is about politics.) The full list of signers isn’t available, but a management student named Ali Evans offered this comment: “Occupy Harvard doesn’t make sense. We are the 1%. Enjoy it.”

Over at MIT, editorial writer and chemistry major Rachel Bandler slammed the effort in the student paper, The Tech.

“The Occupy movement shrugs aside personal responsibility and scapegoats “the one percent,” and this is not an attitude that will strengthen America," she wrote.

Next: More on Boston student scientists and Occupy Boston.

Activists and renegade MIT hacker indicted for electronic B&E

My local paper has the scoop on Aaron Swartz.

A Cambridge man has been indicted on charges of breaking and entering, larceny of electronic data, and unauthorized access to a computer network in connection with the illicit downloading of millions of academic articles, Middlesex District Attorney Gerry Leone informed the public today.

Aaron Swartz, 25, of Cambridge, was indicted today on charges of Breaking and Entering with Intent to Commit a Felony, Larceny over $250, and Unauthorized Access to a Computer Network by a Middlesex Superior Grand Jury.

He will be arraigned in Middlesex Superior Court on November 30 at 9am in courtroom 440.

“The defendant violated the trust of a not-for-profit organization by taking advantage of his contrived electronic anonymity and stealing an astounding amount of academic journals over several months, going so far as to physically break into a MIT server room in order to continue his theft undisturbed,” District Attorney Leone said. “The defendant caused an entire academic community to be cut off from the information it utilizes for several days, and the steps he took to accomplish his thievery were criminal.”

More on the case from:

The Chronical of HIgher Ed

MIT Tech

Who needs a PR team? TV news hypes Brigham stem cell study

Researchers, including a team from The Brigham and Women’s Hosptial, got some help hyping a very preliminary study on cardiac stem cells presented at the ongoing American Heart Association Meeting.

As we suggested earlier this week, see CardioBrief for sensible reporting on this story and others from the meeting.

Hype Aside, Hope for Stem Cell Therapy May Be Emerging From Hibernation

The (MSNBC) story offered no meaningful discussion of the limitations of the research,

failed to explain that only 8 of 16 patients had been followed for a year, and

offered no independent perspective – offering only one of the researchers


He notes “recurring themes” in the stories: "Tyranny of the anecdote…Money quote keeps paying dividends…EXCITEMENT!…Diane Sawyer discussed on the air how “excited” correspondent Richard Besser was. Hmm. Is that the job of journalism to convey how excited a reporter is? … CBS used cure and breakthrough in the same headline. At least they added: "But other experts expressed caution.As we suggested earlier this week, see CardioBrief for sensible reporting on this story and others from the meeting.

For more on how the press gets it right and gets it wrong a bit too often, see Health News Review.

Can the Terriers top Harvard in the lab to win the college inventors prize?

In the opening scene of the movie “The Social Network,” the Mark Zuckerberg character tell his soon-to-be-ex girlfriend that she doesn’t need to get home to study. Why? You go to BU, the socially-inept Harvard lad tells her.

My BU class rolled their eyes when we watched that scene in a session on film reviews. (Let that serve as my disclosure.) But, if all goes well for Kyle Allison, a College of Engineering PhD candidate, the Terriers have one over Harvard. And, it will be in the lab, not on the ice.

Allison is one nine graduate students who yesterday presented their work to a panel as part of the annual Collegiate Inventors Competition. More here from the university’s BU Today website.

Allison (ENG’12), a College of Engineering PhD candidate, is one of nine graduate finalists (working on six projects) in the contest, which drew some 100 entries from around the United States and Canada. The sole BU student among the finalists, Allison was tapped for his invention of a simple and inexpensive therapy for persistent infections, a pervasive health problem worldwide.

Persistent infections are caused by bacteria that go into hibernation, only to revive later and wreak havoc. They play a role in bacterial pneumonia, which is the number one killer of children worldwide, and they are a cause of chronic staphylococcus infections such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus). They are particularly hard to treat, because the dormant bacteria do not absorb the antibiotics commonly used to treat infections.The Boston Herald did a story on the contest. The Harvard team, which invented a new surgical drill, gets profiled. Allison gets mentioned.

Check out that project and the other finalists here.

Tracking Boston research at the ongoing heart meeting

CardioBrief offers reliable reporting from the American Heart Association meeting.

This morning’s tweet @cardiobrief:

One thought about MI FREEE: We can’t even give away life-saving drugs away for free!

Here is the report on medication compliance and free samples released today from

Brigham and Women’s Hospital. From the NEJM publication:

In conclusion, in this randomized trial, the elimination of patient copayments for secondary prevention after myocardial infarction did not significantly reduce rates of the composite primary outcome. We did observe beneficial effects on secondary clinical outcomes, including rates of total major vascular events or revascularization procedures, as well as on rates of first major vascular events and patients’ out-of-pocket spending. The intervention did not change overall health spending. This simple strategy may contribute to ongoing efforts to improve the quality of care for patients after myocardial infarction.

Also out of Boston:

Although medically ill patients remain at risk for VTE after hospital discharge, a strategy of extended oral anticoagulation with apixaban did not prove successful in the ADOPT (Apixaban Dosing to Optimize Protection from Thrombosis) trial, which was presented by Samuel Z Goldhaber at the American Heart Association and published simultaneously in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Energy talks at MIT range from pronuke to anti-coal

At MIT, energy research tends to be industry friendly, and a talk on Monday promises to be no exception Prof. Richard Lester, Head of the Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, will be promoting his new book on energy innovation. Lester is a strong advocate of nuclear power as one of the answers to the declining stores of fossil fuel.

But then on Tuesday, a groups of activists artists from Maine will come to campus with" the collaboratively designed large-scale posters which weave together narratives and sharply examined social consequences of technological change." Their target – coal and mountaintop mining

This on the Lester talk:

RIchard Lester will discuss key ideas from his forthcoming book titled “Unlocking Energy Innovation: How America Can Build a Low-Cost, Low-Carbon Energy System,” co-authored by Prof. David M. Hart of George Mason University. 

Energy innovation offers the best chance to solve the three urgent and interrelated problems of climate change, worldwide insecurity over energy supplies, and rapidly growing energy demand. But if we are to achieve a timely transition to reliable, low-cost, low-carbon energy, the U.S. energy innovation system must be radically overhauled. Lester and Hart map three waves of energy innovation to show how we can speed up the introduction of new technologies and business models and accelerate their deployment on a massive scale.

5 pm, 25 Ames St. Open to: the general public

For more information, contact:
MIT Energy Club

Then, the next day:

The True Cost of Coal: The Beehive Design Collective ’s Depiction of a Complex Socio-Technical Issue

Stata Center 32 Vassar Street, room 141

The Beehive Design Collective, based in Machais, Maine, are presenting their collaboratively designed large-scale posters which weave together narratives and sharply examined social consequences of technological change. This exciting event will be interactive with discussion of the process of creating such a work followed with an interactive workshop. 
The True Cost of Coal is dense with metaphors drawn from the natural world. It is rooted in history, grounded in the grinding urgency of Mountain Top Removal, fueled by the looming threat of climate change, and guided by the robust, grassroots resistance of everyday Appalachians. touring the country It is about communities envisioning, building, and defending a better world every day, in a million ways. 
Art supplies will be provided, as will refreshments.