THE FAT SWITCH
In “The Fat Gene,” Richard J. Johnson and Peter Andrews argue that ancient apes adjusted to seasonal scarcity by storing fat. What started the seasonal fat accumulation? “Fruit sugar (fructose)” obtained by gorging on fruit flipped “the fat switch” on.
But in the conclusion, the authors say that we should be “cutting way back on our fructose intake—and getting most of it from fresh fruit” (emphasis mine). So which is it? Does eating fruit flip the fat switch on, or does it not?
According to the article, our ancestors lost the ability to produce uricase millions of years ago. There are clear downsides to this mutation, but it conveys advantage in times of famine. Is there a similar explanation for our inability to produce ascorbic acid (vitamin C)?
THE AUTHORS REPLY: Regarding Cliffe's question, what seems to be a contradiction is really not one. People today mainly get fructose from added sugars, such as table sugar (sucrose) and the high-fructose corn syrup in many sweet beverages and confections. Fruits also contain fructose, but the types of fruit that humans consume have much less fructose and more antioxidants than the very ripe kinds that various animals, such as orangutans, bears and certain types of fish, gorge on to help increase fat stores needed to survive famine. Eating fresh fruit provides us with some of the sweetness that we like but does not give large doses of fructose, and its antioxidants, including vitamin C, can block some of the effects of fructose.
In response to Pender, we have postulated that the mutation that led to the loss of our ability to make vitamin C may have conferred a survival advantage on our ancestors by, again, increasing our ability to store fat. Viewed this way, humans can be considered to have lost two genes—one affecting uricase and the other affecting the ability to produce vitamin C—whose absence helped our ancestors during famine but, in today's world, may be increasing our risk for obesity and diabetes.
I greatly appreciate your “How Big Is Science?” graphic article, which compares the investment in science in the U.S. with that in other countries and other projects, particularly national security projects. Highlighting the cost of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the most expensive in the Pentagon's history, brings into stark relief how skewed our national priorities are.
Your readers should know, however, that the cost over the life cycle of the program has been estimated to be $1.4 trillion, more than 3.5 times greater than the Department of Defense's recent program cost estimate of $391.1 billion, which is reported in your graphic. This expense, and the program's troubled history, has made the F-35 the poster child for the Pentagon's mismanagement of taxpayer funds. And unlike many of the programs highlighted in your graphic, it appears that the F-35 will be worse at performing the missions than the legacy platforms it is designed to replace. This is even more evidence that spending on science is dwarfed by the significant costs of our weapons program.
Director, Center for Defense Information's Straus Military Reform Project, Project On Government Oversight
Jessica Wapner's article, “Deadly Drug Combinations” [The Science of Health], was excellent but did not mention that pharmacists, such as myself, are probably a better choice than physicians to check for drug, food and supplement interactions. Pharmacies are equipped with drug-interaction software, which pharmacists use when they dispense a prescription. They will alert the prescriber to any potentially dangerous drug interactions so that a more appropriate and safer drug regimen can be selected for the patient.
MIKE M. NAMBA
“More Evidence, Less Poverty,” by Dean Karlan, demonstrated a scientific approach to economic change refreshing to one who, like me, is dumbfounded by the abstruse, casuistic thinking of professional economists. Unfortunately, the author's ego was not constrained by your editors' blue pencil. Others' useful work in this freshly turned and important field might have been mentioned. For example, studies similar to Karlan's, including assessments of microloan programs, have been done by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, both at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Further, I long for an article by a political scientist who uses such approaches to demonstrate how civic engagement might be encouraged. In particular, Big Data has transformed “get out the vote” campaigns.
“A Greenhouse Gas Surprise,” by Mark Fischetti [Graphic Science], illustrates a comparison between nations' total carbon dioxide emissions and their emissions per capita. A somewhat more interesting metric is the amount of greenhouse gases emitted per capita of gross domestic product (GDP). On that scale, France looks very good, the U.S. not extreme (close to the median), and Russia and China pretty bad. How do the French do it? Nuclear power.
Stefan Theil's “Trouble in Mind” asks whether the failure of the Human Brain Project was from “poor management” or “something fundamentally wrong with Big Science.” A better answer is that although “reverse engineering the human brain” is Big Science, it is also rather low-quality and low-productivity science.
The political climate is such that Big Science programs are attractive, but high-quality projects are not that prevalent. I suggest that such a high-quality project would be the creation of a worldwide initiative to compile and correlate information from the already monstrous neuroscience database. Besides collecting, standardizing, indexing, organizing and summarizing all neuroscience-related data, the project would develop software for finding obscure correlations among a myriad of neuroscience terms, concepts and results, which would likely speed the translational process to improvements in quality of life.
J. WALTER WOODBURY
Professor emeritus of physiology University of Utah
In “Hackers at the Wheel” [TechnoFiles, November], David Pogue incorrectly states that remote hacking of a Jeep described in a Wired article had involved researchers working on the Jeep's software for three years and that such hacks require physical access to vehicles. The researchers had spent more than a year learning how to hack the Jeep and assert that only remote access would be needed to complete such a hack.