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Category: Science

Notes on Rebecca Skloot's appearance at ALOUD

Rskloot Rebecca Skloot spoke to a full house at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday night as part of its ALOUD series. I understand that close to 50 people waited in a standby line, but none was able to get in -- every seat was full.

I was lucky. My seat was on the stage.

My job was to interview Skloot about her book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." The book tells the story of Henrietta Lacks, an African American whose cells -- the HeLa cells -- were the first human cells to reproduce in a laboratory. They became the building block of countless significant medical advancements in the 20th century, including the polio vaccine, cancer research, virology and much more. Skloot told the audience that typing "HeLa" into databases of scientific papers produces an impossible deluge of results -- like typing the word "and" into Google.

Skloot dug into the past to learn about the woman Henrietta Lacks, who died in 1951. She read the opening passage of her book, in which Lacks and her husband, David, pull up in front of Johns Hopkins Hospital and she goes in to see a doctor. Afterward, Skloot explained how she was able to make the passage so vivid: not just getting stories from people who'd been there, but checking and cross-checking them, finding archival photos and asking questions like, what kind of tree is this? and this car, is it a Buick?

While the HeLa cells were manufactured by the millions and distributed worldwide, Lacks as a person was nearly completely forgotten. Skloot served as a detective, and her search is part of the story in the book. 

She wasn't just looking for herself, or by herself. Lacks left five children in Baltimore, and Skloot became friends with her daughter Deborah.

Earning her trust wasn't easy. Lacks' children grew up in poverty, sometimes in abusive households, and their education was limited. They had no idea their mother's cells had been taken -- there was no concept of informed consent at the time, Skloot explained -- until they were contacted by a researcher in the 1970s. The miscommunication, misunderstandings and a con man or two that followed left the family feeling betrayed by anyone who was interested in the HeLa cells.

HeLa cells were bought and sold by large and profitable medical companies; the Lacks family could not, and still cannot, afford health insurance. Skloot explained that while many parts of the story are about race, Deborah made it clear that to her it was about class.

The family continues to struggle with poverty. Some of the proceeds from the book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" go to the Henrietta Lacks Foundation; Skloot spoke about the grants it has made for books for Lacks' grandchildren and for the descendents of others who were medical subjects without their knowledge, such as those in the Tuskegee experiment that deliberately withheld treatment for syphilis patients.

Skloot was a science writer who spent a decade working on this book. In it she combines history, the story of the cells, their reproduction and impact, and the story of the Lacks family. "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" is headed to the screen at the hands of Oprah Winfrey, HBO and Alan Ball.

A video of Skloot's appearance at ALOUD will be posted online -- not sure when, exactly, but those who didn't get in will be able to see her tell the story of her book.


Henrietta Lacks' 'Immortal' roots

Rebecca Skloot and her book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

Wellcome Book Prize goes to Rebecca Skloot

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Rebecca Skloot, author of "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House

9 ways of looking at earthquakes through literature

Japan_earthquakedmgEarthquakes are the expression of a living planet, the earth's way of re-inventingitself. But while this knowledge may be consoling in the abstract, it's not very useful in the face of a catastrophe such as last week's quake and tsunami in Japan. At these times, we need real consolation: food and water, emergency services and rescue ... and, David L. Ulin suggests, literature. Ulin is the author of "The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith."

For as long as we have experienced seismicity, we have written about it, going back to the Book of Acts. Below are nine works (one for each of this most recent earthquake's points of magnitude) that channel both our terror and our awe.

1) "The Earthquake in Chile" by Heinrich von Kleist.Originally published in 1807, Kleist's novella takes place duringthe 1647 Santiago earthquake and ends tragically, with a young couple killed after having been blamed, in a sermon, for the disaster. But Kleist has a bigger purpose, which is to highlight the idea that meaning is a matter of interpretation, that what we know is what we see. "[O]nly when he turned and saw the city leveled to the ground behind him," he writes, "did he remember the terrifying moments he had just experienced. He bowed his forehead to the very ground as he thanked God for his miraculous escape; and as if this one appalling memory, stamping itself on his mind, had erased all others, he wept with rapture to find that the blessing of life, in all its wealth and variety, was still his to enjoy."

2) "The Flutter of an Eyelid" by Myron Brinig.Published in 1933, Brinig's novel is the great modernist fantasy of Los Angeles (every city needs one), although it is essentially unread today. The book ends with a massive earthquake, in which the entire state of California breaks off from North America and crumbles into the Pacific, "Los Angeles toboggan[ing] with almost one continuous movement into the water, the shore cities going first, followed by the inland communities; the business streets, the buildings, the motion picture studios in Hollywood where actors became stark and pallid under their mustard-colored makeup."

3) "The Folklore of Earthquakes" by Carey McWilliams.Written in response to the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, McWilliams'essay is a clear-eyed guide to both what we might call earthquake myths and the powerful terror the shaking provokes. "On the basis of their reaction to the word earthquake,” he writes, "Californians can be divided into three classes: first, the innocent late arrivals who have never felt an earthquake but who go about avowing to all and sundry that 'it must be fun'; next, those who have experienced a slight quake and should know better, but who none the less persist in propagating the fable that the San Francisco quake of 1906 was the only major upheaval the State has ever suffered; and, lastly, the victims of a real earthquake -- for example, the residents of San Francisco, Santa Barbara, or, more recently, Long Beach. To these last, the word is full of terror. They are supersensitive to the slightest rattles and jars, and move uneasily whenever a heavy truck passes along the highway."

4) "Ask the Dust"by John Fante.In this 1939 novel, generally regarded as a cornerstone of the Southern California literary canon, Fante describes the struggles of a young man named Arturo Bandini, based directly on himself. In one particularly memorable set piece, Bandini survives the Long Beach earthquake, which he interprets as divine retribution for his sins. "You did it, Arturo," he reflects. "This is the wrath of God. You did it.... Repent, repent before it’s too late. I said a prayer but it was dust in my mouth. No prayers. But there would be some changes made in my life. There would be decency and gentleness from now on. This was the turning point."

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2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalists announced


Contrarian social critic Christopher Hitchens, rocker Patti Smith and novelist Jonathan Franzen are among the finalists for the 2010 Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, it was announced Tuesday. The 31st annual prizes will be awarded at a ceremony at The Times on April 29.

There are five finalists competing in 10 categories — current interest, fiction, first fiction, biography, history, mystery-thriller, science and technology, graphic novel, poetry and young adult literature.

The Robert Kirsch Award, for significant contribution to American letters, will be presented to Beverly Cleary, the first time it has been awarded to a children's book author. Cleary is the author of "Beezus and Ramona" and dozens of other books.

Books about presidents have been named finalists in three categories: "Washington: A Life" by Ron Chernow is a finalist in history, Edmund Morris' "Colonel Roosevelt" is a biography finalist and Jonathan Alter's "The Promise: President Obama, Year One" is a finalist in current interest.

Current interest, the category in which the National Book Award-winning memoir by Smith is nominated, also includes two books about the financial crisis: "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis and "All the Devils Are Here" by Joe Nocera and Bethany McLean. Sebastian Junger's "War" rounds out the category.

Finalists competing against Franzen in fiction are the novels “Nashville Chrome” by Rick Bass, Frederick Reiken's “Day for Night,” Jennifer Egan's “A Visit From the Goon Squad” and Richard Bausch's story collection “Something Is Out There.”

In biography, Hitchens' skepticism will do battle with Laura Hillenbrand's “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption,” about Southern California Olympian and former prisoner of war Louis Zamperini. Other finalists, along with “Colonel Roosevelt” are “George, Nicholas and Wilhelm” by Miranda Carter and “The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham” by Selina Hastings.

In the science and technology category, medicine takes a key role with Rebecca Skloot's “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” and “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer” by Siddhartha Mukherjee facing off against Oren Harman's “The Price of Altruism,” “Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie” by Lauren Redniss and “Merchants of Doubt” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway.

Veteran mystery-thriller finalist Tana French will go up against Stuart Neville, who won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in the category in 2009. Their competitors are Laura Lippman, Kelli Stanley and Tom Franklin.

Now in its second year, the graphic-novel category includes veteran Jim Woodring, graphic memoirists Karl Stevens and C. Tyler, newcomer Adam Hines and Dash Shaw.

Poetry finalists include a Pulitzer Prize winner, Maxine Kumin, and a poet with his first collection, Yehoshua November.

The L.A. Times Book Prizes are awarded the night before the weekend's Festival of Books, which will take place in 2011 at its new home, the campus of USC. The complete list of finalists is after the jump.

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Faces we watched in 2010: Where they are now


This Sunday, we select five literary types to watch in 2011. Last year, we picked four. Were you watching? Lots were. This is where they are now.

Rebecca Skloot's book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" came out in February. Maybe you've heard about it: The nonfiction work explores the unknown story of Lacks, her cells and the family she left behind. The remarkable book was selected by Amazon.com's editors as the top book of the year, made best-of lists at many newspapers (including this one), won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize and has been optioned by Oprah and Allan Ball for HBO. Haven't read it yet? Don't worry, it'll be released in paperback in March 2011.

Like Skloot, critic Elif Batuman had published short pieces, but 2010 saw the release of her first book. "The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them" comprises seven essays that merge criticism, personal experience and scholarship. It was singled out as one of the best nonfiction books of the year by both the popular newspaper USA Today and by New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead. Batuman has a knack for tickling the literary zeitgeist: Her review of Marc McGurl's "The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing" in the London Review of Books launched a fleet of online debates about MFA programs, McGurl's version and Batuman's slant on them both.

Writing a philosophical book about the idea of the Sabbath might not seem the most direct way to get on TV, but it's worked for Judith Shulevitz. Her 2010 book, "The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time," part history, part meditation, unexpectedly propelled the cultural critic onto CNN and Stephen Colbert. She's also turned up in places more expected -- NPR, the pages of major newspaper book reviews -- but Shulevitz, the third of our 2010 faces to watch, is the rare cultural voice that can make a deep subject accessible through not-so-deep mediums.

Novelist Sam Lipsyte rounded out our faces to watch picks of 2010. After struggling to bring his wickedly funny novel "Home Land" to shelves -- it was published in England before the U.S. -- Lipsyte landed premium publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux for his next novel, 2010's "The Ask." The Village Voice described "The Ask" as "corrosive, obscene, unpleasantly hilarious"; Bookslut found it "hilarious and bleak"; Slate calls him "a fine microbrewer of bitterness." Lipsyte's novel was the kind of edgy book that set some people who read it on edge; others, however, are still laughing.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Henrietta Lacks in 1945; author Rebecca Skloot. Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House

LATFOB: Science writer K.C. Cole

KC ColeLA Times Festival of BooksSomething Incredibly Wonderful Happens


As a preview for the L.A. Times Festival of Books, coming April 24-25, Jacket Copy is talking to some of the authors you can see there. Science writer K.C. Cole -- formerly of the L.A. Times, now a professor at USC -- answered my questions via e-mail. Ask Cole questions about her book "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens: Frank Oppenheimer and the World He Made Up" or about how the universe works at her panel "Science: The Universe Revealed," at 1:30 p.m. on April 24.

Jacket Copy: What do you plan to see or do at the festival this year?

K.C. Cole:
Visit bookstore booths ... especially Skylight!

JC: Frank Oppenheimer, the subject of your book  "Something Incredibly Wonderful Happens," once said of teaching, "If I can succeed in making understanding seem like fun, then I believe that the student will want to understand many things, that is, he will become curious." Do you think that this could also apply to science writing?

Absolutely ... once people realize that learning about nature is just one "oh wow!" moment after another, they get hooked; it makes you feel more confident in your abilities to understand just about anything, and delight even more in everything from snails to stars.
JC: Does Los Angeles have anything that compares to the Exploratorium that Oppenheimer founded in San Francisco?

KCC: Yes, indeed. Categorically Not! -- which is an art/science/politics/whatnot series of events at Santa Monica Art Studios. It's a direct outgrowth of the Exploratorium.

JC: What are you currently reading?

Marcelo Gleiser's "A Tear in the Edge of Creation: A Radical New Vision for Life in an Imperfect Universe" and Michael Gazzaniga's "Human: The Science Behind What Makes Your Brain Unique."

JC: Do you have a favorite book or movie about Los Angeles?

Steve Martin's "L.A. Story," of course. Oh, and the TV series "Six Feet Under."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

LA Times announces 2009 Book Prize finalists

2009Art Seidenbaum AwardbiographyBook Prizebookscurrent interestDave Eggersfictionfirst fictiongraphic novelhistoryInnovators AwardLA Timesmysterypoetryscience/technologythrilleryoung adult
The Los Angeles Times has announced the finalists for its 2009 Book Prizes: for the first time, graphic novels will be in competition for an LA Times Book Prize of their own. There are now 10 competitive categories: biography, current interest, fiction, graphic novel, history, mystery/thriller, poetry, science/technology, young adult literature and the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The complete list of finalists for the 30th annual LA Times Book Prizes, to be awarded April 23, are below.

In addition to adding the new graphic novel category, the LA Times will present its first Innovators Award to author and publisher Dave Eggers for his multifaceted, spirited commitment to literature. Eggers leads the trend-bucking independent publishing house McSweeney's, which offers books, magazines and a form-shifting quarterly journal. He also founded the 826 literacy centers -- now operating in Los Angeles and six other cites -- which help at-risk young people engage with the written word. A bestselling author, his work continues to garner critical acclaim; his book "Zeitoun" is a 2009 LA Times book prize finalist in current interest.

The Robert Kirsch Award for lifetime achievement for writers connected to the American West will go to Evan S. Connell, best known for his paired novels "Mrs. Bridge" and "Mr. Bridge."

Nominees in the new Graphic Novel category, by Gilbert Hernandez, Bryan Lee O'Malley, Taiyo Matsumoto, David Mazzucchelli and Joe Sacco, are a diverse selection of works that include the Gen-Y favorite Scott Pilgrim, a new take on the classic Love & Rockets series, and an illustrated journalistic account of the Gaza strip.

The current interest nominees reflect an interest in how America intersects with the world. Both Eggers' book and Tracy Kidder's "Strength in What Remains" trace the unexpected paths of immigrants, while T.R. Reid's "The Healing of America" looks at healthcare ideas and systems of other industrialized nations in relation to our own.

Four women and one man are vying for the top prize in fiction. Local author Michelle Huneven, who is also in the running for a National Book Critics Circle Award for her novel "Blame," is nominated with Kate Walbert, Jane Gardam, Jill Ciment and Rafael Yglesias, who returns to fiction after a 13-year hiatus.

Announcing the first-ever LA Times book prizes in 1980, then-book editor Art Seidenbaum wrote, "This is not so much a competition as a recognition." Nevertheless, a winner will be declared for each category on April 23. The prizes will be awarded in an invitation-only ceremony in connection with the 15th annual LA Times Festival of Books, which takes place April 24-25. Last year, more than 130,000 people attended the festival, which is held at UCLA; many of the book prize finalists will participate in panels, discussions and book signings.

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Rebecca Skloot and her book 'The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks'

HeLaRebecca SklootThe Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks


Rebecca Skloot devoted 10 years to researching the story and legacy of Henrietta Lacks, a woman who died of cancer in 1951. Cells taken from Lacks during a routine examination became the HeLa cell line, the first -- and for a long time only -- human cells that could stay alive in a lab. They've been involved in thousands of studies and major scientific innovations, including curing polio. In today's paper, we look at what Skloot learned about Lacks and her family and what it was like bringing her book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks," to shelves.

I interviewed Skloot over a few days by phone, and she's got a lot to say. Here are some of her answers to my questions, in her own words.

Carolyn Kellogg: So you were in high school when you first heard the name Henrietta Lacks. What was going on with you then?

Rebecca Skloot: My famously sick father, he's written a lot about living with brain damage; that happened when I was 16. All this stuff happened at once. I was doing intense school stuff, dealing with my father being sick, and he was very sick. He was completely invalid -- we had a recliner in the living room where he basically lived; he couldn't walk upstairs. He was hypersensitive to stimulus, so he couldn't really have lights on, there could be no smells. Two floors up, if I had a friend over and we laughed, that would really be painful for him. So it was like the house felt like death. We didn't know what was wrong with him. ... Not long before that, he was a marathon runner -- he was my superdad! 

He ended up enrolling in a drug study, where he was essentially a guinea pig. ... He couldn't drive, and I'd just gotten my license. I would drive him to the hospital for these experimental infusions four times a week and sit there with him while he was getting treated. There ended up being a lot of ethical questions about the study -- they had promised that if the drug seemed to help they would give it to everyone. It clearly wasn't helping my dad, but definitely some people were getting better.

I was in the midst of learning firsthand the hope of science -- we were putting everything into this study and thinking, OK, maybe this is going fix him, and he'll go back to being my dad. At the same time, we were really mad, because people were getting better and he wasn't, and they weren't really communicating with us. I was in the midst of learning about the highs and the lows of it.

I think that's why I latched onto the story -- my teacher said there's this woman named Henrietta Lacks -- my first question was, does she have any kids? What do her kids think of this? I think that was because at that very moment I was dealing with my father being used in research and trying to grapple with that. And spending my days watching him get poked with needles, he was bruised from all the treatments -- a lot of things coming together all at once grabbed my attention.

CK: You write about repeatedly calling Henrietta's daughter Deborah and leaving messages on her answering machine. Did you actually call every couple of weeks for months on end?

RS: Oh yeah.

CK: Did you ever think, maybe, I should stop annoying these people?

RS: No! Now I look back at it ... I have no idea how I would handle it differently. I might do exactly the same thing now. I probably would. But, you know -- part of it was that I knew from that one phone call with her that she really wanted that information. ... Later, she and I would joke about it -- she would just sit there and listen to those stories -- she really wanted those stories, but she was scared to pick up the phone. I didn't feel like I was harassing her, I felt like I was slowly figuring out the story and giving her pieces of it as I went along.

CK: Your interactions with the Lacks family are a major part of the book. You and Deborah became close.

RS:  Once I won their trust, Deborah said, joking, Henrietta chose me, from an early age. She had been guiding my life, working me like a puppet: Go over here and study science, go over here and study writing. ... The HeLa cells have almost a mystical quality to them, that she's sort of out there, orchestrating all this stuff. For the Lacks family, the first publisher folding was because Henrietta didn't like that publisher. ... It became part of the story, for the Lacks. In some ways, it started to feel like that.

CK: In the book's opening chapter, you describe Henrietta Lacks' childhood growing up poor on a tobacco farm vividly and intimately. How much research did that take?

RS: I think I did more research on that one chapter! Months and months and months and months talking to people, going through archives. When I first started working on the book, there were several of her cousins who she grew up with who were still alive. These guys were in their 80s and 90s; getting them to remember their childhood was this unbelievable adventure. I was so young -- I didn't know what I was doing in terms of interviewing techniques. ... There was this wonderful high school librarian there who had been saving all this great documentation for decades -- she'd been saving peoples letters from the town -- a lot of the narrative details came from [her files]. Henrietta's funeral -- that one scene -- I interviewed probably a dozen people. I would talk to all these people, and the same details would come up story after story. Sometimes it would only be three people, sometimes only two, but I always made sure that there was this kind of overlap of stories, so I could feel like I was on sound factual footing.

I felt like, as I was doing this, history was kind of vanishing. I felt like I was scrambling along behind it. I was sort of trying my best to keep up as everything was going away. There were two different cases where people who knew Henrietta or knew George Gey, the scientist [whose lab grew her cells], died right before I was supposed to interview them, which was just devastating. There were a few other cases, like her cousins, who died immediately after I interviewed them, and I thought I got this incredible piece of history, right before it went away. And the burden of that as a writer was pretty intense for me. I felt such a duty to tell the story and tell it well and do justice to all sides of the story.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photos: Henrietta Lacks in 1945; author Rebecca Skloot. Credit: Crown Publishers / Random House

Looking forward to time in 2010

From Eternity to HereLudwig BoltzmanQuest for the Ultimate Theory of TimerelativitySean CarrollStephen Hawkingthermodynamics

Despite the fact that I read more fiction than theoretical physics, one of the books I'm most looking forward to in 2010 is Sean Carroll's "From Eternity to Here: The Quest for the Ultimate Theory of Time." It's coming out on Jan. 7.

Carroll, a theoretical physicist at Caltech, was a founder of the independent blog Cosmic Variance; its blend of physics, science news and the occasional embarrassing '80s music video made it popular enough to be picked up by Discover magazine. It's Carroll's ability to write about really big science ideas in a way a layperson like myself can understand, without feeling talked down to, that makes me so excited about his book. Also, he is willing to move from hard science into questions of philosophy and culture -- and he writes like he's having fun.

In the book's prologue, he writes about entropy, the Big Bang and the beginning of time:

The arrow of time connects the early universe to something we experience literally every moment of our lives. It's not just breaking eggs, or other irreversible processes like mixing milk into coffee or how an untended room tends to get messier over time. The arrow of time is the reason why time seems to flow around us, or why (if you prefer) we seem to move through time. It's why we remember the past, but not the future. It's why we evolve and metabolize and eventually die. It's why we believe in cause and effect, and is crucial to our notions of free will.

In this, his first book, Carroll revisits the second law of thermodynamics, Einstein's theory of relativity, the work of Ludwig Boltzman and Stephen Hawking, information theory and complexity and quantum mechanics. He promises to discuss and distinguish between "(1) remarkable features of modern physics that sound astonishing but are nevertheless universally accepted as true; (2) sweeping claims that are not necessarily accepted by many working physicists but should be ... and (3) speculative ideas beyond the comfort zone of contemporary scientific state of the art." He wants the reader to be able to think about the ideas he's presenting, not just absorb them.

Now, to make time in 2010 to read all 400 pages.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Commonly known as the Butterfly Nebula or the Bug Nebula, this planetary nebula -- officially NGC 6302 - has at its center a dying star. It was photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Talking global warming with Alun Anderson

After the IceAlun AndersonArcticglobal warminginterviewpolar bears


In our science pages, Lori Kozlowski talks to Alun Anderson, author of "After the Ice: Life, Death, and Geopolitics in the New Arctic." Anderson, who began as an academic and researcher -- after earning his PhD, he got a couple of postdoctoral fellowships -- has been a science journalist since 1980. He's been an editor at the journal Nature and is the former editor in chief of New Scientist magazine.

You begin your book describing the first polar bear you ever saw. Can you describe the moment and how it led to this book?

I'd gone on a trip to the Canadian Arctic by chance. I knew nothing about the Arctic. We set off on our first day, and I'd flown in from England and was quite jet-lagged, so I stayed up all night. I went up on deck. I saw this small dot in the distance, which as we got closer, it was a polar bear. It ignored the boat completely. It was the bear's world. I was talking to a biologist up on deck, and he told me: "This bear will not make it through the year. It is too thin. And there is no ice for it to swim out to for the bear to hunt from."

I was completely gutted. I wanted to know more about the bear and the ice.

In the summer of 2007, a large area of ice in the Arctic (625,000 square miles, four times the size of California) melted away at a speed no one has seen before. You call it "the great crash of 2007." Was this a first signal that global warming was becoming more potent?

Yes, that's right. Global warming had been making the ice thinner for a long time. But that wasn't apparent. From a satellite view, you just see ice. You don't know if it is thick or thin. That was a very sunny summer, and suddenly we knew that this ice was a complete mess. The melting forced scientists to think again about what they knew. They couldn't see before that the area was becoming more vulnerable. Their previous data revealed we wouldn't get [to the point of a massive ice melt] until 2056. We reached it 50 years early.

Read the complete interview here.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A polar bear rolls in the snow Blijdorp Zoo in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Credit: Marten Van Dijl / EPA

Creationists to distribute Charles Darwin books for free. What's the catch?

Charles DarwinEvolutionLiving WatersOn the Origin of SpeciesRay Comfort


Evangelical Christians plan to distribute more than 100,000 free copies of Charles Darwin's seminal work on the theory of evolution, "On the Origin of Species," on college campuses this month. Are the evangelists affiliated with the religious organization Living Waters really spreading the word of Charles Darwin?

Yes -- but.

"All we want to do is present the opposing and correct view," says actor Kirk Cameron, a supporter, in a video on the website. That view, which both precedes and counters Darwin's theory in the copies of the book they will distribute, has been penned by the organization's leader, Ray Comfort. In a 50-page introduction, no less. An excerpt:

Keeping in mind that the most intelligent of human beings can’t create even a grain of sand from nothing, do you believe that the “something” that made everything was intelligent? It must have been, in order to make the flowers, the birds, the trees, the human eye, and the sun, the moon and the stars. If you believe that, then you believe there was an intelligent designer. You have just become an unscientific “knuckle-dragger” in the eyes of our learning institutions that embrace Darwinism. But you are not alone if you believe in God.

Which learning institutions may expect Living Waters representatives to show up on their campuses with boxes of the Comfort-introduction edition of "On the Origin of Species" hasn't been announced, although Living Waters described the schools as "100 of America’s top universities" in an e-mail to the Los Angeles  Times. According to the website, Kirk Cameron and Ray Comfort will pass out copies of the book together on Nov. 19, perhaps here in Southern California.

Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" was first published 150 years ago, on Nov. 24, 1859. It begins:

When on board H.M.S. Beagle, as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species -- that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.

The book, having been in the public domain for quite some time, is also available for free via Project Gutenberg. With no introduction but Darwin's own.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: A Galapagos giant turtle, one of the creatures Darwin studied during his expedition on the HMS Beagle. Credit: Pablo Cozzaglio / AFP / Getty Images


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