A Profile in Courage

The Los Angeles Times may be a better newspaper than its New York rival.     Here is a profile published in the LA Times of Cal Tech’s Frances Arnold.  I have never met her but I like her story.  Here is a quote;  “The chemical engineer and biochemist focuses on creating new proteins for use in renewable energy. Following her instincts, she has often bucked tradition, including conducting thousands of ‘cheap and fast’ research experiments.”

People wonder why I am such an optimist about our future. The answer is simple.  My optimism is based on the cumulative knowledge gains generated by  nerds such as her as they independently plug away on problems they are passionate about.  Ideas are public goods.   If .1% of the world’s population is hard at work on generating some good ideas then the best ideas generated by these 7 million will be quite good and they will diffuse widely.   Capitalism guarantees this.    While JFK and Ted Sorensen focused on the courage of Senators — I don’t believe that Washington DC is where the action is.

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

12 thoughts on “A Profile in Courage”

  1. Nerds? I hope when you coming begging for her discoveries she learns how much better you think you are than her and tells you to keep walking. Bigot.

  2. Hmm. I went to the most recent paper published by her research group:

    http://www.che.caltech.edu/groups/fha/Publications.htm

    and curiously here is the ACKNOWLEDGMENT:

    “We thank Joseph Frank and L. Henry Bryant for help with
    NMRD measurements and Mikhail Shapiro and Fay Bi for
    helpful discussions. This work was supported by NIH Grant
    R01-DA28299 to A.J. and a Caltech Jacobs Grant to F.H.A. E.B.
    was supported by an NIH NRSA Fellowship (Award F32-
    GM087102).”

    Yup. Capitalism in action.

    This post by Matt may be his most clueless yet.

  3. I guess rose colored glasses are a luxury that comes with contractually secure lifetime employment.

    Yes, there is ample evidence supporting optimism based on as of yet undiscovered technology. And yes, ideas are public goods, at least right up to the moment they’re patented. Then what?

    Oh yeah, the rentiers step in and extract a hugely disproportionate share of the benefits. Look at the long term trend in income distribution. And look at this (using productivity gains as a crude stand in for technological advancement). How exactly are those in the disappearing middle class, not to mention the working poor and the nearly 14 million unemployed (many of whom are effectively disemployed permanently), going to afford to partake of these technological wonders? Capitalism will find a way? Maybe, but first it must actually be put into practice. A system that excludes the possibility of failure for its largest financial firms and protects the managers of those firms from liability for malfeasance is most definitely not capitalism.

  4. “People wonder why I am such an optimist.”. Really? Name three such people who are unrelated to you.

    If egotism were a fuel, on the other hand, you’d have cause for such optimism, as you yourself produce enough to power the earth for decades.

  5. No one denies that ingenuity has its place. From the Abstract of a recent review by Dr. Arnold: “A marriage of ingenuity and evolution will expand the scope of protein function well beyond Mother Nature’s designs.” This is no doubt true. But I noticed that in this review she fails to mention some of the seminal work on directed evolution of (admittedly natural) proteins by Barry Hall, whose first paper on this dates to the late 1970s. An oversight, I’m sure. And there there is this from another recent review: “Directed evolution circumvents our profound ignorance of how a protein’s sequence encodes its function…” Ignorance? Sure. Profound? Only coming from a chemical engineer. All this is fine. It won’t hurt to try. We may replace fossil fuels with products produced by microorganisms. Or we could plant Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana in corn from one state line to another and make enough ethanol to drive our cars. For a little while, and that will hurt to try. But technical fixes will not get us out of our mess. The unfortunate problem is that only the Modern GOP believes that it can repeal the Second Law of Thermodynamics and replace it with something like the Law of Compound Interest. And the odd economist. But I repeat myself.

  6. My undergrad alma mater not far up the road from Berkeley has been working on algae as fuel for two decades now. Maybe one day.

  7. KLG,

    Or we could plant Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana in corn from one state line to another and make enough ethanol to drive our cars.

    Well, no. Studies estimate that after you factor in the energy expenditure to produce it (fertilizer, tractor fuel, transportation, milling, ethanol production, use of ethanol as fuel), producing ethanol from corn is more-or-less a break-even process, energetically. Making more ethanol from corn would not significantly reduce our consumption of other energy sources. It is possible to get energy from ethanol production – Brazil does. But they do so because their practice of agriculture is very different (less fertilizer, less mechanization) and their sugar source is different (cane sugar, not corn syrup). There’s also the issue that some of use have other uses in mind for all that corn.
    On the other hand, the work of Dr. Arnold, like that of many other researchers in this field, both in academia and in industry, seeks to find ways to produce ethanol from plant products that are not currently a source of sugar and are not currently highly valued – cellulosic ethanol, in other words. If we could fuel cars with hay instead of with grain, our energy situation would be a lot brighter (though not necessarily our carbon footprint).

    RE Russell Carter’s comment: Russell makes excellent points. Though unlike Russell I have made no attempt to rank them, I have found Kahn’s posts to be consistently disappointing, mostly reflecting a sort of pallid Glibertarianism. I note that he is not described on the “About Us” page. A quick Google reveals that he studied abroad at the LSE as an undergrad and holds a PhD from the Chicago School – information that is disappointingly unsurprising.

  8. I also don’t really understand Kahn’s introductory statement:

    The Los Angeles Times may be a better newspaper than its New York rival.

    The hyperlink in the original is to the New York Post, a tabloid newspaper that is in every obvious respect unlike the LA Times. Is Kahn trying to damn the LA Times with faint praise? To say in some sarcastic fashion that the LA Times is not in the same league as the New York Times? This would probably be true (and it should be noted that the New York Times has been doing an excellent series of short profiles of scientists for some time now, as well as the occasional longer profile), but the LA Times is actually pretty good (albeit a bit parochial, and obsessed with Hollywood – but Hollywood is, rightly or wrongly, the main source of identity for the LA region). The LA Times just isn’t really competition for the the New York Times, which – outside of the business coverage in the Journal – is our only national serious newspaper (an indictment, really, in a nation of 300-odd million) and is often quite extraordinarily good, especially in matters not related to any great controversy (dealing with controversy being a major weakness of the New York Times and other obsessively evenhanded newspapers of the Joseph Pulitzer school).

  9. Thanks, WT. I do understand the futility of corn-based ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol may work; algae-producing oil, too. More likely what will happen is this: Continued fracking with the environment (why do I feel that the “ra” in fracking should be replaced with a single vowel?) and mucking about in tar sands, with predictable consequences for the health of the earth. But, hey, the market dictates it! So, it’s all good.

  10. ” If .1% of the world’s population is hard at work on generating some good ideas then the best ideas generated by these 7 million will be quite good and they will diffuse widely. Capitalism guarantees this. ”

    This, for example, is why we all use televisions based on PAL, why betamax beat the pants off VHS, and why the gasoline-based internal-combustion engine is remembered only as a historical oddity. Not to mention why the internet we’re using to discuss all this was developed entirely with far-sighted private investment. And why it’s only taken 40 years for people to start coming around to the notion that the roofs of new york city would be a useful source of peaking power.

  11. As the linked article says, it’s Caltech. It hasn’t been “Cal Tech” for several decades.

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