I have attended a range of conferences. The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is a sensory overload with tens of thousands of attendees. The burgeoning availability of online access to wonderful TED talks proves the attraction of gathering inquisitive minds.
The Atlantic Meets The Pacific started three years ago when the University of California at San Diego understandably wanted to shine a light on the innovative activities in and around the San Diego campus. By connecting with the venerable Atlantic magazine, a polished 3 day conference has become the result. With an East Coast legacy, over the decades the Atlantic has published authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Like last year’s gathering, the venue this year was the lovely seaside Scripps Seaside Forum in La Jolla. This year’s third day brought us to the UCSD campus.
Anyone with a curiosity about cutting edge scientific, social and ethical issues would find this a fascinating gathering. It is an informed lay audience. The speakers come from around the world, with many based in San Diego’s backyard.
I have assembled some of the many highlights from this year’s event. Folks wishing to dive deeper will soon be able to do so via the site below.
With any luck, these highlights will generate some further appetite for you. The overarching themes of the conference were health, big data, technology and privacy.
Pulitzer Prize winner and Columbia University Professor of Medicine Siddhartha Mukherjee riffed on the themes of his monumental book “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.” His forthcoming PBS documentary with Ken Burns will deeply explore these issues. In fact, the pair hope to start a national dialogue about cancer, as the disease will touch nearly everyone in some way. Mukherjee observed that the “war on cancer” is not the right metaphor, because in science the challenge is either solved or unsolved. When asked where science now stands, he said we are now in the middle of the cancer challenge.
Privacy issues were pervasive at the conference. Mukherjee was not the first speaker to observe that if you ask a cancer patient about privacy concerns (an issue that often accompanies big data discussions), the cancer patient always finds privacy a low level issue.
The Atlantic’s esteemed national correspondent James Fallows moderated many of the panels, and he pointed out that as other life threatening activities get eliminated, cancer is the evergreen remaining threat. The inevitable focus on cancer is like a Manhattan Project, except that it involves massively more people; 30,000 people are now professionally devoted to investigating cancer.
In fighting cancer, Mukherjee reluctantly observed that the current strategy with cancer is “to use expensive drugs we know won’t work, but that is all we now have.” Evidence-based medicine is the goal.
Eric Topol (Director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute) amplified this theme. “Medicine by the yard is our current model, sadly. The current system forces doctors to look at patients as ATMs.”
Another recurring theme that emerged over the course of the stimulating three day conference is that big data is not always equivalent to good data, sometimes small data can be good (Newton’s apple falling on his head). Therefore, the challenge is to extract good data from all the big data we are collecting.
Jacopo Annese (Director of The Brain Observatory at UC San Diego) had a fascinating presentation about his brain research, and his growing library of brain slides. He pointed out that a growing number of people are willing to donate their brains to his lab, and it is especially informative if he knows about their owners before the donation. It turns out Annese is also a chef, and he assured us he does not confuse prosciutto with the razor thin slices of brains he works with.
Invariably, several worthy books were mentioned. I will be adding these titles to my reading list, and I will be reviewing them soon.
• The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
• The Creative Destruction of Medicine: How the Digital Revolution Will Create Better Health Care by Eric Topol
• This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works by John Brockman
• The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail — but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
Meanwhile, if any of these topics pique your interest, you can find the panels here: