It’s been a while since we’ve run links to mathematician Peter Woit’s fun skeptical blog Not Even Wrong (for no better reason than that the desktop icon wasn’t visible). Apparently, entrepreneur Jonathan Rothberg and physicist Max Tegmark
have enrolled about 400 mathematicians and theoretical physicists from top-ranked US universities in a study dubbed ‘Project Einstein’. They plan to sequence the participants’ genomes using the Ion Torrent machine that Rothberg developed.
The team will be wading into a field fraught with controversy. Critics have assailed similar projects, such as one at the BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, that is sequencing the genomes of 1,600 people identified as mathematically precocious children in the 1970s (see Nature 497, 297–299; 2013). The critics say that the sizes of these studies are too small to yield meaningful results for such complex traits.
Woit would take issue with the critics on at least one point; a meaningful result may be possible. He notes,
It’s unclear who these “geniuses” are, but we do know that one person who was asked and declined was Curt McMullen. His reaction to this project was what I suspect was a common one:
“I thought it was strange that it was called ‘Project Einstein’, which seemed designed to appeal to the participants’ egos,” he says. He asked the project’s staff and the New England Institutional Review Board, which approved the study, to explain how results would be used. “The uniform answer to my questions was that ‘we are not responsible for how the information is used after the study is completed’,” he says.
If Project Einstein identifies a common gene among its participants, and uses the knowledge to breed a race of übermenschen, they may find they have selected not for unusual mathematical genius, but for unusual ego.
Maybe they should be testing celebrities instead of scientists. The results would be more meaningfully related to achievement. 😉
Note: Yes, Max “Multiverse” Tegmark.