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Personal Science Week - 230518 DIYBio
Do It Yourself Biology, Biohacking, and controversial ideas
Personal Scientists use science for personal reasons, not as part of a job. We’re curious about everything, open-minded but skeptical, and we prefer first-person do-it-yourself knowledge over the often-conflicting advice from experts.
This week we summarize some resources for biohacking, plus some reminders of the importance of open-minded thinking.
Personal Science is published each Thursday, with tips and ideas for anyone who wants to use science for personal reasons.
Biohackers — people who apply the tools of human biology to improve themselves — are kindred souls of Personal Scientists. The difference is that biohacking is limited to self-improvement, while Personal Science is more of a philosophy — skeptical, observant, curious — about the world in general.
The biohacking community is worth following because they tend to be practical — they focus on improving specific and measurable aspects of themselves like sleep, energy, or focus. But they are also cutting edge: they usually go for the most high-tech, experimental techniques over the mundane. While biohackers’ ideas are often wrong, it’s their eccentricity that makes them interesting1. Unconventional ideas of today often prove to be mainstream tomorrow.
For a lengthy overview of the worldwide biohacker community, an academic review paper (“Hacking Age”) published in Wiley’s Sociology Compass is the most detailed breakdown I know (August 2022). Written by Swedish academics, it points to several European biohacker organizations, including Biohacker Center, an organization based in Helsinki Finland whose ebooks I’ve found are good summaries. If you’re interested in more details, a quick Google search (or Bing AI summary) will get you plenty of sites with more free content than you can handle. Reddit r/biohackers (with more than 80K members) is the most up-to-date source if you’re getting started.
The-Odin is the grand-daddy of the hardcore biohacking sites, selling low-cost genetic engineering supplies, including a $180 DIY CRISPR kit. The founder, Josiah Zayner — famous for injecting himself with modified DNA in front of live audiences — recently transitioned to “Jo Zayner (They/she)”, no doubt using many of the technologies available from the company. I’ve not used the site myself, but as with everything on the cutting edge, beware: a popular DIY genetic engineering YouTuber warns that their kits don’t work.
For more conventional but still cutting-edge biological science, I recently learned of BitsInBio, a “community devoted to people who build tools that help scientists unlock new insights”. It’s for anyone with an interest in the intersection of software and biotech. Subscribe to their Substack
Then there’s scifind.io, which I learned about via the weekly Mendelspod interview with founder Guy Rohkin. It’s basically “Stackoverflow for biologists”, a reference that will be familiar to all software developers, amateur and professional. These sites make it easy for practitioners to be rewarded for sharing simple tricks that can help colleagues battling similar technical problems. The whole 45-minute interview is worth a listen, if only to hear a bench scientist who noticed the same thing we did: biology wants to be practiced by everyday people. Like us, he predicts a future where GMO resistance seems irrelevant because normal people in their kitchens and garages are practicing similar interesting biology every day.
Controversial Ideas of Week
Nothing in Personal Science should be “controversial”. We believe you should always think for yourself. Trust no one. But here are a few recent links we ran across that highlight how easy it is to get suckered into thinking there’s only one point of view.
Paul Graham’s 2004 essay “What You Can’t Say” should be required reading for people who want to think for themselves. “Do you have any opinions that you would be reluctant to express in front of a group of your peers?”, he asks. “Almost certainly, there is something wrong with you if you don't think things you don't dare say out loud.”
Does it matter who does science? The editor-in-chief of Science
argues that science is a social process, the quality of which depends on the skin color of those who practice it. Meanwhile, Razib Kahn points to a Nature study that faculty are 25x more likely to have a faculty parent, which if you’re worried about groupthink seems like a bigger worry to me.
Speech bans and other forms of information suppression are among the greatest threats to science, so naturally I am concerned if library books are being banned, as an activist organization claims. But when somebody actually double-checked they found that the vast majority of those books were still in the library catalogs. The discrepancy? The original scary claim of censorship was apparently based on a count of books actually on the shelves, without taking into account those that were checked-out to readers at the time of the study. I don’t know the truth for either claim – I don’t have time to double-check all the libraries. But I do have the ability to check my own local library. Lesson: don’t trust sweeping conclusions without hearing counter-arguments. And, as in this case, look at your own data first.
Do you have any ideas you think are too “controversial” to discuss out loud? Let us know.