GREAT BARRINGTON >> An award-winning author, educator and science writer for The New Yorker, Michael Specter has served national newspapers as bureau chief both in New York City and Moscow, but on weekends he calls the Upper Hudson Valley home.
On Friday, he will cross the state line to speak at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington about "Editing the Human Genome: The Possibilities and Perils." The talk is based on his 2015 New Yorker article "Gene Hacker" about a new technology called CRISPR, which slices and dices DNA to form rudimentary immune systems and has the potential to cure diseases from malaria to cancer.
"CRISPR allows scientists to edit DNA much more accurately, easily and cheaply than has ever been done before," Specter said by phone from New Mexico. "It's revolutionized all medical research and biology and is beginning to change the way people think."
Still, he cautioned, "the more powerful technology becomes, the more likely it is to also pose some ethical challenges of how to use it."
Specter follows scientific stories across America from MIT and Harvard on the banks of the Charles River to Berkeley by the Golden Gate Bridge. He enters antiseptic laboratories filled with mice that bend to man's every whim. A few deftly chosen words turn scientists from walking lab coats into living beings filled with curiosity, imagination and enthusiasm grappling with the secrets to life and death and worrying if discoveries will be a boon or bane to humanity.
"My job is like being a translator," he said. "Some of the science I'm dealing with is extremely complex, and some of the scientists who do it have a great deal of difficulty communicating that complexity in a way that a normal human can understand."
As a staff writer at The New Yorker for almost 20 years, Specter does not shy away from controversy, and he is willing to both blow the whistle and trumpet success, often at the same time. He has challenged issues from organic farming to the beliefs of beloved media celebrity Dr. Oz. A TED talk he gave was among the top three for generating comments — most of them nasty, he recalled.
"I don't believe in objectivity, I believe in being fair," he said. "If I write a long story about something, the readership has a sense of what [all sides] of the issues are. But I owe people to tell them or direct them in the way that I feel. Because why should you read 8,000 words without walking away with at least knowing my view of it?"
Specter warns of fear spurred by scientific progress, whether it's cloning sheep or in vitro fertilization. Yet, as someone whose introduction to science writing was addressing discrimination in the early days of AIDS, he has seen from the front lines how scientific progress can overturn what used to be a death sentence, and how technologies once requiring a year's work in 1974 can now be accomplished in seconds.
Specter draws on commonplace practices and widely known beliefs to help illuminate the reader's path. He notes that researchers hope the new technology will prove more palatable to the public than inserting foreign DNA into GMOs has been, and compares the ease of obtaining the genetic parts required to tailor DNA to ordering shoes from Zappos. He sees scientists reluctant to apply their breakthrough as akin to Oppenheimer's alarm at the potential for global destruction inherent in the atomic bomb.
He observes opposing aspects of human nature through the struggle for patent domination and the altruistic practice of sharing techniques for the furtherance of scientific progress.
"CRISPR technology offers a new outlet for the inchoate fear of tinkering with the fundamentals of life," Specter writes. "There are many valid reasons to worry. But it is essential to assess both the risks and the benefits of any new technology."
Given CRISPR's potential for demystifying autism, curing diseases and finding environmentally sound ways to grow more nutritious food, "the fears, like the many others before them," he notes, "will almost certainly disappear."
"I'm excited to offer this opportunity to the community," said Mahaiwe Executive Director Beryl Jolly. "This is crossing into what seemed unimaginable not so long ago."
"It is amazing how many illnesses are finding treatments that only a decade ago seemed insurmountable," she said. "When people are suffering, to not search for a cure would carry a heavy burden."
"The human mind and imagination pushes forward our need to explore and push our boundaries and use our intelligence to its greatest potential," she added. "It's both exciting and concerning, but it's better to be fully informed and aware."
If you go ...
What: "Editing the Human Genome: The Possibilities and Perils" a talk by Michael Specter, Science Writer for The New Yorker
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, Castle Street, Great Barrington
Cost: $10 reserved seating, free for students
Tickets/info: www.mahaiwe.org, (413) 528-0100.