Welcome to Asimov Press

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Artwork by Dalbert B. Vilarino.

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, a wig-wearing, 17th-century cloth merchant in Delft, was the first person to see a microbe. 

The Dutchman crafted lenses using soda lime glass, which he then peered through to assess the quality of his cloth. But eventually, driven by curiosity, van Leeuwenhoek applied his lenses to a more eclectic assortment of specimens, such as mold, bees, and lice. In 1675, he “discovered living creatures in Rain water which had stood but few days in a new earthen pot” in the corner of his room. Van Leeuwenhoek’s observations of single-celled organisms — or “animalcules,” as he called them1 — were sent by letter to the Royal Society and published in 1677.

For the next 250 years, biology remained an object of study. Microscopists crafted ever-more-powerful lenses, intrepid naturalists such as Alexander von Humboldt trekked into jungles and sent thousands of exotic specimens back to Europe2, and taxonomists tried to piece everything together. Biology was a field of both collection and description. Natural History museums sprung up to display biological oddities; nearly 800 of them in the United States alone. 

But then, in the 1930s, physicists and chemists launched a mission to understand life based on the molecules within cells. Molecular biology, as the field came to be called3, pushed biology from an object of study, driven forward by gentleman scientists and precocious country clergymen, into a tool  with which to solve urgent problems.

Recombinant DNA technologies were invented in the 1970s. Gene-editing methods, polymerase chain reaction, and the first human drug made from engineered microbes all debuted in the 1980s. A human chromosome was sequenced in the 1990s, a few years after Dolly the Sheep was cloned. A first draft of the human genome was completed in 2003. CRISPR gene-editing was invented in 2012 and applied to human embryos soon after. At least six CAR-T cancer therapies have now garnered F.D.A. approval, and chick-culling technologies could save millions of male chicks from shredders each year. The bioeconomy today accounts for 5 percent of U.S. GDP, more than mining or construction.

With most of these advancements taking place in the last 50 years, we expect even more to happen in the next 50. There is an urgent need to understand and safely guide biological progress into the future.

Today we’re launching Asimov Press, a new publishing venture modeled on Stripe Press, that will produce a newsletter, magazine, and books that feature writing about biological progress. Our primary focus will be on biotechnology, but we will also publish pieces on metascience and adjacent themes. Newsletters and magazines will be free to read. Our mission is to spread ideas that elucidate the promise of biology, take its concomitant risks seriously, and direct talent toward solving pressing problems.

Our published work has three features that are worth discussing: Pieces will steel-man alternative approaches, focus on high-impact but often underrated facets of biotechnology, and strive for mechanistic and probabilistic reasoning.

Steelman: Biotechnology is not a panacea. Simple solutions are often the best solutions; no engineering required. When Ignaz Semmelweis suggested that doctors at an Austrian Hospital wash their hands between performing autopsies and delivering babies, the maternal mortality rate fell from around 25 percent to 1 percent. In another example, a public health campaign to iodize salt in Switzerland helped bring down the rate of deaf-mute births fivefold in just 8 years. Rather than demand answers from biotechnology, we can often make a positive difference in the world by investing in better public health, improving infrastructure and education, or by scaling up existing inventions that have already proven effective.

Even so, simplicity can feel unsatisfactory or even provocative. Semmelweis, considered arrogant by senior doctors, was ostracized and eventually dismissed from his post. An early pioneer in germ theory, he died in a Viennese insane asylum, after being severely beaten by guards. In Switzerland, although evidence for the efficacy of iodized salt was robust, some eminent scientists spoke out against the interventions—advocating for elaborate alternative treatments. We’ll do our best to avoid publishing work that we wish were true, and instead aim to provide balanced, honest, and rigorous coverage of biotechnology.

High-impact solutions: Progress often makes its greatest strides in areas that are not widely covered by the media. We will de-emphasize medical topics and focus instead on areas such as animal welfare and climate resiliency, where biotechnology has proven astonishingly effective yet remains underexplored. We want people to focus on what is most urgent and tractable, and not necessarily on what is most glamorous. 

Laundry is one example. Engineered enzymes that remove stains in cold water reduced the energy required to do laundry by about 90 percent. Laundry may not be as immediately headline-grabbing as new cancer therapies, but it provides a concrete and ingenious solution to a demonstrable need. 

Mechanisms: Biotechnology shouldn’t be a mystery. Although its mechanisms are often infinitesimal, biology is material rather than magic. Cells are made from collections of atoms that we can manipulate, visualize, and control. Every engineering application has a mechanistic and tangible explanation. Often, these explanations are astonishingly beautiful. We encourage our writers to delve deeper and elucidate complex concepts in clear, illustrative prose.

***

Asimov Press will publish one feature article every two weeks, with additional newsletters and shorter essays scattered in between. Articles will be bundled into a magazine every three months, and each magazine will have a themed section with additional pieces that have not been published before.

Learn more about our article types and how to write for us by perusing the Pitch Guide. Deep Dives explain how hard-won progress can be, and in so doing, help us better appreciate how far humanity has come. We’re particularly fond of Why We Didn’t Get a Malaria Vaccine Sooner. Essays explain surprising viewpoints or make compelling arguments about biotechnology; examples include I Should Have Loved Biology, Pandemic Prevention as Fire-fighting, and Is cultivated meat for real?  We’re also commissioning speculative fiction that imagines positive, but plausible, biological futures, in addition to photo essays that visually demystify places involved in biotechnology. Book projects will launch in 2024.

Asimov Press is an editorially-independent initiative funded by Asimov but does not publish pieces about the company or its commercial interests. Our team consists of two founding editors: Niko McCarty and Xander Balwit. We’re grateful to have excellent advisors aiding us on this journey, including Saloni Dattani (Our World in Data, Works in Progress), Tessa Alexanian (The Council on Strategic Risks), Tom Ellis (Imperial College London), and Tony Kulesa (Pillar VC).

Footnotes

  1. "I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving.”
  2.  Including some 60,000 plants from Cuba, Mexico, and the U.S.
  3. The term was first coined by Warren Weaver, a mathematician-turned-director of the Division of Natural Sciences at the Rockefeller Foundation, in 1938. Weaver funded some of the most renowned molecular biologists of all time, including Linus Pauling, George Beadle, Edward Tatum, Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück.

Cite this essay: "Welcome to Asimov Press." Asimov Press (2023). DOI: https://doi.org/10.62211/8d6s-nt6s

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