In our cover story “Elementary,” freelancer Kevin Hartnett does an elegant and engaging job of presenting the work of much-lauded theoretical physicist Charles Kane, the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Natural Sciences.
Kane was the first to theorize the existence of a new form of matter that has come to be called topological insulators, which have the characteristics of both insulators and conductors. Among other possible applications, these materials could allow the engineering of quantum computers that would work much faster than currently possible.
As remarkable as the discovery itself, though, is the way Kane made it, reversing the typical sequence in which a scientific phenomenon is first observed and then a theory developed to explain it. Rather, as his former student and now MIT Professor Liang Fu Gr’09, said, Kane “showed that by pure thinking and using ideas from mathematics, you really can theorize new forms of matter.” That too was unusual, and this “style of inquiry, a way of sizing up ideas and phenomena that at first make no sense,” as Hartnett puts it, may be one of Kane’s greatest contribution to physics.
“Reprogrammed Immune Cells Vanquish Cancer in Promising Breakthrough” was the headline of our story [“Gazetteer,” Nov|Dec 2011], one among many in the media following the announcement that three patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) had been successfully treated at Penn using modified T-cells. Unlike many other such announcements, in this case the promise has continued to be fulfilled in the years since—in both CLL and, even more dramatically, in acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which mostly affects children—and now is on the cusp of much wider testing for a range of cancers.
In “The T-Cell Warriors,” associate editor Trey Popp checks in with Patient No. 1 Bill Ludwig—who has gained 40 pounds, bought an RV, and was about to welcome his 10th grandchild—and interviews the key figures in the research team to assess what they’ve achieved so far and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
The piece also traces the long and painstaking road that led up to the dramatic breakthrough. For example, while current funding is plentiful, they initially treated only three patients because that’s all they could afford at the time. Trey quotes from an essay by team leader Carl June, director of translational research at the Abramson Cancer Center, in which he listed “a remarkable degree of stubbornness” and “an extraordinarily long attention span” as key requirements for pioneering work.
Speaking of attention spans, the fieldwork for sociologist Alice Goffman C’04’s 2014 book, On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City, began when she was a freshman at Penn. While working at a cafeteria, she started tutoring the grandchildren of a supervisor there. As senior editor Samuel Hughes recounts in “Down by Law,” over the next several years this connection morphed into an extraordinary immersion in an impoverished Philadelphia neighborhood and the poisonous relations between young black men and the police there.
The book’s publication generated a considerable amount of attention, only some of which focused on what Goffman dismisses as “the Intrepid White Girl in the Hood trope” rather than her own view of it as an “on-the-ground look at mass incarceration and its accompanying systems of policing and surveillance.”
The sociologist’s powers of insight don’t extend to the world of publishing. When On the Run came out last year, she told Sam, she didn’t expect anyone to read it. But sales have generated enough revenue to divide her royalties with 18 people who helped her.