Behind the Scenes of “How to Clone a Mammoth”

ABOVE: Book trailer for How to Clone a Mammoth by Beth Shapiro (Princeton University Press, 2015)

In the summer of 2010, I went kayaking on the Huntington Harbor with a colorful group of scientists.  We were on the coast of New York State for the week as part of the PopTech Institute's Science Fellows Program taking place at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a stately 125-year-old research and education institution at the forefront of molecular biology and genetics. 

While gliding around ridiculously oversized yachts and dodging speed boats, I pitched an idea to one of my co-kayakers, Beth Shapiro, a research scientist then at the University of Pennsylvania:

“You should totally take me with you the next time you go to Siberia and look for frozen mammoths.”

Beth Shapiro describes the science of de-extinction at the 2010 PopTech Conference.

Beth Shapiro describes the science of de-extinction at the 2010 PopTech Conference.

Beth Shapiro has the coolest job ever. A self-proclaimed molecular paleontologist — or paleogeneticist — Beth looks more like a stunt double for the Icelandic pop singer Björk than a woman who does what she does for a living.

Paleogeneticists find and grind
the bones of giants.

As part of the 2010 PopTech Science Fellows program, Beth Shapiro describes her cutting-edge DNA research, I illustrated some of the fun details. Her research is helping us make informed decisions about how to preserve the species that are currently under threat.

Shapiro and her team collect both partial and fully-preserved giant mammals from the Pleistocene epoch — giant sloths, giant wolves, giant bears, giant beavers (that one always gets a chuckle), and of course giant wooly mammoths. So, naturally, I wanted her to take me with her on the hunt!

Well, that is what Shapiro has done in her new book, How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction; she takes the reader on the hunt in Beringia — also called “Bering Land Bridge” — where these giants roamed the dry, grassy plain that once connected Asia with North America during periodic ice ages.

Shapiro on the hunt for bones at the site of a hydraulic gold mining operation in Alaska.

Shapiro on the hunt for bones at the site of a hydraulic gold mining operation in Alaska.

In her hands-on research, Shapiro digs in dirt and hauls bones around, rides in a rustbucket Russian helicopter, camps among a gabillion mosquitos, and labors in the lab to piece together chopped up strands of DNA.


In the fall of 2014, I ran into Beth and her mammoth bones again. This time, she was one of the presenters for the National Academy of Sciences and The Kavli Foundation Frontiers of Science program in Irvine, California. 

This symposium brings together some of the very best young scientists to discuss exciting advances and opportunities in their fields. I was fortunate enough to scribe for both her National Academies of Science public presentation, part of the Distinctive Voices lecture series.

Beth Shapiro and Peter Durand at the National Academy of Sciences in Irvine, California.

Beth Shapiro and Peter Durand at the National Academy of Sciences in Irvine, California.

See full presentation (52 minutes)

Once again, Beth's presentation, her personality, and her message were a hit.  

She presented to a full auditorium, walking the audience through the challenges and possibilities that cloning a mammoth make available, namely, the science of de-extinction.



After her presentation, we looked at the resulting image, and I did not even have to pitch her... we both had the same idea:

“We totally have to animate this!”

So in November of 2014, we started the process. Along with the team at Princeton University Press, Beth began working on the script and the Alphachimp team began coaching her on how to record a voiceover. No easy task!

Shapiro is now associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She also runs a busy research lab, carries a full teaching load, parents two small children, and is in full-scale promotion mode for the book's publication.

At one point, Beth lost her voice giving talks, teaching, and catching cold from her kids.

Initial concept sketches completed on an iPad.

Initial concept sketches completed on an iPad.

In parallel with crafting the script and voiceover, the Alphachimp team worked through sketching out the ideas and illustrations. 

A preliminary sketch showing image placement and the camera movements across the painting.

A preliminary sketch showing image placement and the camera movements across the painting.

Originally, we considered the whiteboard time-lapse style, but that did not capture the richness of Beth's adventures and the main goal of her work and the book:

Bring these creatures to life!

In the end, we created a watercolor painting (with some animation sprinkled in) that allows Beth's voice to express the wonder of the science and to inspire audiences to read the rest of this amazing story.

For more information visit:


One Million Monkeys Typing


From Pop!Tech Blog:

The Theory: Given enough time, a hypothetical chimpanzee typing at random would, as part of its output, almost surely produce one of Shakespeare's plays (or any other text).lya Kreymerman and Nina Zito, creators of One Million Monkeys Typing, think so, too. On their new community story-telling site, members collaborate on writing a story (perhaps even a novel), without the pressure or obligation of ever completing the story by themselves.

Founded on the simple premise “read, write, publish”, the project encourages members to create new segments for “story trees”. Before beginning a new story, you must first contribute to a few existing stories. Once you’ve become part of the writing community, you receive permission (or in One Million Monkey terms, a “seed”) to start your own story tree.

The idea of one million monkeys typing is derived from the infinite monkey theorem. Community members are considered “monkeys,” with a designated number indicating the order in which they joined the site.

How to Unleash Your Creativity

"Experts discuss tips and tricks to let loose your inner ingenuity"
By Mariette DiChristina
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In a discussion with Scientific American Mind executive editor Mariette DiChristina, three noted experts on creativity, each with a very different perspective and background, reveal powerful ways to unleash your creat­ive self.

John Houtz is a psychologist and professor at Fordham University. His most recent book is The Educational Psychology of Creativity (Perspectives on Creativity Research) (Hamptom Press, 2002).

Julia Cameron is an award-winning poet, playwright and filmmaker. Her book The Artist's Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 2002) has sold more than three million copies worldwide. Her latest book is The Writing Diet.

Robert Epstein is a visiting scholar at the University of California, San Diego. Contributing editors for Scientific American Mind and former editor in chief of Psychology Today, Epstein has written several books on creativity, including The Big Book of Creativity Games (McGraw-Hill, 2000).

I, too, have found the creative process to be teachable and trackable.

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Quieting the Demons and Giving Art a Voice

Two new books highlight the writing of authors with mental illness.
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In Madness: A Bipolar Life, Marya Hornbacher brings to the discussion more than the usual pairing of disturbed brain and talented mind. Her talent has created a third self, an appealing, rueful narrator (read excerpt) who can look back on three decades of manic-depressive illness, much of it untreated, and spin a story that is almost impossible to put down. In the same way that the psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison experienced, recorded and then analyzed her own case in the 1995 classic “An Unquiet Mind,” Ms. Hornbacher provides the perfect trifecta of perspectives.

More reflections on the same subject can be found in Poets on Prozac: Mental Illness, Treatment, and the Creative Process. This collection of essays solicited from published poets with psychiatric illness. Most of the 16 contributors are decades older than Ms. Hornbacher, but while they may lack her vivid prose style, they do supply a long-term perspective on the terrain.

With problems ranging from mild unmedicated depression to schizophrenia treated with an unorthodox megavitamin technique, these writers also focus on trapping the words — and all agree that the sick brain often spells catastrophe for the creative mind. While mental illness may form a part of the creative cycle, if untreated its own cycles invariably take over. “Depression steals the voice,” writes Liza Porter. “Silence breeds depression. Depression breeds silence.”

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Blurb: As reviewed by Kevin Kelly

Kevin is a film buff, Senior Maverick for WIRED, photographer and self-proclaimed Geek Dad.

With and without kids, he has traveled the globe (Afghanistan, Vietnam, China, Europe); he has launched publications (The Whole Earth Catalog, Wired); and, he continues to redefine how we think about technology and biology (Out of Control, Encyclopedia of Life, The Long Now Foundation ). And, in case you haven't guessed, he's one of my heroes.

He is also an avid self-publisher of personal projects.

Check out his reviews of the various on-line in the blooming print-on-demand market.

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My recommendation for the best personal color book printer is Blurb. Blurb produces color books very similar to the iPhoto books you can order from Apple. Using iPhoto Books is slightly easier than using Blurb's software, particularly if all your photos happen to already be in iPhoto, but it works well enough. The idea is that you can drag images (photos or illustrations) into template book pages, add text or captions where you want to, then hit a button and have the finished book mailed to you. (all these systems work with PCs and Macs)
The results from both Apple and Blurb are marvelous. In fact, these books are astounding. That's because they both use the same back-room engine, the HP Indigo 5000 (as do the other color book makers like Snapfish and MyPublisher). The Indigio is essentially a high-speed, high-quality liquid-toner printer that will print your photo book several pages across.
Blurb Photobook
$19 base price
Available from Blurb
Blurb's How to Make a Book

"Benefits & Pitfalls of Metaphors & Syntopical Readings" or "Why We Have a Library"

Books sure are pretty.

And, they make people look smart.

But the books are a vital part of our tool set for helping teams think faster, better and more creativelier [spell check did NOT like that word!].

Here are some resources giving the background of how other organizations use metaphorical reading, research outside their subject areas, and their own libraries as tools and methods for innovation in business.

Syntopical Reading… Intelligent Dialog
Mortimor Adler developed the term and method called Syntopical Reading in How To Read A Book [rbtfBook]. The idea is to read many books at the same time - on a given subject - and aggressively dialoging with the authors. First, you see things this way that otherwise would not be revealed. In addition, it is possible to read a set of books, that together, bring information and insight to a subject that none of them, singularly, cover. by Matt Taylor

The Syntopicon as an Instrument of Liberal Education
The Syntopicon serves the end of liberal education to the extent that it facilitates the reading of the great books and, beyond that, the study and teaching of them. To make the nature of this educational contribution clear, it is necessary to distinguish between the integral and the syntopical reading of great books. by Mortimer Adler. Ph.D.

The Fruitful Flaws of Strategy Metaphors
Harvard Business Review | It’s tempting to draw business lessons from other disciplines—warfare, biology, music. But most managers do it badly. Instead of being seduced by the similarities between business and another field, you need to look for places where the metaphor breaks down. by Tihamér von Ghyczy

Unearth Growth by Digging in the Dirt
Fast Company | Everything you need to know about innovation is growing (and dying) in a garden near you. So forget balanced scorecards, six sigma and SWOT analysis and read this instead. by Richard Watson