Review: J. D. McClatchy’s Secret Autobiography, in Quotations

Dwight Garner in the New York Times:

ScreenHunter_1874 Apr. 20 18.12The books of quotations that rarely let you down are commonplace books, those intellectual scrapbooks made for personal use and compiled by a single avid reader. Packed with miscellaneous delights — phrases, jokes, anecdotes, lovely sentences — they read like secret autobiographies, back catalogs of joy and heartbreak. You can apply them like compresses on the ugly bruises of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson kept one; so did Thomas Hardy. W. H. Auden issued his under the title “A Certain World” (1970). A lesser-known figure, the English belletrist Geoffrey Madan (1895-1947) had his collected in“Geoffrey Madan’s Notebooks,” published in 1981. It’s become a bit of a cult item.

These days, it’s rare that anyone publishes one. This is a reason to welcome the poet J. D. McClatchy’s “Sweet Theft: A Poet’s Commonplace Book.” Another reason is that it’s civilized and civilizing while being intimate and offbeat. It’s a treat to walk its aisles and browse its well-stocked shelves.

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Dandy Highwaymen

Zaheer Kazmi in 3AM Magazine:

ScreenHunter_1873 Apr. 20 17.54Refracting the exhibitionism of Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur through the gaze of today’s consumer culture, Susan Buck-Morss has observed that ‘In commodity society all of us are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; all of us are collectors of things.’ The figure of the flâneur, later to be theorised by Walter Benjamin, lived on in mid-twentieth century psychogeography and assimilated the practices of Baudelaire’s rarefied urban gent to those of the lower classes. The Situationist dérive – an act of unmapped urban drifting – was intended to create an alternative cartography which transcended the panoptic confines of the late modern city’s disciplining street grid where nobody could lose themselves in the crowd. A spontaneous walk off the beaten path, rejecting state-controlled urban planning, was reimagined as a crime against bourgeois convention and a gesture towards freedom.

Hiding in plain sight, unable to ever fully escape the ubiquitous reach of the city’s watchful eye, however, the flâneur was not only spectator but spectacle, a seller as well as collector of things. Often identified with dandyism, the decadent liberty of the flâneur – embodied in flamboyant ways of deportment and sartorial choices – was also a subversive expression of art and sexuality that revealed a deeper intimacy between liberty and criminality in the Western public sphere.

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While biology shows us gender can be fluid, our brains struggle to see it that way

Robert Sapolsky in Nautilus:

ScreenHunter_1872 Apr. 20 17.48Biologists have long known about exceptions to the boring, staid notion that organisms are, and remain, either female or male. Now our culture is inching toward recognizing that the permanent, cleanly binary nature of gender is incorrect.

Along with the high-profile Caitlyn Jenner, and Emmy-nominated actress Laverne Cox, America has seen openly transgender individuals serve as a mayor, state legislator, judge, police officer, a model for a global cosmetics brand, and a high school homecoming queen. Even amid the appallingly high rates of discrimination and violence against transgender individuals, there is a growing recognition that gender designation need not be permanent.

Many people are questioning whether there is even such a thing as “gender.” These are individuals whose psychosexual self-image may be of both genders, a third gender, no gender, or whose visceral perception of the social world does not include implicitly seeing people as gendered.

This new continent was formalized by as august and ancient an institution as Facebook, which offers 58 gender specification options on one’s profile page. These include Agender, Bigender, Intersex, Gender Fluid, Gender Questioning, Non-binary, Pangender, and my two favorites—Two-spirit, with a vaguely Native American grooviness to it, and Other, which basically implies that, Whoa, Nellie, we’ve barely scratched the surface!

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is that even a thing?

17stern-blog480Alexander Stern at the The Stone (New York Times):

Speakers and writers of American English have recently taken to identifying a staggering and constantly changing array of trends, events, memes, products, lifestyle choices and phenomena of nearly every kind with a single label — a thing. In conversation, mention of a surprising fad, behavior or event is now often met with the question, “Is that actually a thing?” Or “When did that become a thing?” Or “How is that even a thing?” Calling something “a thing” is, in this sense, itself a thing.

It would be easy to call this a curiosity of the language and leave it at that. Linguistic trends come and go. Why has “That really gets my goat” survived for so long when we have pretty much given up “You know your onions”? One could, on the other hand, consider the use of “a thing” a symptom of an entire generation’s linguistic sloth, general inarticulateness and penchant for cutesy, empty, half-ironic formulations that create a self-satisfied barrier preventing any form of genuine engagement with the world around them.

I don’t want to do either. My assumption is that language and experience mutually influence each other. Language not only captures experience, it conditions it. It sets expectations for experience and gives shape to it as it happens. What might register as inarticulateness can reflect a different way of understanding and experiencing the world.

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5174pRLiKOL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_Nathaniel Popkin at Cleaver Magazine:

Wilson leads the reader into his classic work of naturalist philosophy, Biophilia, published in 1984, by describing the experience of entering a forest in Surinam, as if, like Moresco’s unnamed narrator-protagonist, drawn to light, into another world. “In a twist my mind came free and I was aware of the hard workings of the natural world beyond the periphery of ordinary attention,” he writes,

where passions lose their meaning and history is in another dimension, without people, and great events pass without record or judgment. I was a transient of no consequence in this familiar yet deeply alien world that I had come to love.

Since that 1960s field study, the entomologist has spent nearly six more decades immersed in nature. He sees human history as inextricably connected to the much longer biological history of the earth and yet he’s conscious of man’s latent power. As a practical matter, it’s just better if—aside from field biologists like himself—we stay away, let nature be nature, at least for the world’s most sensitive biospheres. Moresco, from an opposite tact (his narrator’s life is fading), imagines flora and fauna taking back the planet after humans “have disappeared from the face of this little planet lost in the galaxies.” Giono, whose startling novels immersed in the pre-modern world of rural Provence are just now reaching contemporary English readers, imagines his peasant characters in constant dialogue with unpredictable nature, which even in the most benign circumstance is close at hand. A similar claustrophobia inhabits the fog gray Wales that Jones has created in Everything I Found at the Beach and his earlier The Dig, where to survive people must get their hands dirty. In Jones’s Wales, nature exploited for man is profit for some, subsistence, or worse, for most others.

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Crisis in Brazil

20160102_FBD001_0Perry Anderson at the London Review of Books:

Half-hidden, the roots of this debacle lay in the soil of the PT’s model of growth itself. From the outset, its success relied on two kinds of nutrient: a super-cycle of commodity prices, and a domestic consumption boom. Between 2005 and 2011, the terms of trade for Brazil improved by a third, as demand for its raw materials from China and elsewhere increased the value of its principal exports and the volume of tax receipts for social expenditures. By the end of Lula’s second term, the share of primary commodities in the Brazilian export package had jumped from 28 to 41 per cent, and manufactures had fallen from 55 to 44 per cent; by the end of Dilma’s first term, raw materials accounted for more than half the value of all exports. But from 2011 onwards the prices of the country’s leading tradable goods collapsed: iron ore dropped from $180 to $55 a ton, soya from $18 to $8 a bushel, crude oil from $140 to $50 a barrel. Compounding the end of the overseas bonanza, domestic consumption hit the buffers. Throughout its rule, the core strategy of the PT had been to expand home demand by increasing popular purchasing power. That was achieved not only by raising the minimum wage and making cash transfers to the poor – the Bolsa Família – but by a massive injection of consumer credit. Over the decade from 2005 to 2015, total debt owed by the private sector increased from 43 to 93 per cent of GDP, with consumer loans running at double the level of neighbouring countries. By the time Dilma was re-elected in late 2014, interest payments on household credit were absorbing more than a fifth of average disposable income. Along with the exhaustion of the commodity boom, the consumer spree was no longer sustainable. The two motors of growth had stalled.

In 2011 the aim of Mantega’s new economic matrix had been to kick-start the economy by lifting investment. But his means of doing so had diminished. State banks had been steadily increasing their share of loan capital, from a third to a half of all credit since he took over in 2006 – the portfolio of the government’s development bank, BNDES, rose sevenfold after 2007. Offering preferential rates to leading companies that added up to a much larger subsidy than outlays to poor families, the ‘Bolsa Empresarial’ cost the treasury about double the Bolsa Família.

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Art Is a Dark Mirror

Olivia Schwob in Harvard Magazine:

PixEllen Harvey ’89 is between shows, so most of her work is packed up, the walls of her studio baring their industrial concrete. Only one piece, unfinished, is propped by the entrance: a massive grayscale cityscape. Blending in with its surroundings, it at first resembles a blown-up photograph. Careful scrutiny gradually reveals thin strokes of oil paint, which bring out the window ledges of warehouses and a water tower’s spindly legs; daubs name the trees and clouds. Where most of her work takes the form of multi-part installations, this painting stands alone. But in another sense, it’s a classic Harvey: its power lies in the accumulation of small moments into an overwhelming whole.

Harvey works in other media, but may be best known for her exhaustive collections of paintings about painting: a copy of every nude in Miami’s Bass museum; a miniature version of every work in the Whitney Museum catalog; a portrait of every piece of metalwork in the Barnes Foundation’s collection. The projects are rapturous bordering on obsessive-compulsive, but reducing them to genre-worship would be a mistake. Harvey uses her fascination with traditional art techniques to comment on “art” as an enterprise, and to point out its potential for multiple “failures”—failures to communicate, to preserve, to record, to hold value; she readily acknowledges painting’s potential to become merely “wallpaper for the rich.” This interest in failure derives from her own unconventional start as an artist: Harvey switched careers after attending Yale Law School, and has never studied art formally. Though recognition of her work is growing, and art institutions worldwide seek her out more frequently, she still considers herself something of an outsider in that world.

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Wednesday Poem

“In war there are only humans, method and grief.”
………………………………….. —Enoch Smith

Song of the Forward Artillery Observer

I saw them first as the ghosts I would make them,
Green in the sorcery of Starlight.
Don’t put them under the trees, I willed him,
It’s tombs not foxholes they’ll dig themselves there,
But he put them under the trees. I killed them
First on that hill, with tree-bursts in mid air.

Don’t run them out over the saddle, I pleaded,
You want concealment not speed, go downslope
To bush—but fear knew what it needed;
They bolted up over the saddle. That’s when
I cursed him, adjusted, and killed them again.

For God’s sake west not south I yelled, the winds
Have changed and the shadow’s gone, but south
Was the way he took them. Where the valley bends
I hung my rounds in the monsoon’s mouth
And got that extra half second’s fall
When they bunched at the river, and I killed them all.

I say my one prayer in quietest numbers
Always heard to the hilt: in less
Than a year I built cathedrals of bones
Where a thunderous god descended to bless
My enemies in their benightedness
And left them prostrate, confirmed among the stones.
by Rob Schwab

Notes. Most infantry units had an FAO assigned whose specialty was to call in and adjust artillery fire. His messages to the artillery support bases, usually miles away, were brief and almost completely numerical.

A Starlight scope is a night-vision device that intensifies ambient light and shows everything in shades of blurred green.

A shadow, with reference to artillery, is a place theoretically within range but one that cannot be hit because of interposed terrain features or wind, or a combination of both.

Enemy dead counted in the field were said to be confirmed.

Inner Earth Is Teeming With Exotic Forms of Life

Sandeep Ravindran in Smithsonian:

Nematode_stalactite_jpg__800x600_q85_cropAncient bacteria from nearly two miles below Earth's surface: that's what first drew Tullis Onstott to begin his search for life in the most unlikely of places. The geomicrobiologist had just attended a 1992 U.S. Department of Energy meeting about rocks estimated to be more than 200 million years old—older than most dinosaurs. These prehistoric rocks had been unearthed from a gas exploration well, and they turned out to be teeming with bacteria. “That was pretty amazing to me,” says Princeton University's Onstott. “The idea that these bacteria had been living in these Triassic rocks since they were deposited at a time prior to the age of the dinosaurs, that idea caught my fancy,” he says. These rocks were among the first substantial evidence that life existed miles underground, and they jumpstarted researchers’ efforts to study life in the so-called deep subsurface. Over the past 20 years, Onstott and others have found that there is a greater variety of life in a lot more inhospitable places than anyone had imagined.

Deep life has been found all over the world and under a variety of conditions—in oil fields and gold mines, beneath ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica and in sediments and rocks below the ocean floor. These places can be extremely hostile environments, with pressures 10 to 100 times that at the surface. Temperatures can range from near freezing to more than 140 degrees Fahrenheit. A mile or more below the surface there's no sunlight and very little oxygen. In these austere environments, creatures have to scratch out a living on whatever energy they can muster from their surroundings. This means that the pace of life down there can sometimes be incredibly slow. These microbes can be a thousand- or million-fold less abundant than their brethren above ground. And some may have been around for hundreds, thousands or even millions of years—real microscopic Methuselahs.

More here.

A Mother Gone Supernova

Scott Bly in the Los Angeles Review of Books:

First-Time-She-DrownedTHE FIRST TIME SHE DROWNED is every bit as “lyrical,” “complex,” and “hypnotic” as the galley blurbs proclaim. And while Kerry Kletter’s debut YA/adult crossover novel is all of those things, it also serves as an introduction to the world of mental illness and a broken mental health system. Kletter’s book is especially important in a political climate that sidesteps discussions of gun violence by demonizing mental illness. The stigma of mental illness is real, and Kletter’s novel shines a bright and unflinching light into the mind of one young girl as she passes through a minefield of self-doubt following her release from a two-year commitment to a mental hospital.

Cassie O’Malley, the novel’s protagonist, turns 18 at the beginning of the story, which is told in present tense. Cassie is bright, a headstrong and mischievous (but ultimately unreliable) narrator. Turned loose from the institution where she has been held against her will since her mother had her committed for an undisclosed reason (the details of which unfold in flashbacks), Cassie is understandably fixated on her narcissistic parent and her withheld maternal love. The mystery of the circumstances surrounding Cassie’s commitment are revealed layer by layer as the “whodunit” of her mental state unfolds. I devoured the book, surprised at the sharp character insights and observations of the world. The dual-timeline narrative kept the pages turning right up until the climactic reveal and optimistic resolution.

More here.

Why There’s No ‘Right’ Way To Speak English

Natalie Zarrelli in Atlas Obscura:

ScreenHunter_1871 Apr. 19 16.55Jenny Suomela grew up in Sweden, but began learning English in school as a young child. She currently lives in the United States, and is married to a man whose only language is English. If she's speaking with Swedish friends, however, you might hear more than a few English words and phrases thrown in: “det är awesome”, for example, means “it is awesome.” Popularly called Swenglish, this use of English in Sweden is a mix of the two languages; a practice common throughout the world.

This meddling of English with other tongues has become increasingly pervasive, used in schools, business meetings, online forums, and everywhere in between. There are estimated to be two billion people speaking dozens of varieties of English in the world, a number far beyond the estimated 340 million native English speakers. “I think there is international awareness of the global role of English, mainly because it is so ubiquitous, and inescapable,” says Robert McCrum, author of the book Globish and co-writer of the BBC series and book, The Story of English.

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The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Quantum Field Theory

Matthew Buckley in the Boston Review:

ScreenHunter_1870 Apr. 19 16.49This series explores an anomaly CERN scientists announced last December at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), where protons are smashed together very close to the speed of light. My first installment explained how two detectors observed results at odds with predictions of the Standard Model. In the jargon of the field, they found a “diphoton excess at 750 GeV.” (My first piece explains what that means.)

This might be a very big deal. The Standard Model, which has withstood all experimental challenges for forty years, is our best theory of the fundamental particles that make up the matter and forces we know about. If the anomaly holds up, we will have come face to face with the Standard Model’s limitations.

But that’s a big “if.” The results are too preliminary for us to say anything for sure right now. Fortunately, CERN restarted the LHC experiments this month and is expected to make another announcement this summer. The new data may show that the anomaly was just statistical noise, but whatever happens, there is much to be learned from these efforts to probe the edges of our understanding. We may learn something about Nature, or we may learn that the existing theory has survived yet another test. In either case, by following how science gets done you can see why it is so exciting—the process as well as the results.

In the lead up to this summer’s announcement, I will take you through our present understanding of particle physics: the Standard Model, the Higgs boson, and why we suspect there is something beyond the Standard Model for the LHC to find. To do that, I need to give you a way to picture how the Universe works at these incredibly small scales. This second installment lays the foundation by exploring the basic language of particle physics. That language is called quantum field theory, but it is not so much a specific theory as the framework for all our fundamental theories of Nature, both the well tested (quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics, which are parts of the Standard Model) and the more speculative (supersymmetry and quantum gravity).

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Diet books are full of lies, but they’re even worse when doctors write them

Julia Belluz in Vox:

ScreenHunter_1869 Apr. 19 16.44Diet books are a multimillion-dollar industry, and it's no surprise, since millions of people struggle with their weight and long for answers about what they can do to slim down. Books can provide valuable tips on healthful patterns of eating. Some are more outlandish than others. But the problem with all of them is what they promise when it comes to weight loss.

No doctor has ever uncovered the solution to weight loss. If someone had found the fix for this immensely vexing and complex problem, we wouldn't be facing an obesity crisis.

But unfortunately, more and more respected doctors, despite their good intentions, are complicit with the publishing industry in confusing science and obscuring hard truths about obesity to sell diet books. It's one thing when actress Gwyneth Paltrow tells people to avoid “nightshade vegetables” on an elimination diet, and quite another when a highly trained and credentialed physician sells a weight loss lie.

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Confirmation: how far is too far when it comes to retelling the truth?

Emma Brockes in The Guardian:

ImagesKerry Washington is so good as Anita Hill it makes one realise that, thus far in her career, she has been underutilised as a serious actress. The supporting cast are excellent too, particularly Greg Kinnear as Joe Biden, who led the Senate judiciary committee investigating the allegations against Thomas, and Bill Irwin as John Danforth, the Republican senator and Thomas ally. For long stretches, the script sticks verbatim to a transcript of the televised hearings in which Hill so memorably and excruciatingly itemised the innuendos and propositions Thomas allegedly subjected her to when she worked for him – primarily, his remark about finding pubic hair on a coke can and the porn movie he’d enjoyed which starred “Long Dong Silver”. These scenes are electrifying, as they were at the time, not only for the testimony but for the drama of Hill, a black woman, sitting alone opposite a table of white men all seemingly out to get her, most of whom are laughably unqualified to pass judgment on matters of sexual propriety. (To wit: Ted Kennedy was one of the senators on the committee.) As the film suggests, sexual harassment had not, to that date, been on the national radar.

…And there is one indication that, contrary to the Republicans protests, the film isn’t a piece of liberal propaganda: the person who comes out worst from Confirmation is Biden, who is portrayed as weak and dithering, failing both to protect Hill and adequately to lead the committee.

It is a success of the film that one feels, in the end, the only hero to come out of it all was Hill.

More here.


McGlynn-web3Tom McGlynn at the Brooklyn Rail:

Marcel Broodthaers’s career has to be one of the most hermetically abstruse, at least to an American audience, of the 20th century, so it’s a signal event when a museum like MoMA, so vested in the pas de deux of Dada and Surrealism, celebrates one of that tradition’s most prodigious acolytes. Broodthaers’s work stems from the partition-smashing symbolism of both of those movements; he particularly identified with the wry humor of his fellow countryman, René Magritte. While his projects reflect the seriously playful recombination of words, images, and contexts that have come to represent the disinterested impertinence of the European avant-garde stemming from Symbolist poetry and anarchist dissolution, they gel into a singular critique of cultural institutions and the capital (both social and monetary) generated by the empires which support them. This gives his work an added value to today’s audience, caught as we are in an accelerated convergence between art and capital. Rather than simply mugging for his patrons, Broodthaers carefully directs their mug shots.

Broodthaers initiated his public life as a poet. A francophone Belgian, he strongly identified with the poetry and critical writing of Stéphane Mallarmé, whose work pops up regularly in both implicit and explicit ways throughout this dense, but well-chosen show. Like Mallarmé, Broodthaers found symbolic vessels to contain the artist/poet’s wager on the creative reinterpretation of formal meaning. He opposed sanctioned culture with such humble containers of poetic intention as cracked eggshells and steamed-open mussels, which he also posited as molds (the French word for mussels, moules, is a homophone for “molds”).

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Marc-Quinn-Mirage-2009Eric Fair at Literary Hub:

Easter arrives. The nightmares have become more frequent. On Easter morning, I go for a run on Camp Victory. I explore a new portion of the base where the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division is setting up. A large artificial hill rises out of the empty fields. This is where the workers piled the dirt to dig out the canals and lakes for Saddam’s palaces. Everyone says this is where Saddam Hussein buried the chemical weapons. From the top of the hill I can see the buildings and minarets of Baghdad. I hear the Muslim call to prayer and think about Sunday services at the First Presbyterian Church. I remember an organ prelude accompanied by the Philadelphia Brass, the choir processing down the aisle and singing “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today.” The “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. In high school, I used to attend all four Easter services before getting French-kissed in the church parking lot.

A large formation of soldiers from the 1st Cav Division reaches the top of the hill. They stop for push-ups and sit-ups. The sergeant berates the stragglers who are still making their way up the hill. His profanity is interrupted by incoming mortar rounds. We scatter over the sides of the hill and make our way back down to lower ground. I sit with other soldiers in a bunker made of large cement highway dividers. An officer says, “They watch from the minarets. Fucking assholes call artillery on Easter Sunday from a fucking mosque.”

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Chernobyl and the ghosts of a nuclear past

PripyatLucy Hughes-Hallett at The New Statesman:

This is not a book on Chernobyl,” writes Svetlana Alexievich, “but on the world of Chernobyl.” It is not about what happened on 26 April 1986, when a nuclear reactor exploded near the border between Ukraine and Belarus. It is about an epoch that will last, like the radioactive material inside the reactor’s leaking ruin, for tens of thousands of years. Alexievich writes that, before the accident, “War was the yardstick of horror”, but at Chernobyl “the history of dis­asters began”.

Alexievich, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature last year for her powerful works of oral history, was born in Ukraine and grew up in Belarus. The explosion took place close to her home ground. At once, people began to ask her whether she was writing about it. Others rushed out books of reportage or polemic. She hesitated. What had happened was uncanny, beyond words. There was, she writes, “a moment of muteness”.

Gradually, over many years, she interviewed people whose lives had been affected by the blast. Many have since died. Her book – first published in Russian in 1997 and now issued in a new translation of a revised text – is made up of their testimonies.

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The tumour trail left in blood

Kelly Rae Chi in Nature:

BloodA lung biopsy is an invasive and uncomfortable procedure — especially for an 80-year-old grandmother. But by profiling his elderly patient's tumours in this way, lung oncologist Geoffrey Oxnard could target them with a matched drug. After treatment, his patient's tumours seemed to disappear. Then, some time later, the 80-year-old returned to Oxnard's clinic riddled with pain. Tests showed that the cancer had returned, and hunting down a genetic cause of this resistance would require another invasive lung biopsy. But Oxnard, who is at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, offered the woman an alternative: “Let's just check your blood.” He performed what's known as a liquid biopsy, using nothing more than a blood sample. Within a day, he spotted minuscule amounts of tumour DNA that revealed a mutation that causes resistance to treatment. Luckily, a drug that targets the mutation was being tested in clinical trials. With the genetic profile in hand, Oxnard managed to enrol his patient into the study, and her tumours went into remission again. The discovery that parts of tumour cells, or even whole cells, break away from the original tumour and enter the bloodstream led to the idea of liquid biopsies. With this approach, cancers can be genetically characterized by analysing tumour DNA taken from a blood sample, thus bypassing the need to extract solid tumour tissue. Now, the rise of rapid genome-sequencing techniques has made it practical to translate this concept to the clinic. Three main approaches are being pursued: analysing circulating tumour DNA1, examining whole tumour cells in the bloodstream2 and capturing small vesicles called exosomes that are ejected by tumours3 (see 'Scalpel-free biopsies'). And scientists have found that blood platelets might be able to offer up cancer clues, too (see 'Platelets ingest tumour data').

The allure of liquid biopsies is that they are quick, convenient and minimally painful, and they allow clinicians to closely monitor how tumours respond to therapies and to forecast cancer recurrences. In the long term, clinicians might even be able to use liquid biopsies to catch tumours at the earliest stages, before a person shows any symptoms. The genomic information in DNA circulating in the bloodstream could provide a snapshot of cancer genes in the body and may even point to where the cancer originated.

More here.