Prague holds the secret to great art

The beautiful and intricate Czech capital is like an anti-Silicon Valley.

Prague holds the secret to great art

What conditions are necessary for great art? Does it merely require a person of extreme genius to come along? Does it require patronage and lots of money? What about a vibrant and active community? Belief in a transcendent power? Belief in a cause greater than oneself?


Each of these questions was on my mind as I walked through the streets of Prague a couple of weeks ago. In every direction, there are beautiful buildings adorned with jagged spires and fantastical sculptures. Even cheap bodegas are housed in gothic masterpieces that would be tourist-worthy in any other city.

Prague is a city that forces you to feel humble. You're surrounded by artistic details that would take decades to attempt and a lifetime to master. Simple statuettes that adorn common buildings are out of the scope of almost any modern sculpture student; most of who choose to weld or glue together disparate objects into “modernist masterpieces."

This is perhaps one of the reasons why the west coast of California, in which a 100-year-old claptrap building is “ancient," is the home of audacious visions and innovation. It's easy to see anything as possible when one is surrounded by simple, quickly assembled objects. When you see a new neighborhood get constructed in a matter of months, you feel empowered — if that's possible, what else is?

Tradition is filled with barriers to entry, but it's also filled with beauty. After all, a tradition is made up of the trial-and-error learnings of tens of thousands, or millions, of people just as smart as us. While we may want to be rebellious and disregard their lessons, we do so at our own peril. In the case of architecture and art, we've done so with enormous costs.

Our modern cities today look as if they were made out of cardboard boxes and Lego pieces. Buildings consist of four unadorned planes with windows punched into them, and frilly adornments or statues are as rare as spotted owls. This is perhaps one of the reasons that buildings in New York and San Francisco are in such disrepair — who would want to put money or time into such horrendous creations?

The buildings that make up much of Prague, however, have crown moulding more beautiful than half the pieces in the Museum of Modern Art. This attention to aesthetic beauty and detail has a strange effect on the psyche. It makes you feel like you're someplace important and even holy; which brings us back to the first question I asked: What conditions are necessary for great art? I know this sounds silly and cliché, but could it be divine inspiration? After all, many of Prague's great buildings were constructed or imagined during the reign of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor.

This is the conclusion that scholar Charles Murray came to in his great tome, Human Accomplishment. As he finishes his book:

"A story is told about the medieval stone masons who carved the gargoyles that adorn the great Gothic cathedrals. Sometimes their creations were positioned high upon the cathedral, hidden behind cornices or otherwise blocked from view, invisible from any vantage point on the ground. They sculpted these gargoyles as carefully as any of the others, even knowing that once the cathedral was completed and the scaffolding taken down, their work would remain forever unseen by any human eye. It was said that they carved for the eye of God. That, written in a thousand variations, is the story of human accomplishment."

U.S. Navy controls inventions that claim to change "fabric of reality"

Inventions with revolutionary potential made by a mysterious aerospace engineer for the U.S. Navy come to light.

U.S. Navy ships

Credit: Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • U.S. Navy holds patents for enigmatic inventions by aerospace engineer Dr. Salvatore Pais.
  • Pais came up with technology that can "engineer" reality, devising an ultrafast craft, a fusion reactor, and more.
  • While mostly theoretical at this point, the inventions could transform energy, space, and military sectors.
Keep reading Show less

Why so gassy? Mysterious methane detected on Saturn’s moon

Scientists do not know what is causing the overabundance of the gas.

An impression of NASA's Cassini spacecraft flying through a water plume on the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • A new study looked to understand the source of methane on Saturn's moon Enceladus.
  • The scientists used computer models with data from the Cassini spacecraft.
  • The explanation could lie in alien organisms or non-biological processes.
Keep reading Show less

CRISPR therapy cures first genetic disorder inside the body

It marks a breakthrough in using gene editing to treat diseases.

Credit: National Cancer Institute via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

Quantcast