The Atlantic

The Man Who Saw Inside Himself

For years, Larry Smarr has used a supercomputer to monitor his health and peer at his organs. Recently, he used his knowledge to help direct his own surgery.
Source: John Cuneo

Sonia Ramamoorthy has plenty of smart patients. A surgeon at the University of California at San Diego, she counts among her patients members of that school’s faculty, many of whom arrive at her clinic remarkably well informed.

“They’ve been to the internet, and they’ll come in with 50 questions,” she says. But nothing prepared her for Larry Smarr. During her consultation with him about an intestinal affliction in October 2016, he interrupted her to ask, “Do you have a quick minute? I have a PowerPoint presentation.”

I wrote about Larry in this magazine five and a half years ago, documenting his remarkable efforts with a supercomputer at UCSD to study his own body in unprecedented detail—efforts that had led to his self-diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, long before definitive symptoms had manifested. Although Larry’s academic background is in astrophysics and astronomy, he has evolved into one of the world’s foremost experts in applied computer engineering. He founded, and heads, the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, or Calit2, which is exploring advanced digital technologies to rethink the way medicine is practiced.

Larry is using his own body, and his ongoing struggle with Crohn’s, as an experiment. He keeps precise measures of his body’s input (what he eats and drinks) and output (the energy he burns and what he excretes—and yes, that is precisely what it sounds like). He undergoes periodic MRIs, has his blood and stool analyzed frequently, submits to annual colonoscopies, and has had his DNA sequenced. Among the things does with all these data is create a stunning, regularly updated three-dimensional image of his insides, which he calls “Transparent Larry.” His colleague Jürgen Schulze projects it inside “The Cave,” a virtual-reality room that literally places the viewer inside the picture. Larry can not only chart the changes taking place inside his body; he can actually them.

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic8 min read
The Power Of Fear In The Thawing Arctic
Living north of the Arctic Circle meant learning fear and its power to motivate in the face of danger—whether from a bear or climate change.
The Atlantic4 min read
How Ancient DNA Can Help Recast Colonial History
The people of pre-colonial Puerto Rico did not disappear entirely—a new study shows that the island’s residents still carry bits of their DNA.
The Atlantic3 min readPsychology
Back-to-School Night Is Hard for Single Parents
Susan Dynarski’s husband always took the lead at their kids’ school events, asking questions, getting updates, and advocating for their success. When Dynarski, whose job as a professor at the University of Michigan requires a lot of travel, wasn’t re