short update: This article by Carl Zimmer in Slate might give you an idea of the controversy generated by the “Arsenic-based Life” announcement and research paper I wrote about a little while ago. Many scientists are not happy with the quality of the paper and argue that the NASA researchers may have been too hasty in publishing it, and point out technical problems in the article. The authors of the paper do not agree. It’s all very exciting, especially for those of us who enjoy seeing science in the making.
December 9, 2010 at 11:43 pm (Uncategorized)
The world just keeps getting fuzzier. Last week we found out about a bacterium that can metabolise arsenic instead of phosphorus; now it seems we have solar-powered wasps.
Is there no respect for demarcation any more?
December 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm (Uncategorized)
Something’s cooking at NASA. The webs are abuzz with the words “extraterrestrial life” but a cursory examination reveals that the rumors actually point to an announcement of terrestrial life, albeit one that is very different from life-as-we-know-it. I think that’s even more exciting; a finding that will shake the foundations of Biology – and it involves a lot less travel.No, really, what’s more thrilling: finding alien life forms on Mars or Titan, or finding them right here among us?
The concept of the “shadow biosphere” has been talked about before, but actually few people have taken it seriously up until now. I’m rooting for it, but NASA does have a bit of a reputation for making a lot of noise about findings, so we’ll see.
Anyway, we’ll have to wait for the press conference, then for the publication of the result, then for the independent verifications, then for the arguments, then for the setup of testing protocols, then for some more findings of the same sort – and then we can rewrite every single textbook in the life sciences.
November 8, 2010 at 6:46 pm (Uncategorized)
At the Grand Academy of Lagado on the flying island of Laputa, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver encounters strange and fanciful creatures: the scientists. He observes their attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, weave coloured spider webs by feeding the spiders differently coloured flies, and other absurd projects. One ardent researcher is working on “an operation to reduce human excrement to its original food by separating the several parts, removing the tincture which it receives from the gall, making the odor exhale, and scumming off the saliva.”
Swift would’ve felt completely at home at the Ig Nobel award ceremony. The most recent one was held about a month ago at Harvard University:, and featured, among much else, prizes given to researchers documenting remote-controlled helicopters collecting whale snot; rather naughty fruit bats; and a study urging people to wear socks over their shoes. This year’s offering was, if anything, relatively tame. The 2009 prize in Biology, for instance, was awarded to three Japanese researchers “for demonstrating that kitchen refuse can be reduced more than 90% in mass by using bacteria extracted from the feces of giant pandas.” The focus on feces seems to be a recurring theme: the 2007 Chemistry Ig Nobel was awarded to Mayu Yamamoto for her method of extracting vanilla flavouring from cow dung. How very Laputan.
The Ig Nobels are awarded by Annals of Improbable Research, a satirical journal produced by scientists, mostly for scientists. The Igs are awarded for scientific achievements that range all the way from the bemusing to the outright bizarre. The ceremony itself, a joyous travesty of serious award ceremonies, has been held annually since 1991 and features, among other things, much throwing of paper airplanes, a “Win-a-Date-With-a-Nobel-Laureate” contest, and Miss Sweetie Poo, a little girl who cuts short award acceptance speeches when she’s bored with them.
I’m trying to think of another community or institution that mocks itself so consistently. The Golden Raspberry award (or “Razzie”) is the obvious candidate. It functions as the Academy Awards’ evil twin, handing out prizes for the film industry’s worst achievements of the year. But although the spirit seems to be the same, there’s a difference: Razzie winners very rarely show up to collect their awards, while most of the Ig Nobel recipients show up, traveling at their own expense from all over the world. The Ig Nobel ceremony is also well attended by serious scientists: no less than nine Nobel Prize winners were presentin 2009, handing out the awards. A picture in the official Ig Nobel website shows three of them onstage, each wearing a combination brassiere/gas mask.
Is science not supposed to be a serious endeavour? Whenever the practice of science is shown in popular culture, be it on “CSI” shows or apocalyptic thriller films, the lab on the screen is gloomy and forbidding, bathed in darkness, the hush disturbed only by blinking lights and intermittent electronic beeps. The scientist is shown working alone and in silence, huddled over the microscope or expertly manipulating a computer with nary a smile or, god forbid, laughter.
Where , then, is all this foolishness coming from?
One explanation might be that science and humour are much more alike in spirit than it seems at first, though the methods used couldn’t be more different. The comic and the scientist struggle to make some sense of the world around them, and in the process, remind humankind of its frailty and vanity. Both fields are concerned with the undermining of authority and accepted wisdom, with intense observation of reality and with self-examination – key concepts in the practice of science. Scientists are expected to be very critical of their own thoughts, theories and experiments, and the Ig Nobels provide just that – a festival of foolishness to balance the pomp of the Stockholm Nobel ceremonies.
That said, there is another part to this willingness of science to revel in its own ridicule: self-directed humor is often a sign of underlying self-confidence. Perhaps one reason for this confidence may be surmised when we read some more of the Laputans’ aims in Gulliver’s Travels: “One man shall do the work of ten, a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever, without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose…” Swift’s Laputans failed miserably at these attempts, but today such wonders and others like them, unimaginable in Swift’s time, are a reality, conjured for us by modern science. It has grown robust now; it can take, and make, a joke.
June 9, 2010 at 11:06 pm (Uncategorized)
Author copies of the Brazilian edition of SW – “Pequenas maravilhas” – arrived this morning at my doorstep. A very nice way of starting one’s day; I recommend it heartily.
I had a peek inside, as you do – though what you expect to achieve by that is a mystery. The first and only thing that caught my eye is the interesting fact that the translator chose to amend the first few paragraphs, in which I originally demonstrated my ignorance of cricketing terms; I now appear to be demonstrating to Brazilian readers my ignorance of GOLFING terms. Which is quite correct. Good job there. How did they know?
May 1, 2010 at 7:14 pm (Uncategorized)
The German translation of SW, titled Kleine Wunderwerke, translated by Sebastian Vogel, is out. I received a few copies of it by mail the other day. One goes straight to the “vanity shelf”, of course, but what should I do with the rest of them?
It’s a nice little format, with an attractive cover, and they’ve even added an index, which makes it look rather respectable. Actually, the whole thing looks much more respectable to me, since I don’t know German and therefore cannot tell the silly bits from the serious ones. And these long, long words are everywhere.
It’s a curious feeling, reading something you yourself have written but cannot understand. It’s like, say, one percent of an out-of-body experience. Also, I wonder what the German reader will make of the cricket references.
April 26, 2010 at 2:30 am (Uncategorized)
Update on the fan front: X31 no longer gives the “fan error” message, but has for some days now been refusing to start properly. When I turn it on, its screen stays dark, it emits a series of about ten irregular beeps, then does nothing more except whir a bit. It does not respond to anything. I turn it off, then on again, and the same thing happens four or five times until it starts up normally. I tried to do several things to it, and got good results blowing into it as described in the last post.
At one point I thought it might be a heat problem so I stuck it in the fridge for a few minutes (it worked great). An IT-literate friend (not the one from the last post) chided me about this: “moisture will KILL your computer”, he said; so; no more fridge time.
I was too chicken to tell my friend that on hot days when X31 would heat up alarmingly, I would sometimes place it on top of an ice pack wrapped in a towel. I haven’t done this in a while, though, which leaves me wondering whether:
a) The moisture has caused some damage resulting in this current spate of malfunctioning
b) X31 might actually have become ADDICTED to moisture due to icepack applications, and is now demanding the fix. “I know it’s bad for me”, it might be beeping to me, “but it’s just so *&%$ing awesome. C’mon, hit me again”.
c) It just likes my blow jobs.
April 21, 2010 at 4:09 pm (Uncategorized)
Did I mention there are a lot of microbes in the world? I’m sure I have. Well, it now appears there are even more than previously estimated.
By a few orders of magnitude.
April 13, 2010 at 8:02 pm (Uncategorized)
Like it or not, fans are a part of nearly every writer’s life nowadays. Usually they stay unseen, unheard and unheeded, but they’re always there. We may go for months without giving them a second thought, but when they make themselves noticed, we’d do well to pay attention. Which is what happened to me late last night. The one in my laptop conked out suddenly, so that when I turned on my trusty ol’ x31 all I got was a laconic black and white message saying “fan error” – then darkness.
I couldn’t really claim to be surprised; this computer has gone through a lot in the three years I’ve had it, and has performed commendably. At some point a hardware fault is to be expected. Still, a suddenly-dead computer is a depressing thing to have. I suddenly realised I’d devoted many hours to this thing. It’s my primary connection to the world. That, I guess, is why this sudden refusal to work struck me as more than a technical fault or a disruption to my plans. No, with x31 this was betrayal, and it hurt. I wiped away a hidden tear and tried to consider my options rationally.
I have quite good computer repair skills; said skills are located firmly within two or three of my closest friends. I do not believe it’s a good thing to keep them on my person. So I didn’t really consider trying to repair or replace the fan myself. Still, out of academic interest, I googled “x31 fan error” on my wife’s laptop and went where google lead me. The gruesome pictures of gutted laptops turned my stomach, but I read on, and one comment mentioned a technique I could try without specialised tools. So I did: I put my mouth over the fan vent and blew in really hard. something went “tluck” in there, and the computer has been working fine ever since.
I felt like a tech genius for a few hours. By god, I have literally resuscitated a laptop! Then I spoke to one of my tech-savvy friends, who put me in my place:
“You should suck out, not blow in“, he said. “That way you pull the accumulated dust and lint out instead of pushing it further in. Use a small vacuum cleaner.”
Correct tool use is the mark of the true professional.
March 2, 2010 at 9:04 pm (Uncategorized)
(The title, in case you’re wondering, is Tim Robbins’s inane catchphrase from “The Hudsucker Proxy”)
I’m back from San Diego, where I participated in the sb&f awards ceremony along with the three other winners this year, who were all very nice, with great books – I bought “The Frog Scientist” for Daniel, who’s a bit young for the story but can already appreciate a good frog photo when he sees one. Julian Slane has some photos of it all (not the frogs, the ceremony) in his blog (thanks Julian!). It was great talking to people who are excited about writing science, especially for younger readers.
Which leads me to think, once again: am I writing science for younger readers? Opinions differ. I myself have several conflicting ones. I originally thought, before I started writing the book, that it would be a children’s book; I said as much in an early interview. But after I got some bits done and gave them to my agent to read, she came back from a session with several other people who knew quite a lot about writing and told me that everyone agreed that my style is more suited to adults and that I should keep it that way. I thought “fine, no problem” and thus the book was written, edited, published, and marketed as a book for adults. It included sections that dealt with findings and issues that are not taught at school, or even in specialised microbiology degrees at universities. I pulled out all the stops; I wrote about non-coding DNA, antigenic variation, horizontal gene transfer, epigenetics, restriction enzymes, epidemiology, sulphur metabolism – whatever I found interesting. Adults I’ve spoken to who read it seemed to like it, including people with degrees and doctorates in the life sciences; “well then” I thought, “it’s a book for adults, then. Case closed”.
But there were some signs pointing elsewhere. A reviewer or two thought the book would suit “a curious teenager”. That sounded fine to me: the intellect of a curious teenager can be a formidable force of nature. I also received emails from one or two teens who liked it (one of them also asked quite an involved question about biochemical nucleotide synthesis pathways in bacteria and humans), but then, kids read the damnest things, don’t they? I know I did. By the age of 12 I had gone through “everything you always wanted to know about sex” (that one eased my way into pueberty), “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance” (I liked the bits about motorcycles), and books by O. Henry, De Maupassant, Hemingway, Romain Gary, Wilde, Shakespeare, and many others that my parents had lying around*, including nonfiction and popular science books. I can’t honestly say I understood all I read, but I read it, and enjoyed what I read. So okay, I wrote a book for adults that a few kids came across and liked. fair enough.
And then I recieved an award for writing science for “young adults”. I wasn’t sure what that meant, so I looked it up: Wikipedia says the definition of that term is the age group of 14-21 for fiction book readers, but 20-40 if you’re talking about psychology. A “young adult health service” is aimed at persons 18-25. In the state of New York it refers to the age group of 16-21.
So now I’m all confused. I have no idea what age group m’book is supposed to appeal to. I think I’ll just keep on writing the way I do, and let either the publisher’s marketing department, or the actual market, decide.
*In the case of “everything you always wanted to know about sex” the term “lying around” is not a precisely accurate description. I had to perform some tricky bookshelf climbing in order to get to it.