Monday, April 30, 2007

Dental Delight

Oh, yes, I went to the dentist today. My mouth now tastes of baking soda and fake cherry flavoring.

There’s nothing like having my frickin’ teeth scraped with sharp, metal picks, then having those picks poked down into my oh-so-fragile and tender gums. Did they have to be so rough about it? Were they looking for pearls in there? Most of my “gum scores” were 3 or 4, but there was an occasional 2 or 5 in there, too. Apparently a “2” means “Pretty decent, with little plaque”. A “4” means “You need a lecture about flossing again”, and a “5” means “What the heck do you put in there, raw sugar? Now let’s poke at it some more to make sure it bleeds.”

If you’ve read many of my blog posts, you know I’m a gluttonous freak when it comes to my eating habits, with all the sugar possible. And since I have two small children, my immediate impulse late at night is no longer to brush and floss appropriately, but rather to seek any flat, soft surface upon which to fall unconscious at the soonest possible opportunity. Mornings are likewise even more hectic than ever. So personal tooth hygiene isn’t as high a priority as it should be for me these days.

Anyhow, the last couple years have been pretty stressful, due to the ever-changing nature of my job and the stress of raising young-uns. The result: I clench and grind my teeth at night for the first time since I was a teenager. Now my dentist tells me I’ve cracked or lost four fillings. They have to be replaced. Oh boy. I’m not alone. Apparently 70% of dental procedures are replacements to existing repairs. AND I have to get a mouth guard to wear at night.

Can you sense my mounting excitement? Do you feel my sheer electric joy reaching through the computer screen to you? This means I have the pleasure of multiple return trips to my dental office, during my very busy work hours, to enjoy the aroma of burning tooth enamel as they grind and drill their way into my precious ivories and put silver fillings in.

Why silver and not the natural-looking resin type of filling, the sort that is UV-light hardened? Because the resin isn’t strong enough to take my brutish clenching and grinding.

A recent article reveals why, and what can be done about it:

Apparently the resin can contain special ions that help prevent decay and strengthen the structure of the tooth. One ion source is called dicalcium phosphate anhydrous, or DCPA. The problem is that DCPA particles are structurally weak, leading to breakdown of the filling itself. Now researchers at the American Dental Association’s Paffenbarger Research Center have found a way to use much smaller DCPA particles (20 times smaller using nanoparticle technology), which increases the efficiency of ion release to the teeth. This means much less DCPA needs to be used, which therefore means the resin filling is stronger.

But the new technology won’t come in time for me. My mouth will now contain silver (in addition to lead).

And what about that baking soda / cherry flavoring? As soon as I left my dentist I went by a fast food joint, washed my mouth out with sugary, acidic soda, and munched on a meaty sandwich filled with sweetened barbeque sauce and enclosed in a processed, sugary bun. Mmm, mmm!

A somewhat related addendum: HERE is today's CNN article about a recent study that shows, generally, Americans of all ages from children to seniors have better teeth. However, one alarm is that tooth decay has actually increased among infants, suggesting people may be feeding too much of my sort of food to their young children and not making sure the kids brush well. Though I trash my own body, at least I’m happy I feed good food to my own infants, brush their teeth every night, and give them fluoride. Do as I say, not as I do, kids!

Another Frickin’ Addendum: HERE is a cool world map related to dental care, by nation.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Doohan & Cooper Are Now Star-Stuff

Yes, Saturday was the day when "Scotty" and "Gordo" became star-stuff.

If you remember my previous post on the subject, James Doohan (who played "Scotty" in Star Trek) and Gordon Cooper (astronaut for the Mercury and Gemini space programs) were to have their remains launched into space. Well, a little before 9AM, a small rocket carried a few grams of their ashes and the ashes of about 200 other space-lovers into low earth orbit:

HERE is a video of the launch (followed by a little news article about Trekkies making their own films in Scotland – sorry, it was the best I could do, but if you geek out and enjoy the Trekkie part I'll have to make jokes about the age you lost your virginity at).

Here's another interesting and oh-so-juicy tidbit for you lovers of great sci-fi ideas come to life: The rocket that launched Scotty and Gordo's remains was the first rocket launched from Spaceport America, the location where Richard Branson will be locating his space tourist business (Virgin Galactic), in the New Mexico desert not far from Los Cruces. (Yes, the same one who will fly Stephen Hawking up there). Sure, the spaceport is just a concrete slab right now, but within a couple years it will be the start of a new industry, with rocket launching facilities comparable to Cape Canaveral.

Oh, Jesus, a shiver just went up my spine. Is it . . . yes! It is! A twinge of excitement! Suddenly, for that moment, I lost my jaded working-for-evil-biotech blues and actually felt the thrill of pursuing civilization-shaking science. Oh, to be a rocket scientist in the coming years!

Cooper, Doohan, wherever you fellas are at this moment (other than orbit), I hope you're tuning in to my digital bits right now and feeling my honest admiration for what you've done. I'm not talking about the actual advancement of technology. I'm talking about firing the imaginations of several generations of kids like me (okay, the kid I once was, and still am inside). And when your ashes fall back to earth and become cremated all over again, let me say it will be an honor to look upon you in that shining sunset and think about space tourists flying through you to the final frontier. Hell, I might just be one of them.

UPDATE (5/11/07): The rocket failed to reach orbit, and crashed in New Mexico! See this blog post:

Friday, April 27, 2007

Hawking Went Weightless

Yes, renowned physicist and wheelchair-ridin’ Stephen Hawking has gone weightless. As you may remember, back in December I blogged about how Hawking, upon receiving another honor, spoke about the need for humanity to extend their permanent presence beyond the reach of Earth and how he very much wished to go to space himself. Then, in March, the offer was extended to him to do just that. The first step was to go weightless, free of charge, in one of those “vomit comet” airplanes, like astronauts do during training. He was the first handicapped person to do so.

Story, with video:

It happened yesterday, and he loved it. How could he not? Bound to the confines of a wheelchair anytime outside of bed, restricted to the cruelty of gravity. Suddenly he’s rolling free at zero-G. The few working muscles in his face were smiling as broadly as could be managed, as you may have seen in the video of his flight. He went weightless a total of eight times.

Said Hawking, after the flight: “"It was amazing. The zero-G part was wonderful and the full-G part was no problem. I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come."

Hawking is likely to be one of the first passengers on the coming space tourist agency flights by Richard Branson some time in late 2009 or 2010.

Quadriplegics in space! You go, Stephen! Maybe the experience will give you a new outlook on your Theory of Everything.

Addendum: A better video:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Robotic Heart Worm

Here’s a creepy and oh-so-cool science-fiction-like thing: researchers at the Carnegie Mellon University Robotics Institute have developed a little robot called “Heartlander” which can be inserted onto your heart and can perform medical procedures on it.

Their website, complete with videos:

Technically, it’s not a robot, per se, but a remote control tool, as it cannot “think” for itself, but still cool. The Heartlander is this device that’s just a few inches long that can be inserted into the chest cavity via a small incision. It is then attached to the heart via two suction cups attached to little vacuum hoses that run back out of the body. Using a joystick (oh, yes, my geek meter is going off the charts!), the surgeon controls the little beasty and makes it walk along the heart surface like a robotic inchworm. HERE is one of those incredibly cool yet creepy videos of the Heartlander inching along the surface of a beating pig heart (Go on and follow that link. It's worth it!).

The Heartlander can be used to insert localized medicine, electrodes, or dyes at specified locations in the heart, all without the need to crack open your frickin' sternum, rip apart your rib cage, cut open the pericardium, and expose your heart to the open air to do the standard procedures that this little robotic caterpillar can do with nothing more than a couple of incisions. The robot is cheap, effective, and sanitized, and recovery is far faster and easier.

Why is this important to me? Duh, it’s a cool robot! It’s my giddy childhood stay-up-late-to-watch-Star-Trek sci-fi fantasy come to life. But let us not forget that hearts and circulatory systems tend to fail at alarming rates in my family, with a plethora of bypasses, heart attacks, strokes, and fibrillation issues running rampant through our genes. Given that I have a great weakness for sitting on my ass and eating Ho-Ho’s in front of the TV, I’m happy to hear about any advancement that will allow me to live longer and eat more chocolate, or at least treat me in an easier fashion.

So would I let this little robotic heartworm creep along my “ticker” and administer medicine, leech-style? You betcha! And I’d want a video of it, too.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


Get this: Astronomers based at the University of Geneva have found the first Earth-like planet outside of our solar system.

Image from the article: Artist's impression of the system of three planets surrounding the red dwarf Gliese 581. One of them is the first rocky planet lying in the habitable zone to have been discovered. Credit: ESO

By “Earth-like” they mean that it is relatively similar in size (it is 1.5x larger, which is relatively the same compared to all the gas giants they’ve found so far) and is of a temperature that could support water. The planet orbits a dwarf red star, called Gliese 581, and though it is closer to its star, the average temperature could range between 0 and 40 degrees Celsius. It rotates its star every 13 days, and is the third planet found in that solar system (the other two are much more massive, and most likely gas giants like Jupiter), and thus the planet is known as “581c” or simply “C”. It’s also a relatively close 20.5 light years away from us. “C” is the first out of 220 planets found so far which is of the right size, temperature, and likely composition to support Earthlings.

From the PhysOrg article: "Liquid water is critical to life as we know it," avows Xavier Delfosse, a member of the team from Grenoble University (France). "Because of its temperature and relative proximity, this planet will most probably be a very important target of the future space missions dedicated to the search for extra-terrestrial life. On the treasure map of the Universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X."

Nifty. Of course, there’s a lot still unknown. It COULD support water, but does it? They don’t know. And they don’t know if there is even an atmosphere of any sort. But it does fire the imagination, doesn’t it. Just think, because it is so close to its star, the red dwarf star hangs like a giant red sphere over the horizon, 20-times larger than the moon appears to us on Earth. And whether the temperature is a water-freezing 0 degrees Celcius, or a balmy-jungle 40 degrees, it would still be habitable for us humans as long as the atmosphere was right.

Anyone got a rocket ship? I wanna go.

Addendum: A good video article:

Monday, April 23, 2007

No Amour For The Amur Leopard

People can be such morons.

Last week the World Wildlife Federation released a report stating that only 25 to 34 of the beautiful Amur Leopard were left in the wild. Amur leopards are often considered the rarest and most graceful large cat species (though I consider the Tibetan snow leopard more attractive and graceful, personally). It lives in the boreal forests of Korea, northeast China, and eastern Siberia. With so few, though, the likelihood that it will survive as a species is in doubt. It has been nearly wiped out due to logging, farming, poaching, and industry. Of those surviving, only 7 are thought to be females. Why so few? When cats are stressed they tend to have male offspring for some reason.

Today, less than a week later, a report was released that one of the female Amur leopards had been killed:

The leopard had actually been killed a few days before the initial WWF report was released. The leopard is protected in most of their region, and the Russian government recently re-routed a proposed pipeline that would have gone through the leopard territory, but this is a case of too little, too late, as far as those governments are concerned.

Now, this most recent leopard kill is particularly stupid. Had it been killed by a very hungry hunter, maybe I would have a shred of understanding. I think of African refugees killing large primates, for instance. I wouldn’t do it, but if someone is starving they might go to that extreme. But the leopard wasn’t killed for food. Further, it wasn’t even killed for the beautiful hide, or even for the bones (which, in China, are ground down for the sake of “medicine”). No, this poor leopard was shot from behind, the bullet shattering the tailbone and lodging in the gut. Then, when the animal was down, the killer beat it to death with a blunt object. He left the carcass to be found after anonymous tips were relayed to the WWF. He didn’t even take its body as a trophy-kill. Could this rare and elegant leopard have been killed in self-defense? Not likely, since the Amur leopard has never been known to attack a human, and this one was shot from behind.

So that just leaves one reason for killing it: Total Stupidity.

I can just imagine the thoughts going through the killer’s mind: “Oh, hey, there’s one of those leopard thingees. I’ve got a gun. Let’s shoot it in the butt. Heh heh, yeah, that’d be cool! Then I’ll get some practice being a caveman and bludgeon it to death. Oh man, wait ‘til the guys back at the yurt hear about this!”

Yeah. What a f*cking moron.

Update (12/20/07): HERE is a nifty Nature-documentary excerpt about the Amur leopard.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Go Hug Mother Earth Today

Yes, fellow Earthlings, today is Earth Day, around the world. Have you hugged Mother Earth today? No? For shame! Love your momma! Go outside and lay on the ground, arms spread out, and hug your planet. Go on, I'll wait . . . .

This year's Earth Day topic is, of course, Global Warming. Every week there are dozens of new research reports, papers, and science organization statements about climate changes and the resultant effects: bleaching of corals, increasing storms and hurricanes, decline of species, rise in sea level, change in the atmosphere and weather, and effects on economy of all these things. Even the Bush administration can no longer ignore the validity and pretend the problem doesn't exist. After 7 years of blatant disregard for the scientific data and a coordinated disinformation campaign, suddenly Bush is an advocate for global warming (though not enough to join the Kyoto Treaty, of course). Consider this article, released today, saying that Bush will be meeting with the Prime Minister of Japan to cooperate in building a zero-emissions coal plant. While I applaud the change in stance, I still have to shake my head, along with every other scientist in the world, and mutter, "What the hell took you so long? Too little too late, Mr. 'Junk Science.'"

Perhaps the most obvious effects of global warming can be seen anywhere there is "permanent" ice. Glaciers are melting and disappearing all over the world. Giant icebergs are breaking off both in the Arctic and Antarctic. And huge changes are happening to the ecology at both poles. Consider a report released last week:

According to the report, the sea ice is forming later, freezing thinner, and thawing sooner in the arctic. As a result, more and more Inuit hunters are falling through thin ice and drowning; animals never before seen in those cold waters are now migrating to the region, including finches, robins, and even dolphins, which the Inuit have no words for; cold-climate mammals such as polar bears are migrating further north; and, interestingly, the Inuit in certain regions are unable to build igloos anymore.

Polar bears are starving or drowning from exhaustion. Sea ice is growing thinner and melting away, revealing new islands. What are we to do?

There are many, many things you can do. A simple search on the web will produce action lists - everything from being energy-conscious, taking part in political action, or simply planting a tree. HERE, HERE, and HERE are some sample pages. But the main thing, of course, is to educate yourself, dummy, and pay attention, unless, of course, you don't mind increasing heat waves, hurricanes, and the loss of many species all over the world. Those species were WEAK, anyway! Who needs 'em? Buck up, polar bears! Learn to fish.

Yeah, yeah, I know. You've heard it all, already. Every frickin' day there's some report on Headline News about this stuff. Frickin' "liberal media"! It's becoming wallpaper. But let's not get too used to this wallpaper. It gets an uglier shade every week, and before long you won't be able to ignore it anymore.

You didn't actually go out and hug the ground, did you? I see you, sitting there at your computer. I can read your mind, too. You're thinking about playing computer solitaire, aren't you? Typical. Now go out and hug the planet. Momma Earth loves you.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Blog Post On Blogging

I blog, therefore I am.

Yes, it is time for the requisite blog post on blogging. I have regaled you with my personal opinions every other day or so for five months about breaking science news and what it’s like working for an evil global biotech empire. Apparently you haven’t yet grown sick of me since you’re still reading this dreck, and I’m happy to keep dishing it out to you. Yum!

I have to say I greatly enjoy writing this blog – more than I had expected. There have been some major benefits. For one, I keep up with science news more often, and have posted on a wide variety of topics, from computers to volcanoes, astronomy to zoology, evolution to medicine. I think it reflects my scatterbrain way of life. But the best benefits have been somewhat less tangible. Because I occasionally rant about the evilness of my job, I’ve found I’m less angry and frustrated with it. Don’t worry, though, I’m still an “Angry Lab Rat.” It wouldn’t be as interesting if I were simply a “Somewhat Miffed Lab Rat,” would it?

I’ve also found great pleasure in the fact that I can present to you, and the entire world, an unedited version of my thoughts, as surely profound and insightful as they may be. I’ve written and published works for years: short fiction stories, scholarly science articles, marketing material, poetry, letters to the editor, and now I’m marketing a fiction novel. But with all of these things the writing was subject to review (and sometimes revision) by editors and (sometimes) co-authors. The beauty of this blog is that I can write whatever I wish, no matter how the rest of the world may view it, factional or fictional, foul language or angelic, and even misspelled or bad grammar, without any oversight or editing at all. What freedom! And I don’t even need to tell you who I am. This is the beauty of the internet.

Of course, this is also the ugliness of the internet. Because of its anonymity and freedom, porn is the number one internet business, and the internet has become a haven for anyone spouting hatred, racism, bullying, or violence. You won’t find any of that here. Recently, a “blogger’s code of conduct” has been suggested by a couple of web luminaries to counter such unfriendliness (HERE is an article on it), complete with seal of approval images to post on your site if you comply with the code. This code includes what to say and what not to say, and prohibits anonymous comments. It’ll never fly, simply because web surfers in general, and bloggers in particular, love the freedom of expression and anonymity as much as I do. I for one am willing to put up with the occasional filth out there for the sake of personal freedom.

Because my blog doesn’t have a hit counter, I didn’t really know how many of you were visiting. The only way I could tell was by the occasional comment left by someone. Well, now I know, and I’m shocked. I used to think I was just visited by a few close friends and co-workers, one or two folks who found the site by random, Grandma, and Mom (of course!). But through a couple of blog directories I subscribe to that keep statistics (such as THIS ONE), I now know that I've gotten over a hundred unique visitors so far this month, and between 5 and 10 unique visitors a day. I've had over 2000 unique visitors since I started in December! It ain’t much compared to the big sites, or just about any blog mentioning the name of Britney Spears, but it’s more than I ever expected.

As I posted back in December, blogging has earned me, and most likely you, Time’s Man of the Year last year. Now I’m happy to say that I and my wife will be co-authoring another blog soon – and we’ll be PAID for it, even! Can you imagine? It’s not finalized yet, and I’m not going to tell you the address unless you know me and ask me in person, since that site is family-oriented and this one is anonymous and, well, NOT as family oriented. I’ve also been thinking of starting a blog to post pictures of my kids for the sake of friends and family. I guess this makes me a blogophile, but then, I’d hazard to guess that a majority of you readers have blogs and websites of your own. Some of you have several, I know.

Sharing is fun, so keep on comin’, and tell your friends. I wouldn't pass up an opportunity to corrupt innocent minds. And for heaven’s sake, please leave comments.

Ya’ll come back now, ya hear?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Guess Who's Going To Orbit Earth Forever

Yes, fellow space lovers, it is a grand time in the history of the world when our space heroes can be sent into orbit after death for us to forever gaze up at them, a star circling the world, a Space God to be worshipped from below.

Later this month, the ashes of astronaut Gordon “Gordo” Cooper, James Doohan (a.k.a. “Scotty” from Star Trek), and a couple hundred other space-lovers will be blasted into orbit to be enshrined in a little can in the radiation-baking void of space:

Already in orbit are the remains of Doohan’s colleague, Gene Roddenberry.

Does this constitute a production? A great Star Trek epic in orbit?

I think of the late night re-runs of Star Trek that I would stay up for each night, marveling in the flashy, solid-colored, oh-so-campy sets and aliens, relishing every word of the ethics-saturated plots and forced accents. But I loved it. You gave ‘er all she’s got, James! And now, every time I watch Star Trek or one of the many, many, off-shoots it created, I can rest assured that the little silver canisters containing a few grams of Scotty and Roddenberry will be protecting me from a tiny percentage of micro-meteors. Thank you, fellas!

And as for Gordo, true space pioneer of Mercury and Gemini missions, believer in UFO cover-ups and later administrator for Disney and Epcot, I can only give a salute and a thumbs-up for a job well done. Now he will evermore rest where he entered the record books (for instance, he was the first astronaut to sleep in space – and on the launchpad during countdown!).

Yes, I’ll think of you guys with a little shrine of my own. Come 4th of July, I’ll shoot off a little bottle rocket to the Great Spacecraft in the Sky. Given it costs only about $500 (US$) to put a few grams of my ashes up there as well, I might very well join you one day, and thus have myself “beamed up”, Scotty.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Marital Bliss And Toddler Upchuck

As I said in my last post, my family and I have been battling a flu. First it was me, in all my belly-clutching, sleep-demanding grumpiness. Then my lovely wife got it (Tag, you’re it, Honey!), with requisite barfing and long sleep hours. Now my toddler daughter has it, but in her sweet, straightforward manner that only a young child could have she just cried a little and then upchucked onto the linoleum (thank goodness it wasn’t the carpet!), followed by lots of sleep. We could have done without the rotten-egg farts and diarrhea, though. Have I grossed you out yet? Doubtless my 2 ½ year old son will get it next, as he shares cups and such with my daughter despite our best efforts. All the while we’ve had to stir into the stew a heaping portion of long work hours for both of us, including night work, with a soup base of fatigue, and a dash of irritability, just for flavor. And daycare won’t take a sick child.

It’s times like this that make me happy I’m in a strong marriage. Yes, my fellow parenting types, I think back to all those countless bottles, diapers, tantrums, thrown food, hyperactivity, and just plain neediness that have filled two and a half years between the smiles and laughs and sweetness, and I realize how much it has bonded me and my wife. I think even if we had had to deal with babies who had colic or some major medical need, we still could have weathered it. I feel sorry for those “kids” out there who get married right out of school and have babies before they’ve even had a chance to bond with each other, much less mentally mature on their own, or for single moms with few folks to turn to (like my mom was). Just last Sunday marked the 13th anniversary of when my wife and I met each other, as well as the 12th anniversary of my proposal to her. By the time kids came around, we had worked out enough of the relationship glitches to weather the rough spots of parenting.

Well, a study has just been released about “coparenting relationships” with small children (a.k.a. the ability for you and your spouse not to strangle each other when the kids are screaming, poopy, breaking fragile keepsakes, falling off tabletops, and wiping runny noses on their arms all at the same time):

Researchers through Ohio State University studied 97 Illinois couples who were expecting a child (2/3 of them would have their first child), giving them a questionnaire and videotaping their interaction. When their child was 3.5 years old, the researchers came back and videotaped the couple playing together with their child and cooperating to change their child’s clothes. Their goal was to study how well the couples interacted with each other as well as the child, how “close” their marriage relationship was, and how well they cooperated with each other. Not surprisingly, those couples found to be less “close” had more difficulty cooperating with tasks and were more critical with each other. Previous studies by the authors had shown how negative coparenting relationships affected the children in negative ways down the line, such as in aggressiveness and inappropriate behavior at home and school.

Duh. But I guess it’s good to show it in an irrefutable way.

What I’d be more interested in studying is the effects on marriage of having children who were behaviorally difficult, especially spirited, or had special needs. Do couples tend to grow closer from the strain, on average, or is the divorce rate much higher? I wonder. Personally, I’d like to think they tend to grow closer. Getting toddler puke on me and working with my wife despite our own sickness has made me think so.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Apparently I'm Stronger Today

I’ve been sick with the flu. Yesterday morning I came to work around 9AM despite feeling ill. Within two hours I fled to go home, feeling horribly nauseous and fatigued, and sporting a low fever. As soon as I got home I went to bed and slept for six hours. I woke up at 5:30PM only because I had to pick up the kids from daycare and watch them. Once they went to sleep around 9PM, I promptly fell back in bed and slept until 7AM the next morning. In all I was awake only about five or six hours yesterday, and I didn’t eat anything at all. Today I’m not nauseous, and I went to work, but I’m not “all there.” We’ll see if I work the entire day. The last couple years have been the worst for diseases for me and my wife, probably because we have two walking incubators called children.

Well, as Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

It is in line with this sentiment that a new book has been authored by Marlene Zuk, entitled Riddled with Life: Friendly Worms, Ladybug Sex, and the Parasites that Make Us Who We Are (Harcourt, 2007). Zuk is an evolutionary biologist better known for her investigations into the evolutionary development of sex.

Zuk argues that the battle against disease has defined the evolution of our species in many ways. She even argues that fighting disease is part of what led to the development of sexual reproduction in our species, in that cloning would not diversify our genetic code enough to develop resistance. Zuk is also very concerned about the extent to which we have over-exposed ourselves to antibiotics in soaps, cleaners, and other materials, and over-prescribed antibiotic pharmaceuticals. The end result is that we do not develop immunity, causing a decreased resistance and increasing rates of asthma and allergies. Hospitals are becoming problematic for antibiotic-resistant bacteria. This is nothing new, but there is a growing movement away from the use of antibiotics for this reason.

When I went to college, I knew a guy who readily ate food out of trash cans. No kidding, he would dig through the trash and eat pizza slices from boxes that had been thrown in the trash the day before, for instance. He said he had always done that, and never got sick. He thought the rest of us were prudes for letting good food go to waste in the trash. I’ve often wondered how he has fared since then. Has he died from some horrible disease from contaminated food, or is he one of the healthiest guys on earth? I think I’d believe either possibility.

Apparently Zuk says disease can be a “vital partner and friend.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. That which tries to kill or maim you isn’t a friend, in my opinion, but we can evolve a tolerance. A better question is, “Are there viruses out there which do not cause sickness, but in some manner better humanity?” I’ve never heard of such a thing, but I’d be interested to know, and wouldn’t be surprised.

Update (4/13/07): I had to rush home yesterday because my lovely wife had caught this bug and was throwing up. She's better today, as am I. It's hard to think of diseases as our "friends" when you're perched over the porcelain god barfing your brains out.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Doggy DNA And The Benefits Of Being Small

I like small people. I should, since I’m pretty small, and my lovely wife is the same height.

Think of all the benefits of being small. We fit better in compact cars. You can fit more of us on a sofa, bed, trampoline, or any other small space. We aren’t as heavy or bulky, so we make better astronauts, airline attendants, and horse jockeys. Airline and theater seats are more accommodating. We tend to eat less and talk softer. We look smashing when costumed as leprechauns, Yoda, or E.T. We don’t need as much clothing in square footage to cover our bodies, so clothes are cheaper. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s easier for us to do the limbo.

Oh, sure, there are drawbacks as well, like reaching high shelves, changing light bulbs, or peeking over fences to spy on neighbors, but that’s what ladders are for. And maybe there are “heightist” people out there who discriminate against us. But then, do I really want to hang out with those tall folk? Gravity affects them more, and I don’t want to be slowed down by their gravity-dragging bulk.

Yes, it’s not so bad being small. In fact, maybe there should be MORE of us around. Do you think we could genetically engineer people to be born small? Eugenics, of a sort?

Well now we’ve taken a step toward making that wonderful world a reality, thanks to some miniature dogs and their geneticist owners and other researchers:

As published in the recent issue of Science magazine (see HERE for the article abstract), researchers found that a regulatory sequence for a gene for insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) is found only in dog breeds under 20 pounds. Larger dogs had the gene, but not the regulatory sequence. This gene is found on doggy chromosome 15. The study started with some small Portuguese water dogs owned by one of the authors, then “expanded the genetic analysis to 3,241 dogs from 143 breeds, ranging from small ones like bichon frise, Chihuahua, Maltese, Pomeranian, toy poodle, pug and Pekingese to large breeds such as Saint Bernard, Newfoundland, mastiff, Great Dane, Irish wolfhound, and standard poodle.” Said the authors (according to the article), “All dogs under 20 pounds have this – all of them. That's extraordinary." With one curious exception (Rottweilers), none of the larger breeds had the haplotype.

The researchers will next be inserting this haplotype (gene plus regulatory sequence) into mice to study the effect.

Okay, so when can we start transforming our human embryos with this doggy DNA? Yes, as in genetic engineering of humans. I want a world of little folk! But this might have some unintended side effects. Can you imagine a world full of little people who get yappy and pee on the rug at the drop of a hat?

Friday, April 6, 2007

Hell Froze Over

Holy sh*t, the impossible has happened. I got a generous raise AND a promotion!!

My company hands out promotions like Fort Knox hands out gold. What’s more, I got a raise that was quite a bit beyond what I would have expected. I’m now at the bottom edge of my income bracket, according to at least a couple surveys about folks in my field. I’m actually – gulp – feeling . . . momentarily . . . appreciated. Quick, hold my hand. I think the ground is shaking.

Does this make me less of an angry lab rat? Maybe a little – today. Maybe today I’m more of a “curmudgeon” lab rat. But then I was here working from 10:30PM until 2:30AM frantically analyzing data for a presentation I had to give today, thrown upon me with practically no notice. Eeesh. Maybe my optimism is just “loopiness” from too little sleep.

The other day I had a post where I vetched about Big Talking Head Syndrome, and made a comment to my blogger friend Maggie from Mindmoss that I had no upward mobility. It disillusioned her about the nobility of science as a profession. I guess I can’t complain as much now, though I’m still not moving upward in the sense of changing duties. Even with the promotion, I’m not at the rank many of my peers are at, based on their background, duties, and contributions to the company, but something is better than nothing.

So, Maggie, and my tens of other readers, to keep you from being disillusioned about the nobility of science, below is a list of the things I actually like about my job. I’d better write it now, before some new event at work sets me off. As my lovely wife pointed out to me the other night, it’s not my job I hate, it’s the management (although I guess I see it as a complete package). I think you’ll agree, these are some mighty good things to be thankful for:

1) My evil global biotech company has in its inventory many thousands of reagents and other products, and numerous subsidiary biotech companies with specialized products, just waiting for me to innovate with them.

2) Some of my coworkers are cool.

3) I get paid a decent salary, compared to some.

4) I get decent benefits.

5) I get to play with some nifty technical equipment. I’ve always been a quick learner with these things and love to operate them.

6) I occasionally get to exercise my creativity in preparing samples and coming up with innovative new protocols and products, though much less than I used to.

7) My profession is noble. The products I have made become the tools by which others save the world. The many products I’ve developed have gone on to be used in a wide array of studies to better the human condition, like investigating Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, neural development, cellular division, and animal physiology, to name a few.

8) I have an office with a door and a window, with plenty of room, and I don’t have to share it with anyone.

9) I have a good reputation with most of my coworkers and outside contacts.

Ugg. I’m not feeling so well now. I’ve gotten so used to hating my company that all this talk of liking it isn’t sitting well, like running a marathon and then stopping to eat a grease-dripping Big Mac.

Would you like fries with that promotion? Yes, thank you, and please super size my angst.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Nudging The Wall Of Dogma

Brothers and Sisters, I come before you now to report that one of our congregation, the reverend Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Human Genome Institute, has testified of his love of the Lord. Ye-es!

Do you see the light? I sa-id, Do you see the light, brother?Back in the Dark Ages, when Europe languished under the yolk of the Catholic church, and all science was faith-based, the few scientists and doctors allowed to study their profession were forced to have as their driving force NOT the pursuit of the unknown interactions of their environment, but the search for God in the workings of life. I think of Roger Bacon, searching for holiness in the refraction of light in rainbows, for instance. There’s a reason why it was called the Dark Ages. What we didn’t know was explained away as the workings of God, not to be explored without consent from the Church. Long before that, even before the prototypical Greek enlightenment, were tribal beliefs, still found in the dark jungles and vast savannas of the world, where all the unknown was explained with magic and mysterious gods.

Now the director of the human genome project has fallen into the same holy trap.

Collins’ goal, in his letter to CNN, was to profess his belief in Christianity, his theological exploration that led him there, and that scientists can pursue their science just fine and rationally, thank you, while still believing in God and faith. He elaborates by suggesting that science is correct in its analysis of the world, including evolution, but that the source of the world’s complexity, and even the source of the first evolutionary steps of life, is not a random event or process but the hand of God. That somehow it all fits into a celestial plan.

We’ve heard this before. It’s called Intelligent Design.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, Intelligent Design is nothing more than Creationism cloaked in pseudo-scientific babble. There is nothing testable about it, and that makes it untenable for serious scientific scrutiny. Worse, it is a cop-out no different from the alchemical stumblings of the Dark Ages and tribal worship. Yes, my flock, let us fall to our knees at our lab benches and pray, for we must be on the cusp of finding God at the edge of the unknown.

Scientists can believe whatever they wish when they walk around on the streets, go home, or attend church. There is comfort in thinking that some paternal hand is guiding the seeming chaotic nature of our world. But when you walk through the lab door, check your faith at the coat rack. The danger here is obvious. When you start believing that the truth you are searching for is one taken on faith, you start overlooking data and pursuing the wrong path. In fact, like the alchemists of the Dark Ages, it blinds you to progress until it stops you altogether. At some point further experimentation runs against the walls of dogma and becomes blasphemy. Think here about Galileo and his run-in with the inquisition. As science has progressed, every hundred years or so that wall of dogma gets pushed back a little further, such that we can now accept that the Earth revolves around the sun, for instance, or that species change their morphology and DNA from generation to generation, mediated by natural selection, to slowly form a new species. Though Creationists argue against evolution, even the Vatican admits the evidence for it has substance. Now neoconservatives like Collins have pushed the wall of dogma back further, once again, to the dim envelope of science, and said that THERE, at the base of all evolutionary beginnings, or at the moment of the Big Bang, we can know the finger of God.

Eventually science will open those doors, too, and find only godless, rational data and a fractal-like, ever-expanding set of questions to be explored. There will always be conservatives there, too, pointing the finger down those dark hallways and saying that God is just down the next corridor.

And how will Collins’ belief structure change his role in analyzing the human genome? Who knows? Will he steer his lab rats away from exploring the function of human embryonic stem cells, for instance? Will he attempt to find the finger of god in those moments of genetic divergence hidden in our DNA, overlooking some crucial factor that would shed light on natural speciation? If any data goes against the prevailing neoconservative agenda, will he have an open mind enough to question those beliefs, or will the data be shelved, ignored, or buried?

HERE is an excellent and funny schematic demonstrating the difference between science and faith (from Wellington Grey’s blog).

Thump your Bible as you please, Dr. Collins. Just don’t bring it in the lab.

Can I get an Amen?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

More Mud News

Man, I love this story. You may remember a previous post of mine back in early February on the mud volcano in Indonesia that was inadvertently created by morons drilling for natural gas. So far, waves of stinking, scalding, liquefied mud have engulfed four villages, a road, numerous factories, a railway, and forced the evacuation of 15,000 people, plus 12 deaths. Attempts to divert the mud failed miserably. In late February, I reported that the Indonesian authorities were going to try to plug the volcano with giant concrete balls, despite warnings from local geologists that it would be vain attempts. They’ve been trying that approach, and, of course, the concrete balls have made no difference at all.

So now they have been attempting to stem the flow with giant chains, as well as balls, thinking they could create some sort of “mesh” network. Again, local geologists have scoffed at the idea, mainly because no one has any idea what the topology of the flow is like “down there” or whether a “mesh” would make any difference:

So far, there’s been no real difference. The good news, though, is that the volcano stopped spewing mud for about half an hour at one point, suggesting that it may wind up plugging itself. They called it “coughing”.

I’d call it wishful thinking.

Man versus Nature. Eventually, Nature always gets her way, and sometimes she gets revenge. She can be a cold, cold bitch. Apparently, she can also be hot and spewing....

Update (8/8/07): Studies have shown conclusively that the volcano was formed by the drilling and not by an earthquake. See this recent post: