Thursday, December 23, 2004

Happy holidays everyone

Sending off my last emails... nearly finished shopping, barring a "drive-by gifting"... getting the boys to wrap their gifts for each other.... ok, almost holidays. Wow, no one should go through life without having had at least one Bavarian beer. On Christmas eve the stores are open until noon, and then NOTHING until Monday, at which point we'll already be in France. I won't blog until New Year's. In the meantime, check out Swithy in Ausland , who keeps a diary about her life near Freiburg, Germany. It's really great!

And check out these great photos of kids who are scared of santa .

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Figuring out what Titan's about

On Christmas Eve, the Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn, will release a small probe, called Huygens, which will drop to the surface of Titan on January 14. As long as Cassini can hear Huygens' signals properly, the probe should give a lot of information about the composition of the atmosphere and hopefully even a few pictures of the surface.
The communications link is much harder than it needed to be, thanks to miscommunication between NASA planners and the Italian space agency which built Cassini's receiver for Huygens' transmissions. Basically the Italian team only halfway took account of the Doppler shifting of the communcations which will occur as the probe and spacecraft move relative to one another. Had this problem not been caught (and there have been extensive planning adjustments to just to address this one problem), most likely the communications from the probe would have been badly degraded.
This wrinkle in the mission is funny to me. My internationalist politics come in part from my experience of international scientific cooperation, both when in the US and now here overseas. But this Huygens snafu shows that even (especially?) we scientists can squabble and withhold data like anyone else. And these teams are the world's best! Luckily, they caught the problem.

Titan is really fascinating because its layers of smog seem similar to primitive earth (and present day Los Angeles). Earth-based spectroscopy has detected a lot of interesting, complex compounds, which are presumably being formed in the absence of life (it's too cold). Finding something like amino acids or riboses (the building blocks of proteins, and a chemical relative of RNA, respectively) on Titan would suggest that these compounds were also around on early Earth , meaning life here didn't have to "invent" its building blocks, but already had some raw materials.

UPDATE: For a nice summary of what Cassini has been able to see, see .
UPDATE#2: The ESA has a nice description of the Huygens mission. There are lots of unknowns and expediencies....

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Blogs are the window to the soul

David Adesnik beats me to it in complaining about the New York Times' latest blog-trend article. Jeffrey Rosen talks about bloggers who reveal personal details on their web pages, and the social chaos it wreaks.
I'm not even going to start up about the complete incomprehension of the NYT toward blogs (what's so hard to understand about people talking?). Instead I think Adesnik gets it right (and links it right, to Crooked Timber): the line between public and private is being pushed ever inward by any number of data-intensive technologies. If you're not comfortable having information about yourself leaking out onto the internet, then stay away from bloggers, perform all transactions by barter, and grow your own food.

Brain doping

The LA Times had a story yesterday about pharmaceutical companies having several mind-enhancing drugs coming down the pipeline. As the Times put it in their opening paragraph, a smart guy takes a pink one and gets even brainier for a few hours.
I know enough about the outskirts of this topic to say that the upside of these drugs is exactly what the article says. You will be able to get a temporary enhancement of concentration and arousal (alertness) with no hangover. I believe the compounds mentioned in the story will not be the ones which come in to widespread use, but the drug developers are probably only a hydroxyl group or so away from a water-soluble, non metabolizable smart pill.
The military is rightly very interested in these drugs. There was a widely reported friendly fire incident in Afghanistan in 2002 in which a Stealth bomber pilot was taking amphetamines at the time of the shooting. Amphetamines have similar drawbacks to caffeine, including jitters, which are not what you want in life-and-death situations.

The article discusses academic settings, specifically college tests, in which people pop a pill before taking a test. I think amphetamines would be as counterproductive as caffeine in this setting, but I don't have information about even ritalin. I'm guessing a very large, uncontrolled experiment is underway this week as college kids go through finals week. The new generation of brain pills will indeed improve scores when taken in this manner, and again, compared to alcohol, they will have tiny side effects when taken once-off.

The LA Times closes with a sort of scolding warning that the human brain has evolved to a certain equilibrium state, which these drugs might disrupt with long-term health consequences. I do believe this sort of argument for kids, and I try to keep my own kids away from even caffeine. And I would not take these pills myself. But that is my decision.
What is more interesting to me is the "brain-doping" concern: pills could give an unfair advantage to someone taking a test. This call for caution needs to be addressed, preferably before these pills are widely available. Compared to situations where athletic doping unfairly determines an outcome, far more people are professional "mind-athletes" (I think of myself as the intellectual equivalent of beach volleyball). So there are more competitive situations, more salaries and careers at stake, and therefore far more legal ramifications for a spoiled competition.

Efforts to keep performance-enhancing pharmaceuticals out of professional (and amateur?) athletics have been stymied by the gigantic market incentive pulling these products into circulation. (The health effects of steroids are very clear and alarming ). I guess the legal precepts guiding fair use will come on the athletic side first. But I think we're going to have to get comfortable with the fact that people will have access to these pills, and will take them.
UPDATE: Seems like not many of Fontana Labs' students have even heard of Ritalin. .

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Its lucky the holidays are only once per year

Mimi Smrtypants is stressed out.
I've gotta get about five more presents myself, and we're off to France right after Christmas. Oh boy, lots to do.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Wet Mars: breakthrough of the year

Science magazine has chosen the geological demonstration of long-term bodies of water on Mars as their breakthrough of the year. Even more appropriately, they sing the praises of doing science remotely. Robots with flash card memories are able to figure out a heck of a lot before astronauts are needed.
(Meanwhile, I didn't mention this before, but the Spirit site also now has minerological evidence of long-term water action: the robot has observed Goethite , esssentially rust, up on the higher hills. This could be very interesting, but I will need to read more about it. ) The two landing sites were pretty carefully chosen because of satellite evidence of water. Still, it's nice to see it confirmed, twice.

A press conference about Titan was scheduled for Thursday in San Francisco- maybe more interesting stuff.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Wardrobe malfunction

It's a bit of a challenge keeping the Santa thing going here in Germany. For one thing, he's Niklaus here, and he visits on December 6th, leaving the heavy lifting on December 25th to the Christkind (or even the Ghost of Christ, depending which house). But in our house the same guy shows up on both days.
We've managed to paper over these little inconsistencies with a steady flow of presents, and pure bluffing. The kids seem to accept that "German Santa" comes at one time, needing shoes, while "American Santa" needs carrots and shows up two weeks later. After all, as long as the loot keeps flowing, who cares who brought it? But it may have just gotten a little bit harder, as they encounter yet more Santas out in the real world.
For example, Matthew came home yesterday and announced that Santa had come to his ball club's Christmas party.
"But not the real Santa," he said, chewing on yet another huge piece of chocolate. "His beard was just made of paper."

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

This is WAY too teletubbies

The Register, a cool British tech site, talks about a new, Wi-Fi ready tabletop thingy which will flash lights or give audio cues when an email comes in. With this device, you don't have to lug your super heavy Blackberry all around the house. And it will match the lava lamp!
As a person who routinely hides from cell phones, I'm not sure I'd be their first customer...

Thursday, December 09, 2004

Creativity in the raw.

It's always funny to me how scientists get misrepresented out in the civilian world. Either we're Dr. Doom, or we're the professor from Gilligan's island. Most hilarious of all is that we're sort of exotic, neutrino-emmiting machines, with non-linear thought patterns and kung-fu action grip. Supporting my point, I've taken liberties with Fast Company and their attempt to dispel myths about creativity. (In the end, the article has some valid points. Check out Myth Number Two: that money is a creative motivator. But couldn't we just risk it??)

Eight years ago, Amabile took her research to a daring new level. Working with a team of PhDs, graduate students, and managers from various companies, she collected nearly 12,000 daily journal entries from 238 people working on creative projects in seven companies in the consumer products, high-tech, and chemical industries.

"The diary study was designed to look at creativity in the wild," she says.

Oh darn, I forgot to shave today.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Dave Barry's Christmas Suggestions

Dave Barry (registration required) has his annual roundup of, er, unorthodox gift suggestions for the holiday season. One of my favorites is the travel hot-dog cooker, which plugs into the cigarette lighter of a car (is that thingy still called the cigarette lighter?) I went to the CleverGear web page and found a number of gifts that are sure to leave the giftee at a loss for words, including this football-shaped slow cooker to keep your cheeze dip warm. Mmmm... And of course, the video of street-fighting tips should come in handy on Christmas day! Of course, I won't need it, since I'm left handed. (stolen from Freaky Trigger )

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Most horrible teaching experience ever

Hip Teacher sets a new record for the most horrible teaching day ever, with her potty mouth day. . You have to be pretty tough to be a teacher.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Mars: life not so likely

This week's Science magazine has 10 or 12 articles focused on the results from the Opportunity rover and analyses of the geology of the rocks near its landing site in Meridiani Plani. The articles are all behind a subscription wall, but a summary article by Jeffrey Kargel has linkouts to public sites. I will try to pull those in soon.
Two big points which struck me. First, Opportunity seems to be the whole show, in terms of evidence of a long-term presence of surface liquid water. The rocks at the Spirit site are volcanic in origin. *I have to change my blog wallpaper*
But the other is that even given the unique and strong evidence for liquid water at Meridiani Plani, Kargel at least is skeptical that organisms along the lines of earth extremophiles could hack out a life there. That is, there are Earth microbes which tolerate very high salt, those which tolerate cold, and those which tolerate strongly acidic environments-- but very few Earth organisms can tolerate all three. So even when Meridiani Plani was warmer and wetter, it woud still have been off the charts in terms of earth habitats.
I had always thought that the landing sites were chosen with the aim of proving liquid water. Nothing would be more definitive than a salt flat, so I had just assumed that the saltiness of the Opportunity rocks was part of the plan. But it seems the site had also been chosen with life habitats explicitly in mind. Thus, this week's results appear to be a true negative, rather than the absence of a positive.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Say it ain't so.

From the NY Times, it looks like Barry Bonds really did use steroids, among other things. If it's true, what a shame.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Blog your way up

Via Daniel Drezner, an interesting post by Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution on the possible interface between blogging and "serious" academia. I can't deny that blogging takes up a lot of time, and, in between inspiration, I seriously wonder if I could not be alphabetizing my constructs or otherwise furthering my career. Thus blogging requires a bit of justification beyond doing it for the love.

Cowen's notion is that of blog as efficient vehicle for popularizing or communicating to non-specialists. Essentially the usenet formula. You can be informal; you can include harder (read: subscription) links for specialists, and you can marshal your vast army of slavish readers to double your funding... no, sorry, something must be in the coffee this morning (Gene Roddenberry? ). Seriously, though, I think the biology world really needs a better communications office. It's not as self-referential a discipline as the fashion world, but we lack Heidi Klum.

But then I go off and blog about extraterrestrial beasties, so I guess I'm not really bridging the gap.

Wow, I just ran's spell checker, and it didn't like "Blog" or "blogger." I should Replace blog with bloc? Don't they watch CNN?

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

CodeBlue Blog rocks!

Code Blue Blog has a very thorough look at the mysterious skin condition suffered by Ukranian presidential challenger Viktor Yushchenko (last name completely misspellt in earlier posts). After many caveats about looking at a photo and guessing what ails the poor lad, I think he nails it: alcoholism.

Check it out.

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


It has been nearly four weeks since the manuscript went away and we still have not heard back. The first two weeks were relatively lighthearted, but now I'm starting to crawl backwards out of my skin. It's really hard to enjoy the planning and looking forward, the exciting part of science, without knowing how the other shoe will drop. And A LOT is hanging on how well this goes. Jennifer asked me what if the manuscript is rejected. I said, I don't think that way; jokingly adding-- just like I didn't think Kerry would lose. But I'm now notthinking as hard as I can.

... Nature never did betray
the heart that loved her; 'tis her privilege,
through all the years of this our life, to lead
from joy to joy; for she can so inform
the mind that is within us, so impress
with quietness and beauty, and so feed
with lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
rash judgements, nor the sneers of selfish men,
nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
the dreary intercourse of daily life
shall e'er prevail against us, or disturb
our cheerful faith, that all that we behold
is full of blessings.


I hope She's out there now.

Hiding your motives

I'm a little nervous about how visibly a fascination with science fiction and fantasy worlds has permeated the internet science community. This side of the science world was supposed to be a closely held secret that thousands of pimply-faced, virgin boys supressed from view in order to.. ahem...well, to get on with things.
In the last two months I have caught two serious reviews now discussing Star Trek in the context of extraterrestrial life. Via The Eternal Golden Braid , professor Stephen Brenner speculates that maybe extraterrestrial life doesn't need liquid water, especially at very low temperatures, which would definitely upend a lot of the criteria used now to narrow the search. To bolster his arguments, he cites several life forms encountered by the Star Ship Enterprise in their five-season quest for sequels. A while back, a Chris McKay review on the same topic also pined for the famous "tricorder" which could detect life at a distance. Now Gene Rodenberry, may his ashes never waft into my coffee, was a brilliant man, but I think I'm not ready yet to footnote him.

Full disclosure: author has viewed Star Wars episode IV in excess of 100 times, and can recite long stretches of Monty Python from memory. Author has kissed a girl.

Monday, November 29, 2004


Stolen from Hit and Run : Mark Steyn's eulogy for Bill Mitchell, the inventor of Cool Whip.

Mary Vermette’s excellent “Pudding Dessert” requires for the first layer 2 sticks of oleo, 2 cups of flour, 1 cup of chopped nuts (mix and bake); for the second layer, 1 cup of confectioner’s sugar, 8 oz of cream cheese, 1 cup of Cool Whip (combine and spread on the first layer); for the third layer, 2 small packages of instant pudding and 2 ½ cups of milk (mix and spread on the second layer); and for the fourth layer more Cool Whip sprinkled with chopped nuts. I made it and ate it in the interests of research, and had such a good time I clean forgot what it was I was meant to be researching. (Mark Steyn)

Eye on Ukraine

Daniel Drezner has a discussion of the escalating crisis in the Ukraine. There is much more going on than a fraudulent election- both candidates have big centers of support, and now both have lined up heavy hitters on the outside. I think there is a good chance of an outbreak of violence. It looks like no one at the top wants civil war, but let's just keep fingers crossed.

Hobbit trouble

Via the excellent science site The Loom , a disturbing development with respect to the Homo Floresienis remains found in Indonesia. These small skeletons appear to be non-homo sapiens, but the remains are only about 20,000 years old, suggesting that modern humans overlapped chronologically with their close cousins for a very long time.
Unfortunately, the remains have been "taken into custody" (subscription link) by a politically connected anthropologist in Indonesia.
The condition of the remains was already very sketchy (I think the reports out of Nature said the preserved bones had the "consistency of soap") and, as Carl points out, if mitochondrial DNA retrieval is to work then the remains have got to be kept scrupulously clean of modern human contamination. Even a fingerprint could throw the analysis.
As there is still some doubt that these remains are not modern human (possibly pygmy), it would be critical to safeguard the original sites and give access to the existing remains-- and soon!

Saturday, November 27, 2004

My son, the next Tom Sawyer

McDonald's in Germany is giving out little boom boxes with their Happy Meals. You get different colors, of course, and each one plays a little clip from a Germlish rock band. My son sings along, generating a total cultural mishmash-- a bilingual kid misquoting a warbling toy emitting crap lyrics sung by a German imitating an American-- all courtesy of McDonald's Deutschland. Garbage in, garbage out, but what happens if you loop the garbage out back in?
The boys got different colors, and somehow the older one convinced the younger one that it would really be better if he had them both for the day. This in the name of "sharing." At dinner last night, I began the cross-examination.

--So, what happens tomorrow? Matthew, the younger, tells me: Each kid gets one.

--But what do you get for a trade? Matthew is irritated that I don't understand: The trade is, I get to have my boom box back.

--But don't YOU get any privilege? Josef, my Tom Sawyer-in-training, looks a little uncomfortable, but Matthew is adamant: It's very easy Daddy. First, Josef gets it. Tomorrow, I get it.

Game, set, match.
By the way, Josef still hasn't given it back this morning.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Stem cells and specific cancers

In the last two weeks there have been additional reports of abnormal stem cell behavior resulting in specific types of cancer. Stem cells are of therapeutic interest because they are able to give rise to very many cell types- skin, muscle, you name it-- and with the right growth conditions they can continue to propagate for a long time. It is best understood how to isolate stem cells from embryos, but there is increasing attention to stem cell populations in adult bodies. One could foresee a day when stem cells could be isolated from an adult's healthy tissue, grown up, and then given back to that same person. But the potential and drawbacks are not fully known!

These papers highlight the idea that studies in stem cell biology may improve understanding of the earliest events in some cancers as well. Go California!!!!

The studies in the last week are all in Science and Nature and are behind subscription walls. This is a very interesting topic to me, so I will try to get out a public-access set of links soon.
So here are the links:
The lab of Tim Wang will have an article on gastric cancers arising from circulating Bone Marrow derived Stem Cells (BMSCs), to appear in Science this week. (subscription link here )
Phil Beachey et al. have written a review highlighting Wnt and Notch abnormalities in cells repairing injured tissues, and hypothesize possible derangement of the repair response in cancer stem cells in the November 18 Nature. (free link here ; Subscriber link is here .)
Singh et al., studying human brain glioblastomas, give evidence that these tumors originate as CD133+ brain stem cells. This work is in the same issue of Nature. (free link here and News and Views here )

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Mars Express images of Huygens crater

The Mars Express mission of the European Space Agency has released new processed images of Huygens crater on the southern hemisphere of Mars. The huge crater, taking up the whole bottom edge of the photo (see the scalebar at the top!), is about 1 bilion years old and has been partially filled with sediments. Check out the darker "dendrites" feeding into the secondary craters! These look just like desert drainages.

Many more images, including rotated and profile views, are here . Fantastic!

The next Bill Gates

Via The American Prospect , a fantastic article by Fareed Zakaria (Washington Post, subscription required) about how increased U.S. visa restrictions are reducing the flow of researchers into the U.S. from abroad. Zakaria urges Condoleeza Rice to revise the current visa guidelines, which have become much more strict in the wake of September 11th. We want to keep out the next Mohammed Atta, but let in in the next Bill Gates.
In the fairly large molecular biology lab where I did my Ph.D., there were 12 postdocs, but only two had been born in the U.S. American-borns were more numerous among the graduate students, but I have seen other institutions where foreign students were in the majority. Quite often these postdocs and students sought to complete their careers in the United States, which amounted to a terrific profit for the U.S. at the expense of whichever country which gave the university training. Zakaria quotes the National Science Board that 38% of science and engineering doctorate holders are foreign born. If we raise the immigration bar on these people too high, they'll just go somewhere else and power some other nation's research institutes.

Zakaria gives pretty short shrift to the balance of these values against security concerns. One of the creepiest revelations from the early days after 9/11 was that Mohammed Atta and others had lived with American families in Florida while attending flight training school. I remember wondering if Americans would therefore think twice before showing kindness to some other immigrant student. The point is, how could you possibly know? The border remains the correct place to try to make that distinction. And I think the job is pretty near impossible.

Any ideas out there?

UPDATES: Yes, I know Bill Gates was born in America, as were others, including me.

Check out the McKinsey-style bullet point presentation of Winning Argument on this. Must one always be either right or wrong? Anyway, some good links.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The worst jobs in science

This years' Worst Jobs in Science include a Landfill Monitor and an ecologist at the heavily polluted St. John's Harbor. Makes it feel pretty comfy at this desk....

Monday, November 22, 2004

Methane on Mars

Results presented The American Astronomical Society's Planetary Sciences meeting in Louisville earlier this month confirmed and strengthened the case for methane on Mars. Compounds like methane should be very unstable in the Martian atmosphere, indicating that something has been producing large amounts of methane up until the very recent past, or even continuing today. On earth, methane is chiefly produced by vulcanism and by the actions of so-called methanogenic Archea. At least one scientist involved in the recent work thinks that "oases" of living methanogen colonies could explain the observations on Mars. Methanogens "breathe" hydrogen gas and CO2 and "exhale" methane, all without oxygen.

With all of these ideas, of course, one must keep in mind that the whole planetary history of Mars is different from Earth, so all bets are still off! Still, the amounts of methane, and their apparently patchy distribution are going to be hard to explain. Moreover, the huge dust storms seen on Mars should be kicking up lots of surface soil. These soils contain oxides, which also can degrade methane, possibly "sweeping" parts of the atmosphere clean of methane on a much more rapid time scale-- months?-- even than currently discussed. In that case, something is really pumping the gas out!
An important second measurement which would strengthen the case for life on Mars would be the relative absence of ethane, which is released by geological processes which produce methane, but not by (terrestrial) methanogenic Archaea. Even an abiotic source of methane is likely to be a source of heat and therefore liquid water, so it will also be important to find out where the stuff is coming from!

UPDATES: I got the methanogenic metabolism wrong- it's 4H2 + CO2 making 2H20 plus CH4. I corrected this in the text above. This is a problem because free hydrogen should not be hanging around on Mars, and would have to be generated for these beasties to eat. On earth, many methanogens are hyperthermophiles; however, the "cow fart" variety lives at, well, cow temperature.

And the New York Times has a big and informative article.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Elections technology

I have spent a lot of time in the last weeks explaining how elections work to fairly incredulous European co-workers. It's hard for them to believe that there is not a national standard for voting technology, let alone that voter participation is as low as it is in the U.S. Although I feel that this election went off without spectacular technological glitches, I think this is going to come back and haunt us.
Our president has become the most important person in the world, and presidential elections deserve the most secure, reliable possible voting technology AND the highest possible voter participation.
In that light I was interested to read this article from The author actually believes that election fraud occurred in Florida, and I have to state that I do not agree. Nevertheless, the six suggestions make sense to me. The most important of all is, why cannot elections fall on a holiday? They are held on Sunday in Germany (which is officially Christian, so Sunday is everyone's day off) and I am sure that it would help keep lines down and help more people volunteer to keep the poll stations moving.
The second suggestion I agree with is that same-day voter registration should be allowed-- with certain very limited, but non-negotiable, sets of identification, i.e. driver's license or passport olus evidence of residence. You either have it or you don't, 30 second decision, shooting for 90% positive. In principle I don't mind scrutiny of earlier registration applications, but the trade-off should be that more than one kind of evidence would constitute proof of eligibility.
As to voting technology, I have seen a lot of support for good old pen-and-paper. But also check out this thread from

Friday, November 19, 2004

Speaking of databases

Check out this link from Jeff Jarvis describing how the Republican party approached voting like a consumer question: which groups are likely to buy our product, and how can we reach them? They built up a database and bought advertisements timed to reach the people they thought they needed to. It seems very simple, but you can't argue with success.

Google Scholar

Google has a new search engine which is intended for more academic use compared to the all-purpose regular Google. In my business, we rely a lot on Entrez-Pubmed , which is maintained by the public National Center for Biotechnology Information. But just regular Google is often so powerful that I look for additional information using that database as well.
So I clicked on over and typed in a few searches. The first thing I noticed was that most of my hits were research articles. In fact, many of the links for older articles seemed to lead right back to Entrez-PubMed, making me think that even as Microsoft is picking Google's pocket, Google's robots are busy at the NCBI.

The second thing I noticed, which I think is a possible improvement over PubMed, is that the Google hits tell you how many times a given link has been further cited. I have described in the past how young faculty live or die based on the scientific citation index of the journals in which they publish. It looks to me that Google has an independent way of measuring how important an article is in the internet world. This could get interesting....

So all in all, I'm pretty impressed. I do think I'll use it in my daily work, as it seems to cast a broader net than PubMed. I will miss the sort of oddball hits that come up with a conventional Google search though.

I showed two or three of my colleagues and they're all searching for their own names(I'm also guilty!)

The dry limit of life

People interested in the possibility of life outside of earth spend a lot of time thinking about liquid water. Compared to the other requirements of Earth life, such as energy sources and complex organic chemistry, liquid water is very rare in the solar system. Moreover, in terrestrial life, liquid water is chemicallly involved in the synthesis of the building block molecules DNA, RNA, and proteins, and helps transport nutrients and wash away wastes.
This focus on liquid water is the reason for the magnesium sulfate geology work on Mars, and the attention to possible ice volcanoes on Titan.
I should emphasize out that Mars is VERY dry, and Titan VERY cold, so the evidence for liquid water in both locations should be viewed with the perspective that we're still talking about conditions more extreme than seen anywhere on Earth.

But how dry is too dry? Scientists have thought the absolute desert region of the Atacama desert in Chile, which receives rain as infrequently as once a decade, to be devoid of life (subscription to Science required). Now a team led by RM Maier at the University of Arizona has successfully cultured bacteria from subsurface samples in even these extremely dry regions. The authors speculate that they may have managed to find these bacteria by digging about 20 cm deeper than prior investigators.
The Viking missions to Mars in the middle seventies tried to look for life by a couple of means, but found only oxides in the surface soil. Oxides are rapidly destroyed by water, suggesting the complete absence of water in the soils tested by the Viking landers. This oxide chemistry was also found in the surface soils in the Atacama desert(see the Science link). Thus, the potential significance of the new Atacama desert findings are that even when surface soils show extreme dessication, nevertheless living things can be hanging on just a little bit deeper.
So, with the caveat that Mars conditions are still more extreme than seen even in the Atacama, we can say that we don't yet know how dry is too dry. Let's keep looking!

Monday, November 15, 2004

Astrobio site from NASA

I was just looking around to see if something has been happening with the Cassini imaging of Titan (nothing obvious) when I saw that NASA has a separate astrobiology page . This site looks really full of goodies!
I clicked onto the headliner, Water from a stone and had a look. Scientists looking for evidence of (past) life on Mars need information about the climate and water history of a particular spot. A promising source for this kind of local information would be as the magnesium sulfate deposits observed by the Viking and later missions. Magnesium sulfates can retain varying amounts of water in their alternative crystal structures. In fact, the relative abundance of different crystal forms of magnesium sulfate is a sensitive indicator of how humid conditions were at the time of the rocks' formation. However, that same sensitivity makes it very difficult to transport these minerals back to Earth without risking transformation between forms or amorphization (loss of crystal structure), driven by the humidity and pressure in transit. To avoid this risk, the scientists would like to equip a future mars lander with an X-Ray diffractometer, which can distinguish the various forms of magnesium sulfate on rocks right on site. Finding a combination that suggests (relatively) warm and wet formation conditions would highlight that locale as a place to search for evidence of life.

I think right now the smart money's on bacterial forms buried well below the surface, where they would be/would have been shielded from temperature extremes and radiation, and might have/have had access to water reservoirs.

As a molecular biologist, I just want to see if those extraterrestrial beasties have DNA! Does anyone else think it's cheesy that almost every character in Star Wars has two eyes and two nostrils? Even Jabba the Hut has a face and a dorsal spinal cord, meaning his ilk has neural crest cells just like earth vertebrates. Hmmmm.... better than Star Trek though.

Pop-tarts and beer.

Ok, now that I have your attention, I would like to talk about data management. Yesterday's New York Times discusses Wal-Mart's predictive technology, in which they mine past sales records to anticipate purchase surges in specific items. The unexpected result for an oncoming hurricane was that Pop-tarts sell at about 7 times their normal rate. After that, beer is a no-brainer. What else would you use to wash down the Pop-tarts? Calling Dave Barry...

I went through the whole article, and I think something is strangely missing. Yeah, Wal-Mart has mountains of data, and they use that information to stock products and to admonish suppliers, but at what point is this different (except in scale) from the corner grocer? Moreover, a lot of other big retailers are also collecting and mining data. Why is Wal-Mart so successful relative to them? I still don't know. However, data-based predictive approaches can be hugely effective in many settings, as David, Joanna and Marcy can all attest!

Lastly, the article mentions customer's privacy concerns. This section of the article was especially brief and vague. Since Wal-Mart apparently tracks products and shopping carts, not identified customers, it may be that concerns about linking e.g. credit history with particular profiles did not belong in this article. Other retailers with loyalty card systems are far more interested in knowing all about you. This is a very complex issue, and deserves better discussion than I can manage. I do have to say that the genie is already out of the bottle, and that information, once given out, will no longer be erased or forgotten.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Blink, and you'll miss it

We had our first real cold snap this week, and a little bit of snow. It has been wonderful biking in the woods to work. The coming of winter helps me forgive Munich for its dreary long fall.
I turn off my headlamp (it's dark already at 6PM) and bike hrough the woods in snowlight, using the black of the trail against the snowy edges. The trees had not yet lost their leaves before this week's snow, so they bend down snow-arms across the trail.

It's absolutely silent in the woods. It seems hard to believe I'm living at the edge of a city of 3 million. Astonishing.

The boys got their new snow things this week, which instantly doubles the time we need to get out the door. Our youngest, Geordie, has outgrown the plaid snowsuit that all three boys had worn. That's it-- it's done! We'll never use that suit again. It was an ugly old thing, but it sure kept them warm. He's in a sporty new REI outfit that grandma bought. Josef and Matthew are also wearing new coats and new hats. Matthew's has a pompom, which he refers to as his "alarm." During the flurries yesterday, he bared his cheek and asked me if he had snow freckles. A poet could do worse than riffing on his kids' neologisms.
Last night after bedtime, there was some definite noncompliance going on. I went up for a look-see, and glimpsed Matthew flopped on his bed, head propped up on elbows, flipping through a comic book like a teenager.

Having young kids around makes you appreciate how quickly life can move. They go about their lives with seeming nonchalance, but you put them into a new coat, and they suddenly look years beyond your laggard preconceptions. I guess this help keep you young at heart, because they deliver moments like this of complete astonishment. But keep on your guard, because they're chary with their revelations. Blink, and you'll miss it.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Mapping up

Take a look at this link showing 2004 presidential election result cartograms using different metrics. When corrected for voter densities, Florida still looks like a big red-- well, never mind. Lots of red out there. Lots of mappers are tinting things purple to make the blue states look less isolated. The point is, this election divided sharply but it doesn't have to be that way.

Meanwhile, Gary Hart jumps the shark , saying politicians oughta keep quiet about their religious beliefs. Dude, that is so 48 hours ago. Gary's a really smart guy, and should be a voice on the left for the hearts-and-minds side of keeping terrorism in a cage. But blaming religion for the election results at this point is, first of all, spitting into the wind, but also just going to drive undecideds away.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Spirit rover on Mars

The Spirit rover is still plugging away on Mars and has nearly left the Gusev crater. The preliminary overall picture of the geology near the Spirit landing site is emerging. Most of the layered rocks appear to have originated as volcanic ash, with very prominent water action pulling out the salts from the ash. The rover might be able to figure out if the water erupted with the minerals or if it was supplied separately.

On the whole I think this region is not so promising for essentially fossil hunting. What you would have wanted to see would be a nice layered sandstone. Volcanic ash itself is very likely to be pretty sterile, so all the water in the world couldn't help something live there. Still, a lot hangs on where exactly the water came from.

Medium Dad

Well we never made it to the pool yesterday. We headed out in good spirits, but unfortunately too close to lunchtime. Then we missed the first bus, and sat parked in the next one until the 20 minutes had gone by.
The trouble really started at the connection, which should have been about 15 minutes. It was raining and cold, and it was crowded in the tiny bus shelter. My older son was hungry, and he ate his sandwich and half of mine, and Matthew also ate all of the salami slices. But they were bored, and started wrestling each other, and I had to keep telling them to settle down. 30 seconds' peace, then wrestling again, then another warning. Quiet, then more squabbling. Still no bus.
Finally they started bickering over the kickboard and I finally pulled the plug, and we headed back. The boys protested, but I had had it. The connection bus arrived just as we left. On the return trip Josef burst into tears and Matthew was pretty hostile. I really hate seeing Josef cry. I was having second thoughts, but as the rain turned to sleet, I imagined trying to get them home after two hours' splashing around.

I managed to make peace with Josef by making hot cocoa with cinnamon. Within 20 minutes they were upstairs playing. I think I was the only one still feeling bad about the missed chance.

We started butting heads again at bathtime. They have a game involving tigers, dinosaurs, superheroes and quite a lot of splashing. More warnings about confiscating toys. I left the bathroom and I overheard Matthew: "we sure have a mean Daddy."

Josef thought for a minute. "No, just medium."

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Lazy days

We're just staying around the house this weekend. The manuscript went off on Thursday, so Monday I'll start up the CYA experiments. In the meantime I just want to hang around, get the last election toxins out, and be with the boys. The weather has been very cool and even a bit rainy today, so I think we're going to head over to one of Munich's massive indoor pools.

I have been following the story of Arafat's illness and the impending strike on Fallujah, but not with anything like my pre-election interest. Regnum Crucis has a well-spoken Red State perspective on the election and the subsequent liberal dissections of what happened. All I would say is that the misconceptions--and real anger-- seem to have been going in both directions. Not good for a country at war. My main feeling about the election was that it was 75% about committed party identity-- a replay of election 2000-- and the deciding 25% was about all sorts of things including differences in deeply held moral convictions. The stoking of those convictions was electorally potent, but does make people of different beliefs a little bit nervous. Again, not good for a country at war. Mission accomplished.

And anyway, it doesn't make it suck any less.

Also a few science stories. The flyby of Titan seems not to have resolved what exactly the Huygens probe is going to land on (or splash into) in when it falls to the surface near Christmas time. I am trying to get a post together about the significance of liquid water in exobiology (and why therefore Titan is of secondary interest compared to Mars or Europa). Titan is basically Los Angeles on ice, with smog in the air and tar pits on the ground. No possibility of life there.

There was a story two weeks ago about giving fluoxitene (Prozac) to mice with advanced pregnancies. Their offspring subsequently score very high on anxiety tests. I have not yet gone to the paper, but my instincts are that this will fall in the realm of the Aspartame and bladder cancer tests in rats- wrong dose for too long a time, human medical implication uncertain.

Friday, November 05, 2004

More marginal thinking

Once more emphasizing that the election was mostly about committed "fortress red" voters flexing on "chateau blue" states, I just wanted to link to one or two more commentators.

Matthew Yglesias is on an absolute roll.
Jim Henley also talks quite a lot about the debacle of losing even though Bush basically gave up the center. Money quote:

".... it appears that the Republicans will have won thanks to their direst characteristics, reifying of the national security state and codifying the moral outlook of a particular slice of Christendom into law. And the Democrats will have lost thanks to their equivocal stands against promiscuous war and for civil liberty - their best characteristics. I can envision some good things coming from Bush II, and some bad things not happening that would have happened under Kerry. But on balance this is a bad election to be a libertarian."

I do have one issue with his analysis. He claims the wooing of the "morality" vote of one of the undecided groups was all done sub rosa. C'mon! Karl Rove was saying "Guns, Gays, God" for a whole year! I think instead it was not taken seriously by the circle of people I read. (I was blindsided as well.)

Rove didn't disguise this strategy at all, which incidentally I regard as curious, to put it mildly, for a self-described fan of the Federalist Papers.
Note to self: it's not considered pandering if it works.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Wee folk

The dwarf species of hominids discovered in Indonesia is getting to be a huge story. Nature has a whole web page covering many angles of the story. Most of these are free access.
The Beeb also has a litle blurb.
I missed some things of significance with my first post yesterday. The first is that these little hominids overlapped a lot with the era of anatomically modern humans, and although there is not fossil evidence of contact it is conceivable that big and little folk met each other. In this respect, it's interesting that the present-day inhabitants of Flores have lots of legends about "little folk," whom they call Ebu Gogo. It's put pretty provocatively by Henry Gee on the Nature page: maybe legends like the yeti are true as well? Maybe Boston really could win the Series. Who knows.
The second is that it's not certain who made the tools found at the site, but they are clearly reduced in size, as if intended for the smaller hominid species. It will be important to look at the hands of the skeletons. Their arms are long relative to a modern human proportions, raising the possibility that they lived in trees.

Thursday, October 28, 2004


A really good summary of the find of dwarf human remains on the island of Flores in Indonesia can be found at the Loom . These remains are scarcely 20,000 years old, suggesting persistent survival of multiple non-human hominids until right up to the edge of human history. (Neandertals were in the south of Spain until about 30,000 years ago.) This is completely wild, and suggests that Tolkein's Lord of the Rings was a documentary. Who knew?

The brain case of the skeleton is also very tiny, which might mean that they were less intelligent overall. However, present-day (normal sized) humans with hydrocephalus or even following surgical hemispherectomies (in both cases lacking quite a lot of brain material) are actually pretty capable people. Not to oversimplify, but software as well as hardware seems to be a part of the human intelligence package. Moreover, there were tools associated with the site, of the sort made by homo erectus.

Dwarfism in these humans may have been an adaptation to scarce resources on the island. In the same bed of bones there were dwarf elephant remains. Oh, and a little gold ring.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Peak experience

Our youngest son, now seven month old, crawls across the floor elbow over elbow, commando style, and uses his head as a balance point when he's clambering over cushions. Because he's not properly crawling, then, we were pretty suprised to see him reach and pull up and stand, using our television. Maybe suprised is too simple an emotion: it's a blend of pride and alarm that must be peculiar to parents with multiple kids. We had no idea he was getting ready for this!

When he gets up, he just stands there, slapping the upper surface (it's a small TV)>, his knees periodically buckling out from under him. We're the ones who aren't ready. And he's not satisfied there. He now tries pulling up on anything, from the sofas to his brothers' toy boxes, with mixed results. I caught him standing up over the crib railing last night. Yikes!

The striking thing for me is the exact species of joy on his face. He is completely focused on his new capability, so his face actually holds only the faintest of smiles. He raises his hands and slaps them down with deliberateness and even intensity. Yes really--and I know this is an infant! But his mind must be racing. He reminds me of a scientist's focus when coming across something brand new. I think the mental states must be very similar. I wouldn't be embarassed to be called childlike. Certainly my ability to keep to a schedule resembles that of one with no conception of time.

Getting down is tricky. He usually just face-plants himself off the side. Then he clambers off and starts chewing on a superhero toy, and all is right with the world again.

Lukewarm for Kerry

Kevin Drum of Washington Monthly blog goes over the big pile of Kerry endorsements at Slate. The biggest trend is how lukewarm the committed Dems seem toward him; whereas more independent Mickey Kaus and Christopher Hitchens are incrementally more passionate. Kevin and I both like Mickey's choice of words best of all-

"I'm voting for Kerry, mainly because I think Bush is prosecuting the fight against terrorism in a way that will make us dramatically less safe unless we have a conspicuous change at the top."

This seems intuitive to me, but the bulk of the Slate writers, (and a big section of electorate) have not been convinced of this. Well, there's a week still to go.
Both campaigns are wheeling out surrogates- Clinton in Pennsylvania, and, most likely Ahnold in Ohio. I think Schwarzenegger, if he shows, will have the bigger impact. I know Kerry has left African Americans unenthused, but Bill just doesn't have enough time to do his magic. Whatever you think of Schwarzenegger, he's undeniably strong with the base.
Real Clear Politics has shown a durable, albeit small, Bush average lead, and for me that means Kerry still needs to bring it if he wants to win.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Cassini- Huygens Mission to Saturn

In about 3 hours, Cassini-Huygens spacecraft will fly to within 200 miles of the surface of Saturn's moon Titan. Titan is really huge- bigger than Mercury or Pluto- and its atmosphere (a moon with an atmosphere!) may resemble that of the early Earth.
I do not have a full grasp of the pros and cons, but I have seen arguments that during the earliest days of the solar disk that would later become our solar system, the vicinity of Earth's current orbit would too hot to contain complex organic molecules, or evenwater (as ice). This line of thought proposes that ice and organics coalesced into planetoids further out, at Jupiter's orbit and beyond, and were much later thrown inward by the slingshot gravitational actions of the growing Jupiter and Saturn. Others were thrown out to create the current Oort cloud, the orbital source of new comets.
Thus early Earth (and early proto-life) may have been supplied with materials similar to those still in cold storage on Titan. I believe the two limitations of this scenario are that planetoid collisions with the forming Earth would have had huge energy, and would probably incinerate the kind of molecules we associate with life. Secondly, Titan has had its own geological history over the last 4 By and may be cratered or gravitationally modified. However, combined with observations of new comets I think we can get a picture of what raw materials were available on Earth during the emergence of life.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Humans, mice... pandas thumb.

I'm getting very frustrated trying to put together a science post. Most of what I find is behind subscription walls, and I have been REALLY disappointed in the Public Access journals this time around.
What I have been trying to follow up on is the presence of repetitive DNA, which is made, up among other things, of copies of transposable elements. This DNA makes up almost 1/3 of the mouse and human genomes, with one particular family of sequences, the MaLR repetitive elements, occuring more than 380,000 times in the mouse genome! Such massive representation must confer some sort of selective advantage to outweigh the cost of keeping it. However, mammalian cells appear to be doing their darndest to suppress and control these regions of DNA by a variety of strategies.

A bit of further reading has given me two more discussion points.
The first , by Pearson et al. at Jackson Labs, shows that although these transposable elements are supressed through most of the mouse's life cycle, during the oocyte to pre-implantation embryo stages, they become very active, representing almost 3% of the total RNA output of the mature oocyte! Furthermore, the authors identify many instances of transposable elements spliced onto host mRNA transcripts, displacing elements present in the "normal" transcript made at other stages. In effect, the lunatics have taken over the asylum, at least during these developmental stages.

The second reading appears to underscore the parasitic nature of these repetitive elements. Nobrega et al. report mutant mice missing big chunks of their "gene desert" DNA, of which repetitive DNA is a part. Mice homozygous for these big genomic deletions are... perfectly normal, as far as laboratory tests can show, supporting the idea that at least a lab mouse could do pretty well without these regions. It should be said that the authors mentioned above, Pearson et al., believe that only a few transposable elements are positioned correctly to "break out" during earliest embryogenesis in the phenomena they study.

What appeals to me about this pretty confusing segment of the biological world is that it appears to be another instance of the Panda's Thumb. This notion, made famous by Stephen Jay Gould's book of the same title, states that natural selection is a master improvisor, and acts on all heritable differences without regard to human notions of elegance. As highly refined as the beings living all around us are, they followed a windy, twisty road to be here. In the case of repetitive DNA, the hosts genomes' relationship with these "parasites" makes a coevolutionary spiral in which, seemingly despite themselves, both players have benefited in their evolutionary struggles.

Quote of the day

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known." -Carl Sagan

Stolen from Cupie Spew .

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Tangled Bank is up

The 14th Tangled Bank carnival of science writings is up on Prashant Millick's web page. Go take a look! I was working on my repetitive DNA post for this carnival but I couldn't finish in time..

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

I'm doomed!

Espresso coffee raises your cholesterol levels . In that case, can I have another Krispy Kreme?

Am I repeating myself?

The sequencing of the whole animal genomes such as human and mouse has allowed quantitation of a long-established concept: that our DNA is full of repetititive sequences (Link here ; scroll down to subsection titled "Repeat content of the human genome.")This DNA does not generally code for any protein, and has been referred to as "junk DNA." In the case of humans, much of this DNA represents copies of "transposable elements" which are pieces of DNA flanked by short specialized sequences which can be "transposed," i.e. cut and pasted, copied and shuffled. These transposable elements also sometimes pick up other stretches of RNA and take them along to a new location. This might be how GLUD2 originated, for example.

A recent paper by Liu et al. shows that these transposable element derived sequences have gotten more and more enriched among primates of the human lineage. That is, the human genome is much larger than the lemur genome, and probably even expanded relative to the chimpanzee's. In the end, the human genome is at least 30% transposable element-derived sequences! That is, the shuffling and copying has been ongoing over the evolutionary interval that led to our ancestors.

Since picking a piece of DNA out of its context and putting it somewhere else is analagous to pulling out and replacing parts in a machine, it is thought that most of this activity is parasitic at best to the host genome. (In fact some human cancers may arise from somatic recombination events near these transposable elements-the link is unfortunately behind a subscription wall. ) Nevertheless, it appears that genome transposable elements have been not only tolerated, but selected for, during human evolution. Not junk at all! But for now, the selective advantages gained can only be guessed.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

How to turn a poem to sawdust

I admit it- I googled myself, and the top four hits all belong to me-- a sort of one man Google bomb . Somewhere back in the nether hits, there was this page from a state university, in which Helen Vendler takes a scalpel to Keats's poem. After a single sentence asking about the impression or theme of the poem, there is a lengthy checklist of analyses to be performed-- so long, that a quote seeking to convey the sheer tedium would get me into serious copyright trouble.
You know, if you reduce a human body to its mineral components, you get a value of about $4.50. I think something similar has happened here. I seriously doubt the people taking this course ever came up for air to look at the poem again! What seems especially wrongheaded about analyzing Keats in this way is that his whole era was a reaction to the hyper-rationalism of the Enlightenment. (I enjoy Vendler's book the Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets very much, and here I think this approach brings something. ) We scientists are often accused of hyperreductionism but I like to think that I know when to pull back on the reins.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

Public access

It bugs me that the GLUD2 article about the glutamate metabolism gene is behind a subscription wall. It's a technical paper, of course, so there's no guarantee that it would be read even if it were out in front. Still, there is a lot of cool science going on outside of spaceships and stem cells, and it would be nice if the world at large could see it. (That said, I have no idea about the workings of a sports car. To each his own?)

This past Thursday I looked over the "Journal of Record" journals, like PNAS or the Journal of Biological Chemistry I was pleasantly suprised to see these sites offering part of their current content for free. It looks like the authors have decided if it should be available, meaning that the readability for a non-expert might remain an problem. Also, did the authors have to pay?

But I'm not sure how fast biologists could go in the direction of open access. Strictly speaking, scientists do not need the subscription-only feature to their journals, and would like their work to be available to all. The role of journals, from the scientists' point of view, is to simultaneously provide a brand name (and so an immediate audience. For example I look at the Cell Press website every Thursday, and will see titles that have little to do with my narrow field) and an external standard to validate their work in the short term. That is, a Cell paper is a home run, because Cell has an ISI Impact Factor of 27, meaning more or less that the articles published in Cell tended to be cited 27 times each by subsequent work. This means that a hiring committee, looking at a young unknown with a Cell paper, can be sure that this person's work will be well received. Individuals with a longer track record can be evaluated by their own work, but the external standard function is really important for fledglings.

Switching to open access would require either the existing journals to redo their business models, or for new journals to quickly get an Impact Factor so that young people wouldn't mind sending their stuff there. At least JBC and PNAS have their toes in the water.

I will try to update this post with links to discussion of public access. I hope the links are not subscription only!!

This can't be the first occurrence of this dilemma. Any ideas out there?

UPDATE: Nature magazine has a very large set of viewpoints on their web page. I haven't read it yet but it looks extensive.

Also, Peter Suber has followed this field pretty extensively, and has comments about open access as a publishing principle, and some specifics for businesses like PLoS Biology (see my sidebar).

Without having read these yet, I am very interested in this idea of public access and curious how the costs will be borne! (See Suber.)

Saturday, October 02, 2004

Cows on mars?

A recent news item in Nature describes detection of methane in the Martian atmosphere. Methane is expected to have a short half-life on Mars, which means that something is actively making the methane-- either some kind of vulcanism, or, possibly, life. Now, as noted planetology journal The Straight Dope has pointed out, cows are a big source of the methane here on earth.
The next scientific effort will be to detect ethane, which is most consistent with living things, but I suggest going straight for the big prize. Where there's beef, there's a McDonald's. I suggest a Very Large Array (VLA) of six year-olds, which should be able to detect the Golden Arches, and therefore evidence of advanced civilization, at distances of up to several light years. They additionally could discern the play area, thus giving vital clues as to the Martians' means of locomotion.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Old oaks

Oktoberfest and fall have arrived in Munich. The days are cool and frequently rainy; lederhosen and dirndls are seen everywhere; and leaves are covering the bike trails. It's this time of year that I start to notice the really big trees, whose trunks are usually hidden in greenery in the spring and summer.

The Fuerst, or prince (brother of King Ludwig), must have really loved oak trees, because he lined his forest avenues with them, and even spellt out his initials with a planting of oaks. In most of the Forstenrieder Wald, the oaks are continually replaced and rather young looking. But here and there, on the back paths, you can spot what look like ancient individual trees. With the exception of the main botanical specimens in the Eichlgarten, these trees are pretty gnarled, with maybe one or two massive branches still alive. But the foresters seem to treat them like honored grandparents. They are mulched, and the underbrush is cleared away, so they still hold the space that they once must have dominated.

I am always a bit touched by the sight of these old oaks, even just glimpsed as I'm whipping past on my bike. They remind me of a different scale of time and living; a notion of patience, maybe, or "wohlgefuel," that has been hard to come by in my stay abroad.

Monday, September 27, 2004

Tangled Bank carnival is coming

To all science bloggers: the Tangled Bank carnival of science weblog entries is coming up soon, and will appear in Preposterous Universe . So get a good blog entry together and email the link to hhim!

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Feeeeed me

I was away for a few days and watched my traffic go from a pittance to nothing at all. No new posts, and it just wilts. Just like the plant in the little shop of horrors.

Friday, September 17, 2004

Laws of Nature

1. Why is it, that given a teddy bear and an old shoe both lying on the ground, a crawling infant goes straight for the shoe?
1a. Is this why dogs always get the teddy bear first?

Wednesday, September 15, 2004


It looks like the solar wind samples in the Genesis capsule can be recovered after all. Click on the title bar for the link!

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Three grand old oaks

I was reminded yesterday by a newspaper clipping that three people I have admired from afar- Julia Childs, Elizabeth Kuebler Ross, and Czeslaw Milosz- all passed away this summer after very long and productive lives. I couldn't possibly do justice to the lives of these three, and actually have read only smatterings of their works. But what I got was enough to help me along with my personal journey. For me they each were like distant pole-stars, representatives of a philosophy which accepts and then celebrates the cold clay of life. I was brought up on St. Augustine's manic Manicheism, in which the daily world was at best a distraction to higher aspirations. It took a long time for me after college, starting with Karl Rogers but with Kuebler-Ross not far behind, to realize that for me life has got to be about living. Cooking, loving, dying, it all *is*, and it makes me happier to try to think it's all good.

I wrestled with that last line; the kids at Beslan came back to me.

Good bye, you three. May other oaks grow in the places you left.

Thursday, September 09, 2004

Genesis crash

The Genesis probe has crashed to earth instead of being caught in midair. This spacecraft was holding miniscule samples of solar wind matter, which may well be lost for analysis if they were contaminated with even a few milligrams of earth dust upon impact.
What a bummer! I can't help thinking about the Ph.D. students and others who really wanted to see these samples. Keat's telescope-- astronomy really has that potential for just thrilling new possibilities. And, being in the career grind myself, I can just picture the professional delays for everyone who wanted this project to be the basis for their next career step. I have the luxury of clicking onto the Mars probes or the Cassini mission, but the career people do not. Please don't worry, people, it's all good.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

Chapman's Homer

Here is the link to the poem I mentioned in the first post.

Up and running

Hello world,
This is my absolutely first weblog post of any kind. My biggest motivation for this blog is the upcoming election, and especially this week the anniversary of the September 11 attacks. I'm pretty excited to start the linking game etc. and even to get some control over this blog's behavior!
The title of this blog refers to a phrase in Keats' poem On first looking into Chapman's Homer in which Keats alludes to the huge thrill a scientist feels when seeing something completely unexpected. These moments (they have been few for me, but vivid!) shape a lot of my take on the world and my fundamental optimism about people, which in turn becomes a political stance.
My next effort in this blog will be to add the crucial links, the bloggers I'm reading and mentally engaging all of the time.