Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Once in a while, you are confronted with a disarmingly simple experiment, frequently performed years ago, that blows you away with its elegant simplicity.

A simple question is; which of the myriad wavelengths of light that we are exposed to, is reponsible for photosynthesis? To resolve this problem, T. W. Englemann in 1882 placed a long filament containing chloroplasts linearly along the projected spectrum of sunlight from a prism in a solution. He then introduced aerobic bacteria into the system. Where there's photosynthesis, there's generation of oxygen, and the bacteria, by migrating to the red band in the spectrum in large numbers, told convincingly that it is this wavelength of light that is most responsible for photosynthesis. Case closed (almost)

Interestingly, entire species of organisms have created ecological niches for themselves, especially in the depths of the ocean, by exploiting this principle. Sunlight that reaches deep down into the ocean usually contains only a few wavelengths, as the remaining ones have been absorbed by physical elements and biological flora and fauna on the top. By adapting themselves and their proteins and molecular assemblies to absorb exactly these wavelengths, these microorganisms have created a home for themselves where there was none. Before we move on to SETI, let us be enraputured by the intelligence on our own planet, generated through the frenzied agency of 'the blind watchmaker'.

Based on "Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry- 4th edition"

Friday, January 27, 2006

To my knowledge, the Chinese internet was always tightly controlled and restricted. Companies like Sun Microsystems and Cisco ironically already have provided the infrastructure that allows the Chinese Government to hold the reins of the network in their hands, through the agency of a few central nodes.

So now Google says that it will comply in censoring Chinese internet searches. The interesting thing is that it offers a perfectly capitalist reason for doing this, which could be seen as being dressed up in humanitarian clothes- it is better to have limited access, than no access at all. Google made it sound like it was allowing a few evils instead of everything evil. But given its web giant status, it seems to have taken this opportunity to bestow a benefit of doubt upon itself; in saying that at least some access is permissible and hence should be allowed, it is saying what appears as a logical humanitarian statement. Is it really that, or the more mundane goal of making some profits instead of none at all? After all, in the search phrase related advertising that appears on Google, how much advertising is going to profit from a search for 'Democracy', than say, a search for Shoes, Computers, Cookery books, or Winter clothes??

Monday, January 23, 2006

To each his own Bible...

There are some books that are akin to the Bhagavad Gita or Bible; even if you don't read them, you get a sense of security and delight in having them around you. You always want to possess a copy or have one issued from the library right next to you. Once in a while, you randomly glance into them and get a deja vu feeling of the fascination you felt when you were first struck by their power and elegance. I have tried to make a list of such books. They always promise a possible escape from your woes as soon as you hold them in your hand. Some of my favourites:

1. The making of the atomic bomb- Richard Rhodes
2. Paradigms Lost- John L. Casti
3. Naturalist- Edward Wilson
4. Robert Oppenheimer; Letters and Recollections- Kimball-Smith and Wiener
5. Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman- Richard Feynman
6. Disturbing the Universe- Freeman Dyson
7. The time machine- H. G. Wells
8. Ivanhoe- Walter Scott
9. Godel, Escher, Bach- Robert Hofstadter
10. Wittgenstein's Poker- Edmonds and Eidinow

and finally...

11. Biochemistry- Lubert Stryer
12. The Feynman Lectures on Physics- Richard Feynman

Saturday, January 21, 2006

I have given up on the concept of finding formal classes interesting long ago. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the idea of attending a two day course on 'Values in Science', essentially a meld of all topics that can be broadly classified under the title 'Ethics', with an emphasis on ethics in scientific research.

I was pleasantly surprised by the vigour and logical 'dillemic' nature of the views and concepts in the course, and I have to say that against my expectations (especially from a mandatory course), the class turned out to be one of the most interesting ones I have attended in many years. I found myself enthusiastically participating in the cacophony of about a hundred students in the class. The two day interactive discussion session cut through a wide swathe of topics, some sounding esoteric, others of direct relevance to the mundane existence of student life in a university. These included things like Authorship (division of credit), Sharing of Ideas, Laboratory Records, Peer pressure and compliance, Advisor-student relationship, Intellectual Property, Theory of Ethics...and almost everything else that can be listed under the general title. A high point was a movie called 'And the band played on...' which was an overview of the early government debacle that failed to stop the spread of the AIDS epidemic, initially spread through homosexuals and blood transfusions. The movie recounts the dedicated efforts of the scientists and doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which first detected and documented the AIDS epidemic. The doctors were pleading for blood-banks to identify the list of blood donors who were suspected to carry the virus, so that they could be prevented from donating blood further. For the CDC specialists, the ethical issue was saving lives. For the blood banks, it was preventing discrimination against a particular group of individuals in the community by keeping their identities secret. As for me, I would take the side of the CDC researchers in the end. The reason is that at that point, so many lives were being so rapidly infected, that the social fallout would have been a small price to pay in terms of real human lives. The nature and dilemma of science was also reflected in a conference which the CDC doctors held; the blood bank authorities and government officials asked for 'absolutely irrefutable scientific evidence' that the virus was spreading through blood transfusions. Maybe these officials should have read a bit of the philosophy of science. Very few things in science are absolutely irrefutable, and especially when the scenario is one of life and death, and in general in a 'soft' science like epidemiology, it is a bit naive and even unscrupulous to insist on irrefutable scientific evidence. The CDC doctors maintained a list of the deaths from the virus on their blackboard; they titled it 'The Butcher's Bill'. It was heartrending to see the number go up from a few dozens to finally thousands, and today, to the millions that have made AIDS into one of the costliest, deadliest, and most controversial human problems in history. Narrated also were the intense rivalries between the American and French discoverers of the virus, again bringing big ethical questions into the picture. The movie emphatically shows the American researcher as the unethical character in the act. Today, both the American and the Frenchman are generally considered as co-discoverers of the HIV virus.

As we were debating the ethical implications from the movie, the CDC building which is right next to Emory, clearly loomed in the near distance and we could see it through the window. To think that all these discussions and arguments went on in the same building 25 years ago, when the vicissitudes of human ethics failed to stamp the AIDS epidemic in the bud, elicited a feeling of ominous nostalgia and sadness.

All in all, an enlightening course though.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Cruel elements of fate...

There are some elements which seem to have conspired to make me work and not get distracted for the next couple of months. These were those elements which provided infinite entertainment for me before, either through derision or regular, fond affinity.

TV sitcoms: Yes, I absolutely love F.R.I.E.N.D.S, but when they repeat the same single season (or is it two?...does not matter) for a year and a half, only the most demented fan can keep on watching. By now, every small thing, every tic, every cliche from every episode of that season is familiar to me, and most of the times, I simply get distracted when I am watching it. That cuts off one regular source of entertainment for me that used to be a daily dose of refreshment at 8.00 p.m. The next source, Sex and the City, was until now, an occasion to roll on the floor laughing till I dropped dead. A marvelously ticklish exercise in documenting and mocking pseudofeminism, the show now has sunk to such novel levels of depravity, that my conscience simply cannot stoop to those levels, even by way of mockery, and I cannot bear to be even the most vehement critic of the feminist debacle that is S.A.T.S.

Books: Without any false modesty, I can honestly say that I have read every major book about J. Robert Oppenheimer and nuclear history that has been published until now, an interest that began five years ago. I was hoping that researching him would be an alternative conduit to a rapid PhD., just in case my regular PhD's vagaries defeat me, but life is more cruel than that, and I now have to finish what I started roughly three years ago. In any case, that leaves a pretty large void in my bookspace, since one large source of information has now been exhausted. The man's been dead for thirty nine years, and every minor and trivial event about his life, including (almost) every possible revelation from declassified documents has now been unearthed. I don't believe that another groundbreaking book about him that recounts much new knowledge will now be published, especially after the presto to the symphony; the thoroughly researched and exhaustively documented American Prometheus. Hard to find anything new about him now. That leaves me in search of a new subject to fill my depressing evening hours. Philosophy perhaps? Too eye-glazing for now. I am tempted to explore the new science of evolutionary psychology by way of this book. Time will tell how much I am drawn to it.

Starbucks' Caramel Macchiato coffee: The ravishing fountain of delight that would pep up the most drab of days, no longer seems that alluring. Having tried it twice after coming back, I found that it simply doesn't pack the punch that used to zombie me towards the Starbucks across the street. A big buck-saver nonetheless, this seems like a good omen for my finances and time.

All in all, this seems to be a good augury for me. The academic bell tolls, and while it may be nice to find a few new sources of entertainment to pass the long hours, I don't want to make it too entertaining for my PhD. committee to watch me getting bamboozled during my defense and proposal presentations. So for now, let me largely get distracted by my work...fiendishly hard, isn't it?...

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A few resolutions for the new year that should be made, never minding that they would probably be broken after about three months. It's still better to make them in the first place so that they would be kept at least for three months:

Reading a few books with a lot of focus instead of reading many books with little focus: I need to concentrate on actually finishing a book in a short time rather than condemning books to be read sometime in their, and my, natural lifetimes, by tagging them with indestructible bookmarks.

Cutting down on Mexican food...ok, cutting down on food

Exercising (Why do I even bother to write that down?...)

Work (Not too bad as a third or fourth priority)

Getting my PhD. done ASAP (Corollary of above)

Talking less and doing more. Talking less and listening more. Writing more and talking less. Procrastinating less and doing more. Drinking more milk and less orange juice. Taking the intolerable pains to read at least one lengthy, boring technical journal article per week.

To "Just chill, chill; just chill chill..." more

As of now, I am caught between two or three necessities of graduate life, so blogging may be a little haphazard in the next three months. But I have not forgotten, and I will not forget. Happy New Year, by the way!