Thought of the day

The greatest Presidents of the 20th century:

3. Clinton: He oversaw the greatest economic boom. Ever.

2. Dwight Eisenhower: He created an incredible infrastructure that has been an integral fact in American economic dominance. It is only now that any country (China) is outdoing what the U.S. did in the 1950’s – and they’re copying our model.

1. FDR: For starters, how about just about everything he did?

Now he’s bored and old

Kurt Cobain would be 45 today.

How to help Haiti

I have more information for my upcoming trip to Haiti. First, there is an online auction which is currently taking place. There aren’t a ton of items on there, but there are some really good ones. For instance,

Weekend at the Ocean

Labor Day, 2012 weekend stay (3 nights) at a cabin on Round Pond Harbor (near New Harbor and Pemaquid Point), sleeps 6, use of 3 kayaks, extra night available for $100

The starting bid for that is $100 (which is an incredible deal for just about anything on the Maine coast during the last day of the summer season). It is valued at $500, but even that is still a great deal. Who knows what it will go for, but it can’t hurt to put in a bid.

My second piece of updating has to do with the way one can donate. We still need things like craft and school supplies and medical items which can be sent directly to UMA (see here), but one of the best ways to help is by donating good, ol’ cash. Fortunately, we have managed to get things up to speed for the 21st century and it is now possible to donate online. Every little bit helps.

I’m going to do what I can to keep things up to date here, but it can’t hurt to also like our Facebook page.

The scale of the Universe versus the complexity of life

I have often found myself contemplating which is more amazing, the sheer scale of the Universe or the complexity of life? It isn’t easy to find an answer, but I’ll do my best to very briefly explain my thinking on this.

Despite my field being biology, and despite finding nothing more amazing on Earth than the evolution and subsequent complexity of life, I have to fall on the side of the size of the Universe. I think I’m going to be in the minority on this one, but I’ve given it some thought. Here is why I think what I do.

It isn’t possible for an individual to know everything about a single field. I’ve had incredible biology professors who have told me that they are lucky to understand 1/3 of what they read in scientific journal articles concerning biology. This is because in order to become an expert on anything, it requires one to focus on a relatively small subset of facts within a field. Just look at how biology breaks down: microbiology, biochemistry, genetics, cell biology, zoology, botany, anatomy, physiology, embryology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, and so on. This sort of division is going to be true of just about any field. (I can’t think of any exceptions.) How can we expect anyone to understand it all? We simply cannot. But that isn’t to say we can’t understand it all as a species. In principle, we can understand everything that has to do with biology. We can break it down and analyze each bit, no matter how esoteric and specific. That doesn’t mean we necessarily ever will, but there is nothing preventing us from doing so. We have the ability, when we pool all our resources and minds, to understand everything there is to understand about life and its evolution.

I don’t think we can say that same thing about the sheer scale of the Universe. For the sake of argument, I will limit myself to the observable Universe. But right there. Look at what I just did. Without fear of losing any ground in my argument, I limited my scope. Yet my whole point is scope. That’s just how huge the Universe is. And how can anyone truly appreciate that? No human is going to travel any distance from Earth that is notable on the scale of the Universe. Even our space probes that are now on their way to interstellar space have done so little; being impressed by that distance would be like being impressed that an atom moved a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of its radius to the right. I would say to now imagine that analogy increased trillions upon trillions upon trillions upon…of times, but of course you can’t. No one can. We don’t have any way, in our small lives, to really comprehend something like that. The Universe is enormous. Just enormous.

We can pool our minds together as a species and come to a great understanding of all that surrounds us. All our physicists and astronomers and cosmologists can give us a tremendous understanding, via science, of how it all works. They can even describe, with numbers on paper, how large the observable Universe is. They can show us incredible pictures of thousands of galaxies (in just a small sliver of the sky), each with billions of stars and billions of planets. And it really all is wonderful. But no matter how many brilliant minds we put to the task, we can never appreciate the sheer scale of what is. It is, in every meaning of the word, beyond us.

Even the teddy bear is sad

At least 46% of Mississippi Republicans are overt racists

And who knows about those too embarrassed to express their views:

When usual Republican primary voters in the state of Mississippi were asked if they think interracial marriage should be legal or illegal, a whopping 46 percent said it should be illegal, compared to 40 percent who think it should be legal. The remaining 14 percent were unsure.

There seems to be a pattern here. Roughly 40% of voters in 1998 (South Carolina) and 2000 (Alabama) voted against removing defunct bans on interracial marriage from their constitutions. I have no stats which break down how many of these people were Republicans, but who thinks they were mostly Democrats? The GOP is doing a heck of a job as solidifying itself as the party of racists, particularly in the South. I may have to throw out that old saying, ‘Republicans may not be racist, but racists vote Republican.’ The data suggests the first clause to be false.

Fun fact of the day

You know that old story about how if you put a frog in a pot of water and bring it to a boil slowly enough it will just sit there, eventually dying? It’s true. But not really. The person who initially did this experiment back in the 19th century, Friedrich Goltz, had a habit of testing what happened to animals when he removed their brains. He didn’t break this habit when it came to his frog experiment. As one might expect, removing the brain of anything will tend to inhibit survival instincts and the ability to detect pain and danger; so his un-brained frogs did sit there and die. For frogs with their brains still in place, however, jumping out of a soon-to-be-boiling pot came swiftly enough.

Attack of the DNA robots

Whereas bombing raids in the early and mid part of the 20th century involved hardly any direction, any bombing that we do today is going to be highly precise. This so-called smart bombing has constituted one of the great military advances over the past several decades. It’s efficient, cost-effective, and saves civilian lives. Now keep that in mind as I move into the non-military world of fighting cancer.

In one form or another researchers have been working to create DNA carrying/laden devices for years now. The application potential is huge, but the area that has received some of the greatest focus has been cancer research. The drugs and treatments we have now are inexact and not always effective. Aside from often killing healthy cells, thus leading to weight and hair loss, general illness, and other negative side-effects, they don’t always kill every cancer cell. Even surgery can be a bad thing at times. Consider for a moment what tumors need. More than perhaps anything is a blood supply. (The same goes for your regular cells; your skin cells are too far from a blood source, hence why they are little more than dead keratin.) In order to get their supply of blood, tumors must induce angiogenesis, the growth of new blood vessels. They do this by releasing certain stimulators. They also release inhibitors, but not enough to overwhelm the stimulators. However, these inhibitors have no problem traveling through the blood stream. The result is often the suppression of secondary tumors, especially if they are nearby. So when a surgeon removes a primary tumor, those other, previously restricted secondary tumors will have a chance to grow. And that is no good, of course. In short, the more exact we can get in destroying cancerous cells, the better off we will be.

Enter DNA nanobots.

I like to think of these as smart bombs of cancer cells. They are bits and pieces of DNA naturally self-assembled into a particular shape (the barrel in the background) that is prepared to deliver a payload. That payload (the purple/pink stuff) is attached to specific strands (the yellow/green stuff) inside the DNA barrel structure. This is all held together by strands of DNA which are programmed to recognize specific molecules on the target cells (in this case, cancer cells). When the DNA attaches to these molecules, it changes shape and opens up the barrel. The payload is then free to enter into the target cell, inducing apoptosis (cellular suicide). Experiments have shown that these DNA robots are able to avoid healthy cells during this process.

There are, of course, limitations to this technology. Take malaria, for instance. It would be difficult to target most strains (such as P. vivax and P. falciparum) because they get inside hemoglobin rather than attach to the outside of anything. That makes them effectively invisible to both our immune system and these nanobots. Strategies for fighting that disease will tend towards the sort of medications we’re using now combined with bed nets and efforts to destroy mosquito habitats.

Still, this is exciting. I say that about most cancer-related advances, but I don’t feel I’m ever overdoing it. Every little bit of progress is crucial, even the bits that don’t pan out. I have hopes for this one, though. Even if it doesn’t end up being pragmatic in application, it still has the potential to 1) increase our understanding of cancer and 2) be used in so many other ways. Three cheers for science.

Sources: Here and here.

Fun fact of the day

Goats which are transported from one group to another group will often take on the bleating accent of the new group, provided the new group does, in fact, have a different accent. It’s sort of like a less pretentious version of when an American visits England for two weeks and comes back with a British accent.

Dawkins, the Bible, and titles

Richard Dawkins was recently on a BBC radio affiliate where he cited a poll which showed that only 35% of British Christians could identify Matthew as the first book of the New Testament. From this (in part), he was making the point that people in his home country aren’t as religious as most people think. That’s a fine argument, but I will leave it for now. I want to focus on the response he got from another guest on the show, Giles Fraser, former canon chancellor of St. Paul’s in London. Fraser asked Dawkins to recite the full name of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. Dawkins responded:

“‘On The Origin Of Species’ … Uh. With, Oh God. ‘On The Origin Of Species.’ There is a subtitle with respect to the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life.”

That’s pretty close. The actual title is “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life”, which is more than a mouthful. But it wouldn’t matter if Dawkins couldn’t get past the first part of the title everyone knows. The poll he was citing in regards to Christians asked them a simple factoid, a mere piece of trivia. One would expect a high number to know it; to call oneself Christian is to profess a belief in a book. And not just any belief(s). We’re talking about the most profound beliefs a person can hold. It is not unreasonable to expect people to be familiar with a book on which they have placed their eternal salvation.

And there’s the difference. Dawkins’ has not placed some holy importance on Darwin’s work. He obviously views the man as tremendously important to scientific and human history – and rightly so – but that has nothing to do eternity. It has nothing to do with salvation. The Bible does. That makes it logically invalid to compare a biologist’s specific knowledge of a long-string of words to a Christian’s general knowledge of what Christians profess to believe as a matter of determining what happens to their soul.