Archive for December, 2006

Daily Reading Update

You know a science book is compelling when it’s making me think about taking organic chemistry.

Quote of the day from The Secret of Scent:

…chemistry is essentially the study of the mating habits of outer-shell electrons… (112)

Of course, I’d be lucky if my organic chemistry professor were that entertaining.

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27 December 2006 at 11:09 1 comment

Another Mystery Solved

I love research.

Well, I should probably be more specific. I love the process of tracking down pieces of information: the twists and turns, how a lucky glimpse of a bibliographic entry or the offhand mention of another researcher can lead you down a completely unexpected path to just the fact you were looking for. It doesn’t matter how trivial that fact is in the grand scheme. Merely finding it feels like a small miracle.

This year for Christmas, my sister Mars gave me a copy of The Secret of Scent, a book on the science of scent by biophysicist Luca Turin. He’s the eponymous Emperor of Scent in one of my favorite books.

I’ve spent most of today reading this book—time I should have spent working on any of a number of school assignments that are due shortly after I return home from vacation in January. I needed to read something entertaining, though. And after reading an entire book about Turin, I felt fairly confident that a book by him would be entertaining and enlightening. And so far, he hasn’t disappointed, even if I don’t always get the science he’s talking about. In my favorite passage thus far, he describes what he calls the “Law of Conservation of Worries”:

As genuine reasons for anxiety, like polio, TB and smoking; recede, [sic] they are replaced by phoney ones, so that the anxiety level is kept homeostatically constant. I can think of no process — save a major cataclysm such as a flu pandemic — that would reset this anxiety to a low level in the developed world. The phrase ‘studies have shown’ in a newspaper these days almost always prefaces a new worry to be added to the pile to make sure it does not shrink. (26)

Anyhow, at one point about midway through, Turin is talking about how crystallizing proteins lets scientists determine what the protein molecules look like, how they twist and turn and fold back on themselves in strange structures that confound my normal preference for symmetry. In a footnote, Turin provides the URL for the RCSB Protein Data Bank (An Information Portal to Biological Macromolecular Structures!), where you can see many of these molecules.

If, like me, you don’t have advanced training in organic chemistry, one of the best places to start is their Molecule of the Month page. Dr. David S. Goodsell of the Scripps Institute profiles provides a picture — often strangely beautiful — for each molecule along with a brief description of what it is and how it’s constructed. Featured molecules have ranged from the well-known (DNA) to the more obscure (nitrogenase —well, OK, obscure to me) and from the sinister (cholera toxin) to the sublime (luciferase). Goodsell’s descriptions have a matter-of-factness that’s both reassuring to non-scientists like me and oddly fitting since these molecules are, despite their exotic structures, the workhorses of the biochemical world. His entry on serum albumin opens, “Think about how convenient it is to be able to eat.”

Anyhow, the point of all this, was not to introduce you to a neat science site — although I’m certainly happy to do that. The point was that, thanks to RCSB and Dr. Goodsell, I’ve finally learned what ubiquitin is. Apparently, cells constantly build and discard proteins as they need them for various purposes. Once a cell is done with a protein, it tags the protein with ubiquitin so that it can be identified as obsolete and broken down.

This is not just cool insight into molecular and cell biology. Since ubiquitin signals that something is obsolete and should be discarded, it also lends some sort of metaphorical/semantic support to my idea that the biological term “de-ubiquitination” needs to be appropriated for general use (i.e., what needs to happen to over-hyped celebrities like, say Britney Spears).

26 December 2006 at 19:03 1 comment

Behind Door #24: And to All a Good Night…

The cookies are baked. The enormous roasting pan full of tomorrow’s boeuf bourguinon is simmering away in the oven. Most of the pots and knives and cutting boards are washed and draining next to the sink. All I really have to do is wipe the last few bits of onion and parsley off the kitchen table and wait for my father to come home from taking my sister and mother to church so that he and my brother and I can watch episodes of Firefly and drink kahlua and cream—a Christmas Eve tradition (the kahlua part, at least) started by my ex-brother-in-law.

There’s my dad’s car now. Gotta run. Merry Christmas to all!

24 December 2006 at 23:23 1 comment

Behind Door #23: Not So Random Random Numbers

If I wait long enough, some blogger will almost inevitably write about a question I’ve long puzzled over. The fine folks at Language Log, seem almost clarivoyant in this regard.

I’ve often wondered why it is that when we pick an ostensibly random number to use in a situation where we’re estimating an exaggerated amount, we often choose the same number or variations on the same number. Yesterday Arnold Zwicky provided a pretty compelling argument for why that number is often seventeen—for American anglophones, at least.

As interesting as I find his discussion, I frequently find myself reaching for numbers starting with eight, though: eighteen, eighty, eight hundred thousand—depending on what order of magnitude I want to exaggerate. When I lived in Sweden, I noticed that Swedes use a made-up number—femtioelva—fifty-eleven.

23 December 2006 at 15:44 Leave a comment

Behind Door #22: It Is Risen

OK, I’m mixing my religious metaphors, but how fitting is it that Japanese scientists managed to capture the first ever video of a giant squid just in time for the Cephalopodmas holiday?

22 December 2006 at 11:00 Leave a comment

Behind Door #21: Wild Wildlife

Wow, and I thought the raccoons and skunks running around my neighborhood were weird. They could be feral camels. (via Salto Sobrius)

(And don’t forget: tomorrow is Cephalopodmas. I’ll be eating spaetzle and weisswurst. What are you doing to celebrate?)

21 December 2006 at 6:15 Leave a comment

Behind Door #20: Dragon to Become Virgin Mom

When I opened my browser at work to day the headline feed from Discovery News, listed “Dragon to Become Virgin Mom” as one of the top news items of the day. I don’t remember which was more shocking: the dragon part or the virgin birth part.

Just before I clicked on the link, I managed to convince myself that it was some weird Christmas parody article—sort of like the Discover magazine April Fool’s story about the hot-headed naked ice borers that fooled me and at least one of my siblings.

By the the time I read the actual story—about parthenogenesis in komodo dragons—it seemed almost ho hum compared to what I had been imagining.

20 December 2006 at 22:54 Leave a comment

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