Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Name the Biologist

This time we have two scientists with a connection in discovering something useful (they discovered other useful things but this one was a joint effort)

As for last week the mystery biologist was Alfred Russel Wallace who also came up with the theory of evolution via natural selection and was published papers alongside Darwin. The bizarre thing is that he was a major celebrity at the time but has been largely forgotten. Maybe a weird case of memetic survival of the fittest? Anyway these two articles do a pretty good job of analysing the man and why he has been forgotten. What can we learn from Wallace? 
  •  If you want to be remembered you need to bring out a populist book rather than publish high impact papers - something that is probably very true of this era's "memorable" scientists.
  •  Rushing your paper through when you realise someone else has scooped you always helps. 
  • Being honourable and polite can often lead to you being forgotten.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Name the Biologist

This one is interesting as I'd never heard of the man before this week. It seems a classic case of writing a book gets you a lot more mainstream attention than publishing a paper.

As for the last instalment - the biologists were John Kendrew and Max Perutz who shared the 1962 Nobel prize for chemistry for their work on discovering the structure of heme-containing proteins. Perutz is the main reason I chose them for the quiz as he was (as far as I know) the first person to crystalise a large protein for X-ray crystallography and thus discover the structure.
I say "large" as is it was only in my digging around that I discovered the original developer of protein crystallography was actually Dorothy Hodgkin. She was a true pioneer in the developing the field (along with her John Desmond Bernal) and won the nobel prize in 1964 for solving the structure of vitamin B12 using X-ray Crystallography. I think I'll cheat and retroactively add her to the previous quiz.
Anyway the point is that X-ray Crystallography is an essential tool in the field of Biology and without it we wouldn't have a lot of major discoveries such as the structure of DNA and a lot of information on how drugs bind proteins or how viruses attach to cells. It still seems like magic to me so I salute those who understand it and especially those who developed it for use with proteins.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Pseudo-science, maybe.

I'm not a Quantum Physicist (and neither is Lanza) and I'd never heard of biocentrism but based on this article in the Independent about Professor Robert Lanza I'd say it has much to do with science as the spaghetti monster. What is annoying is that it uses his reputation in another scientific field and throws scientific elements into the discussion to give weight to his pondering.
The quotes in the article, "Death is a mere figment of our consciousness" and "the inescapable-life-matrix"  sound far more like philosophy or hokey dialogue from a science-fiction film.  There's a time and place for that but not in an article claiming a connection between science and the afterlife.
If he wants to be scientific about this the Professor needs to pose a question/hypothesis and design an experiment in which the results can be interpreted into statistically significant and reproducible answers. All this article provides is an hypothesis with thought "experiments" - things which we can all conduct in the pub late on a Friday night.

I'd also like to point out that being a well respected scientist in one field means your thoughts on another should be automatically excepted. From what I can gather the book is written by a biologist and an astronomer.
If I teamed up with an architect I shouldn't be taken seriously when writing a book on the language of dinosaurs.

I'd be interested to see how Quantum Physicists feel about the use of aspects of their branch of science. Surely there must be limits to it? Especially with the branch that considers infinite space or universes (I think the key is it's not universally accepted). An infinite universe/s is/are license to spout any crackpot theory because infinite is infinite. There are mes out there who will think I'm in the heaven and hell and limbo of all established faith systems. I'm also Batman somewhere out there and writing this very article upside down in the body of a chicken-fish, drinking wood whilst eating happiness and sitting on the back of a giant helium atom.

In fairness, I'm sure Lanza is fully aware of this and his book is not supposed to be a scientific document but treatise on an idea and maybe in the foreword of the book he explains he isn't presenting experimentally proven ideas.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Biology in Entertainment

I watched a recent episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D that dealt with a virus that resulted in a person exploding in an EMP blast. Obviously that's a bit far fetched but there were some fairly decent examples of biology (for a TV show).

  • They held a Gilson Pipette correctly
  • They tested a cure on infected mice first
  • They didn't try and use antibiotics! (I'm looking at you "Walking Dead")
  • In an almost Sesame Street fashion they taught the viewers that you can't treat a viral infection with a vaccine but with an antiserum - the antibodies from a host that has been exposed to said virus.
They also used a centrifuge but they lose points for trying to make it more sexy with flashing lights (although I'd like one of those for a lab disco). They also removed the sample (which may or may not have been balanced) and then inverted several times which would make the centrifugation a little pointless.

Anyway I give this episode an overall thumbs up for Biology. I suspect physicists would not be so happy with how the skydiving scene could have ever happened.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Dance your PhD

An important aspect of Science is communication. We tend to do it via papers, presentations and posters but what about the medium of dance? Well here is a selection of brave and inventive souls who have tried to dance their PhDs. I'll let them explain themselves but a good effort and remember you can vote for your favourite.
I'm pleased this didn't exist while I was writing my PhD because while I can't dance to save myself it would have been just the kind of distraction from actual writing I needed. Not sure how I'd choreograph the role of Cdc2 kinase in acentrosomal spindle formation. Maybe after a lot of drinks at a science-related party we'd find out?

Name the biologist

This is a methods one and is pretty handy even if it seems like "magic" to me.

UPDATE: After a little more digging I discovered there's another Biologist who should be in this edition of the quiz. Apologies!

Last week's Halloween inspired answer is below.

Giovanni Aldini who may have inspired Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". Much like his uncle, Luigi Galvani, Aldini believed electricity could be used to reanimate the dead. He just wanted to take it a step further from frogs to humans. He showed this could be possible with a public display of electro-stimulation of the recently executed convict George Forster. These experiments were occuring at the time Mary Shelley was writing. Besides potentially inspiring a classic book on the responsibilities of science and its applications he also contributed a lot to the understanding of galvanism and its role in living things.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Walking Dead Biology Fail

This concerns events in "the walking dead" season 4 and features one of my most loathed and prevalent false science assumptions.
There has been an outbreak of a virus in the show killing lots of their community. The solution - go get some antibiotics. The problem with this plan is that


Sunday, 3 November 2013

Control Freak

Sometimes I don't just obsess over the lack of controls on TV - I also like finding controls for mundane events in life. When the mild peril of "St Jude" threatened last week I had to put some new trainers on as my usual ones were wet from the previous night. My girlfriend suggested I should apply some waterproofing to them. I was skeptical so being a scientist I decided to conduct an experiment as follows;

a) Only one trainer was waterproofed, the other acted as a negative control.

b) It would be a blind experiment in that I wouldn't know which trainer was the test or control. It also meant I didn't have to apply the waterproofing.

I then walked into work and judged which shoe was the most wet. This was measured by looking at how much water was on each trainer.One had a lot of raindrops on it - the other had none. If "St Jude" had lived up to the hype I could have drained my socks into a measuring cylinder and judge wetness by volume of water from sock (assuming my feet are evenly sweaty).

Once I had the results I informed my "assistant" and she revealed which trainer had been waterproofed.
I can conclude that the waterproofing does indeed work. What's more tricky is finding a way to justify my girlfriend waterproofing the other trainer in the name of science.

*I assumed I didn't have some foot bias towards puddles but could have got around this by conducting the same walk with the waterproofing on the opposite foot (it would have to blind again). Of course I'd then have to assume there was the same amount of rain over the course of the second journey. A more controlled but less fun experiment would be to pour the same volume of water on each shoe and judge it that way.