Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: Colour and Meaning by John Gage

An interesting read, if a bit disorganized. Gage is critical of Berlin and Kay, although the criticism seems more like nit-picking than a real takedown argument. Modern art discussions include Kandinsky and blue, and Matisse and black. There's no real arc to the book, and it sort of just ends, but it does focus on the substantial connections between color and meaning without getting caught up in academic rabbit-trails. Not as much science as the subtitle implies, too.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Book Review: The Mirror of Ideas by Michel Tournier

This little book is deceptively slight. Michel Tournier pairs opposite ideas and talks about the difference between each. Some of the essays fall flat or meander, but many more create a spark like flintrocks clashing. Every one is idiosyncratic and unique. Good airplane reading. A number of good quotes but a little less quotable than I expected. A few of the opposites took hold, especially Tournier's distinction between "Primary" and "Secondary" people. The subject matter becomes more abstract as the book goes on. There are insights throughout, but I give the edge to the more abstract concepts, including a excellent final essay on "Being and Nothingness" that is as good of a review of the topic in two pages as I've seen in two hundred.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Book Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

This must be the most beautiful novel ever written about comic books. Chabon integrates his fictional dynamic duo of comic creators into the '40s and '50s so seamlessly that I fully expect to be able to find old Escapist comics on eBay. He describes every emotion in the human experience, with apt and vivid metaphors that on occasion made me laugh out loud, not necessarily with their humor, but with the sheer rightness of it all. Nor is this overly rosy -- events are bizarre, unpredictable, disappointing, but never meaningless. This is sure to become a classic if it isn't already. I just wish it didn't move so fast through its events, which is odd to say for a book so long, but I only want more depth and connection to these amazing people.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Book Review: Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman

I was hoping for a little more from this collection than I got. I think, since this is Gaiman's second short story collection and I had read his third recently, that he has simply matured as a writer in the time since this. The best stories are at the beginning and ending: a Sherlock Holmes plus H.P. Lovecraft mashup called "A Study in Emerald" and an American Gods sequel story called "The Monarch of the Glen." Both of those are especially unusual short stories in that they seem to open up new possibilities for the worlds they inhabit. Most of the other stories are indeed very good, but in the end seem more like writing exercises and leaves on the wind than fully developed like the other two. (Oh, there's also one called "Goliath" set in the world of the Matrix, also a cut above the rest.) Like all Gaiman, well worth it, but I have to admit it seems below average for his high level.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): DIY Squid Beak

The squid beak is as sharp and tough as a knife, yet it contains no metal. How could such an amazing structure ever have evolved? The answer is it's surprisingly simple to make a material like squid beak in six words: "by oxidizing sugar and a neurotransmitter."

The recipe sounds like something from the witches' trio in Macbeth: thou makest beak of squid from strands of sugar and dopamine, once thou oxidizest it in thine cauldron. (Ok, so "dopamine" isn't a very Edwardian word, and don't even start about "oxidizest," let's just move on ...) That sentence is a fairly complete description of the protocol. Everything you need is shown on the left side of part b in this figure from the paper:

A few more details on the ingredients: The strings of sugar are strung-together variants on glucosamine, which you can buy in big jugs at Costco for your joints. I've even seen it advertised at the gas pumps, so it must be a big seller. The cross-linking agent is L-dopa, which is dopamine's cousin molecule. These molecules' cross-linking abilities are mentioned in A World from Dust Chapter 9 -- the same family of molecules that gives you a dopamine rush also defends algae with its cross-linking chemistry. And the important chemical activity is oxidation, which connects to the theme of oxygen and oxidation that runs through A World from Dust.

If you oxidize those two ingredients a little, you get a soft, white sheet. If you oxidize a lot, you get a stiff, brown ribbon, a lot like the Humboldt squid's sharp beak.

Evolution accessed the latent chemical power of sugars, dopamine, and oxidation (outside the cytoplasm, where oxidations are predicted to happen) to make a squid beak. In the lab, we can access that came power to make a stiff, sharp blade without an atom of metal in it. Sounds pretty alchemical to me.
For more, see the original research at Zhang et al., Journal of Materials Chemistry B, "Squid beak inspired water processable chitosan composites with tunable mechanical properties."

Friday, May 27, 2016

Blog Post on Replaying the Tape of Life at BioLogos

I just wrote another blog post for BioLogos titled "Replaying the Tape of Life and Finding a Chemical Sequence." (Warning: mild spoilers if you haven't seen Forrest Gump yet. And if you haven't, what's stopping you? It's a great movie!)

Sunday, May 15, 2016

A World from Dust (Plus): Neanderthal Chemists

In Chapter 11 of A World from Dust, I mention the evidence of chemistry at Pinnacle Point, where early humans used fire to cook food and make paint. Now there's evidence that Neanderthals were chemists, too. This recent study analyzes the black manganese oxide rocks found in France where Neanderthals once lived. Earlier scientists assumed these were used for their color as something like body paint. Heyes et al. point out that it's a lot easier to find other black rocks for this purpose, so the Neanderthals must have had another reason for collecting this special mineral.

Heyes et al. show that manganese oxide can spark flames (as mentioned in Chapter 7), and find evidence of combusted manganese in the Neanderthal fire pits. The Neanderthals collected this for its chemistry as a firestarter, not as a mere pigment. Personally, I didn't know that manganese had this use before researching A World from Dust, which means that I didn't know as much about this element as my Neanderthal ancestors. Guess there's always something to learn.