Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien fans are currently reduced to purchasing books by Tolkien that probably should be labeled “25% pure Tolkien”. At least, that’s about the percentage of words directly written by Tolkien in this book. Many other words are written by Christopher Tolkien, who represents about half of his father’s genes, and the rest are examples of the English and French poems of Arthurian legend, so depending on how you count we may consider a near majority.


Yet even 25% pure Tolkien is still very much worthwhile. Tolkien’s unfinished poem itself opens the book and it is so dense with meaning that it warrants most of the rest of the book to explain it. Only near the end does the analysis begin to bog down in reconstructing edits that seem to mean less and less as you near the end. But then the very end is a lecture by Tolkien on Anglo-Saxon poetry, which would fit earlier as well but at least ends the book on a high note.


So for the Tolkien fan but non-expert in Arthurian legend and poetry, this book is pretty much exactly what it should be. Did you know that Tolkien toyed with the idea of identifying the isle of Avalon with Tol Eressea, the Lonely Isle off Valinor? Placing Arthur and Lancelot in Middle-Earth with the legends of the Silmarillion is tentative but intriguing. Can you imagine Frodo arriving in his gray boat and seeing on the shore Arthur in a golden crown? (Don’t tell Peter Jackson, he might try to make a nine-hour set of movies about it … )


This book is for anyone who read the Silmarillion and liked it. You know who you are. Not necessarily as bad as Stephen Colbert-level interest, perhaps James Franco-level or even less. Itn other words, it worked for me.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Book Review: The Periodic Table by Primo Levi

The Periodic Table is a renowned example of chemistry literature, and what Primo Levi has done in this book is unique. Each chapter is an element, but this is not a science book. Each chapter is primarily a story from Levi's life, arranged roughly chronologically, but this is not an autobiography. It skips over whole crucial episodes in Levi's life that are described in other books -- most of his time at Auschwitz, for example -- but rather does indeed focus each story on a particular element, usually literally, as in Levi in his job as a chemist was working with that element in some way, shape or form. Not sure what the word for this is: biochemgraphy, perhaps? At any rate, Levi is as much a writer as he is a chemist, which is to say, he's a very, very good writer.

Levi's crystalline prose is something that I simply hope will absorb in some ways into my own work, but there is something left unsaid. As good as this is, it was written several decades ago, and usually concerns work done in the 40's, 50's and 60's. At the end, in his discussion of the journey of an atom of carbon, Levi mentions that there are many steps that are not known here as he passes them by. But now, they are known! That's what it most exciting about this book, that it is episodic, and therefore it is necessarily incomplete. Others can now complete it. Let's hope there's a future for chem lit ... The Periodic Table clearly shows there was a glorious past for it.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Colbert's Mom

This has already made the rounds on social media by this point, but just in case someone is out there who hasn't seen it, Stephen Colbert paid tribute to his mother in this clip from his show, one of the best written three minutes of TV I've seen this year:

The fact that he's "in character" 99% of the time makes the moments when he steps out of character that much more powerful.

Another brick in the wall of evidence that (IMHO) the sequel has outdone the original Daily Show, which I didn't think would be possible.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

DIY Molecular Gastronomy

This article describes itself as Molecular Gastronomy but it's really just cooking with possibly-hard-to-find ingredients. Most of the chemistry is biochemistry, especially the transparent ravioli with an explanation that involves phospholipids. I am going to have to look into that one a little more because I'm not sure the explanation explains. But the point of this is first to do something cool with chemistry and only second to explain it: the proof is in the pudding, or the parfait, or whatever the end result is. This article will be bookmarked for possible inclusion in next year's biochemistry lectures ... or could it form the basis for at-home labs? Something to consider.

The Periodic Table of the Muppets

To the periodic tables of M&M's, TV shows, and the Empire Strikes Back previously posted on this blog, now add one more: The Periodic Table of the Muppets by Mike Boon of Mike BaBoon Design. I appreciate that this one is truly organized by its own internal logic and not forced into the chemical periodic table structure. More info (and links to order posters) found here:

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Wooden Cow Digestive System

Cows eat grass, which is made of cellulose, so it makes perfect sense biochemically to make a model of a cow out of wood, which is made of cellulose. For those who would like to know more about bovine digestion and have a learning style that works best with intricate, life-sized mechanical contraptions (and after all who doesn't fall in that category), I give you the Wooden Cow Which Eats Orange Spheres:

Cow from Nova Jiang on Vimeo.

I'm not sure where this falls on the science/education/art continuum, but all I know is I'm digging the style.

Making Water Act Like Mercury

I don't like to put too many commercials on my blog, but this is science! All the science papers/news stories I've been collecting about hydrophobic surfaces have resulted in an actual Rust-o-Leum product you can buy at Home Depot. This really repels water. Caveats apply: it's a 3-step treatment to put on and it will wear off. But look at what it did to that boot! Ideas for biochemistry demos on the hydrophobic effect? I wonder if this is powerful enough to make a large-scale model of a protein fold up ... I'll have to think about it ...

More about the technical details on the Popular Science blog.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Why Does Slate Think Basic Biology is Esoteric?

The news for today is not that the Supreme Count unanimously ruled against patenting naturally occurring genes in the Myriad case. At least, I saw that as such an obvious no-brainer that my fingers will not type a sentence that unequivocally states that such an item is actual news. No, the surprising part was in the Slate article I read on it, ostensibly about Justice Scalia's ignorance of the science, a key paragraph clearly condemns us all:

To Scalia’s credit, the science in Myriad is convoluted, especially for someone who hasn’t taken biology in decades. Justice Clarence Thomas, who wrote the majority opinion, takes an admirable stab at elucidating it at the outset, explaining the basics of genes, chromosomes, and “the familiar ‘double helix.’ ” He even expounds upon nucleotides for a time, penning what must be the most esoteric sentence in the court’s modern history: “[T]he nucleotide cross-bars are chemically connected to a sugar-phosphate backbone.” (One suspects Thomas was less than enthused to be assigned this case.)

I'm left spluttering at the idea that a high-school biology sentence (which I italicized in the quote above) can be classified as "most esoteric" in any way. That is about as straightforward a description of DNA structure as you can get. It's probably at about the level of the letter Francis Crick wrote to his 5th-grade son describing the Watson-Crick DNA structure.

I don't want to name the particular author because it's not about that one author -- there's an editor, there's a readership, there's a whole culture implicated here, including me, because it's my job to let everyone know how this stuff works. It's about a whole culture that depends upon, even worships, science, and yet considers the word "nucleotide" to be excruciatingly esoteric, even boring. And that's the worst word in that sentence, folks. All of the other words are numbingly common. In fact, to me, those other words are the boring ones.

Power to the people through general biology and chemistry courses required for all college grads! Those courses are crucial. We need to understand how genes work, and I need to teach my students to the utmost end of my ability to prepare them for a world in which they will need to know DNA structure to understand Supreme Court rulings. Their language needs to include the word "nucleotide."

Also, the polticial angle in the wording of the headline: in my view Scalia is not being ignorant here -- he's being honest about his own limits in the face of complicated science. The article is clear on this, but the headline is not, and I have the feeling that an anonymous editor is more responsible for that tone than the byline author.

On the other hand, come on, the science is really not all that complicated, not compared to thousands of daily tasks. It's just that it seems complicated because it is not a daily task to you. That's fine, but we've got to try and address that, perhaps by making it closer to a daily task to use the word "nucleotide." You have a citizen's responsibility to learn biochemistry, just as I do to learn law. I promise not to be bored by law if you promise the same for my topic!

Friday, June 7, 2013

Genomes for Africa

This link tells the story of how the Mars company (yes, that Mars-bar company) has decided to fund the sequencing of several plant genomes and post the information online. That's cool enough, but look at the list of included genomes: yam, finger millet, tef, groundnut, cassava and sweet potato, among others. These are staple crops in the developing world, and therefore they have eluded sequencing money, until now.

How this could really help is probably not in detailed gene manipulations, but in more mundane areas: grafting/cross-overs to make stronger crops and investigations into the plants' defenses against fungi. It's already helped with the cacao genome, funded and implemented in the same way a few years back.

Wouldn't this make a great project for undergraduates to investigate, using biochemistry in a way to help farmers across the world? I for one can't wait for these to come out. Biochemistry students of the future, you may have a lab exercise in this area. 

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Should We All Just Give Cash Directly to the Poor?

Should We All Just Give Cash Directly to the Poor?

[In case anyone's wondering, I'm trying to use the share button more to see how it works, because I have at least 20 stories in my backlog that haven't seen the light of day on the blog yet. Consider this an experiment.]

Now this story gets the left and right halves of my brain yelling at each other. It's about a charity that just transfers money to poor people. Talk about minimal administration. No buildings, no campaigns, no nothing except giving the poor money.

It cuts out corruption and intrusive bureaucratic structures, so the libertarian in me rejoices.

But it has no regulation or constraint for how it's too be used, so the teacher in me (who watches out for student cheating) is concerned.

But it is simple and uses the freely available technology (cell phones) well, so the tech-efficiency side of me rejoices.

But there are so many poor people that I have to wonder about unfair distribution or spreading it out so much that it's too small to do any good, like that $8 class action settlement check I got a week ago, so the financial side of me is concerned. How does this work without relationship?

Bottom line, however, is when I turn to what Jesus and the prophets say about giving, they don't seem to be worried about how, they just say do it, give. This is the most straight-forward fulfillment of that command that I've seen short of a hand-to-hand transfer.

And that's the question: is this good enough or not good, because there is no relationship whatsoever? How much of a relationship is there when one of the disciples would give to one of the beggars at the gate of the temple, after all?

Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics of Dying Stars

Barns Are Painted Red Because of the Physics of Dying Stars | Smart News

The upshot of this link? Because of nuclear physics, iron has the most stable nucleus of all the elements. It just does. All else follows from this: Because iron is the most stable nucleus available, when stars smash atoms together, they will make more and make stable atoms till they get to iron, and then they will stop. Therefore there's a lot of iron, therefore iron is cheap. It's red when it combines with oxygen, so it's the most cost-effective paint pigment around, and it was used on all the barns.

I'd turn it around and say that barns and Mars are red for the same reason. Mars is pigmented like a barn.

It's interesting to think about this ... even more interesting to think about what it leaves out from the equation. But it works for a nice little blog post.