maradydd: (Default)
I knew that BMI (that's body mass index, not British Midland airlines) was basically useless, but until just now I did not realise that it has no real statistical basis. Go read. Now. (h/t [ profile] olegvolk)
maradydd: (Default)
Here's what I want to know: why did Physiology/Medicine go to the people who figured out how telomeres work, and Chemistry to the people who figured out how the ribosome works, and not the other way around?

Telomeres are the little chemical caps on the end of chromosomes which protect chromosomes from degradation during cell division, and telomerase is the enzyme which builds them and keeps them stable from cellular generation to generation. Ribosomes are the organelles in your cells which are the little factory workers of molecular biology's Central Dogma: when we say "DNA makes RNA makes protein", it's the ribosomes which physically do the "RNA makes protein" piece of the puzzle, translating messenger RNA into amino acids codon by codon and then assembling the amino acids into proteins.

Given the ribosome's role in protein construction, if they'd asked me to decide (hah!), I would have given Physiology/Medicine to the ribosome scientists, and given that the telomere/telomerase interaction is a narrower chemical process, I would have given Chemistry to the telomere scientists.

I have this mental image of the Nobel committee arguing long into the night about which award to give to whom, and finally saying "Okay, heads Chemistry goes to the ribosome, tails to the telomere," then flipping the Chemistry medal. Both discoveries explain fundamental chemical building blocks of the biology of every living organism on this planet, from the lowliest Archaeobacteria to you and me. It's difficult to say "well, this one is obviously chemistry and this one is obviously biology," and I'm curious what the reasoning is. The press releases do shed some light on the subject, however; the Medicine one focuses on telomeres' role in aging, and the incredibly important discovery that cancer cells' telomeres don't degrade the way that normal cells' telomeres do (making cancerous cells effectively immortal), and the Chemistry one makes special mention of how Ramakrishnan, Steitz and Yonath used X-ray crystallography to map out every atom of the ribosome. So that makes a bit more sense.

Regardless, however, both groups' work is incredibly important, has advanced our understanding of How Life Works enormously, and is eminently worthy of the Nobel Prize. Heartfelt congratulations to Elizabeth H. Blackburn, Carol W. Greider and Jack W. Szostak, winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine, and to Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A. Steitz, and Ada E. Yonath, winners of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, on their excellent work. May your discoveries continue, and may you continue to inspire future generations of scientists to further our understanding of the processes of life.
maradydd: (Default)
In my Copious Free Time, I've been reading a delightful little volume from 1948, John Read's A Direct Entry to Organic Chemistry. It's a slim book, paperbound, targetted at college students -- and its style, above all else, reminds me of what a liberal education used to mean.

As an example, from the chapter on esters:
Nature comes by her ends in many ways, often to the elfin strains of a harmony so subtle that 'whilst this muddy vestore of decay doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it'. In her many variations on the esteric theme the ever-changing music soars to the sweet treble of the simple essences, and leading thence through the gay alto of the waxes sinks slowly note by note adown the rich tenor cadence of the hard fats, to swell at last into the full polyesteric diapason with the entry of the deep and melancholy basso profundo of the heavily unsaturated fish oils. Here are subtle variations on a theme which might well bring envy to a Brahms.
Okay, yes, this is one seriously tortured metaphor; I'll bet [ profile] madbard is pounding his head on his desk right now, trying to get rid of the comparison between fats and tenors or basses and fish oil. But I bring it up not because it's good art, but because it reminds me of a technique we just don't see any more. Mathematicians still get to make lofty comparisons between their work and the liberal arts, and computer scientists often compare hacking to music or painting (hi, Paul Graham), but when was the last time you read a physics essay that invoked parallelism and metaphor?

I miss synthesis in my learning. Maybe it was because I never had much of it, and what little I can recall is precious. I remember the day in my high school physics class when we started learning about power, and I realised that everything we'd done the entire semester was designed to get us to that point: distance leads to velocity leads to acceleration leads to force leads to work leads to power. Okay, that's synthesis within a discipline, not cross-disciplinary, but it's still important.

I've heard rumblings that there is a change underway in the public education system, aiming to reinstate cross-disciplinary learning as a teaching tool. Yesterday, my younger sister started a new job as a P.E. teacher at an elementary school, but she's not just teaching P.E.; her lessons are supposed to include other subjects as well, particularly math and science. If you think about it, P.E. is a great way to teach not only some important human anatomy topics, but some useful basic mathematical concepts and even the scientific method. Suppose you have the kids run for three minutes, then take and record their pulses. Then have them run for three more minutes, lather, rinse, repeat. Congratulations: you have just taught them about linear sequences and introduced the notion of a limit. For that matter, if you talk about what you're going to do beforehand and get the students to hypothesize about what will happen to their heart rates as a consequence of running, and show them how to test that hypothesis, congratulations, you're educating scientists.
maradydd: (Default)
My oregano has been growing like a mad thing the last few months, so I decided it was time to harvest some and make oregano oil. I don't have a stillhead or a double-ended flask, both of which are necessary for steam distillation of solid matter. However, I had ordered a 100mL separating funnel from American Science and Surplus a while back, but the stem broke off about an inch from the stopcock, so I decided that would do. So I filled the sep funnel with oregano leaves, connected the stem to a stoppered one-arm Erlenmeyer (with thermometer), tooled a cork down to where it would fit in the mouth of the sep funnel, drilled it out, bent some glass tubing, inserted it into the cork, and set up the whole apparatus with the sep funnel on its side so that the bent tubing ran ever so slightly upward, then down into a beaker to receive the distillate. Presto: one ghetto still.

About two hours of gentle boiling later, I am now the proud owner of just over a dram of oregano essential oil. I'm really pleased at how well this worked; I was afraid that the steam would all condense in the sep funnel and end up splurting a bunch of oily water into the beaker, but from what I can tell, the yield was nearly all oil. There may be some oily water left in the funnel, but I'll find out later when I drain it. (The glassware is all cooling on the stove right now. Remember, kids: hot glass looks just like cold glass!) Also, the apartment reeks of oregano, but I suppose there are much worse smells of which it could reek.

Useful side note for the kitchen chemist: if you don't happen to have any Vaseline on hand, you can lube up a one-hole stopper with Astroglide.

I can't wait for the lemon balm to grow enough for me to harvest -- then I can make citronella. And the catmint. If regular catnip is kitty pot, catmint essential oil must be kitty crack.
maradydd: (Default)
I'm looking for a copy of a paper, "An agar culture medium for lactic acid streptococci and lactobacilli," by P.R. Elliker. It was originally published in the Journal of Dairy Science, vol. 39, pages 1611-1612, in 1956.

While most math and CS journals that old are electronically available these days, I guess dairy science hasn't quite caught up. Sadly, the Stanford library doesn't have the issue I'm looking for. Berkeley apparently has a copy at its storage facility up in Richmond, but that's about an hour and a half drive for me each way. So, I turn to you, Gentle Readers. Is anyone here at a university and willing to look this up and scan it for me? I can't offer anything other than a hearty thank you, the knowledge that you have helped further the interests of science, possible internet fame, and (assuming this project works) some of the fruits (er, well, yogurts) of my labour, but rest assured I'd really really appreciate it.

IOWA FOLKS: The chemistry library apparently has it, but it may be stored someplace weird. I hope that link works.


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