Monday, August 29, 2011

Greater than the sum of our parts

It sounds cheesy (and it is), but as a child I would often wonder at the nature of life, how our bodies function and heal, how we can be living things composed entirely of non-living things, and how we figure in the wider setting of life on Earth. As an adult, I was fortunate enough to get the chance to answer many of my childhood questions through my undergraduate studies and subsequent front-line postgraduate research. I found, however, that far from satisfying my curiosity, my questions simply now contain more acronyms of which most people outside the field wouldn’t be aware! It seems that we never stop being inquisitive and hungry for new understanding. It is the insatiable curiosity of our species that has got us where we are today and will be what builds our futures for (hopefully) a very long time to come. My curiosity for subjects of which I know little is as keen now as it was when I was younger and I relish any chance to learn something novel and interesting. It is my hope that through this blog I will be able to give you some insight into the current state and ongoing work of biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics and so answer some of the questions that might be in that inquisitive part of your mind that we all share.

In a real sense, these three fields are just part of the vast spectrum of natural sciences, but conventionally biochemistry focuses on the structure, function and chemistry of biomolecules; molecular biology deals with how these molecules are organised within living cells and how they interact with one another to achieve specific goals; and genetics describes how the regulation of these biomolecules by DNA and other genetic material translates into organism-scale effects. The boundaries between these areas are extremely grey and there are also many other subgroups along the way, such as cell biology or biophysics.

I am a biochemist by training and now work in the field of molecular biology. Biochemistry and molecular biology are profound testaments to the power of collaborative research. 150 years ago we had essentially no significant comprehension of even the most basic molecular processes of life; chemistry and biology stood completely apart and were very seldom combined. It was in the mid-19th century that early pioneers began to address the lack of understanding of the chemistry of living organisms, primarily looking at readily available biological fluids, such as blood, urine and bile. Haemoglobin was initially isolated in 1840 by exploiting the increasing sophistication of chemical techniques, becoming the first example of protein purification. However, simply purifying a biological molecule is not enough, one must determine its function, and it is in this endeavour that chemistry and biology truly combine. In the case of haemoglobin, this really began when its ability to bind oxygen was indentified by Felix Hoppe-Seyler 15 years after its original purification. The combination of chemical techniques and biological context and understanding had produced a fascinating new insight into how we and other organisms function at the molecular level and the field hasn’t looked back since! In the relatively short period of time since those early experiments the fields of molecular biology and biochemistry have exploded to become huge enterprises that encompass an enormous amount of work being conducted across the entire planet.

It has always been an important aspect of investigations into molecular biological processes that expertise and technologies from various fields have contributed to the researcher’s arsenal. Many of the most famous successes in the advancement of our understanding of biology have come from extremely collaborative approaches. The discovery of the DNA double-helix, for example, would have been impossible without the chemical expertise to generate and handle organic crystals, knowledge of physics allowing the generation of high-energy X-rays, the mathematical understanding to explain complex X-ray diffraction, the engineering capability to construct extremely finely-manoeuvrable instruments, or the biological understanding of the role and importance of DNA in the regulation of biology. This collaborative work contributed hugely to the establishment of the central dogma of molecular biology and brought the field of genetics into existence. As our understanding has increased, molecular biology has incorporated apparently more distant aspects of other sciences into its own. Our understanding of energy conversion within living cells would be impossible without the wave-particle duality description of electrons as provided by quantum mechanics; whilst many aspects of molecular immunology are dependent on observations of the organism as a whole. In many ways, attempting to pigeon-hole scientific endeavours is pointless as very little of science is pure any more and certainly the field of molecular biology never has been.

So, where next? As the boundaries of classically-defined sciences become less and less relevant we must look to expand our collaborations with ever broader and more eclectic areas of knowledge. The distinction between what is traditionally defined as ‘art’ or ‘science’ is also beginning to blur; leaving us instead with an enormous spectrum of ‘knowledge’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘philosophy’. It is only in the last few centuries that the term ‘science’ has replaced ‘philosophy’ as it became more necessary to distinguish between physical and theoretical research. However, as these distinctions become less relevant and, one could argue, a hindrance to research and creativity, is it more appropriate to describe all of what we know and have created under a single banner such as ‘philosophy’? The intentions of this blog and other similarly-minded ventures are to help to increase the cross-talk and sharing of knowledge between previously distinct spheres of research and to open up all creative and scientific endeavours to everyone such that we can all have a sense of ownership over them. As far as my contribution goes, I will attempt to share my wonder at the impossibly intricate and complex interactions and reactions that make up everything we are. I hope that you will learn things that you did not know and will find them interesting, and that you get a sense of what we do and do not know and how we are trying to fill in the blanks. I’m certainly looking forward to understanding more about cosmology, the aesthetic, and whatever other topics arise as we go forward! As Michelle discussed in her previous entry, curiosity and wonder are magnificent motivators and concentrators of human energy, and we hope here to excite curiosity in a wider audience and for a more diverse range of topics. With any luck, it will be a small contribution towards focussing the efforts of humanity towards a singular purpose of discovery and creativity.

Monday, August 15, 2011


One of the later Platonic dialogues contains an exchange between Socrates and a contemplative youth named Theatetetus, who admits to an occasional sense of overwhelming confusion at the messiness of the world. “I wonder exceedingly as to why in the world these things are,” he says, “and sometimes in looking at them I truly get dizzy.” Socrates responds to this description of the contradictions “that fight against themselves in our soul” with this remark:

I see, my dear Theaetetus, that Theodorus had a true insight into your nature when he said that you were a philosopher, for wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.
The Platonic dialogues were written in vernacular language and intended for a non-specialist audience. They are books about experience that activate the old Latin sense of vulgate as a specialist text that has been translated into the common tongue and put into general circulation—a clarification of the original, yet one that does not seek to reduce its complexity or meaning.

A grounding motivation for this blog is the uniting perception that there are few active vernaculars between contemporary domains of specialist research. You might be legitimately un-surprised to hear that the study of culture—aesthetics, art history, literary studies—doesn't speak much to the hard sciences—cosmology, biochemistry, computational engineering. But these divisions, and the frustrating incommunicability that comes with them, are pervasive: film scholarship doesn't speak enough to poetry, musicology, or the history of science, while the study of the literary Middle Ages might not have enough to say to a history of Enlightenment political novel. As a humanistic scholar of a contemporary period, I will probably never teach Shakespeare.

But a concern with communication isn’t exactly new, even in living memory. Some of the most compelling poetry of the American twentieth century took this problem seriously enough to make comprehensibility its motivating question. “What common language to unravel?” asks William Carlos Williams, thinking of language as the basis for community. Marianne Moore, one of my favorite poets, summarizes the social necessary of building paths of access with the concisely caustic reminder that “we do not admire what we cannot understand.”

Specialist knowledge that neglects to nurture a vocabulary to transmit what it does in comprehensible ways makes itself vulnerable on a number of levels, particularly to the specters of obsolescence and utilitarianism. And too much hermeticism can cut off the routes by which non-specialists might encounter the processes and outcomes of specialized research with the openness and many pleasures of discovery.

Yet few people speak jargonistic lingo out of a desire to be cryptic. Work in the trenches and on the ground has to be efficient, and keyword shorthands are also enablers of communication, through a kind of quick-fire sign language between participants in a field. So the question of accessibility doesn’t have an easy or a self-evident solution—indeed, even broaching the problem of access requires first acknowledging that the very desire to speak across and beyond disciplines challenges a by-now centuries old separation of research domains.

Most importantly, "inter"disciplinarity can’t imply simply a facile gesture at dissolving the disciplinary specificity that gives our work context. It might even require an initial hardening of those differences in order to clarify what boundaries, exactly, are being traversed. How precisely do the words ‘time’ and ‘life’ resonate differently between cosmology, biology, and aesthetics? What is the status and value of ‘contingency’ in each of these fields? In light of the above, are there justifications for keeping things separated out?

Circling around these questions returns me wonder. Socrates’ response to Theatetetus is powerful because it is truly pedagogical. He validates the confusion of a questioning, striving mind as an authentic and necessary grappling with difficulty. And he acknowledges that wonder, while a conscious and cognized reaction, is often expressed in muteness and inarticulateness. At the same time he calls it a “feeling”—a gripping emotion whose very nature is to be at once virtually incommunicable and profoundly readable. To turn to Shakespearean eloquence, “there was speech in their dumbness, language in their very gesture.”

Wonder is an emotion grounded in a condition of receptivity: in the sense of amazement that can hit you in an encounter with beauty, skill, or a fundamental mystery—regeneration, birth, creativity, persistence. Its ineloquence does not imply passivity, but quite the opposite: wonder is a motivating feeling that impels action, movement, and research, because it lights a person up with restlessness and curiosity. In the oddest of ways, wonder unites art and science in a shared contemplation of nature.

And this pragmatic value of curiosity has been described, with a certain eloquence—by another philosopher who turned his gaze to practical problems of living—as an issue for our contemporaneity:

I don’t subscribe to the idea that there is a decadence, of a lack of writers, of the sterility of thought, of a gloomy future lacking in prospects.

On the contrary, I believe that there is a plethora. What we are suffering from is not a void but inadequate means for thinking about everything that is happening. There is an overabundance of things to be known: fundamental, terrible, wonderful, funny, insignificant, and crucial at the same time. And there is an enormous curiosity, a need, a desire to know. […]

Curiosity is a vice that has been stigmatized in turn by Christianity, by philosophy, and even by a certain conception of science. Curiosity is seen as futility. However, I like the word; it suggests something quite different to me. It evokes "care"; it evokes the care one takes of what exists and what might exist; a sharpened sense of reality, but one that is never immobilized before it; a readiness to find what surrounds us strange and odd; a certain determination to throw off familiar ways of thought and to look at the same things in a different way; a passion for seizing what is happening now and what is disappearing; a lack of respect for the traditional hierarchies of what is important and fundamental.

I dream of a new age of curiosity. We have the technical means; the desire is there; there is an infinity of things to know; the people capable of doing such work exist. So what is our problem? Too little: channels of communication that are too narrow, almost monopolistic, inadequate. We mustn’t adopt a protectionist attitude, to stop “bad” information from invading and stifling the “good.” Rather, we must increase the possibility for movement backward and forward. This would not lead, as people often fear, to uniformity and leveling-down, but, on the contrary, to the simultaneous existence and differentiation of those various networks.
(Michael Foucault, "The Masked Philosopher," in Ethics, alt. translation here)

Foucault seems to describe abundance and narrowness as potentially connected—as no more that two sides of the same coin, perhaps differentiated only by your point of view. And he makes an un-romantically optimistic claim for the future with the quite simple injunction to do something.

While I don’t know exactly what will come from this blog it does represent a hope for dialogue. I’ve recently become interested in the new common grounds between once distinct fields created by the pervasion of new media, and I'll explore some of that here. I’ll describe art and scholarship I’m mulling over, and will adjust my topics in response to both James and Shaun. And perhaps over time all this will include many more points of disciplinary and practical reference, because of the geographically unconstrained sphere of address made possible by the simple fact of cyberspace.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The London riots

The London riots have reminded me why I helped create and now contribute to this blog. They also motivated me to write the following.

There are people in society doing incredible things. Right now, in Geneva, there is a physics experiment going on (the LHC at CERN) that is so incredible that physicists all around the world will stop whatever they are doing at the merest hint of a rumour from the scientists involved. At the LHC they are literally looking for completely new types of matter. And not just types of matter that aren't here to play with on Earth, or the solar system, but types of matter that are not present as stable particles anywhere in the observable universe. Also, at the moment, in an orbit around Earth, there is a satellite that is measuring the light that lingers in the universe from the end of the big bang. This light has existed, travelling freely, for 14 billion years and it is not a stretch of the truth to say that it really is a photograph of the big bang. This is incredible and it is, right now, being done by humanity.

A huge proportion of society, will, on the occasional, dark, starry, night look at the stars and feel a sense of wonder – so they do care. However, most people don't feel any sense of participation in this incredible stuff humanity is doing. They might know of the LHC and CERN, but they feel so infinitely detached from it that they certainly won't relate to it. But, ultimately, these experiments are an undertaking by all of Europe. The scientists might be doing the hard labour, but the capital was provided by the European taxpayer. These are the public's experiments as much as they are the scientists' experiments.

The people rioting in London are no exception. They will care too. But all they can see is a society where the purpose is to accumulate wealth. What a crappy society that looks like. Until you start a family, where's the point, the purpose, the thing in life worth caring about? Why not riot? At least it gets you in the news.

While it isn't true that if everyone in London knew about the LHC that the riots wouldn't have occurred I do believe that if people cared about the goals of their society and saw them as something to fight for that the probability of stuff like this happening would diminish, whatever the other circumstances.

So, I see this blog as a small scale skirmish in that fight. That is, the fight that first aims to make society fully aware of how incredible it actually is, and secondly aims to make society want to contribute to doing more of this incredible stuff.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


I'm currently in New York engaging in a kind of anthropological data collection - looking through museum archives, conducting interviews, etc. One of the targets of my stalking is Anthony McCall, an important artist, and whose medium is light. Among his current projects is a large public commission from the U.K. which will coincide with the 2012 Olympics. It’s called Column, and the materials are ‘air and water.’ McCall says the work came essentially out of sharing a bottle of wine with an old friend, a physicist and inventor named John McNulty.

Some links to press descriptions of Column, which will draw a dynamic line of mist into the vertical horizon and disappear into the sky:

The Guardian
The Telegraph
Creative Review - including a video clip of the piece in scale model

And a couple of recent interviews:

Museo Magazine - on the technical backdrop to Column, other large public projects in New Zealand and New York, and on the social texture of public art
Bomb Magazine

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


What is the point of this place?

We've decided to make this blog to give us a place to try to make fundamental research more understandable. In principle, we're interested in all the attempts humanity has made to study where we are, what makes life work, what the full breadth of human experience is, or any other similar natured question - as well as any attempt someone has made to express or reveal the human experience in a new way. We're interested in any endeavour which seeks to understand or express something without (necessarily) seeking a possible application. This research lives and dies on how interesting it is to the public and the first step in making something interesting is making it understandable.

In practice, for now, there are only three of us. So at the moment, fundamental research means Cosmology (me), Biochemistry (James) and Art/Criticism (Michelle). However, we also welcome guest posts on any relevant topic, including other people's perspectives on our own fields.

A secondary (but perhaps more interesting) goal we have is exploring what forms a conversation about these things will take when it is between people from such different specialisations. How are the same words used differently (e.g. time, space, life, death)? What parts of one world view does knowledge from another field illuminate or put into question? What perspectives are common or uncommon?

Why read it?

In a world that already includes many great popular science books, documentaries and blogs, what is it that we could possibly hope to add? More pertinently, why should you, a free and prosperous citizen of the internet, read our blog?

Firstly, although there are already many great communicators of research out there, there is also so much interesting research out there that a lot of it is inevitably left unspoken. Everyone contributing here is a student or a postdoc. And, at least in scientific research, the students and postdocs are the foot soldiers - few discoveries are made without at least one of us, down in the trenches, taking the measurements, doing the calculations, or analysing the data. Look on this blog as a step towards that same group of people becoming the foot soldiers when it comes to communicating research too. We love what we do, hopefully here we can give you a sense of the wonder and beauty that we experience down in those research trenches.

As I've mentioned above, none of us are specialists in each other's work. I am not aware of many situations where people from different, highly specialised, research fields have chosen to have a public discussion of each other's work. If you've ever wondered what a life scientist thinks of art, or a natural scientist thinks about life science, or any other permutation of the three, hopefully here you will find out.

If all other good that might come of this place fails, there is the practice we get in writing. The more feedback we get, the more we will improve. So, you reading, helps us. If you have questions, ask them. If you have ideas, express them. If you have criticisms, give them. We would rather write about a topic knowing that somebody is curious about it, than just because we think it is interesting.

What will be in it?

For now, each one of us has committed to writing something new at least every six weeks. This corresponds to new content on the blog at least every two weeks. We will also add content between these dates (including guest posts), but as a bare minimum we will add content on these days. At least to start with, I will be discussing the state of cosmology in general, my own papers and any interesting discoveries that are made in any fields I feel knowledgeable enough to speak on. Hopefully as things develop I will also be responding to questions asked by James and Michelle (or any other readers). I will also be influenced by their choices of topics and might try to provide my field's perspective on issues they raise.

If you have any insight from your own field of experience please join in the discussion, especially if you disagree with something we write, or have an interesting observation. We very much welcome guest posts too, so if you have anything particularly interesting to discuss, or just want to write something about your own field of work, please email one of us and we'll feature you, whatever the field.

Twitter: @just_shaun