Saturday, February 3

[intermission in the VBHoL]

A long, long time ago (in terms of my life, that is), the BBC produced a 'true' film for its Horizon science documentary series called Life Story, about the discovery of DNA by Watson and Crick. Life Story most notably starred Jeff Goldblum as the zany American scientist James Watson and to my knowledge its other actors and actresses were fairly big names at the time (Juliet Stevenson, Tim Pigot-Smith). It was based on James Watson's book 'The Double Helix' which was instrumental to changing the perspective that the public had of scientists and the scientific method. It had some pretty good music in it.

Yesterday, I began watching Life Story for the fifth time as it was being shown for entertainment in a Biology of Cells practical.

First time was many years ago, so long ago that I can only remember the end when the two scientists are running down a corridor in slow-motion waving their arms about wildly to triumphant music. The second time was during a Biology lesson at school. Next was at a residential biology course I went on, and the fourth time was during a General Studies class.

So you can imagine my surprise when I found out yesterday that pretty much none of my friends had seen it before. How could you not be witness to the excellent scenes of Jeff Goldblum with big hair, Cambridge dons puffing furiously on pipes at every possible occasion and the laughingly ominous music that struck up every time that something 'important' was happening regarding to the structure of DNA?

It's a very interesting film/documentary and I'd recommend you to try and watch it some time if you can get hold of it (note: when it was screened in America, it was given the unimaginative title 'The Race for the Double Helix'. Why they have to do this, I have no idea).

5:35 PM | permalink | discuss

Friday, February 2

This morning, my Evolution and Behaviour supervisor took a group of us around the Zoology museum and completed the second half of his explanation of the evolution of arthropods and invertebrates.

It sounds simple, and he did this by quietly outlining the facts and concepts that spanned a billion years. I was in a mild shock for most of the supervision - I'd never really considered the scope and process of evolution. To me, it'd always been 'replicating molecules - simple cells - complex organisms - humans.' So, in order to try and refresh my memory of the event, I present to you:

A Very Brief History of Life
(I make no guarantees about the information below due to the lateness of which this is being written)

In the beginning, there were simple single celled organisms that had nuclei, mitochondria (biological power plants) and in some cases cilia and flagella which look a little like propellors. They puttered about slowly and generally absorbed nutrients, living a simple life. Then, one day due to a random mutation, a few of these cells discovered that they had a selective advantage in travelling around in groups. Maybe this advantage came from the fact this if they bunched together and beat all their cilia at once, they could create a faster flow of water on which nutrients could come to them quicker. So they stuck together and eventually figured out a way to secrete molecules that could physically bind them together.

Over millions of years, these communities - made up of completely identical cells - began to differentiate. They created coral-like structures which were shaped like funnels to increase the flow of water through them. But they still weren't truly multicellular, even though the cells weren't strictly identical any more. If you took a piece of this psuedo-coral, you'd notice that there were three types of cells that made it up. The first used its cilia to beat at the water and create the current. The second created the coral wall. The third and last crawled around the wall, gobbling up the nutrients carried on the water flow.

You take a piece of this psuedo-coral, still alive, and mash it up, breaking apart all the structures and leaving a bit of a mess on the bottom of the ocean (for that is where we are). Then you wait. And as if by magic, the pseudo-coral reassembles itself perfectly having suffered practically no damage. The strange thing is, though, that the different types of cell, after the mashing up, had a look around their environment and figured out where they were in relation to everyone else. They then transformed themselves into the appropriate type of cell for where they were.

So, while there are three types of cells in this psuedo-corel, it's not strictly multicellular. But that's a moot point.

How did this psuedo-coral reproduce? What it did was create a bundle of cells which formed themselves into a flat sheet. This bundle, using the cilia of all the cells it was composed of, would walk around the ocean floor very slowly and find a new site suitably far away from its parent.

Eventually, this intermediate stage took a life of its own independent of the psuedo-coral and became the worms we all know and love.

[to be continued. In the next instalment, you'll see: 40ft worms! Continuous guts! Segmented bodies! And most stunning of all, the conquest of Land!]

12:54 AM | permalink | discuss

Tuesday, January 30

A Vavatch Orbital exclusive (well, at least, I think so): Moby officially supports Napster.

Again, lack of updates, sorry, etc etc. Been busy doing all sorts of stuff, hatching shadowy plans, that sort of thing. Updating the Astrobiology website. More later.

11:00 PM | permalink | discuss

Monday, January 29

I recently had my attention brought to a book that's currently under development called The Whole World is Watching: Youth Activists Working for Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice. I thought, hmm, sounds interesting, and it certainly was, right up until the end of the summary page where I read this sentence:

By presenting information and stories which educate, inspire and empower, we also hope to support and network individuals, organizations and communities to seek solutions and take actions that are deeply rooted in love and respect for the interconnectedness of all life.
I then noted the authors of the book, all moderately well-known environmental campaigners such as Anita Roddick of the Body Shop, and came to the conclusion that the youth still aren't being taken seriously, and worse, they're still being exploited.

There seems to be some kind of unspoken assumption that the youth (which I define to be 18 or below - as far as I'm concerned, you don't have a problem being taken seriously when you're 19+) should only get involved with nice, fuzzy political issues. Nothing dangerous. Stuff like the environment, and stopping pollution, and helping developing countries. Basically, stuff which for the greater part doesn't have a clear cut goal, even if it was achieveable. The message is, "Hey kids, we want your help so we can put your cute faces on our marketing campaigns, but keep your damn noses out of the big boys' business, and that means no serious campaigning."

And of course, the problem is that most youths lap this up, enjoying the attention lavished upon them. But what about other causes? I don't hear about adults sponsoring or supporting kids to do pro-globalisation campaigns, or pro-industry, or pro-renewable power, or pro-biotech. Why? Because we're kids. It's none of our business.

What I hope we'll be seeing in the future though are more solely youth-run and youth-funded organisations that campaign for fresh new issues that by definition the youth are perfect at creating, identifying and propagating. And they'll do it on their own, or else the message will get diluted.

7:52 PM | permalink | discuss

Sunday, January 28

It's clear to me that today's film score composers would be yesterday's classical composers. While composers like John Williams, David Arnold and most notably Hans Zimmer (of Gladiator fame) don't produce works that are of the standard of the best classical pieces, they're not far off. It's easy to think that people simply can't equal Bach, Tchaikovsky and Smetana these days, but it's simply not true. You simply have to think about the climate in which composers worked back then, and how they work now.

The problem at the moment is that there is little perceived demand for huge classical works - and that means there's no money in it. Conversely, there's a hell of a lot of money in writing film scores. Unfortunately, for films you are bound by pretty stringent conditions based on length, format and style. Granted, this doesn't necessarily mean that you can't produce excellent scores for films - after all, the music for Schlinder's List was incredible - but it makes it that much more difficult.

I have no doubt in my mind that if today's composers had the equivalent of the rich patrons they had hundreds of years ago, they'd be the equals of the greatest composers, especially with the access to technology and other aids that they have now.

2:09 PM | permalink | discuss

I'm not sure whether I mentioned this before, but we finally received the grades awarded to our Astrobiology: The Living Universe website by the Thinkquest Judges. In summary, according to the judges, every single aspect of our site 'Needs Improvement'. The educational content needs improvement. The graphics need improvement. The quality of writing needs improvement. The citations and reference pages need improvement. The only thing that didn't need improved was the website report we whipped up in about a day (which is approximately 100 times less than the time we spent on the website). I'm beyond words when I try to think of how the hell they came up with those grades.

Now. I'm not prepared to make outraged-sounding statements like that without any evidence to back me up. So, I've assembled a list of websites that think we're pretty good. First off, NASA has given us two awards so far - their NASA HQ Space Science News Website of the Week (scroll down to the bottom) and the NASA Astrobiology Institute's first ever Astrobiology Award. Oh, and they cited us in their most recent Science@NASA terraforming feature story.

We've received an award from Stellar Link Award by AstronomyLinks.com. Yahoo thinks we're part of the Best of the Web. The Guardian newspaper thinks we're pretty good. And finally, McGill university in Canada uses us as a reference for the Astrobiology course they teach with NASA.

In other words, the world's best experts on astrobiology don't seem to think that our educational information 'needs improvement'. Our website URL is cropping up all over the place - one interesting sighting was when a biologist linked to our Anthropic Principle page to demonstrate a point on a newsgroup.

So basically, this annoys me. Not quite as much as it did before, but I'm still going to find out why the hell they gave us the frankly insulting grades they did.

Crap like this pisses me off. If they think we cheated, which is the only reason why I think they gave us the marks we did (other than the judges being utterly incompetent and perhaps reading 'astrobiology' as 'astrology') then they should have had the guts to try to disqualify us rather than give us these grades.

11:49 AM | permalink | discuss